Good News, Bad News Fills School Improvement Grant Report

According to the report released by the U.S. Department of Education, nearly two thirds of the schools that were eligible for additional funding through the federal School Improvement Grants program have shown improvements in math scores in the year since they received the money. An equal number showed gains in reading.

In total, over 1,300 schools around the country qualified for the SIG program and on average about $2 million was spent on implementing a turnaround plan at each school. This is the first time that information about the impact that SIG funds are having on student performance has been made public.

The data includes the school performance metrics from the 2009-2010 school year to the 2010-2011 school year.

Overall, the U.S. Department of Education views the early results as promising and thinks that the data offers a number of hints on how future grant money could be put to use best. Specifically, there are indications that money spent on elementary schools seemed to have more of an impact than in middle- and high schools. Over 70% of SIG elementary schools showed improvements in reading and the same number showed bumps in math scores. This rate of improvement was better than that shown in higher grades. Schools located in small towns and those in rural communities performed especially well when compared to suburban and urban schools.

"There's dramatic change happening in these schools, and in the long-term process of turning around the nation's lowest-performing schools, one year of test scores only tells a small piece of the story," said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "But what's clear already is that almost without exception, schools moving in the right direction have two things in common; a dynamic principal with a clear vision for establishing a culture of high expectations, and talented teachers who share that vision, with a relentless commitment to improving instruction."

Not everyone views the SIG results as optimistically as the DOE press release does. Andy Smarick, writing for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog, calls them "disappointing but completely predictable." He said that the government has spent billions of dollars on a program whose results could have been easily foreseen by anyone who's taken part in a school turnaround before.

The first thing to notice is how the results are explained. We are NOT told which, if any, results are statistically significant. We are NOT told what the average pre-intervention score was or what the average post-intervention score is. Instead, the Department reports that a small fraction of schools made "double-digit" gains. This is the best framing the Department can come up with after weeks, and probably months, of data massaging.

Among those touted as successes, were the 40% and 49% of schools that have made single-digit gains in mathematics and reading respectively. Yet, what isn't said was that among these schools may be some – if not many – that went from 10% proficiency to 11% proficiency, each at the price of $2 million. That's not something that many reform-minded people would term a "success."

The most disappointing news of all, however, was the fact that despite all the money spent, a full one-third of the schools that received SIG money failed to improve at all, and might have even seen declines — which leads Smarick to ask what the next step should be.

We can do what we've done for decades. That would mean allowing this story to get buried or, despite the evidence, hoping that SIG results will improve if we only give the program more money and time. Then, in a decade or so, some other contrarian blogger can add SIG to the long list of failed turnaround efforts. Or we can finally recognize that we're dealing with a much bigger problem. We can accept that "turnaround" efforts are not a path to ensuring low-income urban kids get a great education; that dysfunctional schools are a function of dysfunctional districts; that we need to close these schools, open new schools, and allow great schools to replicate and expand.

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