New Research Shows How a Federal School Turnaround Program Backfired in North Carolina

By Matt Barnum | March 23, 2016

Under former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the federal government focused on turning around low-performing schools. “We want transformation, not tinkering,” Duncan said in 2009 as he discussed his department’s attempts to dramatically shake up the bottom five percent of schools across the country. Since then, such efforts have been widely derided, even as studies from from Massachusetts and California found federal School Improvement Grants had a positive impact on student achievement.
Now new research by Helen Ladd of Duke and Jennifer Heissel of Northwestern gives ammunition to the critics of federally backed school turnarounds. The study — released today as a working paper by the research group CALDER — focuses on elementary and middle schools exclusively in North Carolina that were part of the state’s turnaround program, which was funded with federal dollars through Race to the Top.1
The researchers found that the program had at best no effect on student achievement, and by some measures had a negative impact. More students were suspended and slightly fewer were in attendance because of the program. Middle class parents often transferred their kids to different schools. Teachers said they spent more time collaborating and receiving professional development, but also doing paperwork and administrative tasks; they were more likely to leave turnaround schools than similar struggling schools.2
This is one study of one state — and in fact a different study of the same program found more positive outcomes3 — but the results are nevertheless stark and disappointing. A program designed to turn around low-performing schools, if anything, may have made them worse. (A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.)
Four specific takeaways that may prove instructive for future turnaround efforts:
Finding better teachers and principals can prove challenging — particularly in rural communities.
Federal school turnaround grants laid out four options: close the school; convert it to a charter; fire the principal and half the staff; or fire the principal and take efforts to improve instruction, increase community involvement, and extend the school day. The vast majority (85 percent) of schools in North Carolina — including all of those in rural districts — went with the last option, which was seen as less disruptive.

In North Carolina, though, replacing principals with better ones was apparently quite difficult. The research found that new principals were less experienced than those they replaced; other research has tied fewer years on the job to lower student performance. According to teachers, school leadership at turnaround schools did not improve. Teacher turnover also increased, and, based on the disappointing overall results, it doesn’t seem like new teachers were any more effective.

This suggests that requiring the dismissal of school staff may be counterproductive in places, particularly rural areas, where effective educators are scarce commodities.

More professional development, collaboration, and paperwork don’t necessarily yield results.
True to the programs aims, teachers reported that they spent more time on professional development and collaboration with colleagues. But this change didn’t evidently translate into benefits for students. Ladd, one of the study’s coauthors, said the research on professional development has generally been disappointing. “Most studies that I have seen, even studies that start out thinking that professional development is going to be helpful, don’t find that it is. Maybe it’s that we’re doing it the wrong way,” she said.
The fact that collaboration increased was a bit more puzzling, said Ladd, because other research is more positive on this point. For instance, teachers improve at faster rates when working at schools with more supportive and collaborative environments.
The study also found that teachers reported spending more time on paperwork, staff meetings, and delivering assessments. Teachers at turnaround schools may have been overwhelmed by administrative duties that didn’t directly improve instruction — to the detriment of activities that did.
In sum, the turnaround efforts did not seem to make schools more desirable place to work; in fact, since turnover increased, for some teachers it did the opposite. Part of this was by design, but the program only works if new, better teachers come into the school. That apparently didn’t happen here, and the increased administrative burden could be partially to blame.
Turnarounds can drive away middle-class families.
Putting a school into a turnaround program may make families leave for fear that it’s underperforming. That’s exactly what Ladd and Heisel find for the small group of non-poor students who attended turnaround schools. What that means is that the schools served an even more segregated group of disadvantaged students because of the turnaround program. This accounts for some, but not all, of the decrease in test scores attributed to the program.

Research has found that highly segregated schools lead to lower student achievement, so policymakers might consider using integration as a school improvement strategy.

Rethinking the when, where and why of school turnarounds.

There are many ways to interpret this research. One is that, policymakers have been going about school improvement all wrong. Ladd generally takes this view and is skeptical that prevailing school turnaround models are up to the task of significantly improving student outcomes. She advocates for a district-wide approach, which address out-of-school factors like health and nutrition. “There’s nothing in this federal turnaround program, or there’s very little in it, that says, ‘Let’s make sure all these kids are healthy and can see the blackboard and don’t have asthma,’” said Ladd, who is part of the group Broader, Bolder, which advocates for more wraparound services for students.

On the other hand, the research might also suggest that the purportedly dramatic turnarounds just weren’t dramatic enough. Remember, almost all of the schools in North Carolina chose the least disruptive school improvement model. But research from California found that schools selecting a more severe turnaround approach — involving firing the principals and half the staff — made the most gains in achievement. Another study of Boston and New Orleans found that schools taken over by charter schools, as part of federal turnaround, made large achievement gains.

Cutting against this hypothesis, however, is the fact that teacher attrition in North Carolina turnaround schools did significantly increase, even though it wasn’t mandated by the prevailing model.

So maybe the question isn’t simply what types of turnaround approach “works,” but when and where different turnarounds work. That is, one approach may be effective in urban areas of California, but it won’t necessarily translate to rural North Carolina. Which may be the most frustrating aspect of the school improvement debate: Determining why some turnaround efforts succeed and other don’t is both the key question for policymakers, and among the most difficult for researchers to answer.


1. The North Carolina program does not appear to be part of federally backed School Improvement Grants, but was part of the federal program Race to the Top. Both programs’ approach to school turnaround seem to be substantially similar.

2. Ladd and Heisel use a strong methodology that can isolate the impacts of the turnaround program. Since it applied to schools that were ranked as the bottom 5 percent in the state, they compare schools right below and right above the 5 percent cut off. The idea is that these schools are quite similar, but some were part of the program and others weren’t solely because they were on different sides of a statistically arbitrary cut point. The authors also used state-administered surveys of teachers to gauge their opinions and time use in both treatment and control schools.

3. Ladd says that may be because other turnaround and school improvements efforts were going on at the same time that positively affected some of the schools in the federal turnaround program that her study zeroed in on.
Submit a Letter to the Editor