Peter Gorman, the school superintendent in Charlotte, N.C.. is in charge of a school system that may have a shot at winning the $2 million Broad Prize later this month. In a Newsweek article, that magazine explores what went right in his district. The most interesting facets of his school turnaround plan — and I acknowledge there are those who think school turnaround just doesn’t work — are that he pushes hard for accountability and transparency. He gave every winner of the privilege of turning around a school the right to choose his or her own team, and his delicate positioning of the tasks involved led to leadership in many areas.
One of the most confusing perspectives I read in education reform literature is the poo-pooing of “incentives” as part of the structure for school leadership initiatives. I don’t understand this. People drag out statistics all the time that they claim prove that incentives don’t work. But this seems antithetical to human endeavor. Most people I know work well when they are incentivized to perform that way. I feel like there are other factors involved in the underperformance of schools, students and teachers, even in cases of incentives.
Gorman seems to have come up with an antidote, and from what I can read, it appears the salve in this tension is choice. One huge incentive that teachers and principals require is the ability to choose how to do what they want to do. Hampering educators all over America is the inability of district leadership to change the rules and to be looser with the rules. We don’t need to go into why that is, at least not today. For now, read how Gorman recruited some of the best school leadership for turning around trouble and impoverished school populations.
Before announcing the winners to the TV cameras, however, the persuasive Gorman met privately with the principals and made them an offer he hoped they wouldn’t refuse: what he billed as the “opportunity” to turn around one of the district’s failing schools. As part of the three-year deal, they’d receive a 10 percent raise and more freedom from district rules. They would also get the chance to pick an eight-person transformation team—each of whom would get a raise, too. The winning principals could also “transfer out” up to five teachers from their new school, including obstructionists, underperformers, and leaders of what principals call “the toxic lunchroom.” In exchange, Gorman said, “we expected them to transform the culture of the school to one in which high academic achievement is expected and achieved.”
Amazingly, every winner accepted the challenge. “It turns out people appreciate being recognized as being excellent at what they do,” Gorman says. “The program sold itself.” The results were startling, too. By late spring 2009, a year after the initiative started, student proficiency on the state test had risen in all seven of the original SSI schools, with some school scores rising by more than 20 points, a remarkable achievement. Equally surprising, scores also rose in the second group of SSI schools, which were launched only four months before the tests were administered.
Among the most effective was principal Suzanne Gimenez. After two years at high-poverty Devonshire Elementary, she has boosted the reading score of her Hispanic students by 30 points and her school’s math score by 33 points. Her secrets? Posting a chart to track the performance of every student, plus instilling more accountability and discipline. Years of experience had taught her that “children of poverty perform better with a lot of structure,” she says. “Many of them don’t know where they’re going to get dinner or sleep. School needs to be the same for them every day.”