Turnaround Leadership

Larry Cuban has a must read on what it takes to be the principal of a turnaround school.  My take is that he has two premises, one of which I agree with and one where I think he’s a little off.

First, he argues that turnaround is a completely different job from running a stable school.  Here’s Cuban:

“Clearly a number of principals have applied electric paddles to the hearts of nearly dead, failing schools. And then, having revived their schools, these principals–marathoners that they are–have stayed the course and made them, through intense working partnership with teachers and parents into healthy, achieving schools. Such principals are super-stars.”

Nothing to argue with here.  In other fields the work of turnaround is different in both degree and substance from traditional management.  The skills are different, and yes, the individuals who make it work often are super-stars.

Cuban comes to a different conclusion than I would, though.  He argues that we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on such flash-in-the-pan successes, because they’re unsustainable and somewhat protean.  I would argue that we need to change the operating conditions and incentive structures in failing schools, such that turnaround is intentional rather than accidental.

I know and have worked with Barbara Adderly – whom he mentions in his post – and while she is in fact a rockstar, she would probably tell you that, under the right conditions, average individuals can get above average results.  The school systems we have are not necessarily static, and we should focus on changing those systems to get the results we desire.  So while Cuban warns that we shouldn’t make “policy on the basis of outliers,” we should make systems that make the future norms closer to present outliers.

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