Skip to main content

Reading List: District Strategies for Turning Around Low-Performing Schools

**O’Day, J.A. (2005). Standards-based reform and low-performing schools: A case of reciprocal accountability. In F.M. Hess (Ed.), Urban school reform: Lessons from San Diego. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press. Available for purchase at

This book chapter examines San Diego Unified School District’s approach for its lowest performing schools under the administration of Superintendent Alan Bersin. The district’s strategy included a common instructional approach through the entire district, targeted resources and intensification of reform efforts in low-performing schools, and attention to changing central office practices that contribute to low performance. The author finds evidence of improvements in leadership and instructional practice as well as student test scores. However, challenges remained around recruiting and retaining high-quality instructional staff, as well as developing strategies to address the needs of English learners.

Phenix, D., Siegel, D., Zaltsman, A., & Fruchter, N. (2004). Virtual district, real improvement: A retrospective evaluation of the chancellor’s district, 1996-2003. New York: Institute for Education and Social Policy. Available at

This report provides an analysis of the Chancellor’s District in New York City in which the chancellor removed chronically low-performing schools from their traditional sub-districts to create a new sub-district that reported directly to the chancellor. The authors find that schools in the Chancellor’s District had significantly more teacher resources and higher per-student expenditures. Furthermore, Chancellor’s District schools performed significantly better than comparable district schools on state reading tests, though similar results were not seen in mathematics.

**de la Torre, M., & Gwynne, J. (2009, October). When schools close: Effects on displaced students in Chicago Public Schools. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research. Available at

Chicago Public Schools closed 44 schools between 2001 and 2006 for two reasons: 1) the district felt students in failing schools would be better served by transferring into schools that were academically more successful, and 2) declining district enrollment created a financial necessity to close schools with student enrollments far below their intended capacity. Displaced students who enrolled in receiving schools with strong academic quality or high levels of teacher support had higher learning gains than displaced students who enrolled in other receiving schools. However, only six percent of displaced students enrolled in academically strong schools. Overall, the authors find that students who left schools that were closed experienced no effects on their achievement or graduation rates.

Kowal, J., Hassel, E.A., & Hassel, B.C. (2009, September). Successful school turnarounds: Seven steps for district leaders. Issue Brief. Washington, DC: The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. Available at

This issue brief offers seven steps for district leaders to successfully employ dramatic change strategies in persistently low-performing schools: (1) commit to success, (2) choose turnaround for the right schools, (3) develop a pipeline of turnaround leaders, (4) give leaders the “big yes,” (5) hold leaders accountable for results, (6) prioritize teacher hiring in turnaround schools, and (7) proactively engage the community. In addition to these seven steps that district leaders should take, the brief identifies competencies and actions for turnaround leaders at the school level.

Urdegar, S.M. (2009). Miami-Dade County Public Schools School Improvement Zone: Final evaluation report. Miami, FL: Miami-Dade County Public Schools Office of Program Evaluation. Available at

This report examines the performance of Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ School Improvement Zone. The Zone was a comprehensive school reform program in which 39 selected schools were placed under the direct supervision of the superintendent. Analyses of academic achievement on the FCAT-SSS reveal that the Zone did not show positive impact on student test scores in either reading or mathematics. In hierarchical linear modeling analyses of the FCAT-NRT, the author finds that achievement growth in the Zone may have been positive relative to the control group, but was no greater than the growth in schools featuring the Reading First program.

**This document is considered a priority reading.