The Obama administration has made improving struggling schools a major part of its education agenda. One piece of that effort is the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, which received a large one-time influx of $3 billion through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).
This SIG funding came with a host of new regulations for the program, including a requirement that schools use the funds to implement one of four strictly-defined reform models. The models range from replacing some principals and teachers at schools, to complete school closure. But although schools had lofty aspirations, a recently-released Government Accountability Office (GAO) report suggests that many districts didn’t have the capacity or expertise to see them to fruition.
As a quick refresher, in 2010 the Department of Education divvied up $3.5 billion in SIG funds (including regular appropriations) to states in proportion to their share of Title I funds. States then distributed the funds to eligible school districts – those either in the bottom 5 percent in terms student performance or high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent – through a competitive grant process. Schools could receive a maximum grant of $2 million each year for three years. States selected the winning proposals and distributed the funds to districts beginning in mid-2010. Districts in some states received their SIG funds just weeks prior the start of the school year in which they had to implement their selected school turnaround plans.
The GAO report discusses the degree to which states provided capacity and oversight to districts as they adopted their school reform models based on a survey of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. From these surveys and through conversations with officials at the U.S. Department of Education, state education agencies, and districts, GAO identified several areas where states and districts lacked the resources, capacity, or oversight to effectively implement their respective reform plans.
For example, California, Nebraska, Rhode Island, and Texas all cited budgetary constraints as a major obstacle to effectively administering the SIG program. Though all states were allowed to use up to 5 percent of the funds for administrative purposes, California only used 0.5 percent of its funds for this purpose. It appears that the state, due to budget restrictions, was unable to hire more staff to work on the program and the existing administrative staff was already over-extended.
But money was not the only resource districts and schools were short on. In many states, districts and schools – particularly those in rural areas that already faced staffing shortages – found it difficult to recruit new principals and teachers to replace ineffective school staff. According to the Department of Education, three of the states being monitored did not provide adequate oversight to ensure that schools actually replaced their principals – one of the criteria for schools receiving SIG funds. If staffing schools with high quality teachers and principals is a cornerstone of school improvement, it appears that some schools are already set up for failure.
GAO also noted that many schools struggled to make school reform decisions based on achievement data, either because they did not actually have access to the necessary data or because they lacked the expertise to analyze the data towards meaningful decisions. Schools become SIG-eligible based on their test outcomes. It is troubling that some of the nation’s lowest-performing schools still do not have the capacity to harness this information and learn from it.
When it came time to determine whether schools and districts should receive continued SIG funding, many states renewed grants even when districts were failing to implement their school turnaround plans. States likely understood that these districts faced many challenges with abbreviated timelines and limited capacity. Indeed, some states explicitly acknowledged these difficulties. However, it is unclear whether these states were responsive to their districts’ needs or are currently providing outreach to ensure these problems don’t persist.
The GAO report reveals some significant shortcomings in the implementation of SIGs so far. However, it also raises some important questions about how the Department should move forward with the program. For example, it is clear that districts need more technical assistance and capacity to implement the Department-mandated reforms. But who is ultimately responsible for increasing school capacity – the federal government, states, or districts?
And though prior to 2009 the Department established two systems to help schools boost their capacity for school reform – Comprehensive Centers and Regional Educational Laboratories – they haven’t necessarily filled the capacity vacuum among the lowest-performing schools. These schools either don’t have sufficient access to Department services, or they need more support than is currently available to them.
Similarly, many states renewed district grants even when districts were far behind schedule. What is the right balance between providing extra flexibility to struggling districts and ensuring districts are accountable for the funds they receive? Currently, the Department provides funds, and expects states and districts to oversee implementation. But states have not yet effectively met the needs of their most struggling schools, raising the question of whether a more active federal role is needed.
The School Improvement Grant program can only succeed if schools and districts are given the tools necessary to implement their chosen reform models. Giving districts funds when they lack the capacity to use them wisely seems akin to expecting a team of rookies to win the World Series – anything can happen, but the odds are against them.