School Improvement and School Turnaround: District-Level Initiatives in Chicago, IL, and Prince Georges County, MD

School Improvement and School Turnaround: District-Level Initiatives in Chicago, IL, and Prince Georges County, MD
School Improvement and School Turnaround: District-Level Initiatives in Chicago, IL, and Prince Georges County, MD

With thousands of the nation’s schools mired in low achievement, there is much talk about the need to turn schools around. But what does a successful school turnaround actually look like? What are the political and practical challenges to turning around low-performing schools? And what lessons have been learned from recent restructuring efforts?

This forum will highlight a pair or promising district-wide approaches to school turnaround. Chicago is combining an “outside the system” approach (bringing in talented leaders to create new charter schools) with efforts to develop school leaders from within the system. And in Prince Georges County, the district has adopted a comprehensive range of reforms, touching on everything from the curriculum to teacher professional development, the hiring of principals, and student advising.

Alan Anderson, Executive Director of Chicago’s Department of School Turnarounds, and Josh Edelman, Executive Director of Chicago’s Office of New Schools, began with a brief profile of the Chicago schools, highlighting the district’s diversity and size (it has 655 schools, including charters).

Chicago’s school improvement strategy is twofold, explained Edelman. First, recognizing that large-scale reform is a slow, evolutionary process, district leaders launched a 6-year initiative, beginning in 2004, to create as many as a hundred new charter schools, including a variety of school models, giving students a wide range of educational options from which to choose.

Second, and because students shouldn’t have to wait for reforms to take root over the long term, the district replaces the leadership of 3-5% of its worst-performing schools every year, carefully selecting new principals for those schools and charging them to make significant improvements right away. Edelman and Anderson’s offices pursue this strategy from two different angles—Edelman identifies new principals from outside the system, then helps them to convert low-performing schools into charter schools, while Anderson finds new principals from within the system, supporting them as they take charge of troubled schools.

For Edelman, the work begins with a request for proposals to create new charter schools (particularly high schools, which he sees as a high priority for the district). In order to identify the most promising proposals, he uses a protocol (created by Mass Insight, a Massachusetts-based organization) designed to assess individuals’ readiness to move forward with specific school improvement projects. Then, after a 6-month selection process, his office provides winning candidates with a one-year grant of up to a half million dollars, to be used to develop the school model, plan the curriculum, hire teachers, and so on. Once the school opens, the following year, additional technical assistance and funding are provided for special projects, such as the introduction of Advanced Placement courses. And from that point on, the new school receives district funding as per the regular formula, based on enrollment.

In order to identify promising school leaders, said Anderson, his office also uses Mass Insight’s protocol, in addition to checking to make sure that candidates understand the key principles of Chicago’s overall reform strategy (including school design elements such as a core curriculum, extended learning time, and after-school tutoring, as well as administrative priorities such as investing in professional development, principal and teacher incentives, and community outreach).

Edelman noted that he faces a few main challenges in his work: 1) funding is limited, which constrains the numbers of new school leaders he can appoint; 2) human capital itself is limited—it’s hard to find people who are both capable and interested in opening new urban charter schools; and 3) school change is hard work, period.

Anderson added that in developing his own district turnaround plans, he confronts a few additional challenges: 1) once his office chooses a new principal for a troubled school, it has to race to get ready for the coming year. In six to nine months, new staff must be hired, programs developed, professional development systems designed, and plans made for parent engagement; 2) his office has to integrate some widely disparate responsibilities, including oversight of curriculum and instruction, organizational reform, and efforts to negotiate with other district offices; and 3) his office has to process enormous amounts of information coming in from all partners.

Said Edelman, the two projects have been extremely successful so far, in building a strong sense of buy-in among the community. In 2006, when the first of his new charter schools opened, many parents were angry that their neighborhood school had been taken over in this way. Most of those parents have come around, though, and there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that the school has become safer, that there’s more learning going on, and that the doors are always open to parents.

While some new charter schools have posted test score gains, Edelman noted, the most immediately visible progress has to do with their physical environment, including not only facilities but also school safety, noise, and discipline. These have become places where kids want to go. And while it’s important to temper parents’ expectations a little, since achievement gains don’t happen right away, academic gains will follow in time.

Anderson said that his office started in 2008 with three schools that were full reconstitution turnaround schools.  Prior to the establishment of an office, the district created four principal-led turnaround schools which started in 2006. Since then, and like Edelman, he has seen major changes in school climate and culture, and that sort of change does have to be the first priority. After all, until students and parents feel like the school is a good place to be, it won’t be possible to move ahead with anything else. Also, attendance has improved—in the first quarter, this year, the high school that he supervises saw its attendance go up by 15%, while incidents of loitering and fighting have declined.

One main lesson of the turnaround work, Anderson said, is that it demands a lot of coordination and collaboration among district offices. Further, he has learned that his office needs to become much more proactive in planning for each coming year. Some principals happen to be extremely self-directed, but others need support, and the district has to anticipate what they will need in order to prepare for the school year. Further, Anderson said that he’s learned how important it is to monitor schools’ progress carefully, so that any problems can be addressed quickly.

Edelman reiterated that when they embark on school turnaround projects, districts need to manage public expectations—the school environment can improve quickly, but academic gains will take a while. He has also come to see how important it is for turnaround projects to work with clusters of K-8 and high schools, aligning their curricula and programs, rather than working with high schools alone. If work is only conducted with high schools, the high school might improve only to find that there’s no longer a pipeline of students coming from the local middle grades. Another lesson, he added, is that one has to be ruthless, at times, in choosing school leaders. In order to make sure that he selects new principals who are truly ready to do the work, he has to say no to some very committed people.

As for policy implications, Anderson pointed out that the Chicago schools are under mayoral control, which gives the system a lot of flexibility. For instance, the district has already changed the ways it compensates district-level staff, and the long term visions is to adopt performance-based compensation in addition to the incentives that are currently piloted today in about 20 schools.  The district is also examining expanding the school day and year. Another important policy change, said Edelman, would be to create more incentives—such as below-market-rate housing loans—to get people to work in troubled schools. Further, while Chicago has done a lot with its existing state and federal funding, the district has come to see the value in asking its private donors to collaborate with one another, pooling their resources to support specific projects.


Derek Mitchell, Executive Director of New and Charter Schools for the Prince Georges County (PGC) School District, began his presentation by noting that his district is, in some ways, an extension of the Washington, DC school system, which it wraps halfway around. At the same time, while some of PGC’s more than 220 schools are practically in the city, and serve a mainly low-income, urban student population, other schools are suburban, and others are quite rural. Also, he noted, the district enrolls a fast-growing number of English Language Learners, who now comprise more than 20% of total enrollment.

Three core belief statements underlie the district’s school turnaround efforts, said Mitchell: “Children Come First,” “Victory is in the Classroom,” and “Parents are our Partners.” The district prioritizes three goals in particular: giving all students individual attention; improving the quality of student-teacher interactions (as opposed to reforming schools as organizations); and cultivating a public demand for better schools via powerful parent engagement.

Over the past several years, and before stepping down this fall, PGC’s superintendent had built strong momentum for reforms district-wide, and the schools continued to improve. According to the data, the district’s elementary schools are now performing better than ever, and they’re doing so at a faster rate than in any other district in the state of MD. Overall, the schools improved on the 2008 Maryland School Assessments in every subject tested, at every grade level, and in every subgroup. AP and SAT test scores and participation rates are higher than ever, and the district currently has more schools meeting their Average Yearly Progress targets than at any time since the beginning of No Child Left Behind, with increases posted for every sub-group. In just the last two years, the number of elementary schools in the “school improvement” category has declined from 41 to 23, reversing two previous years of increases.

Today, PGC’s black students are reading at the level that white students posted just five years ago, which is an extraordinary accomplishment, Mitchell added, as it suggests that the district managed to remove decades-old barriers to achievement in a few short years.

At the high school level, Mitchell said, PGC has focused on expanding access to rigorous coursework, improving the quality of instruction, and helping students to clarify their educational goals. Every student, K-12, gets opportunities to meet with an advisor and develop an individualized learning plan, spelling out exactly what their goals are and which courses they will need to take in order to graduate college-ready.  The plans are electronic, and act as a student’s portfolio of their hopes and goals, which goes with them as they move through  their careers and transfer between schools.

In high schools, PGC is expanding access to Career Technical Academies, by developing all offerings within each geographic cluster.  Once completed, every student will be able to pursue any career pathway that interests them, rather than just the ones offered at their home campus. Also, on the most recent assessments, the number of AP and SAT exams taken by PGC students has doubled—and while scores remained the same, it’s important to note that they have not declined either, even though many more students are taking them.

So what accounts for these improvements?

PGC administrators attribute the progress to three strategies, said Mitchell. First, because leadership matters, and having  the right leaders ready to implement the  reforms at a high level is of  paramount importance, the district replaced 60% of its principals over the last four years, taking great care to put strong leaders in those positions. Second, the district stressed capacity-building across the system, with an emphasis on making sure that the schools were following through on their stated goals and principles. And third, PGC made it a point to distribute its human and financial resources equitably across the district.  That was relatively easy to do a couple of years ago, when there was a $100 million surplus, Mitchell acknowledged, but even in light of leaner times ahead, it remains a district priority to offer incentives, for example, for teachers and staff to work in lower-income , high-need schools.

PGC’s broad strategies include assigning the best teachers to the neediest kids—and it helps that PGC was given a grant under the Federal Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides up to $20,000 in additional salary per teacher, and district administrators. Further, PGC receives technical assistance from the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning, which conducts research and professional development on effective instruction. The district uses the America’s Choice comprehensive school improvement model in its middle schools. It partners with College Summit, which assists high schools in guiding low-income students through the college application process. PGC also makes it a priority to offer at least eight AP courses in every high school, and it is in the process of diving its large high schools into small learning communities and/or small schools, with cohorts of a hundred students matched with teams of four teachers to offer the core  instructional programs.

Additionally, said Mitchell, PGC has blended together the professional development it gives to teachers and principals, in order to reinforce the idea that administrators are instructional leaders. And every teacher and principal is expected to engage in regular “learning walks,” using protocols to observe classroom instruction and provide teachers with feedback. Finally, parent involvement has been a priority district-wide, and every school now has a full-time parent liaison on staff, two if the school needs a Spanish-speaking liaison.

Among the challenges of school turnaround in PGC, said Mitchell, is the difficulty of making progress in the middle schools—while he sees exceptional performance in the middle grades at some K-8 schools, the district’s middle schools on the whole are not improving, suggesting a problem with the model itself, or with its implementation.

Also, Maryland has implemented high school exit exams this year, and it remains to be seen how the district will support those students who fail the tests.

As to policy implications, Mitchell argued for improving, not ending, No Child Left Behind. The legislation has provided the reform language that his district uses, he said, and he sees that language as very powerful in driving high expectations in place  where they have  been historically low.  However, NCLB ought to be fully funded, and its High Quality Teacher provisions need to be rethought and adequately supported.  Further, he said state and federal policymakers could make it easier to provide incentives for teachers and administrators to take on the hardest assignments, and they could help districts develop more collaborative and student-focused collective bargaining agreements with Union partners.  Finally, he urged the federal government to fund universal pre-kindergarten, which research supports strongly.


Highlights from the Question and Answer Session

The first question, addressed to Edelman and Anderson, asked when the Chicago schools expect to see student achievement gains at their turnaround schools. Edelman pointed out that his office currently supervises eight new charter high schools, and some are in their first year. The school that is most advanced is in just its third year, and while that school is now outperforming district and state averages, it’s still too soon to say whether it will produce achievement gains long term. However, not all improvement shows up on test scores, Edelman said, and it’s important to recognize early gains in attendance, retention, and more. Anderson added that his office has set the target that all of its K-8 schools should make AYP within three years (and its one participating high school within four). Early indications are good, but it’s still early in the process.

The second question addressed what Edelman called the “ruthless” work of identifying school leaders—how do the Chicago initiatives develop the school leaders they identify? Anderson reiterated that his office is trying to develop a strong leadership pipeline within the Chicago schools. When it does select good candidates to turn around troubled schools, the district sends them to the University of Virginia for a 2-year program, in which a small cohort focuses specifically on the challenges of school improvement. The candidates that he works with have more autonomy, said Edelman, since they come from outside the system, and since they tend to be chosen on the basis of past success. They are offered the opportunity to go to the Virginia program, but most choose to move straight ahead with their proposals. The district provides them technical assistance as needed, Edelman added, and his office may decide to become more directive if they seem to need the guidance.

The third question focused on whether any of the turnaround schools have seen major breakthroughs in core subject areas, such as reading and math, especially at the high school level. Mitchell responded that the growth in his district has been steady, and he’s seen good progress especially in Algebra, but he hasn’t yet seen major leaps in achievement. Edelman noted that his schools haven’t had time yet to post any major breakthroughs, but they’re pursuing strategies that are known to work. Raising achievement isn’t rocket science, he added. Give students more rigor, personalization, time on task… and they’ll learn. Find great teachers and give them real professional development, and things will improve. “We don’t need breakthrough strategies so much as we need to do what works, and we need to persuade people to do it even though it’s hard.”

Another questioner asked whether Prince Georges County and the Washington, DC Public Schools have worked together, given their proximity?  Mitchell said that PGC has tried to build a relationship over the past few years with all of its neighboring districts, but it hasn’t really taken off yet. But there is a lot of student, teacher and staff mobility among PGC, Washington, and Baltimore, and there is thus a lot of opportunity for collaboration.

A final question addressed the gains in school climate and parent involvement that have occurred in the Chicago schools—what is happening to make parents trust those schools? Anderson replied that most parents, himself included, want to be engaged in their kids’ schools but that they just haven’t had much opportunity to do so before. The schools that he supervises are now creating “parent academies,” activities designed to bring back parents who have felt disenfranchised. Part of the process has been to do needs assessments in each community, to ensure that the school responds to parents real concerns, by offering GED classes or providing opportunities to learn about the high school curriculum. Already, those efforts are paying off in the sense that greater numbers of parents are attending school meetings every month. Edelman observed that Chicago is getting smarter about working with parents, rather than doing reform to them. And while every school model has its own rituals and expectations, it’s important that they all have them and that they communicate them to parents explicitly, in a spirit of advocacy and not as enemies or in a paternalistic way. Mitchell noted that his district strives to make schools welcoming places for parents—every school now has a specific room for parents, stocked with information on tutoring programs, summer classes, local events, and other resources. And when kids see their parents and grandparents hanging out at the school, he added, the effect is great.


Speaker Biographies:

Derek Mitchell: Executive Director, New and Charter Schools, Prince Georges County School District (MD).  Born and raised in Chicago, Il. Dr. Derek Mitchell received a BA in English and Writing from Pomona College in Claremont, CA. and a PhD in Educational Psychology from the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California at Los Angeles. While at UCLA, Dr Mitchell served as  the chief architect and Project Director for the Quality School Portfolio Training Initiative at the Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing (CRESST), a project that pioneered school and district information management system and data-driven support technologies.  After receiving his degree, Dr. Mitchell served as the Director of Technology and Student Achievement for the Oakland Unified School District where he was responsible for Equity-related challenges facing the district in assessment, technology and achievement.   Subsequently, Dr. Mitchell served as Program Manager in the District Alliance Program at the Stupski Foundation in California where he managed the foundations efforts to support district-wide reform in several districts across the country, including Jackson Public Schools in Mississippi, and Baltimore City Public Schools System in Maryland. Currently, Dr. Derek Mitchell is the Executive Director of the Opportunity Zone in Prince George’s County Maryland which consists of the district’s efforts to instill innovative school options as a core component of district wide reforms. He’s responsible for several departments including New & Charter Schools, Pupil Accounting & School Boundaries and New School Design and Development.

Josh Edelman: Executive Director, Office of New Schools (ONS), at Chicago Public Schools.  ONS works to recruit, develop, and support new schools and ultimately, hold them accountable to high performance measures.  ONS manages a portfolio of 84 charter, contract, performance and professional development schools, including all schools developed through the Renaissance 2010 initiative.  Previously, Mr. Edelman held various leadership positions at The SEED Foundation, first on the board of directors, then as principal of The SEED School, a public charter boarding school in Washington DC, and then as academic program advisor for The SEED Foundation where he supported efforts to replicate the school.  Mr. Edelman is also a seasoned educator.  After teaching at Milton academy in Massachusetts, he taught social studies for seven years at Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton, California where he was also the founder and Executive Director for RISE (Realizing Intellect through Self-Empowerment), a youth development program targeted at African-American youth.

Mr. Edelman has a bachelor’s degree in American history from Harvard University, a master’s degree in education from Stanford University, and a second master’s in educational administration with administrative credential, also from Stanford University.  Mr. Edelman has received fellowships from the Mellon Foundation and Echoing Green.  Mr. Edelman has served on the Boards of The SEED Foundation, Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning and is a MENtor for Real Men Read in Chicago.


Alan Anderson: Alan Anderson is currently the Executive Director of the Office of School Turnaround at Chicago Public Schools.  He has worked at Chicago Public Schools for the last two years with a prior stint as Deputy Chief of the Office of Research Evaluation and Accountability, working to manage the development of Chicago’s Value Added Measure. Prior to working at Chicago Public Schools, Alan worked at Motorola for 9 years in their automotive division leading several automotive control module businesses.  Alan has a BA in Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, an MS in Electrical Engineering from Northwestern University, and an MBA from Northwestern, Kellogg School of Management.





A Anderson PPT Presentation

D. Mitchell PPT Presentation

Josh Edelman
Executive Director
Chicago Public Schools
Office of New Schools

Alan Anderson
Executive Director
Department of School Turnarounds
Chicago Public Schools

Derek Mitchell
Executive Director
Prince Georges County School District
New and Charter Schools


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