Turning Around Failing Schools: Policy Insights From the Corporate, Government, and Nonprofit Sectors

Issue/Topic: Accountability--School Improvement; No Child Left Behind--School Support
Author(s): Murphy, Joseph
Publication: Educational Policy
Published On: 7/18/2008

Over the last decade, the notion of turning around failing schools has burst onto the educational landscape in various countries throughout the world. Powered by government accountability systems and a growing body of knowledge about productive schooling, educators, policymakers, and actors in the general community have been calling for dramatic action to turnaround schools that fail to effectively educate large numbers of students.

To review existing research in the corporate, not-for-profit, and the public sectors to develop policy insights for shaping efforts to turn around failing schools.

The authors' findings from their review of the literature on organizational turnarounds can be characterized under the three broad headings of leadership, efficiency, and focus.

1. LEADERSHIP: Leadership is seen as a central variable in the equation of organizational success.

2. EFFICIENCY: Begin with adoption of efficiency-oriented recovery strategies rather than with entrepreneurial or strategic moves. Gains in efficiency are absolutely essential to successful recovery, yet schools tend to concentrate on strategic work, and this is not a wise approach to turnaround.

3. FOCUS: Concentrating on key basic strengths is essential. Focus is also about concentrating on the customers and results.

Policy Implications/Recommendations:
Most schools are not being successful in recovering from decline and failure, and our knowledge base on turning around failing schools is not especially deep. We have access, however, to over three decades of research and applied turnaround efforts in other industries and in various types of organizations in the corporate, government, and nonprofit sectors. This research can and should help inform school turnaround efforts.

Leadership issues must be addressed. A recovery plan should begin with the assumption of leadership change. Such a change might not be inevitable, but the burden of proof for not changing leadership should fall on those who argue against leader change. The adoption of strategies that do not pay explicit attention to leadership in their design would appear to be questionable. The absence of attention to leadership, including changes in leadership, is likely to hamper the ability of school turnaround models and efforts.

Efficiency moves are essential, as it is difficult to simply grow one's way out of a turnaround situation by focusing on new programs. Recovery efforts should begin: (1) with efficiency/operational moves rather than with entrepreneurial/strategic moves, and (2) by amassing resources to engage the turnaround, focusing primarily on freeing up less productive assets for more productive use.

Understand the customer and focus on their wants and needs. Do not lose focus on the customer by getting caught up with completing tasks and procedures or creating a producer-driven culture. Put the customer first and turn around or rebuild the organization from the customer back.

Research Design:
Integrated review applying qualitative methods in general and document analysis techniques in particular.

Literature review of existing research.

Year data is from:


Data Collection and Analysis:
Used search engines to locate studies, other literature and documentation written about turnarounds outside the PK-12 education sector between 1970 and 2003. Reviewed: (1) 14 seminal historical volumes describing the turnaround phenomenon; (2) 16 volumes of empirical studies of single firms or industries; (3) ariticles and book chapters on turnarounds, and; (4) a large number of the seminal articles from the start of the turnaround literature that focus on organizational recovery theory.


Reference in this Web site to any specific commercial products, processes or services, or the use of any trade, firm or corporation name is for the information and convenience of the public, and does not constitute endorsement or recommendation by the Education Commission of the States. Please contact Kathy Christie at 303-299-3613 or kchristie@ecs.org for further information regarding the information posting standards and user policies of the Education Commission of the States.