A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Turning Around Low-Performing Schools: A Guide for State and Local Leaders (May 1998)

Building School Capacity:
Systemic Support for the Process of Change

Much of the drive behind creating a performance-based public education system comes from the fundamental assumption that if schools are held accountable for student performance, student achievement will rise, attendance will go up, and other measures of improvement will be evident. However, in holding schools accountable, states and districts are often making tremendous demands on schools that have little capacity to turn themselves around.

Districts must stay the course with a plan for school change. Coherence, continuity, and follow through are extremely important. Educators can become cynical with good reason about reform when each year the "new" program of the year is announced. Whatever model or strategy is used to turn around low-performing schools, it must be based on the commitment to stay focused.

-- Tom Payzant,
Boston Public Schools Superintendent

Low-performing schools are often located in communities where families live in concentrated poverty; there are usually low expectations for students; students are not encouraged to take demanding courses; many teachers are burnt out; and school facilities are run down, overcrowded, and disorderly. For many chronically low-performing schools, the task of change may seem overwhelming. In some low-performing schools, there is little will to change.

Some of these overwhelming hurdles are made worse by systemwide problems that further decrease their capacity to improve. Low-performing schools often are embedded in troubled school systems.

Therefore, part of the process of turning around low-performing schools involves making changes on the district level that encourage and reward successful schools and mobilize resources to assist troubled ones. States and districts must commit to a long-term and continuous process of school improvement. Where reform strategies fail in schools, there are often budget cuts, mixed messages on district priorities, decisions from the central office to move on to a new initiative and drop support for current priorities, excessive red tape, or inefficient use of resources at the district or school level.

States and districts must help create an environment that supports school efforts to improve. The elements of a supportive environment outlined below give structure to schools' transformation efforts. Districts can help make the difference between student success and failure by:

Critical Attributes of a Supportive
Environment for School Transformation
  • Clear academic standards and aligned assessments of student performance.

  • A professional development program that helps teachers improve classroom practices and student achievement.

  • Decentralized authority for making decisions about curriculum, instruction, staffing, and resource allocations.

  • Sustained investments in strategies for school improvement.

  • A public outreach strategy that engages schools, students, and the community around the performance of schools and districts; builds awareness of the need for high-performing schools; and generates support for schools.
-- Adapted from New American Schools

Building Leadership, Trust, and Ownership

In every case of a turnaround school, the transformation required leadership, trust, teacher buy-in, and a sense of common mission among stakeholders. While this must happen largely within the school building, districts have significant discretion to recruit strong principals, teachers, and other motivated school leaders and assign them where they are most needed.

Strong Educational Leaders

A strong school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by:

  • facilitating the development of a shared vision of learning;
  • sustaining a school culture and instructional program conducive to student learning and staff professional growth;
  • creating a safe, effective learning environment
  • mobilizing and collaborating with families and community members;
  • acting ethically with integrity and fairness; and
  • understanding and influencing the larger political and cultural context.
-- Council of Chief State School Officers

Strong, consistent leadership is a particular challenge both on the district and school level. In the nation's largest urban school districts, superintendents serve an average of less than three years, giving them little time to instill lasting changes in low-performing schools.[11]

Strong principals who act as instructional leaders are important to school success, but principals often are placed in their roles with little attention to their instructional skills. Many districts strongly emphasize the principal's administrative responsibilities, from organizing the school bus routes and schedules to handling personnel issues. To the extent that principals are able to focus their work on improving instruction, students will benefit.

Local policy makers have differing levels of control over the training of school principals. Nevertheless, they can help principals acquire the skills necessary to support a positive learning environment. For example, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University has a National School Reform Faculty program composed of teachers and principals in restructuring schools who create Critical Friends Groups. These networks of teachers and principals meet regularly and correspond over the Internet to build a collaborative culture that supports student achievement. The principal groups focus on learning how to be instructional leaders, and use a self-designed protocol to create individual action plans for their own professional development and achievement. Other education organizations are creating standards and guidelines for training principals.

The vision and the leadership and the cohesiveness and working together -- involving the community, involving the parents -- and showing respect for staff, a respect for the kids, a respect for their parents. They seem so elementary, basic. But these things don't always happen.

-- a San Francisco teacher

In chronically low-performing schools, improvement can be undermined by staff cynicism, a sense that no one cares, low parental involvement, and concern about the financial costs of making changes. The first task taken on by new leaders working to transform schools is the building of trust and a sense of common mission among school staff and the community. Perhaps one of the hardest parts of the reform process is to put aside defensiveness and get beyond blaming others. Overcoming cynicism is just as central to making things happen. As one school staff member described during a focus group,"It was a team effort...and I mean as far as from the custodian up to the administration. Every person in that school had a place in the mission statement where they committed to the children and what they were going to do to make the difference...it was a really strong team effort."

There are a number of ways districts can help schools build strong and capable school teams:

Mobilizing Resources to Support School Improvement

Turning around schools requires tough choices about resource allocation. Creating a true focus on learning in a school may cost jobs and require major shifts in financial resources. Districts and schools must pay attention to how they allocate staff, budgets, materials, and space. As education researcher Allan Odden explains, beyond the basic staffing structure of the principal and classroom teachers, "Traditional schools have additional staff members who, over time, have come to be assumed as necessary to run a school. They are not perceived as organizational fat."[14] Turning around a low-performing school may require that resources long spent on aides, paraprofessionals, and other specialists, be moved to support a school's instructional focus.

The first thing I did when I came to District 13 was to look at student achievement. It was very clear to me that we had to not only raise the ceiling, as they say, but also raise the floor. We had to look at youngsters in all four quartiles and develop a strategy that would allow us to increase achievement across the board. Sometimes that has meant that, as a district office staff, we have been more involved with schools. We look at the personnel needs; at funding -- not only the allocation, but how those funds are being used; and at instructional materials and facilities.

-- Lester W. Young, Community School District 13, New York

Restructuring District Resources

School districts should begin the process by defining instructional goals clearly and analyzing how resources within the district might be better organized to meet them. Spending should be analyzed across areas but four categories in particular might benefit from restructuring:

  • The allocation and assignment of teachers and aides
  • Teacher compensation
  • The organization and provision of student support
  • Spending on general and special program administration
-- Karen Hawley Miles,
"Rethinking the Use of Teaching Resources"

Supporting school change systemwide also should involve streamlining central office administration. Central office staffing and resources must be redesigned and redeployed to support, rather than direct, schools. Districts can help schools build their capacity to change by focusing on learning in their own priorities and better targeting resources toward classrooms and children. For example:

To the extent that state and district leaders can more efficiently use their own resources, and connect those resources with improved student performance, the more public confidence and trust in school districts and schools will rise.

Business models also can help districts identify and use resources effectively. These models can be especially adept at organizing data on the use of education funds according to program, location, and function. Coopers & Lybrand, a major accounting firm, recently developed a financial analysis tool that provides detailed information on where education dollars go, including how many resources reach the school and how they are used for instruction, professional development, administration, and other functions. Districts in Rhode Island, South Carolina, and several other states are using this model to identify and direct resources for school improvement.

Title I Support for Schoolwide Programs

The Department of Education encourages high-poverty schools to use Title I funds to make improvements schoolwide, rather than targeting them only to isolated programs for the lowest performing students. Schoolwide programs allow schools flexibility in coordinating and combining their federal, state, and local funds to support school transformation strategies based on:

  • Effective means of improving student achievement
  • Instructional strategies that increase the amount and quality of learning time, such as extending the school day or year
  • Instruction provided by highly qualified staff
  • High levels of parent involvement

Title I also provides funds for states to establish systems of school support teams, composed of teachers who assist beginning schoolwide programs.

Districts and schools also must examine how they use federal, state and local resources. Federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education can serve as a catalyst for fundamental change and comprehensive reform. The largest of these federal programs is Title I, which offers schools and districts flexibility in how they carry out program components. Districts must take the opportunity to explore the way their funds can be used flexibly and in a coordinated way to support teaching and learning for all students.

The inventory of support at the end of this guide lists other resources that state and local leaders can use to craft school improvement plans. All the programs share the goal of increasing flexibility so that districts and schools can use a variety of strategies to raise student achievement, including helping to establish achievement standards, making schools safe and drug-free learning environments, and involving families and communities in children's learning.

Using Performance Data to Drive Continuous Improvement

Districts can help set the stage for school change by helping schools use data effectively. Measuring progress and setting standards -- and analyzing the information to identify patterns of failure and their causes -- enables districts and schools to diagnose low performance and attack specific problems with concrete solutions. Important sources of data include: student test scores and portfolios of work; comparisons of schoolwide achievement against district, state, and national standards; and surveys of students, teachers, and parents. For example:

Making data-driven decisions for school improvement is critical. The process of matching strategies to school needs is only effective with a detailed understanding of the needs of a particular school and student population. To meet higher expectations and generate local support, schools must document their efforts and refine their strategies as needed. A districtwide emphasis on continuous evaluation helps schools monitor the change process, and assess whether students and schools are achieving goals. Using data to document a school's transformation also helps tell about the challenges and changes made along the way. This process can strengthen morale and give partners a sense of common direction.

Working in Partnership With Parents and Community

Improving relationships between schools and the communities they serve and operate in is a vital part of making any kind of lasting change in the learning environment. As states and districts raise accountability for student achievement, all stakeholders across the community must play a role in turning around low-performing schools. Effective districts maximize community resources by developing partnerships with parents, community-based and religious organizations, businesses, universities, and teachers' unions. Stakeholders help define problems and choose solutions only when they actively participate in the process of change.


Thirty years of research shows that when families and community members are involved in education, students learn more and schools improve. As one Baltimore school principal explains, "Every parent in your building is on your side. That has got to be an accepted premise."

More recent studies show that a school's effort to involve parents is the single most important factor in determining parental involvement.[15] Strategies for family involvement go beyond simply inviting parents to conferences or sending home with students information about what the school is doing. Policy makers need to involve parents integrally in what schools do. They need to include parents when schools set goals and choose improvement strategies. Districts need to encourage schools to make it easier for parents to be informed and to play a part in what goes on in the classroom. New technologies such as school voice mail systems, homework hot lines, and the Internet can serve as vehicles for staying connected with families. Schools also need to accommodate parents who do not understand English. In short, they need to ensure that teachers learn how to work with families.

The old dogma used to be the teachers did their thing and parents did their thing, and the two didn't meet. Well, now it's something that's overtly expressed, that you make a difference in your child's education if you are a part of it. And that is something that we preach over and over...it's the parent and the child and the teacher. It's the three that make the difference.

-- Baltimore parent in a focus group

Community-Based Organizations

Policy makers need to think beyond the usual range of partners to increase the assistance and resources available to help children learn in their communities. Local organizations often prove to be valuable resources to schools. For example:

Community-based organizations can often serve as umbrella groups to engage all community stakeholders in education improvement. For example:

Business Partnerships

Business partners can provide volunteer tutors, internships for students, and specialized expertise that most schools do not have, especially in the areas of professional development and organizational management. Businesses also can reward students directly for achieving high standards and help ensure that what students learn in school prepares them for work. Many businesses participate in small, adopt-a-school type partnerships with schools in their communities. Some corporations have made commitments to improving public education on a larger scale:

Colleges and Universities

Area colleges and universities can play a vital role in helping to improve low-performing schools; they can help create curricula, oversee business management, provide professional development to teachers and administrators, provide student mentors and tutors, and be an integral part of a school reform strategy. For example:

In addition to local efforts, many top universities have developed school improvement programs that have been replicated nationwide. For example:

Teachers' Unions

The entire school community must commit to transformation efforts if schools are to improve student achievement. Teachers' unions can be powerful allies in developing such commitment. Districts need to work in tandem with teachers and unions in selecting improvement goals and strategies.

Teachers' unions, by and large, have not done enough to protest these failures. We do a great job protecting our members from these dysfunctional school systems. But we can and must do more to protect children, who are the real victims.

-- Bob Chase, President of the National
Education Association

Working in partnership, teachers' unions and districts have created districtwide plans to redesign low-performing schools, help dissatisfied teachers leave the system, and train or counsel inadequate teachers out of the profession. In Corpus Christi, Texas, the teachers' union teamed up with the district to design "Real World Academic Standards." The team also created student assessments, provided tutoring, eliminated social promotion, and established discipline codes for the district.[16]

While much of what must change in low-performing schools is the interaction between teachers and students, partnerships remain important. They signal an understanding that education requires a shared commitment that includes stakeholders from outside of the school.

Working in Partnership with Teachers' Unions to Improve Schools

Pressure for accountability and professionalism is forging new partnerships between district administrators and teachers' unions. Public education is only as strong as its weakest school, and teachers' unions increasingly are working with school communities to improve student learning.

As Sandra Feldman, President of the American Federation of Teachers explains, "There is no question that some of our schools are failing. Any school that is not good enough for our own children should be targeted for immediate improvement. We must -- and can -- educate all children by turning around schools that are disorderly and unsafe and where kids are not learning. Close them if necessary; rethink everything about them. And do it fast."

In New York City and Toledo, for example, local teachers' union representatives are active on the review and intervention teams that evaluate schools and mandate corrective actions to improve teaching and learning in low-performing schools. In Minneapolis, the school district and the teachers' union are collaborating to develop effective intervention strategies in low-performing schools. The program, called "Fresh Start" will include strategies to close failing schools and start over.

Stimulating Innovation and Change

When it comes to building leadership and capacity for change, districts can learn from the experiences of high-performance organizations. When these successful organizations are faced with pressures to meet higher standards, they "set clear performance goals at the top; flatten the organizational structure, decentralize power and authority into the hands of work teams; involve employees in making key decisions about how to organize and conduct their work; and hold employees accountable for results."[17]

Districts can help stimulate innovation and change by providing incentives for school performance, and supporting school-based management and decision making. Districts also can implement policies that allow parents to choose the public schools their children will attend, and support the development of public charter schools.

Providing Incentives for High Performance

Districts can stimulate change by providing positive incentives for improved student performance and rewarding school progress. For example:

Public School Choice and Open Enrollment

Eighteen states have open enrollment policies for public school districts, and districts in eleven other states have such programs where there is no statewide policy. Such policies can serve as incentives for improving low-performing schools.[18]

Public School Choice: Samuel Mason Elementary School
Boston, Massachusetts

When Boston implemented public school choice in 1990, Mason Elementary School was the least chosen school in the system. It had an enrollment of only 133 students. The school took on a "consumer" approach -- looking for ways to improve so that parents and children would find it attractive and choose it. The school moved from instruction based on remediation to accelerated learning for all students, developing innovative programs that came from team planning, problem solving based on data, and a process of continuous learning through professional development. By 1996, Mason Elementary School was ranked in the top third of all Boston Public Schools in math and reading, and was nationally recognized as a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

Choice options include more than districtwide open enrollment policies. In an effort to create more personal learning communities for high school students, the "schools within a school" concept offers students in a large school building choices about their educational focus. Career academies operate with a curriculum that integrates academics and occupations, and offer internships in the local community.[19] For instance, the Academy of Finance at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School in Baltimore is a magnet program. In addition to taking finance-related classes, high school students with adequate attendance and achievement records in the Academy intern with employers in the financial service industry.

Charter Schools

Public charter schools are created through performance contracts among local educators, parents, community members, and/or school boards. They are exempted from a variety of state and local regulations in exchange for committing to improving student performance. There are now over 750 public charter schools in the United States that create constructive competition within the public school system. While independence with accountability allows charter schools to be unique learning centers for children, it is what charter schools have in common with other schools that can expand their impact on public schools generally. By maintaining open enrollment policies, operating with the resources available to traditional public schools, remaining accountable to public bodies, and maintaining a non-sectarian and free status, charter schools serve as models for other public schools.

Public Charter Schools: Vaughn Next Century Learning Center
Los Angeles, California

At Vaughn, a large public charter school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, 99 percent of students come from families living below the federal poverty line. Until 1991, the school was one of the worst in Los Angeles, with single-digit test scores, poor school-community relations, overcrowding, health problems, and drug abuse. But under the leadership of a new principal, the staff -- who were tired of feeling they worked "in a throw-away school" -- cleaned up the school, implemented school-based management, reallocated funds to cover support services, applied for numerous grants, trained staff, and reached out to parents. In 1993, Vaughn became the first independent public charter school in its district. The school based its change on three principles: (1) putting children first; (2) unleashing human resources; and (3) dreaming big, planning long-term, and thinking positively. Turn-around strategies included providing comprehensive school-based health services, early intervention counseling, an extended school year, and after-school and weekend programs. Scores on the California Test of Basic Skills improved dramatically.

Charter schools focus on high expectations and high performance, and some target their efforts specifically toward at-risk children. In 1997, Denver opened its first charter school, the Pioneer Charter School, which gives priority to students from economically disadvantaged communities and serves as an incubator for practices that support high achievement for urban students. The school features a personalized instruction plan for each student, a year-round calendar, an extended-day schedule, and access to health care, education, and social services for students and their families. It operates as a joint effort of the school district and the University of Denver.

These districtwide strategies can provide an impetus for school improvement by introducing flexibility, choice, and incentives into the public school system. While these system-level changes can help turn around some schools, more direct intervention in persistently low-performing schools may be necessary.

11 Council of Great City Schools, 1997. [Return to text]

12 Lee, 1996. [Return to text]

13 Lee, 1996. [Return to text]

14 Odden, 1997. [Return to text]

15 Dauber and Epstein, 1991. [Return to text]

16 Ritter, 1997. [Return to text]

17 Odden, 1997. [Return to text]

18 ERIC Clearinghouse, 1997. [Return to text]

19 Kemple, 1997. [Return to text]


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