Researchers: Federal School Improvement Billions Didn’t Improve Schools

Published December 5, 2012

The federal government’s strategy of spending billions to fix failing public schools has accomplished nothing significant, according to figures from a newly released U.S. Department of Education analysis.

From 2009-2010 to 2010-2011, federal researchers tracked schools where average student test scores failed to meet federal benchmarks for at least two years in a row. Federal grants sponsored new staff, consultants, professional development, and longer class time. In a third of the 733 schools, average student test scores declined. A quarter of the schools improved before receiving the grants, then slid back after receiving the money and implementing the federally mandated changes.

The department highlighted that one-quarter of School Improvement Grant (SIG) schools made “double-digit gains” in math and 15 percent did so in reading, but it did not release exact pre- or post-intervention average test scores or say how many gains, if any, were statistically significant.

“Double-digit gains” could mean simply that a school went from 10 percent to 20 percent proficient in math, meaning the great majority of children attending still can barely perform basic academic functions, notes Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education.

In math, 40 percent of SIG schools made “single digit gains” and 49 percent did so in reading, the department said.

The annual SIG budget is approximately half a billion a year, but the 2009 stimulus bill added an extra $3 billion.

Several times during his 2012 campaign, President Obama told voters the turnaround program had helped “schools that were having a terrible time” start to “make progress.”

A 2010 Thomas B. Fordham Institute study that tracked 2,000 low-performing public schools found four of five remained open and chronically poor-performing despite five years of reform efforts.


Learn more:
“Are Bad Schools Immortal?” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, December 2010:

Image by Olivia Blackburn.