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School Turnaround Policies Ineffective, Report States

Michelle RenéeSchool turnaround policies that include firing and replacing teachers and administrators in hopes of raising test scores are actually detrimental to schools, according to a report from the National Education Policy Center.

The report, “Democratic School Turnarounds: Pursuing Equity and Learning from Evidence,” by Tina Trujillo of the University of California, Berkeley and Michelle Renée of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, was released in October, and demonstrates through research that top-down, punitive turnaround efforts that treat schools like corporations are ineffective and counterproductive.

In 2009, the Obama Administration created a plan to “turn around” 5,000 of the nation’s lowest-performing schools over five years through the federal School Improvement Grant program (SIG). In exchange for up to $2 million per year for up to three years, SIG-funded schools implemented one of four reforms: turnaround, transformation, restart, or closure. The report acknowledges that while this plan was well-intentioned, it is fundamentally at odds with a democratic approach to public education.

Tina Trujillo“The turnaround policies are based on the claim that dramatic reconstitution of staff actually helps schools, and that’s not supported by the research,” says Trujillo. “When these types of mass layoffs have occurred, they have actually reduced institutional knowledge and led to increased racial and economic segregation in terms of who’s left over. We have a documented range of detrimental effects,” including deteriorating teacher morale and declining test scores over time.

While there are many books and articles on how to design an effective school turnaround and boost test scores, many are not based in research, and often rely on single cases, such as a school whose test scores improved slightly after one year, rather than systematic studies of schools that improved over time, Trujillo says.

The report notes that the turnaround plan also focuses almost exclusively on within-school factors like curricular changes that shape student outcomes, without adequately addressing contextual influences like poverty, race, and systemic funding disparities.

“These are schools that are in the lowest income communities that have been historically underserved, where racism, classism, and sexism play out,” says Renée. “Each time you remove people and put new people in, you erode community trust and engagement. The ‘blow it up to fix it’ model doesn’t make sense when you’re talking about the hearts and minds of young people.”

To read the report: go to