District and School Turnaround


Our District and School services include supports for districts and direct support to individual schools. The intensity and focus of our support is determined in collaboration with clients, to jointly determine activities, outcomes, and whether the work is focused on Turnaround (dramatic and accelerated improvement) or Improvement (typically less intensive, but still focused on rapid improvement and capacity building). As a small business, our fees are competitive and typically less than major service providers; we take on a select number of clients each year to ensure that our our leadership plays a significant role in each engagement. 

Our approach is is based upon a set of research- and practice-based Turnaround Practices for schools and for districts, recognizing the dual importance of district systems and attending to classroom practice. The following provides a description of our strands of work and research. 


Turnaround Strands of Work

Initial Design Sessions

One or multiple Design Sessions are held with district and school leaders, to develop a "map" of the current system of supports, identify existing challenges and assets, and to explore and design a working theory of action that will guide improvement efforts. 

Strategic Planning

After understanding the system (during the design phase), we often conduct needs assessments, site visits, and root cause analyses to develop a shared set of improvement strategies for moving forward. These strategies are articulated in a strategic plan with core objectives, strategies, actions, and benchmarks for monitoring progress. 

Implementation Strategy Sessions

Supporting implementation is crucial. As districts and schools engage in improvement or turnaround efforts, we convene quarterly Strategy Sessions that provide an opportunity for district and school leaders to reflect upon their work (using data and their own experience) and adjust their actions. Each session includes formal analysis of data, conversation, and identification of next steps. Sessions are carefully documented to directly inform actions and track progress over time. 


Often, we incorporate networking activities among districts and among schools engaged in improvement efforts, especially when schools may be working on a common problem of practice or set of common initiatives. Improvement Science practices are incorporated into network activities, to systematically test whether improvement efforts are working and to ensure the spread of effective practices. 

Research Base on District and School Supports

District Turnaround and Improvement


How can districts initiate, support, and sustain rapid improvement?

Recent  studies of district improvement and turnaround provide the key characteristics of improving districts (Sykes et al., 2009) and the  strategies used by effective district leaders (Waters and Marzano,  2006). Various district improvement frameworks, both academic (Rorrer et  al., 2008) and action-oriented (Childress et al., 2006; Connell, 2000;  Marsh, 2005), are beginning to show how, when strategically implemented,  district improvement strategies can together to initiate and sustain  rapid improvements in district capacity, instructional quality, and  student performance. 

The  core of our work involves the integration of research on district  improvement into actionable tools, guidance, and principles as used by  states, districts, and schools. While recent research on district  improvement tells us much about the characteristics of improving districts, it does not provide much guidance on how districts actually initiate and sustain rapid improvement. 

To address this gap, we developed and use a Framework for District Capacity Building and Improvement. Initially developed in partnership with the  National Center on Innovation and Improvement, the Framework advances  ongoing work around district improvement by clarifying relationships among the core functions of a district, the capacity of a district to  leverage its core functions to focus exclusively on improving all  aspects of the district, including instruction, and those key  drivers(e.g., triggers, events, incentives, opportunities, and a  threshold of capacity) that must be present if a district is to embark  on the path towards rapid improvement. The Framework builds directly upon a review of the research on district improvement and incorporates our current research on Turnaround Practices for Effective School Turnaround. 

Shared Resources from INSTLL

  • Framework for District Capacity and Improvement
  • District Indicators
  • Primer on District Improvement (slide deck)


The five studies used extensively to inform the Framework for District Capacity Building and Improvement include:

Leithwood, et al. (2004). Review of research: How leadership influences student learning.

Marsh, J. et al. (2005). The Role of Districts in Fostering Instructional Improvement: Lessons from Three Urban Districts

McLaughlin, M. & Talbert, J. (2003). Reforming Districts: How Districts Support School Reform. A Research Report.

Snipes, et al. (2002). Foundations for Success: Case Studies of How Urban School Systems Improve Student Achievement.

Rorrer, A., Skrla, L, & Scheurich, J. (2008).  Districts as institutional actors in educational reform. 

Additional References:

Connell,  J. P., & Klem, A. M. (2000). You Can There From Here: Using a  Theory of Change Approach to Plan Urban Education Reform. Journal of  Educational and Psychological Consultation, 11(1), 93-120.

Childress,  S., Elmore, R., and Grossman, A.  (2006).  How to manage urban school  districts.  Harvard Business Review, 84(11), 55-68. 

Marsh,  J., Kerr, K. A., Ikemoto, G. S., Darilek, H., Suttorp, M., Zimmere, R.  W., Barney, H. (2005). The Role of Districts in Fostering Instructional  Improvement: Lessons from Three Urban Districts Partnered with the  Institute for Learning. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Rorrer,  A., Skrla, L, & Scheurich, J.  (2008).  Districts as institutional  actors in educational reform.  Educational Administration Quarterly,  44(3), 307-358.

Sykes,  G., O’Day, J., & Ford, T. G. (2009). The District Role in  Instructional Improvement. In Handbook of Education on Policy Research,  New York: Routledge.

Waters,  J. T., & Marzano, R. J. (2006). School District Leadership that  Works: The Effect of Superintendent Leadership on Student Achievement, A  Working Paper. Denver, CO: MCREL

School Turnaround and Improvement


How can schools initiate, support, and sustain rapid improvement?

The ability of individual schools - their leaders, teachers, and students - to work together effectively depends on district capacity, district supports, and local, or school-based capacity. Districts must ensure that the conditions are in place for schools to be successful. At the school-level, three elements are paramount: (1) effective and engaged school leadership; (2) capable, engaged, and skilled teachers and support staff; and (3) a well-constructed core curriculum, units and lessons, and assessments. While additional features characterize effective schools (e.g., trusting relationships among adults, engaged parents, engaged students, non-academic supports and enrichment activities); we see these features as dependent on leadership and teachers working together collaboratively to proactively meet the needs of students and families.

Paralleling the three elements listed above (leadership, skilled teachers, and core curriculum and assessments) is a growing body of research on HOW schools engage in rapid improvement, or turnaround, and accelerate learning for all students. These "Turnaround Practices" provide a detailed road map for how districts and schools can move forward, especially schools with high populations of low income students and that may be disproportionately African-American or Hispanic. 

We use these Turnaround Practices for Accelerated School Improvement as our framework for all school-based improvement activities. The practices (listed in brief below) include a set of components and detailed indicators, and are based on 5 years of research and practice in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

Turnaround Practices for Accelerated Improvement

Turnaround Practice #1: Leadership, Shared Responsibility, and Professional Collaboration. 

The school has established a community of practice through leadership, shared responsibility, and professional collaboration

Turnaround Practice 2:  Intentional Practices for Improving Instruction

The school employs intentional practices for improving teacher-specific and student-responsive instruction

Turnaround Practice 3:  Providing Student-Specific Supports and Instruction to All Students

The school is able to provide student-specific supports and interventions informed by data and the identification of student-specific needs

Turnaround Practice 4:  School Climate and Culture

The School has established a climate and culture that provides a safe, orderly and respectful environment for students and a collegial, collaborative, and professional culture among teachers that supports the school’s focus on increasing student achievement.

We offer the following services and supports that supplement our core support activities (Design, Planning, and Networking). Each service is customized and typically includes a written report and follow-up activities. 

  • School-Based Site Visits: Two or three day site visits to selected schools, to assess school organizational capacity and systems through the lens of the Turnaround Practices, followed by a detailed report and technical assistance.

  • Analysis of Data Systems (Access and Use): A detailed analysis of district and school systems, processes, and use  of data, focusing on how leadership and grade-level teams use data to improve instruction. 

  • School Redesign (High School, Middle School, and Elementary): This work typically involves a site visit and additional analysis, and focuses on incorporating research and best-practice from across the nation to "redesign" a school (or schools) to meet the needs of all students. 

  • Assessment of District Systems and Supports: Incorporating our district framework and the Turnaround Practices, we provide a comprehensive analysis of district systems and the extent to which district systems and supports are having the intended impact. 

  • Analysis of Grading Policies: A review of district and school-based grading policies as written and as enacted, to assess the connection between what is taught, teachers expectations, grades, and student performance on state assessments.