Blog: The Educated Reporter

Expanded Learning Time, Kindergarten Among Proposed Federal Rules for Turnaround Schools

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (Source: Flickr/U.S. Department of Education, Creative Commons License)

After spending more than $3.5 billion on a program to improve chronically low-performing schools — only to see mixed results — the Obama administration is proposing major revisions to the menu of turnaround efforts that low-performing schools can undertake to qualify for funding under the program.

The federal School Improvement Grant program was created in 2002 as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, but remained modestly funded until the Obama administration supercharged it in 2009, adding more than $3 billion to the program as part of the $100 billion education stimulus plan. SIG funding for the 2014-15 school year stands at roughly half a billion dollars. The updated language would give states added flexibility in how they try to turn around floundering schools. Other new features include expanding early-childhood education services at elementary schools where students are regularly one or more grade levels behind.

Like the program’s current requirements, the new regulations would call on schools marked for improvement to satisfy numerous requirements that in some scenarios would result in as many as half the school staff members’ losing their jobs to make way for new hires. Other turnaround options involve closing the low-performing school or converting it into a charter school, strategies featured in the existing regulations.

The options for early-grades reforms would allow participating districts to overhaul targeted elementary schools by using SIG dollars toward expanding or creating preschool and turning kindergarten into a full-day program. Those same schools would also need to replace the principal who led the school before the reforms and dismiss staff who, “after ample opportunities have been provided for them to improve their professional practice, have not done so.”

(Here’s a tip in analyzing the proposed changes. To quickly scan the new proposals, enter “current requirements: ” – space included – into your browser’s search function. You’ll find 20 results pointing to the proposed updates. A new proposal would have the word “none” following the “current requirements:” line.)

Other proposed additions include giving state education agencies a greater role in approving school turnaround models and requiring some participating schools to partner with organizations that have a track record of successfully improving the academic performance of students.

One set of reform prescriptions that appear throughout the document enumerates approaches schools can take to experiment with the academic calendar. Examples include adding more minutes or days to the school year so that students spend more time learning a core subject – math, English, science, foreign languages, and history are just some of the courses mentioned – or taking part in work-based learning environments and volunteer programs. Prescribed expanded learning time reforms also direct schools to carve out time for teachers to collaborate and critique each other.

EWA has several resources on expanded learning time, including a primer on the topic and examples of journalism that explore this new frontier in education reform. My colleague Emily Richmond provided reporters with story tips. And I reported on tensions within the expanded learning time community.

The proposed language for the updated SIG program also steers schools to adopt differentiated learning practices, which would mean teachers rely on the results of different assessments to highlight the weak spots of individual students.

Schools eligible for SIG reforms are those that fall into the category of the worst 5 percent of schools in their states – a calculation based on students’ standardized test scores, and at times, graduation rates.

A 2014 evaluation of the SIG program commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education found that two-thirds of schools that took part in the turnaround program posted some improvement on test scores, while another third actually performed worse than they did before the interventions. 

You can also check out other EWA resources on school turnaround efforts, including:

What happens when states take over schools

A scholar breaks down the school turnaround process

An EWA brief on turnarounds

Our collaboration with news outlets The Hechinger Report and Education Week that looked at school turnarounds in 2012.


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