The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), as the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, includes major revisions to the law in terms of how states design their accountability systems and provide supports aimed at improving academic outcomes in their lowest-performing schools. ESSA defines a category of schools, called Targeted Support and Improvement (TSI) schools, which must develop and implement a support-and-improvement plan that targets improvement for a particular subgroup (or subgroups) of students. This paper delves into the TSI designation, draws out some lessons learned from prior education reform work (particularly efforts to improve schools with an earlier, similar designation of being focus schools), and makes the case for providing support to TSI schools that is differentiated according to the particular needs of different schools and districts.
Achieving rapid school improvement — most commonly referred to as “school turnaround” — is a complex undertaking. Equally challenging is the work of sustaining and even expanding on a school’s initial improvements so that the school can more fully become a vibrant learning organization.
There is much to learn from schools that demonstrate sustained improvement and those who lead them. But because there has not been a broad effort to identify and highlight such schools, their successes have heretofore yielded little practice-based guidance for other leaders who aspire to the same outcomes for the schools they lead. There is also much to learn from other fields, such as business, where research has focused on organizational turnaround.
This report, conceived to help fill a knowledge gap, presents promising practices for how to sustain the advances made in schools that have demonstrated rapid improvement. The promising practices presented here are derived from a comprehensive review of relevant literature, both within and beyond the field of education, and from the experience of five school principals who not only facilitated school turnaround but also catalyzed considerable ongoing growth in student achievement for at least four years following their school’s initial turnaround. The continued growth at these schools contrasts with the achievement plateaus or regressions that more commonly follow a school’s turnaround.
The five principals are often referred to herein as “leaders of sustained improvement” because, as that designation implies, they did not undertake this essential work alone. Their most important contribution may have been that they clearly ascertained the realms needing
attention and then prompted and supported positive contributions from others in order to collectively pursue improved outcomes for students.
At the school level, principals and leadership teams can use these promising practices to guide their teacher- and community-directed efforts and also to guide reflection on their own practices and their specific actions related to the practices. At the district level, principal supervisors can use them to design their support and coaching efforts. Superintendents or other district leaders can consider how to build the structures and interactions that are needed in order to enact these practices and related actions in district schools. For their part, state education agency (SEA) staff can consider these practices in thinking about how to encourage local education agencies to better support principals and schools.
Identifying and maintaining talent is important in any organization, but in a low-performing school, it is perhaps the most important component to achieving turnaround. Research has made it increasingly clear that teachers are the most important school-based factor in a student’s academic success, and leaders foster effective teaching and learning environments and are, therefore, the second most important school-based factor in a student’s academic success (Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2012). Given the importance of teachers and leaders for students and schools, districts and states are wise to hone their efforts related to identifying, attracting, retaining, and sustaining capable and committed talent.
The University of Virginia Partnership for Leaders in Education (UVA/PLE) works with school systems to establish the conditions for change and to build transformative leadership capacity to achieve improved systems and schools for students. Over the course of the last decade, UVA/PLE has partnered with over 100 districts from across the nation in urban, suburban, and rural settings. Given the importance of hiring and retaining high-quality principals and teachers in turnaround schools, this report provides lessons learned by UVA/PLE about strategic talent development in a turnaround environment.
Specifically, this report conveys what UVA/PLE researchers and field team members have learned from a project examining how districts prioritizing their lowest-performing schools attract and recruit high-potential candidates for principalships and teaching positions. The report also describes what we learned from the project in terms of districts’ strategic and innovative approaches for identifying the fit between an applicant and a school, and for supporting talent in the long term. Along with illustrative stories of promising practices from schools and districts engaged in strategic talent development, we provide recommendations based on the project’s findings regarding concrete steps and actions districts and states can take to support innovative and effective talent development in low-performing schools.
The examples of districts’ talent-development processes described in this report are taken from the following sources:
- UVA/PLE documents, including district improvement plans and site visit reports, co-created by districts and UVA/PLE field team members.
- Semi-structured interviews with four districts identified by the UVA/PLE field team as innovative and committed in their approaches to talent acquisition and management.
- Resources developed by two entities that dedicate their programmatic and research efforts toward talent development in schools: the Urban Schools Human Capital Academy (2017) and the New Mexico Public Education Department (n.d.).
- UVA/PLE’s previous work with six large urban districts focused on developing a pipeline of talented and prepared principals in difficult-to-staff settings.
Four main focus areas for strategic talent development emerged from our project:
- Planning for the long-term future
- Increasing options for the immediate future
- Differentiating and customizing
- Generating ongoing growth on the job
Successful school turnarounds—characterized by quick, strategic changes in school culture and systems that result in dramatic improvement in student achievement in persistently low-performing schools—are hard work and difficult to achieve and sustain. This report sets out an approach to measure turnaround success that states, districts, and schools can adopt in their own contexts.
The Center on School Turnaround at WestEd (CST) has released the Four Domains for Rapid School Improvement. This framework was to assist states, districts, and schools in leading and managing rapid improvement efforts. The framework shares, in practical language, the critical practices of successful school turnaround in four domains, or areas of focus, that research and experience suggest are central to rapid and significant improvement: turnaround leadership, talent development, instructional transformation, and culture shift. At a more fine-grained level, the framework then offers examples of how each practice would be put into action at each level of the system.
The framework reflects the understanding that local context and implementation influence the outcomes of any improvement initiative. It further reflects lessons learned from the federal School Improvement Grants program:
A successful school turnaround requires a systems approach with coherent guidance and support from the state and district to complement the actions of the school; and
A successful school turnaround is more than the initial jolt of bold changes in structure, authority, and personnel; it includes phases in which effective practices and processes are routinized and sustained.
The domains and practices identified in the framework that follows apply across the system of the state education agency, the local education agency, and the school. For each practice, the roles of the state, the district, and the school are briefly outlined, providing examples of their reciprocal roles in successful school improvement efforts. The domains are not meant to be considered in isolation, or to be approached in a step-by-step manner. The domains and practices overlap, with some consistent threads tying them together, including the need for clear goals and expectations, for tailored support, and for accountability to encourage a positive environment that is focused on improving student achievement in the lowest performing schools. Further, the practices are not provided in a suggested order of implementation. A turnaround plan should consider the most appropriate prioritization of the implementation of practices. Ideally, many practices will be implemented simultaneously, but it would be difficult and even counterproductive to focus on too many areas or practices at once.
This report describes examples of actions that school principals have taken in trying to lead turnaround. Most principals have either not worked in a turnaround situation or have fallen short in a turnaround attempt, despite their best efforts. Not all of the principals highlighted in this report have successfully turned around their schools, but we intend for these examples to be helpful to other principals, teacher-leader teams, and principal supervisors who are looking to approach turnaround work with strategic, but less common actions in an effort to get new, better results. The authors draw on prior research to frame the examples. The report also draws on the observations of two organizations with deep experience in the turnaround field: Public Impact and the University of Virginia Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education. The examples of actions that are described in this report are organized into categories familiar to many principals in both typical schools and in turnaround schools, namely: vision, goals, data, change leadership, teachers and leaders, instruction, and strategic partnerships. These categories are also tied to domains and practices described in the Center on School Turnaround’s Four Domains for Rapid School Improvement: A Systems Framework.