Finding better teachers and principals can prove challenging — particularly in rural communities.
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.
Turnarounds can drive away middle-class families.
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.