Turning Around Turnaround Schools

a practical approach for helping struggling schools in today’s educational environment of high stakes testing and accountability

by: Joe DeSensi EdD, Frank DeSensi, Robert Knight EdD

“Test scores cannot be used as the only indicator of a student’s performance. Scores are a data point, and not a decision point. We must dig deeper to determine what is wrong with student work and why it breaks down. This causal analysis helps us to enable each child to maximize his or her potential."
-Joe DeSensi

About the book

Turning Around Turnaround Schools, now in its 2nd edition, is the go-to resource for leaders working in or with turnaround schools. In a practical “what to do” format – rich with concrete examples and tools to implement at your school – this book helps schools find relevant and targeted best practices for improving student achievement in an era of high-stakes accountability. Turning Around Turnaround Schools explores the idea of “student as learner” vs. “student as performer,” and helps educators to capture and sue the right data. Written by a team of educators from Educational Directions, LLC, this book shares lessons learned, as well as proven strategies and processes implemented with struggling schools, both urban and rural, in several states.

The book chronicles the changes in perceptions, practices, and assumptions made by these educators during their 20 years of working with “turnaround schools.” The authors focus on areas that produced the greatest leverage in changing schools (e.g., identifying all the learnings and learner characteristics required by standards or developing causal data streams) and on some of the barriers that made these high leverage strategies difficult to implement (e.g., compliance cultures or entrenched programs). The book develops a new approach to the idea of intentional education, to educating the whole child, and to the process of using data to inform instruction.

A major emphasis of the book is that change must be rooted in “output,” not “input.” Many of the early failures of conventional wisdom could be traced back to the fact that leaders were trying to change adult work, strategies, or materials without first defining the output that was expected from the students or identifying the causes of off-level performance.

This 2nd edition guidebook contains assessments and toolkits that educational leaders can use – right away – to begin understanding and addressing the changes before them.

The authors of Turning Around Turnaround Schools don’t present their approach as a magic bullet to solve all turnaround school problems. Rather, they document how they had to address the fact that preconceived realities and assumptions limited their ability to move schools in a way that would predictably improve student performance. Their hope is that this book will stimulate a similar reevaluation in the readers so that they can come to grips with personal assumptions and deal with the barriers they will face as they come to grips and try to change practice in their schools. 

About the Authors

Frank DeSensi

Frank DeSensi is the founder and president of Educational Directions, LLC, and consults with schools and school districts in the Southeast and Midwest United States. 

A retired educator, Frank spent thirty-five years in a variety of teaching and administrative positions. He taught at the university, college, middle school, and secondary levels, worked in the central office as a curriculum specialist, and held both principal and assistant principal positions. From 1993 to 1998, Frank served as a Kentucky Distinguished Educator (DE), assisting schools that had been labeled “in decline” or “in crisis” under the provisions of the Kentucky Education Reform Act. Frank helped develop the STAR training program for new DEs and served as a trainer in the Kentucky Leadership Academy. 

With two others, he has patented three data-management systems for schools, and in 2011, he led the development of an academic management organization approach as an alternative to the education management organization option for turnaround schools.

Robert Knight, EdD

Robert Knight has spent forty years in public education as a teacher, literacy and leadership specialist, principal, and change agent. After a twenty-seven-year career with the Jefferson County Public Schools and the Kentucky Department of Education, he worked with the National Center on Education and the Economy/America’s Choice and Transformations by Design and is currently a senior consultant for Educational Directions. 

Dr. Knight’s work has taken him to more than a dozen states and over seventy-five schools. He resides in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife, Diane, a teacher and teacher mentor.

Joe DeSensi, EdD

Dr. DeSensi serves as director of operations for Educational Directions and president and cofounder of Informatics Direct. He has an undergraduate degree from Bellarmine University, a graduate degree in Computer Resource Management from Webster University, and a doctorate in leadership education with a focus on managing technology from Spalding University. Dr. 

DeSensi has worked with Fortune 500 companies, federal and local government, and school districts across the Southeast. He has developed custom and enterprise software for helping districts track causal data and target students’ needs, and has patents in school data-management software and database integration. Dr. DeSensi also teaches graduate classes in leadership and technology at Webster University and graduate classes in operational design at Spalding University.