School & District Turnaround Bibliography
US Secretary of State Arne Duncan provided billions of dollars in financial support in the 2009 School Improvement Grant. His intention was to target the turnaround of 1,000 schools annually and to provide new impetus to the practice and study of turnaround.
As this bibliography reflects, in the ensuing years, educators, policymakers, and even entrepreneurs have been working in a variety of ways to create the conditions, develop the human resources, integrate the community supports, evolve the metrics, implement the instructional strategies, and even develop new school models to improve the odds for chronically underperforming schools and their students. On one hand, successful turnarounds are still rare, and strategies to take turnaround to scale are yet to be proven. On the other hand, we now have five additional years of implementation and experimentation from which to build. This experience provides us significant, sometimes intriguing, and often hopeful progress on individual elements critical to turnaround, such as innovative staffing models and incentives; new focus on leading rather than lagging indicators for change; attention to more rapid change in the student experience of relationships, relevance, and rigor; and better change management by school and district leaders.
It is clear that the school tursnaround field is highly complex and still relatively new, and for these reasons it requires more time, more iteration, and more rigorous evaluative studies. However, it is also evident, from the continuing entry of chronically underperforming schools into restructuring or priority status and from the demands for more rigorous and changing workplace skills, finding solutions to our underperforming schools is increasingly urgent and important. The resources in this bibliography provide a launching pad for further development.
The resources in this bibliography provide a launching pad for further development.
The main criteria used to determine if a publication warranted inclusion in this Annotated Bibliography on School Turnaround were as follows:
School turnaround, not school improvement: The bibliography includes resources addressing the field of "school turnaround," defined as efforts to assist significantly under-performing schools to become adequately-performing or high-performing schools in a relatively short period of time (usually defined as between two and five years). The extent and speed of improvement is what sets the turnaround field apart from other more incremental school improvement efforts. Of course, there are many strategies for improving instruction (e.g. in reading and math) and for targeting approaches and supports for highly challenging populations (e.g. for reducing dropouts, addressing English language learners, or ensuring school safety) that are also applicable to school turnaround. The entries included in this bibliography focus on the school turnaround field holistically.
Broad turnaround definition: Beyond the distinction between turnaround and more incremental improvement, however, this bibliography uses a broad interpretation of the term "turnaround" to include rapid and dramatic improvement, or transformation. This includes the two of the four federally-defined School Improvement Grant (SIG) models, including the models labeled "turnaround" (which requires a new principal and at least 50% new staff) and "transformation" (which requires many of the same strategies as turnaround, but does not require the school to re-staff). In addition, schools and districts pursuing the SIG "restart," and in some cases, the "closure" model, also fall into this broader definition of "school turnaround."
Date of publication: The field of "school turnaround" as we know it has been shaped in fundamental ways by the accountability systems related to the 2001 No Child Left Behind (under which it took five years for restructuring imperatives to take effect. Yet, significant data and evidence on implementation was not available for analysis until several years later. In effect, entries for this bibliography begin in 2007, and only a small proportion of them are from 2007-2009. However, it is worth noting that early turnaround frameworks and studies were based on some excellent work in related areas such as high-poverty, high-performing schools, comprehensive school improvement efforts, and turnaround work in other sectors, some of which is still relevant. For seminal pre-2007 research used in the development of the school turnaround field, please see the extensive bibliographies in three of the entries included here: the IES Practice Guides, Calkins, et. al.
The Turnaround Challenge, and Brinson, et. al.
School Turnarounds: Actions and Results.
Fact base and evidence level: Resources that are primarily opinion or advocacy pieces were not selected. The entries are research reports, or if conceptual papers or implementation tools, these are based on available research evidence that is referenced. In each of the bibliography entries, we identify the study methodology (e.g. case study, correlational, quasi-experimental, etc.) so the reader can evaluate the strength of the findings. It is important to note, however, that the level of evidence on school turnaround is generally "less rigorous" than for some other more defined and longer established topics in education, for two reasons:
- The relatively recent initial implementation of school turnaround, which means that longitudinal outcomes data are not yet available, and
- The complexity of the effort – turnaround is not a tightly defined, specific model and cannot be analyzed in the same way as other more clearly defined models or strategies.
To date, there are no randomized controlled trials of turnaround. Analysis is often based on detailed case studies or systematic cross-case analysis, matched comparisons, survey research, or meta-analyses of existing studies. That said, the entries do include a few recent forays into the development and use of more rigorous methodologies to analyze and evaluate elements of turnaround practice. Each annotation includes a) transparent description of what type of research each study is based on, and b) reference to major study/methodology limitations if these were noted in the publication.
Aladjem, D. K., Birman, B. F., Orland, M., Harr-Robins, J., Heredia, A., Parrish, T. B., et al. (2010). Achieving dramatic school improvement: An exploratory study. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/other/dramatic-school-improvement/exploratory-study.pdf
The schools highlighted in this report were selected for further examination from a nationwide pool of 1,946 initially low-performing elementary and middle schools that had received funding under the federal Comprehensive School Reform (CSR) program. There was a five-year longitudinal sub-study done of CSR implementation and student outcomes, in which these 11 schools stood out for their significant improvement in student achievement. Eight of the schools showed rapid and dramatic improvements in student achievement during a one- or two-year period, and three were classified as slow-and-steady (i.e., they made noteworthy improvements but during a four- or five-year time frame). The rapid improvement schools included six elementary schools, one middle school, and one PK–12 school Achievement data were studied up to 2007, and site visits were completed in 2008.
This sub-study report includes in-depth qualitative, retrospective case studies of the 11 schools. Drawing from those case studies, the report identifies reform-related approaches and themes that were common across these schools and describes how they differed in the specifics of their improvement efforts. "To avoid reader confusion," the authors emphasize that "this study examined schools…[classified as "successful"] retrospectively to understand the policies, programs, and practices that contributed to 'turning around' these schools' performance. This stands in contrast to current federal policy objectives that aim to prospectively identify the lowest performing schools in each state as targets for concerted turnaround interventions. Although practices varied across schools, successful changes were brought about by implementing new leadership styles, improving the school climate, adopting new instructional strategies and securing external support. The authors offer the findings of this study to inform the development of high-quality school turnaround designs and programs in sites identified for turnaround."
American Institutes for Research. (2011). School turnaround: A pocket guide. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from
School Turnaround pocket guide highlights the major federal programs related to turning around low-performing schools—including Race to the Top and Title I School Improvement Grants—and poses points for policymakers to consider and questions to frame the discussion as they reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The meat of this brief document, however, is a useful five-page summary of the research findings on efforts to improve chronically low-performing schools during the past decade. The research review, which draws on 17 studies ranging from in-depth case studies to cross-case and meta-analyses of effective interventions, covers the three elements the authors conclude are common to successful turnaround: the right leadership and staff, setting and tracking of instructional goals, and removal of barriers to flexibility and autonomy. The guide also confirms that, to date, success rates for school turnaround are low and that many turnarounds are short-lived.
Bell, S., & Pirtle, S. S. (2012). Transforming low-performing rural schools. Austin, TX: Texas Comprehensive Center at SEDL. Retrieved from
Implementing school reform is often thought of by the public as applicable in urban rather than rural school settings. However, the rural student population is growing and requires greater attention by policymakers planning for improving low-performing schools. Rural school and district transformation can be influenced both positively and negatively by contextual factors found in such locations. At the same time, rural settings offer many unique resources that can be leveraged to promote the transformation of low-performing schools. This brief examines how districts and schools can address the barriers and challenges that rural areas face and at the same time integrate the unique attributes and resources found in rural communities to promote the transformation of low-performing schools.
The briefing paper notes that its recommendations are based on a literature search with the following limitations: scientifically based research on successful implementation of the transformation model in rural districts is limited; no universally accepted school improvement approach for transforming schools is available; and most of the available literature consists of general reports, case studies, and research studies that do not use a randomized controlled method.
Brinson, D., & Rhim, L. M. (2009). Breaking the habit of low performance: Successful school restructuring stories. Lincoln, IL: Center on Innovation and Improvement. Retrieved from
Some schools and districts have proven that even chronically failing schools can succeed at rapid improvement. Public Impact, working on behalf of the Center on Innovation and Improvement, examined five schools that successfully restructured. By current accountability standards, these schools had long-documented histories of poor performance and failed efforts to improve, but the authors assert that multiple factors at each enabled them to kick the low-performance habit. School selection was not representative but rather drew on states in which schools had exited restructuring status and responded to the researchers' inquiries. From these, the researchers sought schools with a variety of restructuring approaches, grade configurations, and levels of urbanicity to provide diverse ideas for states and districts crafting their own approaches to supporting schools in corrective action or restructuring status.
The research examined six questions: What approach did the schools use to restructure? What role did the school leaders play? What role did external entities (e.g., district, state, or external consultants) play? What additional resources did the schools obtain? What did internal and external actors credit for success? What barriers did the school have to overcome? The authors conducted interviews with school- and district-level leaders, and developed descriptive profiles about each school's successful restructuring process. Summary tables reveal a focus on human resources, with all five receiving intensive support from their LEA and adding personnel, three replacing principals and/or staff, and three using external partners. While the report does not provide cross-case analyses, the in-depth description of each individual case provides a useful view into the complexity of restructuring success.
Brownstein, A. (2012). What studies say about school turnarounds. Washington DC: National Education Writers Association. Retrieved from
Efforts to overhaul struggling schools have existed for decades, but it was not until President Obama fortified the process with $3.5 billion in 2009 that these efforts were referred to as school turnaround. Three years later this author argues that while there is a lack of empirical studies on turnaround practices that result in improved student achievement, it is possible to work backward—to examine successful turnarounds, in the world of education and elsewhere, and determine what characteristics they have in common. This brief does not attempt any original research, but provides an up-to-date, succinct and well-organized review of over 50 research studies or syntheses, as well as scholarly articles and interviews with scholars involved in the many aspects of school turnaround research.
Calkins, A., Guenther, W., Belfiore, G., & Lash, D. (2007). The turnaround challenge: Why America's best opportunity to dramatically improve student achievement lies in our worst-performing schools. Boston: Mass Insight Education & Research Institute, School Turnaround Group. Retrieved from
This 2007 report proposed a new framework for turning around failing high-poverty schools, emphasizing rapid, transformational change, significant investment, and a portfolio of management approaches.
Called "the bible for school turnaround" by Secretary of State Arne Duncan, the report influenced federal Title 1 and Race to the Top policy and has been used to develop turnaround strategies in dozens of schools, districts, and states. (Note: The authors address "turnaround" in the broader sense of rapid, dramatic change; the narrower definition of "turnaround" as one of four reform options under the School Improvement Grants program came later.) The authors propose a comprehensive strategy that includes three main elements: conditions (advocating a "turnaround zone" within which schools are accorded greater autonomy and given incentives to act), capacity (suggesting steps to develop specially prepared school leadership as well as a marketplace of external providers to act as lead turnaround partners), and clustering (recommending a network of districts or schools that work in concert to facilitate change). To guide turnaround practice, the report offers the Readiness model—a set of nine strategies distilled from the research on high-performing, high-poverty schools that address student's Readiness to Learn, educators' Readiness to Teach, and administrators' Readiness to Act.
In the absence of prior school turnaround practice and state interventions of the type suggested, the authors based their framework on study of related effective and ineffective policies and practices. The work draws on analyses of more than 300 research studies, news articles, and varied resources on school intervention, related federal and state policymaking, effective schools, poverty impacts, and organizational turnaround. In addition, the authors interviewed practitioners, researchers, leading policymakers, and reform experts as well as the directors of school intervention in six urban districts and 50 school management and support organizations.
De la Torre, M., Allensworth, E., Jagesic, S., Sebastian, J., Salmonowicz, M., Meyers, C., et al. (2013). Turning around low-performing schools in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago SchoolResearch. Retrieved from
http://ccsr.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/publications/Turnaround Report - Long Version FINAL.pdf
The study examined five different reform models initiated by the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) in 36 elementary and high schools identified as chronically low performing. Each of the five reform models (Reconstitution; School Closure and Restart; School Turnaround Specialist Program; Academy for Urban School Leadership; and Office of School Improvement) were consistent with one of the four improvement models recommended by the federal government. The analyses did not differentiate among the five reform efforts but examined whether schools that underwent any of the interventions showed improvements in students' outcomes (reading and mathematics achievement for elementary schools and absences and on-track graduation trends for high schools) and compared them with similar schools that did not undergo intervention. The school-by-school data can be used to discern patterns across schools undergoing similar types of reform and provide insight into issues to inform future efforts. The study also compared the teacher workforce before and after intervention using personnel records from CPS.
The report finds that student achievement in the intervention elementary schools improved significantly more than other schools over time. In contrast, the high schools did not show significant improvements although further research is suggested. Schools that remained neighborhood schools generally served the same students, while those closed and replaced with charter or contract schools generally served more advantaged students after intervention. The teacher workforce after intervention across all models was more likely to be white, younger, and less experienced. In general, the study suggests that improvement does not happen within the targeted two years. After four years, however, the very low-performing intervention elementary schools were able to close the gap between their test scores and the system average by almost half in reading and by two thirds in mathematics—achievements that provide promising evidence for efforts to improve schools that historically have been most impervious to reform.
D'Entremont, C., Norton, J., Bennett, M. & Piazza, P. (2011–2012). Charting the course: Four years of the Thomas W. Payzant School on the Move Prize. Journal of Education, 192(2/3), 3–12.
This article describes a collective case study that takes place at multiple sites; it presents the changes in structure and teaching methods that led to student success in four schools. Data was collected in the form of school observations, as well as interviews with school leaders, staff and students, then was analyzed for common themes. Changes that were implemented included data-driven instruction and student-centered approaches. Distributed leadership allowed teachers to lead professional development efforts, and curricular control was shared increasingly with the teachers. In one school, all students were assessed several times throughout the year, and instructional modifications were based on students' needs. In another school, behavioral standards that addressed students' social and emotional needs, as well as the development of relationships and academic expectations, were established. In order to graduate, students were required to complete a capstone project, perform community service, and apply to five colleges. The authors assert that teachers' shared responsibility for improving student learning was at the heart of each school's reform efforts.
Duke, D. L., & Landahl, M. (2011). "Raising test scores was the easy part": A case study of the third year of school turnaround. International Studies in Educational Administration, 39(3), 91–114. Retrieved from
The University of Virginia's Partnership for Leaders in Education, a collaboration between the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration and the Curry School of Education, provides school-, district-, and state-level administrators with executive leadership programs focused on improving low-performing schools and school systems. One component of this partnership was a Curry School research team, that, with funding from the Microsoft Corporation, spent four years following the Partnership's "turnaround principals" and investigating a host of issues related to school improvement efforts in these and other schools. Publications from the study included in this bibliography include this article and the Duke article
Key Decisions of a First-Year "Turnaround" Principal.
This study provides an in-depth look at the efforts of an elementary school principal to sustain improved student achievement in the third year of the school turnaround process. Case-study methodology, including the continuous collection of qualitative data from multiple sources and analysis based on open and axial coding, was used to conduct this prospective, exploratory study. To sustain improved student achievement, many reforms introduced in Years 1 and 2 of the turnaround process were either modified or replaced in Year 3, suggesting that school turnaround is a dynamic process characterized by ongoing adjustments. The authors conclude that institutionalization of reforms may not be an appropriate objective.
Education Resource Strategies. (2013; cases written 2011). Turnaround case studies: Elevating turnaround to a systemic level. Watertown, MA: Author. Retrieved from
This analysis of strategies to turn around low-performing schools undertaken by six large urban districts and four education management organizations is based on a gathering organized by Education Resource Strategies (ERS) where leaders from school districts, education management organizations (EMOs), and education reform groups discussed "sustaining turnaround at scale." Although districts employ various approaches, they all recognize turnaround is not something schools can do on their own—it requires supports and interventions at the district level, such as help identifying the key components of turnaround intervention, reallocation of money and staff, and removal of barriers. As part of the publication, the ERS website also offers a Turnaroun Action video that provides insight into how two schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina are approaching turnaround.
Herman, R., Dawson, P., Dee, T., Greene, J., Maynard, R., Redding, S., et al. (2008). Turning around chronically low-performing schools: A practice guide (NCEE 2008–4020). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from
This guide is part of a series of Practice Guides developed by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), a division of the U.S. Department of Education. A panel of nationally recognized individuals with expertise in research and the specific topic of a given Practice Guide are enlisted to conduct a rigorous review of existing research. These experts established a series of recommended strategies that are assigned a strong, moderate, or low rating of evidence based on the degree of replicability and generalizability of the studies upon which they are based. The Turnaround Practice Guide focuses on four recommended practices at turnaround schools: improved leadership, focus on instruction, quick wins, and committed staff. The website associated with this Practice Guide includes multimedia presentations, expert interviews, and links to additional resources.
The authors of this IES review stressed that the research on which is was based do not employ the most rigorous methodology. The recommendations are based on 10 case studies that examined turnaround practices across 35 schools: 21 elementary schools, eight middle schools, and six high schools. The panel emphasized that the level of evidence is, according to their criteria, low because none of the studies examined for this practice guide is based on a research methodology that yields causal inference.
Huberman, M., Parrish, T., Hannan, S., Arellanes, M., & Shambaugh, L. (2011). Turnaround Schools in California: Who are they and what strategies do they use? Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from
This study, written by AIR for the California Comprehensive Center at WestEd, attempts to define turnaround schools in California, with reference both to what constitutes low-performing or failing schools and what constitutes turnaround or success for these schools. The authors clearly specified the criteria used for identifying turnaround schools, and applied these criteria in a ten-step process to all California schools using data from a seven-year period (2003-4 to 2009-2010). This process resulted in 44 schools that met the criteria, from which nine were chosen for analysis. The authors interviewed the selected schools' principals to identify the strategies they believed were responsible for their turnaround success. Eight overall strategies were identified: instructional strategies focused on particular subgroups of students, like English learners and students in special education; an emphasis on teacher collaboration; regular use of assessment to monitor student progress, support from the school district, use of student engagement strategies, and use of extended learning time.
Jensen, B. (March 2013). The five critical steps for turnaround schools. Carlton, Australia: The Gratton Institute. Retrieved from
This paper identifies five factors that the author claims are critical to turning around low-performing schools: strong leadership, effective teaching, development of effective learning and behavior outcomes, a positive school culture, and engagement of parents and the community. This study also presents background on turnaround schools and explains why most of the attempts to improve low-performing schools fail. The author finds little agreement on how to identify very low performing schools, which usually are characterized by poor leadership, poor teaching, poor performance results, and a lack of direction.
Jensen, B., & Farmer, J. (2013). School turnaround in Shanghai: The empowered-management program approach to improving school performance. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress. Retrieved from http://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/ShanghaiReport-2.pdf
Public school students in the world's largest city, Shanghai, China, are academically outperforming their counterparts across the globe. Just as impressive, Shanghai's high academic performance is matched by greater equity; there is little difference in student performance across economic strata. The achievement gap between the lowest and highest performing students in Shanghai is smaller than the achievement gap in the United States. In addition, the poorest 10 percent of students in Shanghai perform at a level in mathematics that is on average 28 months ahead of the poorest 10 percent of students in the United States.
In achieving these results, Shangai uses an innovative partnering approach, called empowered-management, in which high-performing schools are contracted to work with low-performing schools—usually for a two-year period—to turn around their performance. Teachers and school leaders from both schools move between the two schools building capacity and developing effective practices to turn around the low-performing school. This paper examines the strategy and its implementation in detail to help determine those aspects of it that would best suit school systems in the United States. Importantly, the authors argue that cultural differences would not prevent this program from being successfully reproduced in the United States, although they acknowledge that the program cannot be replicated without some attention to differences across systems.
This paper does not attempt to quantify the effectiveness of the program, as the detailed school- and student-performance data needed to do so were not available. There are no studies, for example, that measure the impact of the program using school-level, value-added data. The report is therefore mostly descriptive, highlighting the apparent strengths of the program that align with international evidence on effective schooling. Further empirical research is required, but according to the researchers it is clear that key decision makers at every level of Shanghai school education consider the empowered-management program to be key to improving performance and equity.
Klein, A. (2011). Kentucky turnaround school reaps double-digit proficiency gains. Education Week, 31(6).
This article describes a high school's success after it underwent major changes in staffing. The principal recruited some of the county's best teachers and replaced half of his staff. In addition, the state of Kentucky sent in a math specialist, a literacy specialist and a mentor for the principal to train the staff on using student data to inform instruction. The author asserts that as a result of these changes, the school observed double-digit increases in reading and math test scores.
Kowal, J., & Ableidinger, J. (Public Impact). (2011). Leading indicators of school turnarounds: How to know when dramatic change is on track. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education. Retrieved from http://www.darden.virginia.edu/web/uploadedFiles/Darden/Darden_Curry_PLE/UVA_School_Turnaround/
In school turnarounds, leading indicators can provide early evidence about whether a school is on track—and if not, how to intervene to increase the odds of success. This report summarizes the research and experience from other settings in which leaders have long relied on leading indicators to enhance the likelihood of success—including venture capital, franchising, and research and development in industries such as pharmaceuticals—and identifies key principles and processes to guide the design and use of leading indicators in education. It also presents a starting list of leading indicators and a proposed monitoring timetable for district, state, and other education leaders to use in turnaround schools.
Key lessons include the following: start with known success factors; use frequent and firsthand
monitoring;act on early indicators of success or failure; and collect mountains of data and narrow to the most predictive over time. The authors assert that one growing school of thought in turnaround is for leaders to use data to assess the need for retry in the first one or two years—and then take action. This paper provides one set of research-based indicators (though derived from research in other sectors) for educators to use to start making these tough but vital decisions in the turnaround space.
Kowal, J., Hassel, E. A., & Hassel, B. C. (2009). Successful school turnarounds: Seven steps for district leaders. Washington, DC: Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. Retrieved from
School turnarounds require change that is rapid and dramatic, so the press for success is relentless. Turnaround schools, therefore, also require types of support and flexibility from district leaders that are different from supports for other school improvement efforts. This issue brief, which builds on a number of Public Impact studies cited in this bibliography, including School Turnarounds: A Review of the Cross-Sector Evidence on Dramatic Organizational Improvement, offers seven steps for district leaders to support the dramatic change required to turn around chronic low performance. Steps include the following: making a commitment to dramatic change, choosing turnarounds for the right schools, developing a pipeline of turnaround leaders, providing leaders extra flexibility, holding schools accountable, prioritizing teacher hiring for turnaround schools, and proactively engaging the community.
Kutash, J., Nico, E., Gorin, E., Rahmatullah, S., & Tallant, K. (2010). The school turnaround field guide. Boston: FSG Social Impact Advisors. Retrieved from
School_Turnaround_Field_Guide.pdf?cpgn=WP DL – School Turnaround FULL
FSG wrote this report to promote the use of promising practices and a focus on results in turnaround. The report provides an overview of the school turnaround issue; identifies measures of success; surveys the policy and funding environment; compares the four major turnaround models; provides a guide to important actors in the field (with a visual map of their interrelated roles and funding); and explores key issues and gaps. It then provides a summary of early lessons learned, from the necessity for fundamental, school-level changes to address severe and pervasive student needs to the development of system level turnaround capacity. Finally, the report suggests a set of detailed actions to ensure that turnaround succeeds at scale, including the development of common metrics, creating the conditions for success, and maintaining urgency and political will.
The authors drew upon more than 100 interviews with turnaround experts, practitioners, policymakers, researchers, and funders. The 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 in January 2010, cohosted by FSG and Stanford Social Innovation Review. FSG drew extensively on the guidance and feedback of an advisory group consisting of a broad cross-section of turnaround actors, including state and district leaders, funders, human capital providers, school operators, education entrepreneurs, and researchers.
Lane, B., Unger, C., & Rhim, L. M. (2012). Emerging practices in rapid achievement gain schools: An analysis of 2010–2011 Level 4 schools to identify organizational and instructional practices that accelerate students' academic achievement. Catonsville, MD: Institute for Strategic Leadership and Learning. Retrieved from
This research report presented the results of a study conducted for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to compare the practices of Level 4 (underperforming) schools that experienced success in their turnaround efforts with schools that made few, if any, gains. The report was intended to provide evidence-based information about the practices implemented for use by other underperforming districts. Among the practices identified: having an instruction-based and results-oriented principal, instruction-specific training, teacher-specific coaching, and a well-orchestrated system of ongoing data collection. Results included the principal spending 75 percent of his or her time observing in classes or attending instructional meetings, students' sense of safety in school, and teachers' use of data to make instructional decisions and improve their practice.
Lazarin, M. (2011). Charting new territory: Tapping charter schools to turn around the nation's dropout factories. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.Retrieved from
The paper explores barriers and opportunities for collaboration between charter management organizations (CMOs) and districts to turn around high schools. Using interviews with charter high school operators and other experts, the policy paper addresses how the unique considerations that come with operating a charter high school take shape when the school also is a turnaround school. Charter staff members from two of the few CMOs that already work in this space—Green Dot Public Schools with the Alliance for College Ready Schools in Los Angeles and Mastery Charter Schools with the Renaissance Schools Initiative in Philadelphia—share how they have adapted their educational approach to address district priorities, community expectations, and the needs of high school students who have been accustomed to an educational career in struggling schools. The early findings and perspectives on district-charter turnarounds focus on identifying keys to collaboration rather than an analysis of student achievement.
Mass Insight Education & Research Institute, School Turnaround Group. (2012). Being bold: An assessment of turnaround initiatives in select school districts and states. Boston: Author. Retrieved from http://www.massinsight.org/publications/turnaround/162/file/1/pubs/2012/05/23/
This progress report examines several leading states and districts that are adopting bolder strategies for turning around underperforming public schools in ways that align with the "three Cs" framework that Mass Insight first put forward in
The Turnaround Challenge: a strategy that calls for establishing flexible operating Conditions, decentralizing local Capacity, and organizing schools into high school-led Clusters. The report analyses the alignment of three "first-generation" district models (Baltimore Innovation Schools, Chicago Office of School Improvement's management of the Academy for Urban School Leadership, New York City Empowerment Zone, and Philadelphia Renaissance Schools) and three "second-generation" district models (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Project L.I.F.T, Providence Innovation Zone [a Mass Insight partner], and Syracuse iZone [a Mass Insight partner]). It also uses student achievement data (generally proficiency levels on state assessments) to provide a preliminary picture of results for the various models.
Mass Insight Education & Research Institute, School Turnaround Group. (2012).
State education agencies: Creating proof points and scaling results. Boston: Author. Retrieved from
STG Turnaround Brief - June 2012 – SEA Proof Points.pdf
This brief is the third in a series of regular issue briefs by Mass Insight Education's School Turnaround Group. It begins with background information on the federal government increasing state education agencies' role in identifying and intervening in low-achieving schools. The brief describes the challenges the states face and areas that need to be addressed for successful turnarounds. These areas include creating the conditions of a successful learning environment, building capacity by developing leadership and strategically clustering schools to increase the potential impact of the efforts. The brief includes recommendations based on the successful practices of a few leading states. For example, the authors recommend that schools should be ranked based on performance, and state support should be differentiated based on each district's needs and capacity. In addition, incentives and sanctions also can be used by states to enhance district capacity and improve conditions. Detailed descriptions of the interventions which states implemented are included in this issue.
Rhim, L. M. (LMR Consulting). (2011). Learning how to dance in the Queen City: Cincinnati Public Schools' turnaround initiative. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education. Retrieved from
This report presents a descriptive case study, based on interviews with key personnel of the strategic school turnaround effort in Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS). Initiated in the fall of 2008, CPS's Elementary Initiative involves a multifaceted approach to turnaround that is driven largely by the examination of data to inform decisions regarding school leadership, operational and instructional practices, targeted interventions, resource allocation, and professional development. CPS collaborated with the University of Virginia' Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education School Turnaround Specialist Program (UVA-STSP) to prepare and support central-office and school-level leaders in their turnaround efforts.
According to LeAnn Buntrock, executive director of the UVA-STSP, based on their experience with 48 school districts across the country during a six-year period, the CPS Elementary Initiative was "the best district-wide implementation of a turnaround initiative at scale that we have seen." ("CPS 'Turnaround Schools' lift district performance,Cincinnati Herald, May 21, 2008.) Twenty-four months into the effort, the 16 priority schools had changed key operational and instructional practices that led to improved outcomes for students. In contrast to approaches the U.S. Department of Education promotes with extensive staffing change, evidence from CPS appears to indicate that
given the right environmental conditions (e.g., skilled district leadership, adoption of data-based decisions, an unwavering commitment to quality instruction, and high-stakes accountability), dramatic change can be successfully initiated by many existing personnel.
Rhim, L. M., Kowal, J. M., Hassel, B. C., & Hassel, E. A. (2007). School turnarounds: A review of the cross-sector evidence on dramatic organizational improvement. Lincoln, IL: Center on Innovation and Improvement. Retrieved from
This evidence review is adapted from the 2006 Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement publication
Turnarounds With New Leaders and Staff by J. M Kowal and B. C. Hassel, with substantial updates and new analysis. It reviews the considerable cross-sector literature, including 59 sources from business, education, government, nonprofit, and multisector research, on what factors make turnarounds most likely to succeed. The resulting framework focuses on leadership actions (e.g., focusing on early wins, implementing against current norms if necessary, basing action on data, stopping unsuccessful efforts), as well as on the environment in which they work (e.g., intense, focused reforms; authority over personnel and working conditions; and support of districts).
The robust research in other sectors was applied to help bolster the more limited research available at the time on school turnaround, and the study also involved interviews with national experts and turnaround specialists. Of the 59 sources, almost all (50) were case studies. Of these, 19 examined a single organization, 21 looked at between two and nine organizations, and 10 studied 10 or more entities. Seven of the documents were themselves reviews synthesizing a body of research through quantitative meta-analysis or other techniques. Two were expert opinion based on significant observational experience. They examined turnarounds in all organizational sectors: business (18 of the studies), education (30), government (5), nonprofit (2), and multisectoral (4).
Stuit, D. (2010). Are bad schools immortal? The scarcity of turnarounds and shutdowns in both charter and district sectors. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved from
This study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute finds that low-performing public schools—both charter and traditional district schools—are stubbornly resistant to significant change. After identifying more than 2,000 low-performing charter and district schools across 10 states, the author tracked them from 2003–04 through 2008–09 to determine how many were turned around, shut down, or remained low performing. Results were generally bleak. Seventy-two percent of the original low-performing charters remained in operation—and remained low-performing—five years later. So did 80 percent of district schools.
To be deemed a successful "turnaround" for this study, a school in its state's lowest decile (i.e., proficiency at or below the 10th percentile) at the beginning of the period had to surpass the 50th percentile within five years. The author notes that means a school might have made substantial progress (e.g., second to 50th percentile) yet not qualify as turned around. The analysis also relies on absolute proficiency scores on state tests to judge school performance rather than on "value added" analysis. The Institute leaders acknowledge that "we may fairly surmise that some of these schools are adding considerable academic value to significant numbers of children even as they remain well below average in getting kids to 'proficiency,' compared with other schools in their states" (p. 4). However, the study also suggests that real transformation is truly rare in both charter and district sectors, which compels the author to ask whether the federal emphasis on this reform strategy is warranted.
Stuit, D., & Stringfield, S. (2012). Responding to the chronic crisis in education: The evolution of the school turnaround mandate. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 17(1–2). Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/hjsp20/17/1-2#.UcigR5wkDZU
This special double issue of the
Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk focuses on one of the greatest and most enduring challenges facing American education over the last half century: providing quality educational opportunities in all schools. The eight articles in the issue cover a broad range of topics related to the growing movement to address chronically failing schools through intensive school turnaround interventions and include:
- Stuit, D. & Stringfield, S. Responding to the chronic crisis in education: The evolution of the School turnaround mandate
- Duke, D. Tinkering and turnarounds: Understanding the contemporary campaign to improve low-performing schools
- Herman, R. Scaling school turnaround
- Berkeley, M. A Practitioner's View on the Policy of Turning Schools Around
- Stuit, D. Turnaround and closure rates in the charter and district sectors
- Hanson, M. Key issues in empirically identifying chronically low-performing and turnaround schools
- Meyers, C., Lindsay, J., Condon, C. & Wan, Y. A statistical approach to identifying schools demonstrating substantial improvement in student learning.
- Hochbein, C. Relegation and reversion: longitudinal analysis of school turnaround and decline
- Schatter, E., et al. Sustaining turnaround at the school and district levels: The high reliability schools project at Sandfields Secondary School
American Institutes for Research. (2010). A learning point: What research and the field tell us about school leadership and turnaround. Washington, DC: Author.Retrieved from
This paper draws on two decades of research on transformational leadership combined with qualitative analysis of current best practice to focus attention on three important questions: (1) What actions do successful school leaders take? (2) Do the lowest performing schools require a specific set of leadership skills? and (3) How do district leaders and school staff support improvement to sustain improvement when an effective school leader leaves
The paper points out that what we know about how to transform chronically low-performing schools is driven primarily by case-study analysis. Aside from the general methodological issues related to case studies, this approach has an even deeper flaw for studies of leadership. The available studies often focus on a single leader, typically the principal, who appears as a charismatic hero whose skills are not necessarily teachable. With so many of our nation's schools labeled as chronically low performing, an overhaul in the quality and approach of school and district leadership is necessary. The authors suggest that more rigorous, evidence-based studies need to be conducted as schools successfully undertake turnaround. In the meantime, states and districts can borrow from two decades of research on transformational leadership, which shows how a more inclusive/distributed and strategic/systemic approach to leadership might move schools toward improvements.
Brinson, D., Kowal, J., & Hassel, B. C. (2008). School turnarounds: Actions and results. Lincoln, IL: Center on Innovation and Improvement. Retrieved from
http://www.centerii.org/survey/downloads/Turnaround Actions and Results 3 24 08 with covers.pdf
This publication builds on Public Impact's prior work,School Turnarounds: A Review of the Cross-Sector Evidence on Dramatic Organizational Improvement, which identified 14 leader actions of successful school turnarounds. Although
School Turnarounds provided a useful conceptual framework of leader actions, education leaders were eager for compelling examples of how those actions have played out in actual school turnarounds. In response, this report provides descriptive, real-world vignettes that illustrate for practitioners the actions that successful school leaders have taken to turn around low-performing schools. Examples of such actions include collecting and analyzing data, creating data driven action plans, requiring all staff to change, making necessary staff replacements, measuring and reporting progress frequently, and requiring all decision makers to share data and problem solve. This resource tool reviews the 14 leader actions and illustrates each through descriptive vignettes drawn from case studies documenting successful turnarounds. More information about the case studies from which the vignettes were drawn (published studies from 1999–2005) appear in an annotated bibliography.
An important caveat around the definition of "successful turnaround:" Ideally, a school turnaround would generate substantial gains in student learning in Year 1 that are then sustained over time. In the literature reviewed here, researchers were often looking at very early "turnaround" efforts—some after the first year, so their longer term performance was unknown. As the authors note, "All that can be said is that the vignettes captured here are from school turn-arounds deemed successful by researchers at the time of their studies" (p. 5).
Duke, D. L., & Salmonowicz, M. (2010). Key decisions of a first-year "turnaround" principal. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 38(1), 33–58.Retrieved from
In the absence of a large body of research on the decisions of school turnaround principals, researchers with the University of Virginia's School Turnaround Specialist Program (VSTSP) designed an exploratory study focusing on the decisions made by a single principal participating in the VSTSP. By beginning data collection when a principal first was assigned to a low-performing school and by regularly contacting the individual throughout the first year of her principalship, they avoided the problems encountered in retrospective studies in which principals reconstruct their thinking at some distant point in the past. Case-study methodology (cited as the authors as being the preferred strategy when "how" and "why" questions are being posed for contemporary phenomenon), including the continuous collection of qualitative data from multiple sources and analysis based on open and emergent coding, was used to conduct this prospective, exploratory stu
Researchers focused on decisions related to the principal's three high-priority concerns: (1) elimination of an ineffective instructional program, (2) creation of a culture of teacher accountability, and (3) development of an effective reading program. A decision, for purposes of data collection, is considered to be a conscious choice made after consideration of two or more alternatives. The choice, in the judgment of the principal, had to be related in some way to her efforts to raise student achievement. Forty-nine decisions were identified and organized into five categories—performance, policy, program, process, and personnel decisions. The study concludes with a discussion of what principals need to know to make the kinds of decisions required of a "turnaround" principal.
Kowal, J., & Hassel, E. A. (Public Impact). (2011). Importing leaders for school turnarounds: Lessons and opportunities. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education. Retrieved from
One of the biggest challenges in education today is identifying talented candidates to successfully lead turnarounds of persistently low-achieving schools. Evidence suggests that the traditional principal pool is already stretched to capacity and cannot supply enough leaders to fix failing schools. But the authors of this study argue that potentially thousands of leaders capable of managing successful turnarounds work outside education, in nonprofit and health organizations, the military, and the private sector. If only a fraction of those leaders used their talents in education, we could increase the supply of school turnaround leaders significantly. In this report, Public Impact explores lessons about when and how organizations in non-education sectors import leadership, including what it takes to tempt people away and how firms help make leaders successful in a new setting. The authors then consider likely challenges and critical next steps for applying those lessons to importing leaders for turnarounds of chronically failing schools.
Kowal, J., Rosch, J. L., Hassel, E. A., & Hassel, B. C. (2009). Performance-based dismissals: Cross-sector lessons for school turnarounds. Lincoln, IL: Center on Innovation and Improvement. Retrieved from
School turnarounds are, at their core, a people-driven strategy. In schools that have failed students for years, leaders must often replace staff members who are not willing or able to contribute to the turnaround. Unfortunately, leaders of school turnaround efforts face critical challenges to successfully carrying out targeted dismissals. First, performance-based dismissals have been very rare in public education, and many principals lack the know-how they need to carry out dismissals well. Second, the policy environment in most states and districts is stacked against performance-based dismissals of teachers. This report addresses both of these challenges.
This paper examines the research on performance-based dismissals outside of education—where the experience base is much richer—to inform strategies for turnaround leaders in public education. It then describes the ways in which state and district policies enable or impede targeted staff replacement. Finally, it provides policy recommendations for local and state education leaders to take in enabling performance-based dismissals in turnaround schools, including negotiating expedited dismissal processes, enabling greater staffing flexibility, prioritizing recruitment, hiring, and placement, and assembling support teams.
Martorell, P., Heaton, P., Gates, S. M., & Hamilton, L. S. (2010). Preliminary findings from the new leaders for new schools evaluation. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from
Effective school leadership is widely seen as a key determinant of student achievement, yet it remains unclear what constitutes an effective principal. To address the need to develop new principals to lead urban schools, the New Leaders for New Schools (NLNS) organization was established with the goal of ensuring high academic achievement for all students by attracting, preparing, and supporting leaders for urban public schools. This working paper presents preliminary findings on the impact of attending a K–8 school led by a New Leader. Using longitudinal student-level data collected from the six cities in which NLNS had placed principals by the 2007–08 school year, the authors attempt to estimate the effect of attending a school led by a New Leader using panel data methods to mitigate biases from nonrandom sorting of students and principals to schools. The estimates suggest that there is a positive association between achievement and having a New Leader in his or her second (or higher) year of tenure, while there is a small negative relationship between achievement and attending a school led by a first-year New Leader.
New Leaders for New Schools. (2009). Principal effectiveness: A new principalship to drive student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and school turnarounds, with key insights from the Urban Excellence Framework. New York: Author. Retrieved from
Note: This report is an update and expansion of New Leaders for New Schools' (NLNS) 2008 publication, Key Insights of the Urban Excellence Framework: Defining an Urban Principalship to Drive Dramatic Achievement Gains. It is based on evaluation work published as
Preliminary Findings From the New Leaders for New Schools Evaluation by RAND in 2010, which is annotated as a turnaround resource under Martorell.
This report from NLNS uses findings from school leaders making breakthrough gains in student achievement to inform a new definition of principal effectiveness (incorporated in the Urban Excellence Framework [UEF]) and to develop policy recommendations for school turnarounds. The work is rooted in analysis of data from more than 60 site visits comparing incremental and breakthrough-gaining urban public schools in 10 cities across the country. The analysis also incorporated a full review of the practices documented by the Effective Practice Incentive Community.
The researchers cite previous research by R. J. Marzano and others (p. 2 of the executive summary) indicating that teachers and principals are the two most important in-school factors driving school success, with principals accounting for a quarter and teachers a third of a school's total impact on achievement. Based on this research and the results of RAND's evaluation, NLNS advocates for the adoption of an evidence-based, three-pronged approach to defining principal effectiveness: (1) gains in student achievement, (2) increasing teacher effectiveness, and (3) taking effective leadership actions to reach these outcomes. Its UEF details a principal's highest priority work in the following five categories: learning and teaching; creating an effective, aligned staff; school culture; operations and systems; and personal leadership. NLNS also recommends that principals be given the necessary decision-making authority to act as school-level human capital managers, especially in low-achieving schools. The authors believe these recommendations can help build a comprehensive approach to improving principal effectiveness and to driving school transformation at scale.
Public Impact. (2008). School turnaround leaders: Competencies for success. Chapel Hill, NC: Author. Retrieved from
This guide clarifies the most critical competencies that enable school leaders to be successful in attempts to transform schools from failure to excellence quickly and dramatically. It provides leader competency definitions, school examples, and detailed levels of increasingly effective competence. The authors define a competency as "a pattern of thinking, feeling, acting or speaking that causes a person to be successful in a job or role. Competencies may be developed, but they are most powerful when used to select people who are already a good fit for the job. The competencies included here stem primarily from in-depth studies of highly successful leaders in analogous leadership roles (e.g., entrepreneurs, managers in complex organizations)" (p. 4). The report asserts that five key environmental factors can influence the prospects for successful turnarounds: the timetable, freedom to act, support and aligned systems, performance monitoring, and community engagement. It posits a cyclical model of successful leadership with the following four interacting components: analysis and problem solving, driving for results, measuring and reporting, and influencing the inside and the outside.
Rhim, L. M., (2012). No time to lose: Turnaround leader performance assessment. Lincoln, IL: Center on Innovation and Improvement; and Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education. Retrieved from
No Time to Lose.pdf
Effective leadership is critical to successful school turnaround efforts. Historically, district leaders have been hesitant to hold school leaders accountable for bold change efforts. However, as federal and state dollars flow to districts and individual schools charged with transformative change efforts, districts need to put a laser-sharp focus on assessing turnaround leaders; performance on an accelerated timeline. This Center on Innovation and Improvement and University of Virginia-Partnership for Leaders in Education brief presents the rationale supporting aggressive turnaround leader assessment efforts and outlines seven critical actions steps to increase the success rate of turnaround schools (ranging from establishing an infrastructure for consistent collaboration with turnaround leaders, to assessing leader performance on agreed indicators 18 months and 24 months into turnaround, and supporting successful leaders to sustain turnaround)
Based on the growing database of examples of successful turnaround efforts (e.g., Baltimore, Maryland; Cincinnati, Ohio; Hartford, Connecticut; New York City, New York; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), the authors conclude that turnaround is possible and that holding principals accountable within the first two years is critical to boosting turnaround success rates.
Steiner, L., & Hassel, E. A. (2011). Using competencies to improve school turnaround principal success. Chapel Hill, NC: Public Impact; and Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education. Retrieved from
This paper describes how using competencies that predict performance can improve turnaround principal selection, evaluation, and development. The primary critical competencies identified for school turnaround leader are "achievement" and "impact and influence." Achievement is having the drive and taking actions to set challenging goals and reach a high standard of performance despite barriers. Impact and influence is acting with the purpose of affecting the perceptions, thinking, and actions of others. This report provides guidance for organizations on how to use competencies to select, evaluate, and develop effective school turnaround leaders. It summarizes the research about how districts can create the right environment to increase school turnaround leader success from Public Impact's previous report,
School Turnaround Leaders: Competencies for Success, and includes three useful appendices on the following: two options for building valid competency models, four steps for hiring effective school turnaround principals (including the behavior event interview technique intended to elicit evidence of competencies), and four strategies for developing effective school turnaround principals. The work is based on three sets of sources: previous Public Impact analyses of published turnaround and cross-sector leadership research; David McClelland's work on competency; and studies of competency-based evaluation in Singapore's educational system.
Banks, A., Bodkin, C., & Heissel, J. (2011). Teacher working conditions and turnaround efforts in low-achieving high schools: What works. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Retrieved from http://www.dpi.state.nc.us/docs/intern-research/reports/workingconditions.pdf
This paper examines how the North Carolina state school turnaround program has affected leadership and other teacher working conditions in low-achieving high schools in North Carolina. The researchers used the North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions survey to examine how teachers' perception of conditions and leadership changed in turnaround schools. They also analyzed changes in students' end-of-course (EOC) test performance and graduation rates, and examined specific schools that performed exceptionally well in the turnaround program. The study is based on analysis of 66 Turnaround Schools and 35 control group schools using data from the 2005–06 through 2009–10 school years. The researchers used an ordinary least squares regression model and a panel data model with school fixed effects to evaluate the effectiveness of turnaround.
Results demonstrate that the turnaround program is associated with the following changes in teacher working conditions over time: improved school leadership and support, enhanced teacher leadership and culture, and more time for preparation and collaboration. (The first two measures increased from 2005 to 2010, though they remained below the state average, while turnaround schools remained slightly above average in preparation and collaboration time.) The turnaround program also increased end-of-course passing rates. The program did not in general correspond to a change in graduation rates (potentially because the turnarounds studied were three or four years along and may not have had sufficient time to influence graduation rate). However, several schools did achieve outstanding graduation rate results, primarily those implementing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics high schools; specialized academies and career and technical education programs; International Baccalaureate and Advancement Via Individual Determination programs; and middle colleges. The authors suggest further research on these outliers.
Ferris, K. (2012). Human capital in turnaround schools. The School Administrator, 69(7), 36–39. Retrieved from http://www.aasa.org/content.aspx?id=24056
Finding, keeping, and supporting great educators present a major challenge to successful school turnarounds. The turnaround model supported by the U.S. Department of Education School Improvement Grants program requires the replacement of the majority of staff in turnaround schools, but most efforts to date have focused on terminating underperforming teachers, not on finding and keeping more effective replacements. In this article, the author discusses six essential components for success in recruiting, retaining, and supporting top talent in the turnaround environment: (1) a team approach, (2) strong leaders, (3) empowerment, (4) additional training and support, (5) prestige, and (6) compensation. She profiles efforts in two districts—Boston's Turnaround Teacher Teams (T3) and Pittsburgh's Promise-Ready Corps—to show alternative ways to implement these six components.
At Boston schools using T3, as compared with other Massachusetts schools (including other Boston turnaround schools), in 2010–11 student growth was significantly higher in most grades and subject areas. (Pittsburgh did not yet have results when the article was published.) The author suggests that the team-based structures of these efforts provide a solid basis for developing sustainable and scalable instructional capacity at turnaround schools. The work is based on the initiatives in Boston, Massachusetts, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Charlotte, North Carolina; research on workplace incentives; and Education Resource Strategies' broader human capital and turnaround work with partner districts.
Kowal, J., Hassel, B., & Hassel, E. A. (2008). Financial incentives for hard-to-staff positions: Cross-sector lessons for public education. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress. Retrieved from
Debate rages in education about whether to provide teachers with financial incentives to improve recruitment and retention in "hard-to-staff" schools and subject areas. In other public sectors—the civil service, military, and medicine—organizations take for granted that compensation is a powerful tool. Experience from these domains suggests that a "portfolio" of incentives (including performance bonuses, loan repayment or scholarship programs, and other forms) may be most effective. As a component of this portfolio, performance-based incentives can boost both the recruitment and retention power of hard-to-staff pay—particularly for the high-potential candidates that we need most in hard-to-staff schools.
Based on a review of research on hard-to-staff pay programs in the public and private sectors, as well as interviews with experts with significant experience in these fields, the report offers lessons for policymakers and those developing the detailed compensation design required to implement hard-to-staff pay reforms effectively in education. In addition to the relevant experience mentioned above, cross-sector research suggests that decisions on which positions require incentives are best made at the top, but that on-the-ground managers may be best suited to setting individual incentive amounts; that districts invest in targeted recruitment for candidates who are inherently attracted to working in challenging schools (and therefore will require less differentiation in pay); and that education leaders consider using technology to deliver programming in hard-to-staff areas through the use of adaptive software or accessing the relevant content instructors online.
Public Impact. (2008). School turnaround teachers: Competencies for success. Chapel Hill, NC: Author. Retrieved from
This is a companion to
Leaders for School Turnarounds: Competencies for Success. Both guides seek to clarify the most critical competencies—or patterns of thinking, feeling, speaking, and acting—that enable people to be successful in attempts to transform schools from failure to excellence quickly and dramatically. This teacher version provides competency definitions and school examples. For more information on selecting teachers and leaders for turnaround schools, including detailed levels of increasingly effective competence, selection questions, and scoring rubrics, see Teachers for School Turnarounds: Selection Toolkit, and Leaders for School Turnarounds: Selection Toolkit, available from the Public Impact website.
Turnaround: Selected Success Factors
Brinson, D., & Steiner, L. (2012). Building family and community demand for dramatic change in schools. Chapel Hill, NC: Public Impact. Retrieved from
District-led, dramatic change efforts in failing schools—including turnarounds and school closures—often face strong resistance from families and communities. Resistance may be based on years of tension and distrust between districts and communities, failed past school improvement efforts, or a lack of understanding about the chasm between a failing school's performance and what is possible. The authors asked 28 leaders in school districts, community organizations, charter school management organizations, school turnaround providers, and foundations across the country what they have done to engage families and communities in demanding dramatic change in their schools and how various stakeholders have been involved in establishing shared values and goals for change, choosing from available options, and holding districts accountable for improving outcomes for children. This report and related presentation share lessons learned about the barriers districts and communities have faced as well as nine strategies for overcoming those barriers (from assessing the political landscape, to careful identification of audiences and messengers, and developing effective measurements for success). The report includes three vignettes about efforts to build community demand for dramatic change in Denver, Philadelphia, and Chicago schools.
The Center on School Turnaround at WestEd. (2013). Handbook on state management of school turnaround. Manuscript in preparation.
Handbook will provide research and examples of practice on how state educational agencies (SEAs) manage school turnaround. Main chapters will include a literature review, framework, and action principles for the SEA. Brief chapters will focus on a turnaround-related topic, especially as it applies to a subset of schools or student populations. The
Handbook is organized around the Center's objectives, the SEA System of Recognition, Accountability, and Support change levers (Opportunity, Incentives, Capacity—Systemic, Capacity—Local), and the U.S. Department of Education's turnaround principles.
Corbett, J. (2011). Lead turnaround partners: How the emerging marketplace of lead turnaround partners is changing school improvement. Lincoln, IL: Center on Innovation and Improvement. Retrieved from
The term lead turnaround partner (LTP), or sometimes lead partner (LP), refers to education organizations working with schools and districts in comprehensive and embedded ways to turn around a persistently low-achieving school. These partnerships are most often funded with federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) dollars and implement either the federally defined turnaround or transformation models. LTPs, whether nonprofit organizations, a charter management organization, a university, or another education-related support provider, guide the improvement effort and address instruction, professional development, operations, and the overall systems of both the school and district.
This report describes the use of LTPs in the current SIG program and provides the results of document review, surveys, and interviews with eight state education agencies (Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, Tennessee, and Virginia) and seven LTP organizations (Academy for Urban School Leadership, America's Choice, Cambridge Education, Edison Learning, Learning Point Associates/American Institutes for Research, Pearson School Achievement Services, and WestEd). The study focuses on the implementation of the transformation and turnaround models under the SIG program during the 2010–11 school year. It surveys the current marketplace of LTP providers and the organizational structures of existing LTPs. In addition, it discusses the communication strategies and the roles of various players involved in SIG implementation, including state education agencies, local education agencies, and LTPs. The author notes that more extensive and rigorous research is needed to truly validate the transformation and turnaround models and the use of LTPs. Until that level of research is complete, she suggests that it is important for LTPs, states, and districts to share real-time lessons learned about which strategies seem to work.
Hassel, B., & Steiner, L. (2012). Guide to working with external providers: Partnerships to improve teaching and learning (third edition). Naperville, IL: American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from
The guide offers a step-by-step approach for school leaders to research and select a high-quality service provider, establish an effective partnership agreement, and evaluate the success of the partnership. The guide is based on surveys of research and field experience related to how schools and districts can work most effectively with external providers. During its initial development in 2004, researchers reviewed the academic literature on school-provider partnerships, interviewed top scholarly experts on the subject, and interviewed a wide-ranging group of practitioners involved in school-provider relationships. Those practitioners included representatives of schools, districts, and a range of external providers. Drafts of the guide were subjected to rigorous review by evaluators, practitioners, and others with expertise in this area. With additional investments the U.S. Department of Education has made in School Improvement Grants models involving external partners, the guide was updated in 2010 and 2012.
Kim, J. H. J. (2012). The lead partner playbook. Boston: Mass Insight Education & Research Institute, School Turnaround Group. Retrieved from
Building on the Lead Partner (LP) concept proposed in
The Turnaround Challenge (2007), as well as an analysis of case studies, interviews, and artifacts currently in use in the field, this playbook provides a detailed examination of LP development from planning to implementation—including possible sources of and trajectories for growth, as well as practical details of what external organizations working in partnership with districts may look like in action. The playbook lays out the key steps LPs must take to secure the essential conditions (autonomies relating to people, money, time, and programs). The playbook is a planning guide to building an organization that can execute and sustain school turnaround (capacity). In addition, it helps schools leaders get their hands around the Turnaround Group's third "C"—clustering—by grouping a low-performing high school and its feeder schools into a protected Zone. The playbook includes advice, detailed templates, and guidance on issues such as budgeting, staffing, auditing the central office and schools, clarifying responsibilities, and evaluating performance.
The authors point out that LPs are succeeding: elementary schools under the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) increased achievement of proficiency on state tests by up to 34 percentage points, and Friendship Public Charter Schools has consistently raised graduation rates and proficiency levels at its partnership schools. However, the reality is that organizations like these are not likely to expand beyond their regions, which means that states and districts must invent their own solutions and their own versions of AUSL and Friendship. This
Lead Partner Playbook, created with input from AUSL, Friendship, and other existing lead turnaround partners (Mastery Charter Schools, Big Picture Learning, Diplomas Now, Explore Schools, Green Dot, the Institute for Student Achievement, LA's Promise, LEAD Public Schools, Renaissance School Services, Renew Schools, Scholar Academies, and Unlocking Potential) offers a how-to guide for states and districts that need to build an internal LP or facilitate the development of local external LP organizations.
Silva, E. (2012). Off the clock: What more time can (and can't) do for school turnarounds. Washington, DC: Education Sector. Retrieved from
One of the major strategies underpinning efforts to fix the nation's worst public schools involves the carving out of additional instructional time, with billions of federal stimulus dollars being spent on this. More than 90 percent of the schools in the federal government's School Improvement Grants (SIG) program have selected one of two options—"turnaround" and "transformation"—that mandate more time. But there is far more research showing the ill effects of unequal time than research showing that extended learning time (ELT) policies can make up the difference. This report looks at the facts—and the myths—about school calendars and schedules. Education Sector reviewed data on how SIG turnaround and transformation schools are actually using "increased learning time" mandated by the federal government. The variations are wide—from adding minutes to the school day to providing afterschool programs to shortening recess and lunch. Some approaches show clear potential, while others face considerable limits to implementation.
"New designs for extended time should be a part of the nation's school improvement plans," Silva concludes. "But policymakers and school leaders must recognize that successful schools use time not just to extend hours and days but to creatively improve how and by whom instruction is delivered. In the end, the ELT movement is more likely to leave a legacy of school and student success if it becomes less about time and more about quality teaching and learning" (p. 2). The study is based on an analysis of the National Center on Time and Learning's database of roughly 1,000 public schools operating with extended schedules, as well as a sample of 190 Local Education Agency SIG applications from 48 states.
Usher, A., & Kober, N. (2012). Student motivation: An overlooked piece of school reform. Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy. Retrieved from http://www.cep-dc.org/displayDocument.cfm?DocumentID=405
The Center for Education Policy (CEP) produced a series of papers examining topics related to students' academic motivation, a critical aspect of education reform, but one often surprisingly absent in research on school turnaround. The summary paper,
Student Motivation: An Overlooked Piece of School Reform, pulls together research findings from the six background papers, each of which includes a brief overview of research findings, examples of current programs and policies, and implications for the future, offering a more in-depth look at specific themes surrounding student engagement, including the following: why motivation is important and how it might be defined and measured; whether rewarding students can result in higher motivation; whether students can be motivated by goal-setting; the role of parental involvement, family background, and culture; strategies schools might use to motivate students; and nontraditional approaches to motivating otherwise unenthusiastic students. The last is particularly relevant to turnaround of chronically underperforming schools, where many students have already become disengaged. The appendix outlines four major dimensions of motivation as defined by major scholars in the field. All six background papers can be accessed at the CEP site.
Restructuring Under NCLB
Brinson, D., & Rhim, L. M. (2009). Breaking the habit of low performance: Successful school restructuring stories. Lincoln, IL: Center on Innovation and Improvement. Retrieved from
This report provides five brief profiles of schools that dramatically improved student performance and successfully restructured under federal accountability systems. All five schools failed to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) for several consecutive years, and—once in restructuring—had to chart a course to overhaul the way their schools operated. Featuring two large-district, urban schools, two small-district urban/suburban schools, and a rural school in a variety of grade configurations, these stories highlight the reasons for persistent low performance, the chosen restructuring options, key actions taken, and the results. Three factors figured prominently in the transformation of each school: new leaders, supports from district and/or state educational agencies, and outside stakeholders. Given the qualitative case-study methodology, this report does not provide conclusive evidence for the efficacy of specific restructuring approaches, but as the authors suggest, it demonstrates that successful improvement of long-failing schools is possible and contributes to the broader body of school restructuring and turnaround stories that are spurring further research in effective turnaround practices.
Learning Point Associates. (2010). School restructuring: What works when (third edition). Naperville, IL: Author. Retrieved from
This guide directs educational leaders to the most promising restructuring options for chronically failing schools, with a focus on choosing change strategies that produce rapid and obvious success even when complete culture change to sustain that success may take three or more years. This third edition of the guide includes chapters on each of the four School Improvement Grants models (turnaround, transformation, restart, and closure), including key factors relating to governance, leadership, organization, and environment that influence success or failure. Case studies detail the experiences of schools or districts with the specific intervention model. The guide translates the best available research on restructuring chronically struggling schools, as compiled by Public Impact, into practical decision-making tools that take into account the strengths and constraints of many districts. The guide was originally produced in 2006, and updated in September 2009 and June 2010.
The authors conclude that the primary factor in the success of turnaround restructuring options is the presence of a capable turnaround leader willing to take the steps necessary to make dramatic change quickly. (The guide details four major actions seen as particularly important.) In a turnaround, new and different tactics that deviate from standard district policy and practice are necessary, so district capacity for supporting, sustaining, and replicating turnaround also is critical. Conversely, the authors say school turnaround experience indicates that only a small number of teachers often need to be removed because dramatic results can be obtained with existing teachers responding to the right principal's leadership.
Perlman, C., Chelemer, C., & Redding, S. (2011). Transformation toolkit: Toolkit for implementing the school improvement grant transformation model. Lincoln, IL: Center on Innovation and Improvement. Retrieved from
This resource is intended to help states, LEAs and schools after they have determined that the transformation model is the best fit for a school. It provides action items to address the component elements of the transformation model, as well as resources to address a range of implementation questions like "What does transformation look like in an urban setting and in a rural setting?" and "What are the most important elements for a successful transformation?" Among the eleven topics addressed are as follows: establishing and orienting the district transformation team; moving toward school autonomy, working with stakeholders and building support for transformation, contracting with external providers, and providing rigorous staff development. The Center for Innovation and Improvement has a section on its website dedicated to School Improvement Grants implementation, including additional handbooks, tools, and webinar archives for states and districts to use while considering options.