Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lessons on Luring Top Principals to Rescue Failing Schools

Many American schools have got into a downward spiral, even hiring school principals with no experience simply because no one else applied for what appeared to be a thankless job.

Rescue Mission
A Newsweek article reports that Peter Gorman, the school superintendent in Charlotte, N.C., concluded that the obvious solution was to persuade skilled educators to take on these rescue missions. But how could he get the district’s most effective principals, already ensconced in successful schools, to agree to transfers to the worst-performing ones? And what about the inevitable howl of protest from the communities they’d have to leave behind?

Transfer Solution
Gorman decided he needed a new approach. He considered simply transferring his best principals to his most challenging schools, but Yale economics professor Justine Hastings talked him out of it. “She told me that if I forced people to switch jobs, I would see the performance of some dip, while others would find another job.”

Pull Strategy
So Gorman decided to try a “pull” strategy—a way to entice principals to view these transfers as a desired challenge. Starting in 2008, with great fanfare, Gorman announced a new annual district-wide competition to identify the most effective principals.

Winners of the “Strategic Staffing Initiative” would be chosen based on hard data like the growth in their students’ achievement scores rather than how long they’d served or how well their school was regarded.

Offer Too Good to Refuse
Before announcing the winners to the TV cameras, however, the persuasive Gorman met privately with the principals and made them an offer he hoped they wouldn’t refuse: what he billed as the “opportunity” to turn around one of the district’s failing schools.

As part of the three-year deal, they’d receive a 10 percent raise and more freedom from district rules.

They would also get the chance to pick an eight-person transformation team—each of whom would get a raise, too.

The winning principals could also “transfer out” up to five teachers from their new school, including obstructionists, underperformers, and leaders of what principals call “the toxic lunchroom.” In exchange, Gorman said, “we expected them to transform the culture of the school to one in which high academic achievement is expected and achieved.”

Every One a Winner
Amazingly, every winner accepted the challenge. “It turns out people appreciate being recognized as being excellent at what they do,” Gorman says. “The program sold itself.” The results were startling, too. By late spring 2009, a year after the initiative started, student proficiency on the state test had risen in all seven of the original SSI schools, with some school scores rising by more than 20 points, a remarkable achievement.

Three Years Down the Road
The $3 million program is now in its third year and operating in 20 schools; so far, no one has turned down Gorman’s “prize.” “It’s quite amazing,” says Ann Clark, the district’s chief academic officer. “We now have principals approach us and ask, ‘Why wasn’t I chosen?’ ” And the district is getting inquiries about the program from reform-minded superintendents all over the country.

Schools Principals Left Behind
What about the parents and kids these principals left behind? The blowback Gorman feared never happened.

Families were supportive when Steve Hall, one of the first winners, moved from one of Charlotte’s wealthier schools. “I think they could see that I was excited about this opportunity, that this was where my heart was,” says Hall. “I told them that I considered this to be one of the most moral and ethical things I’d ever done in my life.” And he soon realized that his students saw it the same way. “Some of them stopped by to wish me luck,” he says. “One kid said, ‘I’m proud of you.’ ” To principals like Hall, there is no higher praise.

Pat Wingert, An Offer They Wouldn’t Refuse, Newsweek, 12 October 2010.

Geoff Pound

Image: From the photo album of America’s Best Performing Schools