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Obama Administration Still Not a Fan of Adding Turnaround Models

Want additional School Improvement Grant models, beyond the four the Obama administration is already using? You're going to have to make a really strong case for why you can't do what you want to do under one of the four strategies already offered under SIG, according to Carmel Martin, the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy at the U.S. Department of Education.

Martin, who spoke on a panel at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute Dec. 17 that focused on recent, very preliminary SIG data said that the strategies the department has outlined may not be perfect, but they set a high bar for significant action on the part of schools, districts, and states. That's what's needed to fix the nation's worst performing schools, she added.

Martin noted that states and districts didn't always engage in robust turnaround efforts before SIG.

"You need people who are willing to build a new culture in that school. It can't be something that's tinkering around the edges, it's fairly radical change ... to move in the opposite direction that's not right thing to do."

But Jean-Claude Brizard, the former CEO of Chicago schools, who also spoke on the panel, said that he would like to see more flexibility. He said the turnaround strategies he tried while working in New York City and Rochester didn't neatly fit into one of the SIG buckets.

"Having a lot of people think about what's possible is better than being boxed in," he said.

Watch the whole panel, also featuring some interesting back-and-forth between Martin and Andrew Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners and SIG skeptic, here.

There have been a number of proposals on Capitol Hill that would make significant changes to the SIG program, which has big critics on both sides of the aisle. A bill approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in the fall of 2011 would have added two additional models: One allowing for staffing changes based on the turnaround efforts in the Charlotte-Mecklenberg district in North Carolina; the other would allow SIG schools to partner with an organization that can back up its approach with significant research (the standard set for projects under the Investing in Innovation program).

And an amendment added with bipartisan support during committee consideration would allow states to come up with their own models and submit them to the education secretary for approval. In the House, Republicans have sought to scrap SIG altogether. So no matter what, it seems big changes to the program are likely, if Congress ever gets around to reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

But for now, it looks like the four models are here to stay. In a quick interview after the panel, Martin said that, while the department has told folks in Congress that they are open to new models, officials haven't been persuaded that schools can't try strategies such as partnering with an organization with a strong research track record, while using the "transformational" model. That's arguably the most flexible of the four and calls for putting in place performance-pay measures, as well as extending the school day.

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