An Offer They Wouldn't Refuse

Article excerpt

Byline: Pat Wingert

How one district lured top principals to rescue its failing schools.

A new principal with no experience seems an odd choice to turn around a long-failing school. But that's exactly whom most superintendents around the country end up hiring--largely because no one else applies for what seems like a thankless job. It's no surprise that most don't succeed. The obvious solution, concluded Peter Gorman, the school superintendent in Charlotte, N.C., was to persuade skilled educators to take on these rescue missions. But how could he get the district's most effective principals, already ensconced in successful schools, to agree to transfers to the worst-performing ones? And what about the inevitable howl of protest from the communities they'd have to leave behind?

The answer is an ingenious school-turnaround strategy that is garnering praise from education-reform advocates like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Aspen Institute. It's also giving the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district a serious shot at winning the coveted $2 million Broad Prize for Urban Education later this month.

Since the passage of George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001, school districts have been under intense pressure to identify and overhaul failing schools. This year the Obama administration raised the stakes by giving states a record $3.5 billion--about seven times the previous amount--to transform the nation's 5,000 worst schools. In addition, winners of the administration's Race to the Top school-reform competition--including North Carolina--need to overhaul their bottom 5 percent to secure their full share of the $4.3 billion in prize money. (North Carolina should get $400 million.)

For years, districts have tried to fix their worst schools by pouring more money into them, hiring self-styled turnaround specialists, or "reconstituting" schools by firing the entire staff and starting over. But the results have been more miss than hit. When Gorman arrived in 2006 to take over Charlotte-Mecklenburg's 176 schools, a state superior-court judge had recently complained that the system was so troubled that four high schools were guilty of "academic genocide."

Gorman decided he needed a new approach. He considered simply transferring his best principals to his most challenging schools, but Yale economics professor Justine Hastings talked him out of it. "She told me that if I forced people to switch jobs, I would see the performance of some dip, while others would find another job." So Gorman decided to try a "pull" strategy--a way to entice principals to view these transfers as a desired challenge. Starting in 2008, with great fanfare, Gorman announced a new annual districtwide competition to identify the most effective principals. Winners of the "Strategic Staffing Initiative" would be chosen based on hard data like the growth in their students' achievement scores rather than how long they'd served or how well their school was regarded. …