After more than three years of a strong federal footprint when it comes to turning around the lowest-performing schools, states and districts may get a lot more say over how they spend millions in school improvement dollars—a consequence of the $1.1 trillion spending bill that rocketed through Congress this month.
Lawmakers put language into the fiscal year 2014 budget measure that could amount to a major makeover for the School Improvement Grant program, which has been criticized for its rigidity and.
Under the Obama administration, the program has received more than $5 billion in federal funding since 2009, but also has mandated four hotly-debated turnaround models, such as closing down a school or turning it over to a charter operator.
The changes signed into law Jan. 17 as part of the budget bill will let states come up with their own interventions for long-foundering schools and submit them to the U.S. secretary of education for approval.
Lawmakers also added another option to the administration’s turnaround prescription list, called the “whole school reform” model, which would allow schools to try out interventions that have a moderate track record of success. They also included additional leeway for rural schools, and extended the length of the grants from three years to five.
“Clearly, [lawmakers] have heard from the field. My interpretation is that they view the four models, which are based primarily on personnel and management changes, as too narrow,” said Michele McLaughlin, who served as an aide to lawmakers on the Senate education committee when it approved similar language making changes to the SIG program as part of a stalled bill to revise the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Puzzling Over Specifics
But it’s unclear just how much flexibility states are really going to get. More than a week after the release of the legislation, education experts are still puzzling over the specifics, in particular what the implications might be for states that have received federal waivers from aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the ESEA.
The big question now facing SIG schools and states is: “Will these changes mean nothing if they don’t change the waiver guidance?” said Diane Stark Rentner, the deputy director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based group that has done extensive research on the SIG program.
The Obama administration’s signature school turnaround effort—the School Improvement Grant program—could undergo a major reworking under language included in the fiscal year 2014 spending bill recently signed into law.
The new language:
• Allows states to submit their own turnaround plans to the U.S. secretary of education for approval, instead of having to do one of four controversial turnaround models that require districts to get rid of staff and school leaders, extend the school day, or experiment with merit pay.
• Permits schools to use a “whole school reform,” model in which they partner with an organization that has a “moderate” track record of success in improving student outcomes. The program must be able to present at least one “well designed” experimental or quasi-experimental study to back up its claims.
• Allows rural schools that continue to use one of the four original turnaround models to modify one element of the plan. For instance, rural schools that choose the most popular model, known as transformation, could opt out of a requirement to extend the school day.
• Extends the time that schools can receive the grants from three years to five years.
SOURCES: U.S. Congress; Education Week
So far, the answer is unclear. The U.S. Department of Education is still considering how to proceed, said Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman.
The SIG program was created under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, but wasn’t funded by Congress until 2007, at just $125 million. Then, in 2009, lawmakers passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which poured some $100 billion into education and included $3 billion just for school turnarounds—an unprecedented sum for such a program.
So far the program has yielded inconclusive results, with two-thirds of schools showing some improvement on test scores, and another third slipping backward. As a sign of its skepticism about the program, Congress kept SIG’s funding stagnant at roughly $505.7 million for the 2014-15 school year, even as it poured additional resources into other programs, such as Title I and special education.
Separately, 42 states and the District of Columbia have received waivers from the NCLB law—and in doing so had to spell out how they planned to intervene in their lowest-performing schools.
Even for foundering schools receiving no SIG money, waiver states had to promise to implement interventions that closely mirror the most popular—and least stringent—of the four SIG models, known as “transformation.”
Those interventions include extending the school day and putting in place teacher-evaluation systems that rely on student outcomes. The Education Department has already cited a handful of waiver states for failing to stick to their turnaround plans.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had been resistant to changes to the SIG program, which was a political flop even before the Obama administration’s grant money hit classrooms at the start of the 2010-11 school year. Conservatives in Congress saw the program as too restrictive, and education organizations opposed provisions in the models that require removal of teachers and principals.
But Ms. Nolt had an upbeat response to the newly enacted changes.
“What we’ve learned from schools that have made progress with School Improvement Grants is that there’s no single way to turn around a low-performing school. It’s always hard work, no matter how it is done,” she said.
Experts are unsure what the fallout would be if the department does decide to give states a freer hand with their turnaround work. Thomas Dee, a professor at Stanford University’s graduate school of education, worries that if states are allowed unfettered flexibility, they may select interventions that don’t do much to fix long-foundering schools.
“One element of the current program is the notion of really having a kind of regime change, and a clear, dramatic break” from the past, said Mr. Dee, who found that schools that got SIG grants in California posted bigger gains after a year than similar schools that didn’t get the cash infusion.
But Kate Tromble, the director of legislative affairs for the Education Trust, a Washington group that advocates in support of low-income and minority students, said it will all depend on what states decide to do with the new leeway.
“I think it’ll be a mixed bag,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Some states will use it to do more targeted turnaround efforts in their lowest-performing schools and some states will use it too loosely. That’s generally how these things go—some states will take the offered flexibility and do great things, and lots won’t.”
For her part, Ms. Rentner praised the language that would spread out the $2 million in individual turnaround grants over a period of up to five years, as opposed to the three years schools have had until now. In the first year of the program, most schools focused on school climate, she said. The additional time will give schools more opportunity to work on bolstering academics, she explained.
Meanwhile, the new “whole school reform” model brings with it its own set of complications, said Ms. McLaughlin, who is now the president of the Washington-based Knowledge Alliance, which represents education research organizations. Under that model, schools could partner with an outside organization to implement a turnaround remedy that has a strong track record of moving the needle on student achievement.
It can be tough to figure out which interventions meet that threshold, she said. “You’re asking districts and states to make those judgments,” Ms. McLaughlin said. “Can the department maintain a list of programs that meet the evidence level? Or is that too prescriptive? I think there are procedural hurdles.”
But, she added, such issues are likely surmountable. There could be a role for the Institute of Education Sciences and other federal research organizations in getting out information to school districts, she said.
The reluctance on the part of Congress to boost SIG funding—more than the policy change—raises red flags, Ms. Tromble said.
“Yes, money doesn’t change everything, but if turnaround is a federal priority, which it seems to be, … then you have to fund your priority,” she said. “To set a priority and then take the money away sends a very confused message to states about what they’re supposed to be doing.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 2014 edition of Education Week as Turnaround Program Receives Makeover in Budget Deal