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School Turnaround - is “Transformation” enough?

Last week we brought together some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in the area of school turnaround at the ERS summit, Sustaining Turnaround at Scale.  Included in this group were almost a dozen principals who are succeeding in turning around chronically low performing schools, and are boosting the achievement of their districts’ highest need students.

These principals come from different districts.  They lead elementary, middle, k-8 and high schools.  They work for districts, Charter Management Organizations and Education Management Organizations.  Some schools are federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) schools, and others are not.  But they are all serving urban students, and have high proportions of students in poverty, English language learners, and special education students.  While this certainly isn’t a statistically significant sample, there are some common themes across these schools that I think are important as we think about bringing school turnaround to scale.

  • Leadership teams:  All of these principals are impressive.  They are charismatic, visionary, passionate and highly competent.  But when I asked them if they were nervous about leaving their school for two days so early in the year, to a person they responded that no, they were confident in their team.  Things would run fine without them.  Certainly we need to find MORE great principals to lead MORE turnaround schools.  But what these schools are showing us is how important the other people in the building are to their success.
  • Turnaround, not transformation:  74% of the SIG-Awarded Tier I/II schools in cohort one chose a transformation model, where the principal was replaced but the teaching staff remained.  However, I believe that only one of the schools in our group did not replace any teachers in year one (and in that school, a number of teachers left after the first year).  Some of the schools were restarts, where all of the staff was let go (and then some rehired), others were turnarounds, where 50% or more of the staff turned over, and still others replaced only a few “toxic” teachers. 
  • Reliance on data:  Each of the principals, and their supervisors, talked about how they relied on the regular use of data to continuously improve their school.  This ranged from teams of teachers using data on their students to target interventions for each student, every day, to weekly or monthly reviews between area superintendents and principals where data on student performance, attendance and behavior are analyzed and tracked to identify areas that culture, discipline or instruction need to be adjusted.

Turnaround SummitThere is good news and bad news here for federal, state and district policy as we try to sustain and scale the successes to date in turnaround.  On the plus side, the federal focus on data, and on teacher and leader capacity development seem to be well-placed.  In the schools at our summit, those were key elements of success. 

But the other key element for turnaround success that was evident at our summit – replacing staff that did not have the necessary skills or did not share the school’s turnaround vision – is much less common.  The least disruptive federal model, ironically named “transformation”, is by far the most popular.  If the schools at our summit are any indication, disruption is not only not a bad thing for turnaround, it’s a necessary piece of the puzzle.

Certainly there are real constraints for many schools in choosing a more radical approach.  Rural and even urban schools may have difficulty finding better teachers and other staff to replace those that are ill-suited to turnaround.  But what this summit illustrated for me is that until we can find the courage and the means to make these changes, we will continue to be disappointed with our progress. 


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