What Matters More, New Decision Making Authority or Changing Conditions? — Lesson One From Revisiting the Turnaround Challenge

This is the first of seven blog posts that will highlight the key points in Mi’s recent report, Revisiting the Turnaround Challenge. The report examined the outcomes of three “turnaround zones” implemented by urban public school districts in partnership with Mi between 2012-2019. Our goal was to learn from our past work to help school and district leaders and State Education Agency staff accelerate pandemic recovery in low-performing schools and begin the difficult task of reinventing public education to better serve systemically marginalized students.

While our landmark The Turnaround Challenge report, published in 2007, advocates for changing conditions by empowering school leaders with new decision-making authority, we learned that the extent to which a district has established the conditions (time, people, money, and program) necessary for school transformation seems to matter more than the strategies by which conditions changed. Each zone featured changed conditions in different ways and achieved different results. New decision-making authority was not always necessary or, importantly, sufficient to significantly improve student outcomes. 

For example, we found that two districts attempted to change conditions by giving zone leaders new decision-making authority over time, people, money, and program through new governance structures and policies. However, their ability to operationalize that authority varied. Test scores improved significantly in the zone where leaders were able to use their new autonomy. But bureaucratic and, to a lesser extent, union resistance in the other district hampered zone leaders’ ability to exercise new decision-making authority and no statistically significant change in test scores or graduation rates was observed during zone implementation.

The third district did not grant new decision-making authority. Instead, it changed conditions by flooding zone schools with resources, primarily additional support staff. This zone experienced a statistically significant increase in test scores and graduation rates during the first year of zone implementation and was the only district where improvement in zone schools significantly outpaced corresponding improvement in non-zone schools.

Importantly, this suggests that there is no single strategy for changing conditions that works in every district. What matters most is putting the right mix of time, people, money, and program in place in practice.

With this in mind, we now support our partners by helping them understand school conditions and the way time, people, money, and program could be reallocated or improved to address root causes of disparate outcomes and accelerate learning.  

For example, Allentown School District (ASD) in Allentown, Pennsylvania partnered with Mi to serve as their Middle School Transformation Partner.We provided diagnostic reviews to understand school conditions and needs, planning to address school needs, leadership coaching and support, and progress monitoring. As a result, ASD pursued specific conditions changes related to people and programs, including adding staff capacity, so each middle school now has six positions dedicated to improving instruction.

The strong preliminary results are encouraging. The middle school which Mi supported most closely achieved a 12.1% increase in students scoring proficient or advanced in Mathematics and an 8.3% increase in students scoring proficient or advanced in ELA in one year. ASD leaders also perceived meaningful changes to their understanding of school conditions, their leadership capacity, and organizational systems.

By the end of the third year of the partnership, standardized test scores in all four middle schools increased, with Student Growth Percentiles increasing by approximately 16 points in ELA and 25 points in math compared to the year one baseline, and ELA and math proficiency rates increasing at all four middle schools. Several schools now have proficiency rates higher than the district average—a result that is a reflection of the hard work of Allentown’s school leaders, teachers, students, and parents.

Changing conditions matters most in helping low performing schools make big, and sustainable, improvements. Getting that right is the foundation of improving student outcomes.

Click here to read the next blog post in this series.

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