School & District Management Opinion

Five Things Successful Turnaround Schools Have in Common

By Greg Anrig — August 18, 2015 6 min read
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One of the Obama administration’s signature initiatives for revitalizing the nation’s worst-performing schools is in grave danger. As part of the 2009 economic-stimulus bill, the School Improvement Grant program received a huge, $3 billion infusion over the previous allocation of about $500 million. Now, both the House and the Senate bills reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would scrap the SIG program, which has provided up to $2 million a year for three years to about 1,300 deeply troubled schools since 2010.

A number of studies have attempted to evaluate the impact of the program, with more still in the pipeline. On balance, that still-preliminary research has found modestly positive results, especially in the first two years after the schools received the grants.

But what is most notable about the SIG program, and what should give pause to its opponents, is that the grants clearly set in motion genuine school turnarounds in a meaningful subset of cases, some of which are highlighted in my recent Century Foundation report.

Because many critics maintain that transforming dysfunctional public schools in high-poverty, racially isolated settings simply can’t be done, much greater attention should be paid to the success stories as guideposts for learning how to make them more common. After conducting a federal experiment as ambitious and unprecedented as the big funding increase for SIGs, zooming in on what worked is a much more productive response than throwing the baby out with the bathwater. That’s especially true because among the SIG schools that showed the strongest results, there are many shared characteristics—characteristics that are also shared by non-SIG schools that show consistent improvement over time.


According to my research, some of the schools receiving SIGs that demonstrated the largest improvements in test scores, student attendance, discipline measures, grade promotion, and graduation rates include McKay High School in Salem, Ore.; Leslie County High School in Hyden, Ky.; Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Boston; Charlotte M. Murkland Elementary School in Lowell, Mass.; and Horace Mann Elementary in St. Louis.

The strategies those schools implemented after receiving their SIGs were remarkably similar, and largely conformed with practices that the Council of the Great City Schools found in its 2015 examination of the most successful SIG schools.

Those commonalities include:

• An intense focus on improving classroom instruction through ongoing, data-driven collaboration—within schools, among administrators and teachers—led largely by teachers with oversight from the principal;

• A concerted, systematic effort to create a safe and orderly school environment through implementation of research-supported practices that all staff members can adopt;

• An expansion of both classroom and nonclassroom time throughout the school week dedicated to instruction and tutoring in core academic subjects;

• A strengthening of connections to parents, community groups, and local service providers to support the efforts of school staff to build a culture that expects success of all students; and

• A limited reliance on expert consultants to jump-start changes that school leaders and teachers sustain on their own.

All of those elements appeared to be essential and conform with other research on the characteristics of effective schools. However, a team-based, data-driven focus on improving teaching is the most important.

For example, after McKay High School received its SIG in 2010, Principal Ken Parshall instituted a 50-minute block of time before each school day for collaborative teacher teams to concentrate on improving their instructional practices. In those meetings, teachers shared strategies and techniques, while paying close attention to student scores on the tests they had developed to identify whether students or teachers needed more support. When Parshall was recruiting additional teachers funded by the grant, as well as replacing those who left as part of the high turnover common in impoverished schools, he particularly sought applicants who were comfortable and experienced with having their work analyzed by supervisors and peers.

McKay High, which serves more than 1,800 predominantly low-income Hispanic students in a neighborhood with a long history of gang violence, experienced some of the strongest gains among all of the SIG schools. For example, the share of McKay’s 11th graders whose scores met or exceeded standards on the Oregon statewide assessments increased from 50 percent in 2009-10 to 87 percent in 2013-14 in reading; from 48 percent to 85 percent in math; from 37 percent to 51 percent in writing; and from 37 percent to 58 percent in science. All of those most recent scores are well above the average for Oregon schools with similar demographics and exceed the statewide average, which includes schools in wealthier districts, in math and reading.

What is most notable about the SIG program ... is that the grants clearly set in motion genuine school turnarounds in a meaningful subset of cases."

McKay’s dropout rate fell to the lowest level of any Oregon high school with more than 1,500 students. Parshall argues that creating a new culture in which teachers embrace coaching and collaboration was key to the school’s success.

Similarly, at Or-chard Gardens K-8 School in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, whose enrollment of about 800 is almost evenly divided between African-American and Hispanic students, Principal Andrew Bott prioritized his use of SIG money to create significantly more time for teachers to meet, plan, and learn from one another.

As described by the National Center on Time and Learning’s detailed 2013 case study, Orchard Gardens’ teachers previously received just one 57-minute planning period each day, totaling about five hours a week. In the expanded post-SIG schedule, they had seven 55-minute planning periods and two content-team and two grade-level meetings a week, totaling about 10 hours. Those meetings, led by teachers, follow a highly structured protocol intended to focus solely on data analysis and instructional strategies.

It is noteworthy that early on, some teachers raised concerns about excessive focus on standardized-test data. In response, Orchard Gardens’ administrators encouraged teachers to suggest other measures of data that would be useful in monitoring student progress. So results of quizzes and tests, developed by the teachers themselves, became integral to the collaborative process.

Again, the results were impressive: The proficiency levels of the Orchard Gardens students on Massachusetts’ standardized tests improved from 6 percent to 34 percent in math between 2009 and 2013, and from 13 percent to 43 percent in English. By the end of the period, the school had moved from the state’s lowest classification of level 4 to its highest of level 1.

Whatever the fate of School Improvement Grants, the experiences of schools that defied the odds, like McKay High and Or-chard Gardens, are enormously valuable in pointing toward changes that other struggling schools can try to emu-late in the future. The extra resources from SIGs were essential, but only be-came transformative when leaders used them to implement very specific changes, like teacher-led collaboration.

At the very least, the U.S. Department of Education should produce videos and online materials describing those success stories in usable, engaging ways to demonstrate not only that turnarounds are possible, but also that they can arise out of similar reforms.

With luck, sharing those stories will also help persuade recalcitrant members of Congress to provide more funding to schools that follow the same strategies that clearly paid off under the SIG program.


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