Early Results Indicate $4.6 Billion in School Turnarounds a Waste

Published January 22, 2014

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, federal data show, and analysts and educators are questioning the program.

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 schools’ academic performance improved, many worsened.

“SIG is almost certainly going to go down as one of the U.S. Department of Education’s biggest and most expensive mistakes—possibly the biggest,” said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners. “Schools are getting millions, and we’re just not seeing anything close to the gains that were promised and are needed.”

According to the report, which is now under review because of 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.

“It’s going to be a few more years before we really understand the effect that SIGs have,” said David Stuit, a researcher at Basis Policy Research who has studied school turnaround efforts. “You might expect regression with an implementation dip. In the early years these schools are forming new cultures.… This is radical change.”

Will More Time Help?
Although U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stands behind the grants, stating time will prove them effective, Smarick says the money is simply wasted spending.

“This 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,” Smarick said. “I’m disappointed USDOE hasn’t admitted its mistake and changed course, but I’m not surprised. It’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.”

Very few poorly performing public schools ever significantly improve, Stuit said, and the big question is whether these minor gains for SIG schools will increase or fade.

“We don’t have evidence whether [turnarounds] work,” he said.”It’s still an open question and still early to know what these average proficiencies and increases for certain schools mean.”

Closures, Restructuring
Denise Watts, community superintendent of a failing school zone in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district of North Carolina, works with three SIG schools.

Watts’ schools are experimenting with improvement mechanisms called “opportunity culture,” 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 isn’t convinced any specific reform ushered in the change.

“There are all types of ways that we have tried to solve school problems,” she said. “School issues are huge, ambiguous problems to solve, with many layers. It’s not a linear process. I think it’s very difficult to say SIG did or did not work.”

Charters a Potential Lift
Turning poor-performing schools into charter schools may be an effective way to improve them, Stuit said.

“Charters have a governance structure that allows them to make changes to staff and school quicker, and if they’re not seeing results, can be shut down sooner,” Stuit said.

But the biggest problem is not so much that leaders can’t improve failing schools. It’s that so many students cannot access high-quality schools, Stuit said. That’s why it’s important to not just close failing schools, but to start new ones and replicate good ones, Smarick said.

“We have to get to a point in urban areas where we portfolio-manage without regard to sector,” Smarick said. “That means ignoring who runs schools and instead focusing on their quality. Failing district schools should be closed just as failing charters should be closed.”

“No one I know, other than USDOE, is willing to speak highly of SIG,” Smarick concluded. “The results are just too disheartening.”


Image by Kevin Jarrett.