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Districts Confused By School Turnaround Data Researchers

The Race to the Top and School Improvement Fund grants are generating a potential goldmine for researchers, with hundreds of schools producing in-depth data about their students, teachers, and the ways they are trying to improve.

Yet at a roundtable Thursday afternoon of state directors of Title I, the federal poverty education program, officials voiced concerns that some researchers are taking the wrong approach to getting that data.

Monique Chism, the innovation and improvement division administrator at the Illinois state board of education, said she has received complaints from districts that have been contacted by researchers asking for data and saying they were working with the U.S. Department of Education. Both Race to the Top and the school improvement grants require schools to provide information to researchers for the official evaluations of those programs, but the district administrators were getting confused about who the researchers were and how they were connected to the federal evaluation study.

Carlas McCauley, the U.S. Department of Education's team leader for school improvement grants, noted that other states have also voiced similar concerns: "We've talked to a lot of states, and this is becoming problematic."

McCauley noted that the American Institutes of Research has been awarded a five-year contract to study the effectiveness of school turnarounds under the federal program, and Mathematica Policy Research will be taking up a portion of the research. The groups now are identifying 50 case study sites for the project.

While AIR and Mathematica may subcontract other researchers, "they are the ones, the only ones, who have the official contract," McCauley said. He said that researchers who are studying school improvement in other ways using Institute of Education Sciences grants are technically working with the Education Department, but they should make clear to schools and districts when they request data that they are not part of the official evaluation.

Which is not to say that some states and districts aren't looking to partner with researchers to make sense of their schools' improvement processes. For example, Anne Hansen, a consultant with Michigan's state office of education improvement and innovation, said the state has set up its own experimental pool of schools which may make it easier to study the effects of different turnaround strategies.

The state passed a law requiring all schools identified as persistently low-performing to adopt one of the four federal turnaround options identified in Race to the Top and the school improvement grants: closure; restarting the school under a charter; a "turnaround" process involving replacing at least half of the instructional staff; and "transformation," involving replacing the principal and meeting regular interim benchmarks. The identified schools must implement and report on their chosen models, regardless of whether or not they received additional grant money for the improvement plan through one of the federal grants.

Michigan set aside money to conduct its own evaluation, through WestEd, comparing the 28 schools who received federal improvement money in 2010 to those who didn't, Hansen said.

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