California Collaborative on District Reform Releases Brief Examining the Role of Districts in the Work of School Turnaround

San Mateo, Calif. – The California Collaborative on District Reform, an initiative of the American Institutes for Research (AIR), has issued a policy and practice brief exploring the district perspective on school turnaround in eight California school districts. “Beyond the School: Exploring a Systemic Approach to School Turnaround,” suggests a more systemic approach to improving chronically low performing schools.

As schools across the nation are in the middle of their first year of implementing of the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) intervention models, the brief suggests two central lessons:

  • Long-term and widespread school turnaround often requires systemic, district-level (not just school-level) approaches.  A systemic approach – one in which the school district aligns its resources and strategies to confront common challenges and support effective solutions – might best address the needs of struggling schools.
  • Systems attempting to reverse chronic underperformance must customize their efforts to meet the individual needs and conditions of each specific school. Within a systemic approach to improvement, these districts also emphasize the importance of customizing improvement efforts to the specific context of each school. District leaders must therefore identify the elements that contribute to success in one context, and then adapt them to meet the needs of each individual school.

This brief, authored by Jennifer O’Day, Larisa Shambaugh and Joel Knudson of AIR’s San Mateo, Calif., office, draws on conversations with eight districts (Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Jose, and Sanger Unified School Districts) that participate in the California Collaborative on District Reform.

The brief explores lessons across all eight districts of the ways in which school systems can leverage capacity and resources to improve low-performing schools, including:

  • Establishing a district culture that supports school turnaround
  • Developing and deploying strong leadership
  • Fostering and deploying strong teaching
  • Using data to identify effective and ineffective practices
  • Involving the community to leverage local expertise and resources
  • Piloting to expand effective ideas and facilitate system learning

While it draws from the experiences of California districts, the ways in which districts can act to transform struggling schools apply to schools, districts, and states across the country.

As Congress ponders reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the brief offers insights lawmakers should consider, including incorporating regulations that allow for more systemic approaches to turnaround. One recommendation calls for consolidating the restrictive federal funding streams to provide fewer, but larger and more flexible, funding streams for areas integral to student success. The brief also includes suggestions for how federal policymakers can allow intervention models that are more customized to the needs of each school, such as removing the overly prescriptive elements of the four proposed intervention models that not only lack a research base but can inhibit a district-wide approach.

The full brief is available for download on the California Collaborative on District Reform website, For more information, contact Joel Knudson (650-843-8179).

About the California Collaborative on District Reform
The California Collaborative on District Reform, an initiative of the American Institutes for Research, was formed in 2006 to join researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and funders in ongoing, evidence-based dialogue to improve instruction and student learning for all students in California’s urban school systems. For more information, visit

About AIR
Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, D.C and offices across the globe, including three in California, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of health, education and workforce productivity. For more information, visit

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