In 2010, when the federal government required states to make drastic changes to turn around their lowest-performing schools, the need for effective and resourceful school leaders became urgent. Realizing they had a dearth of education leaders capable of guiding such challenging school improvement efforts, five southwestern states turned to the West Comprehensive Center (WCC)1 at WestEd for help.

“We didn’t have a pipeline of effective leaders who could take our struggling schools to new heights,” said Hanna Skandera, New Mexico’s former Secretary of Education.

A regional comprehensive center funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the WCC at WestEd has a strong history of helping the state education agencies in its region with their education policy and reform efforts. As WCC staff researched a range of leadership development resources and programs that might benefit the southwestern states it serves — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah2 — one program stood out: the Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education at the University of Virginia (UVA).

Combining the talents and resources of UVA’s respected Curry School of Education and its Darden School of Business, this unique program enlists state, district, and school leaders in the kind of executive education that has successfully prepared business leaders to manage large corporations.

“The theory was that if we can help corporate leaders to be more effective, we should be able to do the same for school leaders,” says Paul Koehler, co-director of the WCC.

The state leaders expressed great enthusiasm at the possibility of participating in the innovative UVA program, so WCC staff teamed them with the UVA coordinating group to develop a tailored Southwest Regional Turnaround Leadership Consortium. The consortium members designed their UVA program to meet specific education needs of the region and, in 2011, the consortium’s first cohort of more than 50 leaders at the school, district, and state levels began the intensive two-year program.

Now in its seventh year, the leadership initiative has emboldened district and school leaders to spark profound systemic changes that have advanced student achievement and transformed school communities. For example, in the first cohort alone, 20 of the 22 schools made gains in language arts that exceed state averages, and 17 schools made similar progress in math. Now, multiple districts and schools that achieved double-digit gains on student proficiency assessments are working with UVA on strategies of distributed leadership and innovation to further extend their improvements. Additionally, three of the five states approved new legislation and funding to further support school leaders.

A unique model for training education leaders

The UVA Partnership for Leaders in Education program places educators in boot-camp-like, intensive sessions where educators’ minds, rather than Marines’ bodies, get conditioned. Participants analyze case studies of real organizations — businesses, non-profits, and schools and education agencies — engage in turnaround efforts, and work with school and district teams to design 90-day action plans targeting their most critical problems.

The UVA program differs from other leadership development models in its focus on systemic change: building understanding of turnaround work at state, district, and school levels and requiring leaders at all of those levels to participate in trainings together. The selective program — not everyone interested in participating makes the cut — involves ongoing training and support from UVA, and districts must commit to establishing the infrastructure and accountability measures necessary to sustain turnaround initiatives.

“UVA decided a long time ago that if you don’t believe your school can get better and you don’t think you’re the one to lead them through, then the [leadership] program, as good as it is, won’t help,” says Koehler. “Our goal as a comprehensive center is to help build sustainable capacity, not bring in quick fixes and walk away.”

“Leadership matters”

Within the Southwestern states, school and district leaders have chosen a variety of ways to transform troubled schools, based on their experiences in the UVA program. In Utah, former state superintendent Brad Smith asked all schools in the Ogden district to adopt practices that the lowest-performing schools had already started implementing through the Partnership for Leaders in Education program. For example, building on the action plans developed by Ogden principals participating in the UVA program, the 12,500-student district developed common formative assessments; implemented protocols to use data more strategically to inform instruction; and refined the educator evaluation process to tie it more directly to classroom observation and feedback.

To increase its educator talent pool, the district began recruiting teachers from a Michigan school of education — one which requires graduates to participate in a year-long apprenticeship, including time working in high-poverty urban and rural schools.

Ogden’s changes led to huge gains in school performance measures.

After having six of the 10 lowest-performing schools in the state in 2011, notes Smith, by the end of the 2014 school year, Ogden didn’t have a single school in the bottom 10 percent. “And for the first time in memory, the district had two or three schools in the top 10 percent. There was just a noticeable shift in performance, even in our top-performing schools, which got better as well. The rising tide lifted all boats.”

Smith says he often counsels legislators and education leaders in other states that spending money on programs or curricula will not, by itself, transform schools. An essential lesson from his UVA experience: “Leadership matters. Leaders must be willing to set targets and strategic goals, hold each other accountable, and hold the goals in their minds longer than a nine-month school year.”

Reaching more leaders, impacting more students

Because the UVA program has proven so effective, notes Marie Mancuso, the other co-director of the WCC, state leaders have for years wanted to expand the program. Simply put: “They wanted more slots,” she says.

Some states have taken matters into their own hands, working with WestEd to develop and scale up their own leadership development initiatives based on learnings from UVA. In New Mexico, for instance, former education secretary Hanna Skandera said she wanted to build on the progress that the early participants in the Partnership for Leaders in Education program were making, so the state developed and implemented the Principals Pursuing Excellence program, modeled on the UVA leadership program.

Principals of 84 low-performing schools in New Mexico (representing 10 percent of all state schools) have now completed this program, and many more are set to start. “Nineteen thousand kids have been impacted by these leaders,” she says. “That’s the equivalent of the third largest school district in our state.”

Skandera said the combination of “changing mind-sets” and priorities sparked big changes in New Mexico in the last few years. Statewide, achievement has risen in 21 different measures of student and school performance, such as graduation rates and scores on national assessments — and the largest gains have come from schools previously ranked at the bottom.

“We saw the positive effect that leaders can have on school improvement,” Skandera says. “We raised expectations and equipped our leaders with the tools to be successful. And when you develop strong leaders, there’s a multiplying effect that has a measurable impact.”

One of the lessons learned, notes Skandera, is that districts must provide ongoing support to principals so they have the time and resources to guide schoolwide change. Rather than act as compliance enforcers, as they might have done in the past, district administrators must become coaches who model the culture of continual learning and feedback they expect at the school level.

New Mexico’s Principals Pursuing Excellence program has been so successful that leaders now provide coaching to other states that commit to adopting a similar model of professional development. In 2015–16, New Mexico also launched Teachers Pursuing Excellence to ensure that classroom educators could benefit from related leadership training.

Debbie Montoya, former director of New Mexico’s Priority Schools Bureau and current deputy cabinet secretary, worked as a principal in the largely rural state before the Principals Pursuing Excellence program was implemented. She said she rarely had access to colleagues who had experience with school turnaround. “The principalship can be a lonely place,” she says. “I would have loved to have the mentorship that we now have in the state — learning from someone who has done this work and has new ideas and advice on how to work with teachers.”

That isolation can be particularly challenging for educators working in schools on Native American lands in the Southwest region, notes Mancuso. Most reservation schools have high staff turnover rates, and applicant pools are shallow, so the WCC began working intensively with at least one Native American school district each year to address the unique conditions in their settings. As part of its outreach to reservation schools, the WCC offers the services of former superintendents who graduated from the UVA leadership program and can provide effective strategies and encouragement.

Positive feedback from the field and gains in school performance measures have inspired policymakers throughout the Southwest region to provide systemic support for leadership in low-performing schools, which should help sustain and spread the improvements made by districts participating in the UVA School Turnaround Specialist Program.

“These states are reaping the benefits of this dynamic model of leadership training,” Koehler said. “As they train more of their leaders, they continue to see improvements in their schools. That reinforces the importance and effectiveness of all this work.”

1Previously called the Southwest Comprehensive Center.
2Due to restructuring of the regions served by each Comprehensive Center, the WCC now serves state education agencies in Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.