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.
An Array of Support for Improving Schools
The leadership academy was just one way ODE helped principals and their schools improve student performance. ODE also sent transformation specialists—former principals, central office administrators and superintendents—on weekly visits to help the principals apply lessons from the leadership academy to their particular challenges. The principals joined statewide professional networks and attended regional professional development sessions. The schools also received Federal School Improvement Grants to help them address their needs.
Roy J. Lewicki, an emeritus professor of management at OSU and the leadership academy’s academic director, said the curriculum focused on six pillars: educational strategy; goal-setting; cultural understanding; team building and communication; organizational leadership and management; and accountability and responsibility.
One of the major themes of the program was helping the principals see themselves as leaders, he said. “We wanted to be sure they saw themselves as not just managers responding to all the crazy demands from teachers, to students, to parents, to the school board and always living in crisis and putting out fires,” he said. “We wanted them to believe they could effectively lead their school in a positive direction.” The second was ensuring that the principals understood how the State was evaluating their schools on their performance report cards and “how to create and execute a plan for…improving the scores,” he said.
Establishing Goals for Improvement Based on Data
Carlson spent three years at Lincoln West before becoming the principal of Collinwood High School in Cleveland, where she is setting goals using the method she learned at the leadership academy and honed at Lincoln West. “I can work with individual teachers and they can work with individual students to get them to see how much they need to improve on their benchmark or interim assessments,” Carlson said.
Several other principals agreed that, as a result of attending the leadership academy, they had learned to make better use of data in making decisions.
Minerva Morrow, the leader of the Canton City Digital Academy, said she had always looked at data during her 15 years as a principal. But, after attending the leadership academy, she said she has a renewed appreciation of its value. For example, she had set up a program to allow juniors and seniors who worked during the day to take classes at night. She thought it was serving its purpose.
But now she asks harder questions. She wants to know how much academic progress those students are making and whether they are on track to graduate. “We need to constantly monitor this to see if we have evidence it is working; if not, we need to have the flexibility as principals, teachers and staff to say, ‘it sounded great to let students come in at night and work on computers in but if somehow isn’t making a difference in their grades and tests so we need to make changes.’”
Morrow also said the leadership academy reinforced the value of communication and shared leadership. “I want to maximize my teachers’ potential and [have them] become leaders with me,” she said. “I want them to be leaders inside and outside the classroom, and that takes effective team-building skills.”
“In the past, we were managers; now there is a shift and, as an instructional leader, I am expected to train the teachers to be better teachers and leaders,” she said.
Michael Allison, now the principal of South Avondale Elementary School in Cincinnati, also said the leadership academy stressed the importance of collaborating with teachers. He and his faculty developed the school’s vision as a team “so that the decision wasn’t made in isolation,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we were all on the same page in terms of goals, expectations and outcomes for the staff and students.”
“We had a shared sense of responsibility in terms of what we wanted to accomplish as a staff and could be realistic as to where we were and where we wanted to be going forward,” Allison said.
Part of that vision, he said, was having students and parents become more active in the school. “We wanted to give them a voice to express their needs” to make them feel the school’s staff is on their team and increase their commitment to achieving success.
Within three years, the school moved from “emergency” status to exceeding expectations for growth. “Now,” he said, “our challenge is not to plateau. We can’t become complacent. Once you have a system in place that is succeeding, you want to keep that going, you don’t want it to slide and let it go backwards.”
Preparation for Life
Jeffery Keruski, who became principal of Luis Munoz Marin K–8 School in July of 2012, said that when he showed up at the school he found chaos and, within a week, was ready to quit. Fights, vandalism and graffiti occurred daily. Classes were disrupted by discipline problems that prevented teachers from teaching. The community did not trust the school, and teachers did not trust the administrators or each other.
He didn’t quit, though. Instead, he stayed, attended the leadership academy and, using knowledge and skills he acquired there, worked to make learning central to the school’s culture. He learned about the importance of expectations—not just academic but behavior as well.
He and his team also knew they had to get parents to share their vision. They hosted monthly meetings to provide parents with information about their children’s academics as well as their social-emotional needs and the importance of building a strong school community. With the help of parents, attendance rose in three years from 83 percent to 90 percent, suspensions almost disappeared and academic performance increased in all areas.
Now, reflecting the change in culture, students are referred to as scholars. “The scholars read a statement daily that talks about going to college and fulfilling their commitment to themselves, to their community, to their parents and to their school.”
Before that could happen, though, it was necessary to first make children believe that learning is important, he said. “If they don’t believe that, they’re not going to transform.”
Q&A with Michael Allison, principal of South Avondale Elementary School in Cincinnati:
Q. How was the Executive Principal Leadership Academy helpful for you?
A. It helped me develop ways to clearly articulate the school’s vision so that everyone was on the same page in terms of goals and expectations for the staff and students. It also gave me the opportunity to work with other professionals who bring a different outlook to the table. We could throw out a scenario to the group and get a fresh set of eyes. The way they see it might be different from how I’d handle it.
Q. All of the participants had to take an “inventory” of their own leadership style by getting feedback from people in their building. What did you learn about yourself as a leader?
A. As a leader, I am humble but assertive. I am very confident in my ability to make a high quality decision, but I’m humble enough to know I don’t know everything. That helps me listen to others who can provide insights for achieving success.
You have to develop your own leadership style instead of mimicking someone else. I had to reflect on who I am as a person, the level of expertise I bring to the table…and be able to be who I am.
- Build collegial relationships with principals. The instructors in a statewide leadership academy must work to understand the challenges the principals are facing and deal with them as equals. Lecturing principals is not enough to bring about changes in practice.
- Be willing to have courageous conversations. Having established a collegial relationship, be willing to say in a tactful way what needs to be said to push schools to improve.
- Build the program based on the needs of schools. The designers of a program such as the Ohio Executive Principal Leadership Academy should find out from the principals about the issues they are facing and the help they need and design the academy curriculum accordingly.
- Monitor the results. Evaluate the academy’s effectiveness based on what principals are doing with what they learned.
Overview of the Executive Principal Leadership Academy can be found here.