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Schools Drill Down Into Use of School Improvement Grants

The School Improvement Grant program is probably one of the most controversial pieces of the Obama administration's education agenda. Some see it as the federal government's best answer so far to the question of how to fix persistently low-achieving schools, while others see the four models specified by the program as way too restrictive.

The program got a huge boost in the last couple years, including $3 billion under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which passed in February of 2009. So how is all this money being spent, and which schools are using which models?

A pair of surveys from the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization in Washington, has some of the answers.

The surveys echo data already released by the U.S. Department of Education showing that "transformation," the option that doesn't require removing teachers and is often viewed as the least restrictive, was the most popular choice, used 74 percent of the time.

"Turnaround," in which at least half the teachers are removed, was the second most popular, used in 16 percent of schools. "Restart," which calls for turning a school over to a charter operator or education management organization, was used just 6 percent of the time. There was no data for "closure," in which a school is shuttered and its students sent elsewhere.

And more states are servicing high schools than other levels of school using the grants, in part because the federal guidance on the program called for high schools to be given priority, the surveys show.

Still, some Title I directors complain about what they see as the prescriptive nature of the program, a complaint echoed by federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. For instance, one commenter called the models "too restrictive-especially for rural areas."

Most Title I directors found the funding, to be "adequate" (29 states agreed with this) and the federal guidance on the program to be "helpful" or "somewhat helpful" (44 states agreed).

All of those responding (46) provided technical assistance to schools receiving grants. Another 32 provided professional development for school leaders. And 23 provided professional development for teachers.

When given the opportunity to offer comments, state officials said anonymously that:
The models require rapid turnaroundand The state would like more technical assistance from the federal government for implementation.

The first survey, of state deputy superintendents of education, was conducted in the fall of last year, and 41 states, plus the District of Columbia, responded. The second survey, of Title I directors, was conducted from November 2010 through last month. Forty-five states, plus the District, responded.

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