The Intersection

“Racing to the Top” to Prepare Turnaround Principals … What’s Next?

January 30, 2014

Four years ago, North Carolina was awarded one of only 12 federal Race to the Top (RttT) competitive grants, bringing nearly $400 million to the state’s public school system. Approximately $17.5 million of these funds were specifically earmarked to “increase the number of principals qualified to lead transformational change in low-performing schools in both rural and urban areas.” As such, the policy objective undertaken by North Carolina’s Regional Leadership Academies (RLAs) was to recruit and prepare more than180 “turnaround principals” serving more than 30 counties in three vastly different and very distinct regions of the state -the  Northeast (NELA), the Piedmont Triad (PTLA) and the Sandhills (SLA). Findings to date indicate that:

  • Fidelity of program design implementation has been high. All three RLAs utilize essential features of effective leadership training as organizing principles in constructing and delivering their individual principal preparation programs. The content, pedagogy, and experiences reflect best practices for developing leaders who can facilitate high-quality teaching and learning for all children.
  • Cohort 1 and Cohort 2 graduates have found employment in low-performing schools and LEAs (20 as principals, 80 as assistant principals, 10 as central office leaders, and 10 as teacher leaders/facilitators). On average, their employing schools host high numbers of lower-income students (close to 70 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch) and exhibit low achievement rates (e.g., the English I/Reading pass rate is around 62 percent; the Algebra I/Math pass rate is around 72 percent. Cohort 3 participants are currently completing their year-long, paid principal internship and will seek employment following graduation in May 2014.
  • Superintendents associated with the RLAs see leading a high-need school as a specialty within the principalship; the work is harder, more complex, more all-consuming, and it requires a different kind of leader and find the superintendent RLAs to be “a model school administrator training program unlike any other, and the program is growing the brightest and most highly skilled administrators in our county.

And, although data on the long-term and distal outcomes of the RLAs are not yet available [e.g., allowing for time lag effect, impact will eventually be measured via comparisons of student achievement results and multiple year growth trajectories for schools with RLA-prepared leaders versus schools with non RLA hires], the U.S. Department of Education found enough merit in North Carolina’s innovative idea to award North Carolina State University a $4.7 million SLP grant over the next five years to continue a slightly modified version of NELA.

What about funding extensions for PTLA and SLA? What about the creation of RLAs in other regions of the state (e.g., in the western section, in the southeastern area)? What about adhering to the original purpose of the RttT grants (i.e., “leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reforms … that can transform our schools for decades to come.”)? Will the state of North Carolina continue to fund the RLAs in any form or fashion?

According to Knapp and his colleagues, conventional leadership preparation programs have not attracted enough high-quality candidates to work in high-poverty, low-performing schools, which are traditionally the schools that are the hardest to staff (Knapp, Copeland & Talbert, 2003). Likewise, Darling-Hammond and her colleagues asserted that recruiting committed candidates and comprehensively preparing them for the unique realities of leading in challenging contexts are keys to stabilizing principal turnover in addition to fostering high-quality teaching and learning (Darling-Hammond, Meyerson, Lapointe & Orr, 2010).

In rigorously recruiting, selecting and training 180 principals – all passionately committed to turning around low-performing schools – the RLAs have helped the state increase and steady a much-needed and previously uncertain leadership pipeline. Now that the time for North Carolina’s RttT funding draws to a close in 2014, where do we go from here?

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