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Ed. Dept.'s Plan for Remaking Turnaround Grants Not Flexible, Educators Say

By Alyson Klein — October 09, 2014 4 min read
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The Obama administration’s proposal for revamping the controversial School Improvement Grant program doesn’t give states and districts nearly enough new flexibility in coming up with turnaround prescriptions for low-performing schools, advocates say, in their formal responses to the plan.

Some background: The SIG program is in the midst of a congressionally-mandated makeover. After the administration’s widely-disparaged turnaround models lead to fairly mixed results when it comes to student outcomes, lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year that aimed to give states and districts more leeway over their federal turnaround money.

For instance, the legislation called for a new “Whole School Reform” model that would let states to partner with organizations that have a strong record in boosting student achievement in struggling schools. It also permitted states to come up with their own turnaround models and submit them to the U.S. Secretary of Education for approval. And it extended the time schools can use their SIG grants from three to five years, among other changes.

But Congress left it up to the administration to fill in a lot of additional information through the regulatory process, including outlining what the state “come up with your own plan” model should look like. The administration released proposed regulations on SIG last month, and interested folks had until midnight Wednesday to comment on them.

Among other things, the proposal created a brand-new turnaround model for elementary schools that relies on early-learning programs. And the department didn’t give states very much leeway at all in developing their own models, saying they could only come up with one strategy on their own and noting that it has to mirror the prescriptive “turnaround” models outlined in the waivers.

So what do groups representing educators and researchers think? The theme of a number of comments from key organizations is, essentially, that the department didn’t give states and districts nearly as much flexibility in the proposed regulations as Congress appeared to be hoping for.

For instance:

• The Council of Chief State School Officers takes issue with the department’s ideas for the “submit your own idea model” which would call for states to come up with just one turnaround intervention of their own creation, as opposed to developing multiple options to meet the needs of different kinds of schools.

And CCSSO is not thrilled that state turnaround models would have to conform to the principles in the waivers, which call for things like extending the school day, and getting rid of school leaders if the person has been on the job for an extended period without much change in student outcomes. Those principles are not really very flexible, CCSSO says, and require schools to do things that can be costly and difficult to manage, including extended learning time.

CCSSO doesn’t think Congress “envisioned the department would tie their approval [of new models] to the large number of requirements” the department came up with. It wants the department to allow states to be a lot more creative, as long as they make the case that their ideas would help struggling schools. What’s more, CCSSO is worried that the Obama administration’s proposed early-learning model is so prescriptive no one is going to take advantage of it. More from CCSSO here.

•Additionally, the department says that states would get fast-track approval for ideas that dovetail with the turnaround principles in the waivers. The Iowa Department of Education, which doesn’t have a waiver from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, said that non-waiver states should get this speedy sign-off, too.

•The Council of the Great City Schools, which represents urban districts, is also worried about the lack of flexibilty in the proposed regs. Like CCSSO, the organization thinks the department was way too rigid in designing the state-determined intervention model. And the council argues that the department also gave states too little leeway to choose turnaround partners under the “Whole School Reform” model. Plus, there isn’t enough focus in the SIG program, in general, on the district role in turnarounds, the council contends. More here.

•The Knowledge Alliance, which represents researchers, expressed similar concerns about the very limited nature of the state-determined “come up your own plan” model. The group also wants much-stronger language around the need to collect evidence to see whether turnaround models actually worked or not, and a greater focus on developing strong turnaround leaders. More here.

•Parents Unified for Local School Education in Newark thinks there aren’t enough options for districts in the new “partner with someone who knows what they’re doing” model. The group also wants to see a lot more focus on community engagement to push change through a “Sustainable Community Schools” option. The Coalition for Community Schools in New Orleans seconded that idea.

Flashback: The original regulations for the Obama administration’s version of the SIG program were met with similar criticism, with advocates for educators saying they didn’t provide nearly enough flexibility. The administration essentially shot down those critiques, arguing that states had done a pretty poor job of turning around low-performing schools on their own and needed much more direction. Now that a third of schools failed to get better under the Obama administration’s version of SIG, will we see a similar response to these critiques?