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About 80 administrators from state departments of education, local districts, and school sites in Arizona, Nevada, and Utah met to expand their knowledge and understanding of evidence-based strategies for turning around chronically low-performing schools. REL West sponsored the event in partnership with the Southwest Comprehensive Center.

For more information, please contact:

Kelly Gerstbacher


Turning Around Low-Performing Schools: Evidence-Based Practices

March 17, 2009

Tempe Mission Palms Hotel and Conference Center
60 East 5th Street
Tempe, Arizona

Goals of the Event

  • Develop further understanding of what research says about strategies to turn around low-performing schools, and the resources available on the Doing What Works website.
  • Deepen understanding of how to recognize and apply good evidence to make research-based decisions.
  • Discuss and apply research findings and DWW resources to state, district, and school support systems and improvement plans.

Part of a U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (IES) initiative to bring evidence to practice, the event was designed to deepen participants’ understanding of how to recognize and apply good research evidence to improve persistently low-performing schools. It featured Turning Around Chronically Low-Performing Schools, one in a series of research-based practice guides published by IES, as well as related resources from its Doing What Works website ( Participants heard about and discussed how to apply research findings and website resources to state, district, and school support systems and improvement plans.


Three presentations throughout the day provided participants with information about IES-sponsored research and resources targeted to improving student outcomes in chronically low-performing schools.

Michael Ponza, senior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research and director of operations for the What Works Clearinghouse ( provided a brief introduction to IES practice guides.

Rebecca Herman, principal research scientist for American Institutes for Research (AIR) and panel chair for the featured practice guide, presented an overview of the four research-based practices recommended in Turning Around Chronically Low-Performing Schools:

  • Signal the need for dramatic change with strong leadership. 
  • Maintain a consistent focus on improving instruction. 
  • Make visible improvements early in the school turnaround process (quick wins). 
  • Build a committed staff.

Nikola Filby, associate director of REL West at WestEd, provided an overview of the structure and content of the Doing What Works website ( Doing What Works provides resources that support the evidence-based recommendations contained in the WWC practice guides for educators at all levels of the system.

Interactive Sessions

Following the presentations, participants divided into four breakout sessions, each focusing on one of the four recommended practices through a jigsaw activity. Facilitated by an expert with extensive background and experience in the given topic, each group spent an hour in deeper study of a recommended practice, discussing its implications for participants’ own contexts, sharing barriers and solutions, and providing examples from school improvement efforts.

Following these breakout discussions, participants returned to their original home groups, shared what they had learned, and discussed ways they might apply the strategies to their own work, including what support would help a school leader to implement them and where that support might come from.

Participants then met as state teams, with each group facilitated by a SWCC staff member who works with that state’s education agency on building and implementing the state system of support. The meetings were organized around four guiding questions:

  • How do our state system of support and local improvement efforts currently reflect the recommendations in the practice guide?
  • How can the Doing What Works website be used in our work to support improvement efforts?
  • How can the current system of support be strengthened to impact improvement efforts?
  • What does the state see as priorities and next steps to address them?

In the final session of the day, all participants came together to share what they had discussed, consider what they had learned, and plan next steps.

For additional details about the event, and summaries of discussion content, please see the attached proceedings document.

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