The billions of dollars that the federal government is pouring into turning around some of the nation’s lowest-performing schools appear to be showing preliminary promise, according to student-achievement data unveiled by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last week.
The Department of Education has taken a look at 700 of the 850 schools that started carrying out a revised, highly controversial version of the School Improvement Grant program during the first year of its implementation, the 2010-11 school year. In all, 43 states were part of that analysis.
A quarter of the schools have seen double-digit increases in mathematics scores, and another fifth have seen double-digit increases in reading, Mr. Duncan said last week at the Building a Grad Nation Summit, held in Washington. In all, during the first year of the program, the proportion of students who were proficient in math or reading on state tests went up in roughly 60 percent of SIG schools, he added.
It’s too early to draw hard and fast conclusions about the program’s effectiveness from those numbers, in part because they only cover one year of achievement data, the secretary cautioned. Schools in the program get the grants—up to $2 million per year—for three years.
“As encouraging as these increases in academic achievement are, I want to be clear that they are still preliminary,” Mr. Duncan said. “We’re only talking about the first year of data, and everyone recognizes that we will need several years of data to confirm a lasting improvement in academic achievement.”
The U.S. Department of Education has announced preliminary student-achievement data for the School Improvement Grant program. So far, the department has looked at roughly 700 of the 850 schools that entered the program in 2010-11, the first year of implementation for the Obama administration’s revised version of the federal school turnaround effort.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education
The SIG program, first created under the decade-old No Child Left Behind Act to help states turn around schools that perennially failed to meet the goals of the federal law, got a one-time, $3 billion windfall as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
With the new money under the economic-stimulus legislation came new federal strings. States were expected to identify their lowest-performing schools and choose from a menu of four tricky and highly criticized school improvement options. All the models call for major shake-ups, which include such requirements as closing a school, removing a school’s principal and half its staff, creating new teacher-evaluation systems, and extending the school day.
The early student-achievement data were disclosed just a day before two leading research organizations in Washington—the Center on Education Policy and the Center for American Progress—issued reports giving a clearer indication of how the program is playing out in states and districts.
The CEP conducted a nationwide survey of state Title I directors and found them generally optimistic about the program’s potential, but with many ideas for refining it. The organization also took a close look at SIG implementation in three very different states: Idaho, Maryland, and Michigan.
And the CAP found that states have taken highly disparate approaches to allocating the grants, which go to states from the federal government through a formula but are competitively awarded within states.
Notes of Caution
Almost from the moment the Education Department unveiled its turnaround vision in 2009, lawmakers on Capitol Hill disparaged the SIG program as inflexible and top-down. And they questioned the research the department relied on to create it.
In announcing the positive preliminary findings last week, Secretary Duncan referred to that early criticism.
“Almost immediately, armchair analysts, bloggers, and pundits virtually uniformly predicted that the SIG program would flop,” he said. “They said it would be a terrible waste of time, talent, goodwill, and money. ... Fortunately, great teachers, great community partners and parents, and most importantly, committed students didn’t listen to the skeptics.”
But Robin J. Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, Bothell, echoed the caution the secretary also expressed. She raised questions about the other 75 percent of schools in the program that weren’t highlighted in the department’s good-news report, as well as the impact of SIG on other schools in the district that didn’t receive the grants.
“Three billion dollars is a lot of money, and the question has to be whether that money could have been used differently for better results,” Ms. Lake wrote in an email. “One year of test-score gains can only give us a hint. What we need to know is whether the schools can maintain those gains over several years.”
Ms. Lake pointed out that the improvement models call for moving staff members into SIG schools under a number of circumstances. That could have led to lower achievement at other schools in the district that weren’t singled out for the federal money and attention, she added.
“Star principals and teachers may have been moved to a SIG school and the staff at the SIG schools just reassigned to other schools,” wrote Ms. Lake, who is a co-author of a forthcoming study on SIG implementation in Washington state.
Still, state officials are largely optimistic about the program, according to the CEP report, which surveyed 46 state Title I directors from November through January.
Nearly three-quarters of the schools in the program are electing to go with the “transformation” model, the most flexible of the four, which requires schools to replace the principal if that person has been on the job less than three years; extend learning time; and put in place new teacher-evaluation systems. The survey found that 26 of 45 Title I directors say the model is effective at improving student achievement.
And Title I directors are generally happy with the second-most-popular model, too. Eighteen of the 29 states surveyed that are using the “turnaround” model, which requires a school to replace half its teachers, think it will be effective.
The largely positive outlook from state officials echoes similar findings in a report on the program by the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington group that represents large urban districts.
In addition, a majority of the state Title I directors in states surveyed by the CEP believe removing low-performing schools’ principals has been effective.
Schools using the transformation model have struggled with the requirement to craft new teacher-evaluation systems that base personnel decisions—such as rewards, retention, and promotion—on student outcomes. In fact, the Education Department has extended the deadline for states to fully implement that strategy to the 2013-14 school year.
But 23 of the state officials surveyed by the CEP believe the strategy is promising. Another 18 said it was too soon to tell.
Ten states reported that they pulled grants from one or two schools, for reasons including lack of fidelity to the SIG model and a lack of progress on so-called “leading indicators,” such as teacher- and student-attendance rates, discipline, and truancy.
The CEP report’s case studies of SIG implementation in Idaho, Maryland, and Michigan reflect some common problems across the three states.
Respondents in Maryland—which won a slice of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant competition—and Michigan are generally more positive about the appropriateness of the SIG models than Idaho, a largely rural state.
And those surveyed in Michigan and Idaho felt that there wasn’t nearly enough of an emphasis on district capacity-building in the SIG framework. Because the money flowed straight to the schools from the states, there wasn’t a clear role for districts, which set conditions that can affect the implementation of the grants, such as human-resources policy.
“There’s no nod to the need for district capacity,” said Diane Stark Rentner, the director of national programs for the CEP. The SIG framework “doesn’t ask districts or states to look at the broader problem or the context in which these schools are operating.”
District capacity was also a theme of the CAP report. It found big differences in just how selective states were in awarding grants.
Some states—such as Alaska, Kentucky, Oregon, and Vermont—had a 100 percent application-approval rate. Others, including Delaware, Louisiana, and Mississippi, gave the go-ahead to fewer than 30 percent of the schools that applied.
The CAP report zooms in on the process in three states: Illinois, Louisiana, and Vermont. All three looked at district capacity to support schools in deciding which got the grants. It found that a competitive program didn’t necessarily translate into better applications, so the three states had to work with districts to boost their ability to help turnaround schools.
A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2012 edition of Education Week as SIG Effort Posts Promising, If Early, Results