Friday, December 11, 2015

Can Principals Turn Around Rural Schools

Rural schools are often left out of discussions of ed reform and public schools and all the rest. I'm acutely aware of this because I teach in a rural district, centered in a small town of around 7,000 people, but spread across many townships. We don't think of ourselves this way, but if you look at the map, we are on the northern end of Appalachia, and many of the issues that are stirring the educational pot across the country play out far differently here.

So when the School Turnaround Learning Community ran a piece about rural school leadership, I was interested.

The School Turnaround Learning Community is run by the Center on School Turnaround, which in turn is "at" WestEd, an educational "research, development and service organization" that won the job of running school turnaround stuff for the US Department of Education. Its leadership ranks are loaded with professional bureaucrats and policy researchy types, so it's that kind of official government reformy thing. And they are probably scrambling a bit because managing School Improvement Grants seems to have been part of their bread and butter, and those grants have gone-- well, if not away, at least somewhere under ESSA.

This brief piece was written by Caitlin Scott, who works at Education Northwest doing researchy evaluation things on government contracts as well.

Scott has spent most of her career looking at SIG affects; you may recall that SIG were supposed to turn around schools in the bottom 5%. You might not recall that because after years of various attempts to turn around schools in the bottom 5%, not a single government bureaucrat nor reformy wonkster has shown how such a feat can be accomplished.  But Scott has some ideas about why SIGs failed in rural settings (as opposed to all the other places they failed).

First-- and full marks for Scott on this-- the SIG program declared that failing schools must be turned around using one of the four permitted federal models, and those models all centered on either firing the principal or allowing students to flee to alternative schools.

Well, in rural areas, there aren't that many other schools to flee to (nor, might I add, are they necessarily loaded with the capacity to take on extra students in the first place). So rural turnaround schools tended to go with the principal replacement option.

Scott has published a study showing the difficulties in replacing principals (especially rural ones). The short form is that replacing principals rarely moves the needle. While Scott's interviews with various leaders suggest that rural schools lack the resources to attract and retain "highly effective principals who have the ability to turn around schools," my personal experience and research suggests that Scott is only half right.

Attracting and retaining principals in rural areas is hard. You have to be someone who finds this country and small town lifestyle appealing, and you have to be someone who doesn't want to make much money. Fun fact: the assistant principal in my building makes less than many of the teachers-- and that's before you factor in her longer work year. So attracting and retaining-- definitely an issue.

At the same time, Scott is on a unicorn hunt. She looks at the research and says, "Wow, almost nobody can find a principal with the magical power to turn a school around (i.e. raise student scores)." I look at her research and say, "Look! Proof that a principal cannot singlehandedly turn schools around (i.e. raise test scores)."

I would also argue that the very practice of moving principals in and out, whether by design or by inability to attract and retain, makes it less likely that a principal can change anything. If your principal has been there two years and your staff have mostly been there ten-to-thirty years, the principal is not the one setting the tone and culture of the school, and teachers are unlikely to budge much for the tourist who's just passing through, unless he institutes really earth-shattering changes.

Plus-- rural principals largely run their schools singlehandedly, without the big fancy staff of an urban district. That means the principal takes care of everything, including all the pop-up daily jobs (the kid who punched another kid at lunch, the water pipe that broke in the back hall, the angry parent who just came to complain to Someone In Charge). Rural principals often start with every intention of being hands on and in regular contact with their teaching staff, but it's not always humanly possible. "Instructional leader" often gets crowded off the top of the job description list.

Scott gets this:

Personally, I believe that school leadership does not reside in the principal alone. Instead, I believe leadership is, and should be, distributed among all the adults working at a school. In rural schools, distributed leadership may be particularly important, because these schools often have smaller numbers of staff members than urban and suburban schools. This requires many adults to take on multiple roles and shoulder greater responsibility for school success.

Scott favors an approach that turns all adults in the building into Keepers of the Turnaround Flame, and offers as an example Northwest Rural Innovation and Student Engagement Network (NW RISE). I do not share the enthusiasm for a group that "supports" rural educators in "implementing Common Core State Standards, with the goal of improving student engagement and achievement in rural areas." There's nothing to be gained from another Common Core booster shot, unless we're talking about the brand of CCSS that is essentially test prep for the Core Big Standardized Tests-- and I see no educational, student-centered reason to care about BS Test results.

However, Scott does get one other thing right-- no turnaround model that requires rural schools to follow a one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter procedure developed for urban schools is ever going to do any rural school any good (particularly since there's no evidence it does urban schools any good, either).

We will see if educrat think leaders like Scott can convince states to use some of their newly-ESSA-fied slack to develop models for helping rural schools that are actually helpful.


  1. Good analysis. I think it's absolutely imperative that principals come up from within the ranks in rural schools if at all possible, because of the culture-setting issue. In my rural school, almost all the teaching staff has been here longer than our principal, who was hired from the outside. Also, I'm guessing that well over half the teachers are former graduates. He has very little chance of changing our culture in the short term. Small-town life being what it is, his retirement will come sooner than his acceptance as an insider.

  2. Um, yes, I formerly taught in a rural school, and now teach in an urban school. One thing "reformsters" should know about these populations: first, MANY rural kids do NOT care about the BS Tests! They just do not, and no principal is going to convince them otherwise (let alone a touristy-type principal who doesn't already have several generations of people in the local cemetery). Urban kids ? In my experience, they're willing to try a little harder to do better on the tests than the rural kids -- I'd guess that's from the fact that the adults care a little more -- and urban kids do care about the teachers who have stayed with them for a long time -- not TFA'er types that only stay for 2-3 years if that -- but the teachers who are in it for the long haul -- if THOSE teachers ask the kids to try really hard (because let's face it -- only urban schools are really at risk for privatization), kids will do it.
    And as I step back to take a good look at the "big picture", I am simply floored by the manner and extent to which the "reformster" movement has distorted education.