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Turnaround Schools: Lessons for all on the Road to Continuous School Improvement (3/22/14)

As a former school superintendent, I have had the wonderful opportunity to work with educators in a wide range of schools and school districts across the United States. In my experiences, I have been heartened to find hardworking school people in districts from Arizona to Mississippi and back to California, all striving to a make a difference for kids. However, there is nowhere that I have seen the work of school improvement to be more intense and focused on fundamentals than in my experiences with schools deemed as “turnaround schools.”

For the purposes of the discussion here, turnaround schools are defined as those schools that are at or near the bottom 5% – 15% of schools in their respective states in regard to student achievement. These schools are also characterized by the fact that they have high rates of student poverty, as identified by the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, regularly eclipsing the 75% mark. These schools also have large minority student populations including majority populations of Latino and African American students. Additionally, many of these schools have been identified by their states, through their Race to the Top efforts, as schools in need of dramatic reform.

I highlight the work of these schools, specifically those that I have worked with in Arizona, Georgia, Missouri, and the Washington DC area, because it is important to note that, indeed, there is work worthy of recognition within their hallways. Also, in these same places that at first glance many might consider to be some of the worst PK – 12 schools in the United States, a careful observer would be impressed to find a focus on academics that rivals some of the most affluent and successful PK – 12 public schools that could be encountered; the major difference between the two being the population of students served in turnaround schools and the subsequent challenges to educate them because of multiple factors in their home lives and prior schooling that impact their current status.

All this said, there are four commonalities among turnaround schools, especially those that are making significant gains that are blueprint best practices for all schools on the road to continuous improvement. These blueprint best practices are strong leadership, effective human resources management, an instructional focus, and targeted use of school data.

In regard to leadership, I have found that successful turnaround schools have strong leaders at their helm who put instruction first. These leaders have a variety of styles, from the charismatic motivator of the people, to CEO types, to the lifelong teacher turned administrator. No one style fits all, but what is evident is that all share one key characteristic, the ability to set a clear vision for the school, focused on student achievement, that stakeholders buy into. All of these leaders also effectively manage the human resources within their buildings. This means a focus on teacher performance but not without support. These leaders balance the ability to support their teachers and promote their growth and development while holding them jointly accountable for student learning. These leaders are able to nurture but also know when it is time to have tough conversations or make tough decisions when it comes to staffing, and they are exceedingly effective in this practice.

Successful turnaround schools also have an instructional focus. It is evident in the classrooms, in the hallways, and in conversations with students, teachers, parents, and community members that the focus of these schools is student learning. This focus is also evident in the programming offered by these schools. Where affluent high achieving schools offer rich extracurricular programs that often feature nontraditional high school sports like lacrosse, and opportunities for travel, cultural exposure and appreciation of and participation in the fine arts, successful turnaround schools take the same approach to core instruction. Some of the most innovative practices for meeting students’ needs and helping them cross the finish line of graduation can be found in turnaround schools. With an expanse of options that might rival an NFL offensive playbook, the schools offer modified scheduling of classes, extended school days with embedded support programs, intersessions, on site alternative educational programs, childcare for parent events, on site parent and community intervention specialists, and a host of other programs that are focused on instruction and they are seeing results.

Finally, successful turnaround schools are data driven. They have established processes for analyzing student achievement and organizational effectiveness data. Because of their established processes, these schools are able to efficiently interpret their data and translate it into action plans to address needs. Moreover, in these schools, the work with data is not just about its analysis and use, but it is a part of the culture of the school. Teachers in these schools share common data based language and participate in meetings with norm processes focused on identifying root causes for deficits identified in the data. In these schools, it is the expectation and not the afterthought, that data will impact all decisions on what is best for students.

To close, the current era of accountability in education over the past 15 years has heightened public awareness and expectations for school performance. In an effort to expand accountability efforts and impact students in some of the historically lowest performing schools in the United States the United States Department of Education has sponsored grant programs like Race to the Top to provide local school districts with incentivized flexibility and freedom to reform their lowest performing schools. In this social and political context, states have identified many of their historically lowest performing schools as “turnaround schools.” The perception associated with these schools is often highly negative and polarizing.

However, the reality of the day-to-day work in these “turnaround schools” known to those of us in the field who engage with schools across a wide spectrum of states is that many are doing outstanding work. In fact, their use of best practices serves as a model for all schools on the road to continuous improvement. The labor of the educators in these buildings who do the heavy lifting in our profession often goes unrealized though, because of the contexts in which they work. However, make no mistake that many of these educators are making positive impacts in lives of students. They work with vigor and develop teacher cultures focused on student performance that even some of the best PK – 12 schools would be hard pressed to duplicate.

Shawn McCollough President & CEO ABCTE

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