Ask Mr. Mullenholz about School Improvement Grants

Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow Greg Mullenholz answers teachers’ burning questions about education policy. In this issue, he takes up School Improvement Grants.

Teacher Question (TQ): What are School Improvement Grants, also known as SIG?

Mr. Mullenholz (Mr. M): The goal of these grants is to turn around persistently low-performing schools and substantially raise the achievement of the students who attend them. School Improvement Grants are formula grants that fall under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965 that are awarded to states. States then take these monies and use them to create smaller subgrants that they can award to the districts that apply for them and show the greatest need for turnaround funds.

TQ: How are schools identified for SIG funding?

Mr. M: Well, schools are identified in a number of ways, but they must meet certain criteria to qualify for the funding, which is doled out competitively to the districts who apply. The lowest-performing 5% of schools according to student achievement and/or graduation rate are identified and then sorted into one of three categories. Tier I schools are the state’s lowest performing 5% of Title I elementary, middle, or high schools in improvement, corrective action, or restructuring. What is really important in the way that the high schools are identified is that they have a graduation rate of less than 60% Tier II schools are just like the Tier I schools, except that they may not be currently in any sort of corrective action. Tier III schools are those that are not Title I schools, but who have not made AYP in the last two years and are in the state’s lowest 20% of schools in terms of their performance on state reading and math assessments combined. Tier I and II schools are eligible to receive up to $2 million dollars per year for turnaround efforts; in exchange for these funds, they are required to implement one of SIG’s four intervention models, which we outline below. Tier III schools receive less funding, but are no less important in the scheme of turnaround.

TQ: How much funding is available for SIG, and why is the program the answer to the problem of persistently low-performing schools?

Mr. M: Turning around an underperforming school is hard work. You can’t just identify the school and then expect change to happen. It takes hard work, and some financial help. Recognizing the importance of turning around these schools, ED has awarded nearly $4 billion over the past three years to address the President’s commitment to help States and LEAs turn around their lowest-performing schools. This money gives states the financial support they will need to undertake this huge push to make education for students in these schools of a much higher caliber.

ED recognizes that it takes more time, stronger interventions, and a bigger commitment of funds to help the lowest-performing schools turn around. It is about the willingness of the teachers, school and district leaders, and parents to put in the time and effort to right the ship. With SIG funds, ED is targeting federal investments to schools and districts where the need is greatest. States and school districts have an opportunity to put unprecedented resources toward comprehensive and rigorous reforms that would increase graduation rates, reduce dropout rates and improve teacher quality for all students, particularly for children who most need good teaching in order to catch up.

TQ: Why is there such an emphasis/sense of urgency around turning around schools?

Mr. M: It’s simple mathematics. There are roughly 5,000 schools in the nation that have failed their students for years—sometimes decades . The Obama administration sees this as a civil rights travesty. How can we expect to grow our economy, strengthen our national infrastructure, and regain our position as the world-leader in college completion if we allow this to continue?

Among these low-performing schools are 1,700 “dropout factories”—high schools where fewer than 60% of the entering freshmen make it to their senior year. In fact, these dropout factories actually account for more than half of all of the students in the nation who drop out, as well as 73% and 66% of the African-American and Latino students who drop out, respectively. If they’re not in school, they can’t learn. With a growing achievement and opportunity gap, sentencing our minority students to these chronically underperforming secondary institutions condemns many of them to a life of poverty.

TQ: What does the SIG program emphasize?

Mr. M: The goal at the U.S. Department of Education is to increase the likelihood that all students, regardless of their zip code, race, or socioeconomic level, graduate from high school ready to succeed in the workforce and in college. It’s a focus on educational equity for our most impacted students, an attempt to stem the tide of academic inequity and educational malpractice. Given this, the emphasis of SIG funding is improved classroom teaching and learning. We know that the number one in-school factor that determines the success of a child is the person standing in front of the room. If our students are to escape poverty, they should be afforded the best possible education that will help them to break the cycle, with the highest-quality of teacher in front of them day in and day out.

TQ: What can/will I see in my school if it is identified as a turnaround school?

Mr. M: SIG strives for strong leadership at the school level, effective teachers in every classroom, a redesign of schedules to meet the educational and professional development needs of our students and teachers, a rigorous instructional program, the continuous use of data to inform instructional and improvement decisions, the safety and health of our students, and family and community engagement. That’s a lot for one sentence, but we need to recognize that it takes a lot to turn around a school. Just pumping in money won’t better the educational circumstances of our kids. SIG aims to help schools produce better outcomes for our students in schools where students typically haven’t been given the opportunities they deserve. Secretary Duncan himself said that, “Education is the civil rights issue of our generation… Great teaching is about so much more than education; it is a daily fight for social justice.” With that in mind, SIG does so much more than turn around schools. It turns around lives that may have been lost due to a poor education.

TQ: When I hear “school turnaround,” it sounds to me like all of the teachers are being fired. Is this the case?

Mr. M: No. When a school receives SIG funds, it can implement one of four different models for school improvement—and all of them have the ultimate goal of giving students access to high-quality teaching and learning. Districts are encouraged to work with the schools and the community to select a model that responds to the local needs of that school and its students.

In fact, the vast majority of SIG schools (about 3 out of 4) are using the “transformation” model, which does not require teachers to leave the school. Schools that use the transformation model:

  • develop a teacher and leader evaluation system that includes student growth,
  • adopt a data-based, achievement oriented, rigorous instructional program,
  • extend the school day to increase time for students and teachers,
  • work intensively with community partners and agencies,
  • and must replace the principal.

The adoption of this teacher and leader evaluation system makes sure that we are focusing efforts on outcomes for kids and that teachers in this setting are getting the support they need to be successful. It’s not about firing people; it’s about making sure we have the best teachers in front of these students.

If a school uses the “turnaround” model, the principal is replaced along with at least 50% of the staff. Turnaround schools also must implement a revised instructional plan that emphasizes intervention for students in need, purposefully recruit, retain, and develop staff that can meet the needs of the students at that school, increase learning and work time for both teachers and students, and provide wrap-around community services to meet the social-emotional and other needs of the students there.

Some schools use a “restart” model, wherein the school is closed and reopened under the guidance of a charter management organization (CMO) or an educational management organization (EMO). Within this model, any student who previously attended the low-performing school must be admitted to the newly reopened school.

The fourth and final model is one where the school is closed entirely, and all students are able to attend another high-performing school in the district. This model is known as the “closure” model.

TQ: What are some promising results that we are seeing in schools identified by their states as being in need of a turnaround?

Mr. M: When a school is identified as being in need of a turnaround, we often find that the school and the district engage in a critical analysis of the school’s data, its academic culture, and the resources that might be available to it from the community at large. Essentially, they see the school as a doctor would evaluate a patient and then make a diagnosis that would be best for that particular situation. SIG funding is only one part of the turnaround, and we know that you can’t simply buy a school turnaround. It has to be a collective effort with all stakeholders focused on the ultimate goal of providing a high-quality education for all of the students. Here are just a few examples of promising practices and results:

  • Weinland Park Elementary in Columbus, Ohio, in its first year under SIG and with the support of outside partners, gained 13 percentage points in reading and 19 in math by employing a data-based model of instruction that looked closely at specific student needs and tailored instruction to meet those needs.

  • Luke C. Moore High School in Washington, D.C. , which serves students between the ages of 17-21 who have dropped out or had difficulties in traditional school settings, has transformed its school culture to one of high academic expectations and student self-efficacy Under its new principal, the school made Adequate Yearly Progress by improving reading proficiency by 10 points and math proficiency by 20 points. This is due in part to a decrease of student referrals and offsite suspensions by 50%!

So, while SIG funding isn’t the silver bullet for turning around America’s lowest-performing schools, it certainly is a part of the strategy. If we can’t turn around our lowest-performing institutions, we shouldn’t be surprised if the cycle of poverty continues.


  1. How does sending the entire staff of 3 of our district’s schools (located in Michigan) to DISNEY WORLD for a conference this summer, courtesy of this program, help our children? It seems like an inappropriate use of our Federal tax dollars. Surely they could have a conference at our local university facility, if a conference is needed, and save the money for better use. I WOULD REALLY LIKE TO KNOW WHY OUR HARD EARNED TAX DOLLARS ARE BEING USED TO SEND PEOPLE TO A RESORT FOR A CONFERENCE, courtesy of this program. Or any Federal program, for that matter!

  2. It is WRONG to require the removal of a principle. My child is at a school that was failing three years ago in the Metro Nashville system. Under the leadership of Dr. Tonya Dennis the school has improved dramatically! Test scores alone have risen 20% in each of those years, but now in order to receive SIG money she has to be removed. This is wrong and there should be an appeal process or exemption based on recent improvements. We just had a parents meeting where every parent voiced their support for keeping the principle, but the school district will not budge. This means our children will suffer!

  3. It is very sad that they took special Ed out of Ohio school.I have 3 son’s one is a 2005 grad with a 3.6 gpa and had the best teacher and in special ed.Child no 2 has a I.E.P and is going on 20 and still in school not a good thing for him all he ever wanted was merit roll never got it.child no3 is 18 still in 9th grade home school because of bullies and because no one would help him on line schooling,I was in special ed myself back in the day I cheated to get though school that was very sad.What do I tell my 18 year old why he won’t get his deploma is because I can’t help him.Yes I have told him that,yes I fell it’s mt fault and a felery.sorry about spelling.His Dad is a dead beat and never help out.What furture does my son have.thank you from my son’s Josh,Matt,and my self Ms Gibson.

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