School Mental Health Project

How Good is the Federal Blueprint
and Roadmap for Turning Schools Around?

[From: Turning Around, Transforming, and Continuously Improving Schools: Federal Proposals are Still Based on a Two- Rather than a Three- Component Blueprint -]

While many concerns have been raised about policies and practices for turning around, transforming, and continuously improving schools, those raising such concerns do not want to maintain what clearly is an unsatisfactory status quo. And a shared aim of most critical analyses is to enhance efforts to ensure equity of opportunity for all students to succeed at every school.

The current focus of many critics is on improving the federal blueprint and roadmap. Given the shortcomings of available research, criticisms and disagreements are mostly guided by differences in beliefs and assumptions and are shaped by the lenses through which the systemic problems are viewed.

School Turnaround Models Illustrate the Dilemma Confronting Policy Makers

"The truth is that we don't know exactly how to turn around schools. The truth is also that excuses and inaction don't help students who are trapped in these schools. It's a real dilemma, not a fake one. But at the department, our feeling is that we have some models of success on which to build and we need to step up to the plate and start working on it."

Joanne Weiss, U.S. Department of Education

A fundamental problem with the current blueprint and roadmap is seen in the policy for turning around low performing schools. In the 2010 document A Blueprint for Reform and the grant application processes for Race to the Top and School Improvement, the U. S. Department of Education lays out four models for turning around the lowest performing schools. The latest wording (U. S. Department of Education, 2010c) describes the models as follows:

Concerns aside, states are moving forward with implementing the four turnaround models. At the same time, it is obvious that adopting one of these is no more than an awkward beginning in enabling equity of opportunity.

What guidance is being provided as this work proceeds? Here is a sample:

Examples of Rationales Offered for the Federal Turnaround Models

  1. The following statement of rationale for school turnaround models begins the 2010 report Achieving dramatic school improvement: An exploratory study issued by the Department of Education:*

    “...The pressure to meet NCLB's 2014 deadline has motivated many policymakers to question this widely held consensus that it takes at least three to five years to improve failing schools enough to produce substantial gains in student achievement. Some policy analysts have asked what can be learned from the private sector about quick and dramatic organizational improvement. Recent literature draws lessons from failing businesses and corporations that have turned around. This literature suggests that schools can accelerate reform efforts and see the same sort of quick, dramatic improvement if they engage in a process—characterized by strong leadership, a clear focus on improving instruction, achievement of “quick wins,” and building of a committed staff—similar to that used by successful corporations. The business-model literature suggests that much more rapid-improvement is possible in less time than the usual three to five years...."

    What did the researchers find?

    “This study’s findings draw attention to the fact that turning schools around is not just about adopting a set of effective or promising practices. It is about recognizing that “one best system” does not exist—that no single approach can guarantee improvement in a particular school. It is also about implementing practices well, while at the same time navigating and adapting to a constantly changing landscape.”

  2. The rationale stated in Turning around chronically low performing schools: A practice guide (2008) simply notes the unsatisfactory status quo and asserts:

    “All failing schools, especially those that persistently fail, need guidance on what will work quickly to improve student outcomes. These schools generally have explored a variety of strategies to improve student achievement, but without rapid, clear success. They now need to look beyond slow, incremental change and examine practices that will raise and sustain student achievement within one to three years. The need to quickly improve student achievement is most pressing for low performing schools that serve disadvantaged students. ... School improvement and school turnaround both aim to improve student outcomes by changing how schools and classroom operate. They differ in that school turnaround involves quick, dramatic improvement within three years...”

    As to the evidence-base for the recommended practices, they state it “ranges from expert analyses of turnaround practices to case studies of seemingly effective schools and to correlational studies and longitudinal studies of patterns of school improvement.”

    Here are the recommendations:

    1. Signal the need for dramatic change with strong leadership. Schools should make a clear commitment to dramatic changes from the status quo, and the leader should signal the magnitude and urgency of that change. A low-performing school that fails to make adequate yearly progress must improve student achievement within a short timeframe—it does not have the luxury of years to implement incremental reforms.

    2. Maintain a consistent focus on improving instruction. Chronically low performing schools need to maintain a sharp focus on improving instruction at every step of the reform process. To improve instruction, schools should use data to set goals for instructional improvement, make changes to immediately and directly affect instruction, and continually reassess student learning and instructional practices to refocus the goals.

    3. Make visible improvements early in the school turnaround process (quick wins). These can rally staff around the effort and overcome resistance and inertia.

    4. Build a committed staff. The school leader must build a staff that is committed to the school’s improvement goals and qualified to carry out school improvement. This goal may require changes in staff, such as releasing, replacing, or redeploying staff who are not fully committed to turning around student performance and bringing in new staff who are committed.

Recommendations for Practice Offered for School Turnaround

School turnarounds: A review of the cross-sector evidence on dramatic organizational improvement (Rhim, Kowal, Hassel, & Hassel, 2007) includes a broad set of practices for “quick, dramatic, and sustained change in the performance of an organization.” Recognizing the sparse research base on successful turnarounds in the education sector, they synthesized literature from several arenas, especially the business sector. Given this, it is not surprising that they begin by emphasizing:

“While not necessarily a defining characteristic, turnarounds in other sectors typically entail replacement of the primary leader, but not all staff. Approximately 70% of successful turnarounds in the business sector include changes in top management (Hoffman, 1989). Turnaround literature differs from the vast body of literature about organizational change in general, which focuses on continuous, incremental improvement over longer time periods. Incremental change is important and arguably the correct strategy for good organizations interested in becoming great ones. According to the literature, however, efforts to turn around organizations that are failing on multiple metrics require more dramatic change to become successful, change that looks different from incremental improvement over time.”

Here are the factors they emphasize from their literature review:

  1. Environmental factors that the cross-sector literature suggests influence the prospects for successful turnaround, include

    • Timetable (i.e. planning, implementing, and sustaining a turnaround)

    • Freedom to Act (i.e., sufficient latitude to implement substantial changes, freedom from regulations related to scheduling, transportation, discipline and curriculum).

    • Support and aligned systems (i.e., support from higher levels of the organization to create the conditions for change

    • Performance monitoring

    • Community engagement (i.e. creating a sense of ownership in the local community)

  2. Turnaround Leadership – Leader actions

    • Concentrate on achieving a few tangible wins in year one (e.g., improve physical plant by cleaning and painting, ensure students have required materials, reduce discipline by altering class transition schedules, reduce truancy by locking superfluous entrances)

    • Implementing practices even when they deviate from norms to achieve goals (e.g., adjust teachers schedules to align with late buses to create opportunity for one on one instruction, carve out additional time for instruction beyond the school day; assign assistant principals and instructional assistants to work in classrooms)

    • Analysis and problem solving (collect and personally analyze organization performance data)

    • Driving for results (implementing strategies even when they deviate from established organizational practices; requiring all staff to change, rather than making it optional; making necessary but limited staff replacements; funneling more time and money into successful tactics while halting unsuccessful tactics; relentless pursuit of goals, rather than touting progress as ultimate success)

    • Influencing inside and outside (win the support of both staff and external stakeholders for the changes the organization needs – e.g., communicating a positive vision for the future; helping staff personally see and feel the problems their "customers" face; getting key influencers to support change)

    • Measuring and reporting data frequently and publically (gathering staff in frequent open air meetings, requiring all involved in decision making to disclose results and problem solve)

Governors’ Association Policy Recommendations

The federal government’s approach is reflected in efforts to provide governors with guidelines for state policies. In Reaching New Heights: Turning Around Low Performing Schools staff at the National Governors’ Association offer the following principles as a guide for developing “succinct policy options for turning around schools” and highlight “best practices from states, districts, and schools.” The work represents a synthesis based on review of recent state efforts to assist low-performing schools and the literature on school improvement.

  1. Not all low-performing schools are the same
    Action: Governors should encourage state education leaders to conduct detailed assessment of the instructional programs of all schools "in need of improvement." The state should then use this analysis to prioritize and tailor its technical assistance resources and effectively communicate its expectations for low performing schools.

  2. Capacity building must be part of the solution
    Action: Governors should work with state education leaders to build capacity in their state's low performing schools, focusing on the weakest schools. States can draw on the experience of states that have successfully implemented capacity building strategies while asserting greater quality control in selecting and monitoring assistance providers.

  3. Districts are essential collaborators in efforts to turn around schools
    Action: States should partner with districts to build the capacity of low performing schools and encourage districts to develop systems of instructional support to serve these and other schools.

  4. Be prepared for the long haul
    Action: States should provide technical assistance and support to low performing schools for several years and continue to offer support to schools no longer designed as "in need of improvement." State should ensure their accountability system has the flexibility to identify when and how schools are improving and provide support to those schools accordingly.

  5. Assistance to low performing schools should be part of a larger strategy of school improvement
    Action: Governors should work to build capacity in schools by developing a comprehensive state policy strategy that aims to enhance the quality of teachers and principals, expand school choice options, and develop the state's capacity to promote school improvement.

Private Sector Support Influencing the Federal Approach

In Mass Insight’s document The Turnaround Challenge: Why America’s Best Opportunity to Dramatically Improve Student Achievement Lies in Our Worst Performing Schools, school turnaround is defined as “a dramatic and comprehensive intervention in a low performing school that produces significant gains in student achievement within two academic years.” Successful school turnaround is presented as requiring:

References related to the above

Aladjem, D.K., Birman, B.F., Harr-Robins, J., & Parrish, T.B. (2010). Achieving dramatic school improvement: An exploratory study. Prepared for the U. S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: American Institutes of Research.

Calkins, A., Guenther, W., & Belfiore, G. (2007). The turnaround challenge. Boston: Mass Insight Education & Research Institute.

Center on Innovation & Improvement (2007). School turnarounds: A Review of the cross-sector evidence on dramatic organizational improvement. Prepared by Public Impact for the Center on Innovation & Improvement, a national center supported by the U. S. Department of Education.

Center on Innovation & Improvement (2010). Handbook on effective implementation of school improvement grants. Lincoln, IL: Author.

Herman, R., Dawson, P., Dee, T., Green, J., Maynard, R., Redding, S., & Darwin, M. (2008). Turning around chronically low performing schools: A practice guide. Washington, DC: The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement.

Hess, F. & Gift, T. (2009). School turnarounds: Resisting the hype, giving them hope. Washington, DC: AEI Outlook Series.

Kowal, J., Hassel, E. A., & Hassel, B. C. (2009). Successful school turnarounds: Seven steps for district leaders. Washington, DC: The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement.

Mass Insight Education & Research Institute (2007). The turn around challenge: Why america’s best opportunity to dramatically improve student achievement lies in our worst performing schools. Boston: Author.

Mazzeo, C. & Berman, I.. (2003). Reaching new heights: Turning around low performing schools. Washington,DC: National Governors Association, Center for Best Practices.

Redding, S. (2010). Selecting the intervention model and partners. Lincoln, IL: Center on Innovation & Improvement.

Rhim, L., Kowal, J. Hassel, B. & Hassel, E. (2007). School turnarounds: A review of the cross sector evidence on dramatic organizational improvement. Chapel Hill, NC: Public Impact and Lincoln, IL: Academic Development Institute.

Steiner, L. (2009). Tough decisions: Closing persistently low-performing schools. Lincoln, IL: Center on Innovation & Improvement.

Steiner, L. Hassel, E. & Hassel, B. (2008). School turnaround leaders: Competencies for success. Chapel Hill, NC: Public Impact.

U.S. Department of Education (2008). Mapping America’s educational progress. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Department of Education (2010b). Achieving dramatic school improvement: An exploratory study. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service.

WestEd (2010). School transformation and turnaround: The WestEd approach. San Francisco: Author.


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