School Improvement Grants
September 25, 2009
Hon. Arne Duncan
Dear Secretary Duncan:
The Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind appreciates the opportunity to comment on the Department’s proposed regulations on School Improvement Grants (SIG). The Commission agrees that the substantial new resources available for SIG under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and Fiscal Year 2009 appropriations must be leveraged to end the status quo at failing schools and create new opportunity for students who attend them.
Earlier this month, the Commission held a hearing at Howard University—where the groundwork for Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka was laid—to examine the urgent challenge of fixing chronically low-performing schools. One common theme among witnesses’ testimony was that incremental change is not enough; bold action to bring about swift change is needed. We are therefore pleased that the proposed regulations encourage aggressive reforms targeted first toward the schools most in need of overhaul—an approach consistent with the Commission’s recommendations in Beyond NCLB (2007). We also support the proposed regulations’ inclusion of low-achieving secondary schools that do not receive Title I funding as “Tier II” schools that states must serve with SIG funding. This will help spur states and districts to finally close dropout factories and work to ensure that high schools provide students the knowledge and skills needed for success in college or the workplace. (The Commission will hold a public hearing on this topic in the coming months.)
While the Commission strongly supports the Department’s objectives and many of the provisions in the proposed regulations, we urge you to revise and clarify the regulations to address the concerns we identify below.
Emphasize the Importance of Continued Strong Accountability
As with the draft Race to the Top regulations, the Commission is concerned that the SIG proposal may weaken current ESEA accountability provisions—or send that signal to states and districts. Under the draft regulations (Section II.A.7), districts must establish three-year student achievement goals in reading/language arts and mathematics for schools targeted for intervention. Schools are then held accountable for meeting, or being on track to meet, these goals with respect to the achievement of all students and each student subgroup, and for making progress on the leading indicators described in the proposal. It is unclear how the new achievement goals for these schools relate to their current adequate yearly progress targets under ESEA. It is concerning that the regulations do not require these goals to be aggressive; schools could therefore meet or be “on track” to meet goals that are low and insufficient for students. Further, there is no definition of “making progress.” The students that have been subjected to these failing schools for too long deserve significant, accelerated reform. With the infusion of funds and new flexibilities they will receive, these schools should be expected to meet a high standard and should not be allowed to lower expectations. We recommend that language be added to ensure that the three-year goals are both aggressive and accelerated.
In addition, while the proposed regulations ask districts to hold schools accountable for progress in meeting the three-year goals, there is no discussion of the consequences for failing to meet them (other than a state’s option not to renew a district’s SIG funding). We recommend that language be added to require the district to closely monitor and report on the ongoing progress of these schools and to work with them to ensure that each school, in fact, meets or exceeds its aggressive targets. The district should be required to include clear benchmarks, so that the monitoring process is less arbitrary and the monitors have clear guidance to use when reporting on progress.
The Commission also urges the Department to clarify that while districts may only have capacity to intensively intervene in a few schools, they must continue to work to improve all schools (including Tier III schools) and meet ESEA accountability requirements. We cannot allow a focus on the lowest performing schools to become an excuse for inaction at other schools that need improvement. In addition, if a district cites a lack of capacity to undertake intensive interventions in each Tier I school, the district should be required to explain the steps it is taking to build such capacity, whether through partnerships with outside organizations or some other mechanism.
Increase Parent Information
We are concerned about the lack of parent and community information and input required under the proposed regulations. One of No Child Left Behind’s widely agreed upon successes is the wealth of data and greater transparency it has generated for parents, educators, and policymakers. But testimony at the Commission’s recent hearing on school improvement highlighted the fact that parents and the public too often still do not have access to this information in a clear, timely and meaningful way.
The proposed regulations appear to turn back the clock on data and transparency at the school and community levels. Nothing in the regulations indicates that parents or the community should have any information before, during, or after intervention occurs (with the exception of non-specific language in Section I.A.2.d.iii.A.4 requiring transformation schools to provide “ongoing mechanisms for family and community involvement”). We recommend that the proposed regulations require that all SIG intervention schools provide specific information to parents and the public about the process of their school’s turnaround and the plan for improvement before the plan is implemented, as well as a clear explanation of the school’s achievement record and why intervention (which may be perceived as disruptive) is occurring. Schools should also be required to provide parents and the community regular updates, more frequently than once a school year, on the progress the school is making on implementing the plan and on raising student achievement and graduation rates.
Preserve Needed Student Options
Section I.B.2 of the proposed regulations would allow states to seek a waiver from the Department to permit turnaround or restart schools to “start over” in the ESEA school improvement timeline, thereby eliminating the need to provide students in those schools with public school choice or supplemental educational services (SES). If schools continue to miss adequate yearly progress and do not achieve aggressive three-year goals, it is vital that students again be provided the option to attend another school or to receive high-quality tutoring. Given the upheaval often involved in transitions and the need for continuity of learning, schools should consider making these opportunities available to students regardless of their status in the timeline.
Comments on the Intervention Models
Turnaround: The turnaround model requires replacement of a school’s principal and at least half of its staff. Districts should be given discretion, in cases where the principal may already be relatively new, to retain a principal who has demonstrated ability and an understanding of the need for, or has begun to make progress on, significant reform.
School closure: The Commission agrees that some schools—particularly those with a long history of ill-serving students—simply need to be shut down permanently. At our recent hearing, the Commission heard testimony about New York City’s promising turnaround strategy which includes closing failing schools and opening new ones—some run by the district, some charter—to serve displaced students. The Commission encourages the Department to add language to this model that encourages the opening of new schools as part of a comprehensive school reform strategy.
Transformation: The Commission believes that this model generally encompasses sound reform strategies that should also be encouraged under other models, such as identifying and rewarding school leaders, teachers, and other staff who improve student achievement outcomes and identifying and removing those who do not. The Commission is concerned, however, that without strong monitoring, this model could be perceived as the “easiest” option and become the equivalent of the widely used and ineffective “other” option under current restructuring requirements. States and the Department must vigilantly oversee the implementation of core required activities to ensure this model is not just an “opt out” provision from the tough reforms that are the goal and objective of the SIG.
Clarify the Reporting Metrics
The proposed regulations require school-level reporting of number of instructional minutes. If this is to be required, the Commission recommends that this number be reported by core subject, and with an indication of change in time devoted to each subject as a result of SIG intervention.
Thank you for considering these comments. The Commission looks forward to working with you and your staff to advance significant reform through the implementation of these regulations and the reauthorization of ESEA.
Commission on No Child Left Behind
The Commission on No Child Left Behind (www.nclbcommission.org and on Facebook) is a bipartisan effort to identify and build support for improvements in federal education policy to ensure the nation has effective tools to spur academic achievement and close the achievement gap.