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SIG-NIFICANT FUNDING, SIG-NIFICIANT IMPROVEMENT?: U.S. Education Secretary Duncan Reports “Very Encouraging Signs” Based on Initial Data; Outside Analyses Find School Improvement Grants Program a “Work in Progress”

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“For the first time, the administration put serious resources into supporting school turnaround efforts, to the tune of more than $4 billion,” Duncan said. “That money has gone to over 1,200 schools, each of which got a three-year grant of up to $2 million dollars a school. And in our first cohort of schools, 45 percent were high schools. We wanted to attack the toughest challenges head on.”

Over the last few weeks, the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, which targets the nation’s lowest-performing schools, has been in the spotlight as the initial pieces of data on the program’s results start to emerge. In a March 19 speech at the America’s Promise Alliance’s Building a Grad Nation SummitU.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he was seeing some “very encouraging signs” based on the first year of data from SIG schools.

Since Duncan’s speech, the program has been the subject of a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), two reports from the Washington, DC-based Center on Education Policy (CEP), and an extensive collaboration between three national organizations involved in education journalism—Education Week, the Education Writers Association, and The Hechinger Report—and several news outlets from around the country. These reports reveal a work in progress, with officials in states receiving SIG grants believing that they are on the right track but raising questions and frustrations with certain aspects of the program.

Initially created as part of the 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, the SIG program was originally funded under the Bush administration and received a major $3 billion infusion of funds under the Obama administration in 2009 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly referred to as the “stimulus.” During his March 19 speech, Duncan explained the rationale behind the Obama administration’s big bet on the program, noting that the nation “simply cannot meaningfully boost graduation rates and promise a quality education to every child without ending the cycle of failure in our chronically low-performing schools.” He specifically mentioned the difficulty facing high schools, saying that almost no high schools were included in the federal school improvement efforts under NCLB even though 15 percent of the nation’s high schools produce half of the nation’s 1.2 million dropouts.

“For the first time, the administration put serious resources into supporting school turnaround efforts, to the tune of more than $4 billion,” Duncan said. “That money has gone to over 1,200 schools, each of which got a three-year grant of up to $2 million dollars a school. And in our first cohort of schools, 45 percent were high schools. We wanted to attack the toughest challenges head on.”

In exchange for receiving a SIG grant, a school must implement one of four school improvement models: (1) transformation, in which a school must replace the school principal and implement three other specific reforms; (2) turnaround, which is similar to transformation with the primary difference being that the school could rehire no more than 50 percent of the school staff; (3) restart, which requires the school to become a charter or privately managed school; or (4) school closure.

“All four options require schools to institute far-reaching changes to improve student learning,” Duncan said.

And according to the findings Duncan presented, schools are showing signs of improvement. Based on preliminary data from 700 schools spanning forty-three states in the first year of the SIG program, about one in four schools saw double-digit increases in math proficiency. About one in five showed double-digit increases in reading proficiency. In total, the percentage of students who were proficient in math or reading went up in about 60 percent of SIG schools.

Citing data from the Building a Grad Nation report, Duncan added that the number of high schools in America where graduation is not the norm fell from about 1,750 schools to 1,550 schools between 2008 to 2010, while the number of students attending “dropout factories,” or schools with graduation rates less than 60 percent, was nearly 400,000 less during the same time period.

“As encouraging as these increases in academic achievement are, I want to be clear that they are still preliminary,” Duncan said. “We’re only talking about the first year of data, and everyone recognizes that we will need several years of data to confirm a lasting improvement in academic achievement. We are also continuing to gather data on other critical outcomes that matter to assessing student progress, like changes in graduation rates, dropout rates, discipline, attendance, and other indices.”

Although he stressed the preliminary nature of the data, Duncan still used the positive results to take a hard line against the program’s skeptics.

“Armchair analysts, bloggers, and pundits virtually uniformly predicted that the SIG program would flop,” Duncan said. “They said it would be a terrible waste of time, talent, goodwill, and money. They said it would have little effect on student learning and student outcomes. They said that even if the program worked to turn around a few schools, it would never succeed at scale or produce lasting change. Fortunately, great teachers, great school leaders, great community partners, and parents—and, most importantly, committed students—didn’t listen to the skeptics.”

In addition to Duncan’s speech, two new reports from CEP examine state implementation and perception of the SIG program. The first report,State Implementation and Perceptions of Title I School Improvement Grants under the Recovery Act: One Year Later, finds that “most” states had positive views of the program’s major requirements, including the criteria for determining which schools were eligible for grants, the amount of funding provided to these schools to carry out their reforms, and the competitive grant process. However, it also finds that states had “mixed perceptions” about other SIG requirements and strategies, specifically expressing “some frustrations with implementing the teacher and principal replacement requirements and meeting short timelines.”

Of the four models, the transformation model is the most popular and a majority of states with schools using it say it is effective in improving student achievement, the report finds. Additionally, a majority of states with schools using the turnaround model say that it is effective “to some extent.” The report is based on a survey of forty-six state Title I directors, including the District of Columbia, which is counted as a state.

“Though the money appears to be helping, capacity, sustainability, and principals and staff recruitment remain very real concerns for these schools and districts,” said Shelby McIntosh, CEP research associate and coauthor of both reports. “Based on feedback from state officials, allowing districts to allocate SIG funds to schools in amounts that changed over time over more than three years could help with these issues. We also see interest in greater federal and state support around recruitment and retention of principals and teachers in struggling schools.”

The second CEP report, Opportunities and Obstacles: Implementing Stimulus-Funded School Improvement Grants in Maryland, Michigan, and Idaho, looks at SIG implementation in three geographically diverse states with different types of schools and improvement models. It finds that state and local officials in all three states said SIG funds allowed them to “provide more intensive services” in targeted schools and work with their lowest-performing schools to bring about “major” improvement. At the same time, however, officials in all three states said they were worried about sustaining reforms once the SIG money runs out.

According to the report, states differed in their level of enthusiasm for the program requirements. Maryland officials were the most positive, saying that the SIG eligibility criteria “identified the right schools” and that they were satisfied with the improvement models. Michigan officials were generally supportive but wanted to see the eligibility criteria to include additional low-performing schools. Idaho officials said that several key provisions—notably the criteria for identifying the lowest-performing schools and the requirements to replace principals and staff in schools using certain improvement models—were “less workable in a sparsely populated, rural setting.”

Additional findings from the report focus on the role of school districts in school improvement, improvement strategies undertaken by SIG and non-SIG schools, and changes that state officials would like to see in SIG requirements.

Acknowledging that the preliminary student achievement data that Duncan cited “offer some promise,” the extensive media collaborative in its national story written by Education Week’s Alyson Klein adds that it is “not at all clear if the federal prescription can cure the most ailing schools and lead to long-term improvements.” Klein adds that the program “remains a work in progress after two years, with more than 1,200 turnaround efforts under way but still no definitive verdict on its effectiveness.”

Klein cites a report from the GAO, which is also referred to as the “congressional watchdog,” finding that a number of states renewed grants for schools that did not meet annual goals and says states need more guidance from the U.S. Department of Education in making those decisions. The report also raises questions about whether independent contractors hired by states were being held accountable for the services for which they were paid.

In total, the media collaborative of more than twenty news organizations and affiliated journalists finds a “mixed picture of how the SIG program is playing out on the ground,” Klein writes. On the bright side, it unearthed success stories like in Louisville, Kentucky, where some “long-troubled schools” posted double-digit gains in state math scores after just one year in the program.

“Other schools haven’t seen big jumps in achievement but are beginning to glimpse a new school culture, including improved discipline and attendance,” Klein writes. “Some of the best early reviews come from students, who say their schools are calmer and more academically rigorous.”

At the same time, Klein reports that states have pulled SIG money from “at least a dozen schools” that showed “anemic progress” on teacher and student attendance. Additionally, five schools in Pueblo City, Colorado, saw student performance fall even further after awarding a $7.4 million grant to an outside provider.

“There’s evidence on both sides of the coin,” Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, told Klein. “This is not the Oldsmobile of comprehensive school reform. … [This is] a souped-up model coming hard and fast and getting big changes quick. … The big question is whether those changes are going to lead to improvement.”

The Education Writers Association website has links to the national story on the SIG program, as well as stories from others states around the nation at http://www.ewa.org/site/PageServer?pagename=turnaround_watch.

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