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Commentary: Turnaround lessons from a pilot program

Robert Reichardt, the former director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at CU-Denver’s School of Public Affairs, is president of R-Squared Research, LLC, a local research firm.

This week, the Denver Post ran a three-part series on the federal school improvement grants (SIG) being used to turnaround some of Colorado’s lowest-performing schools. This article highlights many of the challenges faced in implementing these turnaround efforts, but offers little guidance to practitioners and policymakers on how to do this work well.

There are lessons to be learned from prior efforts at the Colorado Department of Education and in districts. I was part of a team of researchers from the School of Public Affairs and Augenblick, Palaich and Associates that evaluated the Pilot Closing the Achievement Gap (CTAG) grants program ran by CDE (our report can be found here). This program can be seen as precursor to current SIG efforts and provides valuable insights for practitioners.

The CTAG pilot awarded grants to six small- to medium-sized districts to close persistent achievement gaps in their schools. These districts were identified because of their large and persistent achievement gaps AND because of their perceived capacity to implement reforms. The report has 17 recommendations, but I want to highlight a few key themes.

  1. This is all about human capital. It takes capable people at all levels of the education system to do this work well. Every organization in the CTAG work, CDE, consulting firms, districts, and schools ALL struggled to get and keep the people they needed to do this work well. Leaders in every organization engaged in these efforts must focus on recruiting and retaining talent as a their first strategy.
  2. Professional services contract management is a new and very important skill for districts and the state to master. The model of bringing in outside consultants for long-term engagements helping to reforming schools is a promising model, but to be successful schools, districts and the state must develop new skills in contract management.

Schools that are struggling are doing so despite the best efforts of those working in the schools. Outside consultants bring valuable new knowledge and skills to the mix. And outside experts provide political cover for leaders as they implement challenging reforms. A longtime member of a community (e.g. principal, superintendent or board member) may not be able to push for a radical overhaul on her own, but an outside expert can take the heat for the hard decisions.

However, the relationship should be managed carefully. Needs change throughout the reform process, meaning a consultant who was very valuable in the first year of reform may not have the skills needed in the second year of reform. The contractual relationship between schools and consultants needs to be flexible. A couple of ground-rules should be in place:

  • Everyone should know how much money is on the table for the contractual relationship AND what is being purchased for the money being spent.
  • Everyone should understand how success is being defined for the contractual relationship:
  • What are the performance goals for each year,
  • Who is ultimately responsible for meeting those goals, and
  • Who has the authority to make the changes to school staffing and operations that are necessary to have a good chance of reaching those goals?
  • The process for changing the contract with consultants should be clear. That means everyone understands:
  • Who has the authority to change (or terminate) the contract,
  • How the change process works, and
  • There is a regular schedule (every three to six months) for reviewing/revising the scope of work.
  • The constraints and time limits imposed by federal (or state) rules on the use of turnaround money must be clear. The complexity of federal regulations and the one-time nature of funds work can against the success of these projects. So leadership needs to understand these constraints and have clear strategies to respond with local, more flexible funds, when necessary.

3. Communication is key. School turnaround is about getting all the people in a school to try many new things. Leadership must constantly remind people how their daily efforts at improvement are connected to larger changes, and how the larger change effort is evolving as people learn what is working and what is not.

There are also a lot of things we don’t understand well. First and foremost is the roadmap for turning around schools. Schools are made up of complex teams, each with different strengths and needs. Leaders need help prioritizing and focusing reform efforts. If someone tells you they are doing it all at once…find another turnaround model.

Understanding this roadmap comes from experience. Colorado’s education community needs to grow this professional knowledge through forums and networks for sharing knowledge. Equally important, researchers and evaluators need to examine these efforts to capture lessons learned.

Finally, we need to define success and set realistic expectations. Many turnaround efforts are going to suffer from implementation dips in CSAP scores. These schools are not going to quickly become high performers. Equally important, the hard work is not just turning around school, but maintaining good performance over the long run (e.g. see Bessemer).

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