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ED Offers SIG Schools Extra Time for Teacher Evaluation Systems

The U.S. Department of Education has quietly invited states and schools using the most popular of four school improvement models to apply for some extra time to figure out the trickiest—and, arguably, the most crucial—component of the federal turnaround strategy: teacher evalution.

States and schools can apply for a waiver to get more time to come up with teacher evaluation systems that take student progress into account. Those systems are a requirement of the "transformational model," the most widely used and, many argue, the least rigorous of the four School Improvement Grant models.

Schools that got the grants the very first year they were available (the 2010-11 school year) were supposed to devise and start implementing the new systems last year. But many are considering these types of evaluations for the first time, and creating them hasn't been easy.

Now, states can apply for a waiver to give the first round of SIG schools (those that started in the 2010-11 year) more time. Schools can develop the evaulation systems this school year, then pilot them next year. Schools should be ready to use those evaluation systems for hiring, firing, retention, and promotion by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Schools that start implementing transformation this year (the 2011-12 school year) also have to develop their systems this year, pilot them next year, and have them up and running by the 2013-14 school year.

The department invited states to apply for the waivers in a letter, sent August 12.

The supercharged School Improvement Grant program was one of the Obama's administration's most controversial moves (even if Race to the Top did suck up way more attention). In a nutshell, the program, which got a whopping $3 billion under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, asked states to pick their lowest-performing schools 5 percent of schools. Schools were asked to implement one of four improvement models, which could include such major steps as removing principals that have been on the job more than three years, getting rid of 50 percent of a school's teachers, or closing the school entirely.

The most popular model, by far, was the transformational model, which doesn't call for staff removal. Instead, teachers are supposed to be given extensive professional development, the school must get new governing authority, and extend learning time, among other strategies. And transformation schools also must create new teacher evaluation systems that take student performance into account in hiring, firing, promotion, and retention decisions.

That can be a tall order, requiring districts to implement new collective bargaining agreements in some places, sometimes for just one or two schools in a large district.

The SIG grants are supposed to be for three years. But under the timelines outlined in the waiver, schools that started in the very first year would already be done with their grants by the time the new evaluation system is off the ground. That could be problematic for folks trying to figure out if these models do what the department says they do (namely, help fix the very worst schools in the country).

So far, just one state, Utah, has applied for a waiver. The department has encouraged states to get their paperwork in by Aug. 26. But Daren Briscoe, a spokesman for the department, says the agency fully expects that applications will come in after that date.

Briscoe also stressed that these are not blanket waivers. And the letter cautions states not to give any extra time to schools that haven't been making "good-faith effort" to develop the evaluation systems.

Politics K-12 analysis: This is all very technical, but it could be argued that the department is taking an important step when it comes to providing wiggle room on SIG, which many see as a very rigid, our-way-or-the-highway type of program. Lots of folks argued the inital timeline was plain unrealistic. But it also could be argued that the department is seriously (if temporarily) watering down the most widely used of the SIG models. What do you think?

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