All posts by Mark Rolewski

Mark has worked across the United States assisting educational leaders in implementing major reform efforts and helping them develop and strengthen their skills in increasing student achievement by influencing the quality of instruction.

Stop Wasting Time with Teacher Evaluation in Turnaround Schools

Making Teacher Evaluation Meaningful

The process of school turnaround requires an extreme focus on the things that matter most to student learning. Paramount to this is hiring quality people who develop strong relationships with students, collaborate to set and monitor goals, hold each other mutually accountable for results, and relentlessly pursue multiple avenues in an attempt to reach all students. However, while turnaround schools are busy fostering this type of culture, there are certain activities that take valuable time away from the things that matter most.

This article addresses an area of schooling that requires a significant amount of time—particularly on the part of administrators—but often yields very little return on investment in teaching quality or student achievement. I am referring to the typical teacher evaluation process.

The Typical Teacher Evaluation Process

Administrator Standpoint
First, let’s think of the time spent. The school year usually begins with an in-service designed to introduce or update administrators on the criteria and processes that will be used to evaluate teacher performance. Administrators, in turn, share this information with teachers during pre-school activities and, in many cases, throughout the year. Then comes the scheduling of the various teachers—new teachers, teachers with under three years of experience, veteran teachers, teachers who are on improvement plans—all designed to ensure that each teacher receives the appropriate number of evaluations necessary to meet each district’s requirements. Next come the pre-conferences followed by observations, post-conferences, and the time it takes to document everything and upload it into a district’s evaluation system. Multiply this by the usually large number of teachers an administrator has to evaluate and you begin to realize that simply completing all the evaluations can absorb a significant amount of administrator time. This workload often causes the teacher evaluation process to be more one of compliance than one of meaning.

Teacher Standpoint
Next, let’s look at it from a teacher standpoint. First, teachers are busy people. They spend most of their time in front of students with very little time left to collaborate, to plan and reflect on the effectiveness of their practice, or to engage in high quality professional development with follow-up regarding teaching techniques. Teacher evaluation is often viewed more as an event as opposed to a process woven into the day-to-day fabric of school improvement.

Now, I am not advocating for the elimination of the teacher evaluation process. Quite the contrary. In my experience, nearly all administrators that I have worked with over the years truly want to make the evaluation process a valuable one for their teachers. Conversely, teachers want to know that they are doing a good job and are open to feedback that they believe is valid. I believe that we can significantly increase the power of teacher evaluation if we begin to take a few steps toward making it a meaningful experience for all and worthy of the time it requires.

Let’s first examine some barriers that keep the current process flawed.

Barrier #1: The Cart Before the Horse
 In most organizations, they first determine clear outcomes and then identify a set of behaviors that will most likely lead to their accomplishment while supporting the values of the organization. Then, some type of appraisal instrument is designed to communicate to the employees what behaviors are expected, and regular reviews are conducted to let employees know where they stand relative to the organizational expectations.

Often in education, we begin with the evaluation tool. Indeed, many teacher evaluation tools that are being used today were hastily adopted by states and local school districts as a result of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top (RTT) educational initiative so that states could compete for substantial federal funding. This led to districts adopting frameworks that were externally designed (e.g., Danielson, Marzano) or assembled by states or local districts. While many of these instruments—particularly those that were externally designed—include valid criteria for evaluating teacher performance, the question is: Were they adopted or designed with the intent of securing an evaluation tool or do they truly represent the expectations of quality teaching of the school system in which they are being used?

I contend that they were adopted primarily to secure an evaluation tool. To support this belief, I have repeatedly seen states, districts and sEvaluation Toolschools introduce multiple sets of criteria when observing and providing feedback to teachers and schools. For example, one set exists for teacher evaluation while other sets are used for district walkthroughs, state walkthroughs, turnaround schools, and yet
another set when external programs are adopted. Principals and teachers often tell me that “different observers look for different things.”

When there is no consensus on what quality teaching is, these multiple sets of criteria clash with one another and serve to further confuse teachers and administrators and dilute a common understanding of the criteria for evaluating effective teaching. Simply put, many evaluation tools serve as just that—evaluation tools—and do not represent a consensus of what quality teaching should be in a school system. When multiple sets of criteria exist using different language to communicate similar techniques, it becomes more difficult for teachers and administrators to harness the instructional focus that is necessary for school turnaround and to engage in meaningful dialogue about quality instruction.

The reality is that most teachers and administrators have their own ideas about what constitutes quality teaching. These ideas are developed over time based mostly on personal experience, trial and error in the classroom, and the individual efforts to learn about quality teaching. When a district adopts an instrument without acknowledging this schema, it leads to a chasm between what people believe is quality teaching and what the adopted instrument states. Unless this chasm is addressed, teachers often treat the evaluation process as a necessary event in which they must comply.

Barrier #2: Emphasis on Administrator Inter-rater Reliability
In baseball, players and fans alike expect consistency between the various umpires that call balls and strikes. Similarly, in schools, teachers and central office administrators expect consistency—or, inter-rater reliability—between school administrators in their observations and ratings of teachers. While this is an important undertaking, I believe that the most important inter-rater reliability is between teachers and administrators who share a common understanding of the evaluation criteria.

Too often, administrators receive many more hours of training in the system than do teachers, creating an environment where the people being evaluated know less about the criteria than the people conducting the evaluations. When there are inconsistencies Conflictbetween those evaluating and those being evaluated, it is often a recipe for conflict that is rooted in each person’s individual interpretation of the
criteria as opposed to sharing a common understanding of what quality teaching looks like.

Barrier #3: Valid Teaching Techniques Introduced through Evaluation
Possibly one of the worst ways to introduce teachers and administrators to effective teaching practices is to do it through an evaluation system. Yet, this seems to be the most prevalent way in which it occurs. Unfortunately, the term evaluation tends to be associated with judgment and not with learning. This is perpetuated through administrator training that often focuses more on ratings and less on understanding what quality instruction looks like, the research on which it is based, why it is effective and how to influence the quality of instruction among teachers of various skill levels.

Teachers tend to get most of their information about the appraisal system from their administrators so if administrator training is primarily focused on ratings, that is the information that teachers receive. This approach encourages many teachers and administrators to focus more on the ratings, and less on the actual criteria or understanding of quality instruction. Furthermore, teachers tend to view the evaluation process as an event and not part of the overall system for improving instruction.

Some Considerations

If teacher evaluation is ever going to be an integral part of the overall process of improving instruction, it must be woven into a systematic process designed to improve instruction and increase achievement and not just be addressed in isolation.

What is learning?
The most success I have in working with teacher evaluation systems never begins with the evaluation tool itself; instead, it begins with an understanding of learning. I frequently ask, “What is learning?” and emphasize that effective teaching should first and foremost align with how people learn and not with an evaluation tool. Specific information about how the neurological system works to gather, process, store and retrieve information leads to an understanding of why certain teaching techniques are effective.

For example, as opposed to telling teachers that they are expected to use cooperative learning because it is part of the evaluation instrument, I emphasize that cooperative learning is one of the best ways students can support one another’s learning in gathering, processing, storing and retrieving information. Quality training in any teaching technique always includes the “why” and not just the “how.”

Effective teaching aligns with how students learn.
The bottom line is that most teachers don’t want to be told how to teach nor do they value the content of evaluation instruments that don’t help them improve their teaching and their students’ learning. Ongoing dialogue between how people learn and how one’s teaching should align with the learning process is central to setting the foundation for what effective teaching is. Ultimately, effective teaching should align with how people learn and teachers who understand this also understand the importance of being held accountable for teaching in that manner.

Aligning the System

The following illustration represents the current system that aligns how we should teach to an evaluation system.

Evaluation Pyramid B
Ro Educational Leadership, Inc. 2016©

When we invert the triangle, we begin with how students learn and then align our teaching to that and ultimately hold teachers accountable for teaching in that manner.

Evaluation Pyramid A
Ro Educational Leadership, Inc. 2016©



When presented in this manner, teachers are much more willing to engage in the necessary dialogue that allows for a common understanding of the language included in the instrument. Furthermore, when the common understanding exists, there is less focus on ratings because the most important inter-rater reliability is when teachers and administrators share a common understanding of the criteria that will be used in evaluating quality teaching and affecting student learning.

Once a common language is adopted and the ongoing process of deepening the knowledge of its content begins, district and school leaders must be diligent in ensuring that other criteria do not supersede the common language adopted by the district or school. Instead of using multiple criteria for different situations, leaders must serve as “air traffic control” to avoid different sets of criteria clashing with one another. Teachers and administrators must be clear on “how we teach here” and the language we use to communicate. If additional criteria are to be used, they should be integrated into the common system and not be permitted to operate in isolation.

Since we know that the quality of instruction is the major determinant in student achievement, it is imperative that school systems identify and promote a common understanding of a common set of criteria of what constitutes quality instruction. While this is true of all schools, it is particularly true of turnaround schools. Emphasis should not solely be on the inter-rater reliability of administrator ratings but on the consistency by which teachers and administrators view the criteria used in evaluation. Furthermore, district and school leaders must be cautious of multiple sets of criteria used to support schools. As we know, turnaround schools have increased monitoring and multiple interventions operating simultaneously.  Teachers and administrators can remain more diligent in focusing on what’s important when there is one set of criteria that defines quality teaching in a school and when that criteria is based on how students learn.  While evaluation has an important role in turnaround schools, focusing on what matters most will help us stop wasting our time on things that don’t cause instruction to improve and make the process more meaningful for everyone.


Mark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 19 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in Florida, New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives. This is the seventh installment of an ongoing series that outlines many of the components of a turnaround initiative.

For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email. Thank you.


Turnaround Part Six: “Good Teachers” have “Good Asks”

“Good Teachers” have “Good Asks”

When it comes right down to it, teaching is comprised of only two things—asking students to do things and trying to get them to do them. Or, as I say, teaching is “Ask & Get.” Think about it. We “ask” students to come to school, behave responsibly, and complete assignments, and then we try to “get” them to do so. The reality is: we “get” some students to do so and others we don’t. What causes some teachers to “get” more than others? One key factor is, “good teachers have good asks!”

Let’s explore what I mean by “good teachers have good asks.”

There are three basic “asks” that exist in schools—procedural, behavioral, and academic.

Procedural “asks” consist of behaviors such as lining up, being prepared with proper materials, tossing your lunch tray in the proper receptacle, and evacuating the building during a fire drill.

Behavioral “asks” include working cooperatively with others, not running in hallways, and otherwise behaving appropriately.

Academic “asks” involve asking students to answer questions, think independently, solve problems, and do homework.   And, let’s not forget the vast array of assessments that we ask students to take.
While we “ask” students to engage in these tasks, the reality is that not all teachers “get” students to do them or do them well. Of course, there are many variables that go into “getting” students to engage in these tasks. However, when we look at the variables that educators can control, it is apparent to me that some teachers are much better at “getting” students to engage than others.

Let’s explore why.

The first variable is that some teachers have better “asks.” In observing teachers who “get “ students to engage, there appears to be three dimensions to their “asks”—affective, quantity and quality.

affective quality quantity chart

The Affective Dimension
Building Strong Relationships

Teachers who have good “asks” tend to have high affect and nearly always have strong relationships with their students. Students who perceive that their teacher “likes” them and is concerned about their learning tend to be more motivated to engage in the “asks” that occur in the classroom. These teachers are empathetic, caring and kind. They are aware of their students’ personal interests and diligently work to create a sense of belonging among all students. Students who feel this sense of emotional safety are more willing to engage in the risks that often come with learning.

I remember years ago as a principal inviting a young girl to serve on the interview committee for a group of teacher candidates. While the teachers and administrators on the committee were asking questions about assessments, data-driven decision-making and collaboration, I invited the girl to ask any question she wanted because there was a chance that this could be her teacher. The question was so profound, that whenever interviewing teacher candidates, I always asked her question: “Are you nice?”

It is important to note that effective teachers maintain their authoritative demeanor while being nice. Nice doesn’t translate into permissiveness.Affective Dimension

What I have noticed over the years is that teachers who “ask” nicely are much more likely to “get” students to respond.

In my training sessions, I refer to the next two dimensions as the “Q and the Q” or the Quantity and the Quality.

The Quantity Dimension
Engaging ALL Students

The first Q refers to the number of students who, when “asked”, actually do the work. It is clear that more effective teachers simply “ask” more students to do the work while less effective teachers “ask” fewer students. This is most obvious when a teacher “asks” an academic question of the class and then proceeds to “ask” students to raise their hands to respond.

When students engage by raising their hands, we know that very often only a few elect to do so. Others—particularly lower achieving students—choose to sit passively while the teacher calls on those who volunteer to answer. Teachers who employ more advanced strategies such as the use of think time, random response systems (e.g. electronic selection programs, popsicle sticks), reciprocal teaching, and Quantitative Dimensioncooperative learning strategies all tend to “ask” more—or all—students to respond which results in more “gets.” These are what I call the “Equal Opportunity Teachers” because they have the skills to provide equal opportunities for all students to be engaged.

Of course, engaging all students is challenging and requires advanced techniques; many of the strategies used by effective teachers simply “ask” many more students to do the work and “get” more students to do it.

The Quality Dimension
Constructing Complex Tasks

While displaying the appropriate affect and using strategies to engage all students are important, the quality of “asks” we demand of students is paramount. The quality of the “ask” refers specifically to the cognitive complexity or depth of knowledge of what we “ask” students to do. To prepare students for life in a complex world where students have to navigate complex and complicated situations (e.g., health insurance, interest rates, voting) as well as perform on various assessments throughout their school experiences, schools must “ask” students to do various levels of work, including an ample number of highly complex tasks.Qualitative Dimension

Effective teachers consistently “ask” students to do work that is of a higher level of cognitive complexity while less effective teachers “ask” an overabundance of lower complexity questions. It is imperative that teachers understand and construct good “asks” that require students to meet the academic demands of the standards they teach. School leaders must closely monitor and provide feedback on the various types of “asks” that occur in their schools.

It is important to understand the relationship between the quality of the question and the quantity of students who respond. It is not uncommon for the quantity of students responding to increase when the quality of the question is lower. Conversely, when the cognitive complexity of the question increases, the quantity of students responding decreases.

quality v quantity chart

Successful schools have spent significant professional development hours helping teachers and administrators understand the various levels of cognitive complexity and how that can be transferred to the activities that students are asked to do in the classroom. To master these skills it takes deliberate practice, quality coaching—including feedback—and time. As a result, teachers will have a deeper understanding of what quality student work looks like and administrators will be able to monitor and support teachers in “asking” students to engage in the work that will allow them to be successful in school and in life.


The most effective teachers have strong affect, are skilled at “asking” a variety of complex questions and can “get” large numbers of students to do high quality work. It is imperative that schools and school districts offer support and training to teachers and administrators in these three dimensions if they want their students to be successful.


Mark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 19 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in Florida, New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives. This is the sixth installment of an ongoing series that outlines many of the components of a turnaround initiative.

For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email. Thank you.


Turnaround Part Five: Collaboration, Continued

Building a Common Understanding of Collaboration

In my previous article on collaboration, I made the case that the success of a turnaround school is highly contingent upon the ability of the teachers to work together. I really can’t think of a turnaround school that has been successful without it. I also stated that it has been my experience that most teachers in turnaround schools want to work together.

However, many turnaround schools operate without giving teachers the tools they need to effectively do this: a common definition of what it means to collaborate and a set of protocols that can be refined by teams over time. This article will examine both of these and their implications for turnaround schools.

In The Wisdom of Teams, Katzenbach and Smith (2006) offer “six team basics” that can provide a framework for discussing team performance in a turnaround school.

  • Common purpose
  • Common goals
  • Common approach
  • Complementary skills
  • Mutual accountability
  • Small number of people

In this article, we will examine five of these basics as they apply to school teams.

Common Purpose

Over the years, I have asked thousands of team members why they meet. Frequent answers include the following responses.

  • “So we can help each other.”
  • “To share ideas and help one another solve problems.”
  • “Our principal requires it.”

While sharing, helping and problem solving are noble reasons, the answer I have found most indicative of a strong turnaround team can be condensed down to four words: Improve instruction. Increase achievement. I have found that when teams are deliberate about improving their instruction and relentBlog #5 pic 4less about increasing achievement, they do just that. Transformational leaders can assist teams in being more focused on the real purpose of collaboration by helping them understand the purpose of the team.

Common Goal: Increase Student Achievement

I have also asked thousands of teachers to tell me about their team goals. Often, I get answers centered on helping each other, sharing and the like. On occasion, I get ”To increase student achievement.” I can always tell when I come across a strong team when I hear a teacher say something like the following:

Our school goal in mathematics is to get all students to be proficient. Last year, as a school we had 62% of our students perform at that level. This year, we hope to get at least to 70%. Now, as a seventh grade team, our results tend to outperform the sixth grade team but lag behind the eighth grade team.

Our grade level goal is to get at least 72% of our students—or 251 out of 349 total seventh graders—to perform at a proficient level.

 Personally, the individual goal I have committed to for myself was to get at least 76%–or 100 out if 130— of the students in my classes to proficiency. Of course, we are trying to get all of our students to proficiency!

Notice the extreme detail that drives this team to achieve their goals? This is the specificity that separates average teams from strong teams. Leaders are responsible for helping team set and focus on student achievement—outcome—results.

Common Approach: Common Protocol

Consider the teacher above continuing her response with the following elaboration.

On the first three common unit assessments we have
 given this year, our results are 63%, 69% and 67% respectively, so we are consistently falling short of our minimum goal of 72% as a team.

However, we use a common, step-by-step approach to help us reflect on and identify the root causes of our problem and help us identify some future actions that we can put in place when we plan our next unit. We are pretty confident that, as a team, we can reach at least 72% on our next assessment.

By using a common protocol for both planning and reflecting, teams are more deliberate about the decisions they make and as a result, increase their chances of success. Unfortunately, more often than not, teams lack a common approach to planning and reflecting which frequently contributes to replicating—not improving—existing results

Complementary Skills: Instructional, Interpersonal, Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Skills

Each year, principals spend a great deal of time mixing and matching teachers looking for the right combination of skills that will hopefully lead to a group of people who can be productive and supportive of one another in the collaborative work necessary for school transformation. They wisely consider each team member’s instructional and interpersonal skills in hopes that strong teachers can influence their teammates to collaborate in a manner that will improve instruction and increase achievement.

However, the skills of problem-solving and decision-making should also be a major focus of team development. Sadly, these skills are often ignored or left undeveloped. Effective school leaders understand that problem-solving and decision-making skills are equally as important as pedagogy and interpersonal skills.

Mutual Accountability: No Blame and Shared Results

There are two components of mutual accountability that are critical to making a team strong. If the primary purpose of a team is to increase student achievement, the first is to assume responsibility for the results and not to lay blame on others. While we fully recognize many of the factors that influence achievement are not within the locus of control of the team, strong teams recognize that there are many factors that are within their control.

When teams accept the evidence that illustrates that better instruction leads to better achievement, strong teams hold themselves collectively accountable for improving the quality of instruction. “No blame!” is a powerful mantra for mutual accountability.

The second component of mutual accountability is recognizing that everyone shares the results as opposed to everyone only owning their own results. It is not uncommon for teams to jump directly to each member’s individual data thereby contributing only to individual accountability and not team accountability. To encourage mutual accountability, I always encourage teams to review their results as a whole first, and then after determining if the team goals have been met, looking at individual class or teacher data.

Create a Collaborative Environment

Far and away, most teachers want to work in a collaborative work environment. However, well-intentioned teachers without a clear, common understanding of the details of what a team is are often destined not to reach their full potential. When school leaders understand the critical details of what collaboration is they are in a better position to influence it in their schools.


Mark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 19 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives. This is the fifth installment of an ongoing series that outlines many of the components of a turnaround initiative.

For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email. Thank you.


Turnaround Part Four: Collaboration

Collaboration in a Turnaround School

Teacher collaboration is one of the most important—and untapped—components of a turnaround school.  As far as collaboration goes, school leaders have discerned well—we value people working together.  School leaders have also made decisions to encourage collaboration by organizing teachers into Professional Learning Communities or Communities of Learners or other names that designate teachers working as part of a team.  However, the effectiveness of teams in turnaround schools often varies greatly from school to school and even team to team.  As you read the description of the collaboration spectrum below, see if you can identify the team members at your school.Collaboration 1

On one end of the spectrum are teachers who do not see the value in teaming and would rather not spend their time in team meetings.  Regardless of their effectiveness, they believe that they are better served by working alone.  They often believe that teaming takes away from their personal planning and is generally a waste of their time.   Frequently, when required to be part of a team, they exhibit poor collaborative skills.

Further along the spectrum are teachers who enjoy being part of a team.   They tend to have good interpersonal skills, work well together and share well.  When asked, they believe that they are effective and in many ways, they are.  However, they often have not been exposed to a set of formal team fundamentals that allow them to perform at a more effective level.
Skilled Teams 2

Teachers that function at the next level are those that are committed to a formal definition of teaming, practice collaboration diligently and constantly receive feedback and follow up to improve both their technical and their interpersonal skills.

They follow explicit protocols for both planning and reflection—including skills in root cause analysis—and continuously improve upon them.

Teams at the highest level of performance are not only skilled at teaming but have the student achievement results to match.  When a significant number of teams at a turnaround school operate at this level, true school transformation can occur.

I believe that much of the variance that exists in teams in turnaround schools can be closely contributed to the lack of details describing exactly what collaboration means, on what information teachers should be collaborating, and how they should be doing it.

Collaboration is One of the Key Drivers of School Transformation

In my previous article on School Culture, I made the case that most people within an organization truly want to do what the organization wants them to do.  Indeed,  most teachers in turnaround schools value collaboration and want to do it well.

When school leaders and teachers purposefully pursue a common definition of collaboration and engage in an ongoing process to refine their skills, we can capitalize on one of the key drivers of school transformation.  In my next article I will explore a definition of a team and its implication for schools.

Mark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 19 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives. This is the fourth installment of an ongoing series that outlines many of the components of a turnaround initiative.

For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email.


Turnaround Part Three: A Culture of Success

School Culture: Having a Common Approach to Success

In my previous article on turnaround schools, I wrote about the importance of having teachers whose instructional skills are refined enough to have a significant impact on student achievement. I also emphasized that it was equally important that turnaround teachers align their behaviors with the values of the school culture so that everyone is clear on the common approach to success. This article is in response to the many questions I receive from school leaders about school culture in a turnaround school as well as some suggestions about how to develop and maintain a culture that results in success.

Let’s begin with this diagram. I have been using it with school leaders for years to describe their role in the simplest of ways.

Expectations, Behaviors, Feedback and Follow-up Feedback

Culture of Success
Culture of Success: Ro Educational Leadership, Inc. 2016©

The “E” represents the expectations of the organization. There are many instances of clear expectations within schools ranging from fire drills to dress codes to parking. This also includes instructional expectations, which are usually not as clearly defined as a school goes into turnaround status.

The “B” represents the behaviors of the people in the organization. In this post, we will be referring to the adults, mainly teachers, in turnaround schools.

The “FB” represents the feedback that is provided after behavior occurs.

“FU” represents follow-up feedback that is necessary to sustain the culture.


The Culture of Adult Behavior

 Let’s look at behavior. By its very nature behavior varies and this is also true of teachers and administrators within a school. While there are times when variance is acceptable, there are also times when it is not. We do not accept variance in regard to many procedural aspects of schooling such as fire drills, lock-down drills, what we consider to be “on time” or “late” behavior, what time and location a school bus drops off and picks up children, where people are supposed to park, and dress codes. In the area of student behavior, there is a great demand for consistency—or lack of variance—in how irresponsible behavior is handled.

From a curricular standpoint, many districts go to great lengths to ensure that students are presented with the same content according to a very specific sequence. Additionally, common assessments are used abundantly in schools to ensure that the content being taught is being assessed in a valid and reliable manner. Finally, many turnaround schools have instructional programs that require close adherence to the respective instructional models included in such programs.Critical Behaviors Post 3

All of these attempts are designed to provide an acceptable level of variance within a school system that still ensures a safe and equitable environment.

While many aspects of a school environment are well defined and communicated, one area that often remains elusive is a well-defined culture of how adults should behave in a turnaround school.

I contend that the most critical behaviors that must be clearly defined, continuously communicated, and frequently provided with feedback are those related to the culture of how adults work together to provide a common approach to the challenging work of school turnaround.

The “Culture of Blame and Complain”

 Too often, because of the high demands placed on people in turnaround schools to get immediate results, the focus quickly shifts to understanding standards, assuring quality student work, data analysis and the like. As a result, the deliberate work necessary to define and sustain a positive school culture is often overlooked.

Too often, when the culture is not well defined, communicated or reinforced,behaviors such as blaming and complaining creep into the culture and sap energy away from the thoughtful work of turnaround schools. Blaming students, parents, administrators, and legislators and complaining about lack of resources such as time, money and personnel often result in the probability of transformation being nil.

Blame and Complain Post 3Too often, blaming and complaining absolves individuals of the responsibility to change. Don’t get me wrong—I understand blaming and complaining. It clearly is the easiest thing to do when things are not going your way. And, as we all know, much in a turnaround school related to student behavior and student learning does not go the way we intend it to.

 It is my belief that one of the main reasons why many people in turnaround schools behave according to the blame and complain culture is that an alternate culture has not been clearly defined, constantly communicated and continuously reinforced.  

Replace the “Culture of Blame and Complain”

It simply is not enough to tell people not to engage in these behaviors; they must be replaced with other—more productive—behaviors. Instead of blame and complain we need to explicitly teach problem solving and decision-making. We need to harness the power of our “A” teachers (see Transformational Teachers) not only to model the new behaviors but also to assist others in aligning their behaviors with the norms necessary to be a healthy school environment.

In our leadership academies, we teach explicit strategies of how leaders—both administrators and teacher leaders—can handle a colleague who exhibits blaming or complaining behaviors. One such strategy is to empathize with the person by saying something like, “I understand. I often feel overwhelmed by student behavior, too.” Follow this with an opportunity to shift the conversation to a more productive one by adding, “Would you like to get together and talk it through?” When the leaders of the school begin to model and work to preserve a positive school culture, many of the people within the school begin to take notice and are more likely to align their behaviors with the norm of the school.

Envision your School Culture, then Build it

 To help turnarounds schools begin to develop the culture they need to be successful, I often ask principals to think deeply and describe in writing the type of school culture they desire. Once they have written their descriptions, I ask them to send it to a critical friend or me for feedback. Typically, after a few rounds of revisions a clear description begins to emerge. This process of thinking, writing and defending the attributes necessary for change helps administrators develop firm beliefs about what a healthy, positive school culture should look like. Attributes such as collaboration, problem solving, decision-making and respect are often concepts that are included in such descriptions.

After a well thought-out vision has been written, I encourage principals to share it with their administrative team for feedback and revisions. Once the description has been refined yet again, it should be shared with the “A” teachers for their input. Eventually, the document is shared with all members of the school and the hard work of making the vision a reality begins.

The creation of the document is the easiest part of the process as it creates a common language of a school’s culture. But to create a common understanding of that language so that people can align their behaviors requires continuous modeling, communication, and feedback from all people in the school especially the administrators and the teacher leaders. (I will discuss these topics in future articles.)

Mark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 19 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives. This is the third installment of an ongoing series that outlines many of the components of a turnaround initiative.

For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email.



Turnaround Part Two: Transformational Teachers

Transformational Teachers:
The school with the most “A” teachers wins

 The first article in this series focused on the Transformational Principal and the 4D’s of school turnaround leadership—Discernment, Details, Decisions and Diligence. In that article I made the widely understood point that the extent to which student achievement improves is contingent upon the quality of instruction in the school. Furthermore, I outlined the two major influences on the quality of instruction in a school—quality people and quality processes (or the “P & P”). In this article, I will address the most influential variable in any school—the teacher. Specifically, I will focus on the type of teachers that are necessary to assist a school in turnaround status and some ideas as to how to lead them.

Identifying Transformational Teachers

Over the years I have had the privilege of working with and observing some of the finest teachers our profession has to offer. While I respect and value the talents and effort of all teachers, I find no better professional satisfaction than to see a highly skilled teacher in a turnaround school. It provides me with the hope and confidence that someday we will meet our national commitment to teach all students regardless of socio-economic status, skin tone, or exceptionality.

However, the reality is that turnaround schools are often staffed by an overabundance of newer teachers who have yet to develop the skills that are necessary to impact the achievement of our most needy students. This is problematic, as the timeline for school turnaround often does not allow adequate time for teachers to develop. Furthermore, not even all experienced teachers are a “fit” for turnaround work. Therefore, it is extremely important to understand the type of teacher that is needed to help transform a school.

In Leadership Engine (1997), Noel Tichy describes a model designed and used by Jack Welsh, former CEO of General Electric when identifying different types of people in an organization. With modifications to his Performance-Values Matrix for the field of education, I have found it helpful when assisting administrators in selecting, developing and managing the teachers in their schools.
The model consists of four quadrants along two axes. In education, the y-axis represents various levels of student achievement; the x-axis represents the degree to which the teacher aligns his/her behavior with the desired, explicit culture of the turnaround school. (I will address transitional school culture in a future article.)

Achievement-Values Matrix


The Turnaround School with the Most “A” Teachers Wins

Needless to say, a turnaround school that attracts, retains and develops a faculty of all “A” teachers significantly increases its chances of success. These are the types of teachers needed in transformational schools. “A” teachers have a proven track record of student success and exhibit the professional behaviors that align with the expectations of the turnaround school. In successful turnaround schools, they serve as teacher leaders, and they model and coach others in the behaviors necessary for schools to achieve true transformation. With proper teacher leader training, “A” teachers serve as a conduit for assisting other teachers in not only improving their instruction but also in aligning their behaviors with the organizational norms.

“A” Teachers need Quality Feedback

The “A” teachers often display the desire and the effort to add to their skill set in their ability to teach as well as their professional behaviors, and they actively seek out the feedback necessary to become highly effective in both areas. When presented with quality feedback they are highly motivated to improve and are not prone to rely only upon their current skill set. However, “A” teachers tend to receive lots of praise—and it is well deserved—but not enough of the feedback that is necessary for rapid growth. When “A” teachers receive high quality feedback they are energized and improve their skills significantly.
To effectively lead an “A” teacher, school aministrators must become highly skilled in delivering high quality feedback, which is one of the most powerful skills of a transitional leader. (More on quality feedback will be addressed in a future article.)

Grow Your “B” Teachers

While it would be optimal to have a school of all “A” teachers, it is well known that new and inexperienced teachers overwhelmingly staff most turnaround schools.

B TeachersThe next category of teacher falls in the “B” quadrant. While “B” teachers do not yet have the skills to influence student achievement in a significant way, they have tremendous heart and drive. They want to align their behaviors with the expectation of the organization and are highly ‘coachable.” It is incumbent on school leaders to have strong, systemic processes for developing teachers that include many avenues for high quality, frequent feedback so that the rate of improvement is high. School leaders—including “A” teachers—should devote significant amounts of time to developing their “B” teachers by providing support in improving instruction and professional behaviors as well as providing the emotional support necessary to remain diligent in the learning process. With deliberate practice, quality feedback, mentorship, and time, “B” teachers can develop into “A” teachers.

No Room for “D” Teachers

While it may seem out of order, the next group of teachers falls in the “D” category. “D” teachers have little impact on student achievement and their behaviors do not align with the desired organizational culture. Unfortunately, turnaround schools, like most organizations, often have some “D” teachers. Clearly the optimal situation is to remove a “D” from a turnaround school and transformational principals have developed the skills to do so. Principals who want to be transformational leaders simply must learn this skill. To do so requires the ability to provide clear and documented feedback and the ability to confront the teacher with their behaviors as compared to the expectations of the turnaround school. When the transformational principal is successful, “D” teachers either leave of their own accord through transfer or resignation or are released.

Unfortunately, this process often takes what a turnaround school lacks—time. Time that would be better spent fine-tuning the processes necessary to improve instruction and increase achievement. If a school administrator does not have the skills or the time to remove a “D” teacher, they often try to minimize the damage by moving them to areas where they will have limited impact on the overall achievement of the school. Lastly, it is important to understand that the presence of a few “D” teachers does not mean that a school cannot be transformed.       Remove or minimize the damage of “D” teachers

“C” Teachers. Your Enemy or…

The final category of teacher is the most challenging type to lead. “C” teachers get significant student achievement results but do not share the values of the school turnaround culture. “C” teachers tend to be great in the classroom but not outside the classroom. They often have students who like them and parents who request them. They have documented results to support their effectiveness. However, from an organization standpoint, “C” teachers are the enemy of a turnaround school culture. They tend to have little or no tolerance for the organizational needs or processes. When asked, they mostly want to be left alone to teach “their” students. Unlike “A” teachers whose language is highly inclusive (e.g., “us”, “we”, “our”, “team”), “C” teachers’ language is highly individualistic (e.g., “I”, “me”, “my”, “mine”).

This is particularly concerning as the extent to which a school will successfully turnaround is contingent upon the degree to which the adults can collaborate with one another. Because “C” teachers do not work well with others—or are highly selective about whom they work with—they serve as poor role models for other teachers, particularly the “B” teachers who are often at a stage of their careers where they are highly influenced by the behaviors of others in their work environments.

Interestingly, the goal with a teacher who falls in the “C” category is to retain them in your school. Yes, retain your enemy. However, it does not mean keep them as a “C” teacher. Your goal is to influence them to align their behaviors with the needs of the organizational culture. In other words, influence them to become an “A” teacher. If they choose to align their behavior, in many cases they can become your strongest “A” teachers. If they don’t align their behavior, you must be willing to let them go. Both are viable options. The only option that is not acceptable is to allow a “C” teacher to remain a “C” teacher thereby undermining the processes necessary to transform a school. Unfortunately, many leaders are willing to sellout their organization for the results that a “C” teacher contributes to the school.

The Skill of Confrontation

To influence a “C” teacher requires a strong leader who is firmly grounded in the processes that must be in place to transform a school. Furthermore, they must possess or be willing to develop the critical skill of confrontation. When done well, this confrontation results in the “C” teacher recognizing that there is a gap between his/her behavior and the organizational expectations and being willing to accept that feedback as it was intended to be—helpful, not judgmental.

Confrontation must not be viewed as something negative but as a necessary leadership skill to transform a school. Not all school leaders are comfortable with or posses the skills of confrontation. Indeed, once a leader develops this skill, the probability of transforming a school increases significantly. It takes time, practice and feedback to learn this skill and all leaders are capable of learning it.         Retain your “C” teachers by influencing them to become “A” teachers. If they won’t, let them go. 


P&P. The right People with the right Processes

For a school to be successfully transformed, it requires the “right” people with the “right” processes—the “P & P.” The team with the most “A’s” wins.

Mark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 19 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives. This is the second installment of an ongoing series that outlines many of the components of a turnaround initiative.

For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email.

Turnaround Part One: Transformational Principals

The 4D’s of School Turnaround Leadership

Recently, much debate has centered on a specific definition for school turnaround or school transformation. In fact, part of that debate is even on which term to use. While this debate is a worthy endeavor, let’s focus more on the practical side of this argument. Let’s agree that we are talking about those schools that have been identified by their respective states to be in the lowest category of performance as defined by each state’s accountability system. The goal, of course, is for these schools to improve their statuses to a level deemed appropriate by either the state or the district. This series is a compilation of short articles intended to provide some direction to school leaders who are undertaking or engaged in school turnaround or transformation. Of course, the points that will be outlined are appropriate for all schools interested in improving instruction and increasing student achievement through strengthening leadership.

There are many challenges facing school leaders who are charged with supporting schools that are in some phase of the turnaround process. Indeed, much has been written and proposed, but true turnaround has remained elusive for many schools. Even when successful, it has been challenging to sustain the initial success achieved by these schools.

Many school systems embark on the journey of school transformation with a comprehensive, systemic plan that, if implemented well, would increase the probability of success. At the same time, many plans include numerous isolated innovations—data-driven decision-making, collaborative structures, additional positions and services, and the like—but they lack a comprehensive system that integrates the many structures that cause a school to transform. Others still have plans but they do not have the essential components that will result in transformation.

This article will focus on a critical component of successful school turnaround—the Transformational Principal and the Four D’s of Leadership needed by that principal.

An essential component of school turnaround is a transformational principal. Indeed, without one, it is safe to say that a school will not be transformed. There are three ways in which a school system ensures that a transformational principal is leading the school. Obviously the first option is to place a proven turnaround principal in the school in need of transformation. The problem for many school systems is that there are no existing principals who have successfully turned a school around. In that case, it is a matter of placing a successful principal in the transformational school and providing the proper training and support so past successes will transfer to the new setting. When these first two options are not feasible, it is imperative to assign a principal who has the proper mindset to quickly learn the skills of a transformational leader if given the proper support.

Transformational principals differ from other successful principals in that they possess and continuously develop their skills in the Four D’s of Leadership:

  • Discernment
  • Details
  • Decisions
  • Diligence

Turnaround principals must clearly discern between what is urgent versus what is important. Principals in turnaround schools spend much of their time responding to the urgency that saturates their environment. They work in chaotic environments that often appear to demand their attention. As Tony Wagner clearly writes in Change Leadership (2012), “Without determining what is truly important, everything becomes urgent, and, in practice then, nothing is important.” While this is true of all leaders, turnaround principals must not only be able to discern between what is urgent and what is important but between what is important and what is most important. This is a battle that turnaround leaders must fight—and win—on a regular basis.

Successful turnaround principals have a sense of urgency to focus on the things that are most important in school transformation. In today’s educational environment, there is so much urgency that it necessitates a leader who can not just react to his/her environment but one who can deliberately attend to the things that matter most in a transformational school. Discernment in a transformational school is based on the understanding that—first and foremost—the quality of instruction will determine the quality of student achievement. Transformational leaders who do not make the improvement of instruction their number one priority will not be successful in school transformation.

Successful turnaround principals also understand that to discern is not enough. Nearly every principal I work with understands that the quality of instruction influences student achievement. What often are missing are the details about how to influence the quality of instruction. Indeed, knowing that instruction influences achievement is very different from knowing how to influence the quality of instruction, and this is what separates a successful principal from a successful transformational principal.

Basically there are two major ways in which a leader can influence the quality of the instruction in a school. I often refer to them as the “P & P.”

The first “P” refers to the quality of the instructional personnel; the second “P” refers to the key processes that influence the quality of instruction in a building. The ultimate success of a transformational school will be contingent upon implementing the “right processes” with the “right people.” Too often schools attempt to transform schools with hard working, well-intentioned people without strong processes or, very frequently, a plethora of inexperienced teachers without strong processes. (I will write in more detail about the P & P in subsequent posts.)

Leadership Influences on Instruction and Achievement--Ro Educational Leadership, Inc. 2016©
Leadership Influences on Instruction and Achievement (Ro Educational Leadership, Inc. 2016©)

In my experience, when school leaders understand the details associated with influencing the quality of instruction it often leads to better decision-making on their part. A chef with a deeper understanding of the chemistry of taste or an artist with knowledge of hues, tints, tone and shades simply makes better decisions than one who doesn’t. The same holds true for transformational leaders. When leaders understand the intricacies of the key factors that influence the quality of instruction, they make better decisions and ensure that their decisions align with what is most important.

The last skill of a transformational leader is diligence—the ability to stick with the plan in light of the obstacles that most certainly will arise when involved in a significant change process. Instead of constantly scaling back and eroding the key elements of turnaround work, a transformational leader must have the internal fortitude and skills to hold the line and provide both the technical and emotional support to help people collectively rise to the levels necessary to transform a school. Sticking to—or sustaining—a transformational initiative is difficult but essential to success.

The combination of discernment, details, decisions and diligence are four keys to the success of the Transformational Principal.

Mark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 19 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives. This is the first installment of an ongoing series that outlines many of the components of a turnaround initiative.

For additional information, please visit Mark’s webpage.
Click here if you would like to sign up to receive future articles via email.