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Published in Print: February 25, 2015, as New SIG Rules Offer Leeway Beyond Turnaround Program

NCLB Waiver States Share in New SIG Flexibility

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For years, the Obama administration's supercharged School Improvement Grant program has been maligned as too prescriptive, too complicated, and—ultimately—not very effective when it comes to improving outcomes for the nation's most troubled schools.

Now, under regulations for the program unveiled this month and written at the behest of Congress, states would have a lot more leeway in spending more than $500 million in SIG funding.

The new options unveiled Feb. 9 also have implications for states with waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, currently in place in 42 states and the District of Columbia. States will have a greater range of strategies to try when it comes to intervening in all of their low-performing schools, not just schools that get SIG funding.

Specifically, the new regulations allow states that receive SIG money to move beyond the administration's four current school improvement models, which are widely disparaged as inflexible and ineffective. States can now come up with their own turnaround remedies and pitch them to the U.S. Department of Education for approval.

Beyond that, the regulations, which apply to grants for the 2015-16 school year, add two more options to the mix.

One—created by Congress in an unrelated spending bill last year—would permit a state to partner with an outside organization that has at least one high-quality study to back up its approach to turning around entire schools. The other, devised by the Education Department, would permit states to beef up early-childhood education programs as a turnaround strategy for foundering elementary schools.

The regulations also extend the period of the grants—to five years, from just three years—to give turnarounds more time to take root. Schools would still be eligible for the same amount of money, up to $2 million, but it would be spread out over a longer period.

And rural schools will also get added flexibility. For example, those choosing one particular turnaround model will no longer have to incorporate extended learning time, which had been difficult for some remote schools since it involved changing bus routes or reworking the schedule.

Huge Shift

Taken together, the regulations represent a huge shift from the past several years and the Education Department's menu of options that all included some dramatic steps such as closing a school or turning it into a charter.

In the past, most schools chose to use either the "turnaround" model, which meant getting rid of half the school's staff and in many cases, the principal; or "transformation," which meant trying out a basket of strategies, including extended learning time and data-driven instruction.

But those options may not have given states enough running room to try strategies that would work for their schools. While two-thirds of SIG schools showed some progress after the first two years of the program, another third slid backward.

"All of our research has shown that the models as they existed before didn't work" as well as they could have, said Diane Stark Rentner, the deputy director of the Center on Education Policy, a research organization in Washington that has taken an extensive, on-the-ground look at SIG implementation in states and districts. But that doesn't mean SIG was totally ineffective. "Just having the money seemed to make the difference. …[Districts and states] rarely get this extra money to think through things like how do you improve instruction."

Waiver Question

The SIG regulations also have major implications for states with waivers from the NCLB law.

To get flexibility from the law, waiver states had to agree to use a set of particular "turnaround principles" at their lowest-performing schools—dubbed priority schools under the waivers, whether those schools receive SIG funding or not. The turnaround principles are almost identical to the transformation model, used by roughly three-quarters of SIG schools. They call for steps including extending the school day, using data to inform instruction, and providing schools with operational flexibility and continual support.

The final regulations allow states to move beyond the turnaround principles, not just for SIG schools, but for other priority schools that aren't getting the SIG money.

The department is also supposed to release a list of organizations that could serve as turnaround partners for states. But the list of organizations that meet the department's evidence standard likely won't be released until later this spring. SIG applications are due April 15.

The department has said that state approaches with one high-quality study to back them up will be automatically approved, so the list of organizations serving those states could be helpful to them in developing their own strategies. But states won't get the full list until late in the game, considering that the money will make its way to schools in the 2015-16 school year.

But the department contends that since states will use the federal funds to run competitions among their districts, schools will have enough time to take a look at which organizations and approaches meet the standard before they apply for funding from their states.

The new rules come as GOP proposals in both chambers of Congress seek to get rid of SIG altogether.

The program was created in 2002 under the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Obama administration has poured more than $5 billion into the program, including $3 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act alone.

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Targeted in NCLB Bills

But in lieu of a separate funding stream for turnarounds, the GOP proposals now pending in Congress would hike the percentage of Title I money states could set aside for school improvement, from 4 percent to 7 percent in the House bill, or 8 percent in the Senate proposal.

Even groups that have clamored for flexibility with turnarounds, such as the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents urban districts, would like to keep SIG as a separate grant program.

"We think having a dedicated pool of money that specifically targets the lowest-performing schools and the schools in need of turnaround [is preferable] to turning this over solely to the states," said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the council.

Vol. 34, Issue 22, Pages 21,24

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