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Lesson 7.9

Intervening When Schools Fail

If a school is failing, call in the cavalry!

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Image: Troopers of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment charge the field of Battle at the National Training Center Fort Irwin Calif. Image adapted courtesy of Dan Carbone via

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to set standards for grade-level proficiency in math and language arts. Like its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), it requires states to assess student learning against these standards annually for certain grades. Under the No Child Left Behind, if schools failed to make a specified amount of "Adequate Yearly Progress" toward these goals, there were consequences. Schools that did not redeem themselves within five years, under federal law, were required to be closed or deeply restructured.

Under ESSA, the decision about how to help a failing school is a state decision, not a federal one. The Alliance for Excellent Education compares the rules under ESSA with those under NCLB in this primer. Under ESSA, at least once every three years, states must identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I schools and high schools with graduation rates at or below 67 percent for "comprehensive, locally-determined, evidence-based intervention."

Send in the Cavalry!

Unfortunately, turning struggling schools around turns out to be really, really hard. By 2010 hundreds of schools in California, and dozens of districts, were operating under NCLB sanctions, or slated for them. However, the state had not developed intervention strategies that were clearly effective. Eventually the automatically rising bar became meaningless as it floated beyond the reach of nine out of ten high-poverty schools in the state.

Unfortunately, turning struggling schools around turns out to be really, really hard.

Because California public education funding is so far below national norms, most people believe that school turnarounds in California may require a dramatic infusion of resources. California’s largest-ever test of this school turnaround theory is the Quality Education Investment Act of 2006 (QEIA). This legislation, which settled a budget dispute between the California Teachers Association (CTA) and Governor Schwarzenegger, provided roughly $1,000 per student in additional funding for a period of seven years to low-performing schools. The act required that the bulk of the money be spent on class size reduction.

CTA sponsored an independent evaluation of QEIA and began publishing reports on the findings in 2013. The aims of the evaluation were to:

  • Understand the extent to which schools are implementing the program;
  • Explain why and how QEIA works in successful schools so that it can be replicated in others;
  • For schools that struggled, explain the factors that inhibited positive outcomes;
  • Examine the various impacts of QEIA on participating schools; and
  • Uncover promising practices from successful schools that can be shared with others.

Just this list of topics gives some perspective on how complex it can be even to evaluate whether a school intervention or turnaround strategy works. Each school operates within its own unique community context, with a set of educators, parents, and students who are distinct in their abilities and motivations. Strategies that work in one place can be ineffective in another. An evaluation funded by the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) concluded that the effect of QEIA was modest primarily because districts failed to find and hire "exemplary administrators".

Call in
the cavalry!
We need
an intervention.
Let me put it
our school
is in detention

That has not stopped state and federal policymakers from continuing to try (helpfully) to disrupt conditions in dysfunctional schools. In 2010, congress directed billions of stimulus dollars toward School Improvement Grants. These grants were awarded to schools that were chronically low-performing, and were conditional upon adoption of one of four strategic options, all of them intentionally disruptive. A small slice of the funds was directed toward analysis, to inspect which interventions worked and which did not, but the conclusions of this analysis are bland and shed little light on what actually works. It seems obvious that strong leadership is essential, but it is less obvious what strong leadership means in practical terms that can be copied by people of ordinary ability.

Schools that are failing have a strong tendency to stay that way. California has tried a succession of reforms with tortured acronyms (HPSGP and II/USP - never mind what they stand for) with little to show for them. A 2010 study of school turnaround efforts showed that turnarounds often fail and that failing schools can be "immortal". Still, it is unacceptable to simply shrug and leave struggling schools as they are, right? Just because the work is difficult doesn't make it OK to give up.

Functioning schools are all alike; malfunctioning ones struggle each in their own way.

Turnaround reformers continue to search, gathering evidence to understand promising practices that work under various circumstances. The core problem may be a variant of the Anna Karenina principle: Functioning schools are all alike; malfunctioning ones struggle each in their own way. There is considerable evidence that the most reliable long-term strategy for addressing a dysfunctional school is to close it and start over, opening a new one in its place. But this is a painful process that only has a possibility of working if the new school is different from the old one.

In 2013 California's legislature created a new agency that might provide some guidance about school turnaround options: the California Collaborative for Education Excellence, but the budget for the agency was small. In 2015 veteran school leader Carl Cohn assumed leadership of this organization.

One overarching conclusion is certain: there is no cavalry at the ready to come to the rescue of struggling schools. Creating strong schools requires getting many things right at the same time. Above all, it requires rare leadership, hard work, and strategic use of adequate resources.


If the students of a high-poverty school in California have very low test scores for several consecutive years, which of the following is true?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder August 23, 2015 at 6:47 pm
California's latest foray into school turnarounds is the new California Collaborative for Education Excellence, headed by veteran school leader Carl Cohn:
user avatar
digalamedabg April 14, 2015 at 9:26 pm
We completely turned around a local elementary school through lots of community building. It takes lots of work, dedication and getting your neighbors involved. When one generation of involved parents left and there was not another to take its place, the effect could be seen very quickly.
user avatar
woodmiddleschoolpta April 2, 2015 at 4:26 pm
We turned our Middle School around successfully. It took neighborhood investment and engagement. Only if your district vows to support it's neighborhood schools, only if the families refuse to take flight to the charters, can you turn the school around. It was hard work, and took a lot of advocacy, but maintaining neighborhood schools in our culturally and economically diverse community was ultimately so worth it.
user avatar
cnuptac March 26, 2015 at 11:27 am
If the Feds want no child left behind then they need to help fund a few programs.
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