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Viewpoints and Findings from the REL Mid-Atlantic

Successful Strategies for Improving Low-Performing Schools: A Look at Turnaround Leadership
By Natalie Lacireno-Paquet and Emily Rosen

Successful Strategies for Improving Low-Performing Schools: A Look at Turnaround Leadership

Too many students are not adequately prepared for college, careers, and a productive future, which can lead to a lifetime of economic insecurity. To promote better outcomes for students, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to identify struggling schools and then develop and implement evidence-based approaches to improve them.

Around the country and in the mid-Atlantic region, states are using a number of metrics to identify their lowest-performing schools, and state education departments are also developing or redesigning the supports they give their lowest performing schools. REL Mid-Atlantic’s school support and improvement alliance partners with state leaders in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland to support their efforts to assist struggling schools.

Effective leadership for school turnaround has emerged as a critical area for the school support and improvement alliance. Research consistently shows that principals play a significant role in school improvement, and one summary of existing turnaround research notes that researchers had not yet found “a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership.” Although existing research tells us that no single cure-all to facilitate school turnaround exists, it is clear that effective school leadership is a necessary component of any successful turnaround effort. Effective school turnaround efforts center on a strong leader who builds and maintains momentum for rapid school improvement.

Policymakers in mid-Atlantic states have been eager to learn how principals can lead effective school turnarounds. Research has identified some specific strategies toward this goal. At a recent meeting of our school support and improvement alliance, Lenay Dunn and Carlas McCauley of the Center on School Turnaround shared the research behind the turnaround leadership domain of the Four Domains for Rapid School Improvement, a framework intended to help stakeholders with school improvement efforts. The group discussed what turnaround leadership and competencies look like in practice as well as real-life examples that Dunn and McCauley have observed. Although it’s common for turnaround schools to have kitchen-sink approaches, with comprehensive plans that address every aspect of the school, research suggests that turnaround leaders are more successful with a clear vision and no more than three to five goals or priorities. Leaders must ensure that the staff is committed to overcoming obstacles and advancing the school’s turnaround goals, they have to be able to strategically hire and remove staff to ensure commitment to their vision and goals. It is critical that leaders address academic barriers to learning, such as lack of good curricular materials, and nonacademic barriers to learning, such as hunger or homelessness, by connecting students and families to community organizations. Finally, it is necessary for leaders to create a safe and trusting environment—for example, by soliciting and acting upon feedback.  

But school leaders can’t do all this work alone. A follow-up workshop put together in collaboration with the Maryland State Department of Education focused on how to put these strategies into practice using a distributed approach to leadership in the school building that empowers teachers and other staff to be leaders. Attendees, who are leaders of low-performing schools identified for comprehensive or targeted support under the Every Student Succeeds Act, learned how to structure teams across the school to support and implement turnaround goals and priorities. They also heard from a middle school principal who succeeded in turning around his school by implementing distributed leadership. You can watch a video archive of this workshop here.

Improving low-performing schools is central to ensuring every student has an opportunity to achieve a great education. REL Mid-Atlantic partners with states and districts to provide research and evidence-based practices to help turnaround leaders around the region achieve success. As Tiara Booker-Dwyer, the executive director of the Office of Leadership Development and School Improvement at the Maryland State Department of Education, says, “Collaborating with REL [Mid-Atlantic] on school improvement initiatives has been essential for ensuring that our school leaders are using research-based practices to improve school performance.”