The $3.5 billion in School Improvement Grants (SIG) funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act have undoubtedly made a positive impact in more than 13,000 schools deemed low performing around the country. The money, which is intended to close the achievement gap, improve graduation rates and overall student achievement, will run out by the end of the 2012-2013 school year, and what will happen to these improvement efforts is unclear.
“That is the $3 billion question,” says Diane Rentner, deputy director at the Center on Education Policy (CEP). In late March, CEP released two studies examining SIG efforts across the country. The first study, “State Implementation of Perceptions of Title I School Improvement Grants under the Recovery Act: One Year Later,” examines efforts from the perspective of Title I state directors. The second study, “Opportunities and Obstacles: Implementing Stimulus-Funded School Improvement Grants in Maryland, Michigan and Idaho,” showcases unique efforts in geographically diverse states. According to both studies, officials at both the local and state levels are concerned about sustaining the SIG efforts; in many cases, they would prefer to see the time frame extended.
“There are concerns about what happens next school year when the money runs out,” says Rentner. “Of the three states we examined closely, all are thinking about putting a plan in place, although Maryland is actively trying to figure out a plan.” According to Rentner, Maryland, as a Race to the Top recipient, may have more resources and funding in place to support these programs.
Despite widespread improvements in school climate, the use of instructional or behavioral coaches, and extended learning time for students, states still face drawbacks and struggles with SIGs. Rural schools, such as those showcased in the Idaho case study, face unique challenges. For instance, while the transformation model—which asks low-performing schools to replace the principal and to undertake one of three specific reforms—remains the most popular reform effort, rural schools have found it difficult to find quality principals and, in some cases, teachers. Additionally, many rural schools have concerns about the strict formula used to determine what schools are deemed “low performing.” CEP hopes to follow SIG schools through 2013 to evaluate how well the school can cope with sustaining its reform efforts despite a lack of funding. “Schools are optimistic and report that they’re learning about what works well,” says Rentner. “Unfortunately, oftentimes it does come down to having the resources.”