Turnaround Principals

An unmistakable conclusion: Site-level success stems from superintendent support by Harold J. Burbach and Alfred R. Butler IV

We recently were privileged to spend five days with a group of 10 talented principals who have been charged with turning around academically low-performing schools in their respective districts. These principals were selected as participants in a Turnaround Specialist Program initiated by Gov. Mark R. Warner of Virginia and designed by a group of faculty from the Darden Graduate School of Business and the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.


The first part of this program consisted of a five-day experience designed to help participants frame the issue and provide them with some conceptual and practical tools from the worlds of business and education for addressing the challenge they would face in fall 2004.

From the team of university faculty and practitioners who drew upon various areas of expertise, we gained a better understanding of what it takes to set an academically low-performing school on the road to success.

More pointedly, we focus here on those pieces of the turnaround puzzle that have direct relevance for what we believe needs to be done at the district level to give turnaround principals every chance of success. Through conversations over the course of the week, we came to an unmistakable conclusion: The initial commitment and the level of support needed for success can be directly traced to the district superintendent.

Job One

As every superintendent knows, the single most important factor in turning around an academically low-achieving school is the selection of the right principal for the job. At the heart of this selection lies a key question: What leaders are best suited for the task of turning around a school? While we assume that all superintendents will weigh the qualifications of every principal candidate against the commonly recognized qualities of good leaders, we focus here on three qualities that we believe should distinguish those who are hired to lead turnaround schools.

Someone who is seeking the job for the “right” reasons.

In reflecting on the reasons our group offered in discussions of why they accepted a position as a turnaround principal, we were struck as much by what was not mentioned as by what was mentioned. For example, we heard no references to money, career advancement or anything having to do with material gain or practical considerations. Though expressed in various ways, the most compelling reason for taking their respective positions was a heartfelt desire to help raise the achievement level of academically low-achieving children and thereby enhance these students’ chances of success in life.

This came up over and over and there was no mistaking its true meaning. The unambiguous message was that it was a higher order of moral calling, one that in some cases spanned both the religious and social domains. The implication for superintendents is that they should give some serious thought as to what they consider to be the right reasons for applying for turnaround positions and those reasons that are of lesser value.

Someone with a richly textured conceptual understanding of and an affective sensitivity to the unique challenges faced by academically underachieving children.

Certainly a primary prerequisite of an attractive candidate is someone with a clear conceptual understanding of what the job of turning around a school entails. To our way of thinking, these are individuals with a capacity for big-picture thinking and a grasp of the social, political and cultural crosscurrents at work in turnaround schools and their communities. Further, we believe the best candidates should be conversant with the latest writings on organizational change and the special learning needs of low-achieving children.

A second prerequisite, though less easy to assess at an empirical level, is a person with an abiding sensitivity to the unique challenges of children with a history of poor academic success in school. This point was brought home to us early in the program through the personal and often poignant stories participants shared about their schools or even themselves. One principal recounted his firsthand experience as an academically underachieving child. As his story unfolded it was quickly apparent that his childhood experience in schools was a critical factor in the culture he was working to create in his school. Put simply, it was a culture characterized by a deep sensitivity to the needs of children who populate the lower rungs of the academic ladder.

While this particular story stood out, this same authentic sentiment permeated the stories told by everyone in our group. In some cases it could be traced to a history of teaching in low-achieving schools. In other cases it was the result of working in a successful community-based program with children from low-income families, but in all cases some hands-on experience served as a primary motive for wanting to be a turnaround principal. We concluded that something akin to this affective understanding of the job would be a distinct plus.

• Someone with whom a superintendent can build an enduring bond of trust.

Seen within the interactive dynamic between a superintendent and a principal, there is arguably nothing more important to the success of this relationship that an enduring bond of trust. According to Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, the foundation of a successful team is trust. His core argument is that without trust a planning team cannot possibly deal with conflict.

Applied to our context of interest, this idea suggests that without an effective bond of trust between a superintendent and the principal, there is simply no way in which any derivative teams could effectively deal with something as value laden and as educationally and politically complex as turning around a failing school. Thus we believe that the delicate but critical dynamic of trust should figure prominently in the selection process.

Granting Authority

From a review of the business literature on how to turn around an organization, common agreement exists that turnaround leaders must be given whatever authority is needed to get the job done. While contextual constraints exist in the world of education that make the granting of this authority to principals more problematic, we believe superintendents should consider this bit of conventional business wisdom when working out the lines of authority with this unique group of principals.

The importance of this issue to turnaround principals became apparent to us as we interacted with our group over the course of the week. In fact, if we had to pick one area of concern that was of most importance to our group, it would revolve around the question of whether they would have the necessary authority to succeed. It is also one of the most complex issues in that the lines of authority between a superintendent and a principal are so structurally complex and so dynamic that no definitive rules exist to guide the process.

Thus while we would like to offer some insightful solution to this problem, we are left to (1) note it is a core element of the turnaround challenge and (2) encourage superintendents to be thoughtful and imaginative in defining and redefining the boundaries of authority between themselves and their principals.

Winning Team

Next to selecting the right person for the job, the second most critical challenge for superintendents is to develop policies that will enable their turnaround principals to build a winning team of teachers and support personnel. What is needed is a group of highly motivated, competent professionals who are amenable to constructive change and who become invested enough in the school to support the emerging culture of change. The key question is how to put together this kind of team.

Jim Collins, author of the best-selling book Good to Great, addresses this challenge when he argues that a key step toward achieving organizational greatness, in schools and elsewhere, is to figure out how to get the right people on the bus and the wrong ones off the bus.

Success on this front begins with rethinking the recruiting and teacher transfer policies at the district level. One of these problems begins with the acknowledgment that high-income districts receive many more applications for each position than do low-income districts. Another is that in districts with schools that serve families at both ends of the socioeconomic scale, teachers tend to seek transfers from schools with large numbers of children from low-income families to those with a higher percentage of children from wealthier families.

Because seniority remains a major criterion for a within-district transfer, the winners in this system are the high-income schools and the losers are the low-income schools. Thus a beginning point for a district is to develop policies that will blunt these trends and create some innovative initiatives to attract more high-quality applicants and within-district transfers to low-income schools.

One obvious incentive is to pay teachers additional money for taking a position in schools serving low-income communities. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school system has instituted such a policy and an increasing number of schools are realizing this is a necessary step toward recruiting a strong core of teachers for their neediest schools.

While this initiative is sure to stir controversy, increasing evidence shows that a monetary bonus is one of the most effective ways of attracting some of the most talented teachers to academically low-performing schools. As the risk versus reward factor involved in this initiative will vary considerably across cases, superintendents are left to balance this equation within the context of their districts.

In terms of getting the wrong people off the bus, both our search of the literature and feedback from principals point to tenure policies as a major deterrent to weeding out poor-performing teachers. Other than their own persistence and ingenuity in making organizational life uncomfortable enough for a teacher to request a voluntary transfer, individual principals can do little at a policy level to remove a poor-performing teacher.

In exploring ideas for how to deal with incompetent teachers, the turnaround principals and faculty strongly support the idea of a district policy that would give these principals the authority to arrange an involuntary transfer of those teachers they judged to be poor performers as well as any staff member working to undermine the collective efforts of other professionals in the school. While such a policy would not be an easy one to enact, the successful implementation of such an option would go a long way toward enhancing the chances of success for turnaround principals.

Basic Needs

At issue here is the question of what turnaround principals think they need from their respective districts to effect positive academic movement in their schools. While we did not ask our group this question directly, it was the topic of enough conversations that we were able to confidently piece together the following list.

At the very least, they want a clean, safe, well-equipped school building that is large enough to comfortably house the number of students who are enrolled.

This list of needs includes classrooms and other designated learning environments that are equipped with the latest technology and which are maintained and cleaned on a regular basis. While these basic needs are all being met in nearly all high-achieving schools, even a casual review of the writings on this issue reveals that a disproportionate number of academically low-achieving children from low-income families attend schools that do not meet these minimal standards.

This gives rise to a basic question: Is it fair to expect academically low-achieving children to compete with their peers when the learning environments within which they live and work are substandard?

• They need the financial resources to keep class sizes small.

A body of research shows that small class size promotes a better learning environment for all children and is especially effective in working with children who are working to make up lost academic ground. In addition to working well with children, it is a huge plus for teachers, one that might well make the difference between keeping and losing a talented teacher in a turnaround school.

• They need a strong cadre of support personnel .

The special needs of turnaround schools require not just a staff of talented teachers but an effective core of support personnel as well. In addition to a well-coordinated administrative team, a strong case can be made for broadening the team of professional educators in academically low-performing schools to include specialists in reading, mathematics, technology, testing and any other area of specialization that promises to enhance the learning potential of this group of children.

They need support for ancillary programs.

Success in turning around a school requires programs that provide in-school enhancements and out-of-school initiatives that expand the learning opportunities for children. Examples of in-school programs include special math and reading programs that are designed especially with low-achieving children in mind. Among the most critical categories of out-of-school programs are those that provide after-school learning activities and programs that attempt to provide an academic bridge over the summer months.

They need support for a customized professional development program.

The most relevant professional development programs are those that are (1) specifically designed to improve the job performance of the school’s professional staff, (2) tailored to meet the unique needs of each organizational setting and (3) designed with the long term in mind. The good news is that since the advent of the No Child Left Behind legislation, a surge of interest in fresh ideas has cropped up on how to create more effective learning environments for low-achieving children.

The most effective programs should be shaped by the best research and the most innovative, yet reality-based, ideas on educating low-achieving children. Most importantly, these programs should direct primary energy toward activating the collective intelligence and experience of every staff member in a given school with the goal of creating a professional learning community.

Funding Chances

Inadequate funding is a nearly universal problem with school districts. With the added burdens imposed by NCLB, it is placing even more stress on the financial resources of school districts. As most turnaround initiatives will require supplemental funds to maximize their chances of success, we believe a grant writer with special expertise in writing proposals for turnaround programs would pay rich dividends.

The conceptual groundwork for such an investment begins with the assertion that finding ways to close the academic achievement gap continues to be one of our nation’s greatest challenges and we believe a corresponding increase in state and federal grant monies will be devoted to meeting this challenge. In addition, we believe turnaround initiatives will attract more and more interest among private voluntary organizations and they too will direct an increasing amount of their funds toward funding the more promising proposals that come across their desks.

Our second recommendation is an individual with business experience whose sole responsibility would be to identify and promote school/business partnerships in the community. While nearly all districts direct some energy to building these partnerships, their success rate is uneven. We believe the right person could smooth out some rough spots and bring renewed and more focused energy to the task of forging new and lasting cooperative partnerships between schools and businesses as they both struggle with the challenge of closing the education and income gaps in their communities.

Research Challenge

One pressing need most districts face is developing a steady stream of quality data to inform decisions about how best to execute and sustain turnaround efforts. While universal agreement exists that the latest and best information available is a critical element in effective decision making, our literature search on the subject turned up surprisingly little applicable data on the subject. By this we mean information that turnaround principals could access easily and that addressed core problems in turnaround schools.

Part of the problem is that much of what is written on the subject is buried in research journals, which are read mostly by professors and rarely accessed by busy principals who are caught up in the day-to-day world of leading a school.

A second problem is that the context of turnaround schools is a relatively new area of research and there is little by way of additive data on the subject. While there are those on the academic side who would point to journal articles and books on the subject and who would tend to blame principals for not reading these works, we discovered from conversations with our admittedly small group of principals there is nothing they would like more than to have ready access to relevant and understandable research on how to create more effective learning environments for low-achieving children.

What then might school districts do to address this need? We believe the first thing they can do is direct their existing research staff to (1) search out and organize the best research on the subject that is available; (2) communicate this information in an intelligible fashion to their turnaround principals; and (3) work with their turnaround principals in carving out a research agenda that is compatible with their needs and interests.

Our second recommendation is that superintendents take the lead in seeking working relationships with the many researchers in colleges and universities who are interested in this research area. While the gap between university researchers and practitioners is real, we believe researchers represent an untapped pool of assistance that could be helpful in addressing the research challenges facing turnaround principals. And we believe that the superintendent could serve as a catalyst in setting these relationships in motion.

Small Matters

Still another lesson we learned from our practitioner colleagues was how much they appreciated the “little” things their superintendents did for them on a daily basis. High on this list were a group of superintendent-initiated actions that come under the general heading of positive feedback.

These actions included personal notes of appreciation for a job well done, personal luncheon invitations, telephone calls to simply inquire about how things were going, providing a new book or article of interest to a principal, calling attention to a principal’s name in a news story, passing along positive comments that a superintendent might have heard from others about a particular principal and other acts of symbolic generosity.

While it is easy to underestimate or even dismiss the importance of these gestures and rewards, it was clear to those who listened to these accounts that our group of principals placed a high value on this kind of recognition from their superintendents.

An additional payoff for superintendents who are generous with the personalized attention they confer upon their principals is that these behaviors have the potential to create a positive multiplier effect within the organization. Played out most optimistically, we can reasonably assume principals who are on the receiving end of positive feedback from their supervisor will be more likely to model this psychic support to their professional colleagues.

In turn, this has the potential to add a small ripple of positive energy to the morale of a turnaround school, which is one of the most telling signs of success in meeting the challenge. While this may be a bit of a stretch for some, we refer any doubters to a strong body of literature that reveals that symbolic rewards are extremely effective motivators in organizations and point out that the effective use of these kinds of rewards is one of the most time-efficient and cost-effective investments a superintendent can make.

Dedicated Learning

We believe the single most important asset that turnaround principals can bring to their jobs is an infinite capacity for career-long learning and problem solving. Armed with this mentality, these principals will be ideally positioned to puzzle out and successfully adapt to the emerging contexts of change they will inevitably face.

Seen from the vantage point of district superintendents, we can think of no more effective initiative that they can take than one designed to provide a district-specific program to enrich the learning capacity of their turnaround principals. The most effective of these programs should pick up turnaround principals at the outset of their careers and provide ongoing learning experiences that enrich their problem-solving capacities throughout their careers.

In this regard, the best model that exists is what we call a dedicated learning community. The basic idea for such a model came into focus for us over the past few months in which our understanding of the school turnaround issue has been enriched by numerous interactions with our practitioner colleagues.

Stimulated by this experience, we believe the successful future of school turnaround efforts can be greatly enhanced at the district level through the creation of dedicated learning communities, ones whose sole purpose is to bring the expertise of key professionals to bear upon the question of how to progressively create more effective learning environments for low-achieving children.

Primary key players in this learning community are the administrative and teaching staffs in a school district that are directly involved in the day-to-day work of turning around a school. These professionals represent an invaluable and largely untapped storehouse of information and experience in working with academically low-achieving children. The knowledge they, and only they, possess is known as tacit or craft knowledge. It is acquired exclusively through experience in working in low-performing schools. While some of this experiential knowledge is shared in an incidental way in most settings, we believe a significant piece lies dormant in the collective minds of these turnaround specialists and thus represents a potentially valuable source of untapped information.

Another group that has the potential to make significant contributions to a learning community dedicated to designing more effective learning environments for low-achieving children are those of us who work in institutions of higher education. While we have been justifiably criticized for distancing ourselves from the real world of education, our group is unique in that we (1) are building professional working relationships with groups of turnaround principals in live school settings and (2) represent a unique combination of professors from two basic units—an education school and a graduate school of business—within a university.

Effectively brought into play within the context of the kind of dedicated professional learning community we are proposing, the tacit knowledge of practitioners together with the more codified information of the academic world will create a rare and powerful learning opportunity for all concerned and thereby greatly enhance the collective turnaround efforts of those school districts that invest their energies in this initiative.


While we have simplified the framing to this model in the interest of brevity, this basic idea can easily be adapted to any number of settings. For example, several smaller districts might join forces in creating a dedicated learning community. And the power of the new information technologies offers options for creating an electronic learning community dedicated to the turnaround issue.

But regardless of how such models might emerge within or across districts, the most effective designs will be those that are kept relatively simple and in the most optimal of cases take on a self-sustaining life of their own.

From all that we can ascertain, it appears the school turnaround issue will continue to dominate the public education agenda into the foreseeable future. Further, we believe that unlike many issues that educators have dealt with in the past, this one will have greater staying power and make greater financial and political demands on the system than any others in memory.

In the end, the extent to which turnaround efforts succeed or fail across districts will be played out in the interstices of turnaround principals and their superintendents. Put simply, one cannot succeed without the other and we hope we have brought some aspects of this critical professional relationship into sharper focus.

Harold Burbach is a professor of leadership foundations and policy studies at University of Virginia, 190 Ruffner Hall, Charlottesville, VA 22903. E-mail: hb3c@virginia.edu. Al Butler is a professor of leadership foundations and policy studies at the University of Virginia and executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. The authors acknowledge the help of Tierney Fairchild and Benjamin Sayeski of the Turnaround Specialist Program and June West of the Darden Graduate School of Business at University of Virginia.