School & District Management

Hindsight Improves the Picture for Obama-Era School Improvement Program

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 09, 2020 3 min read
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A decade after the Education Department launched its $7 billion school improvement grants and four years after Congress killed the program, the most comprehensive longitudinal study to date of the much-maligned program paints it in a potentially better light.

While studies of the School Improvement Grants, or SIG, program over the years have produced mixed results, researchers Min Sun of the University of Washington and her colleagues Susanna Loeb of Brown University and Alec Kennedy of the San Francisco Unified school district find the grants built up the capcity for improvement in their schools. The study suggests student achievement accelerated after SIG schools had a few years to implement their improvement plans, and schools were able to sustain their growth for as much as seven years after first receiving the grants.

Using money from the federal economic stimulus in 2009, the Obama administration turned a smaller Bush-era grant into a competitive grant intended to build capacity to reinvent chronically struggling schools. Schools received money that in many cases doubled their annual budgets, but had to adopt one of four turnaround models with dramatic requirements, such as replacing the principal and half of the teachers, implementing new teacher evaluation systems, overhauling school governance or student learning time, or other major interventions.

The strictures drew criticism from educators and Congress, which steadily cut the budget for additional rounds of the grants and eventually eliminated it in 2016. The following year, a Mathematica evaluation conducted for the Institute of Education Sciences found that schools implementing the SIG-funded improvement models didn’t improve much more than similar struggling schools.

In fact, the study suggests that gains in student reading and math performance accelerated after SIG schools had two or three years to implement their improvement plans, and schools mostly sustained those improvements up to seven years after first receiving the grants. Similarly, researchers found the grants showed steadily stronger effects on four-year graduation rates six to seven years after high schools first received the grants.

Sun and her colleagues tracked graduation rates and math and reading test results for grades 3-8 for the first group of school improvement grantees. The group included 99 schools in North Carolina, Washington state, San Francisco, and another large, but unnamed[OK?] urban district, representing geographically diverse areas. The researchers analyzed the schools both as a whole and as individual sites, with separate analyses of the progress of students of color and low-income students in the schools.

The researchers found that SIG schools gradually improved their reading and math scores in grades 3-8, with stronger gains two and three years after first getting the grants. Students of color and low-income students had equal or stronger improvements than students on average. Moreover, the schools mostly sustained their gains three to four years after the money ran out.

The researchers found a similar pattern among high schools, with an average 5 percentage-point increase in the four-year graduation rate in the first year after a school began implementing its improvement plan, with graduation rates improving on average 14 percentage points by six years after schools first received the grants.

Also, while the IES evaluation found no difference in results for schools implementing particular improvement models under the grants, the current study found that turnaround schools—which replaced the principal and at least half of the teachers outright in addition to overhauling instructional practices and learning time—showed larger test score increases during the grant years and sustained those gains better than schools that used less intense improvement models.

“While states now have wider flexibilities to design, implement, and monitor this new generation of school improvement work,” they said, “an understanding of the nation’s return on its investment in SIGs can help state and school leaders to select programs to promote student learning in struggling schools.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.