Systems Leadership to Turn Around the Lowest-Performing Schools


A substantial body of research literature in the Western context is clear: School principals are critical to overall school quality. The evidence suggests that the quality of the school principal is the second most important in-school factor—after teacher instruction—impacting student achievement.

To lead school turnaround, or the rapid improvement of low-performing schools, principals must understand and be able to operationalise essential fundamentals of high-quality school leadership. Research literature consistently identifies the importance of strong vision and mission to set direction. Other important elements of good schools—embedding positive school culture, structures, and expectations; maintaining high academic press or expectations for all students; and building teacher and leader capacity—are then mapped back to organizational goals. Establishing these practices as commonplace or the way the school conducts business enables shared instructional leadership practices in which principals and teachers collaborate on issues of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, and transformational leadership. Principals inspire and motivate teachers to improve collective efficacy levels beyond what they were prior to the improvement effort.

Traditionally low-performing schools often require the principal or some leader in the system to provide a jolt that signifies real change before many of the essential fundamentals of high-quality school leadership can be implemented well. School turnaround can be initiated through identifying, analysing, and strategically responding to cause of decline and failure. Responding to a school’s most pressing needs can start with “quick wins” that are impactful and visible to stakeholders, including teachers, students, and parents. Turnaround principals are typically found to be adept at navigating policies that could be restraining if unchallenged. They are also often skilled in identifying and maximizing latent strengths and capabilities of teachers and other school leaders.

However, there are few examples of sustained turnaround success. Instead, school turnaround improvements mostly stall or regress. Any turnaround that lasts requires systems support that is often missing for low-performing schools. Organisational culture plays a role in facilitating or hindering turnarounds. Learnings from efforts to rapidly improve low-performing schools in Malaysia can shine some light onto this. Recent research suggests that school leadership in Malaysian schools appears to be more culturally normalized as inclusive. This could make initiating a jolt more difficult than in Western school settings because Malaysian principals might be less willing to take steps that can often alienate teachers and faculty, as well as themselves. However, on the other hand, it could be that if an alternative avenue to successfully launch school turnaround can be established, the success might be more meaningful and longer lasting due to the collective commitment to improvement.

Learning more about how principals are going about their work to lead rapid school improvement within the systems context is critical to ensuring the leadership moves necessary to change trajectories.


Dr Coby V. Meyers is the Chief of Research of the Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE) and Associate Professor in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on understanding the role of school system leadership, especially in the context of school turnaround.

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