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SIG Program Promising Despite Bumpy First Year, Urban Districts Say

The School Improvement Grant program, with its controversial, much-maligned four models, is largely seen in Washington as Exhibit A when it comes to federal overreach in K-12 education. But a majority of urban districts think SIG will make a difference in the long-run for schools that are struggling the most, according to a report released today by the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization in Washington which represents 65 of the nation's largest school districts.

The program has meant a myriad of challenges, including a tight timeline for getting new and complicated reforms off the ground, the report found. In particular, over the past year, districts had a tough time handling the Human Resources element of SIG: finding and training good teachers and principals to work in some of the nation's most challenging schools.

Still, nearly half of the districts surveyed by CSGS said they "strongly agree" that SIG "has a strong chance of significantly improving our district's persistently lowest-achieving schools." And more than three-quarters "agreed" or "somewhat agreed" that the program gave their districts "the autonomy and flexibility to effectively implement and oversee school turnarounds."

"The scale and funding of this program provide an important and substantial new tool in the arsenal of many big city school districts as they work to implement both their broad systemic reforms and their more targeted school-by-school efforts," the report says.

It's important to note the CGCS represents urban districts. Many of the biggest critics of SIG argue that it doesn't work for rural schools, which are too remote to effectively implement strategies such as recruiting new staff members, or charter operators.

The SIG program is up against political headwinds in Washington, as Congress begins to tackle the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (a.k.a. NCLB). Lawmakers in both parties see it as a prime example of federal overreach into K-12 education, and question the research behind the four models. Right now, there are proposals in Congress to make big changes to the program (like adding extra models)—or get rid of it SIG altogether.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he's heard first hand from students at SIG schools that the program is working.

"We need to get these young people testifying before Congress," he said.

And Michael Casserly, the executive director of the CGCS, said there hasn't been much information available about SIG's effectiveness, until now.

"The information about what it's accomplishing is just coming out," he said.

Some background: The School Improvement Grant program, was first authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, but it was supercharged under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided a whopping $3 billion for the program. The program offers schools a choice of four turnaround models, described in detail here.

The CGSC surveyed its members on the implementation, which most say has been turbulent and challenging.

One huge issue? There simply wasn't enough time in most districts to get the program off the ground before the start of the 2010-11 school year. In fact, 27 of the 43 districts surveyed by the CGCS didn't even get word of their SIG awards until July 2010, just two months before they were set to open to new SIG schools.

That meant that schools and districts had to implement the tricky new program on the fly, which resulted in a bumpy first year in a lot of places, the report found.

For instance, 56 percent of districts said they didn't have enough time to recruit and hire qualified staff, provide professional development for teachers and school leaders, or provide curriculum and classroom learning materials. And 39 percent said they didn't have enough time to recruit and hire qualified principals or conduct a comprehensive needs assessment of a school.

But those issues could dissipate over time, the report says.

"The research suggests that such hasty implementation is likely to cause initial problems, but that subsequent years should see a smoother process and better results than what the first year is likely produce," the report says.

CGSC isn't the first group to note that the quick timeline has been an issue (Check out this GAO report and this Center on Education Policy report on Michigan's SIG program for more.)

Districts report that their biggest obstacle, by far, is removing ineffective teachers, which 51 percent of districts flagged as "very challenging," followed closely by community resistance to school changes, which 41 percent of districts said was "very challenging." Other tough areas included recruiting teachers to turnaround schools, which 85 percent of districts said was "very challenging" or "challenging."

Districts didn't have as hard a time getting help from local business leaders, or assistance from local leaders and the state education agency.

Schools are also expected to replace the principal of a SIG school if that person has been on the job more than three years. About half—48.9 percentmdash;of urban SIG schools identified as "high-priority" kept their principals, meaning 88 principals in all stayed on the job.

Generally, districts surveyed thought states were helpful in providing support and technical assistance. States have helped schools with everything from school improvement training to offering embedded content experts and mentors to providing regulatory flexibility. But in a "handful of cases" districts have reported that "states were absent from or even an impediment to reform efforts," the report says.

The report also offers a rare look into a key element of SIG: the relationship between districts and a blooming array of "external providers" seeking to partner with SIG schools. For the most part, districts surveyed in the SIG program are happy with these folks and would hire them again.

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