Focus Areas

The Center’s work plan is organized around focus areas that are derived primarily from the needs of schools and districts. The activities in each focus area are designed to help states build capacity to implement state-level initiatives and support district- and school-level initiatives to meet local needs.

The Center’s focus areas are the following:

Focus Area 1: Developing SEA Staff Capacity and SEA Organizational Structures

As state educational agencies (SEAs) develop their internal capacity to support turnaround efforts, they face multiple decisions and challenges. First, SEAs need to determine how best to organize themselves to enable, support, and sustain turnaround efforts. Regardless of how each SEA organizes itself, the Center will work to ensure that turnaround efforts are focused on rapidly improving the lowest-performing schools, connecting conceptually and operationally to other improvement efforts, rather than being add-on or stand-alone efforts. Further, through its technical assistance activities, the Center will work to continuously develop the capacity of SEA staff who have responsibility for turnarounds.

Focus Area 2: Building District Capacity

Relatively few school turnaround efforts have focused on district reform. Anecdotally, school turnarounds have been characterized by a “hero principal” who can work despite the system rather than work with the district (e.g., Vaznis, 2011). Yet we cannot turn around or sustain turnaround at scale on the shoulders of hero principals. Most experts agree that districts play a critical role in school outcomes by virtue of their role in providing resources, direction, and support of schools needing dramatic improvement. For example, district-level policies influence school-level resources, including the curriculum’s rigor and the quality of principals and teachers hired (Honig et al., 2010). It is difficult to imagine widespread successful school turnarounds in which districts do not play an integral role. The Center will build state educational agency (SEA) capacity to support and build capacity of local educational agency turnaround efforts.

Focus Area 3: Creating Policies, Incentives, and Partnerships to Ensure a Pipeline of Turnaround Leaders

Leadership is clearly critical to student success (Hallinger & Heck, 1996; Leithwood & Day, 2008; Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstrom, & Anderson, 2010), and its importance may be even more pronounced for turnaround schools (Leithwood, Harris, & Hopkins, 2008). Current turnaround efforts often call for districts to replace the school’s principal. Replacing instructional leaders has proven difficult and may become more difficult over time. In a recent Center for Education Policy study, all three case study states (Maryland, Michigan, and Idaho) reported struggling to find replacement principals qualified to lead turnaround efforts. The obstacles were particularly difficult in rural settings (Scott et al., 2012). Therefore, the Center’s focus in this area will be to demonstrate that with guidance, districts can establish their own internal pipelines to develop turnaround leaders.

Focus Area 4: Promoting Cooperative Labor-Management Relations

When one looks at specific federal policies recommended for schools embarking on turnaround efforts, three topics come to the forefront: staff selection; teacher and principal evaluation systems; and the use of expanded learning time. In many states, successful implementation of any of these policies depends on labor-management relationships. While adversarial labor-management relationships can hamper reform efforts, innovative collaborations and progressive agreements can create the conditions for implementing and sustaining dramatic changes in support of turnarounds. The Center will develop a major publication, tentatively entitled Enhancing Turnaround Implementation Through Improved Labor/Management Partnerships and provide guidance and support to Regional Comprehensive Centers to plan and facilitate regional conferences.

Focus Area 5: Promoting the Use of Expanded Learning Time

A key feature of current school turnaround efforts is providing expanded, well-used learning time both for teachers and students. The idea that time is a constant and outcomes might vary is being replaced by the belief that outcomes are a constant, and time is the variable. However, early studies and monitoring visits to current SIG program grantees find that many have had problems expanding learning time in a meaningful way. The reasons that schools and districts struggle with this issue vary. Some states or districts have policies that make expanding learning time difficult (Farbman, 2011). In other states, collective bargaining agreements present the obstacle. In some cases, time expansion is only constrained by an inability to design creative solutions. The Center will help SEAs promote expanded learning time by addressing these obstacles.

Focus Area 6: Creating Systems and Processes to Ensure a Pool of High-Quality Turnaround Partners

Federal SIG guidance, which encourages the use of external turnaround partners for the lowest-performing schools, has led to an influx of parties entering the school turnaround field who want to secure district and school contracts. The Center will help SEAs become more informed consumers of third-party turnaround services, and it will provide opportunities for SEAs to more deliberately share information based on their own experiences. The Center’s efforts will primarily focus on identifying and sharing promising practices for selecting and managing external partners.

Focus Area 7: Ensuring the Availability and Use of Data Systems at the SEA Level

Both outcome and process data are essential to implement turnaround practices by informing decision-making and supporting the ongoing evaluation of implementation strategies and outcomes. However, schools, especially the lowest-performing schools, often do not have the resources or skills to use data effectively to inform their turnaround efforts. States are struggling with establishing data systems to get data into the hands of local staff, as well as with building capacity of those staff to engage with data in a meaningful way. If the lowest-performing schools are to turn around, they first need to understand data’s role in that work. In addition, staff need the skills to work with the data to inform decisions and practice. To build states’ capacity, the Center will raise awareness of data’s importance; identify and create professional development opportunities; and address systemic issues to ensure sustainability.

Focus Area 8: Supporting Schools and Districts in Establishing a Positive School Climate

A growing body of empirical research attests to the importance of school climate. Positive school climate is associated with and predictive of academic achievement, teacher retention, and effective school reform (Cohen, McCabe, Michelli, & Pickeral, 2009; Cohen & Geier, 2010). While the federal guidance for the SIG Transformation Model notes that districts may implement “approaches to improve school climate and discipline” (U.S. Department of Education, 2012), a gap still exists between the research findings and school turnaround strategies focused primarily on staffing, academic curriculum, programs, and materials. The Center’s efforts will focus on raising awareness of the importance of school climate, as well as on helping schools, districts, and states identify and assess the indicators of a positive school climate.

Focus Area 9: Monitoring and Evaluating School Turnaround Efforts

State Education Agencies (SEAs) have the responsibility and authority to both monitor and evaluate their state’s turnaround efforts––to gauge how well the overall effort is proceeding, to identify emerging problem areas, and to make decisions about continued funding of individual schools and districts. SEAs have needed to make decisions about providing support and renewing grants with inadequate data, based on limited interaction with and monitoring of SIG schools. The Center will focus on using annual goals, as well as additional performance and fidelity of implementation data, to monitor and evaluate turnaround efforts.

Focus Area 10: Improving Capacity of School Boards to Support Turnarounds

The topic of improving school boards capacity to support turnarounds has received attention within the last year. In the federal guidance to SIG, school boards and their role are not mentioned; as a result they have been largely absent from the conversation. Given school boards’ role in shaping critical policy and allocating resources, effective and sustainable turnaround requires an effort to educate and engage school board members. Building on work initiated by the Center on Innovation & Improvement on school boards’ role in targeted school improvement efforts, the Center on School Turnaround will disseminate existing research and tools related to engaging school board members and develop additional materials on this topic.

Focus Area 11: Engaging Families and Communities

Unlike typical improvement efforts that focus on a slow, steady process of change over several years, school turnaround requires an urgent effort that will generate student achievement growth in only one or two years. This rapid change is coupled with guidance that requires difficult decisions and actions that are often unpopular and generate upheaval. By effectively engaging families and communities, these decisions and actions are met with less resistance and sometimes offer opportunities for collaboration and support in the turnaround process. Families and communities are important resources; they can contribute through advocacy, academic support, and expertise (Redding, Murphy, & Sheley, 2011). The Center will focus its activities on developing and disseminating materials and resources in these areas for states and RCCs to use in their technical assistance efforts.

Focus Area 12: Building Political Will for Dramatic Change

State and district educational leaders are responsible for engaging their constituents to build the will for these dramatic changes, communicating the need for change along with a new, positive, bold vision. This effort may involve a notable increase in the chief state school officer’s direct communication regarding turning around low-performing schools and an increased level of SEA communication about procedures related to SIG grants, as well as efforts to cultivate buy-in for turnaround efforts (Rhim & Redding, 2011). The Center’s work in this area will focus primarily on the chief state school officers, working through the RCCs.


Cohen, J., & Geier, V. K. (2010). School climate research summary: January 2010. School Climate Brief. New York, NY: Center for Social and Emotional Education.

Cohen, J., McCabe, L., Michelli, N. M., & Pickeral, T. (2009). School climate: Research, policy, teacher education and practice. Teachers College Record, 111(1), 180-213.

Farbman, D. (2011). Learning time in america: Trends to reform the American school calendar. Boston, MA: National Center on Time & Learning.

Hallinger, P., & Heck, R. (1996). Reassessing the principal’s role in school effectiveness: A review of empirical research, 1980-1995. Educational Administration Quarterly, 31(1), 5-44.

Honig, M. I., Copland, M. A., Rainey, L., Lorton, J. A., & Newton, M. (2010). Central office transformation for district-wide teaching and learning improvement. Seattle, WA: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington.

Leithwood, K., Harris, A., & Hopkins, D. (2008). Seven strong claims about successful school leadership. School Leadership and Management, 28(1), 27-42.

Leithwood, K., & Day, C. (2008). The impact of school leadership on pupil outcomes. School Leadership & Management, 28(1), 1-4.

Louis, K., Leithwood, K., Wahlstrom, K., & Anderson, S. (2010). Learning from leadership: Investigating the links to improved student learning. New York, NY: The Wallace Foundation.

Redding, S., Murphy, M., & Sheley, P. (2011). Handbook on Family and Community Engagement. Lincoln, IL: Center on Innovation & Improvement.

Rhim, L. M., & Redding, S. (2011). Fulcrum of change: Leveraging 50 to turnaround 5,000. Lincoln, IL: Center on Innovation & Improvement.

Scott, C., Krasnoff, B., & Davis, D. (2012). Oregon School Improvement Grants: Annual evaluation. Portland, OR: Education Northwest.

Vaznis, J. (2011, Sept. 17). US finds statewide school problems. Boston Globe. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education. (2012, March). Guidance on fiscal year 2010 school improvement grants under section 1003(g) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Retrieved from