The School Improvement Grant (SIG) program is one of the grant competitions by which the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan is awarding Title I money to schools. This particular program is for schools that score in the bottom 5 percent nationwide, the schools deemed failing. The majority of these schools are located in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities, places where poverty is highly concentrated.
There have been a number of criticisms of the SIG program. First, it is a grant program that provides money for a limited period. It is easy for a school district to use the money for consultants or for programs to train teachers, but it is difficult to use it for reducing class size by hiring more teachers, or hiring counselors or music and art enrichment teachers because the money will eventually run out. School districts without adequate state and local funding would have to eliminate any ongoing programs at the end of the federal grant period.
Second, it is a competitive program with winners and losers. The Title I formula program, by contrast, is a program that awards funds to all schools that serve a large number or high concentration of children living in poverty. The Title I formula program was launched in 1965 as a civil rights program by which the federal government compensates (to a very modest degree) for inadequate and unequal spending across the states. In programs like SIG, while some applicants win, districts in other states lose and students there have no access to federal assistance.
Today in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss examines troubling results in the formal evaluation of the School Improvement Grant program. Those conducting formal evaluations of the program have speculated for some years now that SIG is not accomplishing its goals and that the money might be better invested. The results of the latest evaluation are being re-examined. In upcoming months we should pay attention to the conclusions of those who are revising the most recent formal evaluation of SIG.