Over the past few years, Colorado and the nation have dramatically increased their focus on the needs of students in struggling schools, offering a new approach to school turnarounds and directing an unprecedented amount of resources to districts and schools to implement dramatic change strategies. This report, commissioned by the Donnell-Kay Foundation, examines the recent federal and state policies that affect low-performing schools in Colorado and offers several potential areas to strengthen and improve its approach in future years, including building the supply of talent to support school turnarounds, supporting rigorous turnaround strategies, and engaging in rigorous monitoring and rapid retry.
- Building the supply of talent to support school turnarounds. Emerging research about turnarounds within education and from other sectors suggests that one of the most critical elements in their success is having the right leader at the helm. In most Colorado districts, the supply of turnaround principals and qualified external providers is far too short to meet the needs of all persistently low-achieving schools. The state therefore has a powerful role in helping build the talent pipelines by supporting the recruitment, selection and training of turnaround leaders for struggling schools. In addition, there is a severe shortage of organizations equipped to manage the full operations of schools, the type of arrangement envisioned under the “restart” improvement model in both Colorado and federal law. CDE and its partners can work to build the supply of these organizations in Colorado, such as by working with existing organizations that incubate new or replicate existing restart providers, and engaging in its own efforts to encourage and support highly-successful charter operators to expand into the turnaround space.
- Supporting rigorous turnaround strategies. National surveys of states’ use of SIG funds show that very few districts have strategically replaced leaders or a significant portion of schools’ staff, and even fewer have used restart options such as chartering or contracting. A similar trend is playing out in Colorado. CDE and other state leaders can help foster more dramatic efforts at the local level by engaging in a focused and rigorous review process for schools’ improvement plans, and closely examining each district’s commitment to success.
- Engaging in rigorous monitoring and rapid retry. Turning around a persistently failing school is enormously difficult work. Research from across sectors suggests that dramatic change efforts are successful on the first try only 30 percent of the time. In the education setting, with its broader restrictions over staffing, budgeting and operations, the success rate may be even lower. This is why it is so important to track leading indicators of success or failure to learn whether a school’s turnaround is on track early in the effort – and to act on the data that those indicators reveal. CDE should use its authority under both the federal School Improvement Grant program and the state Education Accountability Act to discontinue funds or intervene early in schools that are not on track.