Case Study: Public Education Department, New Mexico

Challenge: Help Principals Become Leaders through Coaching Conversations

At the New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED), Debbie M. Rael, Deputy Cabinet Secretary, and her team oversee 89 school districts. In 2010, the NMPED began sending cohorts to the University of Virginia’s School Turnaround Program, which is how Rael began working with the ClearView Consulting team, who partner with UVA.

The NMPED then launched its Principals Pursuing Excellence (PPE) program, an initiative of the Priority Schools Bureau at NMPED. The program was designed to help the state develop strong principals in order to turnaround its lowest performing schools.

The challenge for Rael and her team was two-fold: to identify which school leaders were ready to tackle a school turnaround and then training these leaders to take a skilled coaching approach in their work with teachers.

Process: Implementing the idea of coaching practices

When Rael and her team first began working with ClearView Consulting, the work centered around using the BEI – or Behavioral Event Interview – to identify those principals who had the competencies needed to take on a school turnaround.

According to Rael, in order for turnaround leaders to succeed, they must have the core competencies identified by UVA and ClearView Consulting, as well as communication skills that would allow them to act as leaders and coaches.

“In turnaround situations, principals have to carefully channel their energy, and one way to free them to focus on bigger issues is to help teachers arrive at their own solutions – and then empower them to act on their ideas,” she adds.

How turnaround principals choose to structure their leadership conversations is critical to their success and is based on the concept of a continuum – meaning, leaders make intentional choices about the kinds of conversations they’ll have, based on the needs of each teacher.

Before participating in training, a principal’s default communication strategy is often to share advice – that is, to give as much information as possible in the moment. In other words, many principals quickly become fixers or rescuers in an effort to solve problems.

While some teachers do require a principal’s well-developed expertise, the challenge in offering advice is that it limits teachers’ thinking about solutions on their own.

Leaders who facilitate effective, self-sustaining classroom practices among their teachers promote the turnaround success of their schools.

“Principals,” says ClearView Consulting’s Lisa Lawrence, “are responsible for growing teachers as leaders. Instead of principals providing all the answers to their teachers, Debbie Rael and her team wanted them to learn a new way to communicate – to take a coaching approach to their leadership.”

Through training experiences provided by ClearView Consulting, and other methods, school principals are now trained to ask powerful questions such as, “Given this situation, what do you want to achieve?” or “What would behavioral success look like to you?”

In leading with this conversation continuum in mind, the principal first seeks to take a more non-directive, coaching approach to helping a teacher think more deeply in arriving at a solution. If the teacher can’t see a solution, the principal would then, of course, provide additional support by shifting to a more collaborative stance. If the teacher still needs additional support, the principal would meet that need as well.

Principals who lead this way engage in deliberate, well-thought out conversations that strengthen teachers’ thinking and innovative practices.

Sustainable change: Implementing the Priority Schools Bureau initiative system-wide

For many states, school turnaround usually involves a few districts acting individually. For New Mexico, however, it has meant implementing the Principals Pursuing Excellence Program statewide. “Not all LEAs have the opportunity to attend UVA, which is why we created own program – the PPE.”

With the PPE, the state is able to combine lessons learned working with UVA with ClearView Consulting’s training of coaching practices.

The Priority Schools Bureau initiative is comprised of two main programs: Principals Pursing Excellence (PPE) and Teachers Pursuing Excellence (TPE). Both programs work on the cohort model: the PPE is a two-year program with sixty principals per cohort; the TPE is also a two-year program. The number of teachers per cohort varies year to year. According to Rael, they take no more than 16 schools per year.

To further cultivate the competencies and skills of turnaround leaders, district superintendents and other leaders must also participate.

The NMPED has made the initiative, and schools’ progress, easily accessible via the Department’s website.

Each year, every school in the entire system receives a report card and letter grade (A, B, C, D, F) based on specific criteria. Using an interactive map, parents can filter information by district and school to see current grades and a PDF of the report card. Parents can also filter by year (archived report cards go back to 2012) to see if a school has improved its grade – or dropped in its standing.

Report cards include an overall letter grade as well as grades for specific items, such as Student Growth for Highest and Lowest Performing Students, Opportunity to Learn, and School Improvement. Each report card also clearly states that state law allows parents to transfer their children to other schools if a school has earned two “F” grades in the previous four years.

The program is working. Schools that were once “F” schools are now “B” or even “A” schools. Others that were “D” schools are now “B” schools. In addition, state education authorities from around the U.S. are coming to New Mexico to learn how they can implement a similar system.

“ClearView Consulting has had a big impact in how we train our leaders,” says Rael. “They help us identify turnaround candidates through the BEI process. Additionally, they provide leadership and coaching continuum training to our principals, teachers, districts, and school board members.

“Essentially, what the ClearView team has done, is given us a consistency of language. The idea of being a coach, and helping others succeed through elevated conversations about expectations, is now a core part of our statewide program.”

For additional information about the NMPED program, see WestEd’s Center for School Turnaround “New Mexico: State Policy Brief 2015.”