School Turnaround Goals vs. Measurement

by Dr. Punita Rice Academia

It’s Fall semester! Which means the weather is starting to cool off, pumpkin flavored things are showing up everywhere, and my new classes, and the coursework that comes with them, are underway. One of my new courses this semester is Turnaround Leadership in Schools and Educational Organizations, which is one of my specialization courses. The purpose of this course is to build a deep knowledge of the educational (and policy-based) challenges school and other educational leaders may face in turnaround situations, while exploring instructional, human capital, and change management turnaround strategies. The coursework also involves research from various fields, with a focus on implementation of high leverage change strategies (including distributed leadership, recruitment, training, evaluation, data-based interventions, and outside partnerships) for supporting turnaround in high poverty schools, as well as other educational organizations. In my case, I will also be examining how such high leverage change strategies might support potential interventions for ameliorating my problem of practice and research area. Pretty amazing, yeah?

In the first session of this phenomenal course, we explored education policy reform, and examined a few case studies. We were then asked to speak to the duality of education policy discussions, and the school reform efforts which flow from them. Our first major discussion prompt asked us to reflect on insights that emerged for us about the dynamics influencing this duality, based on the work of Charles Payne, and on the fascinating case of Norview High School.

School Turnaround Goals vs. Measurement

Examining the story of Norview High School (National Association of Secondary Principals, 2013), and the story of struggling schools (Payne, 2008), has led to some insights into the disconnect between the imagined success of education policy proposals and discussions, and the reality of how success is measured in real urban schools. The tendency to try and measure growth using some elusive universal metric may be at the root of the disconnect between what people imagine occurs within school reform, and what really happens in urban schools, particularly those in poor neighborhoods.

Marjorie Stealey’s vision for Norview High, for instance, emphasized relationship-building and leadership rather than exclusively on improving standardized test scores; it was intended as a means of combating some of the greatest challenges a school can possibly face: gangs, low expectations of everyone, extremely low scores, and a poor teaching and learning climate (National Association of Secondary Principals, 2013). Her goals for the school included improving the environment, improving students’ involvement in more advanced coursework, and bettering the teaching and learning environment; these goals were important, actionable, and most importantly, specific to the unique challenges faced by Norview (National Association of Secondary Principals, 2013). These goals were sought to empower students and staff, unlike the approaches taken by some principals in Chicago, as discussed by Payne (2008).

Yet, if someone measured the overall growth and improvement of Stealey’s school based on a single static and universal metric — such as standardized test scores — perhaps, compared with other schools, Norview would have continued to look like a failing school, even after Stealey’s vision was successfully implemented.

This is unfortunate, because the growth of a school, like the growth of any individual student, cannot be measured by some universal metric. If a student facing unique and specific challenges failed to meet proficient standard on some universal national test, the public would not call that student failing; they would call for an examination of his or her growth in comparison to last year’s performance, and recommend the student’s teachers consider what accommodations or supports he or she might need in order to meet that standard. In the same way, assessing a school’s performance or growth should account for its past performance in relevant areas, and should account for its unique and specific challenges. This does involve holding all teachers to a high standard, rather than letting them settle into doing the bare minimum, as some teachers may tend to (Payne, 2008).

Assessing schools’ growth also does not necessitate the lowering of standards; rather it requires more careful and qualitative examination. After all, Stealey’s vision was a success when it came to their biggest challenges: their high school no longer had the lowest test scores in their district, they reshaped their approach to working with teachers, they improved the drop-out rate, attendance, and the graduation rate, they involved all of their students in leadership activities, and the school went on to become a Breakthrough High School (National Association of Secondary Principals, 2013).

Read on for references.


National Association of Secondary Principals (2013). Principal Leadership. Norview high school: Leadership fosters achievement, 54-59 Retrieved from

Payne, C. M. (2008). So much reform, so little change: The persistence of failure in urban schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

About the Author

Dr. Punita Rice

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Dr. Punita Rice is a wife and mama, an education researcher, a writer, the founder and director of ISAASE, and an advisor with Johns Hopkins University School of Education's Doctor of Education program. Her work centers around multicultural education and equity, and South Asian American experiences in school. You can read more about Punita and her work here. Punita also writes about life, culture, education, and motherhood here on her blog. She works from home in Maryland, and drinks a great deal of coffee.