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New Study Finds Current School Turnaround Policies are “More Likely to Cause Upheaval Than to Help”

Evidence shows that collaboration among parents, teachers
and administrators, combined with financial investment,
can improve the public schooling crisis in disadvantaged communities

Contact: Jamie Horwitz

URL for this press release:

BOULDER, CO (October 1, 2012) -- A new report, “Democratic School Turnarounds: Pursuing Equity and Learning from Evidence,” by Tina Trujillo at the University of California, Berkeley and Michelle Renée of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, suggests that government agencies and policy-makers, including the U.S. Department of Education, would be wise to look at educational research as they guide school turnarounds. Evidence shows that top-down, punitive efforts that are currently in vogue are ineffective and counterproductive. A collaborative, community-driven approach combined with significant, sustained financial investment and a focus on teaching and learning has been proven to be the better path to school improvement.

“We appreciate the Obama Administration’s efforts to try to improve troubledpublic schools,” Trujillo stated. “But good intentions are not enough. We need to move past old reform strategies that research shows destabilize public schools and instead increase our investment in these schools and in the people.”

In 2009, the administration announced its intention to turn around 5,000 of the nation’s lowest-performing schools over five years. It created the federal School Improvement Grant program (SIG) to temporarily channel increased federal dollars into states and struggling schools.

In exchange for up to $2 million per year for up to three years, the federal program mandates that SIG-funded schools implement one of four reforms: turnaround, transformation, restart or closure. The report explains how these four approaches are really “old wine in new bottles” because they promote change strategies that research shows do not work and that actually recreate the conditions that cause school failure.

The report explains that the four SIG approaches are largely grounded in the firing and replacement of school staff – a process also known as churn.  Because the nation’s lowest-performing schools are also the hardest to staff, these approaches have an inherent logistical problem: finding the better-qualified personnel to refill vacant slots in turnaround schools. In New York, for example, under the new turnaround policy some districts found themselves swapping principals from one low-performing school to another. In Louisville, over 40 percent of the teachers hired to work in turnaround schools were completely new to teaching. And in another region, hiring difficulties forced many schools to begin the school year with high numbers of substitutes.

“Low-performing schools are placed in a terrible situation,” Renée explains. “In order to get the needed federal resources in the middle of this fiscal crisis, they must implement strategies that are more likely to cause upheaval than to help. When a school is in crisis, it is damaging to remove the people who are committed to helping children learn.”

Renée further explains that because of this and other problems, “the current approaches to school turnaround are almost always ineffective, weakening school systems, causing staff upheaval, crushing morale, and leaving the schools with poor student performance.”

The new report also points out what is missing. While many experts consider community engagement critical for turnarounds to succeed, federal and state policymakers have rarely involved the public in the turnaround decision-making process.

“It is extremely important to engage those most impacted by turnaround: families, community members and teachers in targeted schools, usually in racially and socio-economically segregated areas,” said Renée.  “These groups are our biggest assets in improving education.  They can help plan and implement turnaround strategies that are tailored to each school and community and they have roots in the community to ensure a reform lasts overtime.”

Recent research links community organizing with more effective teacher recruitment and retention, improved curricula, increased equity in school funding systems, and higher student performance.

“Though these kinds of initiatives are relatively new, they offer examples of the ways in which communities might play leading roles in designing, planning and implementing more equitable, democratic turnarounds under the current federal policy structure,” Trujillo explained.

Trujillo and Renée conclude with a series of recommendations for federal and state policymakers. First among the recommendations is increasing current federal and state spending for public education, particularly as it is allocated for turnaround-style reforms.“Real change requires real investment in teaching and learning,” Trujillo states. “Though closing a school and firing teachers make great headlines, the real work of educating our students is about providing all young people with engaging and supported learning environments, high-quality teachers and rich opportunities to learn and succeed.”


A companion document, released along with the policy brief, takes the brief’s recommendations and offers legislative language that would translate those recommendations into law. This legislative brief is written by Tara Kini, a senior staff attorney at Public Advocates, a California-based nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination by strengthening community voices in public policy.

The policy brief and the legislative brief were both produced by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado Boulder, with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice ( In addition, the Ford Foundation provided funding for the policy brief.

Both the policy brief and the legislative brief can be found on the NEPC website here:


About the Authors

Tina Trujillo is an Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education.She studies the politics of urban district reforms, the unintended consequences of policies and reforms for students of color and English Learners, and trends in urban educational leadership. She is a former urban public school teacher, school reform coach, and educational evaluator. She holds a Ph.D. in education from UCLA.

Michelle Renée of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University studies community organizing and works to make research relevant and available to community organizers, to support the development and implementation of equitable education policies. She is a core staff member of the new Center for Education Organizing, and is co-leader of a Ford Foundation project designed to document the implementation and results of the Foundation’s More and Better Learning Time (MBLT) initiative. She is a former legislative assistant in the United States Congress, and she holds a Ph.D. in education from UCLA.

The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University is a national policy research and reform-support organization that works with urban districts and communities to improve the conditions and outcomes of schools, especially in urban communities and in those attended by traditionally underserved children. Its work focuses on three crucial issues in education reform today: school transformation, college and career readiness, and expanded learning time.

The National Education Policy Center produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information on NEPC, please visit For more information of the Ford Foundation-funded project, called the Initiative on Diversity, Equity, and Learning (IDEAL), please visit