The largest federal investment in turning around the nation’s most-troubled schools has yielded mixed early results, according to a first snapshot from the U.S. Department of Education.
Thecovers just one year of the School Improvement Grant program, which received $3 billion under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The short amount of time prompted some, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, to urge caution in drawing major conclusions about the program’s effectiveness.
The, which requires schools to take such steps as closing schools, removing staff members, and extending the school day, has been the subject of significant controversy, all the way from district central offices to Capitol Hill.
Two-thirds of chronically underperforming schools that tapped into the grants made gains in mathematics or reading, but another third saw student achievement decline in their first academic year under the program, according to the analysis, which was released Nov. 19.
At least a quarter of the schools had seen their student progress slip before they got the grants, then saw gains after they received SIG funding, the analysis found.
In the first year of the School Improvement Grant program, two-thirds of schools saw gains in math or reading, while one-third of schools saw a decline in student achievement, from the 2009-10 to the 2010-11 school year.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education
But slightly more than a quarter of about 730 schools analyzed already were beginning to show improvement before they got SIG dollars—only to see student achievement dip afterward.
Secretary Duncan, who spoke publicly about the data in a Nov. 16 speech to the Council of Chief State School Officers, meeting in Savannah, Ga., said educators and policymakers shouldn’t read too much into the analysis, which covers the changes in student achievement from the 2009-10 to the 2010-11 school year.
That represents the first year of the new version of the federal program, which, in addition to the infusion of money from the 2009 economic-stimulus package, calls for schools to use one of four controversial school improvement models. The grants cover three academic years.
“I think it’s way, way too early to draw any conclusions,” Mr. Duncan said in an interview in Savannah. “We’re in this for the long haul. One year of gains isn’t success. One year of declines isn’t failure.”
But during this year’s election campaign, President Barack Obama cited the achievement gains under the school turnaround program in his debates with Mitt Romney, his Republican opponent, telling voters that “schools that were having a terrible time” were “finally starting to make progress.”
Looking at the Data
Elementary schools generally did better than middle and high schools, the new analysis found. (High schools make up a significant chunk of the program’s first cohort.) Rural schools—which some policymakers had warned would not be able to implement the stringent turnaround models required by the program—performed about as well as their suburban and urban counterparts.
More specifically, the Education Department found:
• Out of roughly 730 schools that received money in the first year of the program, 25 percent posted double-digit gains in math, and 15 percent posted double-digit gains in reading. Forty percent posted single-digit gains in math, and 49 percent posted single-digit gains in reading. Twenty-eight percent saw a single-digit dip in math; 29 percent saw such a dip in reading. Another 6 percent saw a double-digit decline in math, while 8 percent posted such a decline in reading.
• In some cases, schools that got SIG money were already on a path to improvement, but fell off once they got the grants. Twenty-six percent of schools had been on a trajectory to improve their math scores, but declined once they entered the SIG program, while 28 percent of schools where math scores had been slipping began to show improvement after getting the grants. In reading, 28 percent of schools that had been showing gains before SIG actually lost ground once they got the grants. And, 25 percent of schools had been showing sluggish improvement in reading before the grants and began to improve once they got the funding.
• Elementary schools were more likely to see double-digit growth and less likely to see declines in achievement, particularly in reading. Twenty percent of elementary schools posted double-digit gains in the subject, compared with 6 percent of middle schools, and 15 percent of high schools.
• Rural schools, in the department’s view, did about as well as their urban and suburban counterparts. For instance, 19 percent of rural schools posted double-digit gains in reading achievement, compared with 15 percent of urban schools, 14 percent of suburban schools, and 15 percent of schools in towns.
While the analysis paints a broad-strokes portrait of overall student achievement, it leaves some big questions unanswered. For instance, the data aren’t broken out by which schools used which of the four improvement models, which include closing a school, converting it into a charter, replacing half the teaching force, and employing strategies including teacher evaluation tied to student outcomes and extended day. The data also don’t include graduation rates, or any information on discipline and school climate—two important indicators of school turnaround.
The Education Department is aiming to release more-complete data in January.
Implications for Policy
The data track closely with what Terry Holliday, the education commissioner in Kentucky, is seeing in his home state. He said he’s witnessed gains in about two-thirds of his schools, especially where there is a strong building leader.
But he added: “We just have some schools that aren’t making the move.” He said in those schools, the state may have to take more aggressive action.
The SIG program is on shaky footing, meanwhile, on Capitol Hill. Some Senate Democrats have supported allowing states to come up with their own turnaround remedies. And House Republicans have tried more than once to eliminate the program.
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate panels that oversee K-12 policy and funding, has fought to preserve SIG funding, even as he has pushed for adding other models to its menu of school improvement options.
“This data is an important preliminary assessment of the first full year of implementation,” he said in a statement in response to Education Week‘s queries about the department’s findings. “While it shows the effectiveness of the models for some schools, it also presents an opportunity to dig deeper into what is happening in SIG schools, and to explore other possible models that may address the needs of all students.”
Analysts, Researchers Split
Researchers and analysts who have studied the SIG program and school turnarounds offered radically different interpretations of what the early results might mean when it comes to the program’s effectiveness.
Diane Stark Rentner, the deputy director of the Center on Education Policy, in Washington, said the data looked rosier than she had expected.
“I’m surprised that the numbers were so positive. I would have thought we’d see more stagnation,” she said. “What we found in our research was that schools were focusing on climate” in the first year of the program, Ms. Rentner said, and saving their “achievement-focused efforts for the second and third year.”
The SIG schools have gone through “a lot of turmoil and churn,” including finding new principals and teachers, she said. While those steps can lead to achievement gains down the road, they might have an impact on initial data.
But Andrew Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education, a non-profit organization in Washington, who has written about school turnarounds, called the data “heartbreaking.”
“We spent several billion dollars, and more than a third of schools went backward,” said Mr. Smarick, who recently was the deputy commissioner of education in New Jersey and served in the federal Education Department under President George W. Bush.
Mr. Smarick said that, in his experience, schools are most likely to post gains in the beginning years of a turnaround. The trouble, he said, is sustaining the turnaround. If schools in the program “couldn’t even see a bump in year one, what is that going to tell us about future years? This just shows hope is not a strategy.”
And Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, at the University of Washington in Seattle, said it’s pretty tough to tell if SIG schools are living up to the program’s promises because the federal department never laid out a clear vision for what success should look like.
“They’ve talked about bold, dramatic change, but never really defined it,” Ms. Lake said. It’s unclear, she said, whether schools will be able to sustain the gains they’ve made after the first year of the program. Policymakers should think carefully about whether the SIG models are the best use of scarce federal aid for improving schools, she added.
Separately, a study by Thomas Dee, now a professor of education at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., last April of California schools that got SIG grants versus schools that almost qualified for them showed that the funding appeared to improve outcomes.
Assistant Editor Michele McNeil contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2012 edition of Education Week as SIG Program Sees Mixed Results In First Outing, Ed. Dept. Finds