The School Turnaround Field Guide

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 The School Turnaround Field Guide

While a number of actors are working in the field, not enough proven organizations exist to meet demand. Nor do the existing actors have enough capacity to turn around schools at scale. This section assesses the landscape of key players shaping the turnaround sector.

The Sector

The vast majority of states and districts are just beginning to develop the infrastructure, accountability systems, and partnerships to launch and implement turnaround strategies. A handful of school operators and supporting partners already provide school turnaround services, and new organizations are now emerging to offer their services, as well.

However, the number and capacity of proven operators and providers serving the turnaround sector is still inadequate to meet the demand. For example, our research and interviews identified fewer than 15 turnaround-focused school operators managing multiple schools, none of which were managing more than 10 schools.32 Finally, the recent entry of many new organizations with varying degrees of turnaround experience is making it more complicated for states and districts to assess and identify high-quality partners and providers.

Given limited internal and external capacity, states and districts are targeting only a small subset of schools for turnaround. Based on our interviews, FSG found that states and districts are currently selecting few schools in need of turnaround for active interventions. At Chicago Public Schools, just 13 of the district’s 241 schools in restructuring have been selected for turnaround, and in South Carolina, only four of the state’s 108 schools in restructuring have been selected for turnaround in the 2009-2010 school year.33

The Actors

In addition to funding and catalyzing policy change, the federal government has recently indicated that it may play a role in vetting the quality of the many new entrants to the school turnaround space. Other key players shaping the turnaround sector include states and districts, unions, school operators, supporting partners, research and field-building organizations, and philanthropic funders.

The sections that follow provide a high-level summary of activities under way among these groups. As you read through the examples, please keep in mind that the field is rapidly evolving and the effectiveness of highlighted and emerging efforts will need to be assessed over time.

States and Districts

Across the country, state and district education leaders are playing central roles in school turnaround. Increases in funding are fueling greater momentum among established efforts in cities like Baltimore, Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C., as well as in states like Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, and Texas.

In addition, many states and school districts are launching new efforts and mobilizing in response to federal priorities and funding. States are developing turnaround strategies, creating policy (see Exhibit 13), and finding new ways to partner with and build the capacity of districts. Districts are directly implementing turnaround interventions; addressing human capital issues; and working with school operators and school support providers. Notably, states with large rural populations, such as Mississippi and South Carolina, are playing more of a “districtlike” role. They are engaging directly with schools to determine approaches and provide individualized support, as well as partnering with providers to develop statewide human capital solutions.

What follows are specific examples of actions states and districts have taken:

  • Creating a Supportive Policy and Political Environment for Turnaround Work. The promise of federal funding has prompted a number of states to pass new legislation to create more favorable conditions for turnaround, which in turn affects district-level policies and conditions. For example, in Colorado, the Innovation Schools Act of 2008 strengthens school-based decision making and offers more autonomy from district and state education regulations. The act allows schools to apply for innovation-school or innovation-school-zone status, which enables them to make their own decisions on spending, the length of the school day and year, course content, hiring, and teacher compensation. “These schools and districts of innovation will have the potential to instruct students in exciting new ways,” said Peter Groff, then-president of the Colorado State Senate, after the legislation passed. “We have the potential to improve student achievement by offering flexibility in the way education is administered.”34 While any school may apply for status as an innovation school or zone, the act was designed to enable low-performing schools to act swiftly and with greater autonomy, as well as to attract capable leaders.

Some states and districts are responding to a growing recognition in the field that turnaround will not succeed unless accountability structures and relationships, which have been traditionally focused on compliance, shift instead to a focus on building strong partnerships, developing capacity, and using data to drive improved performance.

For example, the Center for School and District Accountability of the Massachusetts Department of Education recently created a new accountability framework that assesses school effectiveness and reviews district performance. For districts in need of intervention, the center collaborates with districts and the assistance units of state school boards to develop recovery plans. It also monitors plan implementation. In addition, the center plans to train districts to analyze and compare practices and outcomes according to a common set of standards. “We want to build the capacity of districts so that they are leading the work,” explains Deputy Commissioner Baehr.

  • Building the Capacity to Do Turnaround Work. State and district leaders agree that developing a human capital pipeline for teachers and principals is one of the keys to achieving turnaround success. Developing that talent pipeline requires a coordinated effort at the state and district levels. As RAND found in a recent study about school leadership, “A cohesive leadership system (CLS), defined as well-coordinated policies and initiatives across state agencies and between the state and its districts, appears to be a promising approach to developing school leaders engaged in improving instruction.”35 Talent development also requires preparation for the challenges of a turnaround situation.

Yet few human capital providers — universities or nonprofit organizations — are set up to train the large number of teachers, principals, and support staff needed to succeed in chronically low-performing schools. As a result, some districts and states have integrated professional development programs into their local turnaround strategies, while others have partnered with external human capital providers.

For example, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools launched in 2008-2009 its Strategic Staffing Initiative, which provides a mix of financial and hiring incentives for principals and their staffs to build highly effective leadership teams in seven of the district’s lowest-performing schools. The principals make a three-year commitment to their new schools, and receive a 10 percent merit-pay supplement and bonus if their school shows high growth by the second year. “Effective leadership at the school level is essential,” says district Superintendent Peter Gorman. “We can’t raise student achievement without strong leadership.”36

In addition to strengthening human capital within schools, states and districts are also building their own, currently limited, capacity to support turnaround efforts and work directly with schools. As a specific example, Virginia’s Department of Education requires its districts to develop a plan for supporting their lowest-performing schools. The department partners with each district to monitor implementation of the plan.

To aid this effort, the state has brought in administrative coaches to work with districts, and has built a learning community for turnaround principals to discuss issues and best practices across districts. “We won’t just work with the schools — we require the districts to be a partner,” says Kathleen Smith, director of Virginia’s Office of School Improvement. “And I think it’s made all the difference.”

Exhibit 13: State Policy Changes to Support School Turnarounds

Over the past year, dramatic changes have taken place in state and local policies related to school turnaround. The Obama administration’s education priorities and Race to the Top guidelines precipitated many of these policy changes, which include an expectation that states will create policies that improve the conditions for school turnaround to take place. The turnaround-related reforms largely fall into two categories: teacher-tenure and evaluation policies, and implementation policies.

Policies on Teacher Tenure and Evaluation

  • Florida’s bill, which did not pass, would have put all teachers on annual contracts. After a teacher’s fifth year in the district, a further annual contract would only be awarded if the teacher was ranked within the top-two performance tiers. The legislation would also have required districts to establish performance-pay plans.
  • Colorado’s SB 10-191, which passed, requires tenured teachers earning multiple consecutive “unsatisfactory” ratings to revert to probationary status, as well as stipulates mutual consent for teacher placement in schools. It bases more than half of a principal’s evaluation and 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on student-achievement gains.
  • Rhode Island passed legislation that allows schools to select their teachers, demands that no child be taught for two consecutive years by teachers rated ineffective, and requires that teachers who are rated ineffective two years in a row be released from employment.
  • Maryland, Ohio, and Washington passed laws extending the time before a teacher could receive tenure. Delaware and Tennessee passed laws requiring that student achievement form a significant portion of a teacher’s evaluation.

Policies Governing Implementation

  • Colorado’s SB 09-163 (Education Accountability Act) creates a new accountability system for the state’s schools. Districts will be accredited at different levels, with improvement plans required and state turnaround assistance offered to districts at the lowest levels. Over time, new performance measures — such as student and school improvement, dropout rates, student performance on precollegiate tests, and other measures — will determine a district’s accreditation, as well as what’s reported to the public. Additionally, Colorado’s SB 08-130 (Innovative Schools Act) allows schools to petition the local school board for increased autonomy in turnaround schools.
  • California’s Open Enrollment and Parent Empowerment Act requires that a turnaround model be implemented if a school is in corrective action, if it has an API of less than 800, and if at least 50 percent of the parents at the school request the change.
  • Illinois established its authority to set up a series of “Partnership Zones,” through which the state will partner with outside organizations and allow new evaluation systems and staffing autonomy in failing schools.
  • Massachusetts’ SB 2247 increases school-level autonomy in failing schools and doubles the number of charter schools in its lowest-performing districts.
  • Tennessee passed legislation to create an “Achievement School District” akin to the Recovery School District in Louisiana. Low-performing schools would be removed from their home districts and placed under the state’s authority.

Additional information on recent state education policies can be found on the Education Commission of the States Web site at

Sources: Mass Insight Education; FSG interviews and research; state Web sites; RTTT applications.


Both unionized and nonunionized states have large numbers of schools in need of turnaround. The presence or absence of unions does not in and of itself lead to the failure of schools. However, unions have been resistant to many of the changes that are seen as core to turnaround solutions — changes such as replacing teachers, extending working hours, linking teacher compensation to student performance, and creating new teacher evaluation approaches. Union support for RTTT applications varied greatly. Some states, like Delaware, were able to secure broad-based union support, while other unionized states like Florida had less success.

Despite this, our interviews and research revealed that unions and districts can and are beginning to find creative approaches to creating the conditions needed for turnaround success. For example, in October 2009, teachers in New Haven, Connecticut, ratified a new contract for the district’s lowest-performing schools. According to the agreement, “Schools deemed ‘turnarounds’ would be reconstituted with new leadership and staff. Teachers would have to reapply, and principals would select those to be hired. These schools would also be freed from most contract provisions and could be operated by third-party management organizations, including charter school operators.”37

The contract provisions have been criticized for not tackling tenure and pay-for-performance issues, but many observers believe that this was a breakthrough in the dialogue between management and unions. “This is an incredibly progressive contract,” says Joan Devlin, senior associate director for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). “It addresses teacher voice, and it gives the district the flexibility it needs to make [these reforms] work.”38

Unions are also beginning to examine other central issues of high-needs schools, such as teacher evaluation. The Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and New York State United Teachers have been awarded an AFT grant to establish a multidistrict approach for more rigorous teacher evaluation, in partnership with state education leaders and local unions. According to the AFT, the grant will help Rhode Island and New York to “design an educator-evaluation system based on state teaching standards, evidence of student learning, and measures of learning environment conditions.”39

As seen in the selection of Delaware and Tennessee as first-round RTTT winners, the U.S. Department of Education is placing a premium on union and district buy-in for school turnaround and other reform approaches. And states, districts, and unions are responding with an unprecedented level of dialogue. However, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s clear message to states as they developed their second-round RTTT applications was that bold reform takes precedence over district and union consensus. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Secretary Duncan said, “Watered-down proposals with lots of consensus won’t win, and proposals that drive real reform will win.”40

School Operators

Outside of the traditional district-managed public schools, turnaround schools can be run by school operators, including single-school operators and school management organizations (SMOs). The latter group includes for-profit and nonprofit education management organizations (EMOs) and charter management organizations (CMOs) that deliver to a network of schools such management services as curriculum development, assessment design, professional development, systems implementation, back-office services, teacher recruitment, and facility services.

For example, Mastery Charter Schools (Mastery) currently operates four charter schools in Philadelphia, three of which are district turnarounds. Mastery’s model integrates management and educational practices to drive student achievement. It includes continuous training for teachers; assessments linked to direct instruction; and problem-solving, social-emotional, and workplace skills training for students. Other school operators, such as AUSL, are not converting schools to charters, but rather contracting with the district to run turnaround schools on their behalf. When working with turnaround schools, operators are typically granted some level of autonomy, assume responsibility for student results, and are held accountable through a contract or charter signed with the district or state agency.

Supporting Partners

A variety of partner organizations help support school-reform efforts, and they are evolving to support school turnaround specifically at the school, district, and state levels. The range of supporting partners currently working in both school reform and turnaround include:

  • Comprehensive School Redesign Specialists. These organizations work with schools to implement turnaround strategies. For example, the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA) partners with underperforming high schools for a five-year planning and implementation period, which begins with the development of a comprehensive school-design plan and continues with ongoing coaching and professional development for faculty and administrators and implementation support. “We have a wraparound turnaround model,” explains Gerry House, CEO of ISA. “ISA provides extensive, customized professional development and on-the- ground support for districts, principals, and teachers engaged in school turnaround.”

Similarly, Partners in School Innovation (PSI) brings together teams of experienced educators to collaborate with principals and teacher leaders to improve core instructional programs in high-needs public schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. PSI works side by side with turnaround leaders and teachers on-site and in cross-school networks for three to five years to drive continuous improvement adapted to each school’s needs.

These approaches trace their origins back to the federal Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program. The program identified the qualities of effective schools and then provided $50,000 annual grants to Title I schools to help them align with effective qualities. In the District of Columbia Public Schools, several comprehensive school-redesign providers partner with the district to run turnaround schools, as well as six other types of whole-school reform models. Additionally, organizations like Cambridge Education, B&D Consulting, and SchoolWorks provide consulting services to districts and school operators that range from diagnostics to planning to implementation support.

  • Human Capital and Professional Development Providers. These organizations and programs work to increase the supply of quality educators in turnaround schools through recruiting, training, and supporting turnaround principals and teachers. Human capital and professional development organizations working in the turnaround space include university and district-based programs, as well as independent nonprofits.

For example, the University of Virginia developed a comprehensive two-year School Turnaround Specialists Program to provide executive education and support for leaders in turnaround schools. The New York City Leadership Academy was launched as a 501(c)(3) with the explicit purpose of training leaders to serve the New York City Department of Education’s low-performing schools. New Leaders for New Schools (NLNS) is a national nonprofit that partners with school districts in 20 cities to train, place, and support principals. NLNS requires its partners to provide high levels of autonomy and flexibility to its candidates. What these programs have in common is their focus on providing not just training, but also induction support, mentoring, networking opportunities, and ongoing professional development to their graduates.

In addition to training candidates, some of these organizations have also begun to conduct and publish research to understand what makes their teachers and leaders successful in turnaround environments. For example, Teach for America (TFA) recently published its first book, Teaching As Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher’s Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap, which presents the organization’s findings on what distinguishes the TFA teachers who are most effective at driving dramatic student gains. The book and its accompanying Web site,, serve as a how-to guide for new teachers in low-income communities.41 NLNS published similar research on what distinguishes those principals who achieve “breakthrough gains” in its report “Principal Effectiveness: A New Principalship to Drive Student Achievement, Teacher Effectiveness, and School Turnarounds.”42

Many of these organizations have evolved from focusing on school leader or teacher training and support to also building the capacity of districts and states to manage the human capital pipeline and to ensure that conditions are in place to support the success of trained educators. The University of Virginia School Turnaround Specialists Program has now collaborated in this way with over 40 school districts across 10 states and major cities. It most recently partnered at the state level to work with the Missouri Department of Education on 29 urban and rural schools across the state. “Our approach has really evolved over time,” says Executive Director Leann Buntrock. “We are now working with not only districts and schools, but also with states and regional centers.”

Human capital providers focused on professional development for teachers entering high-needs schools have also expanded their models. For example, the New Teacher Project not only offers programs to train teachers, but also works with school districts to develop new-teacher recruitment and hiring strategies for underperforming schools.

  • District and School Resource Management Specialists. District and school resource management organizations help districts and schools institute financial and operational policies and practices to support turnaround. These organizations offer services that include diagnostic analyses tailored to district needs, Web-based tools developed to assess school performance, and research and training for improved instruction.

For example, Education Resource Strategies works closely with leaders of urban public-school systems to rethink the use of district and school-level resources so as to provide targeted assistance and increased autonomy to failing schools. Alvarez and Marsel has worked with multiple districts across the U.S. since 2003 to support system-level turnaround through resource mapping and operations management.

  • Integrated Services Providers. Turnaround schools often have high rates of student violence and disruptive behavioral issues. Integrated services providers help schools identify and address the cultural and mental-health factors that drive chronically poor performance. Organizations such as Turnaround (formerly Turnaround USA) work with school staff to help them understand child development and to integrate social and behavioral support directly into the learning environment. Turnaround’s model is based on four mechanisms to help students with the highest needs: partnering with principals to hire social workers; developing student intervention and instructional support teams; accessing resources for extensive case management; and knowledge and skill building around child development. The organization works at the individual teacher level, providing them with training, coaching, and onsite observation. “Our model looks at the complex demands in these schools that lead to astoundingly poor performance,” says Greg Greicius, senior vice president for education initiatives at Turnaround. “We address behavioral issues by addressing student needs — socially, emotionally, and academically.”

Community-Based Organizations

Community-based organizations can aid turnaround efforts in a number of important ways. Most students in turnaround schools are significantly behind academically. After-school tutoring, summer academic programs, and mentoring programs can help accelerate a student’s academic progress. For example, Boston Public Schools works with Citizen Schools to implement after-school programs at seven of its lowest-performing schools. Independent research on the program suggests that, although participants enter the program behind their peers on state exam results, by the end of seventh grade, they outperform their peers on those same tests.43

CBOs can also play an important role in working with the community to build support, or mobilize pressure, for the district to make difficult decisions like replacing principals and teachers, or even closing schools. Parent Revolution has built a parent union in Los Angeles to advocate for dramatic reform. The group was instrumental in lobbying L.A. Unified to turn over 250 of the district’s worst-performing schools to outside operators. America’s Promise has organized 105 summits across the country to raise parent and CBO awareness of the local dropout crisis and to help local partners develop community-action plans to address the issue. “Engaging the parents and community deeply is the way to make turnaround efforts sustainable,” explains Carmita Vaughn, chief strategy officer at America’s Promise.

Research and Field-Building Organizations

These organizations analyze data, extract lessons and effective practices, and provide tools to support turnaround work. They also foster partnerships and dialogue among education decision makers. The research base to guide the field is limited, given that many efforts are still in early stages of development. But some research groups are now turning their attention to school turnaround. Organizations such as Mass Insight Education, Public Impact, the Center on Education Policy, NewSchools Venture Fund, the Aspen Institute, and the U.S. Department of Education have been researching and writing about school turnaround. An appendix lists the turnaround-specific reports and articles we collected as part of our research.

Philanthropic Funders

Private, corporate, and community foundations play a key role in driving education reform, and turnaround is no exception. To date, funders have been involved in the following areas:

  • Supporting Research and Knowledge-Sharing. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was a lead funder for “The Turnaround Challenge” report from Mass Insight Education. Similarly, a collaboration of funders, including The Wallace Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Stuart Foundation, the Rainwater Charitable Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, funded this report and the “Driving Dramatic School Improvement” conference. Carnegie Corporation of New York and a number of other funders supported a recently released study from MDRC about New York City’s small schools of choice, which have replaced traditional comprehensive high schools in historically disadvantaged communities.44
  • Providing Support to Districts and States. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded 15 states to employ consulting firms to help complete RTTT applications. Several foundations supported state applications in their regions, including the Joyce Foundation in Indiana, the Kauffman Foundation in Missouri, and the Donnell-Key Foundation in Colorado.
  • Supporting New Turnaround Approaches. Carnegie Corporation of New York announced plans in January 2010 to fund Mass Insight Education’s Partnership Zone Initiative with a $1.5 million, two-year grant that was partially matched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The funding will support Mass Insight Education and a group of national collaborators to create scalable and sustainable strategies for turning around clusters of the lowest-performing schools in six states: Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and New York.
  • Enhancing the Quality of Teaching and School Leadership. The Wallace Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Rainwater Charitable Foundation have all made significant investments in improving the quality of school leadership, supporting highly effective training programs, and working to identify and create systemic conditions that support school leader success. “As far as we are aware, there is not a single documented case of a school successfully turning around its pupil achievement trajectory in the absence of talented leadership,” says Ken Leithwood, professor of educational leadership and policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.45 In line with research findings on the vital role that quality teaching plays in student achievement, foundations are making major investments in improving teacher effectiveness. The most prominent example is a $335 million investment announced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2009 to fund experiments in tenure, evaluation, compensation, training, and mentoring.46
  • Funding the Capacity of School Districts and Human Capital and Technical Assistance Providers. The Los Angeles Unified School District received funding for staff positions from private foundations, including the Wasserman Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Ford Foundation, including one position to oversee the takeover of low-performing turnaround schools. In Chicago, Boeing has funded a variety of partners working on districtwide initiatives, including AUSL, NLNS, and Renaissance 2010. “We have focused our giving on a model or idea that will ultimately lead to a systemic or impactful change,” says Nora Moreno Cargie, director of global corporate citizenship at the Boeing Company.

Despite the individual grants outlined above, relatively few foundations have prioritized school turnaround as a major area of investment or program area. This may change as federal funding decisions are made and turnaround work continues to build momentum.

The Landscape of Turnaround Actors

Although we have discussed the roles that major actors play in advancing school-turnaround efforts separately, these actors are working in close relationships with each other. Our turnaround landscape map (see Exhibit 14) depicts this ecosystem of activity. The map shows the significant actors and how they relate in terms of their roles and how funds flow between them:

  • Federal funding is flowing to states in the form of RTTT and SIG, as well as to districts and nonprofits in the form of i3 grants and SIG. The SIG and district funding then flows to school operators. Philanthropic funding is currently supporting the work of school operators, states, and districts, as well as an array of support providers.
  • Accountability relationships are reflected by the flow of data from schools to districts, and from districts to states. Additionally, district and state accountability systems analyze that data and return reports and findings to schools so that they
  • can understand and improve on their work. Conditions at schools are being determined by school operators, state and district policies, and the collective-bargaining agreements negotiated between districts and teachers’ unions.
  • Districts and school operators (labeled as school management organizations on Exhibit 14) need to build complementary capacity and accountability systems for turnaround schools. Districts can either build their own capacity to do turnaround work or buy that capacity through partnerships with school operators.
  • CBOs and parents can rally to support turnaround efforts in the school and build public will for dramatic reform efforts. Districts must work to engage parents and community groups and raise their awareness of the opportunity that significant funding from the federal government presents.
  • Philanthropic funders can invest in individual actors in the ecosystem — states, districts, school operators, CBOs — who all need to build capacity for turnaround. Philanthropic funders can also support the ecosystem as a whole through funding research and efforts to bring actors together and share lessons across stakeholders and geographies.

While we have used the map in this section to highlight relationships between actors, we also encourage readers to reference the map later in the report, when we call attention to issues and capacity gaps.


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32 Secondary research on organizations highlighted by the U.S. Department of Education.

33 2008 Illinois District Report Card, City of Chicago SD 299.

34 Office of Gov. Bill Ritter of Colorado, “Gov. Ritter Signs Innovation Zones Bill Into Law,” press release, May 28, 2008,

35 RAND, “Improving School Leadership: The Promise of Cohesive Leadership Systems,” 2009.

36 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, “CMS Names New Leadership at Seven Schools,” press release, February 10, 2009,

37 Sawchuk, Stephen, “Teacher Contract Called Potential Model for Nation,” Education Week, October 21, 2009,

38 Ibid.

39 American Federation of Teachers, AFT Innovation Fund,

40 King, Neal Jr., and Stephanie Banchero, “Unions, States Clash in Race to Top,” The Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2010.

41 Teach for America, “Teaching As Leadership Framework,”

42 New Leaders for New Schools, “Principal Effectiveness: A New Principalship to Drive Student Achievement, Teacher Effectiveness, and School Turnarounds with Key Insights from the UEFTM,”

43 Citizen Schools Web site.

44 MDRC, “Transforming the High School Experience: How New York City’s New Small Schools Are Boosting Student Achievement and Graduation Rates,” June 2010.

45 Leithwood, K., K. Louis, S. Anderson, and K. Wahlstrom, “How Leadership Influences Student Learning,” Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, September 2004.

46 Anderson, Nick, “Gates Foundation Gives $335 Million to Raise Teacher Effectiveness,” The Washington Post, November 20, 2009.