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Turnaround Talk

Not all school troubles are equal, so don’t try one-size-fits-all remedies. Know what each school has and needs today.  Shore up the crumbling school foundations before you layer on the new approaches. Districts are here to support, not just demand compliance. Beware of temporary funding and fixes. Invest in the long haul. These were the key lessons highlighted by the release last Friday of Turning Around the Nation’s Lowest Performing Schools, Five Steps Districts Can Take, written by ERS Managing Director Karen Baroody and published by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a leading contributor in analyzing district resource.

After presenting the paper, Baroody was joined by James McIntyre, Jr., Superintendent, Knox County Schools, Tennessee and Jason Willis, Chief Financial Officer, Stockton Unified School District, California on a panel moderated by Raegen Miller, Associate Director for Education Policy, Center for American Progress.

Barriers to school turnaround

Baroody reviewed three barriers to successful school turnaround on the district level: First, district approaches tend to be one-size-fits-all, providing each target school with the same dollars, instructional coaches, or other support, regardless of differences in individual school needs. Second, districts often add a turnaround strategy on top of schools that are not succeeding. Funding that doesn’t address the flawed foundation will not bring about a sustainable improvement. And third, turnaround strategies too often end up as temporary fixes and exist only as long as the initial turnaround dollars are there to support the intervention.

Successful school turnaround requires district turnaround

Baroody then presented five steps that districts can take in designing and implementing their school improvement programs that will increase the probability that their efforts will achieve lasting improvement:

1. Understand what each school needs.

Districts must develop a comprehensive, systematic, and ongoing approach to identify the needs of schools, students, and teachers. Districts must evaluate the needs of current and incoming students, examine whether the principal and the teachers in the school have the skills required to address student needs, and assess school practices.

2. Quantify what each school gets and how it is used.

Districts must identify all resources currently available to each school and understand how effectively schools are using those resources to improve instructional quality and meet individual student needs, through such strategies as teacher assignment and support, student grouping, and daily scheduling.

3. Invest in the most important changes first.

Districts must aggressively target those challenges that make persistently low-performing schools different from other schools and provide the additional resources and support that each school needs to overcome the challenges. Key priorities, in order of importance, are to ensure each school has a strong school leader and teachers who collectively have the skills to meet student needs; to make sure that at-risk students receive basic health, social, and emotional support; to implement school designs that organize teaching expertise, time, and attention to match student needs; and to provide each school with the necessary central office support.

4. Customize the strategy to the school.

Each school faces its own unique challenges–the needs of its particular students, the quality and skills of its leader and teachers, and the resources it currently receives. Districts must be thoughtful in tailoring the intervention strategy to each school’s most pressing and critical needs.

5. Change the district, not just the schools.

Strategies that focus only on changes at individual schools, without addressing the underlying system wide structures that allowed these schools to fail in the first place, will not achieve lasting improvement. Districts must ensure these schools have the resources and support they need to succeed even after intervention efforts are over, and leverage the lessons learned from turnaround schools to implement broader reforms that support the ongoing improvement of other low-performing schools in the district.

Following Baroody’s presentation, McIntire and Willis gave examples from the district perspective of the kinds of challenges districts need to overcome to take these steps. McIntire urged district leaders to think about district funding as an investment. “We have to target our resources in ways that will see the most results in student learning,” he stressed. He also suggested that districts could use “differentiation” in the way they work with their schools. He explained: “We talk about differentiation with students but we don’t talk as much about differentiation on a district level. You shouldn’t treat schools equally that aren’t equal.”

Jason Willis saw the necessity for a “paradigm shift” in how districts approach working with schools. “Districts need to shift their relationships with schools from one of compliance to one of supporting the schools efforts to change.” For instance, he gave the example of a high school principal’s dilemma when faced with teacher lay-offs. This principal’s school had primarily a young staff that would be first to go based on seniority regulations. If the district couldn’t make an exception, she would lose two-thirds of her staff and ultimately have to start over.

There is no silver bullet—no single solution for how to turn a failing school around. But by taking these five steps, district leaders can improve their probability for sustainable and scalable success.

Download a copy of the report.

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