revolving door

Three years in, more than half of principals in New York City’s turnaround program have quit or been replaced

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Boys and Girls High School has seen two principals depart since the Renewal program started.

Nearly 60 percent of schools in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature school-improvement program have undergone leadership changes since the program started, according to city data, significantly higher than the 35 percent citywide turnover rate over the same period.

Some of that turnover is intentional: Because de Blasio has opted to revive struggling schools rather than replace them with new ones, a key improvement strategy is to change their leadership. It’s also crucial to have strong leaders running schools in the $383 million “Renewal” program since the job requires coordinating the longer school days, new classroom materials and partnerships with social-service providers that come with it.

But leadership churn can also cause problems. Research suggests it can be especially harmful to low-performing schools, contributing to higher rates of teacher turnover and lower student achievement.

At the same time, the pressure of turning around a low-achieving school on a tight timeline has prompted some principals to leave the system on their own accord, leaving vacancies that can be hard to fill.

“If you think that the leader of a school is not effective then you have to replace them,” said Jason Grissom, a researcher at Vanderbilt University who has studied principal turnover in multiple states. “But then you’ve created a turnover event which can have downsides in the short term. It’s tough for a district.”

Of the 78 current Renewal schools, 45 have seen at least one leadership change — including ten with new principals this fall.

Aimee Horowitz, the superintendent in charge of the Renewal program, said she is not concerned about the rate of leadership turnover, adding that local superintendents weigh their options carefully when replacing principals.

“That’s always a balancing test,” Horowitz said. “We have to think about whether the new principal is more likely to impact change than the principal who is leaving.”

City officials would not say how many Renewal principals were replaced because their superintendents determined they were ineffective compared with the number who retired or quit for other reasons. But regardless of why principals ultimately leave, the education department must convince new leaders to take their place, running schools that are under intense pressure to improve.

At times, the city has resorted to unorthodox staffing arrangements to fill principal vacancies in Renewal schools with leaders they believe will be successful. In one unusual example, the education department coaxed a principal to run Boys and Girls High School, a Renewal school, without giving up his post running a separate higher-performing school — an arrangement that later fell apart.

But as the Renewal program has become more established, Horowitz said, it has been easier to find principals to take on the demanding role partly because word has spread that those schools get extra funding, social services, and support staff.

Several new Renewal principals previously were Renewal program staffers, though Horowitz declined to offer a number.

“We’re past the point of having to convince people to take the position at Renewal schools,” she said. “They’re aware that they’ll be supported.”

Principal Geralda Valcin said she was excited to begin leading a Renewal school, despite the tough task of steering the school back on track. About a year and a half ago, she took over the Coalition School for Social Change in Harlem — which had one of the highest dropout rates in the city — after completing the city’s now-shuttered Leadership Academy training program.

One of the biggest challenges, she said, was raising expectations of teachers and convincing veteran educators who had “been doing the same thing the same way” to adopt new teaching methods.

“I felt like I was stepping into a situation where my predecessor and I had different views,” she said. “You have to take what’s working and figure out the rest.”

Finding effective principals to run the city’s lowest-performing schools has been a persistent challenge.

Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the education department closed many lower-performing schools, and tried to entice talented leaders — sometimes with offers of salary bumps — to open new small schools where they could start from scratch and hire new teachers.

To create a pipeline of principals, that administration also launched the Leadership Academy, a fast-track training program to funnel leaders from various fields into high-need schools with the promise that they would have lots of freedom in choosing how to run their schools.

Still, the Leadership Academy only ever met a fraction of demand, and officials later stepped back from the practice of offering bonuses, finding that it did not seem to draw more effective leaders.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has ratcheted up the amount of experience required to become a principal, and has eschewed the school closures and new school openings that gave principals a chance to start fresh. Instead, the city has bet on giving existing schools more resources and principals more specific instructions on how to revamp floundering schools.

Marc Sternberg, a former deputy chancellor in the Bloomberg administration who previously ran a struggling school in the Bronx, said it is hard to improve troubled schools if their leaders leave quickly or have limited autonomy.

“We are asking some very courageous people to do an impossible job,” said Sternberg, the director of K-12 education for the Walton Family Foundation. (Walton is one of Chalkbeat’s funders.)

“Throw in principal turnover — where the vision-keeper is rotating,” he added, “and you’ve got the inevitable confusion and slippage that that generates.”

Still, some teachers in Renewal schools said principal transitions have brought positive changes.

At J.H.S. 8 in Queens, also called New Preparatory Middle School, one veteran educator said the school’s former principal was disorganized, sometimes sprang new programs on teachers at the last minute, and at one point used a rotating cast of long-term substitutes instead of hiring new teachers. (The former principal did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

But after assistant principal Katiana Louissaint took the helm this fall, morale started improving, said the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous. After a recent round of parent-teacher conferences, teachers stuck around to chat with each other, a rarity under the former principal.

“At the end of the night,” the educator said, “the teachers weren’t running for the door.”

Top role

Search for new superintendent of Sheridan schools underway

Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough makes a point during construction board hearing on June 27, 2012.

Sheridan, the small district southwest of Denver, will start accepting applications for a new superintendent next week.

After 10 years as superintendent of the small, urban district, Michael Clough will retire in June.

Looking back over his tenure at the head of the Sheridan School District, Clough said in a phone interview that he is most proud of having increased the state quality ratings for the district after five years of low performance.

“The number of sanctions are very taxing,” Clough said. “It’s a true weight that has been lifted off this district.”

The Sheridan district improved just enough in 2016 to earn a higher state quality rating that pushed it off the state’s watchlist just before it was about to hit the state’s limit for consecutive years of low performance. During their years under state scrutiny, Clough and the district challenged the Colorado Department of Education over their low ratings and the state’s method for calculating graduation rates.

Clough said the next superintendent will face more daunting challenges if state officials don’t change the way it funds Colorado’s schools. Clough has been an advocate for increased school funding, using the challenges faced by his district to drive home his message that the state needs to do more to support K-12 education.

The funding crisis, Clough said, “is beginning to hit, in my estimation, real serious proportions.”

The school board hired the firm Ray and Associates to help search for the district’s next leader.

The consultants have been hosting forums and launched a survey asking staff, parents, and community members what they would like to see in a new superintendent. Next week, board members will meet to analyze the results of the feedback and to finalize the job posting, including deciding on a salary range.

Clough had already retired in 2014. At the time, school board members created a new deal with him to keep him as district leader while allowing him to work fewer hours so he could start retirement benefits.

“I think we’ve accomplished quite a bit,” said Bernadette Saleh, current board president. “I think we have made great strides. I have only good things to say about Mr. Clough.”

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.