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Thousands of schools across the country are chronically low performing, and they operate within districts and states that are also struggling to help them improve. The School Improvement Grants program, or SIG, is designed to channel federal funds to states and districts facing the daunting task of turning around struggling schools. SIG, a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, known currently as No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, received a massive influx of funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, providing significant potential for change and significant challenges for reforming schools on a large scale.
Enacted in 2001, NCLB established a federal framework for accountability and required schools and districts receiving Title I funds to meet, or be on track to meet, annual objectives for student achievement. In response, states created or refined accountability systems to fit the new federal framework. The fulcrum of these systems was, and still is, a set of state academic standards and a corresponding battery of state achievement tests from which judgments about schools’ performance are drawn. Schools unable to meet their student achievement targets face a series of sanctions, the severity of which increases with the duration of failure. The School Improvement Grants program, Section 1003(g) of Title I, also known as SIG, is a vehicle for channeling federal funds to assist schools facing the fury of accountability.
It is easy to forget that some states had already begun to establish accountability systems even before NCLB. These states, one could say, had a running start on the federal requirement. Stanford University researchers Martin Carnoy and Susanna Loeb captured the magnitudes of states’ running starts in an index of the strength of state accountability systems during the 1999-2000 school year. Moreover, a positive relationship between this strength and student achievement, as measured by gains on eighth graders’ mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, suggests that variation in the strength of states’ accountability systems at the dawn of NCLB may be a useful lens for understanding states’ behavior as substantial numbers of schools began facing the sanctions associated with chronic underperformance.
It is with this possibility in mind that this paper examines implementation of the SIG program in four states: California, Illinois, North Carolina, and Tennessee. These states differ markedly on the Carnoy and Loeb index. Among these states, North Carolina had the strongest accountability system in 1999-2000, followed by California, Illinois, and Tennessee. Variation in the strength of these states’ accountability systems has vanished (see Appendix 1), a result of the common framework imposed by NCLB.
But it is plausible that these states’ differing dispositions around holding schools accountable for academic achievement at the outset of the era of federal accountability would show up in their implementation of the SIG program, a provision of NCLB inadequately funded until fiscal year 2007, when it received its first appropriation of $125 million. Hefty increases in annual appropriations for the 2008 and 2009 fiscal years foreshadowed a massive $3 billion investment in SIG under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or ARRA.
The substantial and rather sudden investment in SIG motivates this paper. Data were gathered about the districts and schools that received SIG funds for the 2010-11 school year and a number of State Educational Agency, or SEA, representatives from each of the case study states were consulted. In addition, a handful of district officials were also consulted in order to investigate their experiences with the SIG program, their perceptions of the challenges of SIG implementation in the aftermath of ARRA, and the ways in which accountability did and did not inform SIG work in their states.
The case study analyses produced four main findings:
- Some districts were reluctant to apply. Many districts with eligible schools chose not to apply to their SEA for the competitively awarded SIG funds. Some districts determined that they lacked the capacity, resources, and budget to implement and support the major changes required by the federal intervention models. Indeed, many if not most recipient districts across the case study states rely upon external providers and other additional funding sources to make up budget gaps where federal funds fall short. Also, districts were concerned about derailing school improvement efforts already in progress.
- Some states and districts resisted implementation. The structure of the SIG program and the timing of its application process greatly affected local perception and participation in state funding competitions. Some states encountered local resistance to the mandatory elements of the federal intervention models, particularly in districts and schools with existing improvement efforts. Restrictions from collective bargaining agreements and state-level legislation limiting the degree of state involvement in local education affairs greatly affected district decisions on whether or not to apply for SIG funding. Many districts also voiced resistance to the rapid application timelines for the ARRA-enhanced funds, particularly the truncated timeframe of federal and, in turn, state application deadlines and the delay in the distribution of federal implementation guidance.
- Quality data systems improved how funds were distributed. Robust data systems allow states to distribute and implement SIG funds more efficiently. The reason is that strong data systems allow them to monitor the changing needs of schools and districts. In this way, these states are more readily able to identify the lowest-achieving districts and schools and award funds in a strategic manner to a targeted list of chosen recipients via state competitions.
- Refined accountability systems helped target funds. States with more rigorous definitions of academic proficiency, as measured by how closely they reflect NAEP proficiency levels, have a more refined system by which to identify low-performing students and, in turn, schools and districts. States with higher standards for proficiency thus have a more finely tuned mechanism by which to distinguish the differing needs of schools and districts based on levels of student performance.
These findings represent evidence with some bearing on reauthorization of ESEA. In particular, they suggest that universally high expectations for academic proficiency tied to common standards and assessments would allow states to use SIG money more effectively and promote coherence in the national effort to turn around chronically underperforming schools.
In this sense, competitive programs that encourage states to adopt college and career-ready standards and aligned assessments, such as Race to the Top, support SIG indirectly, yet the SIG program itself needs attention. Policymakers should consider these recommendations:
- Create more flexible, less prescriptive SIG requirements to allow states to tailor improvement and intervention efforts to eligible schools, particularly in rural districts with limited capacity to replace staff. The currently required intervention models may not make sense for all districts and schools, particularly as they may then limit the number of eligible schools who choose to apply for funding.
- Lengthen the time period of the SIG application process and allow more time between milestones for funding and guideline distribution. States and districts require time to conduct proper needs assessments to find the most appropriate intervention strategy for the lowest-performing schools in order to target funds more readily to them.
- Provide enhanced guidelines and technical assistance to states around procedures for determining which schools are eligible for the SIG program, and with respect to their responsibilities to oversee and monitor the implementation of SIG funds and, in turn, school turnaround efforts.
Let’s examine those steps and the SIG program in more detail.
Jessica Quillin is the owner and managing director of Quillin Consulting, LLC.
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