What Matters More, New Decision Making Authority or Context-Specific Solutions? — Lesson Two From Revisiting the Turnaround Challenge

This is the second 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.

In our last post, we noted that The Turnaround Challenge argues that school leaders need new decision-making authority to change conditions in low-performing schools. But changes to decision-making authority were not always necessary or sufficient to improve student outcomes in the districts we studied. These findings underscore the importance of context-specific solutions. 

Over the decade and a half since the release of The Turnaround Challenge, we have learned that school improvement works best when support is customized to align with the unique local context and conditions. 

Our current work with the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) has provided more opportunities to customize our approach based on the local context and conditions of individual schools, staff, students, and the communities they represent. Mi began working with 46 schools designated for Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) in Philadelphia in 2021. Our support includes facilitating needs assessments and action planning, conducting root cause analyses, goal setting, and strategy selection based on the school’s unique needs, district guidance, and state requirements. We helped build the capacity of school-level instructional leadership to implement, operationalize, monitor, and manage CSI plans through regular, customized school-level support. Following the first year of implementation support, 83% of Philadelphia CSI school leaders reported that Mi’s support helped them address their identified priority areas more effectively. 

Urban schools face a host of issues, but add in a global pandemic and the work becomes even more complex. To address this complexity, the Mi team worked with the district and school staff through a collaborative approach that capitalized on the strengths of both schools and staff. This required the team to get to know schools beyond numbers and labels. These relationships served as a springboard for true progress.

A particularly striking example of this type of progress and context-based support is Learning Network 12, which consisted of all CSI schools. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jamina Clay brought Mi staff onto her team, and then approached schools and leaders with high expectations, knowledge, compassion and love. The Mi team determined the needs for each school in the network through a process of learning about the school, staff, and their focus for improvement. This enabled us to customize the implementation support for each one. For example, schools needed help improving instruction for multilingual learners and students served by IEPs. Mi worked with district and school staff to develop professional learning and supplemental writing materials for teachers to use, specifically targeting state assessment requirements. Within two years, half of these schools exited CSI status; and the majority of the remaining partner schools are on track to exit CSI status within a year.  

Our partnership with SDP and deep understanding of the district, schools, staff, and needs of the nearby communities, helped us develop context-specific support. We are excited about the opportunity for further improvement with our SDP partners, including new and returning CSI schools.

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