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About 70 representatives of District Assistance and Intervention Teams (DAITs), School Assistance and Intervention Teams (SAITs), Regional System of District and School Support Directors, and county Title III directors from Northern California 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 California Comprehensive Center.

For more information, please contact:

Kelly Gerstbacher


Turning Around Low-Performing Schools: Implications for District and School Support Providers

April 28, 2009

Hilton Oakland Airport Hotel
1 Hegenberger Road
Oakland, California

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.
  • Learn from a school that has successfully implemented turnaround strategies.
  • 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.

Presentations and Interactive Sessions

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.

A panel including a SAIT lead, a DAIT lead, and a CDE representative discussed how the four recommended practices intersect with the nine Essential Program Components that frame CDE’s approach to supporting low-performing schools. Panelists’ remarks were guided by three broad questions:

  • What are some examples you’ve seen of the practices in action?
  • What are examples of some barriers/roadblocks you’ve seen?
  • What are some practical solutions to overcoming such roadblocks?

Following the panel, the principal and a key staff member from a successful turnaround school, Waterford High School, described how the four recommended practices played out in their setting and engaged in a dialogue with participants about the realities and challenges of implementing change in low-performing schools.

In the final activity of the day, participants engaged in facilitated small-group discussions with colleagues, guided by five questions:

  • How can technical assistance providers support the implementation of the strategies discussed in the practice guide?
  • How might technical assistance providers use the resources in Doing What Works?
  • What challenges do technical assistance providers face in this process? What are some potential solutions? What resources or strategies might be necessary?
  • Should anything be formally modified or added to the technical assistance and support the state provides?
  • What is the district’s role in school improvement, and how might districts best support school implementation of the strategies discussed in the practice guide?

Following the table discussion, participants were asked to summarize and report on their conversations using the following questions:

  • What are THREE useful take-aways or highlights from today’s presentations that can assist in your work with low-performing schools?
  • What are TWO roadblocks you discussed, and what solutions did you share?
  • What is ONE suggestion you have for improving state and/or district support structures for low-performing schools?

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


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