Massachusetts: A Role Model for School Turnaround


May 13, 2015

By Marianne Lombardo

In a recent study of school turnarounds, the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) of the U.S. Department of Education found that while more than 80 percent of states made turning around low-performing schools a high priority, 50 percent found it very difficult. Forty states reported significant gaps in expertise for supporting school turnarounds.  Slide1IES has not yet examined turnaround outcomes – that’s coming in the fall. But, there is one state that does have outcomes to show what’s working and what’s not in school turnarounds. Here are lessons from Massachusetts for other states that are struggling with school turnarounds.

The Massachusetts Level System has seen positive results in cases where school administrators make maximum use of the flexibilities – particularly those around school staffing – that are allowed under Levels 4 and 5.

Many Level 4 schools, for example, enacted strategies that led to sustained improvement and enabled them to exit Level 4 status. Those strategies included:

  • Hiring new, dynamic, instruction- and results-oriented school leaders.
  • Using staffing flexibility prior to or during the first year of turnaround to ensure that the school would have teachers in place with the capacity, willingness, and skill to move forward.
  • Modifying key aspects of the hiring process (e.g. bidding and bumping) that often negatively impact the ability of a school to hire and retain the staff they need.

Related: Equitable Distribution of High-Quality Teachers in ESEA Reauthorization

A 2014 study of the original 34 schools designated as Level 4 in 2010, in fact, found re-staffing to be a key component of successful turnarounds. Of the 12 schools that replaced 45% or more of staff in the first year, 9 (75%) successfully exited Level 4 status.

A closer look at 24 of these original schools[1] finds that nearly three-quarters (70%) of schools that improved sufficiently to exit Level 4 (n=13) replaced 45% or more of their staff during the first year. Contrast this with the 11 schools that made minimal progress – only 18% replaced 45% or more of their staff.



Gains made by the Level 5 Lawrence School District have even gotten national attention. Boston NPR affiliate WBUR’s profile of what’s been going on in Lawrence found that test scores and graduation rates have increased dramatically:





With this success, the Massachusetts Department of Education is now turning its attention to a second Level 5 district: Holyoke.

Massachusetts is showing that improving the quality of education for students who reside in its most troubled districts is not only critical – but possible. As states like Pennsylvania and Michigan consider state control for low-performing schools, they would do well to keep the lessons from Massachusetts in mind.

Related: Why do we need signs to remind us to not run over ‘Other People’s Children’?

And as Paul Pastorek, who formerly ran the Louisiana Education Department argues, the federal government continues to have an important role: assure that the billions of dollars the federal government invests to address underperforming schools are well spent on state accountability systems that work.


1The report only examined outcomes at 24 of the original 34 schools because one has since closed, and nine more “made some progress over the past four years but still have much work to do,” at the time of the study.