In the Spring of 2014, I graduated with my Doctorate of Philosophy from the University of South Carolina. After five long years of a rigorous and intense dual Education Specialist and Doctorate of Philosophy program, I was looking forward to nights and weekends again. Additionally, I was seeking a new professional challenge. I had served as principal in the same school for 6 and a half years and our school was able to make dramatic improvements in student achievement. For five consecutive years, our standardized test scores improved. We were proud of our hard work and the success of our students, yet I knew it was time for a new professional challenge. In a discussion with a colleague and fellow administrator, I expressed my desire to embark on a new journey. My colleague agreed that it was indeed an appropriate professional next step for me. She said, “Latoya, face it. You are a turnaround principal.” I accepted what she said at that moment. I had heard the term before. It was a term for principals who had gone into underperforming schools and helped improve their test scores or who were leaders who were able to help their school be removed from the state’s low performing list and those people were considered a rarity in the profession. My next professional move had to be just that if I was going to be able to be seen as a turnaround leader.
I spent the next few years at a low-performing middle school in North Carolina. Using a co-principal model and with the opportunity to work daily with my dearest friend and colleague, Michael Waiksnis. We wanted to improve our school. We implemented professional learning communities, improved the climate and culture as evidenced by the teacher working conditions survey, and after two years of diligence, hard work, sweat, and many tears and frustrations, the school was no longer on North Carolina’s low performing list. We celebrated. We were thrilled that our efforts had manifested in the way in which we needed them to in order to be removed from the low performing list. I went on to undertake a new professional challenge, working with low performing schools at the state level just across the border in my home state, South Carolina.
After nearly 20 years in public education, I must confess something here in this blog: I am not a turnaround leader because turnaround leadership is a myth. That’s right. I said it. I see myself as a transformational leader now, and it’s far more accurate than the trendy word, turnaround, that is used in education far too often. I am sure some are wondering where my ultimate aim might land with this post. If you’re brave enough to consider something different than what others generally believe, keep reading.
When public educators and others use the word turnaround leader or school turn around, what exactly are they referencing? What has to change for a school leader to be considered or categorized as a turnaround leader? In my experience, it seems that the turnaround is only about raising student achievement on a standardized test. What’s often left out of the concept of turnaround are all the other things that also need to be turned around: inequity, teacher and principal retention and recruitment, community and/or district mindset, culture, climate, equitable access and opportunity for students, and more. While we may, in fact, be able to improve test scores in spite of serving high concentrations of low-income students, our ability to raise the test scores of students doesn’t turnaround the other equally and sometimes significantly more important elements that impact students in ways far beyond their K-12 experience.
We have yet to implement a solution or deliberate strategy to close the achievement gap. Instead, we seek leaders who can help students improve their performance on standardized tests in spite of all the barriers and obstacles they face. We accept the barriers and laud those who can improve test scores in spite of at all as turnaround leaders. I find this extremely problematic because this is, in essence, an acceptance of the inequity our students of poverty and often, of color face. Our youngsters in high poverty schools across our country are often taught in educational settings that are highly segregated by socioeconomics and sometimes race. They are often also subjected to less experienced and effective teachers, to a constant turn over of school and district leaders, and to fewer opportunities and access to more rigorous and advanced coursework, extracurricular activities, and the like. While test scores may take a different direction, these things that also gravely impact the success of students well beyond their K-12 years, don’t turn around at all.
When we subscribe to language and usage of terms like school turn around, we inadvertently agree that subjecting students to a less equitable learning environment and still being able to educate them enough to pass the standardized test as acceptable. While I am very proud of the work we did in both schools where I served as a principal, I remain concerned about the struggle to find and retain effective teachers and school leaders, the lack of access and opportunities for students of poverty, the impact of schooling in environments where there is a lack of resources and a high concentration and homogeneous grouping of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the turnover in teacher and school leaders for these students, which I too, contributed to as a leader who left after just a few years.
Read my book Burned Out, Beaten Up, Fighting Back: A Call To Action For America’s Public Educators to learn more about that.
If turn around leadership were a real concept, our country would not have an achievement gap among students of various backgrounds and races in reading and math that persists across the country, in spite of all the turn around leaders. You can read more about the persisting gap here.
Perhaps what we need are not turn around leaders, but courageous and brave leaders who are willing to work to turn around the mindsets about the impact of creating schools of high concentrations of poverty, the idea that excelling in spite of having less access and opportunity to rigorous courses is something to applaud but also something to change, who are willing to admit that our issues of inequity and the achievement gap will not be solved and cannot be changed by simply hiring strong instructional leaders who can move test scores in a positive direction. While test scores may turn around, to improve the quality of schooling and ultimately of life that our students of poverty experience, we must also turn around the mindsets of those who create the policies that impact these students. We must turn around the lack of access and opportunity that these students experience. We must turn around the revolving door of less experienced and ineffective teachers these students are subjected to having as instructors. We must turn around the 30% turnover rate among principals in high-poverty schools.
Only then can we truly begin to talk about the concept of turning around low-performing schools. Let’s have a conversation that matters and turn around our persistent and stubborn avoidance of the root issue: inequity.
Until next time-Be you. Be true. Be a hope builder.