January 24, 2018

Beth E. Schueler (Harvard Kennedy School)

Skim headlines from the press coverage of school districts undergoing state takeover and turnaround and you will find significant signs of public frustration. In contrast, research suggests that the state takeover and improvement efforts targeting Massachusetts’ Lawrence Public Schools generated limited signs of resistance. Lawrence is therefore a rare positive examples of politically viable state-led district-wide improvement that provides lessons for state-level policymakers on how to select districts for turnaround and for district-level leaders on navigating the thorny politics of school system improvement.

This brief summarizes results from a recent study of the political dynamics surrounding the first three years of the Lawrence takeover and turnaround. The goal of the study was to understand why the Lawrence reforms were not more contentious. It suggests that within a local and statewide context that was ripe for change, turnaround leaders improved the public response by employing a “third way” approach to transcending polarizing political disagreements in the education space.

School District Turnaround: Learning from Leadership in Lawrence, Massachusetts