Federal program a work-in-progress

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After two years, the federal program providing billions of dollars to help states and districts close or remake some of their worst-performing schools remains an ambitious work in progress, with roughly 1,200 turnaround efforts under way but still no verdict on its effectiveness.

The School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, supercharged by a $3 billion windfall under the federal economic-stimulus program in 2009, has jump-started aggressive moves by states and districts. To get their share of the money, they had to quickly identify some of their most academically troubled schools, craft new teacher-evaluation systems, and carve out more time for instruction, among other steps.

Some schools and districts spent millions of dollars on outside experts and consultants. Others went through the politically ticklish process of replacing teachers and principals, while combating community skepticism and meeting the demands of district and state overseers.

It’s not at all clear if the federal prescription can cure the most ailing schools and lead to long-term improvements, but preliminary student achievement data for the program offer some promise. The U.S. Department of Education looked at about 700 of the schools in their second year of the program and found that a quarter of them posted double-digit gains in math during the 2010-11 school year. Another 20 percent showed similar progress in reading.

A collaborative reporting project drawing on the efforts of more than 20 news organizations (including Catalyst Chicago) and affiliated journalists paints a mixed picture of how the SIG program is playing out on the ground. The project was organized by the Education Writers Association, the Hechinger Report at Teachers College- Columbia University and Education Week. 

The major findings show:

• States have pulled SIG money from at least a dozen schools that showed anemic progress on early indicators of success, such as teacher and student attendance, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

• Schools nationwide, especially those in rural areas, are wrestling with staff turnover and the need for new teacher-evaluation systems driven by the program’s requirements, along with the challenge of adding extra instructional time.

• Though millions of dollars in grant money has gone to outside contractors, few states track the details of how that money is being spent—and some contractor-run schools have seen student performance sink.

 At the same time, the program’s supporters can point to encouraging—though early—developments. And some of the best early reviews come from students, who say their schools are calmer and more academically rigorous.

“I feel more safe, and I feel like I’m learning more. They are starting to have challenges for us,” said Jasmine Dukes, a seventh-grader at Friendship Preparatory Academy at Calverton, formerly Calverton Middle School, in Baltimore.

 U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also sees signs of recovery in schools across the country, even as he cautions that it’s still too early to draw conclusions about the program’s effectiveness.

“Big picture, there’s really significant movement in a very short amount of time, which I think a lot of folks felt wasn’t possible,” Duncan said. But he doesn’t expect overnight success: “This is really, really hard work; there’s a reason the country took a pass on this for a couple of decades.”

All of which argues for caution in assessing the program’s effectiveness so far.

“There’s evidence on both sides of the coin,” said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and a leading researcher on school improvement. “The big question is whether those changes are going to lead to improvement.”

In an April 11 report, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the Education Department failed to do enough to ensure that states and districts monitor the performance of contractors hired with SIG funds. GAO also recommended that the department do a better job of spelling out how states should make “evidence-based” decisions about whether to remove schools’ grants. The report found that among 23 of the 44 states responding to a GAO question about such decisions, most or all of the schools that had their funding renewed failed to meet annual goals.

In a formal response, Michael Yudin, the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, called the GAO report “incomplete and somewhat misleading.”  He agreed that the Education Department needs to do a better job of helping districts and states decide when to pull the plug on a grant. But he disagreed with the contention on contractors, saying that the department has made it clear that states and districts must monitor contractors’ performance.

The current SIG program is a bolder version of a once-sleepy program created under the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 to help states turn around their lowest-performing schools. In its original form, the program never topped $500 million in federal funding—less than one-half of 1 percent of current federal education spending overall.

But in 2009, federal lawmakers—in passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and with little debate—poured an additional $3 billion into SIG. That sent districts scrambling for a share of the three-year competitive grants, worth up to $2 million annually to perennially struggling schools.

With the flood of cash came new, tighter strings. Eligible schools—identified through a complex, multi-tiered process—are among what the Education Department often describes as a state’s bottom 5 percent academically. Schools taking the money have to adopt one of four controversial improvement models. In some cases, at least half of a school’s teaching staff must be replaced. A school might be converted into a charter school—or even shut down. And no matter which option is chosen, a school’s principal must be removed, unless that person has been on the job for under three years.

Federal officials defend that tack. They say that, in the past, states had failed to pick rigorous turnaround options—such as taking over a school or turning it into a charter—when given a broader menu of choices.

“Schools literally got worse,” said Duncan. “The children that need the most help, the majority of them, got less help than before.”

But some state and local leaders still chafe at what they see as a heavy-handed federal approach.

“It’s too restrictive. They mandated these models before they even researched them,” said Keith Rheault, who served more than a decade as Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction, before retiring on April 2nd. “We’re testing it out.”

From the get-go, the program has been reviled on Capitol Hill as Exhibit A for those arguing against federal overreach in K-12 education. The program’s funding remains in jeopardy, and it is almost certain to get an extreme makeover—one proposal before the House of Representatives would scrap it entirely.

Still, a survey by the Council of the Great City Schools, found that a majority of urban school district officials think the program has the potential to deliver lasting change to long-foundering schools. Although the grants run for three years, some school districts got their money just weeks before the start of the 2010-11 school year, a consequence of the program’s genesis in the stimulus, which aimed to pump job-boosting federal money into the economy fast.

That left many districts with little time to find principals or teachers and sell the reforms to the community.

“In an ordinary situation, there’s a little more time to create the change, but then also [to] implement and solidify the change,” said Philip Yaccick, principal of the Weston Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Detroit, which received a $1.8 million SIG grant.

But federal officials defend the accelerated timeline.

“Our children had waited too long. We realized we should not—we could not—wait any longer,” said Jason Snyder, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Personnel issues also have posed a challenge. Even the most flexible of the four federal models—“transformation,” the one chosen by nearly three-quarters of participating schools—requires districts to devise teacher-evaluation systems that take student performance into account, which has led to bruising battles in states such as New York.

And under a number of models, districts and schools have struggled to replace long-serving teachers and principals. More than half of participating large urban districts said they didn’t have enough time to hire qualified staff, according to the urban schools group survey. Rural schools, about a fifth of all SIG schools, have long grappled with staffing issues and felt new pressure.

Pressed to put $3 billion in SIG money to use on a tight deadline, states enlisted an array of consultants, including for-profit companies, nonprofit turnaround specialists and postsecondary institutions.

In Colorado—one of the few states to tally how private educational consultants have benefited from the windfall—consultants took home $9.4 million, or 35 percent of the state’s $26.6 million in SIG money in the past two years, a Denver Post analysis found.

Even some contractors that offer services to SIG schools have raised alarm bells about the lack of accountability for outside groups.

“I don’t think these types of providers necessarily have the wrong intentions, but we need stricter standards for how partners are being selected and monitored,” said Jennifer Shea, a senior program manager at the School Turnaround Group, part of Boston-based Mass Insight Education, which is working with six states on turnarounds.

Snyder, the Education Department’s SIG chief, says that “on the rare occasion that an external provider doesn’t work out, we have seen districts end that relationship and find another solution.”

Despite the challenges, local officials already worry about what will happen if SIG dollars disappear.

Said Lionel Jackson, Jr., the principal of Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts High, in Baltimore: “The important question is: If this all goes away, can we keep up the momentum?”

This story was produced by Education Week, The Hechinger Report, and the Education Writers Association. Additional reporting was contributed by Leslie Postal of the Orlando Sentinel, Sarah Karp of Catalyst Chicago, Brian Rosenthal of the Seattle Times, Nancy Mitchell of Ed News Colorado, Liz Bowie and Erica Green of the Baltimore Sun, Paul Takahashi of the Las Vegas Sun, Jennifer Jordan of the Providence Journal, Jennifer Brown of the Denver Post, Scott Elliott of the Indianapolis Star, Antoinette Konz of the (Louisville) Courier-Journal, Rachel Cromidas and Philissa Cramer of GothamSchools, and Lori Higgins of the Detroit Free Press.