January 18, 2017; Mathematica Policy Research
Making America’s public education system great was the goal of Presidents Bush and Obama. President Trump also sees the problems in our public schools as needing action—so much so that he included his dire assessment of the current state of public education in his inauguration speech. Despite controversy about whether or not this is the province of the federal government, billions of dollars of federal money have been spent on efforts to improve our schools and make good on the promise that all children would receive a high quality education. “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top,” “Every Student Succeeds”—these are the stirring titles given to a string of initiatives.
Some details differ, but common to all is a conviction that school problems are the result of internal weaknesses; poor teachers, bad principals, constraining union rules, and a lack of choice are the obstacles that must be overcome. The proven impact of external forces like poverty on student learning has been ignored. The consensus has been that radical change is necessary, that the traditional public school is no longer effective, and only disruptive change can cure the problems.
One of the Obama administration’s first efforts to move down this path was included as part of the $831 economic stimulus package passed to prod the economy back to life after the 2007 Great Recession. Within the $831 billion of stimulus investment was $100 billion focused on education. Part of this pool of funding was $3.1 billion for School Improvement Grants (SIG), which became “one of the Obama administration’s signature programs and one of the largest federal government investments in an education grant program.”
The SIG program awarded grants to states that agreed to implement one of four school intervention models—transformation, turnaround, restart, or closure—in their lowest-performing schools. Each of the models prescribed specific practices designed to improve student outcomes, including outcomes for high-need students.
Targeted at poorly performing schools, SIGs offered schools the choice of four highly disruptive strategies as the key to improvement. All the approaches see internal failure as the driving cause behind bad schools. They use test scores to sift out bad teachers from good, use charters to create better schools, and give tacit support to the attacks on the teachers’ unions many reformers have seen as essential to success. The U.S. Department of Education defined the strategies available to schools quite finely:
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- Transformation. This model required schools to replace the principal, adopt a teacher and principal evaluation system that accounted for student achievement growth as a significant factor, adopt a new governance structure, institute comprehensive instructional reforms, increase learning time, create community-oriented schools, and have operational flexibility.
- Turnaround. This model required schools to replace the principal, replace at least 50 percent of the school staff, institute comprehensive instructional reforms, increase learning time, create community-oriented schools, and have operational flexibility.
- Restart. This model required schools to convert to a charter school or close and reopen under the management of a charter management organization or education management organization.
- School closure. This model required districts to close schools and enroll their students in higher-achieving schools within the district.
A $3.1 billion carrot was waved in front of cash-starved schools to entice them to try these approaches. Almost eight years later, we can now see the results, and they do not support these strategies as a path to follow any farther.
Overall, across all grades, we found that implementing any SIG-funded model had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.
That’s the conclusion reached by a team of Mathematica Public Policy researchers working under contract for the U.S. Education Department. Because components of these approaches are part of many wider efforts, like the attempts in many states to use similar approaches to teacher evaluation and retention, these findings have broader relevance beyond the SIG program:
In particular, the school improvement practices promoted by SIG were also promoted in the Race to the Top program. In addition, some of the SIG-promoted practices focused on teacher evaluation and compensation policies that were also a focus of Teacher Incentive Fund grants. All three of these programs involved large investments to support the use of practices with the goal of improving student outcomes. The findings presented in this report do not lend much support for the SIG program having achieved this goal, as the program did not appear to have had an impact on the practices used by schools or on student outcomes.
Those who are convinced that the SIGs’ path was the right one will argue that these efforts failed not because the strategies were wrong but because the schools that tried to implement them did so badly, and that the right answer is to get better people on the job trying. While that is possible, maybe it’s time to consider that with eight years of experience behind these results, we should reassess our conclusions.—Martin Levine