What’s Possible: Turning Around America’s Lowest-Achieving Schools

“Because we know that about 12% of America’s schools produce 50% of America’s dropouts, we’re going to focus on helping states and school districts turn around their 5,000 lowest-performing schools in the next five years,” President Obama said this week.

Turning around the nation’s 5,000 lowest-performing schools, Secretary Duncan has said, is “part of our overall strategy for dramatically reducing the drop-out rate, improving high school graduation rates and increasing the number of students who graduate prepared for success in college and the workplace.”

The Obama administration is making an historic commitment to support state and local education leaders in turning around the nation’s lowest-achieving schools.

The U.S. Department of Education is providing $4 billion for this effort. To qualify for this funding under the Title I School Improvement Grant program, states must identify their lowest-performing schools in economically challenged communities and transform those schools using one of the four following intervention models:

  • Turnaround model: Replace the principal and rehire no more than 50% of the staff, and grant the principal sufficient operational flexibility (including in staffing, calendars/time and budgeting) to fully implement a comprehensive approach to substantially improve student outcomes.
  • Restart model: Convert a school or close and reopen it under a charter school operator, a charter management organization, or an education management organization that has been selected through a rigorous review process.
  • School closure: Close a school and enroll the students who attended that school in other schools in the district that are higher achieving.
  • Transformation model: Implement each of the following strategies: (1) replace the principal and take steps to increase teacher and school leader effectiveness; (2) institute comprehensive instructional reforms; (3) increase learning time and create community-oriented schools; and (4) provide operational flexibility and sustained support.

As Secretary Duncan has said repeatedly, this is difficult work—he took it on as CEO of Chicago’s public schools. No matter which model is used, turning around a chronically low-performing school requires hard work from our best teachers and school leaders.

State and local leaders around the country have taken on the challenge, with encouraging results.

Learn about the Title I School Improvement Grant Program and how the communities of Mobile, Alabama; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Chattanooga, Tennessee were successful in implementing turnaround, restart and transformation models to revitalize and transform their lowest performing schools.

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In Chicago, Harvard School of Excellence, operated by the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), is an example of the turnaround model. Before 2007, it ranked among the 10 worst elementary schools in all of Illinois. Now, three years later, it has key components of the turnaround model: a new principal; highly trained and effective teachers; a curriculum based on high expectations and frequent assessments; and a culture of intellectual curiosity and personal respect.

In just two years, the number of Harvard students meeting or exceeding state testing standards has increased 25%. And AUSL is applying its turnaround model to more struggling schools in Chicago.


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Johnson Public School in Chicago is another turnaround story. In 2008, only 40% of Johnson’s students met state standards in reading, math and science. There were gangs in the school and violence in the halls. Expectations were low. Many students were not succeeding.

The following year, AUSL took over the leadership of the school. Expectations and conditions in the school changed. The impact in a short time is clear.


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In Los Angeles, Locke Senior High School took the restart path, bringing in Green Dot Schools, a charter operator. Locke’s teachers work under a union contract.


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David Terry
Office of Communications and Outreach