The School Turnaround Field Guide

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 The School Turnaround Field Guide

“Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform — reform that raises student achievement … and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to the inner city.”

— President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, January 27, 2010

In early 2009, the Obama administration announced its intention to use $5 billion to turn around the nation’s 5,000 poorest-performing schools over the next five years. This was a bold challenge to an education sector that has had some success at turning around individual schools, but has not yet delivered dramatic change at a large scale.

A year and a half later, the school turnaround field is at a critical juncture. A great deal of debate, dialogue, and planning has taken place. Now with federal funds being distributed, as well as turnaround strategies developed at most states and in many districts, the emphasis is switching from planning to action. FSG’s motivation in releasing this report at this moment in time is to help ensure that actions taken will be coordinated, fueled by promising practices, and guided by the evaluation of results.

To those ends, this report provides a guide to the emerging school turnaround field. It includes an assessment of the need; a snapshot of key areas of debate, such as how to measure success; a summary of the policy and funding environment; and an assessment of the sector’s capacity, including a map of turnaround actors and the roles they play. The report explores early lessons learned from turnaround practitioners, summarizes key issues challenging the field, and identifies critical gaps that will need to be filled. Finally, the report recommends actions that hold promise for increasing the likelihood that turnaround efforts can succeed at scale.

In writing this report, FSG drew upon more than 100 interviews with turnaround experts, practitioners, policymakers, researchers, and funders. Our research also included an extensive review of secondary reports and articles as well as a synthesis of discussions among 275 turnaround focused actors who attended the “Driving Dramatic School Improvement Conference” that FSG cohosted with Stanford Social Innovation Review on January 11, 2010. The event included representatives from the U.S. Department of Education, state and district superintendents and staff, policymakers, education practitioners, human capital providers, school principals, researchers, and philanthropic funders.

Finally, we drew extensively on the guidance and feedback of an advisory group consisting of a crosssection of turnaround actors, including district and state leaders, philanthropic funders, human capital providers, school operators, and education entrepreneurs and experts. The appendices list the interviewees and research sources, and the advisory-group members are listed on the inside cover of this report.

Given how rapidly the turnaround sector is growing and evolving, parts of this report will likely become out of date immediately after it is published. Regardless, we believe that the main themes, gaps, and lessons identified can serve the field in three ways:

  • We hope that for new actors poised to enter the turnaround space — school districts, school operators, education entrepreneurs, funders — the report highlights the importance of the work and illustrates the state of the field, and as a result encourages and eases new entrants.
  • We hope that for existing organizations focused on the difficult work of turning around schools, the report provides new ideas, leads them to identify new partners, and helps strengthen their knowledge and capacity.
  • Finally, we hope that this report helps the turnaround field as a whole as it spurs additional dialogue and connections, facilitates the creation and sharing of knowledge, and helps multiple actors better understand their own roles and how they most effectively work in concert with others — a prerequisite if the field is to succeed in turning around thousands of failing schools.

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