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Education Opinion

If Turning Around a School Were Easy

By Guest Blogger — November 20, 2015 5 min read
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Note: This week, Katharine Strunk, Associate Professor of Education and Policy in the Rossier School of Education and the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, joins us as guest-blogger. Today’s piece is coauthored with Julie A. Marsh, Associate Professor of Education Policy at the Rossier School of Education, as well as co-Director of Policy Analysis for California Education.

School turnarounds have been the topic of a lot of discussion lately. A recent Politico article cited soon-to-be-former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as promising in 2009 to “turn around the 5,000 lowest-performing schools ... as part of our overall strategy for dramatically reducing the dropout rate, improving high school graduation rates and increasing the number of students who graduate prepared for success in college and the workplace.” More recently, Secretary Duncan acknowledged that progress toward this goal has been “incremental.”

In my final day guest blogging for Rick, Julie Marsh joins me to talk about this oft-discussed but little-researched reform strategy. Along with a team of graduate students, Julie and I have been studying three years of a turnaround reform implemented in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) from 2009 through 2012. These turnarounds, executed as part of the district’s Public School Choice Initiative (PSCI), reformed 28 schools using turnaround models similar to those outlined in the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. We were fortunate to be asked to partner with LAUSD to study this reform to learn from (and hopefully improve) the process. We wanted to know if turnarounds work to improve student achievement.

We’d love to say that the evidence points to a clear “yes” or “no,” but— as usual— it doesn’t. The topline achievement results— which will be published in a forthcoming article in Education Finance and Policy— is that the first cohort of 14 schools to go through the reform saw no significant gains or losses in student achievement, even three years into implementation. Students enrolled in the five schools in the second cohort saw large gains in ELA achievement, to the tune of 14% increase of a standard deviation in two years. The third cohort of students, enrolled in nine treated schools, saw steep declines in both math and ELA achievement in the first year of the reform (we didn’t have achievement data after that point to look at sustained impacts).

These mixed results are not a particularly gratifying picture.

However, one of the benefits of collaborating with scholars like Julie, who dig deep into the hows and the whys of policy implementation, is that we can do more than ask, “Did it work?” and begin to ask, “Why?” or “Why not?”

The short answer is that implementing turnaround reforms is just plain hard, for lots of reasons. Today we highlight three areas that we think are particularly pertinent to school turnaround: writing a high-quality school plan, building sufficient school (and district) capacity to implement the reform, and meaningfully engaging parents.


One key element of turnaround efforts is mandated formal planning to identify problems, specify goals, seek new strategies to improve student outcomes, and build stakeholder commitment. PSCI added a twist: multiple “teams” of internal educators or external organizations could write plans to turn around a school and the district would select the best among them. There was an assumption, at least early on, that this competition would motivate folks to develop high-quality plans.

But what if school plans are not particularly high quality? Or what if, once written and selected, they are not followed? Or maybe they are followed too closely, making it hard for educators to adjust to changing contexts or adapt when things don’t work out as. . . well, as planned?

As we report in a forthcoming article in Educational Administration Quarterly, the plans written during PSCI in fact weren’t particularly good. Teachers and leaders aren’t plan writers. And even though the district and its partners tried to help teams write the plans, this assistance wasn’t consistently high quality and not every team could access it (more on this below). Moreover, teachers and school leaders are just plain busy actually teaching in and leading schools. So plan writing couldn’t always take precedence.

We also found that competition did not necessarily motivate high quality, in part because it diverted resources away from plan development toward campaigning for plans to win. Let’s just say that the competition in the early phases of PSCI sometimes led to what we call “adverse adult behaviors” (see Julie’s forthcoming piece in Teachers’ College Record for more on this).

In addition, once selected, plans did not always guide school actions in the early implementation years. Sometimes teachers and leaders in turnaround schools were barely aware of plan content.


PSCI, like most turnaround efforts, assumed that educators needed support to develop and implement plans. As both direct service-provider and broker of technical assistance through a new nonprofit, LAUSD established a range of supports and services to help teams. Despite the provision of workshops, meetings, and consultants, access to consistent and high quality support was often a challenge. We also found that greater attention was given to supporting plan development rather than its implementation— which many stakeholders recognized as the more challenging task. Without concerted resources targeted to capacity-building, turnaround reforms and those implementing them struggle to achieve their vision.

Parent Engagement

LAUSD also believed that parents should be involved in turning around schools and selecting strong school programs to serve their communities. LAUSD instituted several strategies designed to foster parent engagement. Yet, as we chronicle in an article published in Educational Policy, despite strong district efforts to partner with community organizations, schedule parent meetings at convenient times and locations and provide translation, participation was far less participatory or meaningful than intended. Parent participation in district efforts to garner feedback remained low across all three years, and parents who did participate often reported that they were confused about different school models and the turnaround process.

To be very clear, LAUSD and its partners tried hard to build a better turnaround reform and improve the districts’ lowest performing schools. And in some years, with some supports, resources and strategies, turnaround schools improved. And in other years, for a variety of reasons, schools did not. The lesson here is clear: if improving schools was easy, we would be able to do it more frequently, and with better success. But like most things, improvement is hard, and we can learn from what doesn’t work to help foster what does.

--Katharine Strunk and Julie A. Marsh

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.