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Are States Opting for Turnaround Partners With a Track Record of Success?

States have clamored for more flexibility in using their School Improvement Grant money. And last year, Congress answered their call by proposing additional strategies for turning around the lowest-performing schools that go beyond the interventions cooked up by the U.S. Department of Education, which are widely considered too prescriptive.

Specifically, Congress said states could propose their own turnaround models to the department for approval. Or they could partner with an organization with a hefty amount of evidence to back up their approach.

To make life easier for states that want to try that second option, the feds even developed a list of approved turnaround partners that meet the stringent evidence threshold. States could also just choose to use one of the approved, evidence-based strategies as their "homegrown" option—and if they did, their turnaround plan would esssentially be pre-approved.

There are just four organizations on that pre-approved partner list, for now: Success for All, The Institute for Student Achievement, Positive Action, and Small Schools of Choice. (View them here.)

So, with SIG applications due on April 15, just over a week from now, are phones at those organizations ringing off the hook, with tons of interest from states and districts eager to partner on fixing low-performing schools?

Not so much, says Bob Slavin, the executive director of Success for All.

"We haven't heard from a single state," he said. "Which I find disturbing. ... We're not hearing any excitement about this new evidence-based model. The feds are not making a big deal about it. I haven't heard of a state making a big deal about it."

That surprises him, he said, because states were really unhappy about many aspects of the department's original SIG models, which required steps like getting rid of a school's principal, firing half the staff, or extending the school day.

Those sorts of changes aren't central to the evidence-based models. Plus, unlike the original SIG program, which has posted mixed results on moving the needle on student achievement, the evidence-based models all had to have a strong track of success.

And it's not as if Success for All hasn't tried to gin up interest. The organization put out an email blast to state education agencies when it was selected. And it even participated in a webinar on the changes to SIG, organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers. So far, no luck.

Meanwhile, the Positive Action network, based in Boise, Idaho, one of the other models that got the federal seal of approval for having a strong evidence base, hasn't gotten a ton of queries from states, either. 

So what's going on here? It could be that states are interested in the new evidence model, but are waiting until their application is in before picking a partner. That's what Alex Allred, the vice-president of Positive Action, expects, and Slavin also mentioned it as a possiblity.

"We think the states are probably just scratching their heads at this moment" about which direction to go, Allred said. "I think interest will rise in the next couple of months."

Or it could be that the timeline for the new SIG regulations, which weren't finalized until February, didn't give states much time to ponder their new turnaround options, particularly as they are working on applications to renew their No Child Left Behind Act waivers and, in many cases, putting in place new standards and tests.

Or it could be that states are more excited about the other new option provided by Congress—the chance to come up with their own turnaround models—or the one dreamed up by the department in its new regs, which involves an intensive focus on pre-kindergarten. It's also possible that states aren't as put off by the four old models as they maybe thought they were, or simply haven't had the space to figure out what else might work well.

"I don't know how realistic it is to think that everybody is going to turn on a dime and do something very different," Slavin said.

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