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A School Improvement Grant Report Card from CEP

Two years into the implementation of the federal School Improvement Grant program, state officials are generally optimistic about its potential, but have a lot of ideas for perfecting it, according to a pair of reports released today by the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization in Washington.

A note on methodology: CEP already has done some of the best research available on the SIG program, which aims to help states turn around some of their lowest-performing schools. For this study, CEP surveyed 46 state Title I directors from November 2011 through January 2012.

The group also did some close "case-studies" of three very different states that are using a variety of school turnaround approaches: Idaho, Maryland, and Michigan. CEP interviewed 14 state and district officials and 21 principals, teachers, and other school staff.

Together, the reports provide some of the best insight yet into a program a very smart researcher once described to me as "a black hole." The SIG effort got $3 billion—and a slew of new federal strings—under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the stimulus. (For more background on SIG and its four models, which many education advocates see as inflexible and limiting, here.)

Some survey findings:

• State officials are largely happy with the most popular (and most flexible) of the program's four turnaround models. More than half—26 of the 45 state Title I directors CEP surveyed said that the "transformation" model is effective at improving student achievement. That echoes similar findings in a report on the program by the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents urban districts.

• Title I directors are generally happy with the second-most popular model, too. Eighteen of the 29 states surveyed think that the "turnaround" model, which requires a school to replace half the teachers, will be effective.

• On an issue that's gotten a lot of press lately, CEP found that most states, 32 of those surveyed, are contracting with outside providers to assist with SIG implementation. But they are split on whether getting outside help is a good way to improve schools. Fourteen states offer schools a list of "approved" external providers.

• All four models call for replacing the principal unless that person has been on the job less than three years, and that's been controversial. But a majority of state Title I directors using the seem to think that it's a good policy. Twenty-five principals using the transformation model, and twenty-one principals using the turnaround model think that it's been an effective strategy. And, despite all the problems with crafting new evaluation systems, 23 state officials think that works too, at least to some extent.

• Ten states reported that they pulled grants from one or two schools, for reasons including lack of fidelity to the SIG model, and a lack of progress on so-called "leading indicators" (researcher-speak for factors like teacher and student attendance rates, discipline, and truancy).

Some case-study findings:

• Maryland (a Race to the Top winner) and Michigan are generally more positive about the appropriateness of the SIG models than Idaho (a largely rural state). When the SIG rules first came out, there were a lot of complaints that they wouldn't work for rural schools.

• Michigan and Idaho felt that there wasn't nearly enough of an emphasis on district capacity building in the SIG framework.

• All three states want to see some changes to the program. Maryland, which is using part of its Race to the Top grant to provide social services, would like to see more emphasis on how non-academic factors can impact student achievement. Michigan wants to be able to fund more schools, for a longer amount of time. And Idaho felt the program provided grants that were too big for schools, for too short a time period.

• All three states said the human resources aspect of SIG—finding new teachers, principals, and other staff—is tough. Michigan, in particular, isn't a fan of the requirement for getting rid of the principal and sought a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to tweak it. The request was denied.

The reports comes on the heels of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announcing some promising—but preliminary—findings about the program's potential impact on student achievement.

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