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School Improvement Case Study Drops District Feedback

The Institute of Education Sciences, the Education Department's research agency, expects this spring to release its first in-depth report on the schools implementing the turnaround option under the School Improvement Fund, but participating schools should no longer expect "real-time" feedback on their strategies.

Federal SIF grants, reinvented as part of the fiscal stimulus package, require schools to use one of four detailed methods for turn around persistently lagging academic performance. Because the program is being implemented on such a wide scale, it provides a critical opportunity to study how various school reform strategies operate in different school, district and state contexts. The Education Department is conducting a separate large-scale case study analysis of the schools as well as the more general study of the grant's effectiveness.

Originally, the case study was launched under the Education Department's Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development with the plan to provide real-time feedback to districts on their implementation during the research process. When the department reorganized program evaluation responsibility last year, the case study moved to IES, the department's main research arm.

The OPEP plan "foresaw providing information real-time back to districts and policy-makers," explained Audrey Pendleton, the acting associate commissioner for evaluation at IES. "We have considerably more stringent confidentiality provisions under our legislation; we are not able to share data from a review prior to a report being released" and thus had to cut the feedback role of the project.

Yet, the research team still will issue an interim report in the next few months based on state and district program applications. This spring researchers will also select 60 schools for case studies. Researchers will conduct annual interviews and surveys of school and district staff and teachers at all of the schools, and will choose 25 of them to visit five times during the next three years, explained Thomas Wei, an IES research scientist working on the case studies. Researchers will not collect testing data, but will look at leading indicators such as changes in school climate and principal leadership strategies that could signal a successful turnaround.

"We're interested in the change process that goes on within schools," Ms. Pendleton said. "Basically, what needs to happen in a school to implement a school turnaround model, and what seems to hinder that change process."

The researchers will select 10 schools with high concentrations of English-language learners for two site visits and additional data collection for a special examination of how the reforms work with those students. One other group of 10 schools will be chosen for another yet-to-be-determined special examination.

The project will release another interim report in spring 2012 and 2013, with a final report expected in spring 2014.

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