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Researchers Show How Leadership "Churn" Undermines School Reform

Imagine the turmoil that would ensue if half the actors walked out of a play midway through the performance.
Something very similar happened in an urban school district in the Northeast United States during the four-year period it was studied by Kara Finnigan, associate professor of educational policy at the Warner School, and her colleague Alan Daly from the University of California-San Diego.
Over just a few years, nearly half of the district's 181 leaders, including central office directors (and above) and school principals, moved into or out of these positions, resulting in an ongoing leadership "churn." Importantly this didn't include individuals who moved to another central office leadership or principal position—only those who moved in and out of the district or, if they stayed in the district, moved in and out of leadership roles. Using Social Network Analysis (SNA) this study shows how "churn" severely undermined the strong, trusting relationships and the collaborative learning that other studies have shown are essential if districts are to succeed in carrying out complex educational reforms.
Kara Finnigan"While we know that turnover exists in urban school districts, our data unearths just how challenging the problem of improving these districts is when leaders are in a constant state of flux," write Finnigan and Daly. Their findings are summarized in a chapter of Thinking and Acting Systematically: Improving School Districts Under Pressure (American Educational Research Association), a forthcoming book that Finnigan co-edited with Daly and to which she contributed two other chapters.
This study was particularly focused on the flow of research-based ideas and practices across the leadership team as they tried to implement reforms under sanctions, and found that churn impacted this movement. For example, a critical central office source for research-based ideas and practices in the district left by the third year. The researchers showed how this move "severely disrupted the sharing of research-based practices district-wide, with fewer ties overall and no clear 'go to' people for research-based ideas and practices."
"In the literature there is overwhelming attention to the low performance levels of youth in urban school settings, but the organizational instability of these systems resulting from the churn of educational leaders is generally overlooked," Finnigan and Daly note.
They urge:
  1. Greater attention to the relational aspects of reform, to allow school district leaders to develop trusting and supportive relationships and risk-taking behaviors that enable collaboration and collegial practices and result in organizational improvement.
  2. A recognition that state and federal policies that demand accountability as part of educational reform contribute to leadership churn by increasing levels of stress as the stakes become higher. Greater attention must be paid to capacity building and leadership stability to provide the conditions to bring about change.
  3. New sophisticated, longitudinal research methods, including Social Network Analysis, to uncover the high levels of organizational instability in urban districts and identify ways to shift the course given the challenges that continue to face urban districts after decades of reform.

(Featured in the October 16, 2015 issue of Research Connections)
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Media Contact: Theresa Danylak
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Tags: educational policy, Kara Finnigan, leadership churn, research, school reform