Rethinking High School Turnaround

Today, we begin a series of guest posts by Betsy Doyle (Partner) and Nithin Iyengar (Consultant) in The Bridgespan Group’s Education Practice. Each Wednesday during the month of October, Betsy and Nithin plan to explore key priorities and promising practices from the field.  Many of the themes they find in their own conversations coincide with Mass Insight Education’s 3 Cs of turnaround: conditions, capacity, and clusters.  We invite – and encourage – you to join the conversation.


With millions of students and teachers returning to school this fall, we can’t help but think about the promise of new beginnings – and what it really takes to deliver on that promise for students at chronically low-performing high schools across the country.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen some powerful stories of progress.  Five years ago, Locke High School in South Los Angeles was one of the lowest performing schools in California: of the 1,000 freshmen who entered in 2004, 250 graduated and 50 enrolled in college.

Four years into Green Dot Public Schools’ turnaround effort at Locke, the first full cohort of 9th graders has graduated. Compared to peer schools across South Los Angeles, students at Locke today are 1.5 times more likely to graduate and 3.7 times more likely to complete coursework that prepares them for college. Sixty percent of them have been accepted to college.

This is a real achievement and the Locke community has much to be proud of. “But here’s what keeps us up at night,” reflected Green Dot’s CEO Marco Petruzzi. “The gains we have made are the result of tremendous hard work, yet we’re still not preparing every student to graduate college- and career-ready.”

As a nation, how will we reach the hundreds of failing high schools that need help?

With this challenge in mind, Green Dot and The Bridgespan Group convened a small group of education leaders focused on high school turnaround and transformation last summer.  They included charter networks such as KIPP and Aspire Public Schools as well as groups such as AUSL, New Visions for Public Schools, and Tennessee’s Achievement School District.  The goal was to create an informal space to share problems of practice and work together on solutions – all toward the ultimate goal of college- and career-readiness for every student.

The event confirmed that positive change seems possible, but teams are stretched thin and resources are scarce. And as kids get diplomas, questions remain as to whether they are truly prepared to succeed in what lies ahead. Too many will rack up loans and never graduate, enrolling in college only to spend time in remedial classes and never acquire career-ready skills. Without a college degree or career-ready credential, we have overwhelming evidence that students cannot break cycles of intergenerational poverty and transform their futures.

So what is to be done?  The group surfaced three priorities for continued exploration:

First, we must continue to set a high standard for ALL of our high schools.  As a country, we’re making considerable progress in defining fewer, clearer, higher standards for college and career readiness.  Yet success is often couched in terms such as “increased student achievement” or “adequate yearly progress,” which often represent a lower bar. We need to have the same high expectations for every student, regardless of the school that he or she attends. And we need to recognize that this will likely require doing the work of high school transformation very differently.

We must develop excellent teachers and leaders committed to school transformation for the long-haul…and we need to keep the ones we already have. Today, the model for staffing high school transformation is often to find the most effective teachers and leaders, offer them bonuses, and ask them to do heroic work. But these candidates are in short supply and both novices and the more experienced struggle in transformation settings without training and support. Burnout is high. Going forward, we need to increase and sustain the number – and impact – of effective teachers and leaders working in transformation settings. We need to improve pipelines to attract and prepare staff for the particular challenges of this work, create space for teacher-led, collaborative learning, and invest in supports and incentives that empower great teachers and leaders to stay in the schools where they are needed most.

We must consider students’ K-16 experiences, not just their 4-year high school experience. Most failing high schools have a large percentage of students arriving multiple grade levels behind. This often creates unrealistic expectations about the ability to achieve college- and career-readiness within four years of high school. We need to explore new approaches to a student’s experience, including more coherent, deliberate K-12 feeder patterns, stronger bridges between high schools and post-secondary institutions, innovative use of technology that promotes both credit recovery and college and career preparation, and improved coordination of out-of-school student supports.

These issues are not exclusive to the lowest performing high schools across the country, but the stakes in these schools are increasingly high. As Paul Castro of KIPP Houston shared during the event, “In many neighborhoods, these chronically low-performing high schools represent a last community outpost.  The livelihood of these communities depends on improving these high schools.”

That’s a promise worth keeping.

During the month of October, we plan to return to each of these themes and take a look at promising practices from the field.  In the meantime, we invite you to join the conversation:  Do these themes resonate with your own work?  What are additional priorities for consideration?

Betsy Haley Doyle & Nithin Iyengar