Elliott Elementary in Lincoln, Neb., struck off on its own last year when it became the only school in the city to win money through the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. Winning wasn't something to be proud of, though: It meant the school qualified as one of the worst in the nation. About a third of fifth-graders at Elliott were proficient on state reading tests when the reforms began, compared to 80 percent in Lincoln as a whole.
Winning also meant a lot of work for teachers and administrators. One of the biggest tasks was overhauling the way teachers at the school are evaluated. Elliott was the only school in the city making the change, which meant it had to come up with a new way of rating teachers mostly on its own.
"The challenge was connecting it to student achievement," said Jadi Miller, named the principal at Elliott after a longtime principal was ousted to comply with the grant's mandate of new leadership. "That was certainly very new for us."
In the Obama administration's new push to turn around the bottom 5 percent of schools nationwide, the vast majority of districts chose the reform option that seemed the least invasive: Instead of closing schools or firing at least half of the teaching staff, schools could undergo less aggressive interventions, such as overhauling how teacher performance is measured and rewarding teachers who do well.
But the teacher-evaluation requirement has turned out to be a major stumbling block for many schools in the SIG program. Last summer, when the U.S. Department of Education offered waivers to extend the deadline for launching new teacher and principal evaluations, more than two dozen states applied on behalf of their SIG schools, according to federal officials. Anecdotal evidence from around the country suggests that nearly two years into their three-year grants, many schools have yet to change how they rate and reward teachers.
"You have this pressure you're putting on these schools, and it really becomes a challenge for them to respond," said Scott Marion, associate director of the New Hampshire-based Center for Assessment, which has advised schools on evaluation models.
The movement to overhaul how teachers are rated has sparked public battles between school officials and teachers unions across the country. Controversial state laws — fueled in part by a separate Obama administration grant competition, Race to the Top — have called for more thorough evaluations based on frequent classroom observations and student test scores. In some states, teachers now face losing tenure or their jobs if they are rated poorly.
Proponents of the new policies have argued that teachers have a significant impact on students' academic careers, either preparing them for success later on or setting them back by years. Critics say that observations are subjective, and test scores aren't a reliable measure of a teacher's skills.
Amid the tumult, the SIG program has received less attention. Yet it's likely to be just as instrumental in spreading the Obama administration's vision of reform for the teaching profession. After the initial delays, many schools, along with entire districts and states, are set to launch new evaluation systems to fulfill the grant's mandates in the next year — despite technical difficulties, resistance from teachers unions and questions about the accuracy of various evaluation methods.
Schools applying for SIG money had four reform models to choose from. During the first round of the program, launched in 2010, nearly three-quarters of schools — more than 600 — signed up for the "transformation" model, which requires schools to create new evaluation and reward systems for teachers based in part on student academic growth.
Some transformation schools are located in states already in the midst of launching new statewide teacher evaluation systems, including Florida, New York and Tennessee. State support has not been a guarantee that launching the new evaluations will go smoothly, however.
In New York City, schools officials and the local teachers union have battled over job protections for poorly rated teachers at 11 schools using the transformation model. After the two sides hit an impasse this winter, the district announced it was switching to another SIG model to sidestep the teacher evaluation requirement. Now, the city plans to remove at least half of the teachers at the 11 schools.
Elsewhere, SIG schools have helped influence whole districts and states to rework how teacher performance is measured. For example, the school districts in Yakima, Wash., and Hazelwood, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, plan to introduce new evaluations at every school, not just those in the SIG program. And in Michigan, Mississippi and New Jersey, SIG schools are acting as pilots for new teacher evaluation systems that will eventually be rolled out statewide.
In some states, however, schools like Elliott Elementary have had to go it alone.