Turnaround up close: What Chiefs learned on a recent visit to Springfield, MA

From the Field: A periodic reflection by Chiefs for Change CEO Mike Magee on the most important conversations happening today among state and district school leaders.

Turning around enduringly low-performing schools is as difficult as it is urgent. Such schools, while small in number, account for far more than their share of squandered life possibilities. But they have resisted an enormous variety of often intensive and expensive policy solutions. For good reason, breaking this cycle has been one of the primary challenges state and district leaders face.

As we have noted before, such turnarounds are reliably doable when states and districts come together with educators, communities, and nonprofits around a more disciplined approach than has been typical in the past. I was reminded of that fact as I visited Springfield, Massachusetts, recently with a group of Chiefs from across the country. What was notable about Springfield was the commitment from local political leaders — the mayor, the superintendent, the union president — to the turnaround effort, alongside their counterparts from the state education agency and external partners, like Empower Schools. Rather than pointing fingers, these local officials trusted one another to work together and chart a new governance structure for their district, delegating their authority to operate the lowest-performing schools and agreeing that these schools would be held accountable by a new governing board, not the local school committee.

The Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership (SEZP) demonstrates the necessity of local support for turnaround, but also that it need not limit the involvement of outside providers and the state education agency. When outside partners honor the local nature of the work, meaningful and impactful collaboration is possible.

Perhaps this is why the SEZP, established in 2014, has piqued national interest as a new model for school improvement, one rooted in authentic collaboration between state and district leaders who share high expectations for student learning and improved outcomes. Three years ago, when multiple Springfield middle schools were at-risk for state receivership, Massachusetts instead offered the district another path — to come up with a new improvement plan that would take the district’s modest progress and accelerate it. This plan was required to meet critical conditions that the state’s research showed were essential to successful turnaround, like increased time for instruction and educator collaboration, autonomy for school leaders with regard to staffing, scheduling, and budgeting, and teacher compensation reform — a coherent strategy for school improvement, without the rigidity of a prescribed turnaround “model.”

Operational authority over each school rests not with the local district, but with a governing board composed of both community members and state-appointed representatives. Everyone acknowledged that the decision to transfer schools to the zone wasn’t an easy one. But when the alternative was receivership, all of the local players came together to support the zone — recognizing that something must be done to improve student outcomes and embracing a solution that gave them a seat at the table.

Today, the SEZP is leading turnaround for nine of Springfield’s middle schools, with plans to take on a high school next year. We don’t yet have the data to know if schools in the SEZP is seeing rapid rates of student growth. But Chiefs on our recent visit were impressed by the confluence of factors that came together to make it possible:

● a state that believed in strong accountability and had a track record of taking direct, bold steps to improve schools;

● meaningful cooperation and trust between state and district leaders to create the space for new governance structures; and

● significant autonomy and flexibility for school leaders supported with the expertise of external partners.

And while the visit presented a meaningful opportunity for Chiefs to learn about Springfield’s successes, and ongoing challenges, it also demonstrated how the peer-to-peer learning we facilitate at Chiefs for Change can be a vehicle to disseminate powerful ideas — and broaden Chiefs’ vision for their work — even across states with different contexts, political constraints, and policy structures. There may never be broad consensus on the right policy remedies, but knowledge visits like these can move our thinking in the right direction and support other leaders in implementing innovative approaches to similar challenges.

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