Tinkering Toward Transformation: A Look at Federal School Improvement Grant Implementation

Arne Duncan may be excited about the potential of his School Improvement Grant (SIG) initiative to turn around our nation’s lowest-performing schools, but the folks at the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) aren’t convinced. This qualitative report from CRPE examines the progress of Washington State’s SIG-funded school districts between December 2009 and June 2011. (More background on SIG here.) Forty-four interviews at the school, district, and state levels five months after SIG implementation began reveal signs of incremental changes in schools, but no sweeping shifts in achievement or culture. According to the report, the hindrances to bold reforms were timing, communication, and an aversion to risk taking. SIG’s constricted timeline (just two months between program announcement and application due date) negatively impacted the initial SIG application, the planning phase, negotiations with unions, and the hiring process, thus impairing implementation. Additionally, vague communication from districts left schools unaware of the SIG program’s expectations. Finally, most of the schools that did adopt changes opted for the least disruptive interventions (replacing the school leader only, rather than the whole staff, for example). To spur more fundamental reform, CRPE offers recommendations for players at each level: The feds should make SIG more competitive and allow time for a planning phase as part of the application process; states should clearly communicate the program’s goals to districts and schools; districts should open a turnaround-specific office to work with schools; and schools should reject the transformation option as it requires a lot of time and money with arguably little results. Before the next round of SIG, all stakeholders would be wise to follow these recommendations.

Sarah Yatsko, Robin Lake, Elizabeth Cooley Nelson, and Melissa Bowen, Tinkering Toward Transformation: A Look at Federal School Improvement Grant Implementation (Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education, March 2012).

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