The School Turnaround Field Guide
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The School Turnaround Field Guide
Given the early stages of turnaround work, it is not surprising that our research and interviews unearthed significant gaps that must be filled to ensure that school turnarounds can succeed at scale (see Exhibit 17).
Exhibit 17: Key Gaps
Capacity: There are not enough proven turnaround experts or organizations, and existing organizations are still building capacity and infrastructure. Additionally, there is little capacity to assess the quality of the large number of new entrants to the school turnaround field.
Funding: There may be a lack of ongoing operational funding to sustain efforts. Additionally, the requirements for the distribution of federal funds are putting pressure on states and school districts to act without adequate planning time.
Public and Political Will: Key actors find it challenging to make the difficult decisions required for dramatic school turnaround.
Conditions: Policies and conditions in districts and states are frequently at odds with what is necessary for success in turnaround.
Research and Knowledge Sharing: There is not enough research or evidence to identify, share, and scale effective turnaround interventions.
High Schools and Rural Schools: While improving the performance of any school is difficult, it is particularly challenging to implement and succeed in school turnaround at high schools and at schools in rural areas.
Gaps in Capacity
There are not enough high-quality experts or organizations engaging in school turnaround work to reach the necessary scale. Existing organizations are still building their own capacity and expertise, and district and state offices lack the people, tools, and infrastructure to assess providers and support turnaround work. The gaps in capacity break down into four categories:
Human Capital Capacity. Education leaders point to human capital at the school and system levels as a significant concern. At the school level, there is an insufficient supply of high-quality teachers and leaders who are prepared to take on the uniquely challenging environments of turnaround situations. This problem is particularly acute given that several of the turnaround models require new leaders and teachers. Many of the organizations who recruit, train, and support new principals and teachers are not focused on school turnaround or are still building their own capacity to identify and prepare turnaround-ready educators. Although institutes of higher education have the potential to provide greater scale in preparing enough teachers and leaders to go into targeted schools, significant concerns exist about whether their current programs can prepare turnaround leaders and teachers. School operators, districts, states, and other turnaround providers are also struggling with finding and training the right people to lead and staff their own turnaround initiatives and offices.
District and State Capacity. Many states and districts still have no specific department or staff focused on school turnarounds. Additionally, they lack turnaround-specific funding streams; structures like data and accountability systems or rubrics to vet partners; knowledge of best practices; and capabilities like engaging unions, partnering with business and philanthropy, or analyzing real-time data. Finally, states and districts have often fallen into relationships based on compliance, and they now need to build their capacity to work more effectively as turnaround collaborators. “We at the state departments of education need to build our capacity,” says John King at the New York State Department of Education. “Federal policy is now asking states to go from a compliance focus to a support focus, which is a big transformation in and of itself.”
Operator Capacity. Few turnaround-focused operators exist to serve the market, and most of those that do are still too early in their work to have proven results. “I’m not sure we have the experienced, proven vendors that could do this job in a sufficiently critical mass to cover the whole United States with lead partners,” says Smith at the Virginia Department of Education. The U.S. Department of Education has urged CMOs to take on turnarounds, but for the most part, charter management organizations and charter operators have not taken up the challenge en masse. This may be due to the fact that many charter organizations are still struggling to reach scale and quality within their existing models or that their models differ in important ways from those needed to succeed in turnarounds.
Provider Capacity. As with operators, there are not enough proven turnaround-focused providers to serve the number of schools and districts in need of turnaround. It may also be a challenge to convince high-quality human capital and other service providers to enter this space, because the work is difficult and because turnaround schools represent only a small sliver of the market that these organizations can attempt to serve. “The turnaround market may not be big enough right now to be worth spending time on it,” says Larry Berger of Wireless Generation. “Why wouldn’t I rather sell to Buffalo, New York, than to all the turnaround schools? They can guarantee demand in a way that the turnaround space can’t.” This challenge is particularly acute in rural areas, where providers or operators are unlikely to be motivated by the possibility of reaching scale. However, in some areas, the lure of federal funding is leading to a large number of new entrants into the school turnaround space. In the long term, this will be good for the field’s capacity; but, in the short term, many of these organizations have little direct turnaround experience and need to build their own expertise and capacity.
Gaps in Funding
State and district leaders expressed concerns that RTTT and other federal funding is short term and will not be available to sustain the work unless turnaround is more formally built into the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. On the positive side, there is the potential for additional funding in the near future. In January 2010, President Obama requested an additional $1.35 billion from Congress to serve as a Round III of Race to the Top, with pools of money potentially to be made available to districts as well as states. The proposal for 2011 funding also specifically calls for $900 million in a reauthorized School Turnaround Grants program.
There is also great potential for existing federal revenue streams, such as Title I, Title II, and IDEA, to be used to greater effectiveness in the lowest-performing schools. Beyond the federal level though, states are facing increasingly stretched budgets, and most states have no specific operational funding streams allocated to support school turnaround. While many states, districts, operators, service providers, and researchers are looking to philanthropic sources to fill in gaps, significant concerns remain about the ability to create or access sustainable long-term operational funding.59
Gaps in Public and Political Will
State and district departments of education, as well as school boards, mayors, and other governing bodies, must be willing to make the difficult decisions required for school turnaround, such as closing failing schools and negotiating with teachers’ unions to gain more flexibility over teacher contracts. “We need to use every ounce of our energy and every bit of political capital to [make turnaround happen],” says Andres Alonso, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. “It’s about building the political urgency and the sense that whoever gets in the way is working against kids.”60
There is also a need for greater community engagement, particularly from parents and community-based organizations, to ensure a continuous demand for and commitment to dramatic school improvement. A few districts and states are beginning to take on some of this community engagement and empowerment work. The Baltimore City Public Schools system has taken an active role in engaging community organizers and assigning them to schools in an effort to partner grassroots organizations with the school system. In San Jose, California, the community launched San Jose 2020, an effort to bring together the county office of education, the city of San Jose, educators, business leaders, and community organizers, with the goal of eliminating the achievement gap in San Jose by the year 2020.
In order to effectively mobilize communities to demand high-quality education for their children, “We must develop the information to show that there’s a crisis,” says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Quality Education. “This information is how we can assist policymakers and school leaders in generating the necessary public and political will to drive change.” New York City has introduced an easy-to-understand school-level grading system that gives schools annual ratings of A through F and that is communicated to parents. Gary Huggins of the Aspen Institute’s No Child Left Behind Commission echoes the urgent need for community engagement. “NCLB created this data-rich environment but parents don’t know the information,” says Huggins. “We have to get a lot better about making that have meaning to parents.”
Gaps in Conditions
Policies and conditions in districts and states across the country are frequently described, at best, as unsupportive, and at worst, as roadblocks to turnaround success. The gaps in conditions break down into five categories:
Collective-Bargaining Agreements. Interviewees point to provisions in agreements that may hinder turnaround, including hiring, firing, and tenure rules; working hours; teacher distribution; and restrictions around performance management and teacher observation and evaluation. These provisions and policies limit the ability of school leaders, operators, districts, and states to make decisions in the best interests of children.
Data and Accountability Systems. Districts and states lack effective, timely data systems to link student performance over time with specific turnaround interventions.
Operating Flexibility for Management Organizations. State and district policies, regulations, and laws frequently do not support the level of autonomy that schools and operators need over key dimensions necessary for change — staffing, program, budget, schedule, and data.
Limitations on Charter Involvement. Many states still have charter caps, limiting their ability to employ the restart model. Funding levels and facilities restrictions can also deter charter operators from being willing to take over schools in the restart model.
Governance and Leadership. In order for turnaround efforts to be sustained, superintendents and school boards must align their efforts and be willing to take on dramatic change. “When the superintendent and board can build an effective partnership, the likelihood of changes being sustained increases,” says Joe Villani, deputy executive director of the National School Board Association. However, the average superintendent stays on the job for less than 3.5 years, and the vagaries of election cycles can undermine school board members’ commitment.61 The challenge, then, is how to sustain turnaround efforts over a longer time frame. In some cities, mayoral control has paved the way for turnaround efforts, laying the groundwork for bold interventions around teacher evaluations and dismissals, charter schools, and contracting with external providers.
Gaps in Research and Knowledge Sharing
There is not yet enough evidence to identify the most effective interventions for turnaround. Unfortunately, state policies or a lack of student- and teacher-linked data systems often obstruct the ability to track the effectiveness of various interventions at the student level. Given that many states and districts are employing multiple models for turnaround, it will be important to develop a clear research agenda that will allow the field to determine whether or not certain models outperform others in particular contexts.
“I am worried that we are not going to learn as much as we could about what works in schools,” says Bryan Hassel of Public Impact. “Under NCLB, there was no information gathered on what was tried and what worked or didn’t work. As we continue with this work, gathering key data would be really useful.”
Interviewees also voiced the need for further research into the relative effectiveness of turnaround approaches for particular student subgroups. “We need to learn more about the extra focus needed for high-need populations in these turnaround situations — English Language Learners students, disabled students, homeless or underhoused students, and so on,” says John King of the New York Department of Education. “What are the best practices regarding each of these student subpopulations?”
At the school level, examples exist of schools that have been successfully turned around, but stakeholders across the field point to a greater need for proof points and evidence to show how to implement at scale what has worked in the past. As one interviewee noted, “No model yet exists that is both scalable and replicable.”At the system level, too, there is a need to examine and document systems that have been successfully turned around, and to pinpoint factors that contributed to turnaround success.
In addition, few mechanisms exist for knowledge sharing in the field to identify the most effective practices and tools and bring them to scale. “Who is going to track who does what with the school improvement dollars?” asks Laura Weeldreyer, deputy superintendent of Baltimore City Public Schools. “Was one of the models more successful than the others? What processes did districts use to choose interventions, and did schools have a say? There are no processes in place to learn what others are doing.”
Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences announced in fall 2009 a commitment to evaluate what states are doing with their stimulus education dollars, whether common strategies have emerged, and whether the efforts funded improved schooling. “I certainly don’t want to be here in three years and have somebody say, ‘What did we get for that $10 billion?’” says John Easton, director of IES. “We’ve got to be learning from this.”
Exhibit 18 identifies the three most commonly cited questions for a “learning agenda” of the turnaround field.
Exhibit 18: A Learning Agenda for the Turnaround Field
- What does progress and success look like in turning around an individual school and a system of schools?
- Which models of school turnaround are most effective and efficient given the particular circumstances, student demographics, geographies, and levels of the school and the district? Why are they effective?
- Which changes at the local, state, and national levels support success in turning around significant numbers of schools? How do entities at these different levels work together to create systems, build capacity, and ensure sustainability?
Gaps in High School Settings
As we identified gaps, interviewees consistently cited high schools and rural schools as the two settings where the gaps identified above were most severe and particularly difficult to address. Because of that, we have included Exhibits 19 and 20, which speak to high school and rural school turnarounds, respectively.
Exhibit 19: A Spotlight on High School Turnarounds
While interviewees acknowledge the difficulty in turning around any school, high schools were singled out as being particularly challenging. Academic remediation is more difficult, because students have accumulated knowledge and skills gaps over many years and have only a few remaining years to address them. The high school curriculum and schedule are also more complex. Changing school culture is more difficult, because the students in the building are nearly adults themselves and may resist the changes.
High schools also tend to have larger numbers of students and lack the resources to intervene proactively with students on an individual level. In addition to these challenges, which are relevant to all of the turnaround models, fewer high school operators exist to support the restart model, and closure is more difficult because there are typically few if any additional high-quality high schools in close proximity.
Recognizing the special needs of high schools, a few states, districts, and operators are trying to develop solutions. One approach is to dramatically redesign high schools — beginning with breaking them up. For example, New York City has replaced 20 underperforming public high schools with 200 small schools of choice that offer a more personalized learning environment, rigorous academic standards, student-centered pedagogy, support to meet instructional and developmental goals, and a focus on connections to college. A recent MDRC evaluation has shown that these schools are achieving higher graduation rates than comparison schools (a difference of 10 percentage points) and have closed one-third of the gap in the graduation rate between white students and students of color.
Green Dot has taken a similar approach at the school level, taking over Locke High School in Los Angeles and reopening it as eight (and now nine) small college-prep academies. A year after the takeover, Green Dot has seen modest improvements in test scores, but dramatic indicators of a change in culture, including a more than 58 percent improvement in retention, almost 38 percent more students taking tests, and a 25 percent increase in the graduation rate.
Another approach is to build specialized capability in the district to support high school turnaround. “As a district, we’re going to focus on high school turnaround, since there are many more external turnaround operators out there that can work on elementary and middle schools,” says Don Fraynd of the Chicago Public Schools Office of School Turnaround. Chicago Public Schools has had success in its turnaround of Harper High School by putting in place a capable team of turnaround leaders; allocating sufficient time for planning; and ensuring access to the right resources for hiring, professional development, curriculum development, community engagement, and school operations.
The field has an urgent need for a greater focus on turnaround solutions at the high school level. Almost 2,000 of the nation’s high schools have been described as “dropout factories,” because they graduate fewer than 50 percent of their students. A welcome sign is that many states, districts, and operators are embarking on new approaches to turn around these schools.
Exhibit 20: A Spotlight on Rural Turnarounds
Rural areas face unique challenges in executing turnaround strategies. Given their widely dispersed geographies, it can be difficult to attract new principals and teachers, school operators, or other turnaround partners. This makes it hard to employ the turnaround or restart models.
Additionally, in rural districts, “Closure is not an option, because there is not an alternative for the students,” says Amanda Burnette, director of turnaround schools at the South Carolina Department of Education. “For many of our rural districts, we also can’t even consider the turnaround option, because we don’t have the teachers to fill vacancies.” Furthermore, for small rural districts, building capacity to support turnaround can be cost-prohibitive, given the small number of schools.
To address these challenges, some rural areas or smaller states see the need to aggregate or “pool” demand to create incentives for providers. Some states have determined that turnarounds will only succeed in rural areas if the state itself implements and supports them directly. For example, the South Carolina Department of Education has assumed responsibility for turning around certain rural schools. “Many, many small districts, both rural and exurban, are not going to be able to make the kind of investment in technology and accountability that’s needed,” says Sajan George of Alvarez and Marsal. “The state needs to develop an assessment and accountability system that smaller districts can draw on.”
The U.S. Department of Education, in its late-2009 release of final SIG regulations, acknowledged the concerns of rural superintendents, but also stressed the newly available resources: “We understand that some rural areas may face unique challenges in turning around low-achieving schools, but note that the significant amount of funding available to implement the four models will help to overcome the many resource limitations that previously have hindered successful rural-school reform in many areas.” Despite these resources, interviewees consistently expressed concern for how turnaround would be implemented in rural areas.
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59 U.S. Department of Education.
60 “Driving Dramatic School Improvement” conference.
61 Council of the Great City Schools, “Urban Indicator: Urban School Superintendents: Characteristics, Tenure, and Salary Sixth Survey and Report,” Winter 2008/2009,