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School turnaround
At Quitman Street Renew School in Newark, Principal Erskine Glover faces the ongoing challenge of keeping the right teachers in place. Credit: Amanda Brown/NJ Spotlight

Forty states say they don’t have the expertise required to support low-performing schools turning around, according to a new federal report.

Really? There are 10 states that do?

As everyone in education circles knows, reversing the course of a failing school is incredibly hard. I spent three years following an elementary/middle school in Newark and was consistently struck by the herculean effort exerted by the principal and his staff, and the extensive time required just to show incremental progress. The final installment of my series, published last winter, chronicled the celebration of an eight-point increase in the average reading score — more than any other school in the city. Eight points might not seem like much, but a whole lot of sweat was behind them.

50 percent of all dropouts in the country come from 15 percent of American high schools

Very few places are getting turnarounds right, and success is even more rare in high schools, where students have had more years to fall behind. The new report, by the Institute of Education Sciences (the federal education department’s main research arm), mentions the staggering implications of letting the nation’s worst high schools continue to fail: Half of all dropouts in the country come from 15 percent of American high schools.

In 2012 and 2013, IES asked 49 states and the District of Columbia about their capacity to support failing schools receiving federal turnaround money. That money disproportionately went to high schools, so it’s no wonder they’re having a tough time.

To fix a struggling school of any type, having the right principal and teachers is of the utmost importance. A school’s fate ultimately depends on those people on the front lines, but state policies and support can significantly impact who ends up in the classroom.

Related: Hidden successes, public failures and a make-or-break year for one Newark school

At Quitman Street Renew School, where I did my series in Newark, an excellent principal was granted teacher hiring authority, and in 2012, he replaced half the staff. But every year after that, as turnover continued, there were drawn-out questions about whether he could bring in external hires for certain positions. It was difficult for the city school district to justify hiring from the outside when it had tenured teachers without placements and a budget shortfall. But the wrong energy can bring down a whole school, and a year with a bad teacher can have lifelong implications for a child. The principal, Erskine Glover, did make some excellent hires from the district pool, but others were not his top choices. All the while, New Jersey was rolling out a new law mandating teacher evaluations and making it harder to get tenure but leaving seniority rights in tact.

Related: A taste of victory, finally, for a struggling Newark school

We see this tension nationally as well. The areas where states reported struggling the most are getting the right teacher evaluations in place, effectively rewarding teachers who do their jobs well at low-performing schools and dismissing the teachers who are not getting results.

How to get the best teachers in front of the neediest students and keep them there is still an open question.

I was particularly interested to see how these issues are handled in the 10 states that said in 2013 that they can support school turnarounds. But because of a confidentiality agreement, IES isn’t able to tell me which states they are. (We know one definitely not in the group: Texas, the lone state that did not participate in the entire study.)

Thomas Wei, an IES research scientist, instead pointed me to these profiles of potentially promising turnaround practices in specific schools, districts and states. Here are some of the highlights at the state level:

— Delaware and Kentucky were cited for their statewide programs to train principals for the lowest-performing schools. Delaware has a competitive 15-month fellowship. Kentucky offers extensive coaching for current principals and is working with universities and districts to train future qualified candidates.

— North Carolina has coordinated communication among state coaches and monitors for low-performing schools. This helps prevent the drain on time and energy seen when low-performing schools must answer to many different authorities.

— Mississippi sends retired administrators to low-performing schools to offer both oversight and technical expertise, but the needs far exceed the administrators’ available time.

The school- and district-level profiles include many of the practices I saw at Quitman, from rigorous interviewing protocol for prospective staff to personalized, data-driven instruction. But nowhere did I see answers to the toughest questions involving hiring, firing and retention. How to get the best teachers in front of the neediest students and keep them there is still an open question, but the answer is required to get school turnarounds right.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about high school reform.

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