Search form

Turning Around Troubled Schools

Yes, it is possible to turn around consistently low-performing schools. That's the message of a recent Department of Education report. Read of some schools that turned around performance. Learn how they did it!

  • In 1996 the New York City Chancellor's District took over P.S. 154 in Harlem, and the staff proceeded to redesign the school. At the time student reading scores on a statewide assessment were low. The school staff chose a focused, concentrated reading program, developed an education plan around the program, and trained all teachers to put the plan into effect. In the first year, the number of third-grade students meeting state standards in reading increased 20 percent. Since then, student reading scores have improved significantly, and New York State has removed P.S. 154 from its list of low-performing schools.

  • At Marshall Middle School in Houston, Texas, discipline was a problem. The school turned around the situation using a program called Consistency Management and Cooperative Discipline, which builds self-discipline in students. Students are encouraged to become citizens of their schools, and in doing so, they take responsibility for their actions and other students' actions. Disciplinary problems and absenteeism dropped at Marshall, and student achievement increased. With fewer disciplinary problems, each teacher gained an average of 30 minutes in instructional time each day. In 1995-96, Marshall was removed from district and state lists of low-performing schools.

  • In 1994, all schools in Long Beach, California, began requiring school uniforms. Since then, the district reports, crime in schools has decreased 76 percent. There are, of course, arguments for and against school uniforms. Proponents maintain uniforms decrease fighting over clothing, are convenient, and help students develop a common identity.

Those are just three of many success stories told in a May 7, 1998, U.S. Department of Education 68-page report, Turning Around Low-Performing Schools: A Guide for State and Local Leaders. The report provides general guidelines and specific tips for educators and state and local officials on how to turn around persistently low-performing schools.


To combat ineffectiveness in schools, a definition of effective schools is needed. According to a recent study of 26 high-achieving, high-poverty schools in Texas and decades of research, effective schools demonstrate the following characteristics:

  • An intense focus on academic achievement for each student
  • "A refusal to accept excuses for poor performance"
  • An openness to using a variety of strategies
  • An ongoing focus on involving parents and the community
  • A setting with mutual respect and working together
  • A commitment to continuous improvement and professional growth

No one characteristic indicates a low-performing school, and generally no single new practice can change a school from low-performing to effective. But a section of "Turning Around Low-Performing Schools" focuses on a cluster of positive actions that can lead to positive results. Titled "Focus on Learning: Promising Strategies for Improving Student Achievement," this section provides concrete information and suggestions.


"Improving the school learning environment requires more than the implementation of get-tough disciplinary measures," maintains the report. It also requires a focused curriculum.

San Antonio, Texas, high schools offered about 2,600 courses when Superintendent Diana Lam tackled the reorganization of high schools in her district. Lam reduced central office staff so she could devote more resources to creating an instructional guide for each high school. The guides concentrated on curriculum and instruction rather than administration. Now she focuses on instituting smaller learning communities, called academies, with rigorous curricula and standards.

Community School District #2 in New York City, which spans a diverse population from the Upper East Side to Chinatown, has made a commitment to ongoing improvement in curriculum and instruction. By cutting district office expenses and non-instructional positions in the district's schools, the district freed a large percentage of its total resources for professional development.

A focus on professional development goes hand-in-hand with an effective curriculum. A curriculum, in many ways, is only as good as its teachers.

"The bottom line is that there is just no way to create good schools without good teachers. Those who have worked to improve education over the last decade have learned that school reform cannot be 'teacher-proofed.' Success in any aspect of reform -- whether creating standards, developing more challenging curriculum and assessments, implementing school-based management, or inventing new model schools and programs -- depends on highly skilled teachers," states the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.


Action within the schools is not sufficient, either. Continuous support from the district and state levels is also needed. The Consortium for Policy Research in Education has found that states must

  • ensure a match between reform models and the state's instructional strategies,
  • evaluate the capability of a district to support comprehensive reform, and
  • play an ongoing role in evaluating the success of models and comprehensive reform programs.

In addition, the Consortium found that districts must

  • assist schools in selecting models that best meet the needs of their students,
  • establish a new district operating method -- change budgeting, use of funds, personnel authority, accountability, and so on -- that supports comprehensive reform,
  • monitor and evaluate the quality and performance of model design teams or other technical assistance providers, and
  • create a public engagement that informs parents and the community about comprehensive school reform.


What's most helpful about "Turning Around Low-Performing Schools" is its specificity. In addition to generalizations about creating effective schools, the report offers individual case studies demonstrating what school districts actually did to ensure safer schools, improve students' reading assessment, enable more students to take challenging courses, and nurture professional development.

At the end of the section "Focus on Learning: Promising Strategies for Improving Student Achievement," the report identifies school reform models that readers can investigate. These models include High Schools That Work, Modern Red Schoolhouse, and Success for All. It also points out other sources for discovering education reform networks and models.

Educators in search of pertinent information about and resources for turning around their schools will find the report insightful and timely.

Related Sites

  • N.C. Gets First School-by-School Performance Results A Teacher Magazine article sums up the results of North Carolina's first school-by-school performance assessment, which left some administrators and teachers garnering compliments and cash for meeting or exceeding performance expectations and others struggling to turn around their students' low achievements.
  • ED Initiatives... The progress report on educational initiatives deemed vital by the Secretary of Education features such topics as class size reduction and teacher quality, helping all children read well by the end of 3rd grade, turning around low-performing schools, and creating education opportunity zones.
  • Improving America's Schools Act of 1994 (IASA) A listing with links to various resources dedicated to improving U.S. schools. The resources include an idea book for creating programs under Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that are rooted in successful Chapter 1 schoolwide projects.
  • Improving America's Schools: A Newsletter on Issues in School Reform A series of four newsletters is designed to help school, district, and state leaders investigate four key topics in improving U.S. schools: Schoolwide Programs; Creating Better Student Assessments; Standards: What Are They; and Rethinking Professional Development.

Related Articles from Education World

Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World