Turning the tables: leadership overhauls in underperforming schools




Full Professor Of Management

Project Summary

This summer, I worked with Management Professor Katherine Klein to research a turnaround program in chronically underperforming elementary schools, beginning in 2015.

On these campuses, an overwhelming number of students had not been meeting state achievements standards for a few consecutive years. As such, the relevant school district replaced existing school leadership with management teams that had a track record of student success.

In turn, new leadership also had the opportunity to replace their staff; principals brought some previous employees with them, and also made entirely new hires. Additionally, they re-interviewed existing staff who wished to stay on at their respective schools, and re-hired some of them before the program started.

To incentivize top teachers and management teams to join the program, the district offered stipends that were calculated based on experience and level of recognition.

In our research, we wanted to evaluate the longitudinal success of the turnaround program. In particular, our goal was to discover the external and internal factors that contribute to such aforementioned success — or lack thereof — at each individual school.

As part of the research team, I worked on a range of different tasks: I wrote research summaries, organized and analyzed students’ test data, cleaned and coded teachers’ interviews, and also evaluated the impact of socio-economic factors on school achievement.

So far in the project, we have discovered that different schools are experiencing different levels of success in the program. A multitude of factors may explain these variations, including parental involvement, the relationship between staff and management, collaboration and/or animosity among teachers, school spirit, and much more.

When the first round of the program finishes this year, teachers’ financial incentives will be taken away, and some will choose to leave the “turnaround” schools. We found that many educators and community members are, on behalf of the children, concerned about this impending change.

More specifically, as I examined demographics data about communities surrounding the schools, I noticed alarming trends that correlate race and ethnicity with achievement levels in different disciplines. Similarly, there exists a high proportion of single-parent households in chronically underperforming schools’ attendance zones.

Overall, participating in the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program (PURM) served as an excellent first exposure to academic research. Because I already was — and still am — very passionate about advocating for educational equity, I was genuinely interested in our research topic. Now, I feel like I have a much deeper understanding of the American public-school system, and a working knowledge of basic education and management theory. I am excited to continue learning about and advocating for this cause!