The School Turnaround Field Guide

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 The School Turnaround Field Guide

Multiple actors across the education sector must commit to a concerted, collaborative effort for turnarounds to succeed at scale. They must work together to scale nascent efforts, build capacity, and address gaps. Based on more than 150 individual actions collected at the “Action Planning” session at the “Driving Dramatic School Improvement” conference, as well as on FSG’s interviews and research, we have identified the highest-priority steps that need to be taken collectively and by each type of actor. A table aligning these actions by actor with a summary of the gaps is included in an appendix. Turnaround actors collectively must develop common metrics for success, understand and learn from what is and is not working, build capacity and expertise, create conditions for success, and maintain urgency around turnaround efforts to sustain political will. Exhibit 21 summarizes specific actions that need to be taken collectively to address the gaps and is followed by recommendations for individual organizations.

U.S. Department of Education

The Education Department already plays a key policy-setting and funding role, but can also support research, rigorous evaluation, and knowledge sharing to benefit the turnaround field. Specific actions include:

  • Ensure adequate funding for states and districts to build the infrastructure that sustains turnaround work once federal funds have been expended.
  • Ensure that the timeline for distribution of federal funds allows for states, districts, and schools to have adequate planning time to develop and employ successful turnaround interventions.
  • Build early learnings from turnaround efforts into ESEA reauthorization and future funding, potentially to include:
    • Community buy-in, coinvestment, and parental engagement,
    • Turnaround grants made directly to districts,
    • Consideration of and provisions to accommodate the challenges of rural states,
    • Additional competitive grant processes, and
    • Rewards and incentives for schools, districts, and states that succeed in turnaround.

Exhibit 21: Collective Actions to Fill Gaps


Collective Actions


  • Promote the entry of new quality providers and scale proven operators.
  • Create training and recruitment approaches to attract and develop turnaround talent.
  • Create and staff distinct turnaround offices or divisions.


  • As possible, repurpose current ongoing funding sources to address turnaround needs.
  • Ensure that specific turnaround funding streams are included in ESEA reauthorization.
  • Promote the use of one-time funding to build long-term capacity and infrastructure.

Public and Political Will

  • Build awareness of the need for change among students, parents, educators, policy makers, and communities.
  • Engage and mobilize stakeholders, and build public demand to advocate for needed changes.
  • Establish laws and policies that support those making difficult decisions.


  • Change the culture of engagement between schools, districts, and states from compliance to cooperation.
  • Establish laws and policies that ensure needed school and district autonomies and capacity.
  • Develop and implement shared accountability systems at the system and school levels.

Research and Knowledge Sharing

  • Ensure funding and attention are directed to rigorously studying and comparing the efficacy of turnaround interventions.
  • Document and share turnaround successes and challenges to improve implementation.
  • Create opportunities and infrastructure to collect, organize, and share research and best practices.
  • Develop clear standards for student achievement and turnaround success at the school and system levels.
  • Implement a national evaluation, knowledgebuilding, and dissemination initiative that tracks and reports on the turnaround efforts of states and districts.
  • Support and sustain the development and implementation of robust state longitudinal data systems.
  • Serve as a voice for urgency around turnaround efforts, supporting states’ ability to make difficult decisions.

States and State Department of Education

States can focus on developing scalable solutions to human capital and operator capacity issues, creating conditions for success through policy change, assessing the quality of turnaround providers and operators, and investing in the IT and accountability infrastructure that supports turnaround success. Specific actions include:

  • Collaborate with districts to identify where capacity should be built to effectively execute on turnaround strategies, and designate a specific office and staff to lead turnaround efforts.
  • Use a range of strategies to develop, attract, and retain principal and teacher talent at the lowestperforming schools, including:
    • Providing professional-development opportunities,
    • Instituting financial incentives or pay for performance,
    • Ensuring equitable teacher distribution,
    • Strengthening university and alternatecertification paths,
    • Generating and supporting dialogue with labor and helping bring districts and labor “to the table” for negotiations, and
    • Providing political cover for districts, where necessary.
  • Create policies that provide districts, turnaround operators, and turnaround school staff with the autonomy over staffing, program, budget, schedule, and data that they need to succeed.
  • Develop processes for vetting external turnaround providers.
  • Support the sharing of best practices within and among districts and schools through clusters, turnaround zones, or other structures.
  • Make investments in technology (performance management and accountability systems), allowing assessment data to be available and accessible to districts, schools, and local communities.
  • Provide opportunities for rural districts to partner with one another to reach greater scale, or work directly to implement turnaround strategies in rural areas.


Districts can create strong talent pipelines, build their accountability and school support capacity, and ensure the availability of critical, high-quality partners, particularly to fill human capital needs and operate schools. Specific actions include:

  • Hold leaders of schools and school operators accountable for turnaround success, while providing them with the autonomy they need to succeed.
  • Ensure a pipeline of highly effective teachers and principals who can succeed in turnaround schools, and then provide them with the professional development to enable their success.
  • Provide or identify high-quality partners to offer efficient and aligned noninstructional supports to allow turnaround leaders and school operators to focus on culture change, instruction, and community support building.
  • Use turnaround as an opportunity to partner with unions, as relevant, to create the needed conditions for turnaround success, such as autonomy over staffing, program, budget, schedule, and data.
  • Engage communities, particularly parents and community-based organizations, to generate demand for change among stakeholders.
  • Collaborate with the state to identify where capacity should be built to effectively execute on turnaround strategies, and designate a specific office and staff to lead turnaround efforts.
  • Support the sharing of best practices among schools through clusters, turnaround zones, or other structures.


Unions can consider turnaround schools as a “laboratory” in which they are more willing to experiment with new types of contracts, new ways of collaboratively partnering with districts, new work rules, and new teacher-evaluation and pay-for-performance approaches. Specific actions include:

  • Engage proactively with states and districts to develop, attract, and retain principal and teacher talent to the lowest-performing schools, and create conditions supporting their success, including:
    • Creating flexibilities within current contracts around instructional time and other work rules, and
    • Developing new and more flexible contracts specifically focused on turnaround schools, with provisions for such elements as data-driven evaluation, hiring and tenure policies, and performance pay.
  • Serve as an advocate for turnaround teachers to ensure they receive adequate pay, support, and professional development, given the demanding environments in which they are working.

School Operators

School operators can scale existing successful models, identify and train turnaround professionals, and build organizational capacity to run turnaround schools. Specific actions include:

  • Consider entering the turnaround space and customizing school models — particularly in areas such as human capital development, curriculum and instruction, parent outreach, and community engagement — to succeed in turnaround situations.
  • Negotiate the autonomy and authority needed to succeed, including autonomies over staffing, program, budget, schedule, and data.
  • Develop human capital pipelines and on-theground professional development opportunities for turnaround teachers and leaders.
  • Develop consistent and rigorous approaches to align all school personnel behind a powerful vision for success and to create positive cultures of high expectations for students.
  • Partner with existing organizations and entities, such as turnaround supporting partners, institutes of higher education, districts, and states.
  • Share successes and challenges of turnaround efforts to increase the field’s knowledge base.

Supporting Partners

School-support partners of all types can build turnaround-specific capacity, services, and expertise. In particular, the most pressing need is for action from human capital providers to develop turnaroundspecific training, recruitment, and support approaches for teachers and school leaders that can drive success in turnaround situations, as well as to partner with districts on creating robust human capital management systems. Specific actions include:

  • Develop turnaround-specific training modules to prepare teachers and leaders for turnaround schools.
  • Identify characteristics of teachers and leaders who are effective in turnaround situations, and then adjust recruiting approaches to find and enroll those individuals.
  • Study and evaluate the successes and challenges of strategies to prepare turnaround teachers and leaders, based on school and student outcomes.
  • Work with states, districts, and operators to build aligned, cohesive human capital systems and pipelines.
  • Use evidence-based outcomes (school- and student-level results) to support districts and states in the creation of conditions that most enable turnaround principals and teachers to succeed.

Community-Based Organizations

Community-based organizations can mobilize community support for difficult decisions and partner with turnaround schools to help with academic remediation during out-of-school time. Specific actions include:

  • Mobilize community support for turnarounds, working with parents, local businesses, local leaders, and other community organizations to:
    • Demand an excellent public education for all children, including advocating for schools to be shut down and teachers and leaders to be replaced when needed.
    • Engage and mobilize stakeholders across the community as advocates for education.
    • Hold district, state, and labor leadership accountable for a high-quality public education.
  • Provide productive out-of-school-time academic and personal support programs to help students engage in school and catch up academically.

Research and Field-Building Organizations

Research and field-building organizations help move the field forward, studying and evaluating existing efforts, identifying tools and effective practices, filling knowledge gaps, and disseminating findings so that the turnaround field can learn and grow. Specific actions include:

  • Analyze themes from successful and unsuccessful Round I and II Race to the Top applications.
  • Document school- and system-level turnaround successes and failures, and analyze best practices of turnaround efforts within and across districts and states.
  • Help devise rigorous evaluation approaches to ensure that the field learns from and spreads what works, and that resources are not invested in interventions that don’t work.
  • Pool resources and develop channels to share information, tools, and best practices broadly and effectively.

Philanthropic Funders

Foundations can seed innovative models in leadership, teaching, curriculum, support services, community engagement, and other areas vital to turnaround work, as well as invest in partnerships with states and districts in applying these practices at scale. Specific actions include:

  • Consider turnaround-specific initiatives, programs, and investments.
  • Support the planning and implementation of state and district turnaround strategies directly and with matching funds for certain federal and state investments.
  • Help effective turnaround operators scale and start up new turnaround school operators.
  • Support research and field-building efforts to drive the effectiveness of the sector as a whole, including funding evaluation and research.

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