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GAO Criticizes Ed. Dept. On School Improvement Grant Program

The U.S. Department of Education needs to do a better job of making sure that the performance of contractors hired through the School Improvement Grant program is reviewed, and of making sure states have the information they need to make grant renewal decisions, according to a report released today by the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm.

The report, which was sent to Senate lawmakers overseeing K-12 spending, took a look at the track record of the much-maligned program that has led to some significant student gains in places, but faced major implementation issues.

In addition to contractor and compliance issues, the GAO found that states and districts are having a tough time finding and retaining good staff members for low-performing schools, as well as putting in place new teacher-evaluation systems and an extended the school day. (Those findings echo another set of reports on SIG, put out by the Center on Education Policy last month.)

In fact, 26 states told the GAO they didn't think that they would be able to sustain the program's extended learning time requirement after the school year ends, compared with 10 that said they'd probably be able to keep it going.

GAO recommended that the department do a better job of spelling out how states should make "evidence-based" decisions about whether to remove schools' grants. The report points out that grant-renewal is supposed to depend on student achievement results in some states, but lots of states didn't have that achievement data in hand until after the annual renewal dates for the grants, which go for three successive years.

In fact, 23 of the 44 states responding to a GAO survey question said that most or all schools did not meet their annual goals, but had their grants renewed anyway. (All 50 states and the District of Columbia participated in the survey, but not everyone answered that particular question because some states haven't yet completed renewal decisions, according to the GAO.)

States were reluctant to pull grants from schools because school officials weren't given a lot of time to implement the tricky new program, the GAO found.

The Education Department requires states to review contractors in the tiny fraction of schools using the "restart" model, but not for the two most popular of the four SIG models—transformation and turnaround—which are being used at over 90 percent of SIG schools. GAO officials spoke with eight states, none of which assessed district's plans to review contractors as part of their SIG applications.

"Inconsistent review of contractors during contract performance reduces states' and distircts' ability to ensure that they are receiving the services they have paid for," the GAO wrote.

The use of contractors has been an especially sticky area for the SIG program, particularly after the Denver Post found that few states track those dollars. The paper also found that student achievement actually went down at a handful of schools in Pueblo, Colo., operated by Global Partnership Schools, which was founded by two noted former superintendents in other districts, Manuel Rivera and Rudy Crew. More here.

The department agreed with GAO that it needs to give more support to states on grant renewal. But it was not on board with GAO's recommendation on contractors. Districts are already required to screen contractors, and the feds have made a big deal of this in SIG guidance, said Michael Yudin, the acting assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education in a letter to the GAO that was included with the report.

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