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SCHOOL TURNAROUND: New Research Shows Most States Lack the Capacity to Improve Low-Performing Schools

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The researchers found that while more than 80 percent of states prioritized efforts to turn around low-performing schools, at least 50 percent of states found it difficult to accomplish the reform.

Although the majority of states have prioritized school turnaround efforts, most states still lack the capacity to transform their lowest-achieving schools, according to research from the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), a division of the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education.

NCEE is conducting a large-scale evaluation of the implementation and impacts of the Race to the Top (RTT) and School Improvement Grant (SIG) programs. The study focuses on the results of grants awarded through the general state RTT competition and grants awarded to the first cohort of SIG schools, which began implementing reforms during School Year (SY) 2010–11. In its most recent report, NCEE examines the capacity of states to support school improvement efforts, an area that both SIG and RTT target. The report defines capacity to include funding, technology, staff and staff expertise, and the ability to identify and leverage expertise.

For the report, State Capacity to Support School Turnaround, researchers interviewed state-level administrators in forty-nine states and the District of Columbia in spring 2012 and spring 2013 about the education policies and practices in place in their states to support school turnaround. (Texas did not participate in the 2012 interview; therefore, the researchers excluded it from the analysis.)

The researchers found that while more than 80 percent of states prioritized efforts to turn around low-performing schools, at least 50 percent of states found it difficult to accomplish the reform. “Several scenarios may explain why most states found turnaround so difficult,” according to the report. “Because research on effective strategies for sustaining turnaround in low-performing schools is limited, states may be uncertain how to pursue this goal. Moreover, turning around a school with a history of low performance is complex and challenging.”

Furthermore, the majority of states believe they simply lack the expertise necessary to turn around low-performing schools successfully. The NCEE researchers asked respondents about their state’s expertise in two categories: expertise to support school turnaround broadly and expertise in eight specific areas related to turnaround strategies emphasized in the SIG program. In 2012, thirty-eight states (76 percent) reported significant gaps in expertise, either for supporting school turnaround broadly or in at least one area related to SIG, according to the NCEE report. That number increased to forty states (80 percent) in 2013.

“[T]he three areas in which states most commonly reported significant gaps in SIG expertise were all related to teacher staffing, evaluation, and compensation policies,” the report states. In 2013, twenty-five states reported a significant gap in their expertise in “recruiting and retaining effective staff in low-performing schools,” up from seventeen states the previous year. Meanwhile, in both 2012 and 2013, twenty-one states reported significant gaps in their expertise in “developing and implementing teacher evaluation models based on student growth and/or ‘turnaround competencies,’” according to the report.

Fortunately, states are taking steps to enhance their capacity to improve low-performing schools. In the NCEE study, most states worked with intermediaries, such as institutions of higher education, regional and county offices, federally supported centers or labs, distinguished educators contracted to support the implementation of reform policies, and other external organizations to support their school turnaround efforts. In 2012, forty-seven states (94 percent) worked with outside organizations and experts, while in 2013, forty-four states (88 percent) did so. This finding is not surprising since most states already have relationships with external partners to support schools identified for improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act, the report notes.

More importantly, though, states are creating their own organizational and administrative structures to support school turnaround. Forty-six states reported having some form of state-level structure in place by SY 2012–13 to support school improvement, compared to just twenty-five states that reported having such structures in SY 2007–08. The most common structures states reported were establishing monitoring and reporting requirements for schools funded by SIG and RTT (forty-six states), having contracts with external consultants (thirty-four states), and creating state-level school turnaround offices (thirty-two states). This increase in state structures could reflect effects from RTT and SIG, since both programs include provisions aimed at improving state capacity, according to the report. But the researchers also note that the data in the NCEE report does not confirm this, or any other possible explanation for the results, and they offer this explanation simply as a possibility and point for future examination.

State Capacity to Support School Turnaround is available at http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20154012/.

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