Turnarounds: What’s the State’s Role? – Part 1 CST

By Bryan Hassel / August 14, 2014

In Part 1 of Bryan Hassel’s blog, he focuses on five state roles that:

1. are of vital importance to states’ success as leaders of the school turnaround effort; and
2. have been implemented altogether in very few states.

    Hassel tackles two of the five state roles in Part 1 of the blog, “Set Sights High” and “Clear Policy Barriers,” and the other three, “Get Serious About Talent”, “Creating a Real ‘Or Else’,” and “Demand Sustainability,” in a second post.


    Set Sights High

    One critical aspect of state policy is establishing a set of specific, ambitious goals for eliminating chronic low performance within a reasonable timeline. One level of this goal-set is a clear definition of success at the school level. If you are a low-achieving school, what does it mean to “turn around”? Ideally, it means something more than just going from “very low” to “low.” Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD), for example, says it wants to move schools from the bottom 5% to the top 25%.

    A second level is the statewide view. Taking the state’s set of persistently low-achieving schools as a group, what does success look like over the next year, three years, and five years? Not all schools will meet an ambitious target the first time around. In fact, 30 percent on the first try would be on par with cross-sector experience, and quite good relative to the abysmal success rate of many school turnaround initiatives. That does not mean, though, that states need to settle for 30 percent as their long-term ambition. As my colleagues and I have written in Try, Try Again, detecting efforts that are off track early and redirecting can shift some initial missteps into successes.

    What is important here, therefore, is for the state to select and communicate a sense of trajectory. After one year we are aiming for, say, 25 percent of our turnaround schools to have crossed the success threshold. And then we expect that percentage to rise steadily so that after five years, 80 percent of the schools are over the mark. This kind of trajectory allows state officials and others to watch progress, and then make adjustments. This communicates an ambitious target over time, but also a realistic path to get there.

    Clear Policy Barriers

    Turning around a failing organization is challenging even if leaders have all the running room they could ever want. But in public education, numerous policy constraints make it even more difficult to turn around schools and succeed.

    One category is constraints related to staffing. The effectiveness of the school leadership and teaching force is what we all know makes the most difference in schools, and especially turnaround schools. Yet state and local policies often make it hard for schools to staff turnaround schools well. Examples include: Ineffective evaluation systems, restrictive certification rules, rigid seniority-based placement, hurdles to dismissing ineffective performers, salary scales that make it difficult to reward great leaders and teachers for taking a challenge and succeeding, and rules that limit the number of students a great teacher can have.

    A second category is resource use: rigid line-item budgets that require, for example, a certain staffing model within a school; or limit schools’ and districts’ ability to carry funds over from one year to the next.

    States can inventory their own policies, and make a plan for eliminating or creating exceptions for those that hinder turnarounds. In addition, states can use the “strings” they attach to funding and their accountability policies to insist that districts remove barriers as well, because many of these constraints are embodied in local policies and agreements.

    The ideas in this post appeared first in the Foreword of The Center on School Turnaround’s publication The State Role in School Turnaround: Emerging Best Practices, edited by Lauren Morando Rhim and Sam Redding.

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    About the author

    Bryan Hassel

    Bryan C. Hassel is Co-Director of Public Impact, a partner of the Center on School Turnaround at WestEd. He consults nationally with leading public agencies, nonprofit organizations, and foundations working for dramatic improvements in K–12 education.

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