Monday, January 30, 2012

Fenwick English:Turnaround Principals for Low-performing Schools

Monday morning started bright and early in Austin, TX as school administrators, faculty and staff flocked to the convention center for the TASA Midwinter conference.  

At 9:30 a.m., Fenwick English, education professor at the University of North Carolina took the stage to share his lecture, "Turnaround Principals for Low-Performing Schools." 

English teaches graduate level courses in Educational Leadership and has become known as the Father of Curriculum Management in education circles.

Sponsored by Renaissance Learning, this lecture featured insight based on current research and global practice, including rules of thumb for successful school turnaround. Based on his book, Restoring Human Agency in Educational Administration, co-authored by Rosemary Papa, English shared thoughts on the "Yin and Yang" most schools deal with when making decisions to foster change.

Implementing School Change

  • Leadership vs Management - Schools need both good leaders and good management. Basic knowledge of managment is necessary for leadership to be effective.
  • Site vs Central Office - Teaching and learning occur on school site, but curriculum is developed at central level. Collaboration by both is key.
  • Science vs Art - Behaviorism still dominates leadership studies and leadership is an art form. English has examined research on artists transcending their limitations so he may apply this concept to leaders in schools. "Leadership is artful performance and it DOES involve science," said English. "They aren't mutually exclusive." 
  • Bureaucracy vs Creativity - Creativity uses constraints to exceed them. The same can be said for leaders, and management should enforce creativity.
  • Schools and Society - They are embedded and inseparable.
  • Fake Reform Talk - The unwarranted blaming of schools for economic charades adds to the discourse. 

English believes in the social justice view, not the corporate culture backed by most governmental education reformers. According to President Obama's "Race To The Top" initiative, there are four popular models for reforming schools, all relative to running schools as a business and include firing principals as the answer:

1. Transform and replace. 
2. Turnaround and replace.
3. Restart the school - close the school and open under new management.
4. School closure, finding a new principle when the new school opens. 

None of these include the social and societal implications on the school, and English disagrees with these models that say, "If I can't figure out what you do, I can at least fire you."

Instead he encourges school leaders to ask "who benefits?" when dealing with reform. To him, reform isn't neutral, it's part of a schools overall value system. 

"One person's reform is another person's refinement," said English.

English goes on to compare school reform as a corporate product versus a social justice construct by examining in detail the nature of leadership, accountability and the role of management in a school. 

He rejects the corporate business model of school reform. He instead puts school reform in a social justice perspective.  "We must be concerned with what is happening in the school and what is happening to the school," said English. He defines effective leadership as activist - it's up to society to help spur change.

According to English, change has to be both of the mind and the heart. "We (as educators and administrstors) have a responsibility for creating a caring and nurturing state for our students and ourselves."

Find more details on the social justice versus corporate theory of reform in his book, Restoring Human Agency in Educational Administration available on

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