The School Turnaround Field Guide

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 The School Turnaround Field Guide

In the second part of this report, we assess the strategies needed to direct the trajectory of school turnaround toward success. Part II covers three major topics:

  • Lessons learned from existing efforts at schools and systems,
  • Issues to be addressed for turnaround to succeed at scale, and
  • Activities that could increase the likelihood of success

Lessons Learned from Early Efforts

Although most school turnaround efforts are at an early stage, FSG spoke with pioneering practitioners — at the school and system levels — to identify conditions that drive success and common lessons learned for effective turnarounds. There have been pockets of demonstrated success in turning around individual schools, with signs of promise that districts and states are making significant changes in their processes, structures, and strategies that will support the work of turning around large numbers of schools. While not a comprehensive list of all lessons learned from early efforts, the insights we present are those that resonated most strongly with stakeholders across the sector.

Schools-Level Lessons Learned

Practitioners that have taken on schools in need of turnaround, even the school operators that have previously been successful at managing schools with high-need populations of students, consistently say that they were unprepared for the severity of the student need and the school issues that had to be addressed.

As a result, they have had to make fundamental changes in their approaches to building school culture, training and supporting staff, and driving improved student performance. What follows is an overview of some of the lessons that school operators, districts, states, and their partners have learned for successful turnaround at the school level. (For a summary, see Exhibit 15.)

Exhibit 15: School-Level Lessons Learned


  • Identify school leadership early so as to build in planning time to engage the community, establish the vision, and create a new school culture.
  • Prepare to meet student needs that are severe and pervasive — hire specialized staff, recruit and train teachers with specific capabilities, and engage with effective external providers, as appropriate.

Human Capital

  • Provide strong classroom and teamwork skills and additional support to teachers.
  • Empower principals and leadership teams with key autonomies over staffing, program, budget, schedule, and data.
  • Ensure principals and school leadership teams have the will, skill, and authority to drive change in demanding environments.

Maintaining Support and Building Sustainability

  • Signal change early and build momentum by delivering and communicating “quick wins.”
  • Build capacity for long-term sustainable results.


Build in planning time to engage the community, establish the vision, and create a new school culture.

  • Most interviewees, including turnaround principals and those working in districts and state central offices, agreed that a full “planning year” in advance of a school’s reopening yields the greatest likelihood of success, particularly when changing a large percentage of staff, as in the turnaround and restart models. NLNS recommends that turnaround leaders be hired and placed “as early as possible, preferably at least several months prior to the end of the school year preceding their formal adoption of the principalship.”47 Kenyatta Stansberry-Butler, principal of Harper High School in Chicago, points out that the amount of planning time required may vary “depending on how the turnaround looks. If the principal is not being replaced, six months ahead works. But when the entire staff is changing, including the principal, and you’re working in a high school situation, you may need a full year.” In the near term, the timeline for the distribution of SIG funds may make it difficult or impossible to build in this planning time.
  • Successful turnaround principals use this planning time to build community support, hire staff, create a vision for change, and align the staff and leadership team behind that vision, according to the providers and principals we interviewed. Interviewees also pointed out that transforming a school’s culture requires the development of a coherent and inspirational vision for success and strong alignment between all adults in the building to consistently execute, day in and day out, on the concrete actions needed to instill a new culture. Frequently cited actions include modeling behavior, setting high expectations, and enforcing discipline codes effectively and positively. “Our biggest success has been based on our ability to change the culture from day one,” says Marco Petruzzi, CEO at Green Dot Public Schools. “Removing an incredibly toxic culture, and creating a culture of respect, has to do with professional development for the adults in the building and consistent discipline.”

Prepare to meet student needs that are severe and pervasive.

  • While turnaround schools may appear demographically similar to other schools, years of chronic failure result in a higher level of student need. Operators that have taken on turnarounds expressed surprise about the extent of specialeducation needs, the level of violence, the depth of academic remediation required (particularly at high schools), and the prevalence of mentalhealth issues, even in comparison with other “high-need” schools they operated. Despite the fact that Mastery’s turnaround schools had a similar socioeconomic profile as its nonturnaround schools, the organization had to significantly revamp its program, staff composition, and staff training to deliver meaningful results, according to CEO Scott Gordon.
  • School operators note the importance of providing additional wraparound services and resources, including guidance counselors, extensive case management, mental-health services, social and emotional programming, deeper specialeducation services, academic remediation, and in some cases, increased security. For example, Greicius at Turnaround points to its four-pronged model for addressing social, emotional, and academic needs:48
    • Partnering with principals who agree to hire a social worker and allocate funds to support their work,
    • Developing systems around a studentintervention team to identify and deal with the most disruptive students, an instructional support team to look at teachers’ knowledge and classroom skills, and a core team to examine organizational thinking and identify problems that may be driven by the school’s procedures,
    • Providing access to resources, including extensive case management and partnering with universities to bring in social-work interns and develop a “small mental health clinic,” and
    • Facilitating knowledge and skill building, with intensive training in child development for teachers, social workers, support staff, and school leaders.

Human Capital

Provide strong classroom and teamwork skills and additional support to teachers and leaders.

  • Interviewees agreed that the quality of the adults in the building, particularly teachers and the principal, is one of the most significant drivers of success in a turnaround situation.
  • Teachers in turnaround schools must be able to meet students’ acute behavioral and academic needs through effective classroom discipline and consistent classroom management, and through remediation approaches targeted at students who are often significantly below grade level.
  • Teachers play an active role in creating a new school culture in concert with the principal. Turnaround teachers often work longer hours, take on additional responsibilities as part of leadership teams, and work in teams to case manage the highest-need students. School leaders must create and sustain professional learning communities for teachers that allow for mutually supportive, cross-content area dialogue.

For example, teachers should be provided with support to ensure classroom consistency in discipline and lessons and to draw connections in skills across content areas. Particularly in the turnaround and transformation models, professional development for teachers must be aimed at breaking established routines and norms, changing entrenched expectations, providing new instructional approaches, and creating and enforcing a school culture of high expectations for all students.

  • Interviewees also pointed to the importance for teachers to have more time with students through in-school extended-learning-time programs, as well as after-school and summer programs.49

Empower with key autonomies over staffing, program, budget,schedule, and data.

  • According to recent studies by William Ouchi, the performance of schools improves measurably when principals are given autonomy over their schools. Ouchi studied 442 schools in eight urban districts, finding a direct correlation between “how much control a principal has over his or her budget and how much that school’s student performance rises.” According to Ouchi, “School organization reform alone produces a more potent improvement in student performance than any other single factor.”50
  • In line with the study from William Ouchi cited above, Superintendent Pastorek says: “We believe that the fundamental underpinning [of turnaround] is to give the principal responsibility.” In addition to control over the site-based budget, critical autonomies pointed out by turnaround operators and principals also include flexibility over:
    • Staffing, including the ability to hire and fire staff, evaluate and observe teachers, and select leadership team members,
    • Program, including curriculum and instruction as well as school support services used, to meet academic, social, and emotional needs,
    • Schedule, including how time is used throughout the day, as well as the ability to increase learning and planning time by expanding the school day or year, and
    • Data, including the ability to collect, analyze, and act on real-time student-performance data.

Ensure that leaders have the will, skill, and authority to drive change.

  • Many of the characteristics and behaviors necessary in turnaround schools are not very different from those of any good leader. For example, interviewees mentioned the importance of stakeholder management and relationship building, communication, and instructional leadership. “Whatever intervention they pick, they work it,” says Ann Duffy, policy director of the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement, about successful turnaround leaders. “They are relentless, and they don’t let success deviate them from their path. They just layer on the next thing.”
  • Interviewees also highlightened that effective turnaround leaders must be ruthlessly consistent; willing to make difficult decisions around personnel and resource allocation; and able to maintain urgency, resolve crises, and hire and manage a new staff. Public Impact for the Chicago Public Education Fund defines four key competency clusters that turnaround school leaders must exhibit to be successful, which include: driving for results, influencing for results, problem solving, and showing the confidence to lead.51
  • Successful turnaround leaders are not “lone rangers” — they develop and rely on leadership teams, distribute responsibility among staff, and partner with the district and the community. “The most important thing for a school to have is adults on the same page,” says Josh Edelman of the District of Columbia Public Schools. “The turnaround principal, regardless of the model, has to see the importance of developing adult capacity. There are necessary competencies of developing relationships, using data, coaching people, and knowing how to hire the right people.”
  • The set of skills necessary for turnaround leaders may be even more pronounced at the high school level, according to Kathleen Smith of the Virginia Department of Education: “We’ve had one high school in turnaround that made it out last year, and it was hugely due to the culture in the building. In a high school setting, you need a larger critical mass of teachers who can move the initiative forward. You need the right leader to pull the faculty together. Fundamentally, it’s school leadership that will make the difference at the high school level — someone who can lead people who are stuck in what they do to some place far more challenging.”

Maintaining Support and Building Sustainability

Signal change early and build momentum by delivering and communicating “quick wins.”

  • The 2008 practice guide on turning around chronically low-performing schools from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Science (IES) highlights the need to “provide visible improvements early in the turnaround process” to “ rally staff around the effort and overcome resistance and inertia.”52 Quick wins in nonacademic areas signal to students and the community that a dramatic change is under way. In the words of a successful turnaround principal, “It shows that things are different here.”
  • Replacing a school’s leader and some staff, as in the turnaround and restart models, is a powerful way to signal a dramatic shift in culture to stakeholders inside and outside of a school, and the moves can serve as a catalyst for other changes in the school.
  • Quick wins might include improving the physical condition of the building, reducing disruptive student behavior, establishing a new disciplinary plan, improving student and faculty attendance, or establishing common team processes or planning time among teachers. These wins often come before improvements in student achievement, and they can serve as leading indicators of success.
  • Quick wins are also important in order to build community support for turnaround efforts. Successful turnaround principals and operators highlight nonacademic measures of school culture, such as rising student attendance, falling numbers of suspensions or expulsions, and upward movement on student and parent perception surveys as leading indicators that the turnaround is gaining commitment and support from parents and the broader community.

Build capacity for long-term sustainable results.

  • Proponents of turnaround at the district and state levels also encourage school leaders to systematize and build upon the culture, assessments, instructional approaches, and programs that allow schools to dramatically improve student performance. These efforts ensure that schools continue to improve and do not lapse back into failure. The IES practice guide backs this up, arguing that a “short-term focus on quick wins can establish a climate for long-term change,” but cautions that short-term gains must also be maintained, or else turnarounds risk becoming “yet another example of the transience of school reform and fodder for those who resist change.”
  • School leaders can build on short-term momentum and urgency around a school turnaround effort by simultaneously establishing effective processes and systems for the long term. For example, a school leader might establish regular teacher meetings to allow for continued collaboration; build out parent and community groups to sustain ongoing support; strengthen relationships with the district and state to more effectively access services; train staff in better use of data to drive improved instruction; and for independent school operators, develop a strong board to guide the school’s work.

System-Level Lessons Learned

Successful school-level turnaround efforts must be sustained and supported with corresponding changes at the system level. “Turnaround efforts won’t succeed if they are only school focused and are notcomplemented by systems change,” says Bob Hughes, president of New Visions. “No bad school is an island; it exists in a system.”

A school’s ability to sustain a turnaround effort, executing upon some of the lessons learned and the promising practices mentioned earlier, depends on processes, supports, and structures to enable sets of schools to turn around successfully. Interviews with districts, states, and school operators highlighted the following lessons learned (as summarized in Exhibit 16).

Exhibit 16: System-Level Lessons Learned


  • Articulate a powerful vision for turnaround and make tough decisions.
  • View turnaround as a portfolio of approaches, with closure as a viable option.

Creating Conditions and Building System Capacity

  • Create the necessary school-based conditions for success, partnering with labor unions as relevant.
  • Develop turnaround-specific capabilities and capacity.
  • Build accountability and data systems to track progress and inform decisions.
  • Build systems and structures that allow for sharing lessons across schools.


Articulate a powerful vision for turnaround and make tough decisions.

  • Promising systemic approaches to turnaround are rooted in a commitment to a powerful vision of student and school success. Without such a vision, district and state leaders believe that reform efforts will be fragmented and will not engender the political will to make needed, but difficult changes. Kathy Augustine, deputy superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, describes an example: “When [Superintendent] Hall came in 1999, she set a tone early on that she was a superintendent focusing on teaching and learning, and that is our core business. She put it right out there and tied it to the targets, making the accountability piece really clear.”
  • Further, stakeholders pointed out the necessity of making politically difficult decisions, such as closing failing schools, replacing principals, or negotiating with teachers’ unions for needed autonomies. “A critical challenge is the political courage on the local level to really do something different in these schools,” says Ann Whalen at the U.S. Department of Education. “The tendency is to do triage instead of whole-school and system change.” A district or state willing to make and stand behind politically difficult decisions allows school leaders and operators on the ground to promote bold changes.
  • When making difficult decisions, it is helpful to have support from businesses, philanthropy, government officials, parents, and communitybased organizations. Without communitywide support, school leaders and operators cautioned that even promising reform efforts can be put at risk. For example, the IES practice guide points to a large urban high school that had recently begun the turnaround process, but after “a year in which initial progress had been made, the district decided to close the school.”53 By embarking on a public campaign and generating broad support, the principal was able to “buy more time” and persuaded the district to keep the school open — ultimately leading to gains in student achievement.

View turnaround as a portfolio of approaches, with closure as a viable option.

  • For many states and districts, the enormity and urgency of the challenge necessitates a willingness to consider all four turnaround models. “We need to be ruthless in our effort to save kids, and look at every option available to us,” says Paul Pastorek, state superintendent of Louisiana. In the short term, however, districts and state interviewees choose turnaround models based on resource constraints, such as the availability of human capital and operators. Yet forward-thinking districts and states are also planning to track performance and build capacity to use models in the long term based on the needs of schools and the efficacy of the models.
  • Districts and states should view school closure as a viable option at the system level, particularly when districts invest in creating new, high-performing schools. In large urban districts with issues of underutilization, closing schools and reassigning students can effectively allow districts to reallocate per-pupil dollars, offering the opportunity to “right size” the system.

Recent research from Chicago’s Consortium of School Research, which studied 18 Chicago public elementary schools closed between 2001 and 2006 due to chronically poor academic performance or enrollment significantly below capacity, found that the “success of a school-closing policy hinges on the quality of the receiving schools that accept the displaced students.”54 Students who were re-enrolled in the strongest “receiving schools” (with test scores in the top quartile of all system schools) experienced significant gains in math and reading achievement. However, displaced students who were re-enrolled in the weakest receiving schools (with test scores in the bottom quartile of all system schools) experienced an achievement loss of more than a month in reading and half a month in math, one year after school closings.

Where high-performing options do not exist, states and districts can play a role in creating new highquality options for students, including charter schools. Furthermore, school closures can be highly political and controversial, inciting anger and disappointment at the community level. State education departments can support districts through strategies that engage communities, provide “political cover,” and deliver timely and accessible data about the chronic underperformance of schools.

  • Viewing the system as a portfolio of schools enables decision making about the effective allocation and deployment of resources. In Montgomery County, Maryland, Superintendent Jerry Weast recognized that a “majority of low-income and minority students had been clustered in about half the district’s schools, which significantly underperformed the other half.” By shifting resources from low-need to high-need schools, Weast and his team enabled those schools to increase time on task, hire bettertrained teachers, offer early-childhood education, and reduce class size.55

Creating Conditions and Building System Capacity

Create the necessary school conditions for success, partnering with labor unions as relevant.

  • In line with the school-level lessons learned, school leaders must have site-based autonomy over staffing, program, budget, schedule, and data.
  • Mass Insight Education’s report “The Turnaround Challenge” underscores the key levers for autonomy.56 The six states partnering with Mass Insight Education in its Partnership Zone Initiative — Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and New York — are required to provide lead partners with the authority to select principals in their schools, the power to supervise every program or provider that brings in support services, accountability for student outcomes in their cluster of schools, and a staff member on-site at each of the schools.
  • But greater autonomy requires people in place who can use that autonomy successfully. That said, districts and state interviewees believed a major challenge for turnaround is attracting, developing, and retaining the necessary talent. Central to effective human capital strategies is the ability to directly put in place policies or partner with labor unions and negotiate agreements that affect staff hiring and turnover, performance pay, teacher evaluation, distribution of teachers, work rules, and charter policies.
  • State education departments can promote conversations between districts and unions, as in Massachusetts, where the state education department has taken on an active role in convening unions and districts and facilitating the negotiation process. In Rhode Island, the state education department has taken a different approach, working with the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers to develop a joint-venture model for site-based management, where labor gets a “seat at the table” in return for giving up the existing contract and negotiating a schoolspecific contract.

The Rhode Island education department, too, has exercised significant authority under state law over such labor issues as seniority and assignment. “When we’ve reached what feels like an impasse with improvement and we think human capital is the issue, we haven’t hesitated to order districts to make that change,” says David Abbott, deputy commissioner at the Rhode Island Department of Education.

  • Other districts have proactively negotiated with local labor, as in New Haven, Connecticut, where teachers ratified a new contract aimed at the district’s lowest-performing schools, as described above.
  • In many cases, however, changes to state laws and regulations have been needed to allow districts and unions to draft new policies around labor. For example, Superintendent Pastorek says Hurricane Katrina allowed for a new model and approach to labor issues in New Orleans with the creation of the Recovery School District.

Develop turnaround-specific capabilities and capacity.

  • A number of states and districts have begun to dedicate resources and create specific units to oversee turnaround work. This practice was raised as a key success factor by states, districts, and turnaround operators and providers alike. Interviewees also cited the importance of states and districts taking advantage of current funding around school turnaround to put long-term systems and capabilities in place that sustain their initial turnaround efforts.
  • Interviewees also wanted to see states and districts develop robust human capital pipelines to support turnaround efforts. In particular, they wanted to see aligned programs that are specifically designed to recruit, train, certify, and support teachers and principals for turnaround schools. This is particularly relevant for building system capacity to employ the turnaround model or in rural schools that may have difficulty attracting turnaround-ready educators. States and districts themselves expressed the need to build their own human capital capacity — bringing in new staff with relevant turnaround expertise and enhancing the turnaround knowledge of their current staff.
  • In order to effectively support school leaders and operators, stakeholders believed central offices need to increase the operational supports they provide to turnaround schools. Chris Coxon, chief program officer of initiatives at the Texas High School Project, says that “a critical factor for turnaround situations is the ability of districts and states to ‘clear the deck’ for school leaders.” Anything that takes principals away from their focus of teaching, learning, and community engagement — meetings at the state level, dealing with facilities issues like a broken window, problems with food services — should be handled speedily by district or state central-office staff. For example, work is under way in Washington, D.C., to build the district’s capacity to take on noninstructional issues quickly and efficiently, while in Virginia, the state turnaround office responds to all principal outreach within 24 hours.
  • Given the increasing number of new organizations entering the school turnaround field, principals and school operators we interviewed frequently expressed their desire for districts and states to vet the quality of turnaround providers.
  • Districts or school operators should commit to strategically reallocate resources and empower school leaders. In New York City, for example, when resource-mapping exercises revealed that only half of the budget was being spent in the schools, a decision was made to decentralize funding and devolve as much decision making as possible to schools. “Aligning resources to key infrastructure and decision points along the way is necessary,” says Sajan George, managing director at Alvarez and Marsal. “Rather than overlaying a new turnaround initiative on top of what exists, you need to fundamentally change how you do business as a district.”

Build accountability and data systems to track progress and inform decisions.

  • Interviewees believed that districts, states, and school operators should invest in data systems that provide longitudinal as well as formative real-time data linking student performance with targeted turnaround interventions. According to the Data Quality Campaign, 44 states now collect data that can identify the schools producing the strongest academic growth for students, up from 21 states in 2005.57 For example, Chicago has made a major investment in an online school- and student-level data system that allows for more frequent assessments and rapid turnaround of results to inform decision making. “You need to have systems built to be able to know what’s happening, or else how can you effect change?” asks Alan Anderson, acting deputy CEO for human capital at Chicago Public Schools.
  • Data systems should also be used to track school performance across the district, assessing where progress is being made in turnaround schools, guiding earlier intervention in other schools so that they do not need turnaround, and ensuring that interventions in turnaround schools are not having adverse impacts on other district schools. Providing central-office staff with real-time, formative data on school and teacher performance allows for greater accountability, as well as enables more effective decision making around issues like resource allocation and human capital management.
  • Interviewees stressed that accountability systems need to be structured between states and districts, between districts and school operators, between districts/school operators and schools, and between all of the above and local communities. The systems should ensure that clear performance and reporting goals are set and communicated so that accurate and timely progress and outcome data can be shared, learned from, and acted upon. Within good systems, accountability enables autonomy, and relationships are based on mutual goals and support instead of on compliance and consequences.

Build systems and structures that allow for sharing lessons across schools.

  • According to Mass Insight Education, a benefit of its cluster-based approach is to facilitate knowledge and resource sharing. The development of clusters, organized around identified needs (such as school type, student characteristics, feeder patterns, or regions), also has the potential to provide specialized supports, deliver common services, develop stronger purchasing power among schools, and create opportunities for shared learning and support across schools.

Clustered networks have been introduced in a number of urban school districts, including Miami-Dade’s Improvement Zone and Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 schools. Clusters are also being formed at the state level, where Mass Insight Education’s Partnership Zone Initiative is working with six partner states to ensure they receive advice and support from national education organizations in human capital, policy, and nonacademic supports.

  • Cohort-based knowledge sharing can also happen through district or state efforts to create communities of practice or working groups of principals.58

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47 New Leaders for New Schools, “Principal Effectiveness.”

48 FSG interviews.

49 Interview with Jeff Riley, the academic superintendent for middle and K-8 schools in Boston.

50 Ouchi, William, The Secret of TSL, The Revolutionary Discovery That Raises School Performance (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009).

51 Public Impact for the Chicago Public Education Fund, “Leaders for School Turnaround: Competencies for Success,” June 2008.

52 Herman, Rebecca, Priscilla Dawson, Thomas Dee, Jay Greene, Rebecca Maynard, Sam Redding, and Marlene Darwin, “Turning Around Chronically Low-Performing Schools: A Practice Guide,” National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, 2008.

53 Ibid.

54 De La Torre, Marisa, and Julia Gwynne. “When Schools Close: Effects on Displaced Students in Chicago Public Schools,” Consortium on Chicago School Research, October 2009.

55 Childress, Stacey, “Moving Beyond the Conventional Wisdom of Whole-District Reform,” EdWeek, September 14, 2009.

56 Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, “The Turnaround Challenge,” 2007.

57 Data Quality Campaign Web site.

58 Maxwell, Leslie A., “Six States Sign on to School Turnaround Project,” EdWeek, February 2, 2010.