Lessons in leadership and management from business applied to turning around low-performing schools.
In her first assignment as a principal, Maria Carlson led a small school in Cleveland where 40 percent of the students were receiving special education services and a third were learning English.
“There was a whole perception that ‘We’re the kids who can’t succeed, and that’s why they put us all together,’” she said. “The kids would say, ‘No one expects anything from us except for us to go to jail.’”
At the time, Carlson was among a group of principals of low-achieving schools enrolled in the Ohio Executive Principal Leadership Academy at The Ohio State University (OSU), which was supported by the State’s Race to the Top funds. She said one of the lessons she learned from the leadership academy was the importance of establishing a school “brand,” a lesson from the world of business.
The leadership academy was a partnership between OSU’s Fisher College of Business, OSU’s College of Education and Human Ecology and the Ohio Department of Education (ODE). Its purpose was to give the principals of the State’s lowest performing schools a crash course in leadership and management.
Carlson said her students at the Community Wrap Around Academy, one of three schools-within-a-schools at Lincoln West High School, had begun thinking they had been assigned to the “dumb school” and that was not a good brand.
To change that perception, she told students and teachers alike to turn expectations upside down. “Be the unexpected,” she would say. “If they were fighting or arguing, or if a teacher was late or unprepared for a lesson, we could discuss what the perception of the school is and reflect on the fact that this is what everyone is expecting.”
In addition to getting students and teachers to think differently about their school she involved everyone in setting targets—just as many for-profit companies do and something she learned at the leadership academy. She worked with her teachers to establish a personal growth target for each student which, when combined, became a target for each classroom and then the entire school. The teachers met with each student to help them set interim goals for their performance on benchmark exams. The school’s professional learning communities keyed their discussions to hitting those targets.
The year after Carlson attended the leadership academy, her school’s proficiency rates on the Ohio Graduation Test rose by 13 percentage points for English language arts (ELA) and 2 percentage points in mathematics. The gains continued in subsequent years and exceeded those of the other two schools housed at Lincoln West.
Six groups of principals attended four intensive two-day sessions spread out over six months, with assignments, such as preparing a case study on their school and devising an action plan, to complete in between sessions. In total, 300 leaders from 155 of the State’s lowest achieving schools attended the academy between January 2011 and June 2013, followed a year later by a culminating gathering to which all were invited.