You don't know if school transformation has taken root until the third principal.
That's one of the intriguing statements Eric Guckian, executive director of Charlotte's New Leaders office, tossed out when he filled me in on the group's latest thinking. He was quoting Jennifer Henry from the national office, and the comment represents a shift in strategy for a group that was founded to recruit principals for urban schools.
We all know the "heroic principal" scenario, which is a staple of the reform movement: A charismatic leader charges in to turn around a failing school. Sometimes that person founders quickly and quietly departs. But sometimes, when all goes well, that leader energizes the staff, inspires the students and creates a "beat the odds" school.
Then, inevitably, the successful leader is promoted or moves on to a new job outside the system. And almost as inevitably, the school slips back toward mediocrity or worse.
"We believe that the unit of change is the school," Guckian said.
Principals remain important to New Leaders' work with Project LIFT and other high-poverty Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. But there's a growing acknowledgement that they can't do the work alone, and that life-changing results don't come quickly.
CMS features prominently in a recent Wallace Foundation report on cultivating the kind of principals that urban schools need. Much of the report reinforces the notion that there's more to the task than hiring an outstanding individual. It outlines efforts in CMS and elsewhere to evaluate, coach and support principals.
"In successful schools, leadership and authority don’t reside in any single person or position," the report concludes. "The most enduring improvements occur through the consistent, shared exercise
of leadership by many in the school community and the district central office."
It's just not true to say all, or even most, strategic staffing schools have been successfully transformed by the principals then-Superintendent Peter Gorman brought in for three-year turnaround efforts. As I reported in August, actual results are mixed and often discouraging. Early gains have proven tough to sustain, especially after principals move on.
Three years seemed like a long time to wait when Gorman rolled out strategic staffing. Now that he has left CMS and most of the original principals have moved on, it's starting to look like the "three principals" standard might be the real test.