Just a day before Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the US, the Education Department released it final report on the School Improvement Grants, which pumped about $7 billion for School Improvement Grants into the nation’s poorest-performing schools.
The Obama administration “spent billions to fix failing schools, and it didn’t work,” screamed a headline in the Washington Post, as national education reporter Emma Brown showed how the intended overhaul of our worst schools failed to produce any meaningful results, confirming data from last year and the year before.
The report looked at a few measures of school quality—test scores, graduation rates, college enrollment—that weren’t significantly different in schools that received SIGs than in schools that didn’t.
Arne Duncan, Mr Obama’s first education secretary, said about this federal grant program, which began under his predecessor but received an infusion of new funds under President Obama, that his aim was to turn around a thousand schools every year for five years. “We could really move the needle, lift the bottom and change the lives of tens of millions of underserved children,” the Post quoted him as saying in 2009.
Schools that received three-year SIGs of up to $2 million each either had low graduation rates, low math or reading test scores, or both. In order to get the money, schools had to institute one of the Obama administration’s four turnaround plans:
- Replace the principal and at least half the teachers
- Convert the school into a charter school
- Close the school completely
- Transform the school by hiring a new principal, adopting new instructional strategies, new teacher evaluations, and a longer school day
About half the schools chose the fourth option, while only 1 in 100 closed and 3 percent became charter schools, according to the report. Other than keeping track of the specific measure adopted by the SIG school, the government didn’t really track how the money was used.
“This outcome reminds us that turning around our lowest-performing schools is some of the hardest, most complex work in education and that we don’t yet have solid evidence on effective, replicable, comprehensive school improvement strategies,” the paper quoted Dorie Nolt, an Education Department spokeswoman, as saying about this year’s report.
Keith Look once served as the principal at the Academy @ Shawnee, the Louisville, Kentucky, high school that got one of the first SIG grants. He said last year that the role school districts play can’t be overlooked. Turning around a school “is hard work,” Education Week quoted him as saying. “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?”
Others in the education field say the failure of the SIGs may lead some to push for school choice in Betsy DeVos’s Education Department. While the data include several schools, some of the schools that received SIGs managed to show improvement, and it might be better, they argue, to give the money to private schools or charter schools, which might show improvement, than to traditional public schools, which failed to show improvement with an infusion of cash.
But according to the Council of the Great City Schools, schools that were successful in using the SIGs to improve had a few common qualities:
- An intense focus on improving classroom instruction through ongoing, data-driven collaboration within schools, led largely by teachers with oversight from the principal
- A concerted, systematic effort to create a safe and orderly school environment through implementation of research-supported practices that all staff members can adopt
- An expansion of both classroom and non-classroom time throughout the school week dedicated to instruction and tutoring in core academic subjects
- A strengthening of connections to parents, community groups, and local service providers to support the efforts of school staff to build a culture that expects success of all students
- A limited reliance on expert consultants to jump-start changes that school leaders and teachers sustain on their own
So while the grant program failed, the reason behind the failure may be that we didn’t pay much attention to it and ignored early data that showed the program needed better attention from education leaders. We can still learn a great deal from this investment and can use that knowledge to help improve schools in the future.