Low-Performing Schools and School Reform: Three Essays on School Turnaround, the Mechanisms of Low Performance, and Leadership for Reform
While federal education policy requires that states support their lowest performing schools, the research on how to effectively turn around these schools is limited. Drawing from 13 years of statewide administrative data combined with survey data from the North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions survey, this dissertation examines three dimensions of school turnaround and low-performing schools. The first essay is an evaluation of the North Carolina Transformation initiative, an intervention to turn around 75 of the state’s lowest performing schools. Using a regression discontinuity design, I find that the intervention decreased student achievement and increased teacher turnover in treatment schools. I find no evidence that the increased teacher turnover was strategic on the part of school leaders. The negative effects on student achievement appear to be related to the timing of the needs assessment, a requirement under federal policy for supporting low-performing schools. The second essay aims to develop an early warning system for low-performing schools by identifying the leading indicators of low performance. Using lasso regression, I find that a small set of indicators related to student preparedness, teachers, and school conditions can accurately predict performance in about 94 percent of all schools and low performance for about 37 percent of low-performing schools. The third essay investigates the phenomenon of so-called turnaround principals. Using a drift-adjusted value-added approach to measuring principal effectiveness, I find that there are principals who are effective in low-performing schools and who sustain that effectiveness over multiple years. However, school fixed effects models do not find evidence that effectiveness transfers to subsequent low-performing schools. Taken together, these three essays provide context for understanding the determinants of low performance and the path forward for states supporting their lowest performing schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act.
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