Jessica Quillin’s report, sponsored by the Center for American Progress (CAP), details the struggles of the School Improvement Grants (SIG) program in light of the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). She used her own assessments, in conjunction with an accountability index from Stanford University researchers Martin Carnoy and Susanna Loeb, in her observance of four case studies: the states of California, Illinois, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Quillin details the intricacies of the SIG program, explaining the different qualification standards, or tiers, and the requirements that state education agencies (SEA) need to meet to receive those funds. Then, she conducts a brief overview of the four state’s increased SIG funding and delves into each state individually regarding its use of federal funds.
She found four major lessons from the case studies regarding the SIG program. First, she discovered that some districts didn’t apply for the SIG program because the federal model and requirements would exceed their capacity to comply, the grants could interfere with reforms underway in these districts, and there’s a budget gap even with federal support of the program. Also, she saw that some states and districts resisted implementing the requirements of the SIG program, due to collective bargaining agreements, state legislation, and a perceived faulty application process for federal funding. Third, Quillin reports that data systems did allow for the distribution and implementation of SIG funds efficiently and could monitor these funds adequately, according to the changing needs of districts. Last, reliable accountability systems in some districts allowed for effective and efficient targeting of SIG funds and put the federal funds to good use.
Quillin recommended, after her analysis of the SIG program, that ESEA should be reauthorized. She advocated more flexible SIG requirements to allow for more leeway for states in allocating funds, to encourage more districts to apply for funding that previously did not apply. The time period, she felt, for the period of SIG application should be lengthened and give more time between outlined academic milestones, and provide better guidelines and more assistance to states to set up a strict accountability system to determine under-performing schools and turn them around. The conclusion of her report admitted that states with strong accountability infrastructure better allocate federal funding, and encouraged the improvement of SIG funds and effective and efficient allocation to the schools that need help.
However, this writer found a few discrepancies that would raise concern. Quillin admitted there was an almost meteoric rise of SIG funding going to schools over the past several years, going from $61,808 in fiscal year 2009 to $412,977 in 2010 in the state of California. Though the report’s focus was on SIG funding and how to improve it, nevertheless it would be reasonable to include how the funds were able to improve test scores and other achievement parameters outlined by the NCLB and ARRA. Without detailing any results from these government grants, these funds could be considered a waste of federal dollars and should be rescinded and reallocated for efficient and effective use elsewhere. Another interesting observation is that the author outlines several options available to SEA’s intervening in local districts: “turnaround” (replace the principal and rehire 50% of staff, implement improvements), “restart” (convert a school to a charter school through a review process), “closure” (close a school and send students to other district schools that are “higher achieving”), and “transformation” (implementing several comprehensive reform options). Only 7 schools in the four states in the study were switched via the “restart” option. “Closure” resulted in 3 schools shutting down and reassigning students to a different school, but 46 opted for the “turnaround” option and 82 went for the “transformation” option. In total, more went for the “transformation” path than the other three options combined. The report’s findings would be enhanced if it included the test results of the schools according to which option the SEA chose to enforce, to gauge which options would best utilize SIG funds and SEA resources and time.
In short, the report adequately explained and evaluated the issues lying before the SEAs regarding SIG funding. Yet, it recommended better infrastructure to allocate federal funding to those that need it and create better accountability. In this writer’s experience, accountability is not in the vocabulary of the federal government, and therefore little improvement will come about regardless of Quillin’s recommendations and proposed improvements.
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