Failing schools can turn around without Opportunity School District. Here’s how.

A former Georgia school superintendent says failing schools can be turned around but it entails comprehensive efforts and teacher and staff buy-in.

Since retiring in 2014 as superintendent of the Gainesville, Ga., schools, Merrianne Dyer has been consulting in other states through the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson and the Scholastic Education Group.

In this essay, she discusses what we know about successfully turning around schools with persistent failure and little hope in light of the push for state takeover.

By Merrianne Dyer

As the proposed Opportunity School District is hotly debated, a topic that is generally agreed upon is that solutions for chronically low-performing schools do need to be found. However, the details on how to accomplish that, and the track records of those who are trying to do so, remain in question.

At a time when states are making decisions on how to use their autonomy provided in the new Every Student Succeeds Act, it is helpful to consider what is happening in places that do “turn around” schools.

At the 2015 National Forum on Education Policy at the Education Commission of the States in Denver, I attended a panel discussion on the topic of school improvement.  Dr. Pedro Noguera, distinguished professor of education at UCLA, was a member of the panel. Dr. Noguera has extensively researched and published on ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions.

Dr. Noguera was asked why, after 20-plus years of school turnaround and improvement work, why all or most schools were not successful. He replied that, from his experience, successful school reform has taken place only in specific local scenarios, with inspired leadership and has been difficult to replicate and sustain when leadership changes.

His thoughts led me to think about the school districts in which I now work toward school improvement and, in particular, those 14 in which I am working with in a three-year project and have come to know well. Where have I seen the factors he identified that are resulting in sustained school improvement for challenging schools? From Dr. Noguera’s description and my own experience, successful school improvement results from a synthesis of the following variables.

•First, the leadership and school community view the children and families they serve as assets instead of deficits. Regardless of the level of poverty or other challenges, they collectively view the children as future contributing members of their work force and leaders in their community. This is an example of a growth mind-set; they see the possibilities and then connect with opportunities.

These schools do not regard their test achievement scores as the determining factor in how they approach their relationships or as the identity of their school. Instead, they realize that children of poverty historically do not post the highest scores on standardized tests.

They continually put their focus on what children and families can do, and offer instruction and experiences to motivate them to do more. They have school-wide discipline supports, don’t use grading in the traditional punitive manner, and offer opportunities for students to practice in a non-threatening environment. These schools know that their students will be hired in the future for having skills and being responsible people, so all of their efforts are directed toward this end.

With this belief system, the school develops relational trust with not only the community but with one another. This also results in a nurturing school culture that remains when leaders change.

•Secondly, the leadership first identifies and then uses an organizational process that creates conditions for success before they decide on programs, strategies, and initiatives. I find this to be the most often overlooked variable, and research indicates that this lack of coherence and organization is likely the root cause of school failure. A successful organizational process includes setting instructional goals, putting strategies for learning supports that students will need in order to achieve those goals, and then managing the resources to make it happen.

Schools that successfully “turn around” eliminate the myriad of programs and initiatives that encumber school staff. Instead, they identify the root causes of their underachievement and then collaboratively decide on three to five strategies that everyone will implement. I have learned that schools that need improvement seek to find solutions in doing more — more programs, initiatives, workshops, meetings — when, in fact, they need to do less with more focus.

•Finally, the schools that achieve sustained improvement are supported by a district office that serves their needs and reinforces the organizational conditions for success.  A district office that is driven by compliance and top-down decisions never succeeds. In fact, regardless of how research-based a practice is, if the teachers and staff in a school don’t believe it will work, it won’t. Districts that successfully improve and sustain positive growth are supported by state departments who serve them by unifying their programs and services to reduce the number of   requirements and time spent on compliance reporting.

As I have explored this, I realize how rare it is for these variables to come together. It would surely benefit Georgians to consider doing so for all schools.




Reader Comments 0


Because something CAN change, is that change inevitable or even likely? Does someone else's modeling needed change render its adoption inevitable or even likely?

The ability to change is inarguably a prerequisite for change. Likewise, suitable models can promote change. But change-ability and modeling do not make change (better, improvement) inevitable or even likely. 

A stimulus is required to motivate needed change.

The Opportunity School District Amendment's ability to control the flow of money to school boards should provide recalcitrant local boards a required stimulus.


She, like some of the frequent posters, stands to gain if her way of doing business prevails.  How much did the company for which she consults give to Deal's re-election bid?  That's usually a pretty good gauge of the validity of one's stance.  Money and Power, like the recent article stated, is driving this train...not what is best for the students.  Yes, there are students who should be getting more from their schools.  I haven't seen a viable alternative that would produce better outcomes for the students.


@newsphile  Dyer is not elected.  She is not the superintendent at this time.  The article is about districts in which she has seen improvement and about Dr. Noguera's work.


Merrianne Dyer-

So why haven't they been tried before? If you are correct, there has been some blatant neglect on the part of a lot of  local officials.

How long should failure be allowed to go on? You Amendment 1 opponents must be very biblical- you seem to be wanting to fail seven times seventy!


If these are sure-fire,can't miss strategies,why are they not using them already? I agree with another poster that mentioned that this is so vague as to be meaningless,but why on earth have these school districts allowed things to get this bad? These school boards are run by the same insider education cronies that have been calling the shots for decades,but it seems that they just discovered the problem here when their power,money and control were placed in jeopardy.

Dr. Dyer here is a "consultant" with Scholastic Inc.-A company that sells a LOT of textbooks and educational hardware and software to the status quo,and hopes to sell a lot more and make more money from their  (wink-wink) "relationship" with the powers that be.This kind of soft,readily accepted corruption and acceptance double standard is what this amendment can help ameliorate,that is,if the voters are not scared silly by the shrill invective that is being hurled against it.

That said,I think that the Charter Amendment (now about to celebrate its 4th anniversary) will soon loom large in this struggle.If the voters say no,then I'm 100% certain that smart charter operators will move into these districts pretty quick to set up schools that will address these problems,whether the status quo acts or not.Now that there is a mechanism for chartering these better schools,all the operators and start up founders need to do is identify the minority and crony operated zip code schools where parents are persuadable,and those new charters will sprout up like daisies after a summer rain.I'm sure the state charter commission will look kindly on such endeavors and realize its promise by giving hard working parents a real choice for their kids.


@Astropig A major reason we have "failing schools" is because nobody will talk openly and honestly about the disciplinary issues we have at so many of our schools.  Then we have to talk about the teachers, so many with HORRIBLE English skills and yet, we're expected to have faith in them because they graduated from one of many universities that accept them when they can barely read.

We're supposed to be able to trust our educators and we don't.  Any time we question their motives or actions WE become "the enemy".  They even call us names to try to shut down any discussion.  

And how is it possible to even have a "predominantly black" school in a "diverse" nation?  Why do we pack black kids into schools so tightly?  And why do parents of white kid pull them out of the schools when the ratio shifts black?  Oh we can't talk about that can we?  Oh no.  We just assume it's "racism" (but only by the white people) and keep doing the same, failing stuff.  

Nobody wants to talk about discipline but it's the core problem.  Even among the teachers.


@Grob_Hahn @Astropig

Good points,and I'll take a stab at why I think some of these schools are failing...

I think in a lot of cases it is because of the whole "soft bigotry" vibe that follows these shifts that you mention-but not soft bigotry by whom you might think.I believe that a large part of the problem is that the staffs and certainly these school boards have gotten into the mindset that these kids are not capable of sustained excellence and there is this (unspoken) quiet acceptance of the idea that "we're doing the best that we can"...and that's just going to have to be good enough.When the same boards get voted in year after year in these rigged local school board elections,it's hard to inject any fresh ideas into this loop.

I don't think that I have to state the obvious that this attitude is dangerous.It leads to a slow slackening of standards and the result is what we see today.

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DIsciple is a major problem. What is the purpose of having police in schools, when you can not even file a report of bullying or assault with them. The sole purpose of the school districts having their own school police is to avoid having the parents go to the local police. It is so parents are stuck having to go through the districts administrative discipline. Who takes the report the Minority female AP who has been over promoted after she couldn't teach after only three years. Somehow she obtain one of those mail order PHD's from certain type of place. Having to call this Admin. a real insult to professional parents. In fact I told her and the Princpal that I do not recognize people with Ed D as Dr. Not when they lie to my face. Can't keep stories straight, cover up crimes on campus.

They don't have a gang problem, but 4 gang members, including 3, 17 year old students, left school mid day. They then flashed guns at the construction workers at the corner. Who called the PD. The police department caught the thugs, who circled back a few yards from the school. I asked the Principal how were these guns not on campus. If they were picked up, that car came through campus or they were armed on campus. The guns were on campus.

Then last week he sends an email that a student reports another student had a gun. But since it was unloaded their was no danger to any student. Are you kidding me.

Let's see my daughter has had her hair pulled and threatened to be caught with scissors in class. Then the girl confessed to touching her hair and making a cutting motion. I even got an email from an AP with that. Then my daughter get knocked into lockers and her phone gets destroyed and she has a head injury. Next I am told the first incident never happened. Then that my daughter was never hit in the head. I said funny CHOA said she had a Head injury and that is what the nurse told me when she called me.

My child tells me every day that kids fell it is dangerous at school. That the administration won't do anything. That teachers are powerless they have one year contracts. The school districts have 100,000 students., So a teacher just can't go to the next single high school district. It is a monopoly.

Most of us can not afford the $25,000 plus private schools. Some of the less expensive Christian schools are just too right wing nutty. Homeschooling doesn't allow your child to have a real social live and high school experience.


I saw the debate on Georgia's OSD, Amendment to the Constitution, Question 1 on the ballot, this evening at 6 p.m.

House Speaker Pro-Tempore Jan Jones (R) of Alpharetta had been experienced as a mother of 4 school-aged children and, obviously, imo, not educated or experienced as a teacher educator, herself.

Valarie Willson and the current President of Georgia's PTA understand the dynamics which affect long-ranged investment in improving schools and neighborhoods throughout Georgia much more than does Ms. Jones, imo.  I am a retired teacher in the state of Georgia.  Vote NO on Question 1.


Dyer's article is interesting, but not specific enough to be very helpful.   In paragraph 11, she wrote: "Schools that successfully 'turn around' eliminate the myriad of programs and initiatives that encumber school staff. Instead, they identify the root causes of their underachievement and then collaboratively decide on three to five strategies that everyone will implement."  I'd like to know more about this.  My questions:

Which schools have successfully turned around.  (Name them.)  

Which programs did those schools eliminate? 

Which strategies did everyone  implement? 


That system is a mess. I have friends in that area and they tell me that school system has serious problems! Are they not looking for a new leader?