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Volume 26, Number 5
September/October 2010

Scenes from the School Turnaround Movement

Passion, frustration, mid-course corrections mark rapid reforms


A student hard at work at the Law and Government Academy, a turnaround in the Hartford public schools

Last fall, when I set out to write a journalistic book about schools going from bad to great (and fast), the plan was to report on what was working in school turnaround. But it quickly became obvious that such information did not exist in definitive form. Instead, I stepped into a process that—while energetic and intense—is still being figured out.

School turnaround is about rapid and dramatic improvement, not just in test scores but also in culture, attitude, and student aspirations. It is marked not by orderly implementations but by altering a lot at once and being willing, if something doesn’t work, to step in midstream and change it, and change it again. For those in the midst of school turnaround, much of the decision making happens in the moment—and carries tremendous personal risks as well as rewards.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

D. Brinson and L. M. Rhim. Breaking the Habit of Low Performance: Successful School Restructuring Stories. Lincoln, IL: Academic Development Institute, 2009. Available online at

R. D. Kahlenberg. “Turnaround Schools That Work.” Education Week, September 2, 2009, 28.

J. Kowal, E. A. Hassel, and B. C. Hassel. Successful School Turnarounds: Seven Steps for District Leaders. Washington, D.C.: The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement, 2009. Available online at

“Turning Around the Bottom 5 Percent.” Address by Secretary of Education Arne Duncon at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Conference, June 22. 2009. Available online at