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Business school thinking can help in tough classrooms, education expert says

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke Tuesday to educators and school administrators charged with running ‘turnaround schools’ at the University of Virginia. The employees are enrolled in the school’s Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE) “School Turnaround Specialist Program,” a collaborative effort between the business and education programs of the university that help experienced teachers and principals manage the fault lines of the school turnaround process.

According to a press release, Duncan said, “You are doing some of the toughest, most controversial work in education in this country today, and I thank you for your courage.” Later, he added: “Don’t act softly and tinker on the margins … Instead, listen to your gut and make the tough decisions. That’s how you earn your communities’ trust.”

Though the U. Va. event took place at the Darden School of Business, Kris Amundson of the public policy group Education Sector told The American Independent that shouldn’t be viewed as business interests dictating education policy issues.

“This is a long-standing program,” Amundson begins, and the idea behind is that “running a school in a turnaround process that is low-achieving requires a unique skillset.”

The two-year program, which is currently collaborating with a group representing 24 schools and seven school districts from Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Colorado, helps teachers and principals manage personalities and frustrations that rise to the surface in a high-stress environment found in a turn-around school — usually low-performing with teacher layoffs and government scrutiny deflating morale among educators charged with improving the performances of struggling students.

“[The educators] need to be inspirational, and they need to be inspired enough and believe they can do this,“ Amundson said. “People go into teaching because they want to make things better for kids, and you need a bit of inspiration to stick with it.” That’s where the services of Darden School of Business kick in, she adds.

Amundson offered an example of the type of leadership that’s inspirational: In Charlotte, a principal and her teachers balked at a district proposal to dedicate 15 to 20 minutes of instructional time daily to something they agreed was a “complete waste of time.” In protest, the principal defied the district edict, instructing her teachers to disregard the new rules and telling them, “I’ll take the hit” from the district office.

“That’s what a good turnaround principal will do,” Amundson said, “they ask ‘how can I knock down barriers,’ and they’re usually tough as nails.”

The business and education school collaboration at U. Va. partnered with WestEd, a non-profit technical research firm that the U.S. Dept. of Ed. picked to operate the Southwest Comprehensive Center, part of a federal network of Regional Comprehensive Centers that coordinate research projects toward improving teacher performance, accountability software, and state adaptation of federal education policies associated with the Early and Secondary Education Act.

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