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Turning Around Turnaround in Restructuring ‘Restructuring’

You might want to check out the recent report from Education Sector, Restructuring ‘Restructuring.’ The report gives a compelling snapshot of the history of turnaround strategies to date. Here are some of the conclusions:

  • Districts have chosen turnaround options that give them the flexibility to “take actions that aren’t major at all,”
  • Changing people is critical to significant school reform, and “given a choice, states and school districts would rather not change people,”
  • States have been unwilling or unable to make the hard choices needed to turnaround low-performing schools and districts, and
  • On-the-ground reform strategies have changed, but the schools have still not shown improvement.

These conclusions are consistent with ERS experience in the field. We’ve found that districts do not take “major” action in their turnaround strategies and tend to allocate these resources in ways that don’t get at the underlying reasons for why these schools are failing in the first place. For example, districts typically allocate resources for turnaround by spreading them equally across all schools, rather than allocating resources to each school based on school and student needs. In some cases, this means that schools that are underfunded to begin with stay underfunded, even after they receive the “standard” turnaround allocation from the district. In addition, schools may use resources—people, time, and money—poorly by using outdated scheduling techniques, offering the wrong mix of courses, and not being strategic about class sizes. As a result, resources are not used in ways that can best serve students who need intensive remediation and acceleration to succeed academically. Adding turnaround dollars to these schools without fixing underlying structural problems will likely not have the results district leaders want.

That said, we are happy to report that we are seeing some promising exceptions to this turnaround rule. The New York City Chancellor’s Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Strategic Staffing Schools, and the Atlanta Public Schools Project GRAD schools can all be considered successful turnaround efforts, with each district experiencing double-digit student gains in performance over the first one to three years of the programs. All three districts did “change people” as Education Sector describes in the paper, by replacing principals and teachers. These districts also provided additional teacher coaches and additional non-academic support for at-risk students represented the core of the successful programs.

Importantly, the interventions were also lower cost than other turnaround strategies because the critical changes they made to personnel were not expensive, they were just difficult—politically, logistically and emotionally. But district leadership recognized that such bold moves were “Mission Critical” to putting these schools on the path to success.

What turnaround strategies are working in your district? Do they focus on a school-by-school approach or do they tackle the underlying problems that are impacting all low performing schools in your district?

Write a comment below and let us know your thoughts. And if you haven’t seen our case study on the promising turnaround strategy in Charlotte Mecklenburg, please take a look.

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