Learning from the Recent Past: How the SIG Program Can Inform Rural School Improvement

By Caitlin Scott
May 2017
A parent picking up their kids from the school bus in a rural environment

States and districts are now in the driver’s seat when it comes to school improvement. Unlike the previous policies in the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) doesn’t mandate models and turnaround principles as a condition of federal funding for school improvement. Likewise, the new administration’s revised state template, released in March, requires less explanation of states’ proposed actions than we’ve seen in previous years.

This may be good news for rural schools, which have struggled to meet federal school improvement requirements that many felt were not developed with their unique challenges in mind. States and districts are now in a position to make policy and program decisions that provide rural schools with greater flexibility while still requiring meaningful accountability.

To that end, states and districts may find it useful to review research on how rural schools fared under the previous SIG system. This information can be found in a recent study from REL Northwest, which is based on a survey of 135 principals whose schools were designated as rural and were among the first cohort to receive federal SIG funding. All of these schools chose to implement the “transformation model,” which many considered the least invasive option and may provide the best parallel for the approach that many states, districts, and schools are likely to take under ESSA.

Implementation Challenges and Successes

Of the principals surveyed, only 1 in 20 said their school had fully implemented all 12 SIG transformation strategies we asked about. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many schools struggled to meet SIG requirements related to staffing. For example, almost half of the principals we surveyed (47 percent) reported that they had been unable to reward high-quality staff members with financial incentives.

Other findings may surprise some education leaders and policy makers. For example, roughly a third (34 percent) of the principals indicated that their school had struggled to engage families and communities. In contrast, relatively few principals (26 percent) said it had been difficult to improve instruction by expanding learning time.

The Importance of Technical Assistance

The survey found that the more strategies for which schools received technical assistance, the more strategies they reported fully implementing. The support came from districts (91 percent), states (70 percent), universities (19 percent), and other types of organizations (42 percent).

Technical assistance was strongly associated with full implementation of the following improvement strategies.

  • Using data to identify and implement a new research-based curriculum
  • Using operational flexibility (such as staffing, calendars/time, and budgeting) to improve student outcomes
  • Identifying and removing staff who have not improved student outcomes
  • Using staff evaluation systems that account for student growth
  • Implementing strategies to recruit staff who are highly qualified
  • Identifying and rewarding staff who have improved student outcomes
  • Providing mechanisms for community engagement

It’s worth noting that the “using data to identify and implement a new research-based curriculum” strategy is especially important since ESSA requires “evidence-based” approaches to improving Title I schools. Only 74 percent of the schools we surveyed were able to implement this strategy fully. Those who did so were likely to have received support from their state, their district, or other providers of technical assistance.

While ESSA is much less prescriptive than the past SIG program, research about the SIG program can provide valuable lessons to states and districts as they embrace their new autonomy and look for effective ways to support rural schools. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from our survey is that supports to rural schools were significantly related to full implementation of school improvement strategies. As educators plan future improvement efforts, rural schools could benefit from similar supports.