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When Considering Turnaround, States Should Follow the Money

Read the blog post as it orignially appeared in the Hunt Institute's blog, The Intersection

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has changed the game on school turnaround. Gone are No Child Left Behind’s prescriptive school improvement models; now, states have unprecedented discretion to create turnaround plans appropriate to their contexts. Under ESSA, states have far more say on which low-performing schools will receive turnaround interventions, what interventions those schools will implement, and how resources will flow to those schools.

7 Tenets for Sustainable School Turnaround, released this fall by the Center for American Progress and Education Resource Strategies, describes high-level principles for turnaround strategy, including the need for stakeholder engagement and tiers of intervention. However, it is absolutely crucial that state leaders align the choices they make regarding their turnaround strategy with their theory of student success and specific context. Turnaround plans aren’t separate from the overall work a state does to improve education; they ought to complement efforts that states already undertake.

An integrated strategy requires that state leaders think carefully about considerations in three areas that their new discretion offers them:

  • Define the set and sequence of schools and districts to serve. ESSA mandates that states intervene in the bottom five percent of schools, but states have the option to expand their support. They will need to decide whether to target districts that have a high concentration of turnaround schools or improve schools individually. They’ll also need to decide whether their goal is to improve all schools at once or target resources initially to a few schools and replicate successful practices later.
  • Determine the method and type of interventions. State leaders must consider two variables as they plan interventions for turnaround schools. First, some states are more directive, and others defer more to local control; state leaders should assess whether it’s more effective to mandate interventions or offer guidance or incentives. Second, they must determine whether certain types of interventions align more closely than others to their overall strategy – do state leaders want to emphasize hiring or school design? Should they focus on teacher professional growth or increased academic time?
  • Align resource distribution to strategy. State leaders must match funding to strategy in three ways. First, they must ensure that each district has the resources it needs to succeed – even if turnaround funds were not available. Turnaround funding should be supplemental. Second, they must consider whether they can also contribute state dollars to the effort. And third, they must consider whether distributing funds through a set formula or through a competitive grant program will be more likely to lead to dramatic, sustainable, and strategically-aligned improvement.

To make these decisions, states must develop an evidence base that helps them determine where their high-need districts stand and what strategy is most appropriate.

Tucked within ESSA is a provision that states can use to gain this insight: the requirement that states periodically conduct resource reviews of districts with a significant share of low-performing schools. States should seize the opportunity of this mandate by conducting comprehensive studies that examine on-the-ground conditions: what opportunities do schools and districts have to allocate their people, time, and money in ways that support system-wide excellence and equity? State leaders can connect resource-use patterns to a strategic vision for redesigning systems and schools.

States will be primed to create sustainable and effective improvement plans if they connect their strategic ambitions to the facts on resource allocation in districts across the state. ESSA offers state leaders two key tools for their kit: the freedom to make ambitious and appropriate school turnaround strategies, and a process of inquiry that, if used well, will lead to coherent, justified decisions. States must use them both.

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