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Education Department Proposes Big Changes to School Improvement Grant Program

Floundering schools that receive federal turnaround dollars under the controversial School Improvement Grant program would get some new options for using the money under draft guidance slated to be published in the federal register on Monday. But they might not be getting quite as much new flexibility as some folks in Congress had hoped.

At Congress' insistence, the proposal would permit states to move beyond the Obama administration's prescriptions for school improvement, by partnering with an organization that has a strong track record of fixing low-performing schools, or by cooking up their own turnaround options.

But the guidance makes clear that whatever strategies states come up with under the brand new, "choose your own improvement plan" option would need to closely mirror the Obama administration's turnaround principles in No Child Left Behind waivers. Those strategies include new teacher evaluation systems that take student outcomes into account, extended learning time, and removing school leaders and teachers who don't have a strong track record in moving the needle on student achievement. (That's essentially the same basket of strategies we saw under SIG before Congress made changes to the program in a spending bill that passed earlier this year. States may get more flexibility on certain details, such as when principals would have to be removed.)

At the same time, the proposal adds a new option not envisioned by Congress: using high quality early childhood programs as a turnaround strategy for failing elementary schools. This isn't a surprise given that the Obama administration has been pushing early childhood education like crazy these days, but it's somewhat curious when it comes to the SIG program, which was supposed to put greater focus on foundering high schools.

The regulations also add some new requirements aimed at ensuring that districts play a role in executing turnarounds, after many folks identified the lack of a clear role for districts as a major SIG weakness. The regulations, would, for instance, require school districts to carefully review the performance of any outside contractors hired with SIG dollars. Some turnaround partners have turned out to be pretty disastrous.

Some background: What is SIG? Back in 2009, the department used federal stimulus funds to revamp a little-noticed program in No Child Left Behind aimed at improving failing schools. States got a lot more money to turnaround struggling schools—$3 billion in the stimulus alone—but they also were subject to a bunch of new strings.

SIG schools had to select one of four turnaround models, all of which called for dramatic actions, including firing a school's principal if that person had been on the job for more than three years, getting rid of much of the teaching force, turning into a school into a charter or closing it altogether. The program is now about four years old, but it remains highly controversial, with very mixed results when it comes to student achievement.

What are these regs? The Obama administration had been very reticent to make changes SIG. But earlier this year, Congress stepped in and made changes. The legislation required the department to fill in a lot of details—including just what characteristics a new, choose-your-own state model would need to have and how all of this would work with NCLB waivers, which have their own turnaround prescriptions. Even though the law making the changes to SIG was signed way back in January, the department is just getting around to issuing the guidance now.

What are some other changes to the program? The regulations would:

• Let schools keep their SIG grants for up to five years, instead of three. That would allow for a planning year before the turnarond starts and for some sustainabillity money. This comes after government watchdogs found that the department pumped out the initial money too quickly for it to be really effective.

•Give rural schools additional flexibility when it comes to using the models (they could "opt-out" of at least one requirement under each option.) That's something Congress wanted.

•Lay out requirements for the "whole school reform model", created by Congress. Under the proposal, schools would have to find a partner with a strong record of improving low-performing schools. (That's defined as folks who have at least two studies that meet the What Works Clearinghouse standards to back-up their work.) And the partners would have to address school leadership, teaching and learning in at least one subject, and student non-academic support and community engagement.

Robert E. Slavin, the executive director of Success for All, which works with schools on turnarounds, said he was particularly happy to see that the department is proposing to come up with a list of providers that meet the evidence benchmark, so that states and districts don't have to sort it out on their own. And he thinks the department and Congress hit the right balance when it comes to evidence.

"This is something worth sitting up and taking notice about," he said. If the idea is spread to other federal programs it "could be the start of something beautiful."

•Call for districts to conduct reviews of their SIG schools, and ensure that no SIG school is getting federal dollars for more than five years. It would also require districts to monitor whether schools are using family and community engagement as part of their turnaround process.

•More closely align the requirements for teacher evaluations at SIG schools with the requirements for teacher evaluation in the waivers. (SIG schools might not notice much of a difference, given that the department just walked back those teacher evaluation requirements, big time.)

•Get rid of the "rule of 9" which said that districts with more than nine schools that are considered most in need of turnaround dollars can't use the most flexible turnaround option (transformation) at more than half of their schools.

•Ensure that schools identified as "priority" or "focus" schools under NCLB waivers are given priority for funding.

So what's the process like going forward? Anyone with thoughts on these requirements (which is likely to be a lot of people) have 30 days from the date of publication of the proposal to weigh in. Then department will finalize the regulations, likely later this year. SIG money flows by formula to states, and then it's competitive. States will run grant competition under the new regulation this spring and the money will actually make it to schools in time for the 2015-16 school year.

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