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Turnaround Middle Schools

The Challenge of Turning Around Low-Performing Middle Schools

Performance in the middle grades is highly correlated with students’ high school outcomes. But, based on New York State assessments, proficiency levels in NYC middle schools have continued to lag behind those of the elementary grades.

In response to these disappointing trends, New York City and other districts have taken an intense interest in the question of what it takes to turn around a low-performing middle school. Many “turnaround” policies focus on large-scale reforms like closing failing schools, converting schools to charters, or dismissing principals and many teachers.

Yet, in contrast, some schools manage to improve student performance by drawing on internal capacity and existing resources. What can be learned from low-performing middle schools that have beaten the odds and substantially improved student performance? These “turnaround” schools suggest valuable lessons about essential conditions for success and strategies that can be used to improve teaching and learning.

About Our Study

Our in-depth qualitative study sought to identify and explore key factors that contribute to middle school success in general, and specifically to school turnaround in the middle grades. The one-year study compared two sets of initially low-performing schools: one that showed significant growth in student achievement between 2006 and 2010—the “turnaround schools”—and another that remained basically stagnant during the same period.

To gain insight into how the turnaround schools had improved, we conducted in-depth interviews with principals and focus groups with teachers in both sets of schools. As described in our report, Learning from “Turnaround” Middle Schools: Strategies for Success, these conversations elicited rich data about the specific practices that had contributed to turnaround and how these practices were implemented in schools.


This project was made possible through general operating support to the Research Alliance.

Related Publications

Learning from “Turnaround” Middle Schools

In New York City and around the nation, there is intense interest in the question of what it takes to turn around a low-performing school. This study focused on two sets of initially low-performing NYC middle schools. The first group (the “turnaround schools”) exhibited significant growth in academic performance between 2006 and 2010, while the other group saw minimal growth or remained stagnant during the same period. (2012)

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