In the End, Was Obama’s Signature Program for Struggling Schools a Failure?

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In some places, yes. One expert explains what that means for the federal government’s approach to school reform.

By Elena Gooray

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(Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The School Improvement Grant program ranked among the Obama administration’s costliest and most ambitious education initiatives. And following last month’s Department of Education (DOE) report that found the program, on average, had no effect on the quality of recipient schools, it has also been declared a failure by someanalysts.

Launched in 2009, the program rated some of the nation’s lowest-performing schools as eligible for grants of up to $2 million. Schools competed for grants within their state. The winners would have to implement one of four dramatic reforms, of the sort the government has been trying since 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act: At a minimum, they had to replace the principal and make other internal changes, while, on the other end, they had to convert into charters or shut down entirely and send students to higher-rated schools.

The DOE report compared schools that were performing just a little too well to qualify for the grants against schools performing just poorly enough to make the cut. Schools in the latter group had landed among the lowest 5 percent on state metrics including test scores and graduation rates for at least two years. The key question was whether SIG grants helped that second group of schools move past the comparatively better-off first group. These latest results suggest that, as a whole, they didn’t.

The report also makes the program sound like something of an experiment in the first place, noting that the literature on the chosen reforms “provides mixed evidence on whether these practices improve student outcomes.”

This broad take, of course, obscures individualschools that did improve under the reforms. The takeaway might not be that these programs fail, but rather that they don’t always pan out as the “rigorous” solution the government envisioned. Pacific Standard spoke with Caitlin Scott, a manager at the Education Northwest research group who has studied school improvement grants and other federal education programs, about how we might need to shift our expectations for these kinds of programs in the first place.

Does the latest report suggest that School Improvement Grants failed?

I think that saying that SIG failed is too simplistic, even based on this report.

So where did SIG work, and where didn’t it?

The results of this study represent the cumulative effect of SIG grants on average across the nation. They found no impact, no positive impact, no negative impact. That is a broad look. And this study was absolutely needed. But it’s important to note that it is a look on average across the nation. So, there are still some schools that got this money and that fully implemented [the program] and probably saw rises in student achievement. And there are definitely schools I have visited where that appeared to be the case, in my research. On the other hand, clearly, there are schools that didn’t implement well, and did not have gains. It’s very important not to think that the average should be applied to every school. I think that some schools reading this study would worry, “Ugh, now my community is going to think I wasted this money when I personally at my school did a good job.”

How do these findings relate to your previous research (for the Center on Education Policy) looking at SIG?

Principals in a few of the improvement grant schools that I interviewed said they had difficulty implementing aspects of SIG because their districts didn’t have the capacity to assist them. For example, the transformation model and the turnaround model require replacing staff that are found to be ineffective. If you’re in a district where the district controls staffing, and the district doesn’t have the capacity to do that well, or in some cases to do that at all, as a school you’re not going to be able to do that on your own. You’re just not going to be able to find teachers to replace the ones you need to replace.

This latest [SIG] study made me think about the possibility of school improvement having a broader role for districts and states. Which was not a key focus of School Improvement Grants. Like the title [suggests], School Improvement Grants were primarily focused at the school level.

How should districts and states have more of a role in these programs?

My research study I mentioned earlier was a survey of principals in rural schools that were implementing the transformation model. We asked principals about technical assistance they received [to follow through on the model]. The largest proportion, 91 percent, received technical assistance from the district. The second largest proportion of principals said they were receiving technical assistance from the state. And the more schools reported that they received technical assistance, the more strategies they reported their schools had fully implemented.

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Caitlin Scott. (Photo: Education Northwest)

That, to me, points to the fact that technical assistance [from districts and states] was important, particularly for these rural schools that may not have had the school-level capacity to do everything that was in these grants. The School Improvement Grants were, for many, very heavy lift.

Does the evidence suggest the SIG-recommended practices may be too hard for many schools to implement?

Yeah, these things may not have been realistic expectations for all schools, definitely.

You do have to remember that people did have to apply for these grants, unlike the restructuring requirements under [No Child Left Behind], which were mandated, so that if you were restructuring, you had to do them. Schools did voluntarily apply for the [SIG] grants. So it was probably the case that more of them felt they would be able to do these things.

Although, I will say, it was also a great deal of money [in these grants], and there was pressure for schools and districts to apply. Almost universally, of the case-study districts I visited, and the schools I visited, the staff really wanted to have the best things possible for their kids, and saw these grants as a means toward getting that.

Under the new administration, what might the future of these programs look like?

I’m waiting to see what a new administration will do. Right now, [the Every Student Succeeds Act href="https://www.ed.gov/essa?src=ft"] does point to a continual focus on improving student achievement and identifying schools that are going to need targeted or comprehensive support. I do think things will continue in some form. And I also hope we take a closer look at some of the strategies and interventions to see if they are the right strategies to improve student achievement. This study looks across all School Improvement Grants. I think there’s room for more nuanced studies that look at particular strategies and interventions. And we also need to think beyond that school level. Moving forward I’d like to see more consideration of the district and state roles.

Does a program like SIG require an administration that’s more in favor of federal intervention to improve schools? So an administration focused on local control wouldn’t be as open to SIG?

If the current administration is more interested in state and local control, then an overall federal grant that works in the way this past one has doesn’t seem like as much of a possibility. You never know, though.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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