What You Need To Know: School Improvement Grants (SIG)

The School Improvement Grant (SIG) program is a federal grant program created to help low performing schools.

SIG grants offer financial incentives to improve schools and foster competition, but they also indirectly inform state and district policy by rewarding those that align programs with federal goals.  States apply for money, proposing school improvement plans designed to develop effective leaders and teachers, create safe and supportive school environments, increase collaboration, improve operational flexibility and capacity, align and benchmark instruction, and increase family and community engagement.

SIG originated in 2007 under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.   The program became a cornerstone of the Obama Administration’s plan to improve American schools, and since 2009, more than $4.6 billion has been invested.  The SIG program is only beginning to be implemented on a local level so there is little data showing the effectiveness of the investment.

Converting Cash to Change

With a successful application, states are allotted SIG funds through a formula.  States then administer a competitive grant competition amongst school districts.  School districts applying must choose between one of four models of change, as outlined by the US Department of Education:

1. Turnaround Model: Replace the principal, screen existing school staff, and rehire no more than half the teachers; adopt a new governance structure; and improve the school through curriculum reform, professional development, extending learning time, and other strategies.

2. Restart Model: Convert a school or close it and re-open it as a charter school or under an education management organization.

3. School Closure: Close the school and send the students to higher-achieving schools in the district.

4. Transformation Model: Replace the principal and improve the school through comprehensive curriculum reform, professional development, extending learning time, and other strategies.

Of the 831 SIG grants awarded, there are 16 closures; 168 turnarounds; 33 restarts, and 831 transformations.   Some argue the majority of school districts chose the transformation model because it requires the least amount of change, and therefore condemn the SIG program to a life of little impact.

The program does include a system of continuous measurement intended to combat inactivity and inefficiency while managing growth throughout the grant period. Interventions funded by SIG grants must have measurable outcomes, so success will be determined by improvement of student performance on standardized tests and increased graduation rates.  Federal requirements of measurement through testing is also intended to grow the use of data to make decisions at the state and local level and develop systems of ongoing feedback and advancement.

Flexibility is built into the SIG recovery process.  Academic support programs can vary greatly within each change model as well as within each individual school.  Some schools use the money for afterschool tutoring, some for preschool, others for teacher professional development and still others for the implementation of benchmark reading programs.

The SIG Cornerstone

Use this interactive graph to learn how SIG works and other Obama Administration education initiatives are meant to work together.

*Image adapted from the US Department of Education. Text embeds from Southern Education Desk.


The SIG program is most heavily criticized for producing only modest change.  A common target is the systematic withholding of funds by states and districts. It’s estimated that 42% of schools that qualify for SIG money, don’t receive it.  Some districts are holding out for “promising” school improvement plans ; others holdout because they simply don’t know how to spend the money; and some are reluctant to build when they are unsure how to sustain programs after grant money dries up.  Districts have also been criticized for taking on a turnaround and leaving the exhausting work to school personnel.

There is also a concern that too many SIG grant dollars are going to consultants and private companies, who, in turn, are unable to produce resultsThe Denver Post published estimates showing 25% of SIG money – that’s over a billion dollars nationally – going to “external providers.” 

Research and Gauging Impact in the Future

SIG is in the early stages of implementation after a 2009 redesign, and states received awards only last year.  So research surrounding SIG grants thus far tends to focus on implementation rather than impact. In a 2011 study commissioned by the Department of Education, The National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance cited its key finding as “states vary in their planned approach to implementing SIG,” varying in monitoring processes, support and discrimination of school district applications, among other factors.

The Department of Education is still pulling together data from the one year point.  But, Jason Snyder, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of Education, provided the following preliminary performance data to the Education Writers Association:

  • In 63 percent of SIG schools, math proficiency increased, compared to 33 percent of schools where math proficiency declined–meaning that increases in math proficiency were almost twice as common as declines.
  •  In 58 percent of SIG schools, reading proficiency increased, compared to 35 percent of schools where reading proficiency declined.

States are gathering impact data on an annual or more frequent basis, and researchers note the improvement effects will lag initial investment by a year or longer. 2013 will mark final year of funding under current SIG grant agreements, upon which time more comprehensive data on the program’s effects will begin to be made available.


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