SIGnificant improvementS

John Fensterwald contributed to this report.

California received a double dose of good news this week about the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced yesterday that a $63 million check is in the mail to cover the second-year funding for schools awarded SIG grants in round two. And, perhaps more promising, a new study found that student test scores in SIG schools showed significant improvement in the first year.

Schools that implemented SIG-funded reforms increased their API scores by an additional 34 points beyond what would have been expected if they hadn’t received the funding and implemented a schoolwide reform. That amounts to a 23 percent jump toward closing the gap between their API scores and the state’s goal of 800 points, according to the study, “School turnarounds: Evidence from the 2009 stimulus.”

“The results were striking; it was more than we would expect to see at this point,” said Stanford University education professor Edward Haertel, who provided feedback on an early draft of the study.

Small API differences separated some SIG and non-SIG schools. (Source: School Turnaround report).  Click to enlarge.
Small API differences separated some SIG and non-SIG schools. (Source: School Turnaround report). Click to enlarge.

The author, University of Virginia researcher Thomas Dee, analyzed achievement in 82 of California’s 89 schools that received grants in the first SIG cohort. He eliminated those that chose to reopen as charters or to shut down completely. Dee found the biggest differences between schools butting up against each side of the eligibility line; on one side were those whose baseline achievement was just low enough to make them eligible for SIG grants, and on the other side, almost close enough to touch, were schools whose scores were just high enough to make them ineligible.

In addition to receiving SIG funds, the schools that improved the most were almost exclusively those that implemented the turnaround model, the most severe change short of shutting down. Turnaround schools are required to replace the principal and at least half the teaching staff. Just 29 schools in California’s first cohort chose that model. Nationwide, 20 percent of SIG schools were turnarounds.

“This underscores the role of school culture and a break with a past of low expectations,” said Dee. “It could be that the turnover in staff was catalyzing that change.”

Still, Dee hadn’t expected the improvement to be so strong. He had followed the painfully slow process of awarding SIG grants in California and knew that many schools got a late start on implementation. “Schools were told they won the awards once they were in session or were about to start. Elements of their plans could not be implemented in the first year,” explained Dee. “That is another reason why results surprised me.”

California received more SIG funds than any other state from the U.S. Department of Education’s $4 billion program. In the first round, which started two years ago, the state received $416 million, about $1.5 million for each school in the three-year program. Since then, another $129 million has been awarded to 36 schools in cohort two.

Don’t overlook the buying potential of those funds in contributing to the API improvements, said Fred Tempes, director of the California Comprehensive Center at WestEd, which is helping the State Department of Education with SIG implementation.

“When you have a lot of money then you can actually pay people to sit down and do the formative assessment exams, have coaches go in and look in the classrooms and make sure that people are actually following the reorganized curriculum.  So I suppose you could go faster,” said Tempes.

Plus, the first year is always the easiest to show improvement because a bunch of small tweaks can go a long way, Tempes said.  “You tighten up the curriculum, you institute some formative assessment that’s common to everybody, and it’s just kind of the low hanging fruit syndrome.”

What happens next may offer a clearer picture into the sustainability of the reforms. Dee calls it the “fade out” period that occurs after an initial big jump in scores, and intends to keep following California and other states to see what happens after SIG runs its three-year course.

Even Secretary Duncan tempered his delight – a bit – and urged patience.  “These data are still preliminary. Several years of data will be needed to demonstrate robust, long-term growth in student outcomes in SIG schools,” said Duncan in a news release.  “But Dee’s careful study belies the conventional wisdom that little can be done to significantly boost student achievement in low-performing schools.”

A case study for NCLB waiver

A couple hundred children sitting cross-legged covered the floor of the multipurpose room at Oak Ridge Elementary School in Sacramento. Behind them, parents, grandparents, and siblings filled rows of metal folding chairs, while teachers stood beside their students. The room was abuzz with excitement as principal Doug Huscher bounded onto the stage and led everyone in a cheer.

“When I say ‘Oak Ridge,’ you say ‘Feel the pride,'” shouted Huscher. Three times he called and they responded.

It was the warm-up to the school’s first-ever awards ceremony for student performance on the California Standards Test (CST). Teachers presented more than 200 Olympic-style medals to their students: bronze for moving up at least one level on the exam, silver for scoring in the proficient range, and gold for advanced.

It was also a celebration for the school itself. Two years ago, when it was in the bottom 5 percent in the state for academic achievement, Oak Ridge, along with five other low-performing schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District, applied for a piece of the $316 million in federal money allotted to California through the School Improvement Grant program. They lost.

So superintendent Jonathan Raymond launched his own reform, the Priority Schools program. He installed new principals and many new teachers in the six schools, gave them additional funds from Title I and the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, told them to come up with a school improvement plan, and held them accountable.

Raymond sees this as a prototype for education reform efforts and that’s why he’s pushing the State Board of Education to seek a waiver under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), in which the federal government would give districts and schools flexibility and not hold them to the rigid models of NCLB and other federally-funded reforms.  A waiver would also allow low-income schools that receive Title I funds to use that money as they see fit.  So far the State Board has not been persuaded to apply.  Raymond said if they did, it would also solve another cruel irony related to Oak Ridge; after all its work and achievement on California’s standards, it’s still considered a failing school under NCLB.

Academic and behavioral changes at Priority Schools. (Source:  Sac City Unified School District). Click to enlarge.
Academic and behavioral changes at Priority Schools. (Source: Sac City Unified School District). Click to enlarge.

After Huscher’s first year as principal of Oak Ridge, its ranking on California’s Academic Performance Index, or API, soared by 82 points, from 658 in 2009-10 to 740 last year. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson recognized the accomplishment last August, by holding his news conference to announce statewide API results at Oak Ridge.

Given those plaudits, Huscher was understandably frustrated when the school again failed to meet the federal benchmarks for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under No Child Left Behind. Out of 25 measurements, Oak Ridge fell short in one: Asian students who were English learners didn’t score high enough on the English language arts exam. Oak Ridge wound up in year five of program improvement, opening it to a number of severe penalties.

“After all this effort, you have this amazing increase in API, and the feds come in and say, ‘Guess what?  You didn’t make it,'” said Huscher.

The disconnect between state triumph and federal failure isn’t unusual in this era of No Child Left Behind. Of the 3,890 California schools in Program Improvement, 476 met their API targets. What’s different today is that the U.S. Department of Education realizes that NCLB is a flawed law, and is offering waivers to states to provide relief from sanctions, including those that are psychological.

“The punitive elements of NCLB – this public labeling of schools that are working hard to improve learning – are damaging and destructive,” said Raymond. A waiver, he added, “would go a long way in helping to remove stigma and repair the reputations of many schools.”

But State Superintendent Torlakson has so far convinced the State Board of Education not to apply, warning that the requirements in exchange for a waiver are too costly. California is one of ten states that haven’t submitted either formal requests for waivers or letters stating they intend to apply.

Oak Ridge an example of waiver flexibility

Under pressure from local superintendents, the State Board is going to reconsider the issue at its next meeting in March.

Sac City’s Raymond said schools like Oak Ridge are case studies of what’s possible when they’re given latitude to be creative and develop improvement plans based on their specific student populations instead of the prescriptive remedies and sanctions of federal education officials. “We had that, and it didn’t get us anywhere,” he said.

Through the Priority Schools program, Oak Ridge principal Huscher has been able to hire a training specialist who meets weekly with teachers from each grade to analyze data from student work, design interventions and lessons based on the data, model those lessons for the teachers, and work in their classrooms if necessary.

“The first year I was here it didn’t seem like there was very much collaboration between grade levels,” said third grade teacher Kelly Toomey, one of four teachers who remained on staff after it became a priority school. “I think the most important change that I’ve seen is that the focus and the culture of the school across the board with parents and students is academics.”

During a visit to her class earlier this year, Toomey had nearly every student engaged in a lesson on the difference between expository and narrative writing, using two books about penguins, one nonfiction and one fiction.

She broke into song when Tacky the penguin sang “how many toes does a fish have?” sending the kids into giggling fits; she paused after reading the word “odd” to make sure the students understood it; and she prodded them to think deeper.

“So what could we say about narratives?” Toomey asked one of her students. “It’s make believe,” he answered. “But was your personal narrative story you wrote make believe?” she prompted. “No,” he said, “it was very true.” “It was very true,” she agreed. “This is odd, like Tacky.”

Strengthening the home school connection

Teachers are required to make home visits, and Toomey said she’s noticed more parent involvement as a result. They ask questions about academics and homework, and they come to school more often.

Anthony Bookhamer’s grandmother said it was important for him to have his teacher see where he lives. Anthony won two gold medals at the awards ceremony, one for math and one for English language arts.  After returning to his spot on the floor, he looked through the door to his right, into the hallway where his grandmother, Lenna Tryon, watched from the seat of her walker. Anthony waved enthusiastically and raised the medallions off his chest to show her.

“The school’s so good for him,” said Tryon. “They know he’s got special things; he has to have water, he has to wear a hat, and he can’t play more than ten minutes or be out in the sun more than ten minutes…and they set him up in the front so he can see better; his eyesight is pretty bad. He’s done remarkable and just everything’s come back to him.”

About two years earlier, Anthony was in an apartment fire that killed his mother and left him with burns over 70 percent of his body. His hands, legs, back, and stomach are scarred, he lost several fingers, and he has a bald spot on the back of his head where the flames scorched him. Anthony spent five months in the hospital and went to live with his grandmother.

Before Huscher came to Oak Ridge, it was a different place, said Tryon. There were no awards for the kids, she never received any communication telling her what was going on, and she didn’t feel welcome at the school. Now they call her a few times a week to let her know how Anthony’s doing and what’s going on; they have family game nights and monthly parents’ meetings.

Sac City has been adding more schools to its Priority School program, and Raymond is looking for ways to keep it going and sustainable. A waiver would help in that as well. Relief from NCLB sanctions would free up millions of dollars that districts with program improvement schools are required to set aside for private tutoring companies that have no accountability.  It amounts to $2.4 million for Sac City.

“We sort of look back and we chuckle now because we didn’t get the [School Improvement] grant for perhaps a variety of reasons, none of which made sense to us,” said Raymond.  “But we said the heck with it, we’re going forward anyway, we’ve got a good plan, we believe in it.”

State delays next SIG awards

It took two-and-a-half months, but the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has approved California’s request to postpone the second group of school improvement grants by a year and carry over the $66 million in federal funding for the schools, known as Cohort 2.

The State Board of Education voted to seek the waiver at its July 13, 2011 meeting, after ED officials informed the California Department of Education (CDE) that none of the 58

Minutes of State Board meeting vote on requesting a SIG waiver.  Click to enlarge.
Minutes of State Board meeting vote on requesting a SIG waiver. Click to enlarge.

schools that applied earlier this year met the criteria for funding. CDE staff told the Board they needed more time to review the proposals with the schools, discuss what changes have to be made, select the grantees, and give them a chance to develop their plans so they’re ready to go on the first day of the fall 2012 school year.

Those 58 schools that completed the lengthy and time-consuming application weren’t thrilled to hear that if and when the CDE received the waiver, it planned on reopening the application process to include all 96 schools on the state’s persistently failing schools list. Trouble is, critics say some of them are no longer failing.

Old scores no longer settled

SIG is a competitive federal program under Title I, providing $3.5 billion in grants, over three years, to the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

Under the state criteria, California identified the lowest performing five percent of schools based on their API scores.  No district could have more than 10 percent of its schools qualify.  It also excluded all schools that raised their API scores by 50 points or more over five years – a low barrier for a very low-performing school.  The result was that the combination of factors led to some higher performing being included on the list and some lower-performing schools being removed.

Those measurements used to identify Cohort 2 schools go back nearly two years, said Doug McRae, a retired test publisher who’s been critical of the state’s SIG selection process since it began.

McRae proposes another formula that’s based both on API growth and on where the school actually ranks on the state’s API scale. He suggests if a school has met or exceeded its API growth targets for at least three years, and is no longer in Decile 1 on its current API ranking, it should be removed from the list and schools now in Decile 1 be added. He dropped the data into an Excel spreadsheet (click on + sign several times to enlarge) to show that, using his measures, only 20 of the 96 schools would still be eligible to apply for SIG.  A third of the 96 schools are no longer even in Decile 1.

“If they made what California expects them to make in growth over the last three years, my viewpoint is it’s kind of hard to call them persistently low achieving,” said McRae.

CDE officials say changing the rubric would be a more complicated sell to the U.S. Department of Education than a waiver to postpone the selection process and could require rewriting part of the state proposal.  “This is still Cohort 2, even though it was delayed by a few months to do the request for applications again,” said Julie Baltazar, the administrator in CDE’s accountability and improvement division.  “We’re not reapplying for the grant, we’re just amending the time line.”

Even though API status isn’t included in the evaluation, some districts have decided not to pursue funding for schools that have been improving without the federal money and its concomitant regulations.

Los Angeles Unified School District has nearly two dozen schools on the list, and spokesperson Donna Muncey said the district has been reviewing their recent growth with an eye toward reducing the field.  “We do not anticipating submitting an application for each of the 22 schools,” Muncey said.  “Some of the schools have been making good progress in their efforts to improve teaching, learning and student achievement.”

A hiccup in continued funding

There is a possibility that it could be a short-lived victory for Cohort 2 grantees.  As of now, the CDE only has money in hand for the first year of what’s supposed to be a three-year program.

Baltazar said politics and the economy could intervene by either reducing funds for the second and third years, or cutting them altogether.  “If the federal government didn’t give us any money, then it would end,” she said.

Cohort 1 schools are facing a different hurdle.  They’re in a holding pattern, waiting to learn when, or if, the state will release year two funds.  California has the money, but the State Board voted, at that same July 13th meeting, to make the money “contingent on schools implementing all required elements of the SIG program on the first day of school year 2011-12.”

At issue is what the federal government means by increased learning time.  CDE staff determine last summer that almost none of the school programs in Cohort 1 met the requirements.  The catch was that ED wasn’t exactly forthcoming with an explanation.  State education officials have called every school to discuss what they have to do to get their funds released.  So far, no money has changed hands.

“It’s been frustrating not having the money approved, but the district is going ahead as if it were,” said Sandra Gonering, interim SIG administrator for San Bernardino City Unified School District which received $57.6 million for 11 schools for three years.

Nevertheless, she said the district is confident they’ll get the funds.

At Mission High School in San Francisco, principal Eric Guthertz said the State Board’s protracted selection process for Cohort 1 turned out to be a plus.  He said the money came so late last year that they have enough carryover to get through the first part of this year.

Waiving a white flag on evaluations

The Obama Administration is acknowledging that school districts nationwide have failed to comply with a cornerstone proviso of its School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. The U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to every state actually inviting them to apply for waivers from the requirement that SIG transformation schools must develop teacher and principal evaluations that include student test scores as part of formula. The State Board of Education yesterday voted to accept the invitation.

“I cannot emphasize enough the key role of high-quality teacher and principal evaluation systems in supporting improved teaching and learning in all schools, and particularly in persistently lowest-achieving schools,” wrote Michael Yudin, Acting Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.  “At the same time, I recognize that many districts are approaching this work for the first time. Without previous groundwork and investment, developing high-quality, comprehensive evaluation systems may take more time than initially contemplated under the SIG final requirements.”

The fact that the letter was sent to every state indicates that this is a sweeping problem, said Deborah Sigman, Deputy Superintendent of the California Department of Education. “When the federal government invites you, it’s a sign that it’s not just a California issue.”

In a draft letter responding to the U.S. Department of Education, Sigman, wrote that fewer than half the schools in the transformation model have met the timeline for establishing the teacher and principal evaluation system.

Transformation is one of four school improvement models under the SIG program.  It’s also the most popular because, on the surface, it seems to be the least draconian.  Transformation requires schools to replace the principal, increase learning time and develop the evaluation.  The other three models call for closing the school, restarting it as  a charter, or replacing the principal and at least half the staff.

California selected 91 schools to be in the first group to receive $416 million in SIG funds over three years.  They’re known as cohort 1.  Of those, 56 selected the transformation model.  Cohort 1 began during the 2010-11 academic year, so those schools are already a year behind in implementing the evaluation system.

Following Wednesday’s State Board of Education meeting, Sigman theorized that one reason for the delay is that teacher evaluations are part of the collective bargaining process, and that can take a while to work through.  Especially when the evaluation “should be capable of being used for decisions regarding, for example, retention, promotion, compensation, and rewards,” as Sigman wrote in the draft letter.

An interesting side note is that the waiver being offered by the Feds gives schools three years to phase in the evaluation system.  This current year is for development, next year the schools would run a pilot program, and in the 2013-14 school year, the full system would kick in.  The thing is, the SIG money for cohort 1 schools runs out next year.  Sigman explained that the “life of the money” isn’t analogous to the life of the reforms. Schools are supposed to develop sustainable programs.  She said it was “never intended to be implemented and then just go away.”

California clarifies SIG grants

After a month of fruitless negotiations with the U.S. Department of Education (ED), and with the new school year beginning, California education officials took matters into their own hands Tuesday. They sent a letter to districts with grants to turn around California’s worst-performing schools explaining what they think federal guidelines require them to do. The federal government allotted $416 million over three years in School Improvement Grants for this purpose.

Page one of the California Dept. of Education's letter to SIG Schools. (click to enlarge)
Page one of the California Dept. of Education's letter to SIG Schools. (click to enlarge)

Last month, the State Board of Education approved the second year of funding for the initial group of SIG schools, known as Cohort 1, on the condition that they were in full compliance with federal regulations on the first day of school. (Read our coverage here).  Trouble is, some of the regulations were so confusing that no one in California – least of all the SIG schools – could figure them out.

At issue is the requirement that SIG schools extend the school day to give students more time to learn and more individual help.  Most school districts thought that applied only to students who were falling behind and only in the subjects that were giving students the most trouble.  So they were taken by surprise when ED officials seemed to indicate that the regulations covered each student in every class – whether they needed help or not – and included art and other enrichment courses.

When CDE staff tried to pin them down on a definition, federal officials remained elusive, according to Christine Swenson, Director of CDE’s District and School Improvement Division.  So CDE drafted its own interpretation based on whatever clues they could find on the federal SIG website.

“We went ahead and took our best shot at it based on two different sources from the U.S. Department of Education,” said Swenson.

Guidelines for Increased Learning Time (Source:  CA Dept. of Education) click to enlarge
Guidelines for Increased Learning Time (Source: CA Dept. of Education) click to enlarge

CDE’s reading of the regulations suggests that schools have more choices, sort of along the lines of a Chinese restaurant. The letter informs schools that they must select at least one academic subject from column A and at least one enrichment activity from column B in their extended learning schedule.

Missing the first day of school

The four-page letter from CDE also outlines a new timeline for schools to comply with the rules.  Instead of the first day of school, which has come and gone in many districts,  they’ll have until September 23.  Between now and then, Swenson said CDE will schedule a long phone call with each district to review the areas where they’re not meeting the grant requirements, then the districts will have to submit new plans to the state.

“I think the timing issue is problematic,” said Sherry Griffith, legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), which has a number of SIG schools among its members.  “Once you start the school year I just can’t even imagine how they’re going to expand the school year in every single subject.”

Griffith said the likelihood of adding time to the day shrinks even more if a district has to go back to the union to renegotiate the contract.

But many schools in cohort 1 took a leap of faith and kept to the original timetable, especially if they had put their plans into place last year and had all the staff and class schedules ready to go –and if they had the money to get going while waiting for the state to release the funds.

San Francisco Unified School District used SIG money from last year, not because the district went under budget, but because the state was so late in sending out the checks that the district didn’t have time to ramp up its entire program.

District spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said although it was frustrating last year, it’s turned into a benefit this year, enabling schools to continue what they started without an interruption.  Blythe was also reassured by yesterday’s letter from the CDE.  “It is a relief to have received some guidance,” she said.

A SIG in a poke

It’s not clear to anyone in Sacramento why the U.S. Department of Education refused to negotiate.  CDE’s Swenson said ED wouldn’t put anything in writing.

“A couple of time we did ask questions in email, but they didn’t respond, they weren’t comfortable responding in writing” said Swenson.  Instead all conversations took place by phone.

I, too, found the department not very responsive.  I called and emailed at least half a dozen times following the state board meeting in July, asking how many other states had similar concerns and how the department was dealing with them.  When a spokesperson finally responded, by email, late last week, she sent a copy of the official guidelines causing the confusion and a report describing successful programs around the country that can be used as models by SIG schools.

To be fair, however, the California Department of Education has also taken heat for its handling of the SIG program from the very beginning.  Back in early 2010, we reported about complaints over the selection process, ongoing revisions that delayed the start of grants months into the school year, and charges that the state blamed the schools for not complying with the very guidelines they’ve spent the past month arguing about with the federal government.  (See here, here, here, and here).

Year two is already behind schedule.  CDE is scheduled to hold a conference call later this week with every district and school receiving School Improvement Grants to review the letter and discuss what will happen during the individual calls. In the meantime, Swenson hasn’t given up on getting federal buy-in.

“Do I expect to hear back from the federal government?” she asked, repeating my question. “We’d like to, but we haven’t had great success.  We’d very much like to work with ED, that’s been our goal all along.”

Still waiting for fix for SIG grants

The first day of school is just over two weeks away in San Francisco Unified School District and they still don’t know whether they’ll get their second year of funding under the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program.  That’s the program that awards up to $2 million per year to the lowest-achieving, highest-poverty schools.

Nine of the district’s ten SIG schools were cited by the State Department of Education for not meeting all the requirements for renewal of their grants. (The tenth SIG school was shut down). Two weeks ago, the State Board of Education (SBE) voted not to distribute year 2 grants to schools that aren’t in full compliance. The question is, compliance with what?

“We are in conversation with the state to clarify what we can do about corrective action,” said Gentle Blythe, the district’s communication director. “In most cases it was a question of not being clear on what the state was expecting.”

San Francisco is hardly alone in scratching its head. “I’m communicating with other school districts and none of them has received information on anything,” said Nader Delnavaz, who oversees SIG grants in Los Angeles Unified School District.

That pretty much sums up what the state is saying about the U.S. Department of Education (ED). “The standards that are emerging from Washington are a little difficult to understand,” said Fred Tempes, in what many schools would consider more than a bit of an understatement. Tempes directs WestEd’s California Comprehensive Assistance Center, which has a contract with the State Department of Education to help with implementation and monitoring of SIG grants.

A moving target

From "Guidance on School Improvement Grants" June 29, 2010, U.S. Department of Education (click image to enlarge)
From "Guidance on School Improvement Grants" June 29, 2010, U.S. Department of Education (click image to enlarge)

At the heart of the confusion is what the U.S. Department of Education (ED) means by increased learning time. Schools that opted for the transformation* or turnaround** reform models in the SIG program (85 of the 90 in California), are required to provide additional instruction in core subjects. Sounds simple enough. But in a variation of an adage, if something seems too simple, it probably isn’t.

San Francisco thought it meant extra instructional time for students who scored below or far below basic on the California standards tests. Nope, it must be for all students. Other districts proposed Saturday school and summer school. Nope, it has to be built into the regular academic year calendar. Oakland Unified’s SIG schools extended the day to 5 o’clock three days a week and 4 o’clock one day a week, and contracted with Citizen Schools to provide academic and homework support, tutoring and an apprenticeship program. Nope, not quite right according to the state.

Kilian Betlach, assistant principal of Elmhurst Community Prep Middle School in Oakland, says he was surprised to be listed as out of compliance, especially since his school’s approved SIG application was very specific about how they planned to meet the increased learning time.


“What’s unclear to me is where is that decision coming from? Is it that the state received feedback from the federal government that they want to see something different? Is it that the state gained greater clarity over this?” wondered Betlach.

That’s one of the key issues being raised by the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) in a two-page memo sent Wednesday to the State Department of Education. “We’re questioning the ability to implement what appears to be this moving-target definition of extended learning time,” said Sherry Griffith, ACSA’s legislative advocate.

Waiting on ED

State Department of Education officials share the frustration.  They’ve been trying to pin down ED on a working definition of extended time since before the state board meeting two weeks ago.

“They are very eager to get this answer and get it out to districts; they completely understand the urgency and they’re working on it as best they can,” said Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education.

The latest back and forth between the state and U.S. departments of education has focused on the nitty-gritty details and nuances.  California’s education code makes it difficult to implement some of the federal requirements, said WestEd’s Tempes.  There are limitations to the kind of support that paraprofessionals can provide, and extending the day for credentialed teachers requires collective bargaining.

There’s also the question of what’s meant by extended learning time: 30 minutes a day? 60 minutes? Two hours?  Federal education officials say the answer should be research based and site studies indicating a minimum of 300 hours a school year, but the findings aren’t consistent. “What the research says is there is no right amount of time, it depends on how you use the time,” said Tempes.

At a meeting he attended yesterday morning with state education officials, Tempes said it appeared that an agreement with ED was near – possibly even by the afternoon.  There was no word from Washington, however, so now they’re hoping for something today or tomorrow – hope being the operative word.

* Transformation Model: The LEA implements a series of required school improvement strategies, including replacing the principal who led the school prior to implementation of the transformation model, and increasing instructional time.

** Turnaround Model: The school district or charter school (LEA) undertakes a series of major school improvement actions, including replacing the principal and rehiring no more than 50 percent of the school’s staff; adopting a new governance structure; and implementing an instructional program that is research‐based and vertically aligned from one grade to the next, as well as aligned with California’s adopted content standards.

(descriptions from EdSource and Strategic Education Services)

Fuzzy SIG process upsets schools

The 58 schools expecting to learn if they’ll receive up to $2 million in School Improvement Grants (SIGs) for the fall term may have to wait until next spring for an answer. They may also have to reapply for the program, or just rework their current proposals. Either way, it’s possible the requirements will be more extensive. No one seems to know for sure what’s going on, and they’re hoping for answers when the State Board of Education (SBE) meets tomorrow in Sacramento.

The State Board has three items on its agenda dealing with the SIG program. The most contentious is whether to ask the U.S. Department of Education (ED) for a one-year waiver in allocating money to the schools in Cohort II, those that didn’t make the cut a year ago and are seeking funds for the 2011-12 academic year.

The SBE also wants permission to  roll over the funds and combine them with the 2012-13 SIG allocation. California has $69 million in SIG money for the upcoming school year.

Julie Baltazar, the administrator in State Department of Education’s accountability and improvement division, said that a waiver would give the state time to help Cohort II schools revise their applications, and give Cohort I schools time to implement changes based on clarifications made by ED since the program started.

School and district officials say the changes aren’t simple explanations; they’re entirely new requirements that weren’t in the initial application guidelines.

“We’re not supporting the request for a waiver” said Sherry Griffith, legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA). Following a conference call with superintendents and principals on Monday afternoon, Griffith said they want the SBE to put several options on the table. “Our position will be to provide conditional approval to current applicants who meet all of the criteria they were told.”

In the meantime, she said the state should work with the U.S. Department of Education to reach an understanding on some of the outstanding problems.

Federal monitoring reveals poor compliance

The big push for a waiver began after ED sent a 21-page letter and report to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, with results of a monitoring team’s visit to three SIG schools in California. The team went to San Gorgonio High School in the San Bernardino Unified School District, Gompers Middle School in Los Angeles Unified School District, and Everett Middle School in San Francisco Unified. Each school represented one of the school improvement models (with the exception of school closure): transformation (San Gorgonio), restart (Gompers), and turnaround (Everett).

Based on conversations with school and district officials, the ED team identified seven areas where the state was out of compliance. The problems addressed are both broad and specific to individual schools, and date back to the start of the program in California, which was marked by accusations that the selection process was sloppy (Read TOP-Ed’s reports here and here).

  1. The State Board of Education did not ensure that its application process was carried out consistent with its approved SIG application.
  2. The CDE did not ensure that award amounts were made consistent with the SIG requirements.
  3. The CDE did not ensure that schools implementing the turnaround model rehire no more than 50 percent of the staff.
  4. The CDE did not ensure that SFUSD replaced the principal in a school implementing the turnaround model.
  5. The CDE did not ensure that SFUSD implemented extended time in Everett Middle School, as required for the turnaround model.
  6. It’s not clear how a summer program planned for some students in SFUSD will contribute to turning around the schools involved.
  7. The CDE is not monitoring SIG implementation as outlined in its approved application.

Even though item 5 refers to just one of the schools visited, the issue of extended time could have sweeping impact and is causing extreme anxiety for Cohort II schools.

Changing the rules midstream

Craig Wheaton said he learned just two weeks ago, during a phone conference with the CDE and all Cohort II applicants, that SIG schools must provide extended learning for all students, whether they’re working on grade level or not, and in all subjects, including enrichment courses. At least, that’s what he thinks the CDE is requiring. Wheaton is superintendent of Visalia Unified School District, which has one school applying for a Cohort II award.

“They had no criteria of what that meant, how much extended time would be acceptable,” said Wheaton. When superintendents asked for specifics, the answers were “very vague because none of that was in the application process. Their rules have changed.” There were several people from CDE on the call and Wheaton said a couple of times when a question stumped them “they huddled up and came back to the phone to say, ‘We don’t really know, we’ll have to find out.'”

But what really bothers Wheaton is that after all the effort put into preparing application, the district may have to start all over again. Visalia went so far as to change principals and work out a voluntary transfer program with the union’s consent to move two-thirds of the teachers into other schools in order to meet the requirements for the turnaround model.

ACSA’s Griffith said either the CDE failed to get the full details about extended learning and tell the districts, or federal education officials are coming up with new rules. Wherever the buck stops, the vagaries of the process are creating tremendous apprehension and some superintendents and principals are reconsidering whether they even want to remain in the competition.

“It’s like a Chinese water torture kind of feeling,” said Griffith. “The next problem just sort of arises.”