New Brief by Mathematica, AIR Experts Examines States' Capacity to Support Turnaround in Low-Performing Schools

May 05, 2015

Turning around our nation's low-performing schools is a national policy priority. Improving states' capacity to support school turnaround is a key objective of the U.S. Department of Education's School Improvement Grants (SIG) and Race to the Top (RTT) programs.

A new issue brief and fact sheet document states' capacity to support school turnaround as of spring 2012 and spring 2013. The research is part of a large-scale, multi-year evaluation conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, the American Institutes for Research (AIR), and Social Policy Research Associates for the U.S. Department of Education.

Through structured telephone interviews with administrators in 49 states and the District of Columbia, the study found:

  • More than 80 percent of states made turning around low-performing schools a high priority, but at least 50 percent of all states found turnaround very difficult.
  • Thirty-eight states (76 percent) reported significant gaps in expertise for supporting school turnaround in 2012, and that number increased to 40 states (80 percent) in 2013.
  • More than 85 percent of states reported using strategies to enhance their capacity to support school turnaround. The use of intermediaries decreased over time, and the use of organizational or administrative structures increased over time.
  • Twenty-one states reported prioritizing school turnaround and having significant gaps in expertise to support it. Although these states were no more likely than other states to use intermediaries, all 21 reported having at least one organizational or administrative structure to improve their capacity to support turnaround, compared to 86 percent (25 of 29) of other states.

"States can play an important role in tackling the challenges of school turnaround—for example, by arranging external support to address barriers to improvement," said Susanne James-Burdumy, Mathematica senior fellow and director of the evaluation. "For this reason, SIG and RTT provided resources to improve state capacity to support turnaround, but concerns linger about state capacity to continue that support after SIG and RTT funding runs out. Our brief sheds light on the specific capacity constraints states are facing and where additional supports could be warranted."

Courtney Tanenbaum, a senior researcher at AIR, added: "Improving low-performing schools does not happen overnight. Turning them around is a complex and challenging endeavor. So it is not surprising that states would feel a need for more support in this area."

The study contributes to the small but growing body of research examining strategies states use to leverage or enhance their capacity to support school turnaround.


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