SIG schools fail to implement turnaround strategies

SIG schools fail to implement turnaround strategies

(District of Columbia) New research confirms a long-suspected flaw in the nation’s primary program for turning around perpetually bad schools – too many of them have been allowed to shake off aggressive intervention mandates.

The School Improvement Grant program, boosted by more than $5 billion in tax money over the last six years, has produced only mixed results in fixing the country’s 5,000 lowest performing schools.

Now, findings from a report released this week from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences seems to pin-point at least part of the cause: enrolled schools adopted just 20 of 32 improvement practices called for under the program.

Perhaps even more telling – the researchers found not one school nationwide that reported adopting all 32 of the intervention strategies.

“Examining how low-performing schools combine practices is an important first step to better understanding why some schools ultimately successfully turn around while others do not,” the researchers concluded, noting that the study brief should be “relevant to educators and state administrators thinking about how to package improvement packages” for the future.

The report comes almost a year after Congressional leaders forced the Obama administration to relax its hardline stance on policies that governed the use of the SIG funding and allow states to create their own intervention options instead of relying on just one of four aggressive and somewhat rigid improvement models pressed into education law since 2009.

One of the major reasons that Congress was able to get the White House to back down and accept new flexibility into the SIG program was because of disappointing results.

The U.S. Department of Education conducted its own review of the SIG program in 2012 and found about two-thirds of the participating schools made gains in reading or math, but a third of the schools also reported declines.

Findings from the new IES report may suggest that the overall poor SIG results might have been the result of too many schools taking the path of least resistance or of ignoring promoted federal strategies altogether.

Prior to last year’s budget agreement, LEAs that accepted the SIG funds had to agree to implement one of the four aggressive turnaround models at targeted schools. The mandatory options called for such drastic moves as closing failing schools, turning over management to a charter operator and in some cases, firing principals and most of the teaching staff.

The four models quickly became a signature element of other education programs. The Race to the Top competition, for instance, gave points to states willing to adopt aggressive turnaround strategies.

Under an agreement between Congressional leaders and the Obama administration, states will now be allowed to adopt their own intervention strategies in consultation with the Education Department. The rules for the new state option were only promulgated in September, thus few if any schools are operating under the new system.

The new study is based on surveys from 480 school administrators, taken during the spring of 2013.

Among the findings was that 96 percent of the schools reported adopting three of the 32 improvement strategies: using data to inform and differentiate instruction, increasing technology access for teachers or using computer-assisted instruction, and providing ongoing professional development that involves teachers working collaboratively or is facilitated by school leaders. Use of teacher and principal evaluations to make employment decisions was among the least adopted practices.

At the other end of the scale, not a single school reported implementing all 32.

“There are a few potential explanations for why no schools reported adopting all of the practices required,” the report said. “First, some practices might require more time to adopt or have more barriers to adoption than others.”

They noted, for instance, that educator evaluations require discussions with principal and teacher unions, “which can be contentious and time- consuming.” They also said that states “would also need to set up their data systems in a way that facilitates the use of evaluation data for these purposes (for example, ensuring that the system can directly link individual student data to their teachers over time).”

They also found that some schools “choose to focus their efforts on a select group of practices in each area rather than adopting all of them, perhaps due to technical capacity constraints or other factors.”

Finally, the team speculated that some “schools have purposefully adopted certain practices first and plan to adopt more eventually. While our data do not allow us to determine whether any of these possible explanations are correct, they do offer starting points for future investigations on this topic.”

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