The School Turnaround Field Guide

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 The School Turnaround Field Guide

The federal government — with significant funding and strong policy direction — is setting the pace for school turnaround. This section outlines the sources of federal funding for school turnaround efforts, as well as the four approaches to turnaround that the U.S. Department of Education expects LEAs to follow as they put RTTT and SIG funds to work.

Federal Funding

Education-reform efforts are hardly new (see Exhibit 11). However, the Obama administration’s unprecedented investment in education reform through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 has significantly, if temporarily, expanded the federal role in education. The sheer size of the investment, coupled with the magnitude of the budget deficits facing states and districts, has put the federal government in a position to incent policy change at the state level and to set guidelines for the turnaround strategies of states and LEAs. Funding that has an impact on turnaround efforts includes:

  • Race to the Top Fund. $4.35 billion in competitive grants to states, with turnaround being a key focus. Guidelines for the turnaround section specify that LEAs must implement at least one of the four turnaround models outlined below. LEAs with nine or more turnaround schools must use multiple models. Of the 41 applications submitted in the first phase of RTTT, 16 applicants proceeded to the final round: Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Of the 16 finalists, Delaware and Tennessee were the winners of the first phase of RTTT. The three states with the highest scores on the turnaround section of the application were Washington, D.C. (50.0), Illinois (49.4), and Tennessee (48.0).17 Thirty-six states submitted Round 2 applications. Of the 19 states that were selected as second-round finalists, 10 were awarded grants, including the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island.
  • School Improvement Grants. $3.55 billion allocated to states according to a Title I formula, with the funds to be granted out competitively to districts. Guidelines align with RTTT, including the need to use the four turnaround models. SIG funds may be awarded to all Title I schools, as well as schools that are eligible for but do not receive Title I, Part A funds, if those schools have not made AYP for at least two years or are in the state’s lowest-performance quintile. States decide the amount of SIG funding an individual school receives, based on district applications, and funding can range from $50,000 to $2 million.
  • Investing in Innovation Fund (i3). $650 million in competitive grants awarded to nonprofit-LEA partnerships to expand innovative and evidence-based approaches that improve student achievement, close achievement gaps, and improve teacher and principal effectiveness — all areas related to turnaround. Of nearly 1,700 applicants, 49 were chosen as winners – four at the up-to- $50 million “scale-up” level, 15 at the up-to- $30 million “validation” level, and 30 at the up-to-$5 million “development” level. Of the winners, 13 were primarily focused on turning around the lowest-performing schools.

All told as a result of ARRA, schools received approximately $14 billion over their regular Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) appropriation. School-improvement funding received an additional $5 billion boost in 2009 due to RTTT and i3 funding. However, ESEA funding in 2010 is expected to drop to its previous levels.

This speaks to the concerns that states and districts express about the “funding cliff” that will follow the sudden and significant infusion of federal education dollars in 2009, as well as the urgent need for this funding to be invested in developing long-term capacity rather than being allocated to ongoing operational costs. An additional concern is that the federally mandated timing for distributing and employing SIG and other turnaround-related funding does not provide states and school districts with adequate time to develop and implement thoughtful turnaround plans for high-need schools.

Schools may receive another infusion of funding in 2011 from a potential increase in i3 and SIG funds and a proposed $1.35 billion extension of RTTT, with competition extended to include districts.18 President Obama is also seeking an additional $900 million for School Turnaround Grants available for the districts that are home to the 2,000 schools which produce more than half of the nation’s dropouts. “We know that the success of every American will be tied more closely than ever to the level of education that they achieve,” Obama said in March 2010 at an America’s Promise Alliance event.19

The sizable federal-government investment in education, as well as the competition for RTTT (where turnaround accounts for 10 percent of the RTTT application-scoring rubric), has already driven state- and district-level policy change across the nation. Many states, such as California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Rhode Island, and Tennessee, have passed legislation to link teacher evaluation and student data. Illinois raised its charter cap.20

Lawmakers in Massachusetts passed a major bill granting the state education commissioner authority to intervene in low-performing schools when local district and union leaders are unable to agree on issues, such as replacing teachers and lengthening the school day.21 Illinois has created 12 “super LEAs” in which superintendents and union leaders have agreed to work around existing collective-bargaining agreements to adopt new evaluation systems and implement more aggressive reform in low-performing schools.22

Exhibit 11: The Link to Past Reform Efforts

The Obama administration is attempting to both build on the lessons of past education reforms and to distinguish itself from them. The current reform effort has differentiated itself from previous initiatives through its use of large pools of funding (RTTT, SIG, i3), a competitive process to allocate education dollars to states and districts, and more prescriptive guidelines to dictate the reform strategy. At the “Driving Dramatic School Improvement” conference, Joanne Weiss, former director of RTTT, summarized the current approach: “[The federal government] is thinking about competition as a force for change — as a way to maximize impact.”

The major previous reform efforts since the influential 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report are listed below, along with examples of how they have shaped today’s thinking:

  • Effective Schools Research. In the 1980s, a team of researchers led by Ronald Edmonds, director of the Center of Urban Studies at Harvard University, identified seven “correlates” that determine a school’s success: clear mission; high expectations; instructional leadership; frequent monitoring of student progress; opportunity to learn and student time on task; safe and orderly environment; and home-school relations. Edmonds’ research helped shape current thinking about what makes schools effective and provided an early basis for many of the requirements of the current reform initiative.
  • School Choice. The school choice program gained momentum in the 1990s and empowered students and parents with options that in turn raised the standard of education. It introduced a philosophy of competition to the effort and a belief that students should have compelling options for education. These ideas have carried through to the development of the four current turnaround models and the use of charter, private and public contract, and district providers to serve as turnaround operators.
  • Charter School Movement. Charter schools are free from the staffing, curriculum, and programmatic restrictions imposed on most traditional district schools. They are viewed as prime candidates to take over and turn around failing schools, given the autonomy and flexibility they bring to budget, staffing, curriculum, and schedule.
  • Small Schools. The Small Schools Movement was predicated upon the belief that a personalized learning environment in small schools can make a significant difference in the academic achievement of high-needs students. When implemented effectively, this personal attention can have positive results. Operators like Green Dot demonstrated the approach when it broke up Locke High School in Los Angeles into smaller units as part of its turnaround plan for the school, for example.
  • No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The federal government’s NCLB Act of 2001 required all public schools to administer statewide standardized tests annually to students in certain grades and subjects. NCLB represented the most sweeping changes to ESEA since its 1965 enactment. In addition to a focus on stronger accountability, the act increased school choice and local control, and placed an emphasis on proven teaching methods.
  • Comprehensive School Reform (CSR). The federally backed CSR Program began in 1998. It helps public schools raise student achievement as they implement effective, comprehensive models. The current reform initiative builds on the CSR Program’s strengths: its philosophy of dramatic and systemic reform; and its expectation that districts integrate specific components into their reform plans to qualify for funding. At the same time, the current effort provides states and districts with more detailed guidance about turnaround approaches, and significantly more funding to support reform efforts — two areas where critics of the CSR Program have often focused.

The Four Turnaround Models

The federal government is requiring LEAs to use the following four turnaround models in order to qualify for RTTT and SIG funding:

  • Turnarounds. Replace the principal and rehire no more than 50 percent of the school’s staff; adopt a new governance structure; provide job-embedded professional development; offer staff financial and career-advancement incentives; implement a research-based, aligned instructional program; extend learning and teacher planning time; create a community-orientation; and provide operating flexibility.

Case Example: Highland Elementary School in Montgomery County, Maryland, replaced its principal and half its staff, as well as introduced new instruction methods, data analysis for student instruction, and staff accountability for student achievement. As a result of this intervention, the school performed strongly enough to receive the 2009 National Blue Ribbon awarded for placement in the top 10 percent of state assessments or dramatic improvement in assessment scores over a five-year period.23

  • Restarts. Transfer control of, or close and reopen, a school under a school operator that has been selected through a rigorous review process. A restart model must enroll, within the grades it serves, any former student who wishes to attend.

Case Example: Mastery Charter School Shoemaker Campus in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was taken over by Mastery Public Charter Schools in 2006. Mastery’s model includes a strong focus on individualized instruction, teacher coaching and professional development, a culture of high expectations, rigorous academic standards, and problem-solving and social-emotional skills. In three years, the school more than tripled reading scores from 20 percent proficient to 71 percent proficient and raised math scores from 15 percent proficient to 88 percent proficient — completely closing the achievement gap and even outperforming state averages.24

  • Transformations. Replace the principal (no requirement for staff replacement); provide job-embedded professional development; implement a rigorous teacher-evaluation and reward system; offer financial and career advancement incentives; implement comprehensive instructional reform; extend learning- and teacher-planning time; create a community-orientation; and provide operating flexibility and sustained support.

Case Example: Benwood Schools in Chattanooga, Tennessee, introduced merit-pay plans, teacher-linked data collection, teacher evaluation, embedded professional development, teacher coaching on using student data, and leadership development. As a result, the percentage of third-graders scoring proficient or advanced in reading jumped from 53 percent in 2003 to 81 percent in 2007, and the Benwood schools outgained 90 percent of all schools on the state’s value-added test scores.25

School Closures. Close the school and enroll students in other, higher-achieving schools.

Case Example: In 2007, the Denver Public School District (DPS) closed eight schools due to underenrollment and poor student performance, relocating 2,000 students to three schools within DPS. The closures generated $3.5 million in savings, of which $2 million was directed to the three middle schools where students were relocated. The 2008-2009 Colorado Student Assessment Program indicates that the relocated students are showing increased academic growth in their new schools, although not to the extent the school district had hoped.26

Exhibit 12: Is School Closure a Turnaround Strategy?

Of the four models, school closure has generated the most significant debate. Educators point to its demoralizing effect on the community and the lack of high-quality alternative schools to which students from the closed school can be moved. Many opponents of the model even question whether it can be considered a turnaround strategy, given that it advocates shutting down a school rather than improving its performance.

Proponents of school closure say it is an important turnaround approach at the district or system level. “When conscientiously applied strategies fail to drastically improve America’s lowest-performing schools, we need to close them,” writes Smarick. “Done right, not only will this strategy help the students assigned to these failing schools, it will also have a cascading effect on other policies and practices, ultimately helping to bring about healthy systems of urban public schools.” Proponents argue that districts must look at their schools as part of a portfolio, and that closing down some schools may enable the district to improve its overall performance.

When districts close schools, particularly in districts that face declining student enrollment, they are able to concentrate limited financial and staff resources on fewer schools. Proponents recognize that it is always difficult for parents and students of the schools targeted for closure, but point out that these schools have been chronically underperforming for years. Closing the school may be the best thing for students, who may be moved immediately to a more productive learning environment.

Comparing the Models

The federal government introduced these four models so as to ensure that RTTT and SIG funding is spent on dramatic rather than incremental reform.27 However, significant debate surrounds the models — and around school closure, in particular, as summarized in Exhibit 12. Concerns have been raised that the overall framework of options does not adequately address the operating constraints of rural states and does not reflect other important elements of a turnaround strategy, such as the need for parent and community involvement.28 Also, interviewees said the timetable for the distribution and use of SIG funds is causing states and school districts to employ less dramatic turnaround approaches.

Many questions also surround the use of the models: How to implement them, how effective they are in turning around schools, and how to choose the right model to fit school and local conditions. Little research-based evidence exists to answer any of these questions, representing a significant gap for the field.29 When comparing the models, at this time we can only offer observations based on their specifications and on a limited number of experiences that interviewees shared:

By definition, he four models have different requirements for new principals and teachers:

  • Turnarounds and restarts require the replacement of the principal and many teachers.
  • Transformations require replacement of the principal.
  • School closures do not necessitate new staff on site.

In addition, the four models also have different requirements for providers and school operators:

  • Restarts depend on outside providers who can take over the school.
  • Transformations and turnarounds rely on organizations that can provide professional development tailored to the severity of the turnaround situation.
  • School closures do not depend on outside providers, but do depend on the availability of higher-performing schools.
  • The four models may differ in start-up and ongoing operating costs:
  • Restarts can be costly, as districts may need to do capital improvement and perhaps even donate property, as well as pass on potentially augmentedper-student funding to the school operator brought in to run the turnaround school. The district incurs the cost of planning for the transfer and may pay the school operator ongoing management fees. However, the same operator may have the ability to attract additional resources to the school from philanthropic or private funding and may contract with the district and pay for some district services.
  • Turnaround costs are largely the responsibility of districts, including compensation for new principals and teachers, costs connected with the release of current tenured teachers (which depend on the terms of collective-bargaining agreements), capital-improvement costs for site renovation, and other supports for new staff in the building. In the near term, SIG funding is expected to cover a large portion of these costs, which allows districts to do this work in-house. Over time, districts that choose this model must realize economies of scale to lower their costs.
  • Transformations require districts to provide professional development to teachers (paying for the expert advice and compensating teachers for time spent on professional development), as well as to change evaluation systems and implement instructional reform.
  • School closures have the lowest cost in the long term and may conserve district resources if consolidation is needed based on enrollment trends. However, initial costs to release tenured teachers as part of school closure could be significant and could linger two to three years, depending on the specific terms of a district’s collective-bargaining agreements. Another hidden cost is the need to guard against theft and ensure that school resources are liquidated or distributed. Finally, districts may incur significant transportation costs if higher-performing schools are not available in the neighborhood of the school to be closed.
  • The cost to implement each of the models will vary state to state and even district to district due to different labor costs, labor contract terms, agreements with school operators and service providers, and facilities and renovation costs.

The four models differ, as well, in the need for political will to overcome resistance to implementation:

  • School closures, for many community stakeholders, signal that the district has given up on that school’s staff, students, families, and community, and causes students to transfer and travel to new schools.
  • Restarts involve transferring control of a school outside of district control, frequently to a charter operator.
  • Turnarounds generate resistance given the requirement for staff replacement.
  • Transformations are less controversial because they require the least disruption to school operations or staff.

Finally, the models may vary in how quickly and deeply they affect school culture, and ultimately, student achievement:

  • Restarts may have the greatest potential for rapid impact in terms of culture and academic achievement, because a third-party school operator brings with it an entirely new staff, a fresh culture, and in the case of experienced operators, tested techniques for improving school and student performance.
  • Turnarounds may potentially generate the second-highest level of impact, due to the large changes in staff and the ability to reset the culture of the school.
  • Transformations are perceived to have lower potential for impact than other models. They are seen as most similar to many of the restructuring reforms tried, unsuccessfully, under NCLB, and many observers do not view them as a dramatic enough intervention to achieve significant results.
  • School closures’ impact is entirely dependent on the ability to relocate students to more highly performing schools.

The models requiring fewer resources are also the ones perceived to have lower potential for impact.30 This relationship is troubling, if the evidence collected in the future substantiates it, because transformations are the most commonly implemented strategy among states and districts. Currently, this choice is being made largely based on resource constraints, such as the availability of new principals or high-quality school operators, and on the need to quickly employ SIG funds. In their RTTT applications, many states — particularly rural states like Idaho, Iowa, Oregon, and West Virginia — wrote that human capital challenges limit their ability to pursue turnaround and restart models. Closure is likely not an option, given the limited number of schools in rural areas.

In spite of these limitations, some rural states have proposed to leverage all of the models. Georgia is entering into partnerships with Teach for America, the New Teachers Project, and UTeach to build its teacher pipeline specifically to help rural areas adopt the turnaround and restart models.31 Our interviewees consistently cited a desire to build enough capacity and to perform enough evaluation so that in the future they could choose a model for individual schools based on its potential for impact.

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17 U.S. Department of Education.

18 McNeil, Michele, “Obama to Seek $1.35 Billion Race to Top Expansion,” Education Week, January 19, 2010,

19 “Remarks by the President at the America’s Promise Alliance Education Event,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, March 1, 2010,

20 Maxwell, Lesli, “Digging Through States’ Race to Top Bids,” State EdWatch blog, Education Week, January 27, 2010,; Robelen, Eric W., “‘Race to Top’ Driving Policy Action Across States,” Education Week, December 23, 2009,; Sawchuk, Stephen, and Lesli A. Maxwell, “States Vie to Stand Out in Race to Top Proposals,” Education Week, January 27, 2010,​iqlVFQf3.

21 Maxwell, Lesli, “Digging Through States’ Race to Top Bids,” State EdWatch blog, Education Week, January 27, 2010,

22 Race to the Top Fund, “Applicant Info: States’ Applications, Scores, and Comments for Phase 1,”​tothetop/phase1-applications/index.html.

23 FSG research.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 U.S. Department of Education.

28 Klein, Alyson, “School Turnaround Models Draw Bipartisan Concern,” Education Week, May 21, 2010.

29 See the appendices for a list of research reports that specifically address turnaround options.

30 FSG interviews.

31 Ibid.