SIGnificant Concerns

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August 2, 2011 |

If the U.S. Department of Education fancies itself a school reform organization, then the School Improvement Grant is one of its most important programs — if not the most important.

 -- Check out the cross-post with our good (and cynical, insightful) friends at Title I-derland. --

The purpose of SIG is to transform “persistently lowest achieving schools” into good ones and, in so doing, demonstrate that the federal government can invest our money wisely. Of course, that is no small task. If this flops, then maybe ED should reconsider its role as a reform organization. The stakes are that high.

Most readers probably know how the program works. Basically, the state identifies the bottom 5 percent of its persistently lowest achieving schools, including Title I and Title I-eligible high schools with a graduation rate of 60 percent or less. Once those schools are identified, districts can apply for SIG funds on behalf of those schools, but only if they implement one of four prescriptive school intervention models.

The four models are: transformation, turnaround, restart and school closure. Of the four, most consider the transformation model to be the easiest. Schools must replace the principal, strengthen staffing, implement a research-based instructional program, provide extended-learning-time options, implement new governance and offer flexibility. Other than the necessity of axing the poor principal, there is plenty of opportunity to fudge.

So where do we stand? So far, implementation has been a challenge. Those brave superintendents trying to implement the most draconian model, the turnaround model that requires replacing the principal and rehiring no more than 50 percent of the staff, have had to bear the brunt of the decision. Just think back on the rancorous debates in Central Falls, RI, where the superintendent and unions fought like hungry dogs over laying off staff and adding instructional hours.

The process can be daunting even in less contentious environments. The GAO recently published a report on SIG implementation, finding that many districts simply do not have the capacity to do the work. Some districts, for example, could not find enough highly qualified teachers to staff a turnaround, so the implementation fidelity suffered. Some districts could not implement a school closure model because they lacked quality schools within reasonable proximity to the displaced students. State and local officials told the GAO that even with higher salaries and other incentives, it was difficult to recruit and retain staff in rural areas. Moreover, the resources are too often scarce.

Keep in mind, however, that the GAO is an audit shop. They are trained to find faults and it’s wrong to assume everything is bad. In fact, the GAO actually provided some illustrations of success in the report. In Columbus, Ohio, for example, district and union officials are working together to reallocate staff among high need schools.

In my opinion, the biggest problem with SIG is not capacity, but buy-in. ED should be worried that most districts, so far, have chosen the model of least commitment. In the classic breakfast-commitment question (Are you the chicken or the pig of the ham and eggs plate?), it seems that most districts are chickens, taking the path of less resistance.  According to SIG data published on data.ed.gov — the website developed by ED to share data about its grant programs — about 73 percent of applicants are implementing the transformation model. About 20 percent are implementing the turnaround model. Only 4 percent are implementing the restart model, and only about 2 percent chose to close down a school.

So what does this mean for ED? At this point, it’s far too early to make a call, but ED should be more than a bit concerned. There are indicators that SIG is not the brave reform initiative that it initially was trumpeted to be. Part of the problem is capacity. But much of it could be that ED overestimated the number of pigs out there, and fixing that supply problem is no easy task.

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