What Are States Doing to Bring Up All Their Schools?

Turning around our nation’s low-performing schools became a national priority—and central focus of education policy at all levels—in 2001 with No Child Left Behind. Then Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants redoubled the nation’s emphasis on school turnaround, giving states more resources to advance improvement efforts within federal requirements.

Some schools improved under the targeted turnaround initiatives. Yet, despite more than 14 years in the educational spotlight and billions of federal dollars, successful, sustainable school turnaround on a large scale remains out of reach.

The recent bills passed by the House and Senate to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act calls on states to make decisions on the best ways to support and sustain local efforts to improve low-performing schools. Are states ready for the challenge? Is school turnaround a priority for them? And, if it is, how are states building the capacity needed to do the job?

A brief released May 5 by the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences hazards some insights for those grappling with these questions. State Capacity to Support School Turnaround, a collaboration between AIR and Mathematica Policy Research, reports that more than 80 percent of states said turning around low-performing schools was a high priority in both the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years. At the same time, at least half of states reported that school turnaround ranked among their most difficult priorities to achieve. Most states (more than 85 percent) were building their capacity for school turnaround by working with intermediaries or by establishing new state administrative or organizational structures or by doing both.  

Intermediaries. Many states turned to federally supported education centers or labs, such as comprehensive centers, regional education laboratories, equity assistance centers, or content centers. These centers and labs, funded through the U.S. Department of Education, provide free services to increase states’ capacity to help districts and schools meet student achievement goals.

States also are working with colleges and universities to build capacity.

Administrative and Organizational Structures. To provide coherent comprehensive supports to struggling districts and schools, many states have worked to improve communication and coordination within state agencies. In spring 2013, more than 90 percent of states reported having at least one of six structures in place within state education agencies (many states have more than one structure):

  • 92% of states reported having monitoring or reporting requirements for schools that received SIG and/or RTT funds
  • 68% of states reported having contracts with external consultants
  • 64%  of states reported having designated state-level school turnaround offices
  • 42%  of states reported having state education staff designated to support school turnaround, but no state-level school turnaround office
  • 28%  of states reported having regional office staff designated to support school turnaround, but no regional school turnaround offices
  • 20%  of states reported having designated regional school turnaround offices

As Congress attempts to reauthorize an ESEA that is likely to put more responsibility on states for school turnaround, determining which combination of strategies works in which states is becoming urgent.

Are colleges and universities the key? Or federally funded centers and labs? When does hiring consultants make the most sense? What value comes from special state offices for school turnaround? How can states get the most out of their monitoring and reporting data? Answers to these questions, reached through evidence-based research, can arm states with the capacity they need to drive the school reform they seek.

Courtney Tanenbaum is a senior researcher at AIR specializing in education policy and STEM education. Cheryl Graczewski is an AIR senior researcher specializing in program and policy evaluation and school improvement.