School Improvement Grants Need Some Work

The School Improvement Grant program doesn't have clear examples of success.

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The success of the Massachusetts approach has important implications, especially as states roll out the new Common Core standards.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released an analysis of the School Improvement Grant program, and the results merit some concern.

Enacted first under the No Child Left Behind Act, the program boosts funding to chronically underperforming schools in an effort to dramatically improve their outcomes. Thanks to the 2009 stimulus, SIG funding jumped from nearly $500 million to $3.5 billion. To date, $5 billion has been invested in this program that awards an average of nearly $3 million to each of the 1,500 worst-performing schools around the country.

Schools receiving funds have four improvement options under federal guidelines: the "turnaround model" in which the school district replaces the principal and some of the staff at the school; the "restart model," where the school closes and reopens as a charter school; the "school closure model," where the school closes and transfers the students to other schools; and the "transformation model" (the most popular option) in which the principal is replaced and a host of interventions are put in place (such as expanding the school day and strengthening teacher evaluation and development).

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The report released last week offers a mixed picture. Two-thirds of the schools receiving SIG funds saw some improvements in math and reading proficiency (using state standards for proficiency), but the rest either didn’t improve or fell further behind. The smallest gains were made in schools using the "transformation model." (It is important to note that the study was not able to capture data from all the schools participating in SIG. And those that had received funds longer saw greater improvements.)

To be clear, turning around chronically low-performing schools is no easy task and the department deserves credit for putting serious resources into reforming these schools. The fact that the department has provided this analysis (even though the program is fairly new and in its early implementation years) is also commendable. But, when you consider that each school has received up to $3 million in funding annually, the mixed or modest results and the paucity of information about which techniques produce greater bang for the buck are discouraging.

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What SIG really needs are some clear wins that can serve as effective models for other struggling schools. One may soon be found in Tennessee. Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the Achievement School District in Tennessee (and former leader of the high flying Yes Prep charter schools in Texas), is trying to turn around his poorest performing schools by relying mostly on chartering. Barbic has invited some of the highest performing charter school leaders to take over the state’s poorest performing schools, most of which are in Memphis.

This Tennessee test is just getting started, but Barbic is confident that he’ll be able to jumpstart his school system. When he does, other schools receiving funds through SIG will have an example of success they can replicate to help deliver on the promise of this potentially valuable program.

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