Leading a school is demanding work and more than 40 years of research identifies effective school leadership as a dynamic force for appreciable and significant impact on student learning. No longer solely the manager of the school, principals simultaneously fill the roles of instructional leader, learner, mentor, culture-builder, advocate, supervisor and politician. Nowhere are these roles more important than when leading an underperforming school. Fundamental school improvement does not happen without bold leadership — ‘turnaround’ principals must drive transformative shifts in school culture and instructional practice. To do so necessitates the fostering of teacher leadership and collaboration among faculty and staff. In order to do this work, school turnaround principals must have the skills to identify the academic needs, school conditions and instructional practices requiring improvement. Preparation, then, must address the myriad of skills and knowledge requisite to be an effective school leader.
In 2017, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) labeled approximately 10 percent of our nation’s schools as failing. That is, some 3.5 million school children failed to make significant progress on their state assessments. Annually, the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) identifies the 300 lowest performing elementary schools. In each of these environments, our country is failing at providing a quality educational experience for students. It is incumbent upon us as a nation and as an institution training the next generation of leaders to uphold our obligation and responsibility to help children fulfill their diverse potentials, to live a productive life and to become good citizens. The ability to turnaround low performing and failing schools is critical to the health and well-being of our society. This does not happen without quality school leaders.
Public Impact, a nonprofit organization committed to devising and advancing visionary but practical ideas to improve K-12 education, proposes competencies school leaders need for turnaround success. Among and embedded within these are the abilities and qualities of sound data collection, analysis and progress monitoring; action planning; developing, communicating and implementing a positive vision; fostering and developing leadership in others; conceptual thinking; and persistence and resilience. In the Master of Education program in educational leadership, we provide multiple opportunities for students to learn about, engage in and apply these skills and corresponding content knowledge in order to become a successful school leader. How do we do this? With deliberate, specialized and planful activities for participant engagement related to turnaround leadership.
Each of the 12 courses in the program addresses some or many of the core competencies ensuring program participants complete their course of study with multiple experiences relevant and responsive to the educational needs of today’s children.
This program is aimed at the working professional and the majority of our program participants are current classroom teachers. Program participants are consistently asked to draw upon their professional positions and workplaces in responding to course assignments and activities. Examples include the following:
- design, implement and lead a team of fellow educators in a change initiative in their school;
- analyze their school’s academic achievement data and determine a content area or grade level in need of improvement, then design and calendar a professional learning plan with progress monitoring of students for the affected faculty and staff with a discussion of the ways their voice and choice will be solicited and valued;
- analyze the effectiveness of their school’s communications plan incorporating methods to include all stakeholders and strategies for improvement;
- learn, observe and apply active listening techniques and methods for engaging in hard conversations;
- learn, practice and engage in recognizing and observing quality instruction and engage in collaborative coaching conversations with teachers;
- respond to numerous real school scenarios related to building a positive school culture and climate and the development of a school vision and mission to drive all decision-making;
- and consciously reflect upon and develop their personal philosophies related to schooling.
Throughout, program participants are introduced to and hear from former and current successful turnaround principals. The Department of Educational Leadership in the College of Education at the University of Florida strives to be responsive to the needs of today’s schools. Using research and best practices to inform the content of our courses, we are working hard to prepare school leaders with the skills and knowledge to lead the kind of schools our children deserve.