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What We Stand For: Turnarounds

Turning around low performing schools

A White Paper by Sara Mead for Stand for Children Leadership Center

Chronically low-performing schools—those that fail, over many years, to educate the majority of their students—are one of the most vexing problems facing public education in the United States today. Nationally, 843 schools, serving more than 594,000 students, have been identified as “persistently lowest achieving” schools—the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools that are chronically underperforming. Some 6,000 schools have been identified for “restructuring” under the No Child Left Behind Act—meaning they failed to meet achievement targets for at least the past six years. Researchers have identified some 1,750 American high schools as “drop-out factories,” where graduating classes are 40 percent smaller than when the students entered as freshmen. By whatever criteria they are defined, there are too many chronically low-performing schools in the United States, and they disproportionately serve black, Latino, and low-income students—perpetuating the achievement gap.

Decades of efforts to improve low-performing schools have produced relatively limited success. All too often, the changes undertaken are incremental or address only a few aspects of a school’s operation, and as such are insufficient to match the magnitude of challenges facing high-poverty schools mired in years of chronic dysfunction. More recently, research and policy have focused on school turnaround—efforts to fundamentally change the culture and practices of low-performing schools in order to dramatically improve achievement in a relatively short period of time. While this concept is relatively new to education, it borrows from considerable experience in other sectors. Research and experience indicate that no single proven solution is best when it comes to turning around chronically underperforming schools—no strategy is effective all the time, and in some cases school closure may be the best option. At the same time, research and experience have begun to shed light on some of the conditions and strategies that maximize the chances of success. And a handful of operators are beginning to develop a track record of success in turning around low-performing schools. This paper reviews the history and key lessons of past efforts to turn around chronically low-performing schools, summarizes what we know about effective turnaround strategies, and outlines some implications for policy and practice. It also discusses the need for and research on effective strategies for supporting children previously enrolled in low-performing schools and helping them to reach grade-level standards.

The rest of this paper is available as a PDF download:


Sara Mead is an associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners.

About Stand for Children Leadership Center

Stand for Children Leadership Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides  leadership development and training to everyday citizens. Our mission is to ensure that all children, regardless of their background, graduate  from high school prepared for, and with access to, college and career  training. To make that happen, we:

  • Educate and empower parents, teachers, and community members to demand excellent public schools.
  • Advocate for effective local, state and national education policies and investments.

  • Ensure the policies and funding we advocate for reach classrooms and help students.

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A message from Stand Leadership Center board member John Legend.

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