UVA School Turnaround Specialist Program

Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education at the University of Virginia

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The University of Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program (UVA-STSP) is a new and innovative approach to rescuing America’s failing schools by drawing on tried and true strategies from the business world and applying them to the education world. America is the world’s premier business power because of innovation and the ability of business leaders to anticipate and adjust to change, including the ability to revive poorly performing companies. The program has proven that many of the same strategies that have rescued companies from failure can also rescue schools, and their students, from failure. To accomplish this, the program enlists experts from UVA’s Darden School of Business and the Curry School of Education, who bring their knowledge, passion and commitment to the purpose of helping educators make their schools the best they can be.

The Problem

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, a growing number of schools across the nation are not meeting its requirements for raising student achievement. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of Title I schools – those schools in which at least 40 percent of the students are from low-income families and are eligible for federal assistance-identified for improvement jumped 50 percent in the 2004-05 school year, from about 6,000 schools to more than 9,000. Alarmingly, the Department of Education estimates that, by the end of this decade, some 5,000 schools are on track to fall into “restructuring,” the most extreme designation under NCLB. These trends will have repercussions for at least 2,500,000 students, many of whom are coming from poor or minority households or are English Language Learners (ELL).

Given the likely consequences of neglecting this problem, it is difficult to overstate the urgency with which school leaders must address student achievement among poor, minority and ELL students. This dire situation calls for the expertise of “turnaround principals” who are capable of achieving quick, dramatic and sustained change to raise student achievement. This, however, cannot be a solo endeavor. To achieve and sustain a successful turnaround, there must be district and school leadership teams in place with the knowledge and skills necessary to support the turnaround principal.

The difficulty of this task is amplified by the fact that it must be accomplished within the context of a society that is less homogeneous and more diverse in its racial, linguistic, and cultural composition. To rise to this challenge, America’s educational leaders must look beyond the usual skills and strategies that they have traditionally relied on, and seek new ones tailored to handle 21st century realities.

One obvious source of new ideas is the business world, where rescuing and turning around troubled companies has evolved into a valued skill, borne out of economic and social necessity. Unfortunately, America’s educational leaders are typically not exposed to the same general management and leadership principles used by our nation’s top business leaders.

For example, a 2005 study by Frederick Hess and Andrew Kelly, education researchers with the American Enterprise Institute, found the following:

  • Just 2% of 2,424 course weeks sampled from preparedness programs at graduate schools of education addressed accountability in the context of school management or school improvement; fewer than 5% included instruction on managing school improvement with data, technology, and empirical research.
  • Statistics, data, or empirical research were mentioned or referenced in only 11% of the 2,424 course weeks.
  • Only 1% of course weeks dealt with school public relations and small business skills, while less than 1% addressed parental or school board relations.
  • Of the 50 most influential living management thinkers, as determined by a 2003 survey of management professionals and scholars, readings from just nine were assigned a mere 29 times out of 1,851 readings.

These figures are especially compelling in light of NCLB’s mandates for accountability and results, which make these topics more relevant to schools now than ever before.


Beginning with the belief that effective leadership is as vital to successful education as it is to successful business, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and the Curry School of Education established the Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE). This partnership helps educational leaders help their schools with programs that apply best practices from business and education.

In the spring of 2004, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) contracted with the PLE to design and implement the Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program. The program was a key component of Governor Mark Warner’s landmark Education for a Lifetime Initiative, a set of targeted reforms aimed at improving schools in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Drawing on his experience and expertise as a venture capitalist and successful businessman, Governor Warner wanted to develop a cadre of specially trained principals who would be the equivalent of turnaround managers in business. These individuals would have training and skills tailored to meet the task at hand–improving student achievement in Virginia’s lowest-achieving schools.

The innovation of combining the Darden and Curry schools to create the School Turnaround Specialist Program impressed the Microsoft Corporation. In the fall of 2004, Microsoft’s Partners in Learning program joined forces with the VDOE, the Governor’s office, and the PLE to create and support a nationally replicable model of the turnaround program. Subsequently, in July 2006, the PLE launched the national scale-up of the UVA-STSP by including 24 turnaround specialists from Chicago, Philadelphia, and Broward County, FL., in addition to participants from Virginia. The program now also includes participants from Louisiana, as well as Native American schools from North and South Dakota. A fifth cohort of specialists will begin the two-year program in July of this year.

The program consists of the type of executive education typically received only by top-level business leaders and is designed to address the leadership needs of education leaders charged with turning around low-performing schools. It is worth noting that this program not only provides training and support for school principals, but also for district and school-level leadership teams associated with each school involved. The program includes the following components: executive education residential programs held at UVA’s Darden School of Business; on-site retreats held in participating districts; peer coaching; an online portal; teleconferences; and, a senior project director dedicated to providing support to participants.

Other turnaround programs exist, but are mainly comprised of teams of coaches or mentors who only provide advice to particular principals on a weekly or monthly basis. Extant research indicates that these programs have limited effect. On the other hand, the UVA-STSP is the only turnaround program in the country that combines a top business school and a top education school to provide training and support to turnaround principals, as well as to district and school-level leadership state levels down to the school level and enhancing the probability for successful/sustainable school turnarounds. The PLE’s experience in working with education leaders at the state through the school levels provides an advantage that few if any other organizations have. Between the past research from which we have learned, our record of success, and determination to find even better ways to improve schools, the UVA-STSP, if scaled nationally, stands to make significant contributions to American education.

Contact the Author:
LeAnn M. Buntrock, J.D., Ph.D.
Assistant Executive Director
Jim Pughsley
Executive Director
Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education at the University of Virginia
Phone: 434-924-3806
Fax: 434-924-5965
P.O. Box 6650
Charlottesville, VA 22906-6550
100 Darden Boulevard
Charlottesville, VA 22903
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