New Brief by AIR, Mathematica Experts Examines States’ Capacity to Support Turnaround in Low-Performing Schools

Washington, D.C. – A new research brief released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) documents states’ capacity to support school turnaround as of spring 2012 and spring 2013.

The study found that at least three-quarters of states reported having “significant gaps” in expertise to support turning around low-performing schools.

The brief resulted from collaboration between experts at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and Mathematica Policy Research. It is the fourth brief in a large-scale evaluation of School Improvement Grant (SIG) and Race to the Top (RTT) programs.

“Improving low-performing schools does not happen overnight,” said Courtney Tanenbaum, a senior researcher at AIR. “Turning them around is a complex and challenging endeavor. So it is not surprising that states would feel a need for more support in this area.”

Through structured telephone interviews with administrators in 49 states and the District of Columbia, the study found:

  • More than 80 percent of states made turning around low-performing schools a high priority, but at least 50 percent of all states found turnaround very difficult.
  • Thirty-eight states (76 percent) reported significant gaps in expertise for supporting school turnaround in 2012, and that number increased to 40 states (80 percent) in 2013.
  • More than 85 percent of states reported using strategies to enhance their capacity to support school turnaround. The use of intermediaries decreased over time, and the use of organizational or administrative structures increased over time.
  • Twenty-one states reported prioritizing school turnaround and having significant gaps in expertise to support it. Although these states were no more likely to use intermediaries than other states, all 21 reported having at least one organizational or administrative structure to improve their capacity to support turnaround, compared with 86 percent (25 of 29) of other states.

“States can play an important role in tackling the challenges of school turnaround, for example, by arranging external support to address barriers to improvement,” said Susanne James-Burdumy, Mathematica senior fellow and director of the evaluation. “For this reason, SIG and RTT provided resources to improve state capacity to support turnaround, but concerns linger about state capacity to continue that support once SIG and RTT funding runs out. Our brief sheds light on the specific capacity constraints states are facing and where additional supports could be warranted.”

To view the full report, go to

About AIR
Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of health, education, and workforce productivity. For more information, visit

About Mathematica Policy Research
Mathematica Policy Research seeks to improve public well-being by conducting studies and assisting clients with program evaluation and policy research, survey design and data collection, research assessment and interpretation, and program performance/data analytics and management. Its clients include foundations, federal and state governments, and private-sector and international organizations. The employee-owned company is headquartered in Princeton, NJ, with offices in Ann Arbor, MI; Cambridge, MA; Chicago, IL; Oakland, CA; and Washington, DC. For more information, visit


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