New Turnaround Options Detailed in Draft SIG Guidance

Proposals driven by Congress

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Foundering schools that receive federal turnaround dollars under the controversial School Improvement Grant program would get some new options for using the money, under draft guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education.

The guidance comes after Congress stepped in and decided to revamp the program in response to student-outcome data from the program showing that SIG has a decidedly mixed record on actually improving schools. The congressionally driven changes were ushered in as part of a spending bill that was signed into law by President Barack Obama in January.

The legislation required the Education Department to fill in a lot of details—including just what characteristics a new, choose-your-own state model would need to have and how all those features would work with No Child Left Behind Act waivers. Such waivers have their own improvement mandates for low-performing schools.

Greater Flexibility

The legislation and the regulations that will flow from it are intended to let states move beyond the Obama administration's four prescriptions for school improvement, which call for dramatic actions to turn around low-performing schools, such as removing the principal, replacing half the staff, and converting the school to charter status.

Improving SIG

Proposed new regulations governing the School Improvement Grant program would:

  • Let states propose their own school turnaround plans following the same general principles states with No Child Left Behind Act waivers must use to turn around their schools.
  • Create a new model that would allow foundering elementary schools to bolster early-childhood education as part of their turnaround strategy.
  • Allow schools to keep their grants for up to five years, instead of three.
  • Give rural schools additional flexibility when it comes to using the SIG turnaround models.
  • Lay out requirements for the “whole-school-reform model” created by Congress. A low-performing school would have to find a partner with a strong record of improving low-performing schools and address specific turnaround issues.
  • Call for districts to conduct reviews of their SIG schools, ensure that no SIG school is getting federal dollars for more than five years, and require districts to monitor whether schools are using family and community engagement as part of their turnaround process.
  • More closely align the requirements for teacher evaluations at SIG schools with the requirements for teacher evaluation in the NCLB waivers.

Congress added other options to the mix, including allowing states to partner with organizations that have strong records of fixing low-performing schools, or to cook up their own turnaround options and submit them to the U.S. secretary of education for approval.

But, under the proposed regulations, states wouldn't have unlimited flexibility. The draft regulations, released Sept. 8, make clear that whatever strategies states come up with would need to closely mirror the principles in waivers granted under the NCLB law.

Those strategies include new teacher-evaluation systems that take student outcomes into account, extended learning time, and removal of school leaders and teachers who don't have strong records of raising student achievement.

At the same time, the proposal adds a new option not envisioned by Congress: using high-quality early-childhood programs as a turnaround strategy for failing elementary schools. That addition isn't a surprise, given that the Obama administration has been making a big push for early-childhood education.

The proposed regulations also would add some new requirements aimed at ensuring that districts play a role in executing turnarounds, after researchers examining the SIG program during the past several years identified the lack of a clear role for districts as a major weakness. The regulations, would, for instance, require districts to carefully review the performance of any outside contractors hired with SIG money.

It's clear from the proposal that the Education Department "has looked at other research that's been done on SIG implementation," said Diane Stark Rentner, the deputy director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based group that has done extensive research on the program. "It does look like there are a few more requirements for school districts."

'Something Beautiful'

The proposal also sketches out requirements for another new option, the "whole-school-reform model" created by Congress.

Under the proposed regulations, a low-performing school would have to find a partner with a strong record of improving such schools, defined as organizations that have at least two studies that meet the standards of the Institute of Education Sciences' What Works Clearinghouse to back up their work. The partners would have to address school leadership, teaching and learning in at least one subject, and student nonacademic support and community engagement.

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Robert E. Slavin, the executive director of the Success for All Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization that works with schools on turnarounds (and is likely to be one of the approved partners), said he was particularly happy to see that the department is proposing to come up with a list of providers that meet the evidence benchmark, so that states and districts don't have to sort out the possible choices on their own. And he thinks the department and Congress hit the right balance when it comes to evidence.

"This is something worth sitting up and taking notice about," Mr. Slavin said. If the idea spreads to other federal programs, he said, it "could be the start of something beautiful."

Educators, advocates, and policymakers have until early October to weigh in on the proposed regulations. The Education Department likely will make them final later this year. States will run SIG grant competitions under the new regulations next spring, and the money will actually make it to schools in time for the 2015-16 school year.

Vol. 34, Issue 04, Page 18

Published in Print: September 17, 2014, as New Turnaround Options Detailed In Draft SIG Program Guidance
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