Obama Administration Announces Historic Opportunity to Turn Around Nation’s Lowest-Achieving Public Schools

Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–August 26, 2009.  Today, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced draft requirements for $3.5 billion in Title I School Improvement grants to turn around the nation’s lowest performing schools.

“If we are to put an end to stubborn cycles of poverty and social failure, and put our country on track for long-term economic prosperity, we must address the needs of children who have long been ignored and marginalized in chronically low-achieving schools,” said Duncan, who made the announcement with U.S. Sen. Harry Reid at Harley Harmon Elementary School in Las Vegas. “States and school districts have an opportunity to put unprecedented resources toward reforms that would increase graduation rates, reduce dropout rates and improve teacher quality for all students, and particularly for children who most need good teaching in order to catch up.”

Proposed requirements for the grants have been published in the Federal Register, providing a 30-day comment period on the criteria. Title I School Improvement Grants are funded by $546 million in the fiscal year 2009 appropriation and an additional $3 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to support the transformational changes that are needed to turn around the nation’s lowest-achieving schools.

The secretary of education is required to award school improvement grants to each state education agency based on the proportional share of funds it receives under Title I. Each state must provide subgrants to local school districts that apply for those funds and have demonstrated the greatest commitment to serve their Title I schools identified for improvement, corrective action or restructuring under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

The Obama administration’s strategy includes: identifying and serving the lowest-achieving Title I schools in each state; supporting only the most rigorous interventions that hold the promise of producing rapid improvements in student achievement and school culture; providing sufficient resources over several years to implement those interventions; and measuring progress in achieving results.

“The large investment in school improvement funds made possible by the Recovery Act presents a historic opportunity to attack education’s most intractable challenge — turning around or closing down chronically low-achieving schools,” Duncan said. “Our goal is to turn around the 5,000 lowest-performing schools over the next five years, as part of our overall strategy for dramatically reducing the drop-out rate, improving high school graduation rates and increasing the number of students who graduate prepared for success in college and the workplace.”

The secretary would require states to identify three tiers of schools:

  • Tier I – The lowest-achieving five percent of Title I schools in improvement, corrective action, or restructuring in a state, or the five lowest-performing Title I schools, whichever number is greater.

  • Tier II – Equally low-achieving secondary schools that are eligible for, but do not receive, Title I funds. The secretary proposes targeting some of these extremely low-achieving high schools and their feeder middle schools. There are close to 2,000 high schools in this country in which graduation is at best a 50/50 proposition. U.S. Department of Education data indicates that fewer than half of these schools currently receive Title I Part A funds. If the provisions proposed become final, school districts would not be required to include Tier II schools in proposals. However, including Tier II schools would enhance a school district’s likelihood for funding because states would be required to give priority to districts that commit to serve both Tier I and Tier II schools.

  • Tier III – The remaining Title I schools in improvement, corrective action or restructuring that are not Tier I schools in the state.

    In its application to the state, each school district would be required to demonstrate its commitment to raising student achievement by implementing, in each Tier I and Tier II school, one of the following rigorous interventions:

  • Turnaround Model – This would include among other actions, replacing the principal and at least 50 percent of the school’s staff, adopting a new governance structure and implementing a new or revised instructional program.

  • Restart Model – School districts would close failing schools and reopen them under the management of a charter school operator, a charter management organization or an educational management organization selected through a rigorous review process. A restart school would be required to admit, within the grades it serves, any former student who wishes to attend.

  • School Closure – The district would close a failing school and enroll the students who attended that school in other high-achieving schools in the district.

  • Transformational Model – Districts would address four specific areas: 1) developing teacher and school leader effectiveness, which includes replacing the principal who led the school prior to commencement of the transformational model, 2) implementing comprehensive instructional reform strategies, 3) extending learning and teacher planning time and creating community-oriented schools, and 4) providing operating flexibility and sustained support.

Districts should choose the strategy that works best for each school. To ensure districts are choosing a variety of strategies, any district with nine or more schools in school improvement will not be allowed to use any single strategy in more than half of its schools.

Recognizing flexibility is needed, a state may award school improvement funds to a district that has implemented, in whole or in part, one of the interventions proposed in a Tier I school in the last two years. They must fully implement that intervention moving forward. Also, a state could seek a waiver to permit a school that implements a turnaround or restart model to “start over,” exiting school improvement and no longer needing to provide the public school choice option or supplemental educational services.

Additionally, a state could seek a waiver to enable a Tier I school that operates a targeted assistance program to instead implement one of the proposed interventions schoolwide.

In addition to flexibility, providing sufficient resources over several years is critical. The secretary proposes to require that states allocate to each district the maximum per-school amount permitted under ESEA for each Tier I school where one of the four interventions is approved for implementation. The secretary also would waive the period of availability of school improvement grants beyond Sept. 30, 2011, to make funds available to school districts for three years.