School Improvement Grants:

Early Implementation Under Way, but Reforms Affected by Short Time Frames

GAO-11-741: Published: Jul 25, 2011. Publicly Released: Jul 25, 2011.

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The School Improvement Grants (SIG) program, which was created in 2002, funds reforms in the country's lowest-performing schools with the goal of improving student outcomes, such as standardized test scores and graduation rates. Congress greatly increased SIG program funding from $125 million available in fiscal year 2007--the first year the program was funded--to $3.5 billion in fiscal year 2009 for the 2010-11 school year. Three billion dollars of this amount was provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act). In addition, $546 million was appropriated in both fiscal years 2009 and 2010, and $535 million was appropriated in fiscal year 2011. These funds were provided to states by formula after the Department of Education (Education) approved state SIG grant applications. The funding increases provided by the Recovery Act spurred Education to make substantive changes to the SIG program. For example, the persistently lowest-achieving schools receiving SIG funding must now implement one of four intervention models, each with specific requirements for reform interventions, such as replacing principals or turning over school management to a charter organization or other outside organization. Also, after states receive their grants, states are required to award subgrants to school districts competitively, rather than by formula. State educational agencies evaluate grant applications using several criteria, including the school's proposed intervention model and the district's budget and reform implementation plan, as well as their capacity to implement the reforms effectively. Under the SIG program, a school may receive up to $2 million annually for 3 years to improve student outcomes. Congress requested that GAO conduct a broad review of the SIG program. On the basis of congressional request, this report provides preliminary information on the following questions: (1) How have selected states administered the SIG program for grants starting in school year (SY) 2010-11? (2) What factors influenced the implementation of SIG interventions in selected schools during SY 2010-11? (3) How has Education provided oversight of SIG implementation and measured performance to date?

In summary, our nongeneralizable sample and other evidence suggests the following: (1) Among the selected states, some implemented SIG more rigorously than others. States with selective competitions funded only those district applications they identified as the strongest, and thus may be positioned for better student achievement outcomes. In contrast, other states awarded grants to all eligible Tier I and II schools that applied. States also varied in how they designed their grant renewal processes. (2) Local capacity and short time frames affected schools' ability to implement SIG interventions in many of the states we visited. Local capacity--such as the ability to attract and retain administrative staff with school turnaround expertise or high-quality teachers--influenced implementation, and SIG interventions were often challenging for low- capacity districts. Education and state officials told us time frames for planning and implementing interventions were challenging in SY 2010-11 because, in some cases, state applications--which were due in February 2010--were not approved by Education until summer 2010. State and district officials told us that late approval of applications resulted in some SIG interventions not being implemented by the start of SY 2010-11. Despite Education's efforts to address these issues, late approval of state applications has remained an issue for SY 2011-12. For example, as of late June 2011 six states had not received approval of their SIG applications. Education officials told us that in many of these situations, states had submitted applications late. Although Education officials recognized the continuing challenges with SIG time frames, they have not yet identified steps to address these issues. (3) Education oversees SIG and plans to collect school performance data. The agency uses several strategies, such as reviewing state applications and monitoring, to oversee state and district SIG implementation. In addition, Education plans to analyze performance data from SIG schools to identify high-quality practices. To provide districts and schools more time to successfully plan and implement SIG reforms, we are recommending that the Secretary of Education should do the following: Consider options to have SIG grants awarded to districts earlier, such as using an earlier deadline for state applications or approving state applications that include timelines for earlier awards to districts.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In order to reduce the burden and streamline the application process for state departments of education during the FY 2011 SIG competition, Education allowed state departments to submit a one-page "School Improvement Grants - Funds for Continuation" attachment in lieu of a new application if they planned to use the FY 2011 SIG allocation to make second-year continuation grants instead of making new awards to schools that have not previously received SIG funds. The attachment required state departments to submit an assurance that all other requirements of the FY 2011 SIG funds would be governed by the information outlined in the state department's approved FY 2010 SIG application.

    Recommendation: To provide districts and schools more time to successfully plan and implement SIG reforms, the Secretary of Education should consider options to have SIG grants awarded to districts earlier, such as using an earlier deadline for state applications or approving state applications that include timelines for earlier awards to districts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

 

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