Thousands of schools nationwide are failing to educate enough of their students effectively and are missing state and federal performance benchmarks. Many of these schools have failed to provide students with even a basic education for years. To respond to this challenge, education leaders need better tools to turn their schools around. “Turnarounds” are widely used in other sectors to fix failing organizations. Public Impact has surveyed this cross-sector experience to generate resources that help schools, districts, and others implement successful turnarounds. See the menu on the left for Public Impact’s work in this area and below for featured resources.
See OpportunityCulture.org for resources to create new staffing models that support turnarounds, by extending the reach of excellent teachers and their teams to more students.
Marking the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, this report describes the transformation of public education in New Orleans and considers needed improvements for the next decade to create an excellent system of public schools in New Orleans. The report highlights how the shift to a decentralized system of public charter schools combined with a relentless effort to replace failing schools has produced remarkable gains in student academic achievement and fundamentally changed the role of government in education, the local labor market for educators, and the relationship between New Orleans communities and schools. The report also considers how the pace and magnitude of change presented many challenges to parents, educators, and community members, and discusses what needs to happen next to propel the city to even higher levels of achievement.
Expanding District Capacity to Turn Around Failing Schools: An Evaluation of the Cameron Middle School Charter Conversion
After several unsuccessful turnaround efforts and years of chronic low performance at Cameron Middle School, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) decided to try something different to dramatically improve student outcomes: gradually convert operation of the school from the district to a charter management organization. This report for MNPS tells the story behind the conversion, evaluates its successes and challenges, and extracts lessons learned for MNPS and other districts working to build their capacity to better support their lowest performing schools.
Turnaround Leader Actions and Competencies
Turnaround leader actions and competencies are the leading indicators for turnaround leader success. The competencies—the habits of behavior and underlying motivations that help predict how a leader will do their jobs—can be used for turnaround leader selection, evaluation, and development. The actions—the specific maneuvers a turnaround leader must execute for leading a successful school turnaround effort—serve as guidelines to focus turnaround leaders on how their difficult work will be accomplished. Self-assessments of competency and actions allow the turnaround leader to reflect on current strengths and areas for leadership development.
In an article for School Administrator magazine, Lucy Steiner and Sharon Kebschull Barrett examine how understanding competencies—the habits of behavior and underlying motivations that help predict how newly hired employees will do their jobs—can help administrators, such as those in Minneapolis, hire the skillful leaders they need to turn around even the most troubled schools. Given that only 30 percent of turnarounds—in education and other fields—succeed, schools need leaders with a clear vision and the ability to make that vision a reality. Minneapolis Pubic Schools used competencies in their newly rigorous hiring process to make promising principal hires and to give the new leaders the support they need to keep turnarounds from becoming just another failed reform effort.
Public Impact teamed up with New Schools for New Orleans to develop a guide for cities interested in dramatically growing their charter school sectors as part of an effort to turn around persistently low-performing urban school systems. This Guide builds on dozens of interviews with education and community leaders in New Orleans, insights from national experts who have supported the rebuilding efforts, and research and reporting on New Orleans’ education reforms. Centered around three key strategies: 1) strong governance and accountability, 2) building human capital pipelines to fuel the growth of schools and 3) incubating new schools and growing proven schools into networks, the Guide illustrates recommendations with vignettes of work done by bold school leaders and reformers.
The Guide also looks toward long-term sustainability of this new system, exploring topics such as building community demand and support for school reforms, developing a fiscally-balanced system that doesn’t rely long-term on philanthropy, and planning ahead for the new types of challenges that face a decentralized system of schools in areas such as transportation, equitable access, and transparent system oversight.
One of the biggest challenges in education today is identifying talented candidates to successfully lead turnarounds of persistently low-achieving schools. Evidence suggests that the traditional principal pool is already stretched to capacity and cannot supply enough leaders to fix failing schools. But potentially thousands of leaders capable of managing successful turnarounds work outside education, in nonprofit and health organizations, the military, and the private sector. If only a fraction of those leaders used their talents in education, we could increase the supply of school turnaround leaders significantly. In this report prepared by Public Impact for the University of Virginia’s Partnership for Leaders in Education, Julie Kowal and Emily Hassel explore lessons about when and how organizations in other sectors import leaders – including how they tempt people away, train them, and foster their success – to inform efforts by state and local leaders to import talent for failing schools.
District-led, dramatic change efforts in failing schools—including turnarounds and school closures—often face strong resistance from families and communities. Resistance may be based on years of tension and distrust between districts and communities, failed past school improvement efforts, or a lack of understanding about the chasm between a failing school’s performance and what is possible. We asked what districts and community organizations have done to engage families and communities in demanding dramatic change in their schools and how various stakeholders have been involved in establishing shared values and goals for change, choosing from available options, and holding districts accountable for improving outcomes for children. This report and related presentation share lessons learned about the barriers districts and communities across the country have faced in building community demand for dramatic change as well as strategies for overcoming those barriers. The report includes three vignettes about efforts to build community demand for dramatic change in Denver, Philadelphia, and Chicago schools. Report [pdf] Presentation [pdf]
This paper, produced for the University of Virginia’s School Turnaround Specialist Program, describes how using competencies that predict performance can improve turnaround principal selection, evaluation, and development. Although the term “competency” often describes any work-related skill, in this context competencies are the underlying motives and habits—patterns of thinking, feeling, acting, and speaking—that cause a person to be successful in a specific job or role. The primary critical competencies for school turnaround leader are “achievement” and “impact and influence.” Achievement is having the drive and taking actions to set challenging goals and reach a high standard of performance despite barriers. Impact and influence is acting with the purpose of affecting the perceptions, thinking and actions of others. This report provides guidance for organizations on how to use competencies to select, evaluate, and develop effective school turnaround leaders.
In school turnarounds, leading indicators can provide early evidence about whether a school is on track – and if not, how to intervene to increase the odds of success. In this report, we summarize the research and experience from other settings in which leaders have long relied on leading indicators to enhance the likelihood of success. From these lessons, we identify key principles and processes to guide the design and use of leading indicators in education. We also present a starting list of leading indicators and a proposed monitoring timetable for district, state, and other education leaders to use in turnaround schools. Read more…
Tripling The Number of Fixed Failing Schools Without Getting Any Better at Fixing Schools. How? By shortening the time that passes before recognizing failure and retrying major change. Most initial efforts to fix failing schools will fail (just like 70% or more major change efforts and start-ups across sectors fall short). But if policymakers commit to faster “retry rates” – one or two years – the cumulative success rate in failing schools can be much higher.
Rapid retry won’t be easy: we’ll need strong “leading indicators” that show which efforts are on-track, and a ready supply of leaders and school operators to step in when initial efforts fail. But the payoff would be dramatically higher rates of success in fixing failing schools. Read more in our Try, Try Again slide deck [pdf].