Published Online: December 3, 2013
Published in Print: December 4, 2013, as Latest SIG School Snapshot Paints Mixed Improvement Picture

Latest SIG-School Snapshot Mixed on Improvements

The U.S. Department of Education's second annual snapshot of the controversial School Improvement Grant program paints a mixed picture of the initiative and the degree to which its massive infusion of federal cash—$3 billion in economic-stimulus funding alone—affected the nation's lowest-performing schools.

For various reasons, the data released last month covered only a portion of the more than 1,300 schools that joined the SIG program in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years. (The missing schools had changes in state tests or other factors that excluded them from the analysis.)

Of the schools it studied, the department found that two-thirds of those that joined in the first year and participated for two years posted gains in reading and math. But another third actually showed declines, despite the major federal investment, which included grants of up to $500,000 a year per school.

Meanwhile, schools that entered the revised program in its second year, the 2011-12 school year, didn't show progress in math and reading as impressive as those that the first cohort saw in its initial year.

Lingering Questions

The data in many ways present more questions than they answer, including the scope of the gains, which states had the biggest jumps, and what the differences were between SIG schools and other perennially failing schools in the same district. Still, with two years of data, it appears that rural and small-town SIG schools posted bigger gains than their city and suburban counterparts in math and were almost as impressive in reading. Originally, rural advocates worried that SIG, which requires major staffing shake-ups and other big changes, wouldn't work for more isolated schools, where it's tough to attract new staff members. Also of note: Schools that attempted dramatic interventions, such as conversion into a charter, generally saw greater gains than schools that took more flexible approaches.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the data show that SIG has pointed long-troubled schools in the right direction.

"The progress, while incremental, indicates that local leaders and educators are leading the way to raising standards and achievement and driving innovation over the next few years," he said in a statement.

But some researchers had a different take.

The fact that so many schools actually slid backward despite the big federal investment is "a little bit alarming" said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, which has studied the impact of the SIG program in the Evergreen State.

"Given the amount of money that was put in here, the return on investment looks negligible at this point," she said. "I don't know how you can interpret it any other way."

Among the highlights from the department's analysis:

  • Generally, 69 percent of schools studied that entered the three-year program during its first year, which the department calls Cohort 1, saw an increase in math after two years of participation. But 30 percent of schools saw declines, and 2 percent didn't demonstrate any change.
  • The results in reading for Cohort 1 were similar—66 percent demonstrated gains in reading, while 31 percent saw declines, and 3 percent had no gains.
  • Fifty-five percent of schools in the second cohort, which had only been in the program for one year at the time the analysis was released, made progress in math, while 38 percent saw decreases, and 7 percent demonstrated no change. Reading results were similar, with 61 percent of schools showing gains, 34 percent seeing declines, and 6 percent of schools demonstrating no change.
  • Only about half the schools in the first cohort were included in the analysis. About two-thirds in the second cohort were included. Overall, schools in the first cohort saw a bump of 8 percentage points in math over the course of the two years and 5 percentage points in reading. Cohort 2 schools, which were in the program for a shorter period, went up 2 points in math and just 1 point in reading.

Questions Loom

Questions still loom, including the scope of the improvements. For instance, it's impossible to tell whether particularly high-performing schools are pulling up the average for schools that didn't do nearly as well.

The data also compare schools in different states, which all set different bars for what it means to be proficient. As the Education Department explains, that means the "averages" will very much be influenced by states that set both relatively high or relatively low proficiency standards. And without more specific data, it's impossible to draw more sophisticated conclusions about where the test-score gains are coming from.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg on the information we really need," said Diane Stark Rentner, the deputy director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, a research organization, which has extensively studied the School Improvement Grant program. Drawing hard and fast conclusions about the three-year program's effectiveness will be difficult until there's a third year of data, she added.

Related Blog

Also unclear is whether schools' gains can be traced to the program itself, or to homegrown turnaround efforts already underway, Ms. Rentner said.

The School Improvement Grant program required schools to choose from one of four turnaround models, all of which involve getting rid or reassessing the principal if that person has been on the job for more than two years.

Most schools chose the "transformation" model, considered the most flexible, which called for them to extend learning time and to gauge teacher effectiveness by increases in test scores. Another group of schools opted for "turnaround," which required replacing 50 percent of a school's staff members. Other schools opted to "restart"—meaning that they turned themselves over to a charter-management organization. And a handful of schools closed altogether.

Tenuous Footing

The SIG program is almost certain to undergo major changes if and when Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Congressional Republicans have moved to slash all funding for the program, and it wasn't included in a bill to reauthorize the ESEA that passed the House with only GOP support earlier this year. And a bill supported by Democrats alone that was approved by the Senate education committee in June would give states new turnaround options, including allowing them to submit turnaround ideas to the U.S. secretary of education for approval.

Vol. 33, Issue 13, Page 23

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