After two years, the federal program providing billions of dollars to help states and districts close or remake some of their worst-performing schools remains an ambitious work in progress, with roughly 1,200 turnaround efforts under way but still no verdict on its effectiveness.
The School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, supercharged by a $3 billion windfall under the federal economic-stimulus program in 2009, has jump-started aggressive moves by states and districts. To get their share of the money, they had to quickly identify some of their most academically troubled schools, craft new teacher-evaluation systems, and carve out more time for instruction, among other steps.
Some schools and districts spent millions of dollars on outside experts and consultants. Others went through the politically ticklish process of replacing teachers and principals, while combating community skepticism and meeting the demands of district and state overseers.
It's not at all clear if the federal prescription can cure the most ailing schools and lead to long-term improvements, but preliminary student achievement data for the program offer some promise. The U.S. Department of Education looked at about 700 of the schools in their second year of the program and found that a quarter of them posted double-digit gains in math during the 2010-2011 school year. Another 20 percent showed similar progress in reading.
A collaborative reporting project drawing on the efforts of more than 20 news organizations and affiliated journalists paints a mixed picture of how the SIG program is playing out on the ground. The major findings show:
•States have pulled SIG money from at least a dozen schools that showed anemic progress on early indicators of success, such as teacher and student attendance, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
•Five schools in Pueblo City, Colo., have seen student performance sink even lower after awarding a $7.4 million grant to an outside provider.
•A plan for a new teacher-evaluation system in New York City led to a temporary loss in turnaround funding after city officials clashed with the local teachers union.
•Schools nationwide, especially those in rural areas, are wrestling with personnel and leadership changes driven by the program's requirements, along with a mandate to add extra time to the instructional day.
At the same time, the program's supporters can point to encouraging — though early —developments.
In Louisville, Ky., a handful of long-troubled schools posted double-digit gains in its state math scores after just one year in the program. An elementary school in an isolated corner of Colorado saw a 9-point spike in its state math scores, and smaller gains in other subjects.
Other schools haven't seen big jumps in achievement yet but are beginning to glimpse a new school culture, including improved discipline and attendance. Some of the best early reviews come from students, who say their schools are calmer and more academically rigorous.
"I feel more safe, and I feel like I'm learning more. They are starting to have challenges for us," said Jasmine Dukes, a seventh-grader at Friendship Preparatory Academy at Calverton, formerly Calverton Middle School, in Baltimore.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also sees signs of recovery in schools across the country, even as he cautions that it's still too early to draw conclusions about the program's effectiveness.
"Big picture, there's really significant movement in a very short amount of time, which I think a lot of folks felt wasn't possible," Duncan said. But he doesn't expect overnight success: "This is really, really hard work; there's a reason the country took a pass on this for a couple of decades."
All of which argues for caution in assessing the program's effectiveness so far.
"There's evidence on both sides of the coin," said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University and a leading researcher on school improvement. "This is not the Oldsmobile of comprehensive school reform. ... [This is] a souped-up model coming hard and fast and getting big changes quick. ... The big question is whether those changes are going to lead to improvement."
The current SIG program is a bolder version of a once-sleepy program created under the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 to help states turn around their lowest-performing schools. In its original form, the program never topped $500 million in federal funding — less than one-half of 1 percent of current federal education spending overall.
But in 2009, federal lawmakers — in passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and with little debate — poured an additional $3 billion into SIG. That sent districts scrambling for a share of the three-year competitive grants, worth up to $2 million annually to perennially struggling schools.