When the Minneapolis Public Schools first set out to hire turnaround school principals, administrators followed their usual process — which focused largely on reputation and anecdotal support and considered mainly internal candidates.
Yet success at the complicated task of turning around the fortunes of a failing school depends on exceptionally strong leadership, someone with a clear vision and ability to make that vision a reality. When one of the school district’s associate superintendents, Mark Bonine, took over the hiring process, he knew what he didn’t know: how to identify excellent leaders.
What could have helped Bonine, an educator for 26 years, including seven years as a principal himself at two schools in Minneapolis?
Understanding competencies — the habits of behavior and underlying motivations that help predict how newly hired employees will do their jobs — could have led him to the inspired, tenacious principals his schools deserved. And in the past year, by implementing a turnaround of their own (in the school district’s hiring process), Minneapolis administrators think they are well on their way to consistently hiring great turnaround principals.
In tough jobs, differences in job perform-ance prove strikingly large, and turnaround principalships definitely qualify as tough jobs. Research has shown that the top 1 percent of job holders in complex jobs produce results that are 127 percent better than the average. Hire two seemingly similar people, based on their experience and college degrees, and one may succeed easily, while the other struggles. Had their interviewer taken a deeper look at their competencies, the struggler likely never would have been hired.
Only 30 percent of turnarounds — in education and other fields — succeed, according to Michael Beer and Nitin Nohria, authors of Breaking the Code of Change, meaning schools face a daunting challenge. In 2010-11, more than 6,500 schools across the country were in restructuring mode. Getting the right leaders in place, fast, and giving them support to succeed can keep turnarounds from becoming just another failed reform effort.
Beyond Job Skills
What does a turnaround leader need that a leader of an already-successful school might not? A driving motivation to achieve, persistence in the face of obstacles and inspiring self-confidence, for starters-, can lead to actions — such as calculated risk taking, ambitious goal setting and detailed planning — that are crucial to school turnaround success. Administrators need principals who display these patterns of thinking, feeling, acting and speaking — the competencies that cause a leader to succeed.
How to detect those patterns before hiring? The Minneapolis Public Schools, as well as a few states and the School Turnaround Specialist Program at the University of Virginia, use the school turnaround leadership competency model from Public Impact to guide their selection processes. This model includes short, broad definitions of the competencies likely to distinguish top performers; rating scales of increasingly effective levels of behavior within each competency; and competency-level targets for school turnaround principals.
In addition, the Public Impact model describes a specific interview technique, developed by researchers at the Hay Group, a global management consulting firm. The technique doesn’t just ask potential employees hypothetical questions. Instead, the “behavior event interview” asks them to walk through past incidents step by step, as though reliving the experience, explaining what they were thinking, saying and doing at the time.
According to extensive research by occupational psychologists, past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, so this gives the interviewer insight into whether the candidate will use critical competencies on the job rather than what they say they will do.
Using Public Impact’s materials and guidance, Minneapolis administrators developed a rigorous hiring process — so much so that many candidates expressed concerns about the rigor, although one principal in the district told Bonine, “For the first time, many of us feel very valued.”
The rigor paid off. The school district hired a new principal for a school that desperately needed a strong leader, but only after re-advertising the job when a first round of interviews failed to produce a strong enough candidate. In the district’s old hiring process, one of those candidates would likely have made it through, says Bonine, who a year ago assumed the newly created post of associate superintendent for turnaround schools, office of new schools and contract alternative schools.
The school, North High, had dropped from 1,200 students in its heyday to 240, with parents concerned about violence and persistent low performance. The school, which had been slated to close, is instead phasing out its programs for current students and enrolling its first class as a revamped school this fall. Two months into her job, the new principal, Shawn Harris-Berry, already was halfway to reaching one goal — going from zero students committed to attending the next year’s 9th-grade class to 125. Meanwhile, with a community so upset about the school, Harris-Berry was reaching out daily. Faced with an active alumni association closely watching her, she was performing just as her competency interview predicted, Bonine says.
“Every decision she makes, she gets questioned on, and what’s really phenomenal to see is she doesn’t cave in. She keeps instruction as her No. 1 goal. She doesn’t back down from it, and yet she doesn’t create adversarial relationships, and she’s able to explain the rationales and get people on board,” he says.
After making a promising hire, administrators need to follow through. Even a top-notch principal can falter, and even the best principal has weaknesses to address. Many of those weaknesses, with a proper hiring process, will not come as a surprise, notes Maggie Sullivan, Minneapolis’ director of strategic planning. “The whole selection process gives us a much better picture of a candidate. It gives us more data to help develop the principal, so we can use the interview process as a way to help develop the support structures.”
When administrators conduct evaluations, the school’s student results should be paramount. But these numbers don’t show principals how to improve. Evaluations also need to shed light on what principals are doing – and not doing – to get results. That means vetting their practical skills, such as giving teachers actionable feedback, addressing schoolwide behavior issues and providing effective parent communication.
But it also means assessing their competencies: Are they exhibiting the drive for results and the nuanced impact and influence behaviors that distinguish turnaround leaders?
If the principal shows large competency gaps and slow progress, even early on, he or she may need to be replaced rather than provided with professional development. Students in turnaround schools need fast results to prevent continued failure.
But even principals who show great progress in their schools can benefit from development in their weaker areas, along with help developing turnaround competencies among their staff members. In a turnaround, it’s all about speed. Principals need to spot and eliminate failing tactics, fast. Understanding their own challenges can help them make those changes quickly. Using ratings — based, for example, on a combination of supervisor, staff, parent and student input — district leaders and the principal can identify the principal’s strengths, then agree on the next steps to take to help close gaps.
Good hire: check. Good evaluations: check. Professional development: check. So now can the central administration happily send the principal on his way, turnaround assured? Actually, now it’s time to create the environment turnarounds need to thrive.
Even the best principals sometimes find themselves thwarted in tough turnarounds by staff members, parents or officials who fear changes in their routines and relationships. Policymakers overseeing the turnaround, from state education departments to local school boards and district leaders, must commit to success, staying the course even through some early failures.
“In Mississippi, we have a program that is placing turnaround principals in four schools across the state — the Barksdale Reading Institute. We have taken a more hands-off approach with principals in this program to give them the room to make changes,” Mississippi State Superintendent Tom Burnham says. “The hard work was finding the right leaders. Now we need to let them do the work they were put there to do.”
And they must make obvious signs of that commitment, especially by giving principals “the big yes” to make crucial decisions, particularly on staffing and budgeting. Successful turnaround leaders often maneuver around the rules, acting first and asking forgiveness later. Districts can avoid this by granting authority up front.
“My district has given me control of hiring and nonrenewal decisions at my school. That has been crucial to being able to build a staff that can improve student achievement,” says Mandy Smillie, principal of Williams-Sullivan K-8 in Durant, Miss. “But sometimes I have to find creative ways of working within the system to get the right people for my school before they get hired by someone else. For this fall, I’ve interviewed teachers via Skype already, and I plan to attend hiring fairs personally next year. The district staff usually goes for our schools, but I need to be there to find people who will be the right fit for my school.”
Then district administrators should display their commitment far beyond the classroom walls. For the dramatic change of a turnaround to succeed, principals need community support. Administrators must openly acknowledge past failures and provide a forceful vision for the school’s future, then back it up by trumpeting the principal’s early victories to show that the turnaround can work.
Proof of Impact
In Minneapolis, Bonine says he and the school district have done just that. The district helped Harris-Berry craft her message as principal of North High School for an initial meeting with the community in which she shared her vision. Central-office staff also got families and key stakeholders to that meeting and provided ongoing help through its communication department to spread the message; negotiated with the union on hiring; recruited students to enroll at the school; and provided the money Harris-Berry needed after she realized her initial budget was $200,000 short.
Bonine continues to talk with her daily, and they meet weekly to quickly confront any concerns.
Bonine recently saw a small but gratifying bit of proof of the value of his district’s new hiring method. While still working under the old process, he discovered an initial round of interviews for a principalship had produced two candidates he was certain could be great leaders. He tried to persuade them to reapply when the position came open again.
“They just said the process wasn’t as rigorous as others they’d been through in charter schools or other districts. They felt that, if we didn’t have the process in place, the outcome might be the same, so why would they take the chance and go through it again? They said, ‘If you want to appoint me, I’ll come and be the principal, but I’m not going through the process again.’ ”
Then the school district implemented competency-based hiring, and across his desk, Bonine says, came an application from one of those candidates.