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“DRAMATIC ACTION, DRAMATIC IMPROVEMENT”: New Center for American Progress Brief Identifies Key Elements to Successful School Turnaround

Research shows that school turnaround is possible when there is a combination of dramatic action and targeted resources.

Turning around low-performing schools is possible when school districts take aggressive steps to do so, according to a new issue brief from the Center for American Progress (CAP). The brief, “Dramatic Action, Dramatic Improvement: The Research on School Turnaround,” identifies five key elements to successful school turnaround and highlights four schools that have done so.

“The reality today is that hundreds of schools are chronically underperforming by virtually any standard and are in dire need of significant intervention,” said Tiffany D. Miller, director for education policy at CAP. “The good news is that the research shows that school turnaround is possible when there is a combination of dramatic action and targeted resources.”

The brief notes that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) required states and districts to identify and intervene in persistently low-performing schools but provided “very limited” resources to help those schools improve. As a result, failing schools were appropriately identified but rarely targeted for turnaround. To fill this void, the federal government launched the School Improvement Grants (SIG) program, which has awarded more than $4 billion to turn around more than 1,200 schools nationwide over the last five years.

“Dramatic Action, Dramatic Improvement” spotlights four schools—Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore; Leslie County High School in Kentucky; Emerson Elementary School in Kansas City; and Rose Ferrero Elementary School in California—that used funding from the SIG program to turn themselves around.

At Douglass High, where less than 25 percent of students received a diploma, a new principal was hired and more than half of the school’s staff was replaced, the brief notes. The school recruited new teachers who were committed to creating a college-going culture and prioritized staff development. It increased planning times for teachers and learning time for students and created a dual-enrollment program through Baltimore City Community College that allowed high school students to earn college credit.

“As a result, something dramatic happened between the 2010–11 and 2011–12 school years,” the brief notes. “Proficiency rates in English language arts rose from 41 percent in 2011 to 53 percent in 2012. Math proficiency rates also increased from 32 percent to 44 percent. And Douglass High’s less than 25 percent graduation rate is history: In 2014, the graduation rate was 57 percent. While the school still has room for improvement, this kind of momentous increase in student achievement is almost unheard of.”

Based on research studies from MDRC, the Council of Great City Schools, the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, Harvard University, and others, the brief identifies five critical elements of successful school turnaround:

  • aggressive action on the part of school districts;
  • requirements to turn around low-performing schools that are paired with targeted funding to do so;
  • governance and staffing changes, including replacing ineffective school leaders;
  • data-driven decision making to improve student achievement; and
  • a focus on school culture and nonacademic supports for disadvantaged students.

“Making greater strides in academic achievement will require more rigorous research into best practices, dedicated funding for school improvement, and a strong commitment to make the tough choices that are best for students,” the brief notes. “Federal policy should prioritize strong requirements and targeted support that not only identifies chronically failing schools, but also empowers states and districts to take meaningful action to turn those schools around.”

“Dramatic Action, Dramatic Improvement: The Research on School Turnaround” is available at

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