School Turnarounds

Thousands of schools nationwide are failing to educate enough of their students effectively and are missing state and federal performance benchmarks. Many of these schools have failed to provide students with even a basic education for years. To respond to this challenge, education leaders need better tools to turn their schools around. “Turnarounds” are widely used in other sectors to fix failing organizations. Public Impact has surveyed this cross-sector experience to generate resources that help schools, districts, and others implement successful turnarounds. See the menu on the left for Public Impact’s work in this area and below for featured resources.

Featured Resources


The Role of Charter Restarts in School Reform: Honoring our Commitments to Students and Public Accountability

Charter Restarts coverThe report, prepared by Daniela Doyle and Tim Field for NewSchools Venture Fund, explores a variation on school closure where a charter school’s operator and governance (board) changes, while the school continues to serve the same students — charter school “restarts.” The report examines how charter restarts fit within the larger context of charter school quality and accountability and describes how restarts have played out at five charter schools. It concludes with a series of recommendations for board members and charter authorizers interested in pursuing a restart strategy.

Turnaround Principal Competencies

School Administrator coverIn an article for School Administrator magazine, Lucy Steiner and Sharon Kebschull Barrett examine how understanding competencies—the habits of behavior and underlying motivations that help predict how newly hired employees will do their jobs—can help administrators, such as those in Minneapolis, hire the skillful leaders they need to turn around even the most troubled schools. Given that only 30 percent of turnarounds—in education and other fields—succeed, schools need leaders with a clear vision and the ability to make that vision a reality. Minneapolis Pubic Schools used competencies in their newly rigorous hiring process to make promising principal hires and to give the new leaders the support they need to keep turnarounds from becoming just another failed reform effort.

New Orleans-Style Education Reform: A Guide for Cities

NSNO coverPublic Impact teamed up with New Schools for New Orleans to develop a guide for cities interested in dramatically growing their charter school sectors as part of an effort to turn around persistently low-performing urban school systems. This Guide builds on dozens of interviews with education and community leaders in New Orleans, insights from national experts who have supported the rebuilding efforts, and research and reporting on New Orleans’ education reforms. Centered around three key strategies: 1) strong governance and accountability, 2) building human capital pipelines to fuel the growth of schools and 3) incubating new schools and growing proven schools into networks, the Guide illustrates recommendations with vignettes of work done by bold school leaders and reformers.

The Guide also looks toward long-term sustainability of this new system, exploring topics such as building community demand and support for school reforms, developing a fiscally-balanced system that doesn’t rely long-term on philanthropy, and planning ahead for the new types of challenges that face a decentralized system of schools in areas such as transportation, equitable access, and transparent system oversight.

Building Family and Community Demand for Dramatic Change in Schools

Change thumbnailDistrict-led, dramatic change efforts in failing schools—including turnarounds and school closures—often face strong resistance from families and communities. Resistance may be based on years of tension and distrust between districts and communities, failed past school improvement efforts, or a lack of understanding about the chasm between a failing school’s performance and what is possible. We asked what districts and community organizations have done to engage families and communities in demanding dramatic change in their schools and how various stakeholders have been involved in establishing shared values and goals for change, choosing from available options, and holding districts accountable for improving outcomes for children. This report and related presentation share lessons learned about the barriers districts and communities across the country have faced in building community demand for dramatic change as well as strategies for overcoming those barriers. The report includes three vignettes about efforts to build community demand for dramatic change in Denver, Philadelphia, and Chicago schools. Report [pdf] Presentation [pdf]

Importing Leaders for School Turnarounds: Lessons and Opportunities

Importing Leaders for School Turnarounds-1One of the biggest challenges in education today is identifying talented candidates to successfully lead turnarounds of persistently low-achieving schools. Evidence suggests that the traditional principal pool is already stretched to capacity and cannot supply enough leaders to fix failing schools. But potentially thousands of leaders capable of managing successful turnarounds work outside education, in nonprofit and health organizations, the military, and the private sector. If only a fraction of those leaders used their talents in education, we could increase the supply of school turnaround leaders significantly. In this report prepared by Public Impact for the University of Virginia’s Partnership for Leaders in Education, Julie Kowal and Emily Hassel explore lessons about when and how organizations in other sectors import leaders – including how they tempt people away, train them, and foster their success – to inform efforts by state and local leaders to import talent for failing schools.

Using Competencies to Improve School Turnaround Principal Success

School-Principal-TurnaroundThis paper, produced for the University of Virginia’s School Turnaround Specialist Program, describes how using competencies that predict performance can improve turnaround principal selection, evaluation, and development. Although the term “competency” often describes any work-related skill, in this context competencies are the underlying motives and habits—patterns of thinking, feeling, acting, and speaking—that cause a person to be successful in a specific job or role. The primary critical competencies for school turnaround leader are “achievement” and “impact and influence.” Achievement is having the drive and taking actions to set challenging goals and reach a high standard of performance despite barriers. Impact and influence is acting with the purpose of affecting the perceptions, thinking and actions of others. This report provides guidance for organizations on how to use competencies to select, evaluate, and develop effective school turnaround leaders.

The Big U-Turn

uturncover In Education Next Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel describe six leadership strategies that recur in successful school turnarounds. Using the NYC Police Department and Continental Airlines, the authors explain the importance of focusing on a few early wins, breaking organizational norms, pushing rapid-fire experimentation, getting the right staff, driving change with data, and running a “turnaround campaign” to build support for change.