Two Schools of Thought on Leadership Mesh in Virginia

On the typical university campus, the notion of a business school collaborating in fundamental ways with a school of education is somewhat akin to an unnatural act. Leaders in K-12 education often bristle at the idea of incorporating best business practices into their field.

Nevertheless, our experience at University of Virginia is proving that good ideas, when contextualized for environment, can transcend all artificial barriers. This is evidenced not only by the flow of business practice to education but also by the application of education practices to business.

Recognizing that the nature and quality of leadership in schools is a primary driver of school success, the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration and the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia established a formal collaboration, the Partnership for Leaders in Education, to bring the latest thinking from educational leadership and general management to focus on the leadership and management backbone of school systems.

Parallel Practices

Educational leaders traditionally have been trained for centralized, command-and-control managerial tasks. Yet today’s school reform focuses on accountability and standards that require educational leaders to devise performance-based evaluation systems, drive decisions with scientifically based data, and recruit, cultivate and retain highly competent staff.

Moreover, this all must be accomplished within the context of an ever-increasing racially, linguistically and culturally diverse society. Additionally, the passage of No Child Left Behind, has made the demand for performance by all students an issue for all school communities, not just the urban centers and rural poor. These subsequent environmental changes have driven the need to consider educational leadership training analogous to that received by business leaders facing similar challenges.

Despite assertions that schools cannot be run like businesses, parallels do exist. In serving the needs of students, educational leaders head food services, transportation companies, capital construction projects, technology integration and a workforce that generally accounts for 80 percent of operating budgets, all in a resource-constrained environment. Yet educational leaders typically have not had access to the executive leadership training provided in our nation’s business schools, which are considered to be the most prestigious in the world.

The Darden/Curry Partnership recognizes that many of the same general management and leadership principles used by our nation’s top business leaders can be applied to the field of educational leadership while maintaining the integrity of education practices.

As a result of his own business experience, Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner observed that educators are confronted with organizational challenges similar to those of their business colleagues. Last spring the Darden/Curry Partnership was awarded a two-year, $1.4 million contract by the Virginia Department of Education to operate the Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program, a component of the governor’s Education for a Lifetime Initiative.

The VSTSP is specially designed for the needs of a cadre of experts charged with turning around consistently low-performing schools in the state. By applying the best practices from both fields in designing the program, we recognize the need for a system-wide approach to educational reform that focuses on key players—school leaders, a school support team and a district support team.

More specifically, the collaboration of business and education schools has allowed us to identify the importance of such components as executive education, ongoing support, a performance-based credential and meaningful incentives. These characteristics, when taken together, are distinctive to our program and essential to the successful turnaround of a low-performing school.

Moreover, this intersection of ideas has led to work with and the support of other partners including Microsoft, the Wallace Foundation, Philip Morris USA and Citrix Corp. Such collaborations, previously deemed unconventional, often have been overlooked by educators. Instead, these relationships have generated new thinking and opportunities for the training of educational leaders that otherwise would not have been possible. The school turnaround program is just one such example.

An Outcome Base

The VSTSP is intended to allow educators holding at least a master’s degree to earn a professional credential in educational turnaround management. The credential is outcome-based and depends upon specified increases in student achievement.

The program consists of three distinct training modules held in June and July:

• Basic Training—a five-day residential program held at Darden that concentrates on characteristics of high-performing organizations, assessment of personal leadership qualities, turnaround skill building and development of a school turnaround plan.

• District Leadership Academy—a two-day program at Darden bringing together district, school and community leaders to discuss issues facing the district and to provide support for the turnaround specialist and his or her strategic plan.

• Turnaround Leadership Institute—a three-day residential program involving key members of the turnaround team in sessions on leading change, data analysis, setting targets and creating action plans.

The educational turnaround specialist credential may be earned at the end of the first year upon successfully completing all training modules and meeting targets in the turnaround plan. The latter means achieving at least one of the following: adequate yearly progress, state-accreditation and/or a 10 percent reduction in failure rates for reading and math.

Although each of the program’s first two cohorts has been limited to 10 turnaround specialists, plans exist for scaling up in subsequent years.

Complete details are available at www.darden.virginia.edu/VDOE/.

LeAnn Buntrock is program manager of the Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program, 100 Darden Blvd., Charlottesville, VA 22903. E-mail: BuntrockL@darden.virginia.edu. Tierney Fairchild and Ben Sayeski are executive director and senior project director, respectively, of the University of Virginia Partnership for Leaders in Education.