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U.S. Department of Education Remakes School Improvement Grant Program

UPDATED

Congress ordered the U.S. Department of Education to make the School Improvement Grant program much more flexible for states. And under final regulations for the program, slated to be published tomorrow, states can cook up their own turnaround interventions for low-performing schools using federal SIG dollars and submit them to the U.S. Secretary of Education for approval. These remedies would not neccesarily have to comply with the turnaround principles in the department's waivers, a big change from draft regs on the program the department issued earlier this year. 

It was not immediately clear, however, how this change will affect states with waivers from the NCLB law (that's 42 states and the District of Columbia). Those states must use a specific set of turnaround principles with their lowest performing schools that closely resembles the most popular SIG model, transformation. So, under the new regs, could SIG schools in waiver states be offered a broader array of turnaround options than other low-performing schools? Would there be different expectations for turnaround remedies at low-performing schools in waiver states, as opposed to other states? 

The regulations are slated for publication in the Federal Register Friday. And the change is also buried deep in fiscal year 2016 budget documents. (Check out page A-33.)

Some background: The guidance is the latest step in the long, SIG saga over how much leeway states and districts should get when it comes to fixing up low-performing schools.

When it first took office, the Obama administration poured money into the SIG program, including an initial $3 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the stimulus. With the added resources came added strings. Schools had to try out one of four improvement models that called for dramatic steps:

  • closing a school;
  • turning it into a charter;
  • "turnaround," which meant getting rid of half the school's staff and in many cases, the principal; or
  • "transformation," which meant trying out a basket of strategies, including extended learning time, data-driven instruction, and performance pay for educators. 

The last two options were the most popular, especially transformation, which was chosen by 70 percent of schools.  

Almost from the beginning, the SIG models were seen as too restrictive, and the program has posted iffy results when it comes to moving the needle on student achievement.

So Congress included language in an unrelated spending bill last year that would let states come up with their own ideas for turnarounds and submit them to the department for approval. The law also set up another approach, allowing a state to work with a turnaround partner with a strong track record of evidence to back up its approach. The new law forced the department to rewrite regulations for the SIG program.

But, in draft regs released last fall, the department made it clear that any new, state-determined models would have to be consistent with the "turnaround principles" in the No Child Left Behind Act waivers in place in 42 states and the District of Columbia. Why did that matter? The turnaround principles closely mirror the "transformation model." So, in many schools, nothing would change much in terms of SIG flexibility, some advocates argued.

Advocates in comments submitted to the department made it clear they were not thrilled with this approach, and Congress got very snippy with the department in yet another budget bill, saying, essentially, "We told you to give states flexibility. This isn't what it looks like." So it seems the department did what Congress wanted and scrapped the requirements that states' turnaround solutions mirror their waiver plans. 

The department complied. But the shift opens up some questions about how the new regs will impact low-performing schools in waiver states. 

Other things to note:

The final regulations, like the congressional changes to SIG enacted under the budget bill last year, also would allow states to work with an outside partner that has a track record of turning around low-performing schools. But initially, a state had to find a partner with two high-quality studies to back up its approach—and advocates complained that there weren't many organizations that fit the bill. So Congress changed the definition to include just one high-quality study. The department's final SIG regulations reflect that change.

The new regs will also incorporate other changes to SIG previously floated in the draft regulations that came out earlier this fall. They include: allowing states to use early-childhood education programs as a turnaround strategy for elementary schools; making the teacher-evaluation component of the most popular model (transformation) more consistent with what states have outlined for teacher-performance reviews in their NCLB waivers; and requiring districts to regularly review contractors that work on SIG.

And the new regulations will incorporate other changes enacted by Congress, including extending the length of the grants, which total up to $2 million per school, from three years to five, and giving rural schools additional leeway on the models. 

The department, however, nixed some ideas that advocates proposed to make the program more flexible. They included allowing states to come up with more than one model on their own, allowing districts to propose models for state approval, and proposing limits on how much SIG funding a particular school can get. 

Correction: A previous version of this post said that the department was asking for additional evidence from states to back up their turnaround approaches. There's no evidence requirement in the state-directed model. 

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