This is how you do turnarounds

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For the second time, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district has failed to win the $1 million Broad Prize, but its strategies for turning around tough schools should get lots of notice--since this district has built one of the few working turnaround models that is not dependent upon those scarce outside providers. Results and replicability--how great is that?

Other incentive programs may look like the Charlotte-Mecklenberg effort, but there are key details in the design of this program created by Superintendent Peter Gorman that may explain why this one is working where others have failed. An analysis released by the Aspen Institute this April showed that these schools--traditionally the lowest performing in the district--posted impressive gains, on average 6 percent for reading, 10 percent in math, and 9 percent in science in a single year.

Gorman gives principals a 10 percent pay raise, three full years and significantly more autonomy if they can turn around a failing school. A great track record is a prerequisite to even be considered for one of these principalships--infusing the cache that works so well in attracting superstars. But it doesn't stop there. The principals get to hand-pick up to eight people to join the staff, including an assistant principal, a behavior modification technician, a facilitator and up to five new teachers.

One of the more interesting twists in Gorman's plan is that principals start these jobs in March--giving them enough time to evaluate the current teachers, decide which ones they want to keep and develop a reform plan. The teachers who don't stay are either reassigned or dismissed, at the district's discretion. The new teachers selected by the principal get a $20,000 signing bonus, paid out over three years.

The initiative's only costs are the bonuses for the principal's leadership team and selected teachers--about $175,000 per school over the three years, according to the Aspen report.

Gorman's strategy tackles two big challenges at once: making the most challenging schools appealing to the best principals and convincing affluent and successful school communities to part with top talent gracefully. The trick, says initiative principal Steve Hall, is highlighting the moral and ethical imperative in turning around failing schools. Once the mission is clear, parents and students come around. One of Hall's former students went as far as to tell him, "I'm proud of you."