Turning Schools Around

What we are learning about the process, and those who do it.

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One person may not be able to turn a low-performing school around singlehandedly, but my colleagues and I are finding that one person with the right talents, temperament, and training can mobilize the energies of many people to accomplish the task.

Such are the “school turnaround specialists” participating in a pioneering program at the University of Virginia. Inspired by former Gov. Mark Warner, who believed that the business model of turnaround specialists could be adapted to public education, the School Turnaround Specialist Program is part of a collaboration between the university’s schools of education and business administration. Launched in the summer of 2004, the program originally focused on preparing turnaround specialists for Virginia schools. In 2006, it was expanded to include principals from across the country.


My colleagues and I have been able, with funding from the Microsoft Corp., to study these school turnaround specialists and what they are doing to reverse the process of school decline. What we are learning confirms in some cases, and challenges in others, the conventional wisdom on what it takes to effect radical school improvement. Here are some highlights:

No substitute for leadership. As obvious as it seems, the point must be underscored. Groups of educators in low-performing schools do not spontaneously organize themselves to systematically address the causes of low performance. Almost without exception, the nearly 50 elementary, middle, and high schools that have been involved so far in the program had been low-performing for years. In other words, there were plenty of opportunities for the staffs of these schools to take corrective action before being assigned a turnaround specialist. Either they were unable to get organized, or the actions they did take proved ineffective.

We have searched in the research literature, and have even advertised in Education Week, for examples of low-performing schools in which the staff took the initiative in launching the turnaround process. So far, no examples have surfaced. While this nonfinding is disturbing in many ways, it reinforces the importance of identifying individuals willing and able to play a leadership role in turning around low-performing schools.

Lagging literacy. If there is an epicenter to the problems associated with low performance, it is located in the domain of literacy. The one problematic condition common to every one of the schools in the University of Virginia program has been a relatively low pass rate on state standardized tests in reading and language arts. The implication is clear: School turnaround specialists, regardless of whether they lead elementary or secondary schools, must be very knowledgeable about literacy. They must know, for example, how to assess the appropriateness of commercial reading programs, how to pinpoint specific literacy problems requiring attention, and how to adjust school schedules to provide additional time for reading instruction and remediation. When we look at principal-preparation programs, one thing becomes painfully clear: Future principals generally receive little training in literacy.

It is not enough to promote organizational changes. Each change must be closely monitored to ensure that it is accomplishing what it is supposed to.

Personnel problems. Almost every school turnaround specialist has had to address personnel problems before significant improvements could be made in his or her school. In some cases, the problems derived from a lack of proper qualifications among teachers. Low-performing schools, after all, are often unable to attract the most capable educators. In other cases, personnel problems involved outright resistance to change on the part of some staff members. A third personnel issue concerned staff members who had strengths, but were assigned incorrectly. Another involved the lack of specialists, particularly in reading and mathematics. Such individuals were needed to guide teachers, provide ongoing staff development, and coordinate student interventions.

To handle these personnel problems, school turnaround specialists must know how to closely supervise marginal teachers, draft defensible plans of assistance, and recruit capable and committed replacements when inadequate teachers must be released. They also need to understand the politics of personnel decisions and how to negotiate support from the central office and the teachers’ union when such decisions become necessary.

Willingness to manage. It is tempting to think that the principals of persistently low-performing schools fail to do the things that successful school turnaround specialists are able to. While there are cases where this is true, in many instances both groups of principals undertake many of the same corrective strategies. Both, for example, may insist that teachers plan together, attend staff-development workshops, provide assistance to struggling students, and review student-achievement data. So why are some principals less successful than others? We believe that some principals are unable or unwilling to manage the reforms they initiate. It is not enough to promote organizational changes. Each change must be closely monitored to ensure that it is accomplishing what it is supposed to.

We have found that reforms intended to benefit students can have the opposite effect when they are poorly managed. Teacher teamwork, for example, can degenerate into excuse-making and collective resistance to change if allowed to go unsupervised. Staff development that is not linked closely to academic priorities can leave teachers feeling that their time has been wasted. Interventions that fail to target specific gaps in the knowledge of individual students are unlikely to raise test scores. Student-achievement data that are shared without appropriate training for teachers, and follow-through to see that instructional adjustments are made in areas where students perform poorly, may contribute little to improved performance.

In short, every strategy or intervention that has the potential to improve performance also has the potential to accomplish nothing, or worse.

No two low-performing schools are identical. Policymakers and pundits are inclined to paint low-performing schools with broad brush strokes. The impression is that all such schools are the same. While many of the schools in which our turnaround specialists work share some characteristics, no two schools are identical. A rural school may have a highly stable faculty, while an urban school loses a third of its teachers every year. One school may be relatively orderly, while another has hundreds of disciplinary referrals. Low-performing schools vary in terms of size, student characteristics, available resources, allocation of time, and the quality of facilities. Some elementary schools consist of self-contained classes, while others are departmentalized. The amount of central-office support also varies considerably across low-performing schools.

All of which is to say that the training of turnaround specialists requires some degree of customization. We know of lots of “best practices,” but the particular combination may need to be adjusted to a particular school’s circumstances. Just as differentiated instruction is justified to address the varying needs of students in the same class, differentiated leadership is called for to contend with the challenges of different low-performing schools.

Related to this idea is the notion of “Act 2” leadership. We are finding that, under certain circumstances, the initial turnaround specialist must expend so much energy and political capital in launching the turnaround process that he or she cannot complete the job. In such cases, an Act 2 leader is needed to continue the process.

It is one thing, of course, to raise test scores in a given year, and quite another to sustain success.

Blending business and education. In The Blackboard and the Bottom Line, the education historian Larry Cuban argues that education and business are different. Perhaps so, but we have found that turnaround specialists value and benefit from training that combines business principles and best practices from education. They appreciate case studies dealing with business issues, books such as Good to Great, and tools like the “Balanced Scorecard.” When faculty members from the business school share cases addressing accountability, change leadership, team-building, quality control, and effective communications in private-sector organizations, turnaround specialists must make the transfer to public school settings. As a result, they must become the experts and inform their business school instructors about how these issues play out in the educator’s world.

Considerable skepticism greeted Gov. Warner’s original proposal to train turnaround specialists for low-performing Virginia schools. What could one person, however skilled, accomplish in a school with a track record of failure?

As it turns out, quite a bit. Of the first cohort of 10 turnaround specialists, nine were able to achieve one of the three program targets: “adequate yearly progress” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, state accreditation, or “safe harbor” (a 10 percent reduction in failures in reading or math). This, after only one year.

When a comparison was made of student achievement in the 10 “turnaround” schools and in 10 matched schools that did not receive a trained turnaround specialist, most test results for the latter group lagged well behind those of the “turnaround” schools.

It is one thing, of course, to raise test scores in a given year, and quite another to sustain success. Time will tell whether the impact of the turnaround specialists persists. For now, it is heartening to know that competent and committed leaders can address the conditions associated with low performance and create a solid foundation for successful teaching and learning.

Vol. 26, Issue 24, Pages 35, 37

Published in Print: February 21, 2007, as Turning Schools Around
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