Voices in Education

Systemic Turnaround: A Strategic Move Out of the Box
Children enter schools with different levels of preparedness. Not just in high-poverty areas, but in all schools. Visit any school in the U.S., and teachers will tell you about the widespread academic needs they address on a daily basis. Yet for well over fifty years, we have educated children using the same traditional structures, arrangements, and approaches.

When students fail to succeed, we approach the issue at the micro-level through simple isolated reform approaches. In the earlier years, we tweaked things like reading programs and school size. Over the past ten years the focus has shifted to fixing individual schools.

School-level and single-focus reforms ultimately fail to improve schools because they do not acknowledge the larger school system's role in supporting and creating capacity for schools to more creatively address unique student needs. Driving excellent teaching and learning across schools necessitates considering how districts can be best structured to support different types of schools while maintaining alignment and system coherence.

Yielding dramatic improvement—often referred to as “school turnaround”—necessitates a new theory of action that considers how district systems can be best structured to help schools meet unique student needs while maintaining quality, alignment, and system coherence. We cannot continue to cling to uniform structures and programs, yet simply plopping down a bunch of different types of schools with no clear strategy or expected outcomes can dangerously compromise quality and consistency.

While not widely prevalent, there are a handful of districts employing systemic, district-led turnaround approaches and yielding impressive gains. I chose to study and feature five such districts—Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, the School District of Philadelphia, Denver Public Schools, Sacramento City Unified School District, and Long Beach Unified School District—in my book School Turnarounds: The Essential Role of Districts. While all five districts had very different approaches and contexts, each yielded notable performance gains. Thus, they provide important lessons on how to devise systemic turnaround or improvement efforts, and on how to overcome the many obstacles related to making dramatic changes in complex systems.

One great example of thinking beyond traditional structures to meet student needs can be found in Long Beach. To address instructional concerns for struggling sixth graders, Long Beach leaders placed over 2,000 sixth graders from a set of struggling middle schools in one sixth-grade academy designed to maximize instructional freedom—no bells, no specific passing periods. Struggling readers were paired with strong reading teachers and could work on reading for hours at a time daily if needed. Students were also frequently assessed to ensure that they are mastering target objectives and placed in flexible groups with teachers that excel in the students' weakest areas. The strategy was so successful that the cohort of struggling schools will be disbanded next year because their performance is close to the district average.

Denver Public Schools provides a great example of how to coordinate an overall portfolio model. Montebello was a high school in Denver that had failed academically for years, and was known for several serious violent incidences. Now Montbello High School is being transformed into three specialty schools: a collegiate prep academy (a charter school), a high-tech early college, and a center for international studies. This plan is one of Denver’s two large regional turnaround strategies. One, the Far Northeast Regional Effort, is overseen jointly by the district and an external partner, Blueprint Schools, and it engages with high-performing charter management organizations that share buildings with regular district schools.

To coordinate these efforts, a central office leader works closely with the external partner and schools, and through additional support from the Office of School Reform and Innovation. To add more coherence, the district monitors the progress of all schools, even charter schools, through the same comprehensive accountability framework that includes multiple indicators measuring school quality. Thus, Denver students reap the benefits of program alignment as they move from traditional to innovative school models, and the different school models benefit from sharing of facilities, services, and knowledge.

To make sure schools have effective leaders and teachers, Charlotte-Mecklenurg Schools created the district-wide Strategic Staffing Initiative (SSI). The goal of the SSI is to place the best talent in the neediest schools through additional stipends to work in SSI schools, incentives tied to student performance, and provided flexibility to principals.

To maintain a strong pipeline of leaders and teachers, Charlotte engaged in highly structured and well-measured succession planning through a job-embedded ranking process. Their approach is unique in that it addresses central office leadership positions as well as principals and teachers, and uses a forced ranking process scored by internally developed rubrics. The process places personnel in a four-by-four rating category (one through four and A through D in each level) that ranged from 1A ("ready to step into the position") to 4D ("needing improvement") in certain specified areas.

These examples are just a tip of the iceberg of the systemic approaches implemented by the districts featured in School Turnarounds, and do not explain the many obstacles they overcame to meet the unique needs of their students. Common obstacles they faced included stakeholder pushback to turnaround efforts, opposition from teacher unions, detrimental policies like laying off teachers based on seniority instead of quality, and challenges that come with changing entrenched cultures and expectations for students.

There are many new technologies, models and tools available to help change how we educate students of all ages. However, leaders must be vigilant to ensure that the adoption of these innovations does not result in isolated, piecemeal reform. While there is no magic formula or playbook for leading successful system-wide reform, there are leaders and districts that offer important lessons that are applicable in most contexts.

The work needs to be simple in layers and direction, and it needs to be executed with consistency. Additionally, an arsenal of tools and talents must be amassed to offset potential uncontrollable or unconsidered variables that can impede progress. Although difficult, it can be done, as demonstrated by leaders who successfully changed the end game for years to come in their districts.

About the Author: Heather Zavadsky is the director of research and implementation at the Texas High School Project and the author of School Turnarounds: The Essential Rose of Districts (Harvard Education Press; May 2012).