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District in Turnaround

Ed.D. candidate's study on Massachusetts' Lawrence Public Schools shows improvements for turnaround district.

New research by Ed.D. candidate Beth Schueler, co-authored by Associate Professor David Deming and Harvard Kennedy School Associate Professor Joshua Goodman, demonstrates the direct impact of a state takeover of a public school district — specifically Massachusetts’ takeover of the Lawrence Public Schools —  on student performance and outcomes.

The study, Can States Take Over and Turn Around School Districts? Evidence from Lawrence, Massachusetts, released this month as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, showed substantial achievement gains in math and modest gains in reading among Lawrence students when compared to other low-income school districts.

“While researchers can point to several successful efforts to improve individual schools serving primarily low-income students, examples of district-wide turnaround have been frustratingly few and far between,” said Schueler. “Lawrence is an exciting case because it provides an encouraging proof point that accountability-driven improvement of a chronically low-performing school district is indeed possible.”

In the fall of 2012, the Lawrence Public Schools district was taken over by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education after many years of chronic underperformance. To date, Massachusetts has only two turnaround districts: Lawrence and Holyoke. (HGSE alumni Jeff Riley, Ed.M.’99, and Stephen Zrike, Ed.M.’03, Ed.D.’10, currently serve as receivers in Lawrence and Holyoke, respectively.) Most recently, the state announced that Southbridge is also being considered for state take over.

“This research is particularly helpful because it gets at what makes a difference,” said Russell Johnston, senior associate commissioner for accountability, partnerships, and technical assistance for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Johnston noted that the study helps the state understand what is working and having an impact on students, as well as what they may want to replicate going forward in other turnaround districts. While it is too soon to know exactly how the state will use the research, Johnston expressed how important this research is considering that little information exists as to what interventions truly work in turnaround schools.

Schueler said that the improvement on test scores in Lawrence is particularly dramatic in that it closed two-thirds of the gap between itself other low-income districts in under two years. She speculates the slower growth in reading could have to do with the fact that reading foundations develop at home before children are school aged and take longer to develop. “It’s a common pattern in K–12 research that it seems easier to move the needle on math than English,” she said.

Beyond student performance on tests scores in math and English, the research also looks at non-academic outcomes like attendance, grade progression, retention, and graduation rates among 12th-graders. Though the finding showed no positive or negative effects on non-academic outcomes, Schueler said there is some evidence that grade progression through high school stayed on track.

“What’s important is we are seeing some progress on tests without slipping on other outcomes like lower attendance or more people leaving the district,” she said.

Schueler, who is conducting the research as part of her dissertation, plans to continue examining the progress in Lawrence and impact of the takeover. In the next phase, she will look at how leaders went about accomplishing results, how stakeholders respond to the efforts, and the impact of the changes on the ground in Lawrence. She anticipates findings in the next year.


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