School Turnaround: Building Capacity through Partnerships

School turnaround is characterized by  dramatic  and  rapid  improvement.  We know it can be done — schools are doing it around the country and here, in Massachusetts, half of the turnaround schools are on track to meet ambitious student achievement goals within three years, and many achieved double-digit increases in proficiency rates after just one year.  Mountains of studies and reports point to the practices that these schools are using to get these results (effective leadership, a well-orchestrated assessment system to drive tiered instruction, etc.), but how schools develop the expertise to implement these strategies is less clear, especially in the face of countless challenges including those identified in Turnaround Schools Struggle with Staffing, Time, and Climate ( staffing, time, and climate).  A fundamental challenge in school turnaround is the simple fact:  if schools had the specialized tools, capacity, and expertise to turn around performance, they would have done it already!

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This question of how to inject the expertise and implementation know-how into school teams is a critical one with no easy answers.  Many district leaders would like to snap their fingers and be able to recruit great teachers and leaders who could parachute in with all the solutions, but that’s not realistic.  In the schools that are turning around, we usually see one or more instructional leaders relentlessly driving a culture of continuous improvement.  But how can schools without access to these experienced turnaround leaders acquire the expertise and capacity necessary to transform a school?

Using the various levers we have as a state education agency, one principle that has guided our assistance efforts is simple:  proven third-party turnaround partners are an essential part of the complex equation.  In fact, we subscribe to the theory of action that if the state can effectively vet, identify, and bring together partners with a demonstrated track record of effectiveness, districts will be able to accelerate school improvement through strategic use of these partners.  The challenges identified in  Turnaround Schools Struggle with Staffing, Time, and Climate  certainly apply in Massachusetts. While external partners are not the silver bullet, we are seeing that they can be leveraged to effectively inject the expertise that existing school teams need to become effective turnaround leadership teams and build school-wide capacity to realize dramatic and rapid improvement

There is no shortage of qualified partners. The challenge for districts—and where we believe the state can add value— is “cutting through the noise”.  When major philanthropies like the Gates Foundation or the Broad Foundation invest in an organization, they conduct a “due diligence” process to make sure the organization consistently delivers measurable results to the districts and schools it serves.  Districts and schools would do the same if they could, but who has the time? 

Massachusetts has begun assuming this role and has identified a selection of partners who have a demonstrated track record of accelerating district and school improvement across the state and country. These Priority Partners for Turnaround help build the capacity of districts’ human resources systems to address staffing challenges, maximize learning time in support of desired student outcomes, and/or address students’ social, emotional and health needs and help create conditions for success through a positive school climate and culture (among other things.) They convene as a Network to build a culture of collaboration, information sharing, and shared accountability in this high-stakes work.

No matter how many additional dollars a school may be benefitting from, the urgency of a turnaround situation requires strategic allocation of resources — there is no time to lose or funds to spare. All across the country, significant funds are being allocated towards partnerships with external providers – most of it to no measurable end. Recognizing the important role that partners with proven experience can bring­­, holding a high standard for how external providers should measure the impact of their interventions and pointing districts to partners that are most likely to help them succeed is a valuable role that states can play. As fewer resources will be available to support and sustain turnaround, targeting the areas of greatest challenge (staffing, time, climate, or otherwise) knowing what and who to invest in to effectively address these challenges will be essential.

Erika Alvarez Werner and Jesse Dixon work in the Office of District and School Turnaround at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.