Tag Archives: talent retention

What’s Really Driving Leadership Turnover in Education?

Image by Alachua County via Flickr

Image by Alachua County via Flickr

When DC Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced she was nominating Oakland, CA Superintendent Antwan Wilson to succeed Kaya Henderson as DC Public Schools’ Chancellor (after an anxious public search), the San Francisco Chronicle responded with a scathing op-ed accusing Wilson of disloyalty and self-serving ambition. The Chronicle also took a few shots at San Francisco’s former superintendent Richard Carranza, now working in Houston, and generally railed against urban superintendents who “come in, do enough to raise hopes, then move on to a higher paying job.”

High turnover in educational leadership is alarming, but to paraphrase the advice columnist Dan Savage, if you have a long string of dramatic, failed relationships, the common denominator is you. I’m not just picking on the Bay Area — the average urban superintendent stays in his or her role just 3.2 years, and state education chiefs turn over at an even faster rate. These dismal numbers are likely not the sole product of individual ambition, but it remains unclear what actually drives this churn. When experienced, qualified school system leaders across the country leave their posts much earlier than expected, should we blame the individuals, or take a closer look at the jobs?

What is clear is that state and district executive leadership roles have become more challenging in recent years. Federal education policies put myriad new responsibilities and choices in the hands of state and district central offices to measure teacher and school performance, increase student achievement, and close achievement gaps for disadvantaged  groups of students. For example, a new publication on teacher evaluation by my colleagues Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead uncovers a minefield of choices facing state and district leaders — and that is just one policy area out of many. Leaders are figuring out these new responsibilities in an increasingly polarized and politicized educational environment.

Holding our school systems and their leaders accountable for providing an excellent education to every student is absolutely the right thing to do, but we also should recognize that educational bureaucracies were not designed to be agile performance managers orchestrating school turnarounds. They were mostly built to disburse various funding streams down to schools, and collect documentation that the conditions of that funding and other legislative mandates have been met. Those compliance responsibilities remain in place even as new performance goals are added, and on top of that, many agency budgets are being slashed by their state legislatures. Untangling the messes of red tape, budgetary crises, and misaligned priorities takes time and support that most superintendents are not afforded by their school boards or by their communities.

Even the best leaders can be hamstrung by the political, legal, and bureaucratic contexts in which they operate. Instead of looking for more selfless miracle workers to lead dysfunctional systems, envision a school system where great leaders (or maybe good-enough leaders!) could do their best work. How would it be organized? How would it be accountable to the community and work in the best interests of students? What are the conditions that enable that kind of school system to exist and succeed? I don’t have all the answers, but legislators, governors, mayors, and school boards will need to think bigger to disrupt the current cycle of leadership churn, and these big questions are one place to start.

Enter the Young: Six City-Level Strategies to Harness Critical Talent for Education Reform (Part 3 of 3)

In my last two posts I cited a new report by Joe Cortright at City Observatory that describes an increase in the number of young and educated workers moving to America’s inner-cities over the last decade, the upside of this trend, and dangers of gentrification and segregation that it could bring. All in all, I think there’s a huge opportunity for city and education leaders to attract and retain young and educated workers in their city’s urban education reform movement while honoring long-time residents.

How might they do this? Here are six strategies they can employ:

  • Make your city a magnet. Macro-level demographic shifts emerge from millions of individuals making decisions. For college graduates, cities with good public transportation, walkable neighborhoods, diversity, culture, professional sports teams, and nightlife are important. Richard Florida has complementary posts on this here and here. In many cities, these attributes exist but aren’t known widely. Take entrepreneurial activity in Baltimore or the art scene in Detroit as examples. In these cases, there’s an opportunity for intermediary organizations and city governments to launch aggressive recruitment campaigns that highlight their assets. Where these urban assets aren’t present, education leaders should team up with city and business leaders to create policies that invest in walkability, affordable housing, nightlife, and entrepreneurial opportunity as a long-term talent strategy.
  • Source local talent and recapture diasporans. The focus of this series has been on young educated professionals moving into the inner city at a rapid rate, but every city has native talent and natives who’ve moved away. To create a talent strategy only around newcomers would be incomplete and insulting to a city’s long-time residents. State, cities, and universities could work together to market the professional and social benefits of living in inner cities to college juniors and seniors. Kansas provided loan forgiveness to recent college grads if they moved to rural areas. Why can’t states do the same for inner cities? Organizations like Challenge Detroit that run programs to identify native talent and provide them with career advancing opportunities can help establish local talent pipelines. Another valuable segment to pursue is diasporans, people from a city who have left, but still have an affinity for their hometown. Recapturing diasporans would likely take the form of marketing in targeted geographies coupled aggressive, high-touch recruiting from local organizations, and incentives like relocation stipends or loan forgiveness.
  • Build pipelines. Having talent pipeline organizations with expertise recruiting young professionals from across the country is critical. Teach for America, TNTP, New Leaders, Education Pioneers, The Strategic Data Project, and the Broad Residency are musts. The immediate benefit of having a steady stream of top talent is clear: organizations get skilled workers to execute their mission. But there’s more to it. When nationally recognized organizations put down roots in a city, it also signals to top-shelf school operators looking to expand that there will be enough quality principals and teachers to fuel their schools. City and education leaders should look to recruit such organizations, curry local support for their expansion, lower any barriers to entry, and fund startup costs to ensure a successful launch.
  • Introduce the neighbors.  Urban planner and blogger, Pete Saunders sees bringing these two populations together as an opportunity to introduce vital social, professional, and housing networks to low-income communities that need them. “Doing so, however, requires engagement by city newcomers in the neighborhoods they move into, and the companies they work for, in ways perhaps they had not imagined.” He has some great ideas on this; read them here. But it’s not a one-way street. Inner city communities can also help bridge differences that they might have with their neighbors by providing opportunities for newcomers to learn about local history in engaging, age-appropriate ways. For millennials, civic center lectures and walking history tours aren’t going to cut it. Instead, think along the lines of Nerd Nite where people give funny, alcohol-fueled, informative lectures at bars. Smart, compelling local media coverage like this and this, social media campaigns like Humans of New York, and public art installations can raise awareness as well. It’s likelier that someone will protect what is good and unique about a place if provided compelling opportunities to learn about its history.
  • Catch and DON’T release. Retaining young talent after they’ve migrated is an equally important but often neglected part of a long-term talent strategy. At the organization level, education organizations must strive to be talent-ready by building truly diverse teams as well as providing competitive compensation, autonomy, career development opportunities, recognition, effective management, and work-life balance – factors shown to increase retention. At the system level, local foundations and intermediaries must create a local ecosystem teeming with high-quality organizations so that young and highly mobile workers don’t feel constrained by a lack of options and flee to another city. Policy can play a role here too. Cities and states can offer incentives to individuals working for education organizations, such as low-interest home loans and student loan forgiveness.
  • Double down on dramatic reform efforts. As young professional age, start families, and look to put down roots, their desires shift from an active nightlife scene to things like single-family homes, open space, convenience, and (of course) schools. A looming question exists around whether there will be enough high-performing inner city schools to keep them from fleeing to the suburbs, what Mike Petrilli calls the diverse schools dilemma. Education reform is rarely considered a talent strategy, but access to good schools is a driving factor for relocation decisions which reinforces the importance of dramatic, swift, and cost effective city-wide reform efforts. Cities must work across all three sectors – district, charter, and private – to create a common vision for a dynamic system of schools and aggressively pursue strategies that deliver results quickly and cost efficiently.

In a country where the population of tier two and three cities fluctuate wildly over time, these tactics can help smaller cities compete in the war for talent and distinguish themselves from the rest.

I opened this series with a lyric from the song Enter the Young by The Association because it expresses a combination of energy, optimism, intelligence, caring, and daring that can invigorate urban education reform. It’s easy to envision deep racial and economic divides resulting from this trend, but that doesn’t make it inevitable. The work in front of us is to proactively mitigate risks and maximize benefits to urban communities through policy, planning, and practice.

But the influx of young, educated talent moving into America’s inner cities is a trend. And like all trends, it will change over time so acting on it with urgency is important. I’m convinced that coordinated policies, creativity, and a vigilant stance toward equity can capture this vital demographic and integrate them into communities so there’s mutual benefit.