On the latest episode of Policy Outsider, we explain why so many turnaround efforts have failed and identifying the keys for future success. the episode highlights a recent report from the Institute on school turnaround efforts and features an interview with the report’s author, Brian Backstrom, director of education policy studies at the Rockefeller Institute.

Backstrom lays out the ineffectual fixes policymakers often use. These include keeping current school leadership intact, only providing additional resources, and choosing smaller one-time changes, such as a new curriculum versus an overhaul of the entire school’s academic culture.

The episode also introduces our new host, Alex Morse, a researcher with the Rockefeller Institute, who succeeds Kyle Adams, former Institute communications director. In the first segment of the episode, both Morse and Adams discuss their takeaways from creating and producing the podcast over the past several months.


Brian Backstrom, Director of Education Policy Studies, Rockefeller Institute of Government

Read Report:

School Turnaround Efforts: What’s Been Tried, Why Those Efforts Failed, and What to Do Now


  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors. 

    Alexander Morse 00:03

    When looking at school performance, there are often a lot of different criteria people use to determine if the school is succeeding—graduation rates, student achievement metrics, test scores, attendance. But what defines a failing school and what’s the prescription to fix it? There are several approaches states have been trying from small and incremental changes, such as adjustments to curriculum, to sweeping overhauls, such as removing and replacing the entire leadership structure. This is Policy Outsider from the Rockefeller Institute of Government. I’m Alex Morse. Today, we have Rockefeller Institute’s director of education policy studies, Brian Backstrom, to discuss his latest report on school turnaround efforts. He gives us his take on what school districts should study up on to improve their schools. You may be wondering where Kyle Adams is. He will be my first guest today to discuss what’s next for Policy Outsider. Today, we begin with our first guest, Kyle Adams. Kyle, thanks for joining us today.

    Kyle Adams 01:29

    Thank you, Alex. Obviously, I’m usually the one introducing the guests here. But I’m going to be leaving the podcast, moving on to a new position. I’m leaving it in the very capable hands of Alex Morse, longtime podcast producer here at the Rockefeller Institute. He’s been with us since episode one, behind the scenes, pushing the buttons, and cutting the audio. Making this whole thing come together the way it comes together. Moving forward, he’s coming out from behind the mic to take over as podcast host. I see only good things on the horizon. He’s got a lot of ideas, a lot of vision, and a very supportive team here at the Rockefeller Institute that are thrilled to be bringing new research, cutting edge public policy analysis to the public, to policymakers, to try to make a difference here.

    Alexander Morse 02:20

    Thank you, Kyle, for those kind words. I want to just say that I’m grateful for all the times that we got to work together on these podcasts. It was a huge learning curve. We jumped right in.

    Kyle Adams 02:30

    Yes, yes. Behind the scenes, we just dove into this and learned as we went, and are still learning of course. Ten episodes feels like a lot to us. But it’s not a lot. We’re still learning with every episode and improving and making each episode better and better. We just love doing it. It’s fun work. It’s fun to bring these ideas to life in a new way, because everyone here is so used to doing it on paper. So to be able to hear it, to hear the researchers speak, to speak more casually about their work, and to mix in the field recordings, especially we can get more into that. It’s been so much fun to do.

    Alexander Morse 03:05

    It’s been really empowering. This is a moment that we can really communicate a lot of our work in a different way. All of our researchers, everyone that we’ve had on the podcast has been super excited to talk about their work. They reach out to us constantly about what can we talk about, what can we bring, and it’s just a super exciting way to communicate public policy.

    Kyle Adams 03:26

    Yes, that was the idea right from the outset. We’re always trying to make our findings more digestible, more accessible, reach new audiences, or reach our current audience in different ways. The idea here is you may not have time to sit down and read a 40-page report. But you might have time to put a podcast on for a 20-minute commute and get the basics of this idea, and then maybe be enticed to go read more. I think it’s been effective in that we’ve been getting pretty good feedback on this.

    Alexander Morse 03:56

    I want to talk about how the podcast started.

    Kyle Adams 03:59

    When I started here, almost two years ago, that was on the docket from day one. The whole aim of a lot of the work that I did here was to be innovating and diversifying the way we communicate our research findings and podcasts are on the rise. It happened pretty quickly, we decided to just go for it. It can feel overwhelming when you’re just starting out. But really the best thing is to just dive in and grab a couple of mics and start talking to people and put it out there. The amazing thing about podcasting is how accessible it is for anyone to just start doing. What’s more important than nailing the audio levels right off the bat is, is having content that people care about and that’s interesting. I think the kind of research that we do here, it’s robust. It stands on its own. We’ll figure out the kinks along the way. What’s key is that we’re communicating important work.

    Alexander Morse 04:53

    The hard part’s not the policy or the research. It’s the audio levels.

    Kyle Adams 04:57

    Yes, the hard part is the levels.

    Alexander Morse 04:59

    I want to bring up something that you said just a few minutes ago about bringing out the field recorder, for our listeners that aren’t quite sure what that is, do you want to explain?

    Kyle Adams 05:09

    A lot of the podcast episodes we record, quote unquote, in studio at the Rockefeller Institute. But what’s really been a lot of fun is being able to take the field portable recorder outside of the Institute and go meet the people who are affected by the policy, go follow our researchers as they’re out doing their research. The two episodes where you really hear this are when we check in on the Stories from Sullivan researchers. That is our long-term ongoing study of the opioid crisis in Sullivan County, New York, which is down just about 90 miles north of New York City. But culturally, geographically a totally different world. It’s an extremely rural county. They’ve been studying the opioid crisis through aggregate data analysis, which is the bread-and-butter of a place like this. But then mixing it up with interviews in the field, where they’re talking to the people on the frontlines of this crisis who are dealing with it from every angle. It’s the usual suspects in law enforcement and county health, things like that. As well as just community activists, the bartender that you happen to meet while you’re out talking to other people, but they have stories to share. It’s been an incredible project. Those episodes have been rich and powerful when you hear directly from people who are in addiction recovery, people who have lost loved ones to the epidemic. It becomes so much more than just so and so many people died in 2017 versus 2014. Those numbers are important to form the backbone of everything, but the human stories really highlight why this work matters why we do it.

    Alexander Morse 06:48

    You took the words right out of my mouth, powerful. On our latest episode, Yet, I’m Still Here, it was just a sobering account. Highly recommended listening because it really stopped me in my tracks. That was one of my favorite episodes to work on.

    Kyle Adams 07:02

    Those voices grab you right from the start and don’t let go through the whole episode. We didn’t have to do any fancy footwork on that, the stories just keep you engaged. It’s difficult to sit there and listen to those stories. But I think that the meaning comes through and I think this gets at the heart of why we do the research that we do is that when you don’t know a lot about these problems, it’s easy to look the other way. When you start to meet the people who are really affected, its way harder to say who cares.

    Alexander Morse 07:30

    Well, Kyle, thank you so much for joining me here today. I know our audience will be sad to see you go. We’re all sad to see you go. On a personal note, I’m so grateful for all the work that we’ve gotten to do together. You’ve been tremendous. You’re someone I get to lean on and a wealth of knowledge.

    Kyle Adams 07:47

    Thank you. I look forward to everything that comes out of the podcast and the Institute in the future. I’ll be listening.

    Alexander Morse 07:54

    Next up, we have Brian Backstrom, director of education policy studies at the Rockefeller Institute to discuss his latest report on school turnaround efforts.

    Alexander Morse 08:37

    Policy Outsider, we have a returning guest, Brian Backstrom, director of education policy at the Rockefeller Institute of Government. Brian was here on episode 6 titled Digging Into Student Debt in New York to discuss the issue of student debt and how it impacts the financial decisions of students and families. Be sure to check out that episode in our library on Anchor or your preferred streaming platform. On today’s episode, Brian is here to discuss his most recent report titled, School Turnaround Efforts: What’s Been Tried, Why Those Efforts Failed, and What To Do Now. Brian looked at several different alternatives that states have tried in an attempt to fix failing schools and identified important characteristics that are necessary to improve schools. Brian, thanks for joining me today.

    Brian Backstrom 09:22

    Thank you so much for having me on.

    Alexander Morse 09:24

    To start off, what are failing schools?

    Brian Backstrom 09:27

    One of the things that we’ve noticed is that too many schools have very low student achievement levels. But even worse that many of these schools, and I would say most of these schools, have these low levels of achievement for years and years. Sometimes even decades. In New York, for example, they label these schools persistently failing schools. No school should be failing persistently. I think that’s got the nation’s attention. For the past 50 years, we’ve tried to improve failing schools. Unfortunately, most of those efforts just haven’t worked. We’re still talking about it, we’re still talking about failing schools, and we’re still talking about students that need better schools available to them.

    Alexander Morse 10:10

    I imagine that failing schools are different state by state?

    Brian Backstrom 10:14

    Without a doubt. They all have different characteristics. You could have low performance in a rural area because of a lack of resources. You could have low performance in urban areas because of lack of opportunity. You could have low performance because of an entrenched bureaucracy that simply refuses to change. It’s very interesting to look at the different causes. But that’s one of the problems that we have is a lot of the school fix-it models that come out have a particular prescription and try to force everybody into the same formula, when you really need to provide flexibility while requiring certain elements that we know to work.

    Alexander Morse 10:53

    So how bad is the problem? How many failing schools are there?

    Brian Backstrom 10:56

    There’s literally thousands of schools serving millions of students that are persistently failing by almost any reasonable definition you use. That varies from state to state. But I think the problem we have is that a lot of the educational institutions that oversee these schools use so many different definitions of what success is and what failure is that it’s really hard to get a finger on the number of how many students are really in desperate need of help. A lot of this is educational policy that’s decided by the states and states take individual approaches to defining what constitutes a failing school. So trying to say there’s 50 million kids in need of assistance is really a hard thing to do or that there’s 10,000 failing schools nationwide is very hard to do simply because of the lack of consistent definitions. What we do know is that there are many school children who are not getting the educational services they need under the current construction of public schools as we have them today.

    Alexander Morse 12:01

    Why are schools failing? Are there any noticeable trends? Rural/urban divide? Red state/blue state? Race?

    Brian Backstrom 12:08

    One of the things we see is that the most occurrence of low-performing schools are urban schools, are high minority schools, and are almost always low-income schools. Consistently, these schools for a variety of reasons, tend to post the lowest academic success rates of any of our public schools. I think we saw that in the philanthropic movement that concentrated efforts on urban schools. We see it in some approaches to state policy that always focuses on urban schools or low-income schools. I think they’re right to do that. Those are the schools where we have the highest teacher turnover. Those are the schools where we have some of the most challenging discipline and school culture problems. Those are the places that often have low school graduation rates. So of course, it should get our attention. I think any movement to improve failing schools deservedly belong in urban centers first.

    Alexander Morse 12:09

    What did you find were some of the most typical approaches to failing school turnaround? What were some of the typical reasons why these efforts failed?

    Brian Backstrom 13:17

    Well, the biggest effort that we’ve seen over the past 50 years has been the federal School Improvement Grant Program or SIG Program. That’s poured in about well more than $6 billion in school turnaround efforts just in the period of seven or eight years, from about 2007 to 2014 when it stopped. That effort prescribed four different models that any state could use if it wanted to get this federal funding to help turn around failing schools. You could close schools. You could restart them under authority of a public charter school or charter management organization. You could take what’s called the turnaround model, replace the leader and at least 50 percent of the staff. Or you could fall into the bucket school transformation, which involves the changing of the leader and a couple other minor changes—increased time on learning, some curricular changes. The problem is that left to those devices, about three quarters of individual schools that could qualify for this school improvement grant funding, all chose the smallest level of reform. There wasn’t a rush to say let’s do the big bold reforms, the monumental reforms that need to happen in these schools to achieve the long-lasting and overhaul change that we needed.

    Alexander Morse 14:41

    Why do you think we need an overhaul of change and not incremental steps?

    Brian Backstrom 14:46

    You really need to shake up the landscape if you want to achieve these changes. Quite frankly, a lot of the problems have stemmed from things that exist in the current structure. There was a great education reformer based in Minnesota, he was a former teacher union leader, and he had a comment that reverberated throughout the education reform community ever since. He said, “You can’t get the schools we need by trying to change the schools we have.” I think that captures it. It’s like trying to fix an airplane while it’s in flight, you just can’t do that. So sometimes you really do need to take an overhaul approach. We’re not saying that this has to happen in every school, but when you look at a school that is deserving of the persistently failing label, where kids aren’t graduating, where they’re not learning, where the failure on state assessments is really low and has been low for years, you really need to do something dramatic to change the course of that school. Part of the problem when you’re funding incremental changes is you’re talking about kids’ lives here. If you’re expecting change over the next 10 years, you’ve lost an entire school of kids. That child has gone from second grade to twelfth grade and you haven’t made the changes yet. I don’t think that’s right. I think there’s a moral imperative to fix these schools and to fix them as fast as we can.

    Alexander Morse 16:10

    What are the different types of school takeovers? What did New York opt for?

    Brian Backstrom 16:15

    One of the things that grew out of the school improvement grant movement from the federal level was that a whole bunch of states hopped on the bandwagon of taking over failing schools. We saw legislation and nearly three dozen states that allow the state to take over failing schools. That sounds good. It sounds bold. But I think what we’ve seen when we looked at those states is that they all implement their reform strategies to a various degree and some don’t do anything with it. Some are allowed to take over only in individual schools, some can take over an entire district, some can create a new district to take over schools, but a lot of them still have their reform models. Once they take over the schools, to be largely the same menu of options that range from minimal transformation around the edges to overhaul and allowing local flexibility that tends to go for the less serious reforms. But one of the things that was very valuable coming out of the state takeover movement was the growth of two models that became the ones that got attention to replicate in your own state. We saw in Tennessee, the creation of an achievement district that went statewide and took over all the failing schools, put them in to one district controlled by the state to make reforms. The other model was the one that was implemented in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where the state said, this district is failing for so long and to such a degree, we need to put in someone ourselves to run the district. That’s a receivership model. They appointed one individual to come in and spearhead the reforms district-wide. You can have targeted approach by the state. You can have an all-encompassing statewide approach. What New York did was they looked to the Lawrence, Massachusetts model and implemented a state receivership program, whereby the state would designate schools that have failed and if they continue to fail, then the state had the opportunity to appoint an independent receiver to go in and fix those schools, not necessarily against their will. But it was a way to force the change.

    Alexander Morse 18:31

    What kind of reception did that receive by the schools?

    Brian Backstrom 18:35

    The boldness of New York State’s receivership program got a lot of opposition. They got a lot of pushback from institutions’ establishment that really wanted things to stay largely as they were. Part of the problem is when you’re looking at some of the transformations that have to occur, for example, choosing the right staff that means looking to transform existing collective bargaining requirements. The local teachers unions that have negotiated those in good faith, rightly have concerns about whether those are going to be upended if you’re going to go look to replace staff. If you put in an all-powerful new principal, how is that going to change the school day, the work conditions? I think there was some reasonable pushback. But one of the things we saw in Lawrence, Massachusetts, for example, was when this bold receiver went in and started making changes, they encountered similar opposition. But over the course of a couple of years, everybody understood because of the public transparency, because of these general acceptance of the need for change, that this change was going to move forward. That brought everybody to the same table and collective bargaining agreements, new ones, included the flexibility and requirements for performance needed to improve this district. All of those were negotiated. It was evidence that no matter what the political environment you have, if people are willing to institute the changes that are necessary, it can happen and you can make it happen. It just needs the strong leadership that’s required.

    Brian Backstrom 18:46

    For New York, have there been any results?

    Brian Backstrom 19:48

    New York has changed its definition too many times, and we’ve seen the classification of failing schools and struggling schools and persistently struggling schools change and be modified in a way that I don’t think is has been particularly helpful. But timeframes allowed for change. The ability to close schools, to exempt them from this accountability approach, has really served in some ways to undermine the overall effort of needing to improve these schools. The end result that we have here in New York is that even since the institution of its receivership program, not a single school has fallen under independent receivership anywhere in the state.

    Alexander Morse 21:03

    I’ve seen in recent years the popularity in charter schools are growing. Do they have a role to play in this receivership model?

    Brian Backstrom 21:09

    The federal School Improvement Grant Program specifically allowed charter school takeovers as one of the options. It was very rarely used. I think it was very rarely used for a couple of different reasons. First, state laws governing charter schools vary from state to state, so a federal prescription doesn’t necessarily work in any given state. But here in New York, one of the requirements of our public charter school law is that if you convert a public school, failing or not, to charter school status, you have to accept the staff that’s there, the local collective bargaining agreement that’s there. Many charter operators simply find it an awful lot easier just to start from scratch. I think that’s what we’ve seen in the turnaround movement for failing schools too. Charter entities have been approached saying, “Would you please take over this failing school?” More often than not, they say, “No.” It’s easier to wait until a locality closes a failing school and then they’ll open up their own version of a local public school. The problem with that model, of course, is that not all of those kids who are affected by the school closure are guaranteed to be enrolled. Also, new public charter schools often don’t open up at the same grade configuration of a local closed public school. Sometimes they’ll grow slowly adding a grade level a year, so they can’t accommodate everybody. I don’t think the two really match up very well. While I think that charters could play a significant role in the school turnaround movement, they haven’t chosen to, to date.

    Alexander Morse 22:50

    When we’re looking to try to improve school performance, we want to keep students and families the priority. We want to keep their daily lives from changing too much.

    Brian Backstrom 23:02

    I think one of the things we’ve seen with the rash of school closures is how disruptive it is. That’s one of the great appeals of schools turnaround models is if we can keep parents and students lives generally calmer, less disrupted by simply going in and fixing our own institutions, why shouldn’t we choose to do that rather than disrupt the lives of parents and their children?

    Alexander Morse 23:27

    Even though we just found out that it’s the overhaul models that typically yield the best results.

    Brian Backstrom 23:33

    The overhaul models, when we’re looking to do bold transformations that doesn’t necessarily change what school your child goes to, I should say. It might change the start time, it might change the end time, because you’re adding more school hours. It might change what is expected of your student and might change what’s expected of you as a parent. But it doesn’t really affect the daily life of where you’re sending your child to school, when you put the child on the school bus, or those elements. If a district comes in and closes your neighborhood school and says your only option is one across town, that’s a fairly significant disruption. I think that’s the difference that we get into if we’re talking about fixing failing schools versus closing failing schools and opening up a new one.

    Alexander Morse 24:21

    With the School Improvement Grant costing almost $6.3 billion and producing little results was all that money and effort wasted?

    Brian Backstrom 24:29

    I don’t think so. I think one of the things that this grand effort, I wouldn’t even call it an experiment, but this grand effort has done is given us a lot of lessons learned. There are places where you’ve seen some successes. There are places where bold reforms have been tried and worked. There are places where we’ve seen these incremental changes that simply failed to take hold and leave the school exactly where it was before or sometimes even worse off. I think those lessons learned provide a wonderful opportunity for us to change our entire approach towards schools transformation models and towards the funding of those models. We know what some of the things that works, we know some of the things that are required for a school turnaround effort to work, and that’s what we should be looking to fund.

    Alexander Morse 25:20

    What are some of those things that work?

    Brian Backstrom 25:22

    Well, I think we have really three buckets, if you will, of the types of characteristics that are necessary in a school turnaround plan to be successful. The first is environmental. The second is content. The third is strategic. As far as environmental conditions that are necessary, the first and foremost is there has to be sufficient political will to make the changes necessary. There’s a lot of people who don’t want to upset the applecart, who want to see the educational establishment stay largely how it is. That transformation and the overhauls necessary are hard to do. The leaders willing to make the changes that are necessary need and deserve the political support at every level. That’s at the state level from the highest ranks to the district level, from the district superintendent and from parents, quite frankly, there needs to be sufficient political will if any of these attempts are going to succeed. The second is each school needs its independence to act. The problem at these failing schools are very different from school to school. As long as you have an empowered school leader who is willing to make the changes, you need to give that school the flexibility to make the changes in the priority that they say are necessary. Now district structures can surely provide support, as far as back-office support or even moral or curricular support as needed. But they really need to stay out of the way and let these schools trying to change to do the changes that they need. I guess the third environmental condition, I would say, is it makes sense to have them be schools of choice. You shouldn’t force parents to be part of the experiment with their child and improving the school. Come out, say how you’re going to improve the school, say the bold changes you’re going to make, and ensure that the parents are part of the solution here by buying into that change, saying, “Yes, everything you’re doing sounds good to me. I’ll have my child be part of this effort.” I think those really have to be in place to have a long-standing successful effort. As far as content, I don’t think there’s anything more important than having the right school leader, strong leadership, a clear leader, a bold leader who is willing to make the changes necessary and can achieve the buy-in from all the staff to make this. New York City’s experiment with its renewal schools program even found this out too. They said that one of the hardest things they encountered was finding enough strong leaders to run their turnaround school models. I think that’s really quite critical. Every successful school turnaround effort we have seen has been under the leadership of somebody bold and somebody supported and somebody with a clear vision of how to change things. You have to have the ability to have the right staff, everyone in that building needs to be bought into the effort. You have to have assessment that is fairly continuous, but not just for the sake of testing, it has to be tied directly to student achievement and how to inform instruction. Every bit of your focus needs to be on improving instruction, including from that data. As far as strategic components that I think are important, you have to design your plan for some early wins. It might sound trivial, but I think part of the objective here is to sustain the political will, to sustain the parental buy-in. You have to be able to achieve some sort of successes early on in the effort. Whether that’s simply grabbing ahold of the school culture and changing it into what parents have wanted to see, reducing violence, reducing absenteeism, something like that, that gives you the early critical wins. The improvement in academic performance might come a little more slowly, but you need to have something new and something obvious that everybody can buy into that, yes, there’s something good happening at that school. I think you need to be completely transparent to the public, to the parents, to the local lawmakers, to the teachers, to other leaders in your district. Everybody needs to know what’s going on. It can’t be cloaked in some veil of secrecy. One of the things that does is lets everybody know that you’re trying, know how hard you’re trying, and know what you’re trying. I think that these are the elements that all should be required of any school turnaround plan. It’s what we’ve seen work and it’s what we’ve seen if they’re missing causes efforts to fail.

    Brian Backstrom 26:01

    In your report, as for prescriptions, the transformation, turnaround, restart, and school closure models, you say that school closures, less than 1 percent of schools opt to go that route. What makes it so challenging to opt for the school closure?

    Brian Backstrom 30:29

    I don’t know that school closures are always the proper course to take. In fact, one of the things that I think is incumbent upon any policymaker who’s deciding to close a public school, even if it’s been persistently failing for years, is to make sure that every single school child in that building has a better school to go to. I think that’s too often overlooked. They want to get the school off the accountability list and so they just close it, and it no longer appears as a failing school. Too often schools are closed without creating a better opportunity for the school children who are affected by those closures. You have to ensure that there is a better school that every single child can enroll in if you’re going to close a failing public school. Those really are your choices: provide a better opportunity for the child or improve that school. I think that one of the things that we’ve seen through the history of the School Improvement Grant Program, and a lot of research evaluations have shown that, is that schools, districts, and education leaders in the states not opting for the radical change that’s necessary, has resulted in minimal, if any, change at all. We need to improve these schools and we need to improve them rapidly.

    Alexander Morse 31:50

    You can read more of Brian’s report on our website at www.rockinst.org. Brian, thank you for joining me today.

    Brian Backstrom 32:02

    Thank you so much. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to talk about this.

    Alexander Morse 32:09

    I’d like to say thanks again to Kyle Adams for helping spearhead this podcast and all the work that was put into it. Good luck in your next step. And thanks to Brian Backstrom for taking the time to provide valuable insight into the role both the community and decision-makers have been shaping and improving our schools. I’d also like to thank our new producer Trevor Craft, research assistant at the Rockefeller Institute and former Center for Law and Policy Solutions intern at the Institute as well. Trevor will be helping with everything podcast from preparing materials for interviews to recording and editing. I’m looking forward to what Trevor will bring to the table. And as always, you can find Brian’s research and more at rockinst.org. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at RockefellerInst. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Kyle Adams 33:32

    Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State in the nation. Learn more at rockinst.org or by following at RockefellerInst on social media. Have a question, comment, or idea? Email us at [email protected].

Policy Outsider

Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.

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