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ConnCAN Blog

April 13, 2015

8 ways to improve school turnarounds in CT

We need our state’s leaders to prioritize education and ensure every student in Connecticut has the tools and resources they need to be successful. This is especially true for the 40,000 students who currently attend persistently and chronically underperforming schools.

In 2012, Governor Malloy’s and the General Assembly’s legislation, Public Act 12-116, An Act Concerning Educational Reform, established the Commissioner’s Network, a program uniquely designed to improve our state’s lowest performing schools by providing high-level interventions, resources, supports, and additional funding. The establishment of the Network was a great first step in turning around our lowest performing schools. The program currently serves more than 9,000 students in 16 schools in 9 districts.  

The Commissioner’s Network is still in its infancy and early results from turnaround efforts have so far been mixed, but a comparison to strong turnaround efforts in other states suggests that we can do more. If Connecticut is to truly turn around its lowest performing schools, our leaders must examine best practices from other states and make common sense improvements to the Network in order to strengthen it.

In a recent report entitled “Addressing Connecticut’s Education: Improving Turnaround Measures for Our Lowest Performing Schools,” Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN) compiled national best practices from other states to make 8 policy recommendations to strengthen and support the Commissioner’s Network and our state’s turnaround efforts. 

8 WAYS TO IMPROVE SCHOOL TURNAROUNDS IN CT

1: Prioritize and intervene in the lowest performing schools in the state

What’s Going On?: The Commissioner’s Network was established to turnaround our state’s lowest-performing schools. While a laudable goal, the current program doesn’t prioritize our most vulnerable schools and districts. For example, the Network prioritizes schools that volunteer to be in the program, whether or not those schools are the state’s lowest performing. In fact, more than half of the 16 schools in the Commissioner's Network were not in the state’s lowest performing categories.

Who’s Doing It Well?: In Philadelphia, turnaround schools in need of support were identified as being rated the lowest on the state’s accountability system. This ensures that the schools that truly need the assistance are able to receive it.

2: Remove the caps on the number of schools per district and overall

What’s Going On?: Currently, the Commissioner’s Network limits the number of schools that are allowed to participate in the program from any single district and in total for the Network (up to 4 schools per district, up to 25 overall). With a large majority of Connecticut’s lowest performing schools being concentrated in a small number of districts, this arbitrary limit does little to truly help our state’s most vulnerable schools.

Who’s Doing It Well?: States like Louisiana and Tennessee all determine eligibility for state intervention by performance threshold and do not limit participation to a specified number of schools. This means of determining eligibility ensures that states are working to improve the schools that are most in need of additional support and resources.

3: Provide a standard block of waivers or “slim contract” for turnaround schools

What’s Going On?: According to a number of turnaround leaders, critical conditions for the creating high-quality public schools must be met, including: autonomy in staffing, programming, use of funds, and use of time. Low-performing schools have commonly become dysfunctional organizations that require substantial changes in order to truly improve. Flexibility and autonomy are key to making the bold changes necessary for success.

Who’s Doing It Well?: Turnaround districts like Philadelphia put in place turnaround models that operate with relative autonomy along with oversight and accountability. In Massachusetts, external partners outline the necessary autonomies they need to be successful when applying to the state to be an approved turnaround provider.

4: Change the composition of turnaround committees

What’s Going On?: Currently, Connecticut state law structures the membership of turnaround committees (charged with developing the turnaround plan) such that it actually under-represents parents and the community-at-large. Turnaround committees currently include two members appointed by the school board, three appointed by the teachers union, and the commissioner or his or her designee.

Who’s Doing It Well?: In Philadelphia, turnaround programs include parent and community voices through a school advisory council, a group of community members and stakeholders that are in charge of reviewing potential operator finalists’ proposals.

5: Recruit and identify effective turnaround leaders

What’s Going On?: Supply and capacity of high-quality leaders and educators is not currently addressed in the law. Research is clear that effective principals and teachers are critical to student success, especially in a turnaround effort. Without a clear system for recruiting and employing the best school turnaround leaders, Connecticut struggles to attract the most effective candidates for this unique role.

Who’s Doing It Well?: Louisiana and Tennessee have established systems for selecting school leaders and school operators for turnaround efforts. These robust vetting processes ensure the state recruits effective and quality providers.

6: Set clear standards for performance

What’s Going On?: While Connecticut collects large amounts of data including indicators of culture, climate and academic achievement, current law makes it unclear whether or how those metrics are used to optimize the Network.

Who’s Doing It Well?: Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) monitored implementation and, by course correcting, were able to retry turnaround interventions in schools where it was not successful the first try. RSD schools subsequently made the highest rates of gains in proficiency in the state.

7: Streamline the development approval process for turnaround plans

What’s Going On?: Connecticut law does not outline clear parameters for turnaround plans or the autonomy to be provided in turning around schools. Due to the lack of parameters, turnaround plans may not always include critical information, like priority strategies that address root causes of specific school challenges, or clearly defined autonomies.

Who’s Doing It Well?: Massachusetts, for example, requires school turnaround plans to be structured around a number of key elements proven to drive student academic achievement. Key themes include 1) a focus on great teaching, 2) a well-rounded curriculum, 3) supports for students, and 4) effective use of resources.

8: Protect gains by allowing schools to stay in the Network

What’s Going On?: Though it’s designed to turn around our lowest performing schools, the Commissioner’s Network requires successful schools to return to total local-district control in 3 to 5 years after implementation, potentially putting school gains at risk.

Who’s Doing It Well?: In Philadelphia, turnaround schools have the option to be turned over to highly-effective operators and become public charter schools, keeping the autonomy and flexibility that allowed for a successful turnaround in the first place.

WHAT WE KNOW

These best practices show that with clear parameters, increased flexibility and autonomy for our school leaders and turnaround operators, bold action can lead to tremendous gains for our lowest performing schools. For more information, please read ConnCAN’s complete turnaround report “Addressing Connecticut’s Education: Improving Turnaround Measures for Our Lowest Performing Schools.”

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