School improvement grants produce mixed results

November 19, 2012

A federal program that pumped a record $3 billion into failing schools has shown mixed early results, with more than one-third of the targeted schools doing worse after receiving funding, according to initial government results released Monday.

With the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — the spending package to stimulate the economy — Congress carved out $3 billion for school improvement grants. The Obama administration awarded up to $2 million to each of more than 1,300 of the country’s worst schools, the greatest federal investment ever targeted at failing schools. The money is being spent in phases over three years.

The data released Monday reflected test scores in about 730 schools in the 2010-2011 school year, the first year the schools received the funds. The government said more comprehensive data will be made public in January.

Locally, schools receiving the funds include four in Prince George’s County, 13 public schools and one public charter school in the District and one high school in Alexandria.

The preliminary report found that about two-thirds of schools showed gains in math and two-thirds recorded gains in reading. Elementary schools posted stronger results than middle and high schools, the report said. And rural schools did as well as schools in cities and suburbs.

But more than one-third scored worse in reading and math than before they received the grants. Thirty-four percent of the schools posted lower math scores while 37 percent had lower reading scores, the report said.

“There’s dramatic change happening in these schools, and in the long-term process of turning around the nation’s lowest-
performing schools, one year of test scores only tells a small piece of the story,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, emphasizing that the scores were preliminary.

But Andrew Smarick, a fellow at the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a partner at Bellwether Education, a consulting firm, said he was stunned by the number of schools that had lost ground.

“These are the most dysfunctional schools in America, in the most dysfunctional districts in America, and the idea that we can give these districts more money to fix problems is just wrong-
headed,” Smarick said. “We’re spending billions, and one-third of these schools are going backwards.”

The school improvement grants had been part of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law. But the stimulus spending increased the budget for the grants sixfold.

And under the Obama administration, any school accepting a grant had to agree to adopt one of four controversial strategies: Replace the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff, create new governance and implement new or revised instructional programs; close the school and enroll students in another better-
performing school; close the school and reopen it as a charter school; or transform the school through new instructional strategies, more learning time, better leadership and other techniques.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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