The School Turnaround Field Guide

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 The School Turnaround Field Guide

In the first part of this report, we paint a picture of the existing landscape of turnaround efforts around the country. Part I covers four major topics:

  • The scope of the turnaround challenge and areas of debate,
  • Measures for gauging success in school turnaround at the school and system levels,
  • The role of the federal government and a comparison of four turnaround models, and
  • The roles of key actors and a snapshot of recent activities.

Turnaround 101

“At the end of the day, who can argue with holding schools accountable for all children?” asks Paul Vallas, head of the Recovery School District in New Orleans. “Who can argue with not tolerating failing schools or with giving poor kids the kinds of choices that wealthier kids have?”1

Since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001, districts have been identifying failing schools as those that do not demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in improving their performance. These schools face an escalating process of corrective action, which ultimately might lead to replacing the school’s leadership or restructuring the school itself. School failure is a persistent and pervasive reality, as the U.S. Department of Education’s data show.2 With more than 5,000 schools in the restructuring stage in 2010, Mass Insight Education recently estimated that more than 2.5 million students — particularly high-poverty students and students of color — are at risk of or are already receiving a woefully inadequate education.3 Out of more than 100,000 schools nationwide, this bottom 5 percent of schools have failed to make AYP for five or more years and often have high staff turnover, high rates of violence, and low graduation rates. The severe impact of school failure on students and on the nation is well documented. Lack of educational attainment is highly correlated with lower lifetime earnings, higher incidences of substance abuse, higher rates of incarceration, and poorer health outcomes.4 As a society, citizens pay the price in lost tax revenue, forgone GDP growth, and increased costs related to health care, crime, and social services.5 As President Obama said in his January 2010 State of the Union address, “In the 21st century, the best antipoverty program around is a world-class education.”

This is also a growing crisis. In the 2008-2009 school year, the number of schools in restructuring increased 26 percent from the previous year, and jumped an alarming 325 percent over the number from five years earlier, as shown in Exhibit 5.6

Since the number of schools that enter “school improvement” each year is well over 5,500, combined with low success rates in turning around schools, more schools will continue to fall into restructuring. Extrapolating from the latest trends from 2006 to 2009, Exhibit 6 shows that without successful interventions, the number of schools in restructuring could grow 143 percent over the next five years, reaching more than 12,000 by 2014-2015.

Exhibit 5: Number of Schools in Need of Improvement, 2004-2009


Source: U.S. Department of Education, EdFacts.

Exhibit 6: Projected Number of Schools in need of Improvement, Corrective Action, and Restructuring, 2008-2015


Key Assumptions:

  • Schools enter school-improvement status at a slightly declining rate, reflecting the 2005-2006 to 2008-2009 CAGR of -2 percent.
  • An estimated 37 percent of schools progress from improvement to corrective action every year, reflecting the average rate from 2005 to 2009.
  • Fewer and fewer schools exit the restructuring category, reflecting the 2005 to 2009 trends.

Of the 5,017 schools currently in restructuring, 72 percent are concentrated in 11 states or territories: California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and South Carolina. At least 100 schools in each of these states, shown in Exhibit 7, have failed to meet AYP for five or more consecutive years, with California topping the list with 1,183 schools. Four other areas, while having lower absolute numbers, have high densities of failing schools: Hawaii (24 percent), the District of Columbia (22 percent), New Mexico (20 percent), and Alaska (14 percent).

Defining Turnaround

The word turnaround is used broadly and means different things to different people. Confusingly, it is currently applied to both the discipline of improving school systems and individual schools, as well as to a particular approach that the U.S. Department of Education calls the “turnaround model.” Some observers question the very applicability of this term to describe schools that have never been highly performing in the first place.7 Others are skeptical about the comparison to turnarounds in the private sector, where low rates of success are the expected norm.8

Exhibit 7: Number of Schools in Need of Restructuring, 2008-2009


Source: U.S. Department of Education, EDFacts.

Some have even called turnaround a “fallacy,” at least at the school level.9 “The history of urban education tells us emphatically that turnarounds are not a reliable strategy for improving our very worst schools,” writes Andy Smarick, a former distinguished visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.10 He suggests that the best way to ensure an effective, well-functioning school is to start one from scratch. Justin Cohen, president of the turnaround division at Mass Insight Education, believes schools can be turned around with strategies that create clusters of schools within a district that operate with charterlike conditions and are managed through lead partners. Brian Hassel, codirector of Public Impact, argues that the key to success is to deploy multiple strategies and intervene quickly if early indicators fail to show promising signs of success.

Even as the means continue to be debated, the term “turnaround” has quickly gained traction and is now used broadly to describe a movement to positively transform the performance of chronically failing school systems and schools.

To ensure that we are collectively working to solve the same problem, FSG tested Mass Insight Education’s definition of turnaround with interviewees:11

    “Turnaround is a dramatic and comprehensive intervention in a low-performing school that: a) produces significant gains in achievement within two years; and b) readies the school for the longer process of transformation into a high-performing organization.”

While we heard general support for this definition, interviewees also identified areas where debate exists about particular components (see Exhibit 8). Additionally, based on our interviews and research findings, we would add this phrase to the Mass Insight Education definition:

    “c) takes place in the context of performance improvement for the school system as a whole.”

The addition captures the emerging consensus that turnaround should not be a zero-sum game in which one school succeeds at the expense of others. Districts and states must focus continually on improving all schools. Finally, we would also recommend expanding this definition beyond individual schools to address the need to turn around schools at scale.

Exhibit 8: The Definition of Turnaround


While the debate continues, the current set of prevailing perspectives can be summarized into the following set of questions and suggested answers:

  • Is turnaround part of an ongoing performancemanagement system at the district level? Yes. Turnaround strategies are at the extreme end of, but nevertheless a part of, a continuum of school improvement. Districts need to turn around failing schools, ensure low-performing schools don’t fall into turnaround status, and improve the quality of every school.
  • Should building district and state capacity also be addressed? Yes. Although focused on schoollevel interventions, turnarounds must be supported with increased capacity at the district and state levels. Otherwise, the underlying conditions that led to chronically underperforming schools will continue to result in repeated failures.
  • How do you determine what are significant gains? We are not sure yet. This is an area currently generating significant debate in the field. There is agreement that the ultimate indicator of turnaround success is student academic results. Stakeholders also agree that measuring both growth rates and absolute results are important. However, indicators of progress and the end point at which a school can be considered to be turned around are still being broadly discussed. The next section on measuring success explores this debate more fully.
  • Is the time frame longer? Does it vary by school type? We are not sure yet. Many people argue that academic improvements should be seen in the first two years of a turnaround for an elementary or middle school, and within three years for a high school. However, the absolute performance of the school may still take an additional two to three years to reach district and state standards (depending on the rigor of the standards). Many believe that the insistence on a shorter time frame lies at the heart of differentiating turnaround from other, slower improvement strategies and is a key step in maintaining political will and funding for turnaround efforts.
  • Will a focus on quick results overshadow capacity building to sustain improvements? Hopefully not, but interviewees cited this as a danger the field is paying close attention to. Most stakeholders believed that quick results are needed to ensure the long-term sustainability of funding, political will, and community support.

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1 Tehrani, Alex, “How to Fix No Child Left Behind,” Time, May 24, 2007.

2 U.S. Department of Education, EDFacts.

3 Mass Insight Education, “The Turnaround Challenge,” 2007.

4 Cheeseman Day, Jennifer, and Eric C. Newberger, “The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings,” U.S. Census Current Population Reports, July 2002; Office of Applied Studies, Substance Abuse, and Mental Health Statistics Web site; Department of Justice Web site; Maynard, Rebecca A., ed., Kids Having Kids: Economic Costs and Social Consequences of Teen Pregnancy (Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute, 1996).

5 Cohen, Mark A., “The Monetary Value of Saving High Risk Youth,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1998; McKinsey & Company, Social Sector Office, “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools,” 2009; Maynard, Rebecca A., ed., Kids Having Kids: Economic Costs and Social Consequences of Teen Pregnancy (Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute, 1996); Department of Justice Web site.

6 U.S. Department of Education, EDFacts.

7 FSG interviews.

8 Hess, Frederic, and Thomas Gift, “School Turnarounds: Resisting the Hype, Giving Them Hope,” Education Outlook, February 2009.

9 Smarick, Andy, “The Turnaround Fallacy,” EducationNext, Winter 2010, Vol. 10, No. 1,

10 Ibid.

11 See appendices for a list of all interviewees.