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.
With the flood of cash came new, tighter strings. Eligible schools — identified through a complex, multi-tiered process — are among what the Education Department often describes as a state's bottom 5 percent academically. Schools taking the money have to adopt one of four controversial improvement models. In some cases, at least half of a school's teaching staff must be replaced. A school might be converted into a charter school — or even shut down. And no matter which option is chosen, a school's principal must be removed, unless that person has been on the job for under three years.
Federal officials defend that prescriptive approach. They say that, in the past, states had failed to pick rigorous turnaround options — such as taking over a school or turning it into a charter — when given a broader menu of choices.
"Schools literally got worse," said Duncan. "The children that need the most help, the majority of them, got less help than before. That was absolutely crazy to me; that's what I was fighting against" in overhauling the SIG program.
So far, the department has examined results for roughly 700 of the 850 schools that joined the program in 2010-2011, and it plans to release more information on student results later this year. During the first year of the program, the proportion of students who were proficient in math or reading went up in roughly 60 percent of SIG schools, Duncan said.
But some state and local leaders still chafe at what they see as a heavy-handed federal approach.
"It's too restrictive. They mandated these models before they even researched them," said Keith Rheault, who served more than a decade as Nevada's superintendent of public instruction, before retiring on April 2. "We're testing it out."
From the get-go, the program has been reviled on Capitol Hill as Exhibit A for those arguing against federal overreach in K-12 education. Congressional critics — Democrats and Republicans alike — assail what they see as arbitrary staffing requirements, a lack of options for rural schools, and a wobbly research base. The program is almost certain to get an extreme makeover, and its funding remains in jeopardy.
In an April 11 report, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the Education Department failed to do enough to ensure that states and districts monitor the performance of contractors hired with SIG funds. GAO also recommended that the department do a better job of spelling out how states should make "evidence-based" decisions about whether to remove schools' grants. The report found that among 23 of the 44 states responding to a GAO question about such decisions, most or all of the schools that had their funding renewed failed to meet annual goals.
In a formal response, Michael Yudin, the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, called the GAO report "incomplete and somewhat misleading." He agreed that the Education Department needs to do a better job of helping districts and states decide when to pull the plug on a grant. But he disagreed with the contention on contractors, saying that the department has made it clear that states and districts must monitor contractors' performance.
Still, a majority of urban school district officials think the program has the potential to deliver lasting change to long-foundering schools, according to a survey by the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization in Washington, D.C., that represents the nation's urban school districts.
Some state leaders are upbeat as well. "Overall, I'm optimistic and positive about the grants," said Mark Coscarella, assistant director in the Office of Education Improvement and Innovation at the Michigan Department of Education. "I think we've seen schools really take on the challenge of making some really important improvements."
Schools have made big changes against a tight clock, a consequence of the program's genesis: the 2009 stimulus package, which sought to pump job-boosting federal money into the economy. Although the grants run for three years, some school districts got their money just weeks before the start of the 2010-2011 school year.
That left many districts with little time to find principals or teachers and sell the reforms to the community. A report by the GAO had criticized the federal Education Department for taking too long to process applications, which did not give districts and schools enough time to figure out the program's tricky framework.
Local school leaders say they are still recovering from the crunch.
"There's a lot to do in a short period of time," said Philip Yaccick, principal of the Weston Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Detroit, which received a $1.8 million SIG grant. "In an ordinary situation, there's a little more time to create the change, but then also [to] implement and solidify the change."
But federal officials defend the accelerated timeline from both a job-creation and school-turnaround standpoint.
"Our children had waited too long. We realized we should not — we could not — wait any longer," said Jason Snyder, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.
By far, districts and schools have had the toughest time with the SIG program's human resources requirements, which demand big changes in how schools deal with staff under all four of the federal models.
Even the most flexible of those models — "transformation," the one chosen by nearly three-quarters of participating schools — requires districts to devise teacher-evaluation systems that take student performance into account.
The task has proven so difficult that last August, the federal Education Department gave states and districts until the start of the 2013-2014 school year to have the systems fully implemented for use in teacher compensation and retention decisions. But the process has been rocky: Earlier this year, New York state for a time withheld SIG money from New York City when the city teachers union and the district struggled to reach agreement on an evaluation system.
Under a number of models, districts and schools have struggled to replace long-serving teachers and principals. More than half of participating large urban districts said they didn't have enough time to hire qualified staff, according to the urban schools group survey.
Some schools using the second-most popular option — "turnaround," which calls for getting rid of at least half a school's staff — scrambled to fill slots, or hired scores of novice teachers. For example, an analysis by the Courier-Journal, of Louisville, found that 60 new hires across seven SIG schools, or more than 40 percent, were new to the profession.
To lure qualified educators, some districts, including Nevada's Clark County, spent SIG funding on signing bonuses to attract experienced teachers. Indiana and other states turned to alternative training programs such as Teach For America, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that places new college graduates in under-resourced schools. And in Chicago, some schools are partnering with the Academy for Urban School Leadership, where prospective educators spend a "residency" year working with a master teacher.
Some schools kept most of their teaching forces, but used their SIG funds for extensive professional development. Chicago's Hancock High School spent part of its grant on three "interventionists" — master teachers in reading, math and writing who teach demonstration lessons and work with students and teachers individually.
"When you have a brand-new set of teachers, it's difficult to know how it will play out," said Pam Glynn, the Hancock principal. "They may be well-versed in content, but may come from a different socioeconomic group and may struggle to connect with the kids."
The nation's rural schools, which account for about a fifth of SIG schools overall, have opted mainly for the flexible "transformation" model, which doesn't call for a big staffing shake-up, but requires schools to replace the principal, create new teacher-evaluation systems and add learning time to the school day.
"We're not Denver," said George Welsh, superintendent of the 600-student Center Consolidated School District, which has a single elementary school. "We didn't think that just firing half of our teachers and hiring whatever was available out there was necessarily going to be a higher-quality option than what we currently have."
In some cases, schools have promised to hire instructional coaches and other support staff, only to find a dearth of qualified applicants, said Caitlin Scott, a consultant for the Center on Education Policy, a research organization in Washington that has closely studied SIG implementation in Idaho, Maryland and Michigan.
"The money doesn't create new people," she said. "The problem of staffing a hard-to-staff school is more complicated, and we haven't really solved that problem yet."
Finding principals with track records in turnarounds has also been tough. In some cases, districts shuffled principals from one SIG school to another — in New York City, the new leader for Grover Cleveland High School came from Queens Vocational High School, another school getting federal improvement funds.
And in other places, jobs sat vacant while districts searched for the right candidate. DePue High School, in the tiny town of DePue, Ill., didn't find a new principal until its second year in the program. Baltimore, which brought in outside groups to manage five of its seven SIG schools under the little-used "restart" option, saw a big turnover in principals: Two of those schools went through three principals in the first year, while another had its principal replaced mid-year.
Some local leaders remain skeptical of the principal-removal requirement.
"I question the research behind that particular element," said Barbara VanSweden, the superintendent of the Fitzgerald School District, in the metropolitan Detroit area. "I look at our situation and the fact that our principal has begun to make improvements in the area of student achievement."
But others see the approach as promising. More than half of 46 state Title I directors — who oversee programs for disadvantaged students — said that replacing the principal was a key element to improving student achievement in "transformation" and "turnaround" schools, according to a survey by the Center on Education Policy.
Juggling the schedule
Even interventions with broader political support — such as adding more learning time to the school day — have bumped up against realities such as teacher contracts and bus schedules. Some schools have simply juggled instructional time already in their schedules.
Other schools funneled their dollars into before- or after-school programs. Memorial Middle School, in Orlando, Fla., now has a "zero" period at the start of the day, a time when students can come an hour early and work on reading and math skills using computer programs, or finish homework. The school also offers Saturday classes.
Still other schools have added time to the regular day — though sometimes not much. Weston Preparatory Academy, in Detroit, tacked 15 minutes onto its school day. West Seattle Elementary School in Washington state used its SIG grant to add four days to the school year and an extra 15 minutes every day.
"Some people might say, 'Oh, 15 minutes, that's nothing,' " said the Seattle school's principal, Vicki Sacco. "But every moment counts."
Faced with the technical and logistical challenges of putting $3 billion in SIG money to use on a tight deadline, states have enlisted an array of consultants, including for-profit companies, nonprofit turnaround specialists and postsecondary institutions.
But tracking that cash — and determining whether schools have gotten their money's worth —remains daunting. The federal government does not tally how private educational consultants have benefited from the turnaround windfall, nor do most states, according to an analysis published by The Denver Post in February. In about 15 states that agreed to tally such spending, an average of roughly 25 percent of all SIG money went to private consultants.
In Colorado — one of the few states willing to do such a tally — consultants took home $9.4 million, or 35 percent of the state's $26.6 million in SIG money in the past two years. That's paid for instructional coaches for teachers, leadership coaches for principals, analysts to pore over student data, and pricey professional-development seminars on changing school culture.
Even some contractors who offer services to SIG schools have raised alarm bells about the lack of accountability for outside groups.
"These schools require truly comprehensive services, from instructional to operational support," said Jennifer Shea, a senior program manager at the School Turnaround Group, part of the Boston-based Mass Insight Education, which is working with six states on turnarounds. "Very few organizations currently have the capacity do this work. ... I don't think these types of providers necessarily have the wrong intentions, but we need stricter standards for how partners are being selected and monitored."
The program has seen some well-publicized stumbles along the way. Several news organizations, for example, have looked at the experience of one consultant working in SIG schools in Colorado, the New York City-based Global Partnership Schools.
GPS was founded by Rudy Crew, a former head of the New York City and Miami school systems, and by Manuel Rivera, a former superintendent of the Rochester, N.Y., schools. (Crew left the company last fall.) The company operates SIG schools in Baltimore; Bridgeport, Conn.; and Pueblo, Colo.
In Pueblo, for example, where GPS has a $7.4 million contract, student performance slipped further at five of the six schools the company operates, The Denver Post reported.
At the GPS-operated school in Baltimore, Garrison Middle School, nearly every indicator of quality has dropped since GPS took over in 2010, The Baltimore Sun found.
But GPS seems to have had much more success at Harding High School in Bridgeport, where early indicators, like attendance and school climate, have improved, according to staff and students, The Connecticut Mirror reported.
In an email to Education Week, Rivera said that turning around a school is a lengthy process, and that states shouldn't expect big changes in student achievement overnight.
"Some of the most-respected researchers in America concur that transforming or turning around a chronically low-performing school is a multiyear process," he stated.
States also have taken some steps to address provider quality. Fourteen states have offered districts an approved list of outside providers, according to the CEP survey of Title I directors.
And some states and districts are beginning to rework their relationships with consultants. Indiana is revisiting its approach after a number of school districts switched consultants or severed their relationships in favor of providing services in-house.
"We don't want anything off the shelf from them," said Jim Larson, the state's director for school improvement and turnaround. "We want them to work for the schools. We're asking, 'How can you be an extra set of eyes in the classroom?' Then we're shaping the scope of their services around schools' needs."
Snyder, the Education Department's SIG chief, said that districts have brought in outside providers to help with the "challenging work" of turning around schools.
The program "gives districts the flexibility, through a rigorous screening process, to seek outside help that will meet their local needs," Snyder said. "And on the rare occasion that an external provider doesn't work out, we have seen districts end that relationship and find another solution."
Future in doubt
Meanwhile, the turnaround program is on thin ice on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are sympathetic to those clamoring for greater local flexibility on turnarounds, including teachers unions, principals' organizations, and advocates for district and state officials.
"We're concerned that locking into a specific set of models might hinder innovation in the school-turnaround space," said Peter Zamora, director of federal relations for the Council of Chief State School Officers, in Washington, D.C.
The Obama administration has made its vision of the School Improvement Grant program —with its four signature models — a top priority in proposals to rewrite the NCLB law. But the headwinds are strong.
A U.S. Senate committee, as part of its push to overhaul that law, has approved a change that would let states come up with their own improvement strategies and submit them to the U.S. Secretary of Education for approval. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have sought to defund the program, and the House education committee recently approved a bill that would wipe it out entirely.
Even if the program survives, it seems likely that the nation's lowest-performing schools will never see another turnaround bonanza like the stimulus law's $3 billion in SIG money.
That has local officials already worrying about what may happen when the dollars disappear.
"The challenge for me is to create structures that will sustain over time, so when the money goes away, we can still do it," said Lionel Jackson, Jr., principal of Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts High in Baltimore. "But the important question is: If this all goes away, can we keep up the momentum?"
This story was produced by Education Week, The Hechinger Report, and the Education Writers Association. Additional reporting was contributed by Leslie Postal of the Orlando Sentinel, Sarah Karp of Catalyst Chicago, Brian Rosenthal of the Seattle Times, Nancy Mitchell of Ed News Colorado, Liz Bowie and Erica L. Green of The Baltimore Sun, Paul Takahashi of the Las Vegas Sun, Jennifer Jordan of the Providence Journal, Jennifer Brown of the Denver Post, Scott Elliott of the Indianapolis Star, Antoinette Konz of the (Louisville) Courier-Journal, Rachel Cromidas and Philissa Cramer of GothamSchools, and Lori Higgins of the Detroit Free Press.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun