Education Secretary Arne Duncan has proposed new rules for distributing $3.5 billion in Title I School Improvement Grants to turn around the nation’s lowest performing schools. The plan includes flexibility for districts to close struggling schools, replace staff, or adopt a “transformational model” that aims to change the whole school culture, according to each school’s needs.

“If we are to put an end to stubborn cycles of poverty and social failure, and put our country on track for long-term economic prosperity, we must address the needs of children who have long been ignored and marginalized in chronically low-achieving schools,” said Duncan, who made the announcement Aug. 26 with Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., at Harley Harmon Elementary School in Las Vegas.

“States and school districts have an opportunity to put unprecedented resources toward reforms that would increase graduation rates, reduce dropout rates, and improve teacher quality for all students, and particularly for children who most need good teaching in order to catch up.”

Proposed requirements for the grants have been published in the Federal Register, giving educators 30 days to comment on the new guidelines. The grants are funded by $546 million in fiscal year 2009 appropriations and an additional $3 billion in federal stimulus funding to “support the transformational changes that are needed to turn around the nation’s lowest-achieving schools,” according to the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

ED is required to award school improvement grants to each state education agency based on the proportional share of funding it receives under Title I. Each state must provide subgrants to local school districts that apply for those funds and have demonstrated the greatest commitment to serve their Title I schools identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring under No Child Left Behind.

The Obama administration’s proposed strategy for distributing the money includes identifying and serving the lowest-achieving Title I schools in each state; supporting “only the most rigorous interventions that hold the promise of producing rapid improvements in student achievement and school culture”; providing sufficient resources over several years to implement those interventions; and measuring progress toward achieving results.

“The large investment in school improvement funds made possible by [the stimulus package] presents a historic opportunity to attack education’s most intractable challenge–turning around or closing down chronically low-achieving schools,” Duncan said. “Our goal is to turn around the 5,000 lowest-performing schools over the next five years, as part of our overall strategy for dramatically reducing the dropout rate, improving high school graduation rates, and increasing the number of students who graduate prepared for success in college and the workplace.”

Under the proposal, Duncan would require states to identify three tiers of schools:

• Tier I: The lowest-achieving five percent of Title I schools in improvement, corrective action, or restructuring in a state, or the five lowest-performing Title I schools, whichever number is greater.

• Tier II: Equally low-achieving secondary schools that are eligible for, but do not receive, Title I funds. Duncan proposes targeting some of these extremely low-achieving high schools and their feeder middle schools.

“There are close to 2,000 high schools in this country in which graduation is at best a 50-50 proposition,” says an ED press release. “U.S. Department of Education data indicate that fewer than half of these schools currently receive Title I, Part A funds. If the provisions proposed become final, school districts would not be required to include Tier II schools in proposals. However, including Tier II schools would enhance a school district’s likelihood for funding, because states would be required to give priority to districts that commit to serve both Tier I and Tier II schools.”