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Gary Henry

How do the characteristics of principals affect the success of the turnaround schools that they lead?

In a recent study, University of Delaware dean and professor Gary T. Henry and his co-authors examine the characteristics of turnaround principals in Tennessee, contrasting an effective, local school turnaround model with a less effective state-run turnaround model. After collecting longitudinal demographic data, such as the principals’ experience, educational background, race, salary and retention, the research team found that the more effective, local model hired principals with higher credentials, more experience and a racial identity that matched the racial identity of the majority of the students enrolled at their schools. In addition, these principals earned higher salaries than those employed at schools using the less effective state-run turnaround model. These findings suggest that the strategic hiring of school leaders, prioritizing education, experience, racial congruence and salary incentives, played a significant role in the success of the local school turnaround model.

In “Who Leads Turnaround Schools? Characteristics of Principals in Tennessee’s Achievement School District and Innovation Zones,” Henry and his co-authors LaTanya L. Dixon, Lam D. Pham, Sean P. Corcoran and Ron Zimmer fulfill a critical gap in the research on turnaround schools—a prevalent whole-school reform approach that centers on a restructuring of school governance, a renewed focus on talent management and improvements to school climate—by studying the characteristics of principals who lead these interventions. The research team analyzed demographic, salary and retention data from 2006-2007 through 2017-2018 from schools using two different turnaround models: the Achievement School District (ASD) and the Innovation Zones (iZones). In the ASD model, low-achieving schools are removed from local governance and placed under the control of the Tennessee Department of Education or a charter management organization. In the iZones model, schools remain under local governance, operating as a district-within-a district, with greater autonomy and additional resources.

In general, the iZones schools exhibited greater school improvement during this time period, and the research team found significant differences in principal characteristics between the two models. For example, the mean principal experience in ASD schools declined from about 3-4 years to 2.1 years after the schools entered ASD, while it increased in iZones schools from 3-4 years to 4.3 years. Similarly, in the second year of the reform, ASD principals had only accrued 2.5 years of experience since completing their master’s degrees, compared to 8.1 years of accrued experience for iZones principals. Among other results, the team also found that a higher percentage of Black principals were replaced with non-Black principals in ASD schools, as compared to those in iZones schools. Before the reform, 96% of principals in ASD schools were Black, but this number dropped to 73% in the year after the reform. By contrast, the percentage of Black principals in the iZones schools increased from 65% to 70% in the first year of the reform. This finding in particular aligns with research that shows that students exhibit better academic and social outcomes when they share a racial or cultural identity with their teachers and school leaders.

“It won’t surprise many that intentional efforts to improve the lowest performing schools start with an effective leader,” said Henry. “This study starts to fill in some of the characteristics and credentials of leaders in an effective school improvement approach, but it goes beyond those characteristics to suggest how those leaders are retained and how talent is managed. Leaders in the iZone model had more experience, more often shared the racial background with the students and their families and had graduate degrees. Our study shows the principals were paid more to begin with and their pay increased more over time, perhaps suggesting that salary was used as an incentive to take the principal position and stay in the role. Also, our findings suggest that the iZones were managed in a way that resulted in the principals in lower performing schools leaving and those leading higher performing schools staying. The results strongly suggest that talent must be actively managed throughout the improvement efforts—hiring the right leaders is the start, but it is just the start.”

Read the research article