The School Turnaround Field Guide

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 The School Turnaround Field Guide

While many states and districts have established criteria to identify schools in need of turnaround, there is less clarity around how to track progress toward turnaround, knowing when a school has actually been turned around, and if that success has happened in the context of system improvement. The field should identify clear interim and long-term success metrics at the school, district, and state levels. Without expectations for success at both the school and system levels, resources may be withdrawn before gains are made or solidified.

Defining Success for Schools

Our interviews unearthed four themes around measuring school-level success:

  • Determining What to Measure. Schools should track interim progress and ultimate outcomes related to both school environment (including school culture, connectivity, and teacher and leader engagement and effectiveness) and student performance (including student progress and student outcomes). Stakeholders emphasize that a turnaround is only successful if it achieves gains with the same student population.

Examples of school environment metrics that demonstrate progress include lower rates of violence or suspension, increased student and faculty attendance, lower dropout rates, and higher retention of effective staff. Examples of student performance metrics that demonstrate progress include increases in student performance on formative assessments, improved standardized test results, and higher graduation rates.

Interviewees also emphasized that results not only should be evaluated in absolute terms, but also should be benchmarked against past performance and expected performance using value-added measures. Exhibit 9 summarizes commonly referenced measures of school improvement.12

  • Identifying How to Measure. A school undergoing turnaround needs timely access to information about student performance and turnaround implementation. “Annual achievement data comes out too late,” says Eileen Reed, deputy executive director of the Region XIII Education Service Center at the Texas Education Agency. “We need to invest in early-warning systems to get data along the way to see if students are making progress. Are they advancing at a fast enough rate to catch up on their deficits? Are they on track to make graduation requirements?”

Timely feedback can be collected through classroom observation and through tools — often electronic — that provide interim assessments of whether students are mastering course content. Nontraditional methods are often used in turnarounds to re-engage students in learning and address long-standing deficits, so the field needs new cross-content measures that go beyond test scores to evaluate such areas as student work and performance, interactions between teachers and students, and improvements in critical thinking. Information about the progress of implementation can be collected through staff, parent, and student surveys and measures of observed behavior.

States and districts, meanwhile, need efficient assessment processes that enable comparisons and allow them to learn about what works in turning around schools. This is a challenge, as interviewees noted that known measures have variable levels of sophistication and are often inconsistently collected across schools, districts, and states.

Exhibit 9: Measures of School Improvement

I. School Environment

School Culture

  • Student attendance rates
  • Rates of serious misconduct and violence
  • Assessments of follow-through on implementation plans by school administration and staff
  • Infrastructure improvement (such as dollars invested and response time to maintenance problems)

School Connectivity

  • Parent engagement and satisfaction metrics (such as participation in meetings)
  • Partnerships (such as funding raised from philanthropy and community satisfaction survey metrics)

Teacher and School Leader Engagement and Effectiveness

  • Teacher attendance and retention rates of effective staff
  • Rates of participation in collaborative decision making and planning time
  • Desire for and implementation of targeted professional development
  • Focus on student learning based on content and time on task
  • Value-added academic measures based on interim assessments of student progress
  • Use of data to improve the quality of teaching
  • Amount of principal’s time spent on improving teaching and learning

II. Student Performance

Measures of Student Progress

  • Rates of earning credits and grade-level advancement
  • Absenteeism and dropout rates

Outcomes for Students

  • Rates of students performing at grade level by subject area
  • Rates of proficiency on state assessments
  • Graduation and college-going rates
  • Setting the Bar. How high to set the standard for whether a school has been turned around is an area of ongoing debate. Some people fear that if the bar is set too high, not enough schools will succeed and the entire turnaround movement will be viewed as a failure.13 Others fear that an insufficiently ambitious definition will lead to efforts that are not aggressive enough to achieve meaningful results.14

There are a number of options for setting the bar. For some, making AYP is a good starting point. However, many actors spoke more ambitiously about goals for dramatic improvement, such as a 50 percent improvement in graduation rates or double-digit gains on state performance tests. As one of its goals, Mastery Charter Schools aims for at least 85 percent of graduates to enroll in higher education.15 Many interviewees went so far as to say that even large gains were not enough — a school was not truly turned around until it had completely closed the achievement gap when compared with other schools in the state. Closing the gap used such measures as exit exams, standardized assessments, ACT/SAT scores, and graduation rates.

  • Timeline to Success. In general, interviewees believed schools can be turned around in two to four years, with improvement in the school environment and culture occurring within two years and improvements in student performance starting by the second or third year. However, this timeline will vary and is expected to be longer in high schools.

Practitioners urge patience in the first year or two of turnaround, as some performance indicators may actually decline once significant changes are enacted in a school. “We have seen a school look quantitatively worse before it improves,” says Don Fraynd, turnaround officer at the Chicago Public Schools. “We have seen huge spikes in suspensions while discipline in the building was being reset. We aren’t going to expect a jump in test scores in the first year.” Some signs of progress may also look counterintuitive. For example, increased attendance and participation, which in the long term will improve student performance, may in the short term lead to a decline in average test scores, as students with poor attendance, who are often far behind their peers academically, begin to regularly attend school.

Beyond the importance of defining, tracking, and learning from measurable indicators, many experienced practitioners note that a successful turnaround can be palpably sensed upon entering the school. Practitioners note visible changes in students, who positively interact with their peers, are more fully engaged in classroom activities, and express optimism and pride in their conversations with teachers and other adults in the building. They describe hallways and lunchrooms that are peaceful and ordered. They see evidence of a positive culture and high expectations for students in posted goals and progress reports, in classroommanagement systems, and in how teachers speak about their students.

Defining Success for School Systems

We heard broad agreement around the importance of tracking success at the system level. Still, few states and districts have established specific goals. Emerging themes include:

  • Setting Turnaround-Specific Goals for the System. Districts should set specific goals and affiliated measures of progress and success for students and schools, as described in the previous section. At the system level, districts and states need to set improvement goals for themselves, along with corresponding milestones and timelines across their portfolio of schools, and then compare results across schools and districts.

The Massachusetts Department of Education is sending a clear message to its districts, for example. “Our idea about turnaround is that the district has ultimate responsibility to turn around its schools,” says Karla Baehr, deputy commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “For us, a district earns the label of its lowest-performing school — clearly sending the message that each district is only as strong as its weakest school.”

  • Tracking the Performance of All Schools, Not Just Turnaround Schools. Districts need to ensure that while some schools are being turned around, others do not themselves become turnaround candidates. Additionally, districts should be careful that interventions at turnaround schools, such as teacher replacement, do not adversely affect other schools in the system. Interviewees consistently stated that turnaround schools need to be managed within the context of overall district performance and that districts need to track performance across and between all schools.
  • Evaluating the District’s Performance in Supporting Turnaround Efforts. Districts and states need to evaluate themselves on their ability to lay the foundation for turnaround success with governance, financial, human resources, and leadership systems that enable schools to achieve sustained improvement. “Fixing individual schools is not going to fix the issue,” says Cohen of Mass Insight Education. “We need to measure system performance and conditions.”

While not a supporter of turnaround, Smarick argues that success at the systems level includes closing low-performing schools and providing high-performing alternatives to replace them.16 Exhibit 10 provides an example of measures that one state department of education has used to evaluate district turnaround capacity.

  • Finding and Sharing Best Practices. It is clear from stakeholder interviews that practitioners in the field do not feel they know enough about how to do turnaround work at scale. To compound the challenge, turnaround work requires new behaviors and capabilities.

These two challenges are fueling a strong imperative for finding and sharing effective practices, as well as comparing results of different interventions to identify what is and is not working and why. This should happen at the local level, at the state level, and across geographic boundaries.

Exhibit 10: Sample Measures of Success at the District Level

Criteria for a District to Exit Turnaround from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

# 1: Improved Student Achievement

Evidence that student achievement has been on the rise for three years for students overall and for each subgroup of students:

  • Increased student achievement as measured by state testing (such as average student growth, third-grade reading, eight grade mathematics, first-time 10th-grade proficiency rate)
  • Higher graduation and higher-education-enrollment rates

# 2: District Systems and Practices That Meet State Standards

Evidence that the district can continue to improve student achievement, because it has well-functioning and sustainable district systems and practices in the areas of:

  • Curriculum and instruction
  • Leadership and governance
  • Human-resource development
  • Financial and operational management
  • Student support.

# 3: School Conditions That Support Student Learning

Evidence that the district will continue to improve student achievement, because the conditions for school effectiveness are in place in schools and classrooms, with particularly strong evidence of:

  • Effective leadership
  • Effective instruction
  • An aligned taught curriculum

Source: Massachusetts DESE District Standards and Indicators,

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12 Sources of these measures include scorecards from Chicago Public Schools and the Texas Education Agency, as well as discussions among “Driving Dramatic School Improvement” conference attendees.

13 “Driving Dramatic School Improvement” conference discussion.

14 Ibid.

15 Mastery Charter Schools, “2008-2009 Mastery Charter School Overview.”

16 Smarick, Andy, “The Turnaround Fallacy,” EducationNext.