Join the Club: State Turnaround Networks

We have to think more creatively about school turnaround.  As described in the Center for School Turnaround’s new handbook, a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t always the best support model, and many State Education Agencies (SEA’s) are starting to develop a less traditional support structure for low-performing schools. One such strategy is a statewide turnaround network, ranging from an experience as all-in as Tennessee’s Achievement School District, to a lighter touch approach such as the Connecticut Commissioner’s Network.

Mass Insight’s State Development Network, a cohort of 11 states, has spent the past three years exploring strategies that will provide the best support to each state’s lowest-performing schools – including the SEA turnaround network.

Colorado, one of our SDN states, is launching a Turnaround Network which will support between eight and twelve low-performing schools.  The network will provide added capacity to schools and their districts, with the founding goal of improving student achievement.  The network is not intended to be a punishment for schools failing to improve, but rather an opportunity to opt into this added support.  Districts will work with the Colorado Department of Education to ensure that all conditions for the network are met at the schools.

Read more about Colorado’s new Turnaround Network here.

A Taste of What’s To Come: Preparing Students for College Success

“You’re getting a taste of what’s to come – the work, what teachers expect of you, and the amount of dedication and study you have to put into your work.”

That’s how Yolanda Bueso, a sophomore at Grace King High School in Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish Public School System (JPPSS), described her experience this year in Advanced Placement English Language and Composition.

Yolanda is one of several hundred students who are benefiting from a partnership between JPPSS and Mass Insight Education focused on expanding the AP programs at Grace King and Fisher Middle-High School. In the first year of the program, enrollment in AP math, science and English courses at the two schools increased by just over 300 students.

The program isn’t just about increasing enrollment, however. It’s also about ensuring that all of those students are successful in their AP courses – and that’s where Saturday Study Sessions come in. At Saturday Study Sessions, students attend a series of workshops taught by expert instructors selected by Mass Insight that explore in further depth topics the students are covering in their AP courses. Over the course of the school year, three Saturday sessions are held in each subject covered the program (math, science and English) – resulting in 15 additional hours of instruction for students who attend all three.

Mass Insight’s latest publication, “Extended Learning at Saturday Study Sessions: Students and teachers in Jefferson Parish commit to learning,” focuses on these Saturday sessions and how they, and the broader AP program, are putting JPPSS students on a path to college success.

Click here for a previous post on JPPSS.

News You Should Know: March Round-Up

Beginning in April 2014, we are jumpstarting our blog with a new schedule featuring a post every Tuesday.  At the beginning of each month, we will highlight education news stories from the previous month that you may have missed. Throughout the remainder of the month, we will showcase new Mass Insight Education publications and other key news stories.  We hope you enjoy the changes to our blog!


March News Round-Up

  • Don’t you forget about me. When it comes to school turnaround, there is one very important stakeholder that is often forgotten about: the community.  Last month, the U.S. Department of Education released case studies and tools relating to turnaround community engagement.  Check it out here!
  • Before you go on summer break… Students across the country will be field testing the PARCC Common Core assessments this spring.  Rather than seeking to get a sneak peek at student performance, the field test is more intended to serve as a test run: do schools have the right staffing in place? The right technology? A schedule without kinks? Do students understand the technology?
  • Still not good enough. New data from an exam administered in 28 OECD countries suggests that while American students are on par with some developed countries in their problem-solving skills, they still lag behind many European and Asian nations.
  • This shouldn’t be new to you. Unless you avoided the news and social media last month, you’re aware of the changes to the SAT, which will launch in Spring 2016.  The new test reverts back to the 1600 point scale, and the content will change to focus more on the language and skills students will require in college courses and the workforce.  The essay section will also become optional.
  • FAF-what?  Are students in your community aware of the benefits of filling out the FAFSA? Last month, government data revealed that 2 million students who did not file a FAFSA would have been eligible  for the needs-based Pell Grant toward college admissions fees.

Know what you have

After our last 6+ inch snowfall, I saw a neighbor of mine cleaning off her car with her jacket sleeves.  I offered her my car ice scraper, and she declined, saying she had one somewhere in her car but didn’t know where, and she was fine just continuing on the way she was.

This past summer, we released a publication called The Bold and the Bureaucrat: The Top Ten State Education Agency Levers for School Turnaround. In our and our partners’ work with SEAs relating to turnaround, we have found that there often are power levers available to states through law or policy that could be used to better support school turnaround efforts that state turnaround offices either didn’t know existed, or aren’t sure how to use.  Paul Hill at CRPE wrote, reaffirming our findings, that “[states] don’t use a good number of the powers they have,” continuing on to say that “many states treat school districts as if they were constitutionally established branches of government rather than (as is the case) creatures built at the state’s discretion.”

Hill’s final recommendations go beyond our recommendations, in that he calls for a whole new system for the state education agency to follow, but the resulting call for action is clear: understand the resources you have, and how to use them, and maybe the state can be more effective in supporting school turnaround.

Be challenged

“I have yet to find any schools making more progress by challenging their students less.”

That’s the closing line on Jay Mathews’ piece last week that challenges schools to in turn challenge their average and below-average students. Encourage all students to enroll in an AP course and show them that someone believes they are capable of taking and even passing an AP exam for college credit.  Changing school culture to encourage students to challenge themselves, and placing them in a classroom led by a teacher who presents them with a hard topic and believes that they can come through it, can have surprisingly positive results on student achievement.

If your students think school is easy, then you’re doing something wrong.

Read more about AP.

The State Development Network: A year in review

In this post, Alison Segal and Larry Stanton (Senior Field Consultant at Mass Insight Education) reflect on the past two years of Mass Insight’s State Development Network.


Mass Insight began working with state education agencies (SEAs) on school turnaround in 2011, hosting occasional conference calls with interested SEA turnaround leaders. In 2012, we formalized our work with SEAs with the creation of the State Development Network for School Turnaround (SDN).  The first two SDN cohorts were joined by a total of 12 different states and included convenings, publications, webinars and on-site diagnostic reviews to the states.

As we complete SDN 2.0 and plan for 2014’s SDN 3.0, we have identified five lessons that we learned in our work with SEAs on school turnaround.

Lessons for SEAs:

1.            Use the power available

SEAs need to be clear about where they have leverage, and actually push on those levers.  Although most day-to-day work on school turnaround is conducted at the school and district levels, most SEAs have the power to allocate resources, establish goals, evaluate success, and determine consequences for school turnaround. As a first step, SEAs need to understand the powers that they have. The SDN publication, The Bold and the Bureaucrat: The Top Ten State Education Agency Levers for School Turnaround prompts a review of the powers available to an SEA.  The next step is for the SEA to organize their work to leverage the powers available.  Finally, SEAs can develop plans to obtain new powers that would advance turnaround in their states.

2.            Be clear about what you’re doing (and not doing)

Over the past two years we’ve seen most of the SEA turnaround offices we work with go through substantial leadership and staff turnover.  These changes make it difficult to sustain focus absent clear turnaround goals and strategies endorsed by the state commissioner and board. While it is probably unrealistic to expect turnaround offices to be exempt from the staff churn that afflicts SEAs, it is not unrealistic to expect state commissioners and boards to establish goals and strategies for turnaround that can be sustained through staff transitions.  Ideally, turnaround goals and strategies should be co-owned by state and local advocacy groups that provide the SEA with political support and hold the SEA accountable for implementing the turnaround strategy with fidelity. The SDN publication, Setting the Bar for School Turnaround: How Ambitious Public Goals Can Drive School Turnaround describes how SEAs can establish and report on turnaround goals.

3.            Recognize that we’re all in this together

Although turnaround challenges vary from state to state, too often we focus on the differences between states rather than the similarities.  The SDN has tried to identify a set of challenges and opportunities that are shared across states to encourage development of a common SEA turnaround vocabulary.  We’ve also facilitated cross-state learning by making connections between states.  For SDN 3.0, we’re formalizing this collaboration model. Each state will identify 2 or 3 priorities that they will work with MIE and other states to accomplish. This approach leverages power in numbers, and creates a learning community with a focus on sharing lessons learned and building useful connections among states.

Lessons for Mass Insight (or others helping SEAs):

4.            You’ll learn more on the ground 

For SDN 2.0 membership in late 2012, the SDN added an on-site diagnostic review that included interviews with SEA leadership and turnaround staff, district and turnaround school leaders and local advocates and stakeholders as well as a review of turnaround school performance.  The diagnostic reviews provided SDN staff with an opportunity to meet SEA turnaround teams on their turf and see their day-to-day challenges and opportunities.  In addition to providing recommendations to each SEA, the diagnostic visits informed the selection of topics for SDN convenings and publications.

5.            Balance practice and policy

The SDN aspires to impact SEA turnaround practice and policy, but in fact most SEA participants in our convenings are more involved in practice than policy. We have found that participants are most engaged in discussions of how they can improve the work they do with districts and schools (e.g., improving district monitoring protocols) and less engaged in more theoretical discussions about possible changes in policy (e.g., creation of autonomous clusters of turnaround schools).  Rather than abandon discussions of possible policy changes, this year we formalized a team lead role. Team leads participate in monthly steering committee calls to discuss SDN priorities and plan and reflect on convenings.  We also have occasional conversations with each team lead to identify opportunities to impact state turnaround policy, and offer individualized support based on state undertakings.

The evolution of the SDN has been a learning experience for Mass Insight, and has formed many valuable connections among state turnaround leaders in our SEA cohorts.  The partnerships Mass Insight fosters with other organizations through the SDN also serves to benefit the states involved, and create a stronger community around education, specifically around turnaround.

As we continue facilitating this network of SEAs, we aim to continue reflecting on what we have learned, and hope that in doing so, others may take our own lessons learned and put them into practice.             

“I should have been bolder:” Take 2

Almost three years ago to the day, former New York City Chancellor of Education Joel Klein said of his tenure, “We should have been bolder.” This past weekend, in anticipation of today’s election for a new mayor of Boston (the first new mayor in two decades), former Boston Public Schools Superintendent Michael Contompasis, currently a senior field consultant with Mass Insight Education, penned an Op-Ed to the Boston Globe.  The op-ed, echoing Mr. Klein’s words, challenges the incoming mayor to reimagine, rather than patch, Boston’s public schools system.

In light of the upcoming turnover for both city mayor and schools superintendent, Mike explains that we are faced with a “window of opportunity to find a leader who understands that the way to fix what’s broken is not to apply a Band-Aid to a system that’s not working for all students. It is to reimagine the system itself.”

So to Boston, New York, New Jersey, and all the other states and cities facing major elections today: let’s take Mike up on his challenge, and reimagine the system.

New Publication: The Bold and the Bureaucrat

Our newest publication out of our State Development Network, The Bold and Bureaucrat: The Top Ten State Education Agency Levers for School Turnaround (Toolkit), provides the reader with what we have identified as the top ten “levers” for a state education agency (SEA) to use to strengthen turnaround efforts at the school and district levels. This publication supplies the reader with an in-depth understanding of each of the levers, and is followed by a discussion protocol to flesh out the conditions within a specific state. SEA departments, districts leaders, school staff, and thinktanks can all benefit from the discussion tool which can help individuals articulate what–and how–their state needs to do to push for bold school turnaround.

The Bold and the Bureaucrat

Executive Summary

  • Mass Insight Education identified the top ten bold actions that SEAs can take to maximize the chances that their turnaround efforts will be successful. The foundation of these levers is a strong, coherent theory of action for school turnaround/improvement.
  • The power levers range from funding, to conditions for turnaround, to monitoring progress.
  • This publication includes a discussion protocol for identifying the levers available in your state, and to create an action item list moving forward.

The publication is now available on our website.

Using SEA Powers: Part IV: Delaware – Holding Schools Accountable for Sustainability

Interview with Keith Sanders, Chief of the Delaware School Turnaround Unit (STU)

This month, Alexandra Usher, an MPP candidate at University of Chicago, will discuss examples pertaining to an upcoming Mass Insight publication, The Top Ten SEA Power Levers for School Turnaround.  Keep an eye on this space for more information coming soon!  This is the fourth and final post of her series.


A new leader

Keith Sanders became Chief of the Delaware Department of Education’s (DDOE) School Turnaround Unit (STU) in October 2012. After a year of school-level observation, he sensed the DDOE needed to shift its concentration to sustainability of turnaround practices so that programs aren’t lost as the grants wind down. His goal became to increase districts’ capacity around improving their lowest-performing schools, while making sure they have the resources necessary to sustain those improvements.

The current model

The STU’s theory of action is “to work with external partners around engaging schools and school leaders.” A lean staff of three SEA employees supports 23 schools; 10 are designated (under RTT) as Priority and 13 as Focus schools. A team of representatives from the DDOE, the University of Delaware school leadership support program, and district representatives conducts two-day comprehensive school reviews, using a rubric designed to align with the STU’s six tenets of school effectiveness[1]. The results are used to target support.

Focus schools target interventions to the subgroup of students whose achievement led to the Focus designation. Priority schools are placed into the state’s Partnership Zone (PZ), which are also Delaware’s SIG schools. PZ schools are not run by the SEA, but undergo intensive planning and monitoring overseen by the STU. Each district strategizes about how to best intervene in its PZ schools, then submits an MOU to the SEA outlining strategies to address areas like instruction, staff development, and oversight.

Measuring progress

To determine if PZ schools are improving, the STU runs their performance data against every benchmark in the six-tenet framework. Rather than looking for huge improvements on each tenet, Sanders looks for evidence the school is on an upward trajectory. He says, “For me it’s really about sustainability, and is the school poised to sustain this over time?” The six-tenet framework also helps differentiate what kind of intervention each schools needs; Sanders notes that monitoring progress can’t be a “one size fits all” approach, even when schools operate under the same designation and intervention model.

A shift in focus

To exit the PZ, schools must hit a series of achievement targets tied to the six-tenet framework, which usually takes about two years. But Sanders notes that this doesn’t indicate whether a school is on an upward trajectory or will be able to sustain its improvement. The STU team is now thinking about what “turnaround 2.0” could look like, and agree that current exit criteria don’t actually indicate whether the school is successfully turned around or not.

Sanders hopes to re-work and strengthen the improvement assessment framework by aligning it with the SMARTER Balance Consortium expectations and including measures like changes to instructional scale scores between the fall and spring and comparisons against schools with similar populations. This would create a more rigorous exit criteria, but Sanders feels that it would be, “more fair, because we look at a broader picture and we give schools credit for what they have done in one year”.

The second time around, Sanders says, it will be evident that the SEA has learned that, “we can and probably should take a more active role from the state level.” While the current model gives school and districts more leeway with implementation and budget, not all results are satisfactory. The state has many levers it can use to spur schools, Sanders notes, including the authority to take over closed schools and the ability to withhold funding based on performance and implementation.   Those levers, used effectively, can ensure that turnaround is supported to be successful.


Based on information gathered from the New York State School Turnaround Office’s case study Delaware’s Partnership Zone School Turnaround Governance Highlights, available online at, and from an interview with Keith Sanders conducted by phone on August 30, 2013.


[1] The STU’s framework for school improvement is based on six tenets of school effectiveness: common core alignment and making sure the school is on pace to implement the Common Core State Standards; teacher effectiveness and decision-making in a data-driven culture; principal development and supporting key leaders; students’ personal and social development and provision of wraparound services to ensure that a healthy culture and climate are in place; parent engagement (Sanders notes that it’s rare to see an SEA get involved in this area, but they believe that in this climate parents should be aware and informed), and district capacity.


Using SEA Powers: Part III: Virginia – Focus on Districts and Partners to Maximize Capacity

Interview with Kathleen Smith, Director, Virginia Department of Education Office of School Improvement

This month, Alexandra Usher, an MPP candidate at University of Chicago, will discuss examples pertaining to an upcoming Mass Insight publication, The Top Ten SEA Power Levers for School Turnaround.  Keep an eye on this space for more information coming soon!


In 2002, in light of a growing number of underperforming schools, Virginia began the PASS (Partnership for Achieving Successful Schools) initiative for school improvement. In 2005, there were 146 schools in “warning” status (failing to make a school-wide pass rate of 70% in math and 75% in reading). By 2012 that number was reduced to 18. However, Virginia recently toughened its math and English stands and now has 421 schools in warning status.

Working with these schools is Kathleen Smith’s focus. “It’s a different strategy, when you really begin working with your lowest-performing schools,” she says. The critical work is putting systems in place so they can make improvements even with the new standards. In SIG schools, this occurs by establishing relationships with lead turnaround partners. The two most critical components of turnaround success in Virginia, Smith says, are making lead turnaround partners available, and shifting the focus of improvement work to the district level.

Shifting to a district-level focus

In 2006, Virginia shifted its focus to district processes for support schools in improvement. Smith stresses the importance of building LEA capacity as a means to increase SEA capacity. “It helps us human capacity wise when we build the capacity of the district to be able to do [turnaround work].” The VDOE first had to get parties communicating; once school and district administrators were meeting regularly, the work became much less siloed.

Now, the SEA’s role can start with the district – a more efficient use of resources, crucial in this time of limited budgets. For example, the money Smith usually has to work with “warning” schools is stretched thin with the recent increase in number of schools. The focus on district capacity to support turnaround, instead of working with each individual school, means that she can get the most for her dollars. The SEA’s attitude has become, “We’ll give you the tools, but you get the work done.”

This focus also helps align improvement work so that everyone – from the school to the district to the state level and the lead turnaround partner – is moving in the same direction, aligned to the same goals and action steps. “Districts need to be willing to bend and be flexible, but at the same time, you have to have people pulling the cart in the same direction – you can’t layer SIG requirements on top of district requirements on top of state requirements,” she says. “[Schools’ improvement work] has got to be autonomy with accountability, but it still has to be very well connected to the district initiatives. You cannot do it in isolation of other district initiatives.”


 When Smith is monitoring schools’ progress against their plan in the Indistar system, one of the main things she looks for is changes – if a school is changing something in its plan every month, she takes that as a positive sign that they are looking at their data and updating their plan accordingly. She also wants to see upward movement in the schools’ ranking within the state.

Holding parties accountable

When the SEA doesn’t see indicators moving, they take a closer look at the relationship between the lead partner and the school, helping troubleshoot any problems and, most importantly, threatening to pull the contract if there isn’t a change. “Schools are not businesses,” Smith explains, “and they [school and district staff] do not always understand the concept of ‘you work for money, and have to be held accountable for the contract’. So we had to work with the school districts to be forceful and tell their lead partners that they’re not supplying what they promised, and so they aren’t going to get paid.”

Smith also notes the important of principal leadership. “You’ve got to have the right person – leadership is everything. You have to match personality and skill.”

Importance of partnerships and maximizing the available resources

Smith also stresses the importance of partnerships and knowing the available resources. In Virginia, her office works closely with the principals associations and the Virginia Foundation for Educational Leadership, which helps identify talented people available for contract work, as well as their Comprehensive Center and REL. Smith says that opportunities are available in every state – the SEA just has to be willing to look for them.


Based on information gathered in an interview with Kathleen Smith conducted by phone on September 17, 2013.



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