School Turnarounds: The Essential Role of Districts

The federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) program—created in 2002 and ramped up in 2009 thanks to ARRA dollars—has enjoyed celebrity status in the education-reform conversation over the past few months. (See here, here, and here for examples of recent research.) This book by Heather Zavadsky (known for her deep dives into urban-district effectiveness) offers a fresh perspective on this widely discussed topic. The upshot: School-based turnarounds require significant district involvement to be effective; the culture, funding, size, and collective-bargaining agreement of the district directly affect the changes that can be effected at the school level—and vary dramatically among districts. Zavasdsky profiles the turnaround efforts of five urban school districts, showcasing how each uses its economy of scale to execute school-improvement programs effectively. For example, Boston created a teacher-residency program (a reform unavailable to single-school turnaround efforts), thus enlarging its human-capital pipeline. And Garden Grove implemented a large-scale data system, tracking student progress quarterly. Many actionable ideas and engaging anecdotes dot this text. District leaders—particularly those of large urban locales—looking to bolster low-performing schools would be wise to have a look.

Heather Zavadsky, School Turnarounds: The Essential Role of Districts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2012).

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