This article originally appeared on heartland.org.Â
A $4.6 billion federal school improvement program aimed at the bottom 5 percent of U.S. schools has at best done nothing for them, and at worst spent money as some schools worsened, new federal data show.
The U.S. Department of Education released a report Nov. 21, comparing average proficiency rates of School Improvement Grant (S(G) schools in 2011-2012 to the year prior. Although some schoolsâ€™ academic performance improved, many worsened.
â€śSIG is almost certainly going to go down as one of the U.S. Department of Educationâ€™s biggest and most expensive mistakesâ€”possiblyÂ theÂ biggest,â€ť said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners. â€śSchools are getting millions and weâ€™re just not seeing anything close to the gains that were promised and are needed.â€ť
According to the report, which is now under review due to erroneous exclusion of data by the researching contractor, two-thirds of the schools had slightly increased performance, on average. A 5 percent increase in reading was noted at these schools, and an 8 percent increase in math scores. Decreases in performance were noted in the other third of schools.
â€śItâ€™s going to be a few more years before we really understand the effect that SIGs have,â€ť said David Stuit, a researcher at Basis Policy Research who has studied school turnaround efforts. â€śYou might expect regression with an implementation dip. In the early years these schools are forming new culturesâ€¦This is radical change.â€ť
Will More Time Help?
While U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stands behind the grants, stating time will prove them effective, some experts say the money is simply wasted spending.
â€śThis is the exact same line used by the proponents of every failed turnaround effort; give us more time and money and things will get better,â€ť Smarick said. â€śIâ€™m disappointed USDOE hasnâ€™t admitted its mistake and changed course, but Iâ€™m not surprised. Itâ€™s going to be hard for the administration to admit that $5 billion were misspent…and that we had decades of evidence telling us that this was the likely outcome.â€ť
Very few poorly performing public schools ever significantly improve, Stuit said, and the big question is whether these minor gains for SIG schools increase or fade.
â€śWe donâ€™t have evidence whether [turnarounds] work,â€ť he said.â€ťItâ€™s still an open question and still early to know what these average proficiencies and increases for certain schools mean.â€ť
Denise Watts, community superintendent of a failing school zone in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district of North Carolina, works with three SIG schools.
Wattsâ€™ schools are experimenting with improvement mechanisms called â€śopportunity culture,â€ť in which higher-performing teachers specialize and increase their reach, receiving a salary raise.
Graduation rates in one high school Watts works with increased from 56 to 71 percent from 2011-12 to 2012-13. But Watts isnâ€™t convinced that any specific reform ushered in the change.
â€śThere are all types of ways that we have tried to solve school problems,â€ť she said. â€śSchool issues are huge ambiguous problems to solve, with many layers. Itâ€™s not a linear process. I think itâ€™s very difficult to say SIG did or did not work.â€ť
Charters a Potential Lift
Turning poor-performing schools into charter schools may be an effective way to improve them, Stuit said.
â€śCharters have a governance structure that allows them to make changes to staff and school quicker and if theyâ€™re not seeing results, can be shut down sooner,â€ť Stuit said.
But the biggest problem is not so much that leaders canâ€™t improve failing schools. Itâ€™s that so many students cannot access high-quality schools, Stuit said. Thatâ€™s why itâ€™s important to not just close failing schools, but to start new ones and replicate good ones, Smarick said.
â€śWe have to get to a point in urban areas where we portfolio-manage without regard to sector,â€ť Smarick said. â€śThat means ignoring who runs schools and instead focusing on their quality. Failing district schools should be closed just as failing charters should be closed.â€ť
â€śNo one I know, other than USDOE, is willing to speak highly of SIG,â€ť Smarick concluded. â€śThe results are just too disheartening.â€ť