School Improvement Grants: Foreshadowing Outcomes in “Priority” Schools?

To date, little is known about school turnaround approaches in terms of both design variations across states and effectiveness, and the research base on turnaround is limited. Research finds that the majority of low-performing schools remain low-performing—underscoring the tremendous challenge of achieving a true “turnaround” in school performance.1 Some studies identified cases where systemic changes, including increased school autonomy or human capital reforms, had been associated with positive improvement in low-performing schools.2 3 Still, the evidence remains limited, with most findings gleaned from case studies and not experimental methods. Ongoing evaluations of a related program — the School Improvement Grants (SIG) — could provide a preview of the outcomes likely to result from an evaluation of the turnaround principles at work in “priority” schools. That’s because the turnaround principles included in ESEA Flexibility build on the administration’s revision of the existing SIG program in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus package.

Under ARRA, SIG received a one-time $3 billion infusion — about six times its annual budget appropriation — and a complete overhaul. Eligible schools that won grants from their states had three years and up to $6 million (a significant increase in funding compared to prior awards) to implement one of four turnaround models — models that were much more prescriptive than the principles outlined in waivers. Over the course of four SIG cohorts since the overhaul, starting with the largest in 2010–11, nearly 1,700 schools have received funding.4

As part of their applications to receive SIG funds from their states, schools had to select a particular turnaround model to implement over the three-year grant period. The models incorporate the turnaround principles articulated later in the waivers but also offer specific strategies to achieve those principles. While Figure 1 shows how their popularity varies between each SIG cohort, the four models (in order from least to most common) are:

  1. Closure. Districts close the school and transfer its students to higher-performing schools in the district. Just one out of 100 SIG schools opted to use its grant to close the school.
  2. Restart. Districts convert and operate SIG schools as charters. About 5 percent of SIG schools decided on the “Restart” model.
  3. Turnaround. Districts replace the principal at the school and no less than half of school staff. The new school leader must be given significant operational autonomy and flexibility over scheduling, budgeting, and staffing. The second-most popular model, 18 percent of SIG schools chose the “Turnaround” approach.
  4. Transformation. Districts replace school leadership, implement policies to improve educator effectiveness, overhaul instruction, increase learning time, improve school climate, and provide operational autonomy and support. Transformation is the least restrictive option and the one most similar to NCLB restructuring. Three-quarters of SIG schools opted for the “Transformation” model.

Figure 1. Comparing the Distribution of SIG Schools across Cohorts by Turnaround Model

Chart by Visualizer

Source: U.S. Department of Education 5

Much like the waiver turnaround principles, the four SIG models are informed by promising practices but remain far from proven.6 One challenge to researchers is that few schools have implemented all elements of any one model for school improvement. Instead, almost every SIG school implemented a unique combination of turnaround elements. None of the schools that selected “Transformation” or “Turnaround,” the most common, actually executed all of the elements required in the grant program.7

Challenges aside, limited research has found some positive outcomes for students in schools implementing aspects of various SIG models, particularly at the elementary level.8 In comparisons of SIG schools and non-SIG schools, the most significant positive outcomes occurred in schools that selected the “Turnaround” model, which suggests that the more drastic reform required in that approach (as opposed to “Transformation”) may lead to larger improvements in school outcomes.9

Other findings, however, are more mixed. Analysis of data on the first two cohorts of SIG schools shows that two-thirds experienced increased average student proficiency rates — in some cases, double-digit increases. But other schools saw declines in proficiency rates after receiving their grant, despite the newfound attention, resources, and focused effort. These declines were significant in some schools, greater than 10 percentage points in some cases.10 So while some promising outcomes occur in schools implementing various turnaround strategies, research has yet to confirm which aspects of these approaches may be consistently effective.

Figure 2. Changes in Average School Proficiency Rates in Reading and Math, by SIG Cohort

Chart by Visualizer

Source: U.S. Department of Education 11

In response to the inconsistent outcomes from the first cohorts of SIG schools (Figure 2), as well as perceptions of the models as overly rigid and unproven, Congress has taken steps to further modify the program since the 2009 stimulus. In the FY 2014 appropriations bill, Congress maintained SIG funding at about $500 million but made significant changes to its structure. The bill directed the U.S. Department of Education to add at least two new turnaround models, extend the grant awards from three years to five, and allow grantees to opt out of any one provision in the model selected.12 In September, the Department released draft regulations to implement these changes.13 As a result, three new turnaround models are pending approval, with some members of Congress arguing that the proposed regulations do not go far enough and should incorporate even more flexibility for states and schools.14

It remains to be seen whether the four original SIG models yield lasting improvement in the majority of schools selected for the program. More robust evaluations of SIG since the 2009 overhaul should become available as additional data are collected and analyzed.15 And while ESSA gives states total discretion as to how to intervene in schools identified as low-performing, additional evaluation of the SIG strategies will be instructive to policy makers and practitioners.

  1. David Stuit, “Are Bad Schools Immortal? The Scarcity of Turnarounds and Shutdowns in Both Charter and District Sectors,” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, December 2010, accessed March 8, 2016,
  2. Erin Dillon, “The Road to Autonomy,” Education Sector (2011), accessed February 8, 2015,
  3. Meredith Honig and Lydia Rainey, “Autonomy and School Improvement,” Sage Publishing (2012), accessed February 8, 2015,
  4. All subsequent data and descriptive statistics on the SIG grantees from the U.S. Department of Education: U.S. Department of Education, SIG Awarded Schools,
  5. U.S. Department of Education, “SIG Awarded Schools,” accessed March 21, 2016,
  6. “Operational Authority, Support, and Monitoring of School Turnaround,” Institute of Educational Sciences (2014), accessed February 8, 2015,
  7. “Are Low-Performing Schools Adopting Practices Promoted by School Improvement Grants,” Institute of Educational Sciences  (2014), accessed February 8, 2015,
  8. Marisa de la Torre, Elaine Allensworth, Sanja Jagesic, James Sebastian, and Michael Salmonowicz, “Turning Around Low-Performing Schools in Chicago,” University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (2013), accessed February 8, 2015,
  9. Thomas Dee, “School Turnarounds: Evidence from the 2009 Stimulus,” The National Bureau of Economic Research (2012), accessed February 8, 2015,
  10. U.S. Department of Education, School Improvement Grants: National Assessments Results Summary, Cohorts 1 and 2, accessed February 8, 2015,
  11. Office of School Turnaround, U.S. Department of Education, accessed March 21, 2016,
  12. Alyson Klein, “Boosts for Head Start, Title I, Special Education in Federal Spending Bill,” Education Week, January 13, 2014, accessed February 8, 2015,
  13. Alyson Klein, “Education Department Proposes Big Changes to School Improvement Grant Program,” Education Week, September 5, 2014, accessed February 8, 2015,
  14. “Congress Tweaks School Improvement Grants, i3 in Spending Bill,” Education Week, December 15, 2014, accessed February 8, 2015,
  15. “Case Studies of Schools Receiving Improvement Grants,” Institute of Education Sciences, accessed February 8, 2015.
Back to Chapter