Politicians, policymakers and educators are increasingly concerned that the nation’s
lowest performing schools are leaving a significant proportion of disadvantaged students
without the skills necessary to lead healthy and productive lives. Therefore, some
policymakers and education reformers have placed a high priority on school turnaround
efforts aimed to increase student achievement in the nation’s chronically lowest performing
schools. School turnaround efforts are those actions taken at state, district, and
school levels aimed to improve student performance in the group of lowest performing
While states have the authority to take steps to improve low-performing schools,
there is variation in the scope and effectiveness of state-led school turnaround efforts.
With programs like Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants, the federal government
has attempted to help states improve their lowest performing schools by providing
additional funding, requirements, and guidelines. However, some federal policymakers
are concerned that some states and local education agencies still do not have the
funding and expertise to effectively implement these policies.
The policy question for this master’s project is: Should the federal government be
involved in school turnaround efforts, and if so, what should be that involvement?
North Carolina as a Case Study
This report focuses on North Carolina as a case study. This case study contains four
elements. First, I describe North Carolina’s state-led school turnaround efforts prior
to 2010. Next, I detail North Carolina’s efforts after receiving a competitive federal
Race to the Top grant in 2010, which included federal funding and requirements to
expand the state’s school turnaround efforts. This section also describes state efforts
to support schools receiving federal School Improvement Grants, as well as North Carolina’s
approach to improving low-performing schools under the Elementary and Secondary Education
Act (ESEA) waiver. Third, I look at reports evaluating North Carolina’s turnaround
efforts. These reports contain an analysis of performance composite and graduation
rates of state-supported “turnaround schools” compared to similar schools not receiving
support. Lastly, I interviewed people involved in turnaround efforts at the state,
district, and school levels.
North Carolina’s School Turnaround Efforts
North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) has been providing support
to underperforming schools in the state since 1997. Between 1997 and 2006, the State
Board of Education assigned assistance teams to improve achievement in low-performing
schools, identified by state statute. Beginning in 2006, the state changed its approach.
Instead of providing assistance teams, NCDPI provided leadership and instructional
coaching for administrators and teachers in low-performing schools. During this time,
NCDPI’s efforts were conducted with very little federal funding or oversight. Federal
involvement in school turnaround efforts increased when North Carolina received a
federal Race to the Top Grant in 2010. North Carolina’s school turnaround efforts
under Race to the Top are substantially similar those efforts prior to receiving Race
to the Top funding. The additional funding has mostly been used to expand NCDPI coaching
staff to support turnaround efforts and increase the number of supported schools and
Achievement data analyzed by researchers studying North Carolina’s state-led school
turnaround efforts indicates that NCDPI support to “turnaround schools” prior to receiving
Race to the Top funding significantly and positively contributed to achievement gains,
particularly in high schools. Those performance gains were sustained even after NCDPI
ended coaching support to those schools. Furthermore, interviews I conducted with
state, district, and school administrators provide information about state and local
capacity to implement school turnaround efforts, insights into the relative payoffs
of NCDPI’s needs assessment and coaching support, the influence of federal requirements
through Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants (SIGs) on NCDPI’s efforts on
the ground, as well as sustainability challenges for Race to the Top and SIG funding.
State, district, and school capacity
According to these interviews, the three major things that have allowed NCDPI to
engage in its relatively extensive school turnaround efforts are pressure from North
Carolina Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, partnerships with consulting organizations,
and allocation of agency funding for school turnaround positions. While North Carolina’s
efforts have had significant scope, DPI would like to provide support to more underperforming
schools. They are however constrained by funding for positions and the special talent
needed for turnaround coaching. State, district, and school administrators are concerned
that low-performing schools and districts have difficulty attracting and retaining
high quality educators. Moreover, those teachers that replace underperforming staff
are likely to be less experienced, and therefore require more support.
NCDPI’s efforts under Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants (SIG)
Federal requirements under Race to the Top have not substantially changed school
turnaround priorities on the ground. However, people involved in school turnaround
efforts in North Carolina think that federal funding and requirements have provided
some benefits, most notably pressure for districts to make tough changes to improve
performance. The funding has also allowed NCDPI to hire more staff to support low-performing
schools and districts. District and school administrators said that using data and
professional learning communities are the most beneficial things they have done as
a result of their SIG grant. However, state officials argue that the model requirements
should be more flexible. They also do not think federal funds should go to underperforming
schools without requiring teacher and administrator capacity development and district
Race to the Top and SIG sustainability
State officials and others involved in school turnaround efforts at the state level
recognize that after Race to the Top funding ends, NCDPI will likely need to scale
back its staff, and therefore its support to schools and districts. The biggest sustainability
challenge for SIG recipients is how to keep specialist positions paid for with grant
money after their grant ends. For most of the positions, the schools will rely on
their school board to provide extra funding, which is not guaranteed.
Recommendations for Federal Involvement in School Turnaround Efforts
1. Continue to place a high priority on school turnaround efforts.
Federal focus on school turnaround efforts through Race to the Top and School Improvement
Grants has been viewed positively overall in North Carolina. In particular, it has
helped states and districts to place a high priority on efforts to improve performance
in the most underperforming schools. Therefore, school turnaround efforts are a valuable
part of the federal government’s education agenda.
2. Help state education agencies plan for school turnaround efforts.
According to the literature, many states have limited staff and funding to support
low-performing schools. Moreover, NCDPI benefited from evaluating how they could use
funding they already had for school turnaround positions, as well as developing expertise
and staff recruitment capabilities over time by working with outside consultants.
Therefore, federal assistance to help state education agencies reallocate funding
for school turnaround positions, assess school and district needs, plan for turnaround
efforts—including coaching staff recruitment and matching with schools—could be valuable.
Currently this type of assistance is not being provided. However, the U.S. Department
of Education should have the staff and expertise to be able to help guide state education
agencies and provide support in these ways.
3. Provide information on best practices for model elements to state education agencies
through an easy to access online database.
Those involved in school turnaround efforts at the state level in North Carolina
said it would be helpful to have access to a one-stop-shop of best practices regarding
the model requirements. An online resource of best practices could include not only
successful cases from the literature, but also a mechanism for states to share information
about their efforts and lessons learned. Currently, no such easy to access method
of sharing this information exists.
4. Fund more research on school turnaround efforts.
Sophisticated studies evaluating the impact of the turnaround model elements are
limited. More research is needed to verify whether the model requirements actually
cause improvements in student achievement, as well as how implementation designs may
affect improvement. It is in the federal government’s best interest for reliable research
about these elements to exist, if funding is going to be allocated for turnaround
5. Make model elements more flexible. Relax requirements that schools meet all model
requirements and allow schools to pick requirements according to their needs.
The rigidity of the federal model requirements received mixed reviews. It is clear
that the professional learning communities and data use requirements are seen as being
valuable at the state, district, and school levels. Because not all the model requirements
are seen as being equally valuable, it could be beneficial for administrators to be
able to select from a menu of requirements, allowing them to tailor to the specific
needs of their school or district.
6. Require leadership and instructional capacity development for teachers and administrators
as part of funding provided to “turnaround schools.”
Instructional and leadership coaching support from NCDPI to low-performing schools
and districts has been a key part of North Carolina’s school turnaround efforts. At
the state level, policymakers view this support as key to long-term sustainability
of achievement gains. Moreover, NCDPI needs assessment and coaching support is viewed
positively at the state, district, and school levels. Currently, the School Improvement
Grant does not require capacity development for recipient schools and districts.
7. Provide long-term federal funding for:
a. Salaries to attract and retain educators in low-performing schools.
b. Leadership academies to train leaders for “turnaround schools.”
c. Teacher professional development.
d. State agencies to hire school turnaround support staff.
e. Housing and transportation for teachers to work in rural low-performing areas of
Short-term federal funding for school turnaround efforts, such as that which is provided
through Race to the Top and the School Improvement Grants (SIGs), makes it difficult
for states, schools, and districts to sustain those investments—like additional staff
positions or technology—aimed to improve student achievement. It is likely that recipient
schools will need support beyond the grant term. Currently, there is no established
federal funding stream beyond Race to the Top and SIG short-term grants to support
school turnaround efforts. More sustained, stable federal funding for turnaround efforts
at the state level would likely be beneficial. The biggest capacity challenge for
underperforming schools is attracting, retaining, and developing high quality teachers
and administrators. Higher salaries, leadership academies, and housing and transportation
for teachers in rural areas would likely help address some of these constraints. Funding
for staff positions at the state level would likely also allow state education agencies
to support more low-performing schools.