How Do Teachers Teach in Turnaround Schools?

I posted this piece in August of 2009. I offer it again because the points I raise in it remain relevant today. Turning around a school means that federal, state, and local officials identify a low-performing school, remove staff, and new administrators and staff put certain policies in place that will get teachers to alter their lessons, develop strong relationships with their students, and raise test scores. I questioned the wisdom of that policy direction years ago when I wrote this post and continue to do so now.

Lots of stories from principals, parents, and students reveal practices that range from marvelous to malign. Individual teachers give us a sense of what happens in their classrooms. Rafe Esquith in LA writes about his lessons and his kids’ experiences in an elementary school; Sarah Fine, an English teacher in a D.C. charter school, tells of her successes and failures. But beyond stories and first-hand accounts, helpful as they are in giving us a peek into different classrooms, we know very little about the kinds of daily lessons that unfold across the grades and in academic subjects. We know especially little about classroom teaching in those turnaround schools that get extra resources, new (and young) staff, and the charge to go from a chronically failing school to a high-flier.

So what? What’s wrong with being largely ignorant of how teachers teach in turnaround schools or even high-performing ones? Knowing how teachers teach is critical because school boards and superintendents assume that their decisions to turnaround schools (and adopting other policies targeting better student performance) will alter classroom teaching and lead to improved test scores.

In short, every single federal, state, and district policy decision aimed at improving student academic performance has a set of taken-for-granted assumptions that link the adopted policy to classroom lessons. From the feds putting money on the stump to entice educators in “Race to the Top” to getting states to adopt charters and pay-for-performance schemes to a local school board and superintendent deciding to give laptops to each teacher and student, contain crucial assumptions–not facts–about classroom outcomes that the new policy promises. And one of those crucial assumptions is that teachers will change how they teach for the better. Rarely are serious questions asked about these assumptions before or after hyped-up policies were adopted, money allocated, expectations raised, and materials (or machines) deployed to classrooms.

Consider a few simple questions that, too often, go unasked of policies heralded as a cure-all for the ills of urban schools, including turnaround schools.

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement (e.g.,reconstituting staff in low-performing schools, mayoral control, small high schools, pay-for performance plans, and parental choice) get fully implemented?

2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?

3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?

4. Did what students learn achieve the goals set by policy makers?

These straightforward questions about reform-driven policies inspect the chain of policy-to-practice assumptions that federal, state, and local decision-makers take for granted when adopting their pet policy. These questions distinguish policy talk (e.g. “Race to the Top”) and policy action (e.g., adopting and implementing policies) from classroom practice (e.g. how do teachers teach as a result of new policies),and student learning (e.g., what have students learned as a result of different lessons).

Subsequent blogs will take up the critical importance of the second and third questions and go beyond the stories we hear from parents, principals, and students and the individual accounts of savvy classroom teachers such as Esquith and Fine.


Since writing this post over four years ago, I went searching for evidence that might support the practices recommended by the U.S. Department of Education in turning around schools. I found little evidence that would support such a major policy direction embedded in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. See here, here, and Mintrop, et. al PDF



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9 responses to “How Do Teachers Teach in Turnaround Schools?

  1. Hi Larry,
    I asked a friend of mine who is studying to be a teacher, to ask the professors “Can they turn a school around?” The responses were vague, begging the question “Can anyone turn a school around?”. Is the problem intractable or believed to be intractable?
    In your post of Oct 30, 2013 – which I profoundly agree with – you said “…the age-graded school has to be seen anew as the problem to be solved, not teacher unions, insufficient iPads, or policies that instill fear into teachers or tighten standards-based testing…”, which begs another question: Is it possible to solve the problem of the age graded school?
    Many thanks,

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your comments, Bob. As for your last question on the age-graded school, my answer is yes. I base that on the continuing saga of multi-grade teams in elementary schools and non-graded schools over the past century. They offer proof that non-graded organizations can exist. Secondary non-graded schools are harder to design and implement but not impossible.

      • Thank you Larry. I couldn’t help asking another question. At the risk of a poor analogy, if improving “how to teach assemblers” and “how to organize assembly work” are two different things (they are), is improving “teaching and learning” different from solving the problem of age-graded schools?

      • larrycuban

        In my mind, Bob, they are connected. Age-graded structures influence how teachers teach and how kids learn (e.g. you got 36 weeks to cover the content of the text or meet state standards for the content/skills–meaning that all kids learn at the same pace). So altering the age-graded school, to me, is connected to improving teaching and learning.

  2. Dennis Sparks

    These are wonderful questions, Larry, that get at the central issue of “reform” – what changes in classrooms and with student learning because of the new policies, resources, or practices? Policymakers and many reformers seem to have little interest in what happens in that “final mile” of a thousand-mile journey.

  3. I appreciate the discussion very much, as always Larry. Some research I did a few years ago suggests there are some school reform models that have aggressively pursued instructional reform. This is briefly summarized for four reform networks in general, and one in particular, here ( A more complex report looked at start-ups vs. turn-arounds (conversions) with and without a reform model. Exploratory findings indicate a holistic school reform model is significant for start-ups and conversions (, Table 6), especially when it comes to teachers who are using project-based learning. My interpretation is that school change may not end up impacting instruction unless there is real intention and commitment, and perhaps a school wide reform model and network to support new practices. I hope this is relevant and appropriate to share, apologize profusely if it’s not, and would of course be interested in your thoughts. Keep ’em coming! I always looking forward to reading your latest.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Jason, for the links to the pieces you mentioned. I will look at them. More often than not, models of reform seldom build in an infrastructure for teachers to work together to convert the policy objectives into classroom practices.

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