Beyond the School: Exploring a Systemic Approach to School Turnaround

Joel Knudson, Larisa Shambaugh, and Jennifer O'Day

Educators have long grappled with the challenge presented by chronically underperforming schools. Environments that consistently fail to prepare students for higher levels of education threaten opportunities for high school graduation, postsecondary education, and career success. The U.S. Department of Education reinforced the urgency of reversing sustained poor performance in early 2009 when it identified intensive supports and effective interventions in our lowest-achieving schools as one of its four pillars of education reform. However, federal and state policies have often situated the cause—and thus the remedies—for persistent low performance at the school level.

This brief uses the experience of eight California school districts—all members of the California Collaborative on District Reform—to suggest a more systemic approach to school turnaround. We explore the district perspective on school turnaround by describing several broad themes that emerged across the eight districts in the California Collaborative on District Reform. We also profile three of these districts to illustrate specific strategies that can create a coherent district-wide approach to turnaround. Building on these district perspectives, we explore considerations for turnaround efforts in the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).