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Measures of Last Resort: Assessing Strategies for State-Initiated Turnarounds

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With enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act, responsibility for improving student outcomes is back under states’ purview, empowering them to craft their own evidence-based turnaround strategies. Recent state-initiated turnarounds have taken many forms and all turnarounds aim to catalyze improvement in student outcomes. But the evidence base around these strategies is weak, and existing research provides little guidance to help states develop more effective strategies.

Using the most rigorous evaluations available, this report identifies various mechanisms states can use to intervene in schools and dives deep into nearly a dozen recent turnarounds in eight states. It maps the five common turnaround approaches: state support for local turnaround, state-authorized turnaround zone, mayoral control, school takeover, and district takeover. And it analyzes what is known about state-initiated turnaround in all its forms.

The report is designed to help states ensure their support is more targeted, better received, and, ultimately, more effective. Three core findings emerge from the evaluations:

  1. Four ingredients are vital for any state-initiated turnaround approach: the will to initiate changes to practice, sufficient authority to implement effective strategies, adequate capacity to execute the turnaround plan, and political support to sustain changes over time.
  2. Different approaches to state-initiated turnaround are not created equal—they target different entities, entail different roles for the state, and rely on different actors to be successful. States should not expect one strategy to be a good fit everywhere or to solve every problem they confront.
  3. Given the varied state and local contexts, states will maximize their odds of success by using multiple turnaround strategies, including leveraging districts as partners when possible and engaging in more disruptive approaches when necessary.

This report is the first in a series of publications from CRPE’s “Linking State and Local School Improvement” initiative, meant to inform state education leaders, policymakers, and advocacy groups about how to best support promising local school improvement efforts.

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