Turnarounds: What’s the State’s Role? – Part 2 (by Bryan Hassel, Co-Director Public Impact)

Bryan-Hassel-2012aThis is the second of two posts about high-leverage strategies states can pursue on school turnarounds. The first post addressed “setting sights high” and “clearing policy barriers.” 

Here, Hassel address three other critical policies, including “Get Serious About Talent”, “Creating a Real ‘Or Else’,” and “Demand Sustainability”.

Get Serious About Talent

By “talent,” I mean especially the teachers, leaders, and organizations that operate turnaround schools. As we think about talent, we tend to think first about how to “push” talent into failing schools, by creating pipelines.

But we need equal attention on “pulling” talent in by making target schools dramatically better places to work in and lead. Part of this is clearing these barriers I discussed in my first post. Top-notch leaders want to lead where they can build and shape their teams and allocate resources in ways that support their goals.

Also critical creating real career paths for both teachers and leaders that enable advancement without leaving the work they love doing. For excellent teachers, that means offering them the chance to lead teams of other teachers and to have an effect on more students, without becoming an administrator, roles like those my colleagues and I have written about in our Opportunity Culture series. When a set of Charlotte, North Carolina-based schools created 19 such positions in turnaround schools in early 2013, over 700 people applied from the around the country, including many who had moved out of teaching into administration and were eager for the chance to come back to teaching.

And for both teachers and leaders, it means getting serious about pay. Great teachers and leaders in public education generally earn far below what they contribute to their students’ long-term fortunes. Though I would support devoting more resources to raising pay in turnaround schools, states need not wait for that. Turnaround schools can reorganize their operations to free money for this high priority.

Creating a Real “Or Else”

Today, most states lack a viable course of action if schools and districts do not improve. Exceptions exist. Several states now have authority to take over individual schools and operate them or, more likely, partner with external organizations; and in extreme cases of district-wide failure, the authority to take over and operate districts. But these powers – and their effective use – are still rare.

Yet, an “or else” would be a valuable instrument in the hands of states for two reasons. First, the threat of state takeover might induce some districts to do what they need to do to improve persistently low-achieving schools. Second, when districts and schools still fall short despite the threat, a state with an “or else” does not have to settle for that. It can take action on its own to improve school performance.

A real “or else” requires three components: the legal authority to act; a clear strategy for how the state will intervene; and the capacity to execute that strategy.  Most states lack one, two, or all of those.

Demand Sustainability

One temptation in turnarounds is to flow money into costs that are recurring. Even if a turnaround succeeds, the school will continue to need extended school days and years, higher compensation to attract and keep great teachers and leaders, and access to the growing array of learning technology.

Since these costs will not go away, states need to insist that districts and schools find ways to fund them beyond the temporary streams. A growing set of tools and models to help with this, from Education Resource Strategies’ tools to help districts analyze their resource use to Public Impact’s tools on reallocating money to pay teachers more.

One hundred percent of temporary money should go for “investments” like:

  • Pipelines of teachers, leaders and school operators;
  • Redesigning school operations, leading to more sustainable models;
  • Investing in technology and facilities changes for the new design.


These policy priorities are relatively easy to blog about; having them enacted in real states is another matter. Yet, policy changes like these are states’ best chance to make dramatic, lasting improvements for the millions of students who attend persistently low-achieving schools.


The ideas in this post appeared first in the Foreword of The Center on School Turnarounds publication The State Role in School Turnaround: Emerging Best Practices, edited by Lauren Morando Rhim and Sam Redding.