High Needs Schools Strand – BELMAS 2013 symposium proposal

Turning Around Low-Performing Schools: Policies, Practices, and Preparation

 As school systems around the world strive to improve student learning outcomes, educational policy makers and school leaders are confronted with the challenge of turning around high-need, low-performing schools. This symposium examines studies being conducting by members of the International School Leadership Development Network (a BELMAS-UCEA collaborative), examining what policy makers and leaders are doing to turn around low-performing schools in different cultural contexts. Taken together, the three describe the accountability policy contexts operating in several countries that affect high-need school reform, examine how these policies influence the effectiveness of school leaders and teachers, and explore how future leaders are being prepared to turn around high-need schools.

            The first paper presents findings from Swedish school board members and principals regarding their views on the issues confronting low-performing schools and how best to provide support to improve student performance. The second paper examines how an elementary school in the USA is coping with federal reforms, especially how these mandates affect assessment processes, teacher and leader effectiveness, and professional development opportunities for teachers. The final paper describes the design, activities, and outcomes of an innovative, state-wide initiative being implemented in the USA to prepare future school leaders to turn around high-needs schools. The discussant, an internationally-known leader in leadership preparation and development, will synthesize these studies and provide implications for policy, practice, and preparation.

Paper 1: A Bold Approach to Developing Leaders for Low-Performing Schools

Prompted by the need for leaders able to turn around chronically low-performing schools, states, universities, education groups, and school districts in the U.S. have initiated a variety of principal development programs. Some programs focus on enhancing the skills of experienced administrators, while others target talented teachers and even individuals with no prior school experience. Nowhere has the quest for turnaround specialists been undertaken with a greater investment of resources or on a larger scale than in Florida, where the state Department of Education in concert with the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) has used generous funding from the federal Race to the Top initiative to launch the Florida Turnaround Leaders Program (FTLP).

The FTLP constitutes recognition by policy makers and professional educators of the limitations of generic leader development programs. The FTLP is based on the notion of differentiated leadership, which in turn traces its origins to situational leadership and contingency theory. In other words, to effect quick and dramatic improvements in school performance, principals require additional training beyond what they receive in typical credential programs in U.S. graduate schools.

The paper opens with a discussion of the context in which the demand for turnaround principals has arisen, a context marked by the shift in focus by policy makers from high needs schools to low-performing schools. A brief examination follows of the various efforts since 2002 to address the need for turnaround principals. The major portion of the paper presents an overview of the FTLP, including the Theory of Action supporting turnaround leadership and the design principles guiding the delivery of training.

The research questions guiding the study are:

  • What the skill sets are needed by turnaround specialists?
  • What are important professional design principles for developing turnaround specialists?
  • What are the major obstacles in developing and implementing professional development for turnaround specialists?

Paper 2: Turning Around Low-Performing Schools: Are Good Working Relations Between School Boards and Principals a Necessity for Success?

This paper presents findings from two studies in Sweden. The first is a 2011 school board survey from a national sample of school districts. Respondents were members of the local school boards responsible for decision making about educational issues. The study sought to understand why people choose to serve on school boards, how boards operate and make decisions, the most important issues boards deal with, and boards’ influence and autonomy. Moreover, the paper analyzes the school boards’ perceived capacity and competence in various domains of local governance. The second study is a national sample of principals conducted in 2012 in the same school districts, thus allowing data to be matched across the two surveys. The survey data also is compared with performance indicators from national databases in order to provide a more fine-grade picture of local school governance in Sweden.

Our main research questions are:

  • What issues regarding low-preforming schools are discussed by school boards and principals?
  • What prerequisites must be in place before low-performing schools have the opportunity to be successful?
  • How can school board use empower principals to engage in school improvement to address the needs of low-preforming schools?

Paper 3: RT3 and Me: A Case study of One School’s Progression through the Accountability Process

This paper presents the case of one American elementary school as it navigates the Race to the Top (RT3) process as well as provides a historical overview of Race to the Top. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) offered Race to the Top (RT3) grants for states and Local Education Agencies (LEAs) willing to commit to utilizing innovation and reform to turn around the lowest performing schools. The Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) submitted an RT3 application, which was awarded by the USDOE in 2010. The RT3 application committed the state to revise state assessments, develop a state data system, improve educator effectiveness, increase support and development of educators, turn around low-performing schools, and prioritize funding for education (GaDOE, 2010). The school presented in this case is situated within one of the RT3 districts in a metropolitan area of Georgia, USA.

Our main research questions are:

  • How has the assessment process changed since RT3 was implemented?
  • How have teacher and leader effectiveness been impacted by RT3?
  • How have principals provided support and development to teachers since RT3 implementation?
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