How School Leaders Can Turn Around School Performance

With a new administration in the White House there has been a lot of talk about turning around schools, with a number of schools highlighted for making hard-won gains.  These case studies of turn-around schools, some but not all of which are charter schools, often focus on the role of the principal in creating conditions for increased student learning.  Of course, learning cannot occur without dedicated and talented teachers, but principals play a critical role in establishing school culture, shaping norms and focusing efforts.  Some common leadership behaviors cited in these turn-around schools include:

  • Articulating a clear vision for the kind of changes that need to be made to foster higher levels of student learning.
  • Setting high expectations for what students and teachers can achieve, and not accepting excuses for failure.
  • Engaging faculty in collaborative efforts to improve teaching and learning, developing and empowering teacher leaders, and generally distributing leadership across a wider range of people than the administrative team.
  • Paying attention to student data in a variety of forms, to monitor achievement, pinpoint areas of need and make adjustments as necessary.
  • Holding students accountable for learning and for demonstrating constructive behavior in class and on campus.

This sounds like a tall order, but my experience as a high school principal is that the faculty takes seriously the priorities of the principal, and given opportunities for involvement and decision-making, will help to make a new vision of the school a reality.  The challenge for principals is to communicate a powerful and consistent message, even in what are typically very brief interactions with faculty, students and parents during hectic, rushed school days. 

Those in formal school leadership roles must use every opportunity to teach, much as classroom teachers do, the importance of learning and how each person in the school contributes to causing learning to happen.  Presence and visibility are critical, since the symbolic nature of the job communicates priorities.  Time spent in classrooms and in talking with teachers, students and parents about learning sharpens the school’s focus and contributes to improved performance.

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