Six habits of highly effective turnarounds

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Last month, Paymon Rouhanifard announced that he would be stepping down from his position as the superintendent of Camden Public Schools in New Jersey at the end of the school year. Though leadership changes are nothing new in urban districts like Camden, his decision is newsworthy because of the positive academic results he’s leaving behind.

In a piece for The 74, Laura Waters outlines both the history of the district and the improvements during Rouhanifard’s tenure. These include a high school dropout rate that’s been halved, as well as an impressive collection of hybrid charter/district schools that significantly outperform the district’s traditionally run schools. Although there’s still plenty of work to be done in Camden, these successes should offer new hope for turnaround efforts across the country.

But lessons aren’t exclusive to success. As any younger sibling can attest, we often learn just as much from the mistakes of our older siblings as we do from their achievements. With this thought in mind, I did a deep dive into an array of analyses, reports, and case studies on various district and school turnaround efforts. Some of these efforts—like those in Camden—were relatively successful. Most were not. One thing they all have in common, though, is the lessons they offer other turnaround efforts, including those in several of Ohio’s urban districts (we’re looking at you, Lorain and Youngstown Academic Distress Commissions, and you too, Cleveland). Here’s a look at six important takeaways.

1. Turnaround leaders need the “big yes”

The words “autonomy” and “authority” are repeated almost ad nauseam in the literature on turnarounds. A 2009 brief written for the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) dubs this one-two punch the “big yes,” and defines it as granting leaders full authority from the start to make critical decisions based on what works for students. The first of seven tenets for sustainable school turnaround offered by the Center for American Progress (CAP) points to the importance of granting leaders the authority to intervene directly in struggling schools, especially in areas like staffing, budgets, scheduling, and the implementation of interventions.

But the big yes isn’t just a policy-wonk recommendation—it’s something that experienced turnaround leaders identify as crucial. Back in 2014, Public Impact gathered the leaders of some of the most well-known turnaround efforts in the country, including Louisiana’s Recovery School District and Tennessee’s Achievement School District. These leaders emphasized the importance of having the authority to take over schools and make significant changes. It’s also vitally important that the previous structures of authority be addressed; if not, struggles for power will surely occur. New Jersey’s turnaround process handled this by eliminating the elected boards in districts taken over by the state, and replacing them with “advisory boards of education” appointed by the local mayor. Members were incentivized to support the superintendent with the promise of a return of power in exchange for measurable progress. Just this month, Paterson City Schools earned the right to emerge from state takeover. A new board will soon be elected to take full control of the district after twenty-six years.

2. Teachers and principals matter

Common sense suggests and research shows that teacher and principal quality are significant factors in student achievement. That’s likely why almost every piece of literature on turnarounds emphasizes the importance of recruiting, retaining, evaluating, and developing teachers and principals. For instance, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spent four years analyzing the differences between low-performing schools that improved student achievement and those that didn’t. One of the four turnaround practices they identified as leading to success was the presence of systems that monitored and improved instructional quality, including regular classroom observations that resulted in specific, actionable feedback. Meanwhile, a case study on a successful turnaround effort in Lawrence, Massachusetts, highlighted the importance of creating teacher leadership roles and redesigning career ladders. A similar report on Project L.I.F.T.—a turnaround effort in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina—outlined the importance of the initiative’s efforts to recruit, retain, and reward excellent educators. Both Lawrence Public Schools and Project L.I.F.T. also recognized the importance of effective principals: They offered principals increased autonomy, turnaround leadership training, and higher salaries in exchange for greater levels of accountability.

3. Rigorous standards, curriculum, and assessment are vital

What students learn matters just as much as who teaches them. That’s why the most successful turnaround efforts include rigorous standards, curricula, and assessments. In 2017, The Center on School Turnaround released a four domain framework for school improvement. The third domain, instructional transformation, contends that rapid improvement is only possible when schools begin to diagnose student learning needs, implement effective supports and interventions, and use assessments to adjust and adapt. Rigorous, evidence-based instruction is vital for all students and should be aligned with high academic standards and a standards-based curriculum. Education Resource Strategies (ERS)—a non-profit that works with some of the largest urban school systems in the country—also lists college-and-career-ready standards and aligned curricula and assessments as key strategies for transforming districts.

4. School choice can help

Camden shows how school choice can enhance system-wide turnaround efforts. As explained in The 74, Camden families are empowered to choose their child’s school via the city’s universal enrollment system. Families can choose between traditional district schools, independent charters, and renaissance schools (hybrid charter/district schools that guarantee enrollment for students living in the neighborhood). Renaissance schools have demonstrated meaningful improvements in reading and math proficiency, and are operated by well-respected charter networks like KIPP, Mastery, and Uncommon. In New Orleans, Boston, Indianapolis, San Francisco, and various other places, charter schools have also been proven to benefit students, embodying as they do the autonomy-for-accountability strategy. Moreover, a recent study from New York City shows that students who attend district schools also benefit from charters—a rising tide that is lifting all boats.

5. Communication and engagement are crucial

For turnaround efforts to be successful, they must be done in collaboration with students and families instead of being foisted upon them. A recent CREDO report on the charter model used in New Orleans and Tennessee notes that schools in both states “consistently nominated the lack of strong family engagement as a hindrance to school success.” The aforementioned 2009 USDOE brief highlights the importance of proactively engaging the community by publicly acknowledging previous poor achievement results and outlining a clear vision for change that will leverage the surrounding community rather than push it to the sidelines. The Center on School Turnaround echoes these sentiments and emphasizes the importance of celebrating early successes, which can “promote an expectation for further success and engender confidence.”

6. Accountability is non-negotiable

The Center on School Turnaround also notes that every adult role must have clear expectations for professional performance. This includes the leader of the turnaround effort, but it also extends to district administration, principals, and teachers. These expectations must be monitored and measured, and a lack of progress should lead to what the 2009 USDOE brief calls “rapid retry.” The authors explain: “District leaders must not wait five to seven years to see results in a turnaround school…. [O]ne or two years without dramatic improvements in student achievement should prompt districts to retry major change.” Several successful turnaround efforts are marked by strong measures of adult accountability: At Union Hill Elementary School in Massachusetts, school leaders visited classrooms daily to ensure that teachers were receiving personalized feedback and incorporating it in their classrooms. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, turnaround leaders replaced 35 percent of principals and 8 percent of teachers due to chronic underperformance before the school year even started. Measurements of success can and should be different for each school, but consequences for a lack of progress must be in place.

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Successfully turning around a district or school is hard, complicated, and expensive work. It requires strong but nimble leadership that’s capable of balancing quick wins with long-term, sustainable change. There isn’t a single silver-bullet reform that can lead to lasting transformation. Instead, successful turnarounds benefit from all of the six habits listed above—and probably a few more. Doing this well is difficult, but places like Camden and Lawrence prove that, with the right leadership and buy-in, it can be done. 

 
 
Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.