The wait is over. The U.S. Department of Education on Friday released a final version of updated School Improvement Grant (SIG) guidance, bringing to a close months of review and anticipation. The SIG rules were revised in order to improve implementation and use of SIG dollars. After a 2012 report found SIG was only effective in approximately two-thirds of schools (more on that in a previous blog post here), Congress and others began pushing the federal government to use SIG money on activities, programs, and systems that would be more likely to improve student and overall school performance.

At face value, the guidance seems rather similar to the initial draft released in September, with the biggest change being the addition of a state-determined improvement model in addition to the classic four options of turnaround, transformation, closure, and restart. State education agencies and districts and schools receiving (or hoping to receive) SIG funding have approximately one month to digest the changes; they go into effect on March 11.

The final updated guidance still includes many additions that will place more accountability on the local education agency (LEA) to monitor school performance, engage the local community, monitor and support intervention and implementation at the schools, and review the performance of external providers. It also includes an early education intervention model, which comes after many early education advocates and researchers have encouraged a greater focus on school improvement investments that offer preventative options to increase student performance at an early age.

Meanwhile, the state-determined model provides an opportunity for non-ESEA waiver states to expand turnaround model options for SIG schools. The guidance explains that this addition is still under review, but that for now, states will have the opportunity to submit one new turnaround model that addresses a “whole-school reform model” to the U.S. Secretary of Education for review. The guidance clarifies that states will not have the ability to require LEAs to implement a specific turnaround model for specific schools. It seems in relation to the state-determined model, state education agencies have a lot to think about.

With the release of the new guidance, states are given an opportunity to rethink the way they use their SIG funding, a process that will hopefully result in more dramatic increases in student achievement from this significant investment. We also hope that within education departments, we will see ongoing and increased collaboration across offices and units of school support to create models and systems that best support school improvement.

Happy New Year! To kick off 2015, In the Zone blog writers Charis Anderson and Alison Segal are back with our predictions for the big education topics and trends for the upcoming year! Did we miss anything you predict could hit the front pages of education news? Let us know in the comments section.

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Higher education: Shifting the baseline

President Obama’s proposal last week to make community college free for all students puts a spotlight on a critical element of our higher education system. While the future of the proposal remains unknown, the announcement has spurred an important dialogue about community college’s role in preparing students for career success. It’s also the first step in shifting the baseline educational standard from a high school diploma to an Associate’s degree. We also hope if this proposal comes to fruition that it would increase and improve communication and links between two-year and four-year educational institutions.

Common Core: Less “if,” more “how”

The Common Core debates are winding down, and while clearly there are still pockets of dissent, the focus seems to have shifted toward implementation, which is where we think it should be. Fewer reports are hitting our inboxes around the “dangers of Common Core,” and more discussion is appearing online and at the water cooler focusing on how teachers, with the support of their school and district leadership, can begin shifting their classroom routines and structures to reflect the Common Core Standards.

NCLB: Standardized testing to remain, but perhaps more balanced application

It’s pretty clear standardized testing isn’t going—and shouldn’t go—anywhere. But could 2015 be the year schools cut down on the testing-obsessed atmosphere and through the Common Core State Standards reclaim the classroom for learning? We see this is a classroom that is still imparting knowledge students need for Smarter Balanced and PARCC assessments, but perhaps steps away from the rhetoric of “teaching to the test.”

School Improvement: More complicated, or more autonomy?

In September, the U.S. Department of Education released draft guidance updates to the School Improvement Grant. Hundreds (including us) responded with comments for edits, but the Department will not release the updated guidance for a few more weeks. The big ticket items were expanding the grant’s cycle from three to five years to include planning time, focusing on early education, and identifying a state-determined model. While we have yet to see how many changes the federal government makes, the new guidance is sure to change the way states use and view their School Improvement Grant allocations.

The Money You Don’t Know You Have for School Turnaround: Maximizing the Title I Schoolwide Model is the newest publication from Mass Insight Education’s State Development Network for School Turnaround, in partnership with the Federal Education Group.

As the initial federal ARRA funds to support school turnaround run out, states and districts are looking for other sources of funding to support successful programs. Many school districts don’t consider using Title I funds to support turnaround because of misunderstandings about the “supplement not supplant” requirement. This toolkit clarifies the spending rules that apply to supporting schoolwide improvement programs with Title I dollars, and provides considerations for states, school districts, and schoolwide schools that want to rethink the way they use Title I funds.

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The State Development Network (SDN) is a multistate, performance-based network of forward-thinking state education agencies who are committed to turning around low-performing schools by increasing state-level capacity and transforming the policy framework. SDN 2013 members include Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia.

Syracuse, NY, is most widely known for its college basketball team and snowy conditions.  Now, after receiving 40% of the state’s SIG dollars, the Syracuse City School District (SCSD) is getting attention for changing the education conditions that will come along with $31.5 million to split among seven schools.

When we think about conditions, one of our 3 C’s, we split it into four pillars: people, time, program, and money.  SCSD’s plan for these schools, which belong to the district’s Innovation Zone, fit well with these four strategies.

People: Teachers will have the option of staying at the turnaround schools (which includes reapplying for their jobs), or opting out and transferring to another school. This ensures that the teachers within these SIG schools are the ones who most want to be there.

Time: Using the SIG funding, SCSD will provide a stipend for teachers, as they will add 90 minutes to the school day for extra planning time, as well as 10 extra days of teacher training.

Program: The school day for students will be extended by 30 minutes.

Money: Each of the seven schools will receive $4.5 million in SIG funding over the next three years to fund their turnaround.

Other districts in New York State that will receive SIG funding include Buffalo ($22.5m), Yonkers ($13.5m), Rochester ($4.5m), Poughkeepsie ($4.5m), and Troy ($4.3m).

Disclaimer: The STG currently works in partnership with the SCSD and helped design the district’s Innovation Zone.

As Justin wrote last week, re: the leading indicators around the federal School Improvement Grant program, “we definitely shouldn’t be too surprised that there’s not more progress, given that so many districts are choosing the path of least resistance: a new principal and some light-touch consulting with no accountability for results.”

But there are some bright spots, and turnaround is the end point, not a federal program or a list of requirements. When districts and school use SIG funding to build strong relationships, provide principals with autonomy, and create clusters, we do see results.  For example, in August, Partnership Zone turnaround schools in Delaware outpaced the progress of the state as a whole, and even came close to rivaling the state’s average scores.  One school even outscored the district as a whole. And that was after fewer than two years of intervention.

Here’s a challenge to the field. States: stop letting districts and schools get away with light-touch interventions. They don’t work, period. Also, you shouldn’t expect the systems that were complicit in chronic under-performance to suddenly become the shepherds of greatness. We need new kinds of systems that get out of the traditional district structure.

And to advocacy organizations: publish reports that both laud success stories and air out dirty laundry. We need to cultivate and multiply the transformative examples of the work, while making it harder for states, schools, and districts to get away with the failed strategies of the past.

Every Wednesday this past month, Betsy Haley Doyle and Nithin Iyengar of The Bridgespan Group‘s Education Practice guest-blogged in The Turnaround Zone, providing the context for the work that many CMO’s and EMO’s are doing.  Each piece related to Mass Insight Education’s 3 Cs: clustering, capacity, and conditions.  The Achievement School District in Tennessee worked to create a pipeline of students, essentially clustering by creating meaningful feeder patterns for students from elementary through high school.  The AUSL in Chicago works to improve upon capacity by using a network of AUSL graduates as mentors for new turnaround teachers, with the hope that this will infuse a new energy into teachers and encourage highly effective teachers to stay longer than the typical 2-3 years in a low-performing school. Lastly, Aspire Public Schools worked to change conditions for students by creating a college-going culture.

When applying these lessons to traditional public school districts, we begin to see the rationale for approaching a district central office design from another angle.  What if low-performing schools could be prioritized in action and SIG schools could receive individualized support? What if services were streamlined from multiple offices?  We aren’t quite looking to completely decentralize the system, which is where the Lead Partner comes into play—the central office still sets district-wide standards, and the principal has the autonomy to handle day-to-day operations, while the Lead Partner manages and provides critical support to a cluster of schools.  The current system is too top-down, while the trend of every school for itself is too fragmented.  So again, we consider this third option that lies between the traditional public school system and the charter system.

As STG President Justin Cohen says, “we want the schools of the future, but too often rely on the systems of the past.”

Through a partnership with the state of Indiana, Mass Insight Education has embarked on an exciting project with the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation (EVSC).  According to the EVSC,

Superintendent David Smith said, “Through the Mass Insight Education partnership and funding provided by the Department of Education, we will be able to increase our capacity to support schools with best practices and strategies that will help our students. And, because EVSC teachers have already developed a framework and proven track record of flexibility in school day, planning processes, and data driven instruction – the EVSC will be able to develop a ‘Transformation Zone.’ In this zone, individuals dedicated to building on the Equity framework, will accelerate student achievement gains at identified schools and eventually, across the school district.”

Our own President, Justin Cohen, had the following to say about the new partnership:

“We believe EVSC is the most well positioned school corporation in the state of Indiana to take on this work. With innovations already in place such as the Equity framework, EVSC has multiple embedded conditions that will propel this transformative work forward.”

The timing of this partnership coincides with the U.S. Department of Education’s third annual back-to-school bus tour.  Today, Tony Miller, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education, will be visiting the Glenwood Leadership Academy (one of the SIG schools in the EVSC-Mass Insight Education partnership).  Deputy Secretary Miller will be discussing labor-management collaboration and community partnerships.

See Courier News coverage here.

See the press conference here.

See Superintendent Smith’s announcement below:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJ3aPIXeiGs&feature=youtu.be]

There’s excitement in Utah as 14 schools receive over $23M in School Improvement Grants.  Schools look to use their new funding for support staff, teacher coaches, and instructors.  Utah’s KSL news radio took the words right out of our mouths when they quoted Jason Snyder, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at the U.S. Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, as saying, ‘”This is about giving targeted resources to do things in a dramatically different way than we’ve done before, and that required putting in place the conditions [emphasis added] for success.”’

Two key phrases there: “dramatically different,” and “conditions.”

Looking back at Glendale Middle School’s progress since receiving a similar grant in 2010, teachers, students, and administrators reflected that adjusting to changes in conditions and culture—such as a new principal, extending the school day, and adding additional classes for struggling students—wasn’t necessarily easy, but that the results are clear and make the adjustments worth the effort.

U.S. Department of Education press release here.