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How Many States Decided to Develop Their Own Turnaround Strategies? Not Many!

For years, state officials and Congress have been complaining that the Obama administration's four models for turning around low-performing schools using federal School Improvement Grant money—which call for steps like getting rid of half a school's staff, firing the principal, and extending the school day—were unworkable, unnecessarily politically prickly, and just downright ineffective.

Now, after more than a year of bureaucratic back-and-forth, including new legislation, new regulations, pushback from advocates on those regulations, a congressional smackdown backing those advocates up, and finally, revised regulations ... the U.S. Department of Education gave states what they said they wanted: the chance to come up with their own ideas for spending hundreds of millions in federal turnaround money.

So now that this hard-won flexibility is a reality, how many states jumped at it and said they would cook up their own fixes for low-performing schools and got the green light? A whopping five. That's right, just Colorado, Minnesota, New York, Rhode Island, and Texas. (Maybe other states had their hands full with other federal asks, like teacher equity profiles and waiver renewals? Or maybe some felt there wasn't enough time between the release of the final regulations in February and the SIG application deadline of mid-April to really be thoughtful on this? Or ... maybe they are waiting to see if a bill to renew the No Child Left Behind Act does away with SIG entirely. Which it very well might.)

Here's a quick rundown on their proposals, all of which have been approved:

Colorado's new turnaround model would put a specific focus on high schools. It calls for some of the same elements of other SIG models—like replacing principals that don't have a track record of success, and keeping ineffective teachers from transferring to a SIG school. But it also puts a focus on strategies like credit recovery for students who are behind on their graduation requirements, and support for students moving from 8th to 9th grade, which can be a bumpy transition. It also calls for supports for dual-enrollment, Advanced Placement, and IB courses, expanded internship opportunities, and time for high school teachers to collaborate with their post-secondary counterparts.

Minnesota's plan appears to make it a little easier for SIG schools to hang onto their principals who have been around for more than two years. But districts would have to have confidence in their ability to lead the turnaround, continually monitor and review their performance, plus provide them with lots of extra supports. It also calls for schools to put aside at least 90 minutes a week for professional learning communities.

New York is seeking to build on strategies that have worked at its most successful SIG schools. Its model calls for schools to partner with an organization with a strong turnaround track record, with an emphasis on either a) college-going, b) career and technical programs, or c) community and student support programs.  

Rhode Island came up with a model that looks pretty similar to SIG, but seeks to put the district in the driver's seat on turnaround efforts. For instance, districts would set clear achievement goals for schools,—showing just how much they are expected to improve during the turnaround, and working to monitor and support principals. Both the lack of a clear role for districts, and the lack of specific end goals for schools were cited as major weaknesses of the Obama administration's initial SIG program.

Texas is also going whole-hog on high school overhaul as part of its new strategy, making early college high schools a centerpiece.

It's still unclear how many states took the department up on the other two new models it proposed. One would allow states to partner with an organization with a strong track record of turning around schools. (Say, Success for All). But it's unlikely that model was wildly popular, since very few states contacted the list of organizations on the department's approved list ahead of turning in their SIG applications on April 15.

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