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.
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8 thoughts on “Turnaround Part One: Transformational Principals”

  1. Mark,

    I want to echo the comment about you writing in this format. What you did to help change the instructional/administrative culture in the schools of St. Lucie County, Fl., with 42 locations and 41,000 children has been remarkable. Your four “D’s” are something that all can hold in mind as we educators seek continuous and focused improvement. I’m glad to have known and worked with you for so many years. You truly have made and are making a difference!
    Michael J. Lannon, Superintendent, St. Lucie County, Fl (ret’d).

    1. Michael,

      Thank you for the opportunity to work with you and your leaders in St. Lucie for so many years. You truly were an exceptional superintendent and one who I respected and admired. Working with leaders such as yourself make the work so much more productive and enjoyable. You always made me feel like part of your team and not a consultant. Thanks for reading and commenting on my article. I look forward to the day our path cross again.

  2. Thank you Mark for all you have done to develop me as a leader. St. Lucie leaders were fortunate to learn from you. Hoping to keep abreast with whats going on in your world and in education. Today is my first day of retirement after 39 years in SLC.

    1. You are welcome, Deb. It is I who was fortunate to work with you. You always added a very special element to every session. It’s hard to believe that we worked together for nine years in St. Lucie. I wish you all the best in your retirement. You will be missed!

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