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

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