Magical, immediate or sequential steps to transform a low performing school into one with high student achievement do not exist. In fact, the process of school turnaround generally involves dedication, a laser-like focus, and a combination of strategies in no designated sequence. From our work with turnaround schools, we have observed them achieve their goals using a variety of strategies; therefore, there is no one single gateway through which a school must travel to accomplish sustained school turnaround. Rather, school turnaround begins in many forms and context plays a significant role in the development, implementation, and impact of transformational practices.

The right operating conditions must exist for sustainable turnaround success. The University of Virginia’s national experts on turnaround schools claim that two major factors can influence the success of school turnaround. The first factor involves “…the characteristics and actions of the turnaround leader.” (Dolan, 2013, 8) Likewise, one of the four domains The Center on School Turnaround identified in critical practices of successful turnaround was school leadership, which they reported was central to rapid and significant improvement. In addition to leadership, talent development and instructional transformation also were identified (Redding, McCauley, Ryan & Dunn, 2017).

Far too often, low performing schools endure rapid teacher and leader turnover. It is difficult to nurture teacher leadership and build instructional capacity and talent without staff and principal stability. 

School turnaround requires both— teachers and principals collaborating together for improvements to be sustained.

Another barrier to school improvement is the shortage of experienced turnaround principals. A principal with a track record of turning schools around not only can facilitate immediate gains, but also generate sustainable improvements. Indeed, some researchers posit that school leaders who primarily focus on the trees in the woods might never see the forest. “Turnaround leaders who see just initial growth as the needed outcome may focus relentlessly on short-term goals, like individual teachers generating improvement for certain students. Sustained turnaround leaders see that through truly and authentically generating growth in teacher practice, larger and longer scale improvement can be had.” (Hitt & Meyers, 2017, 334)

Regardless of school leader experiences, most can implement strategies to produce those early critical wins to build momentum in the initial phase of improvement.

And, inexperienced principals can grow into those who build teacher leadership and organizational capacity. 

The second factor identified by The University of Virginia’s national experts involves “…the support for dramatic change that the leader and staff receive from the district, state, and/or other governing authority.” (Dolan, 2013, 8) According to the American Institutes for Research, low performing schools that are in crisis cannot build capacity alone; they need support from the district (Barbour, et al., 2010). Therefore, the district’s role in school improvement is essential. The district can help improve instruction by establishing high-performing teams of teachers and networks of teachers across schools, which would provide a forum for teachers to learn from one another. In addition, the district can assist the school in developing leadership teams. (Barbour, et al., 2010)

Rapid wins­­­ translate into sustained high performance only when structures and processes are simultaneously established, making it imperative for school and district leaders to think about and plan for reaching long-term goals.

This type of strategic thinking from leadership staff is manifested by continuously looking forward to the marathon transformation process.  

Although each school has to write its own unique turnaround story, some common threads are apparent in the literature and in our experiences working with turnaround schools. These broad strategies include but are not limited to, developing a culture of high expectations, implementing systems and structures for data-driven decisions, and nurturing instructional leadership and organizational capacity.

Develop a culture of high expectations

Unite all stakeholders through a shared vision and commitment to improvement, including addressing high expectations for professional and student behaviors, and academic performance.

Implement systems and structures for data-driven decisions

  • Conduct annual comprehensive needs assessments to identify key priorities and areas to leverage for immediate improvements and long-term gains, including resource allocation
  •  Collaboratively analyze data to evaluate the effectiveness of practices and programs; student self-monitoring and goal setting; feedback to students; and collective accountability and responsibility.
  • Teachers routinely analyze student data and use findings to guide instructional next steps.

Building professional capacity

  • Develop leadership capacity, including instructional, administrative, organizational, student, community, and family/parent leadership.
  • Establish a productive school leadership team with teacher leaders and administrators committing to the implementation of consistent structures for collaboration and shared accountability to impact student learning.

School turnaround involves continuous improvement beyond the turnaround period. Sustained improvement illustrates that the transformation has become ingrained in the norms of the school. School turnaround is a complex, multilayered process. These and other improvement strategies coupled with strong school leadership and district-level support provide some possible gateways through which schools can begin their journey.



Barbour, Catherine, Matthew Clifford, Paula Corrigan-Halpern, Peggie Garcia, Traci Maday-Karageorge, Cassandra Meyer, and Cathy Townsend. What Experience from the Field Tells Us About School Leadership and Turnaround. American Institutes for Research. December 2010. Accessed March 14, 2018.

Dolan, Kim K. The School Leadership Pipeline Series: Promising Leadership for School Turnarounds, Part 2. Report. June 17, 2013. Accessed March 13, 2018.

Four Domains for Rapid School Improvement: A Systems Framework. San Francisco, CA: Center on School Turnaround at WestEd, 2017.

Hitt, Dallas Hambrick, and Colby V. Meyers. “School Turnarounds and the Test of Time.” In Enduring Myths That Inhibit School Turnaround, edited by Colby V. Meyers and Marlene J. Darwin, 2190228. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing 2017.


Janet Hurt, Ph.D.
Janet Hurt, Ph.D., is the director of Improvement Services for AdvancED. In this role, Dr. Hurt provides leadership and support for all Intensive Support and Improvement services. Prior to joining AdvancED, Dr. Hurt served in a variety of roles, including associate professor, associate superintendent, assistant superintendent, principal, assistant principal, guidance counselor, teacher, scholastic audit team leader and project manager for a $41,000,000 Race to the Top grant. She has won several awards including the Tom Vest Professional Development award from the Kentucky Association of School Administrators and Outstanding Kentucky Guidance Program award. Dr. Hurt has written several articles and a book. She also has served as a keynote speaker, professional development facilitator and invited guest speaker across the U.S. and internationally in cities such as Oxford, England and Beijing, China.
Maria Sells, Ph.D.
Maria Sells, Ph.D., is senior vice president of Improvement Services for Cognia where she leads, manages, monitors, supports, and ensures the quality of the development and delivery of solutions providing holistic support to build capacity for the implementation of cohesive school, district, and state education agency continuous improvement initiatives.  She works with Cognia's regional vice presidents and state directors, for all intensive support and improvement services (e.g., Diagnostic Reviews, Leadership Assessments, Student Engagement Reviews, Focused Engagement Reviews, and Progress Monitoring Reviews). Dr. Sells has more than twenty-five years of experience focusing on assisting schools and districts to achieve excellence through the development and implementation of successful turnaround initiatives, building leadership capacity, targeted professional development, data-driven decision making, and curriculum, instruction, and assessment alignment. Her experiences as a superintendent, assistant superintendent, principal and director of special education span elementary, middle, and high school levels in both rural and urban settings. Dr. Sells has extensive experience as a mentor and leadership coach for beginning administrators through the Indiana Department of Education and for practicing administrators through the Indiana Principal Leadership Institute. In addition, she is an adjunct professor in the School of Education Leadership at Indiana Wesleyan University where she teaches courses covering curriculum development, action research, school culture, resource management, ethical leadership, collaborative visioning, instructional leadership, principal preparation internships, and participates on doctoral candidate committees. She completed her Ph.D. in Education Administration at Indiana State University and holds administrative licensure for Superintendent, Elementary Supervision, Secondary Supervision, and Director of Special Education.