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Guidance to Innovate: What Turnaround Schools Need

• Adriana Harrington

Focus schools. Priority schools. Comprehensive support and improvement schools. Level 1 schools.

Despite the sometimes euphemistic and otherwise bureaucratic names, all of these labels refer to one common element: turnaround schools. They represent the bottom 5% of low performing schools in each state and require some of the most drastic actions to ensure students do not perennially fall further behind.

All states have a responsibility for both mandating and supporting school turnarounds. One of the most powerful levers states have to do this is state and federal school improvement funding. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, 7% of total Title I School Improvement funds must be used for turnaround efforts. For a state like Florida, that annually comes to $59 million; in Tennessee, it totals $22 million.

Supplement vs. Supplant

Title I funds can supplement (provide more to) at-risk students but not supplant (replace) what schools should be getting anyway in their state and local funds.

While this supplement vs. supplant rule is critical to ensuring states don’t shortchange schools on much-needed state dollars, it is also considered by local education leaders as an obstacle to holistic and need-based spending. Anything that is required to provide a basic education or listed in a state board policy cannot be funded with Title I School Improvement dollars. In practice this means schools and districts end up having to spend more of their flexible state/local funds on requirements and then—due to necessity—have to spend their Title I funds on other non-innovative items.

For example, if a state board passes a policy that is more restrictive than the federal law, such as requiring response to instruction and intervention, Title I funds can no longer be used to fund that policy. Or if a school needs new textbooks, they cannot be purchased with Title I funds because that is a foundational element of accessing an education.

Supporting Turnaround with Guided Flexibility

The work of turning around persistently failing schools is difficult—and it requires flexibility to do well, including flexibility in spending. Yet local educators often struggle to understand where flexibility exists. One principal from Hamilton County, Tennessee summed it up this way: “As soon as we think outside the box and try to do it differently, we hit that barrier.”

To support turnaround efforts, states need to think strategically about how to guide districts in innovative and outcomes-based ways for using these funds.


Two states have adopted practices that do just that:

  • In Tennessee, the state education agency bi-annually releases and provides training on a coordinated spending guide. This guide helps districts and schools know all the allowable uses of each federal fund. Want to fund professional development? It doesn’t have to be Title II. Schools could use Title I, II, III (for English Learners), IV etc. Or working to increase access and funding for early postsecondary coursework? Consider using Title IV, Part A. In this way, the state provides a Tetris-like mechanism for thinking about spending. Slide one strategy into a funding stream, then it opens up another one with more flexibility to fund innovative ideas.
  • Louisiana on the other hand has taken the successful approach of guardrails. Louisiana ties the amount of funding available to schools and districts to a list of available evidence-based strategies for implementation. This strategy both clarifies the myriad—and often new—ways funds can be spent and guides districts and schools into pre-vetted strategies and vendors with a proven track record of student success. Although there is no silver bullet in education, there is evidence of what can work and is working for students. And that is what Louisiana is using to help districts and schools decide how to spend their school improvement funds.

Access to additional funding is often key to school turnaround. And guidance and training to ensure that funds are spent in innovative ways that target the root cause of the challenge is imperative to helping turnaround efforts succeed. Now about those turnaround names…

About the author

Adriana Harrington @AdrianaHarrin17

Adriana Harrington is the Director of Innovation Policy. Prior to joining ExcelinEd Adriana worked at the Tennessee Department of Education, most recently serving as the Director of Project Management for the Division of Consolidated Planning and Monitoring and the Division of School Improvement. In this role, Adriana lead the department’s statewide school improvement initiatives to increase student outcomes in schools performing in the bottom five percent. She previously served as the Program Manager, Student Readiness for the Division of College, Career and Technical Education. Adriana was also a high school social studies teacher in Memphis for several years and a Teach for America Corps Member. Adriana earned a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in History from the University of Pennsylvania and a Masters of Public Policy from Duke University.