Feature

Turnaround Necessities

Based on their work in 43 school districts, the authors identify the basic conditions for a school turnaround to be effective, sustainable and scalable by WILLIAM S. ROBINSON AND LEANN M. BUNTROCK

Turning around chronically low-performing schools is challenging work requiring fundamental rethinking of the change process, and a systemic rather than school-by-school approach.

Without a doubt, high-impact school leaders are critical to turnaround success, and pockets of success around the country demonstrate this. However, transformational and sustainable success at scale requires substantial engagement by school district leaders with the capacity and will to initiate, support and enhance dramatic change. The most successful turnaround efforts have both — high-impact leaders and the district capacity to initiate, support and enhance transformational change.

William RobinsonWilliam Robinson is senior director for the Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education at University of Virginia. Photo by Jack Looney


We are protecting the identities of two schools described below, though the circumstances are fully accurate.

Parallel Tactics
In School A, a chronically low-performing, high-poverty (96 percent economically disadvantaged) school in an urban district in the South, the leader pursued quick, visible “wins” to motivate her team and to signal that things were going to be different.

The principal began by improving the physical appearance and atmosphere of the school and surrounding community, even going into the neighborhood to pick up beer bottles and stop the playing of excessively loud music. She put in place a school uniform policy and created incentives such as “jewel boxes” where students could put their best academic work to make them feel more successful.

The school started a data wall to chart movement up and down and held staff meetings to make sense of the numbers. Now, rather than simply gathering data, the building leadership was using them to inform classroom instruction, especially during new two-hour reading blocks and new staff-led twilight tutoring hours.

In School B, also a chronically low-performing, high-poverty (97 percent economically disadvantaged) school in a medium-sized Midwestern district, the leader similarly tried to secure early wins to create a culture of high expectations.

The principal engaged the community through personal visits and phone calls to students’ homes to significantly increase parent involvement with monthly breakfasts. Similar to the jewel-box concept, this principal held weekly celebrations for students who met stretch targets in the classroom. The principal also established practices for more rigorous data analysis and increased the time devoted to reading instruction and extended learning opportunities.

After three years, School A experienced a small average drop in its proficiency scores. School B, during the first year of turnaround, doubled the number of students scoring proficient or advanced (from 21 percent to 42 percent) and, based on current formative assessment data, seems poised for another significant increase this year. Moreover, School B was not alone in its success. More than 80 percent of the turnaround schools in School B’s district made above-average gains in the first year of the initiative.

Operating Latitude
At first glance, the approaches taken to turn around these schools appear to be strikingly similar. A closer look reveals a major difference. In School B’s case, the district played a significant role in its success by providing it with the support and operating freedom needed to make transformative changes. The central office partnered with School B to

•  make strategic staff replacements where naysayers were hurting the culture;

•  provide frequent district-designed formative assessments and impart to teachers the importance of following a district-designed data protocol; 

•  develop the staff’s ability to teach model lessons and use stations to differentiate instruction; and 

•  monitor constantly the success of turnaround strategies and encourage new approaches where expected gains were not yet realized.

In contrast, the principal at School A was largely operating on an island. There was no explicit school district plan for consistent collaboration between central administration and the school leadership team, which would help the central office to understand the specific needs of the school. Consequently, the district was not prepared to provide targeted support nor monitor implementation of the turnaround effort.

Central-office staff did attend School A’s turnaround-related professional development sessions and helped the principal write a turnaround plan. Ultimately, however, the district took no meaningful action to change the operating environment or culture of the school or the district.

A Few Discoveries
After partnering with 43 districts and 123 schools through the University of Virginia’s School Turnaround Specialist Program, we can state with confidence that certain issues must be addressed for a school turnaround to be truly effective, sustainable and scalable: The school district must be willing and able to create the conditions that will enable competent turnaround leaders and their staffs to be successful.

Because these efforts require dramatic change at the school and system levels, districts should be prepared to engage in an honest self-assessment of what they need to do differently in order to achieve sustainable success.

The average school completing our two-year program saw more than a 40 percent rise in average proficiency. However, schools in districts that used a systemic approach to turnaround experienced more significant and consistent results. Below, we offer a few things we learned as considerations for other school districts’ turnaround efforts.

•  Develop a comprehensive turnaround plan and implementation strategy. Unfortunately, many districts view their role in turnaround as one of compliance with the state education agency mandates. They assume their job is done once they have ensured a school improvement plan has been written, state accountability paperwork has been completed, and outside partners have been chosen to assist the school.

Chronically low-performing schools have been writing improvement plans, engaging outside partners to implement cookie-cutter programs and attempting to follow best practices for decades. These approaches do not typically lead to sustainable academic improvement. Instead, school leaders tinker with the status quo, focusing on changing programs (and in some cases people) rather than on systemic changes related to operating conditions and school culture.

Cincinnati Public Schools pursued the systemic approach that begins to shift the paradigm. Before engaging in turnaround, Cincinnati conducted a comprehensive audit of their turnaround schools to determine their highest priority needs. Cincinnati also appointed Laura Mitchell, its dynamic deputy superintendent, as “district shepherd” — the district’s point person to lead the turnaround initiative, a role required for participation in our School Turnaround Specialist Program.

The shepherd is responsible for implementing the district’s plan to address the turnaround schools’ highest-priority needs and forming a districtwide team, composed of appropriate central-office staff and master principals, to collaborate with school leadership on a weekly basis, monitor performance and identify clear objectives for follow-up.

Mitchell, who previously worked for the Stupski Foundation as program manager for leadership in five school districts around the nation, is not only committed to this effort but also has the autonomy and authority needed to make systemic changes. This enables her to make controversial moves, such as her decision to end partnerships with community organizations which, based on the data, were not providing support that contributed to achievement growth.

Having identified the highest-priority needs of the turnaround schools, Cincinnati implemented a plan for meeting those needs. For example, frameworks were established for developing model lessons, station-based differentiated instruction and data-team meetings. Turnaround-school personnel received ongoing expert coaching and training on how to use the model frameworks.

Cincinnati consistently monitors the implementation of these initiatives and supports principals when they encounter resistance from staff or parents. The central office also provides principals and teachers with freedom to improve upon these frameworks. Many school-based enhancements now are used across the district.

Other initiatives included beginning the school year two weeks early in the turnaround schools and working with principals and teachers to create individual academic success plans for students. These success plans use assessment data to address each student’s academic needs for re-teaching, practice and/or enrichment as well as additional data such as attendance and discipline to identify other issues affecting student performance.

Moreover, these plans pro-actively address student needs rather than respond to problems. Between 2008-09 and 2009-10, Cincinnati’s 16 turnaround schools achieved significant results at scale, increasing their average 4th- to 6th-grade proficiency scores by more than 25 percent. Thirteen of the schools saw marked improvements in student achievement.

•  From the highest levels, provide clear and visible support for dramatic change. Teachers, administrators and community members need to view turnaround status as a positive opportunity to transform their schools rather than a public rebuke for poor performance. Among the strategies some school districts have used to make turnaround schools desirable places to work include offering leadership positions at these schools to only the highest-performing leaders and teachers and providing financial incentives for acceptance of the position as well as for performance success; prioritizing hiring of highly qualified staff and supporting necessary, targeted staff removals; providing school leaders with additional flexibility and autonomy; and publically celebrating success.

Recognizing the need to create a sense of urgency and ownership among staff and the community as well as to send a positive message, Cincinnati Public Schools implemented a communication plan explaining the purpose and importance of school turnarounds. This also served to quiet potential naysayers. Moreover, Cincinnati signaled its strong commitment to the turnaround effort by placing the deputy superintendent in charge of the initiative.

•  Recognize the vital importance of leadership. Strong site leadership may not be sufficient to effect sustained change, but high-impact principals are essential for turnaround success. Too many district turnaround plans fail to recognize that strong, competent leaders are needed to inspire cultural change, establish strategic focus and drive decisions. In addition, strong evidence indicates competent leadership is key to the recruitment, retention and development of effective teachers.

Despite the recognized importance of school leadership, most districts still use generally archaic methods to select school leaders, relying on past job performance reviews, quick interviews, degree attainment, seniority and, all too often, political connections. What’s needed are rigorous, competency-based processes for the recruitment, selection, development and evaluation of leaders especially in the turnaround context.

The Region XIII Education Service Center in Austin, Texas (which was designated as the state turnaround center by the Texas Education Agency), and the Fairfax County, Va., Public Schools recently incorporated competency-based interviewing processes as a component of their turnaround plans. Our School Turnaround Specialist Program now requires a competency-based selection process for participation.

•  Provide systemic support around instructional strategies, including frequently administered formative assessments, prompt distribution of relevant data and professional development on the effective use of data to drive instruction.Wallace Elementary School in rural Hayti, Mo., demonstrates the importance of taking a systemic approach to the implementation of formative assessments and use of data. Prior to 2009, Wallace’s teachers believed they used data effectively. Teachers were individually responsible for reviewing and organizing five years of state test data and for writing their own formative assessments. In truth, the teachers were spending more time organizing the data than understanding it. They came to discover their self-written assessments were neither aligned to state tests nor providing reliable insight into how to improve instruction.

During the first year of the school’s turnaround, the Hayti R-II School District worked with the school to devise a plan for obtaining predictive formative assessments and establishing a protocol for creating data-based, individual student learning plans. Now, rather than just collecting data, Wallace’s leadership team has a process to identify specific student needs and develop effective strategies. The team also identifies individual teacher needs and provides targeted professional development.

In addition, staff now must share assessment data during team meetings. This has shifted discussions from excuse making to problem solving. The district not only provides resources for the implementation of formative assessments and a protocol for using the data effectively, it also openly supports the Wallace leadership team’s efforts to initiate new practices that are changing the culture of the school. Wallace’s principal enjoys operating latitude because her action plans align with student and staff needs revealed by the data.

During the first year of turnaround in the 835-student Hayti district, average proficiency scores in language arts and math increased from 15 percent to 53 percent. Wallace’s story is common but not nearly common enough. In fact, all schools in our Turnaround Specialist Program that have sustained success have institutionalized the use of frequent and aligned formative assessment along with a shared belief in data-driven accountability. 

•  Provide principals with the freedom to act. Delaplaine McDaniel Elementary School in Philadelphia provides a good example of the important role a district plays in removing barriers that can prevent the transformative changes a turnaround requires.

In 2005, the School District of Philadelphia set up a special subdistrict for turnaround schools, allowing them to operate outside many of the traditional constraints of the district. Delaplaine’s principal, Darlynn Gray, was granted greater flexibility, including the discretion to hire staff without regard to seniority, to place staff wherever she most needed them and to adjust the schedule as she desired. Gray took advantage of these freedoms to implement ambitious reforms tailored to her school’s needs and saw average proficiency scores rise from 17.5 percent in 2006 to 67.6 percent in 2009.

Providing turnaround schools with support and freedom to change scheduling, hiring and resource-allocation practices are the minimum supports needed. Clearly, these changes can be controversial and challenging, particularly in school districts with unions when actions are staff-related. However, the chronic underperformance of turnaround schools can provide justification for dramatic action, thereby presenting an opportunity to pilot needed reforms in these schools, including collaborative revision of contractual requirements for the personnel who serve them.

School districts involved in the University of Virginia’s turnaround program have negotiated changes in turnaround schools allowing for greater flexibility in length of the school year and staffing. In some cases, something as simple as a closer review of policies has revealed an opportunity for action presumed to be impossible.

•  School turnaround must start at the district level. Successful school turnarounds are not unlike other effective organizational endeavors. Strong, competent site-based leaders must be supported and held accountable by a strong infrastructure. In this context, school districts must create enabling conditions that turnaround schools need.”

William Robinson is senior director for the Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education at University of Virginia in Charlottes­ville, Va. E-mail: robinsonw@darden.virginia.edu. LeAnn Buntrock is executive director of the Darden/Curry Partnership.