The majority of low-performing schools that received financial assistance from the federal government two years ago made gains in their students' reading and math scores, according to new data released by the Department of Education Thursday. But about one-third of the schools actually declined in their scores, or showed no improvement.
In 2010, the department began administering School Improvement Grant funds to states and school districts to help them turn around low-performing schools. Since then, the federal government has funneled roughly $5 billion into 1,500 failing schools that have used the funds to implement improvement programs. The analysis released Thursday compare 2011-12 school year assessment data to the schools' rates in the year prior to receiving grants.
"The progress, while incremental, indicates that local leaders and educators are leading the way to raising standards and achievement and driving innovation over the next few years," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. "To build on this success in our disadvantaged communities, we must expand the most effective practices to accelerate progress for students and prepare them for success in college and careers."
The federal analysis looks at two cohorts of schools: one in which the schools began using funds in the 2010-11 school year, and another in which schools began in the 2011-12 school year.
In the first cohort, 69 percent of schools showed gains in math and 66 percent of schools showed gains in reading. But another 32 percent of schools declined or showed no change in math scores, and 34 percent declined or showed no gains in reading scores.
Such results were similar for the second cohort: 55 percent and 61 percent of schools showed gains in math and reading scores, respectively, while 45 percent and 40 percent declined or showed no change in math and reading scores, respectively.
The Department of Education said in a release announcing the data analysis that the score improvements demonstrate "the importance of targeted investments over time."
But Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said in a statement that the data show education reform efforts should not come from the federal government.
"These tepid results underscore the limits of top-down mandates and the need for a new approach to education reform, one that allows state and local leaders to determine the best way to raise the bar in our schools," said Kline, who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Andy Smarick, a senior policy fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank, said in a blog post that research before the implementation of the SIG program had shown that there was a miniscule success rate for school-turnaround efforts.
"I will never know if the Department of Education simply hadn't done its homework, or if it had but believed that it could defy the lessons of the past," Smarick said. "I suspect the latter was the primary culprit."
Neither the amount of money committed nor the method of intervention used had an effect on substantially improving failing schools, he said, and that lack of improvement can be seen in the federal government's SIG data. The analysis released on Thursday shows only a slight improvement from the data released in 2012, which Smarick described as "dreadful" and "far worse than even an inveterate turnaround skeptic would have predicted."
"Despite another year of lots of money and lots of effort, the first SIG cohort made virtually no progress: We're two years in, and still one-third of these schools have gone backward or remained in neutral," Smarick said. "Even worse, across all cohort-one schools, the average reading-proficiency increase was a mere five points—a cost of one billion dollars for each point of improvement in reading proficiency."
Although the department did not provide data for comparison in its analysis, it said schools in the first cohort demonstrated larger increases in average proficiency rates in math and reading, when compared to all schools nationally. However, Smarick said when looking at the second cohort of schools, the average school improved by one point in reading proficiency, the same amount as all schools nationally.