The federal government has allocated billions of dollars to help failing schools restructure, but without a clear definition of success, the money may only be a temporary fix.

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In an interview at The Atlantic's " Jobs & Economy of the Future: Educating the Next Generation to Compete" Town Hall , U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pressed his case on the urgent need for America's public schools to "get better faster than we ever have."

But when it comes to the costly School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, a key plank in the Obama administration's efforts to fix public education, there is no specific framework for measuring whether the initiative has succeeded or failed. What, exactly, qualifies as "better?" How much time do students, teachers, and school communities have to satisfy the demand for "faster?"

Almost from its inception, No Child Left Behind was pilloried for setting what many educators (not to mention statisticians) argued was an unrealistic goal: that 100 percent of the nation's public school students would be proficient in reading and math by the 2013-14 academic year. The SIG program seems to be drifting at the other end of the spectrum, having set expectations that individual schools will improve -- using test scores, attendance, and other measures -- without a clear understanding of what will constitute success at a national level.

Conventional wisdom in education circles is that it typically takes at least three years for a new initiative to take root in a school, and for a positive impact to be demonstrated in measurable gains such as student test scores. That's a long time to wait for improvement, particularly for a hugely expensive federal initiative. It's also a lot to ask of students who only get one opportunity to learn.

Since 2009, the federal government has awarded $4.6 billion in SIG dollars to states, with the money earmarked to help turn around the lowest-performing campuses in each local district. To qualify for the funds, schools have to demonstrate both a high-need student population and a commitment to reform. But not just any reform: Schools must choose one of the feds' pre-approved models.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the overwhelming majority of the SIG schools -- 74 percent -- opted for what's known as the "transformation" model, which offers the most leeway with replacing staff and is in theory the easiest of the models to implement. Another 20 percent of schools went with the "turnaround" model, which requires replacing the majority of the staff. Only 4 percent of the SIG campuses opted to "restart" with a private operator at the helm, or convert to a charter school. School closures accounted for just percent of the SIG campuses.

At a recent one-day seminar for journalists (organized by the National Education Writers Association) at the University of Chicago, Jason Snyder, who oversees the federal Office of School Turnaround, acknowledged that the "calibrations" are still being fine-tuned for evaluating the SIG program.

Duncan recently announced improved student proficiency scores in reading at math at nearly 60 percent of the SIG schools. At nearly a quarter of those campuses that showed improvement, the improvement in math is in the double digits, and close to 20 percent of schools saw double-digit gains in reading.

While that's good news, Snyder said it's widely recognized that such early results are not enough to call the initiative a victory. His office is approaching this endeavor "with a strong sense of humility and sincerity, knowing we don't have all the answers here," Snyder said.

Another factor to consider: Given nation's long history of failed attempts to turn around schools -- mixed with a fair number of success stories that keep hope alive -- the odds are not in the SIG's program's favor.

"We know that not every single one of these schools is going to succeed," said Snyder, who is a deputy assistant secretary in the federal Department of Education. "It's just not going to happen."

Researchers already have raised concerns about the SIG program, specifically that schools face a funding cliff when their federal grants run out. Any short-term SIG gains could be replaced with backsliding if the new programs and support services aren't kept up and running. Some states have struggled to spend their allocated SIG funds, often because of the challenge of replacing staff at failing schools with supposedly more effective teachers and administrators.

There is evidence that states are taking this endeavor seriously. Individual schools had to submit applications laying out how the SIG dollars would be spent, and what gains should be expected as a result of the new interventions. In a few cases states have actually yanked funding -- a rare phenomenon with federal grants -- from schools that haven't kept pace with those expectations, Snyder said.

So what exactly would be a win for the SIG program? Would it be enough if 10 percent of the schools make dramatic gains? Or would it be better to see at least half of the campuses demonstrate modest growth?

Snyder said after three years, schools should be showing improved student achievement --that means better test scores, fewer dropouts, and more high school graduates. Campuses that fail to meet those benchmarks "are not on a trajectory for turnaround, from our perspective," Snyder said.

Success for the SIG program, Snyder said, would be "proving progress is possible, (showing) how we got to that progress and inspiring others to do the same in other schools around the country that are really in need of this kind of intervention."

Improving schools means tackling the core elements of a campus -- instruction, leadership, parent and community engagement, the professional capacity of the teachers, and the learning environment, said Timothy Knowles, the John Dewey director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, who participated in the EWA seminar.

For some of the schools in the turnaround program, failure has been status quo for decades -- if not generations, Knowles said. Fixing the problem could require sustained resources and support far beyond the typical time frame that educational reforms are given to prove their worth.

"It's not going to happen with just a three or four year investment at the local, state or federal level," Knowles said. "These places have been broken for a long time, and in most cases it's the schools serving the poorest kids in our country. We have to invest in them."

At the same time, there are signs that not everyone is ready to embrace reform, Knowles said. That's one reason why he's concerned that nearly three-quarters of the SIG campuses opted for the "transformation" model, which is arguably the least aggressive of the feds' pre-approved routes to reform.

"The really broken schools are most likely to be the most impervious to change, and the most likely to take the path of least resistance," Knowles said.

However, having 20 percent of the SIG campuses embrace turnaround is a "dramatic shift from where we've been in how we approach this problem," Knowles said. In that respect, the federal initiative has indeed forced educators to confront and address significant problems at low-achieving schools.

Here, then, is one of the most frustrating aspects to evaluating education reform. The clock typically restarts with every new initiative. That makes it difficult to track long-term progress, and to identify the reasons why students either lost or gained academic ground. Impatience can hurt schools, but so can inertia. Policymakers often seem to be in a perpetual struggle to find a balance between the two extremes.

Whether the progress of schools in the SIG program ends up being enough to qualify as "better," or speedy enough to satisfy demands for "faster," this much is certain: Standing still is not an option.

This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.

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