New Data Paints Mixed Picture of Federal Turnaround Program

By Alyson Klein — December 01, 2015 4 min read
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New data from the U.S. Department of Education continues to paint an uneven picture of the federal School Improvement Grant program’s impact, just as Congress is about to decide the fate of the program supercharged by the Obama administration early in its tenure.

Only a little more than half the schools that received a third round of the newly revamped SIG grants—awarded during the 2012-13 school year—improved, according to the report issued Nov. 10, while the other half saw stagnant student achievement, or actually slid backward.

That’s not as strong a showing as in the first two years. That phase witnessed gains on state math and reading tests among about two-thirds of the schools that got three-year turnaround grants beginning in the 2010-11 school year, as well as those that started the turnaround process in the 2011-12 school year.

Still, the latest results from SIG schools are consistent with those from other public schools nationally over the same time period. About 54 percent of SIG schools that got grants in the 2012-13 school year saw gains in their first year of turnaround, compared to about 45 percent for all schools across the country over the same period. And about 46 percent of SIG schools stayed in the same place, or slid backward, compared to about 56 percent nationally.

“Let me be totally honest, we haven’t gotten as far as I, or anyone, had hoped,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in prepared remarks at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Boston unveiling the results. “But there’s been vitally important progress.” Duncan also addressed the results of a department report on the administration’s signature Race to the Top grant program.

Recovery-Act Infusion

The SIG program, aimed at helping states fix long-foundering schools, got a huge infusion of cash, about $3 billion, in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

But with that money came strings. Schools had to try out dramatic turnaround strategies, such as closing down, turning into charters, getting rid of half the staff and the principal, or replacing leadership, and trying out merit pay.

Even after the stimulus funds dissipated, the administration continued to fund SIG, to the tune of more than $500 million a year. But, in a 2013 spending bill, Congress made big changes, allowing states to ditch the federally mandated models and try an evidence-based approach, or their own turnaround prescriptions. And the program would be eliminated under the compromise bill reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now pending before both houses of Congress.

Experts are divided on whether SIG, which funded turnarounds at about 1,500 schools across the country, has helped or not. But nearly everyone who has studied the program points to big limitations in the department’s data.

Still, for the first time, the department details how SIG schools compared to all public schools nationally. And generally speaking, SIG schools were more likely to see doubledigit gains in reading and math than other schools.

That’s to be expected, said Robin Lake, the director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington—low-performing schools are more likely to see big jumps than other schools, because, essentially, they have nowhere to go but up. (And in the most recent year in the report, SIG schools were also more likely to see big losses than other schools.)

Notably, the department’s analysis excluded a large percentage of schools, including roughly half the first two cohorts of schools, as well as schools nationally, for math and reading data. (The exclusions were in about the 20 percent to 30 percent range for the third cohort of schools, those that got grants in 2011-12.) That’s because so many states switched tests or standards between 2009-10 and 2012-13, so it would be nearly impossible to do a true apples-to-apples comparison.

The data also don’t explain whether the gains have been sustained after the money—typically somewhere between $1 million and $2 million per school—dissipated.

Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush and later served in New Jersey’s state education agency, thinks that even with those unknowns, the results don’t look great for the program.

“The best thing we can say is that $7 billion in SIG spending seems to have coincided with a 2-percentage-point annual increase in reading proficiency in SIG schools,” Smarick said in an email.

But Diane Stark Rentner, the deputy director of the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy program that has looked deeply into the SIG program, had a different take. These schools, she said, often have high-poverty populations and the intractable social problems that come with it.

“It’s sort of simplistic to think that if you just fix the schools that you’re going to fix everything else,” she said. “You can have great teachers and a great principal and you’re going to add value, but you’re not going to solve every problem.”

Still, she agreed that more study of what actually went on at the schools—not just these topline numbers—would be valuable.

‘Hard Work’

Keith Look, who served as the principal of the Academy@Shawnee, a high school in Louisville, Ky., that got one of the first SIG grants, noted that you can’t forget about school districts and the role they play.

Turning around a school “is hard work,” said Look, who is now the superintendent of the Danville Area School District, also in Kentucky. “Most of the schools that are struggling the most have been struggling the most for a long period of time. Maybe we have to start asking a different question, which is: What role do these schools play in the overall functioning of a district?”

The Education Department’s Institute for Education Sciences is working on a more comprehensive report, due out next year.

A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 2015 edition of Education Week as New Data Paints Mixed Picture of Turnaround Program


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