GAO review of SIG year 1: Not many surprises

Apologies for the blog summer vacation …

The General Accountability Office issued a report in July that examines the early implementation of the federal School Improvement Grant program.

The report is a useful document that summarizes the major barriers of the SIG program (from the perspective of SEA improvement directors, as well as other education leaders across the country). But, from my perspective, none of the findings are all that shocking. Anyone who works with states, districts or schools on the implementation of the SIG program could come up with most of the problems cited in the GAO report.

The major issues include:

  • Leaders lack political will to make the tough decisions,
  • There’s a lack of implementing with fidelity,
  • Districts lack capacity to actually implement reforms, and
  • The approval process takes too long (at both the federal and state levels). In effect, schools are unable to begin implementation until the summer, or in some cases, after the school year begins.

In respect to the first issue, leaders (district and state) should be as accountable for the improvement of schools as principals. The leaders must make the tough decisions, stand behind the plans, and ensure reforms are implemented with fidelity. If the leader can’t lead the state or district, why should they keep their job? We expect teachers and principals to know be accountable for performance, so should district staff.

Implementing with fidelity is often an issue when making any real changes to a system. Partially implementing or cutting corners is the way to “satisfy” requirements without actually improving the system as a whole. Unless improvements are sustainable, the requirements of the four SIG models should not be considered accomplished.

Asking a district with low-performing schools to develop a plan to turn the school around, to contract with partners who will assist that process, and to actually to do the work may work in a few places, but may result in chaos in others. Without significant outside assistance, how can district staff — who allowed a school to become so low-performing in the first place — be expected to 1) know what to do to improve the school, 2) do the work, and 3) ensure that the changes are sustainable.

Finally, the timeline for federal approval of state applications is cited as a problem in a number of places (including a CEP report). USED is making changes to modify the timeline, but even with changes, the timeline will remain an issue as the “planning” year and year 1 are essentially combined. If a school is lucky, it is awarded a SIG grant in the spring and is able to use the entire summer to asses, plan and begin implementation.

This all said, until the student performance of year 1 can be analyzed, we’re unable to truly determine the value of the revised SIG federal guidelines.


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