School Turnarounds: Time to Try, Try Again?

By 05/13/2011

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With unprecedented federal investment in failing schools through the multi-billion-dollar School Improvement Grant program, it’s been a big year for school turnaround efforts.

But let’s be honest: while turnaround efforts in some schools show promise, other attempts are falling short. That’s normal – as in other sectors, where turnarounds and start-ups are successful only 25-30% of the time, we would expect low success rates the first time. How should leaders of state or district turnaround efforts respond? In Try Try Again, Public Impact makes the case for “rapid retry” – attempting new major change now rather than letting failing turnaround efforts drag on for years. Even if most individual turnaround attempts fail, you can achieve a cumulative success rate of 70 or 80% by retrying rapidly: bringing a new, more capable leader; closing the school and starting fresh with a new operator; or closing the school altogether and dispersing the students to other, better schools.

In partnership with the University of Virginia’s Turnaround Leadership Specialist Program, Public Impact recently released two new reports to help with rapid retry and increasing the success rates of turnarounds.

The first, Leading Indicators of School Turnarounds: How to Know When Dramatic Change Is On Track, explains how leaders can use data to see the need for retry in the first one or two years – and then take action. It contains a set of research-based indicators organizations can use now to start making these tough but vital decisions.

When turnaround efforts are not on track, they either need new or dramatically improved leadership. Either way, our second report can help: Using Competencies to Improve School Turnaround Principal Success. This report discusses how the well-honed science of assessing individuals’ “competencies” – their underlying patterns of thought and action – can help organizations make much better decisions when selecting turnaround leaders, and become much smarter about developing the competencies of leaders on the job. It’s part of a series that includes tools to choose and develop these leaders.

Experience in other sectors, not to mention education, makes clear that most attempts to fix failing schools by any method won’t be successful. We can throw up our hands and accept the nearly 100% chance that these schools will continue to miss the mark. Our, we can commit to rapid retry of dramatic change efforts and get much higher marks over time.

–Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel

Comment on this article
  • Bruce William Smith says:

    I have every reason to believe that this is well-intended advice from a smart person. Nonetheless, based on my experience with the turnaround at Locke High School, I have two concerns: (1) the people in the community surrounding a school are not a ball to be played with: they have feelings and commitments, dislike being the repeated targets of social experimentation, and will feel deeply insulted by having outsiders study spreadsheets and decide the fate of their children’s school without consulting them; and (2) really significant change, far beyond of merely changing the principal (we had five principals in my first four years at Locke), takes considerable preparation if it is to be done right, and I don’t think this rapid-fire proposal acknowledges that.

  • Bryan C. Hassel says:

    We actually think both of Bruce’s concerns are right on the money. Sudden “rapid retry” without community engagement and planning for what’s next is far from optimal. Ideally, districts should lay the groundwork for rapid retry throughout the school year. For community engagement, this means transforming parents and community members from a passive audience into a driving force for dramatic improvement. Our colleagues at Public Impact have been researching how to do this well for the past year, and we’re releasing our report on the topic in the next few days at

    One vital piece of the process is gathering the sort of leading indicators we describe in our original post – and communicating those indicators actively to stakeholders. If a turnaround is on-track, timely reports of “early wins” will build the momentum needed to keep at it. If it’s off-track, sharing data will help prepare parents and community members for the possibility of rapid retry, rather than springing it on them in May. Any change must be first and always about the children and families affected, and communicating it in any other way takes school and district leaders’ eyes off the goal: to improve these children’s learning and life trajectories dramatically. In turnarounds, it’s critical to be deeply committed to measuring and acting on results, while being open and gracious with the people involved. Even successful turnarounds will have rough patches.

    As for preparing for what’s next, Bruce is right – the nation’s experience with deciding in June to make major changes come August has been abysmal. The ideal is for districts to create a “replacement pipeline” – leaders, teams of teachers, and school operators who are preparing to run failing schools for months in advance.

    Since most districts haven’t been communicating leading indicators or priming replacement pipelines, they face a dilemma now. But even under these sub-optimal conditions, rapid retry is better than the alternative – in cases where that alternative is a near 100% chance of continued failure for the students attending a school.

    – Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel

  • […] Next is unsurprisingly critical of turnaround efforts, but includes various statistics that are important for educators to interact with as well as some […]

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