sig: the sequel

Did Obama’s federal school turnaround program really fail?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius read to students enrolled in a Head Start program at Rolling Terrace Elementary School March 1, 2013 in Takoma Park, Maryland. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

It has become a talking point for Betsy DeVos and a powerful example of the challenges of turning around struggling schools: a national study, released by the federal government, showing that its multibillion-dollar turnaround program failed.

“The previous administration spent seven billion of your dollars on ‘School Improvement Grants,’ thinking they could demonstrate that money alone would solve the problem,” DeVos said soon after becoming education secretary. “They tested their model, and it failed miserably.”

A new report says, not so fast. It points to studies of places like San Francisco, where the approach seemed to help students, and the limitations of the government’s study to conclude that the federal report painted too grim a picture.

“The autopsy on the grant program is flawed and its core conclusion faulty,” says the analysis, released by FutureEd, a Georgetown-based think tank generally supportive of Obama-era education policies.

It’s a year-old debate that remains relevant, as the study has become a touchstone for the idea that the federal government is unable to help long-struggling schools improve. And it comes as states, now with more freedom, are grappling with how to intervene in their lowest performing schools.

The federal turnaround program, known as School Improvement Grants or SIG, was a signature initiative of the Obama administration. In exchange for federal money, schools had to make changes, but had to use one of four approaches. About three-quarters chose the least disruptive option: firing the principal and making adjustments like lengthening the school day or toughening their teacher evaluations. Others replaced the principal and half the teaching staff. Few chose the other options, turning a school over to charter school operator or closing it altogether.

The initiative was evaluated by the external research firm Mathematica and the American Institutes for Research and released by the education department’s research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences. The results, released in January 2017, weren’t pretty.

“There was also no evidence that SIG had significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment,” the study said.

The FutureEd report, written by two former Department of Education officials, suggests those conclusions are flawed for a few reasons, some of which were noted when the study was first released.

For one, it points out that even if School Improvement Grants successfully improved students’ academic outcomes, that would have been hard for the study to detect because the study’s bar for “statistical significance” was a very high one to clear.

The study actually estimated that the grants led to modest boosts in reading test scores and small declines in high school graduation rates — but neither impact was statistically significant, which is what the researchers mean when they say they found “no evidence.”

One of the report’s researchers, Lisa Dragoset of Mathematica, defended its approach. Setting a high bar for significance is reasonable for a program, like SIG, that was quite costly, she said. And even ignoring statistical significance, the estimated gains in reading were small and essentially zero in math, she noted.

“It’s unlikely that there were substantive or large impacts that were undetected by our study,” she said.

Second, FutureEd points out that the subset of schools in the federal study were not representative of all schools receiving federal grants.

The study compared schools receiving SIG grants to those schools near the eligibility cutoff that didn’t get grants. This is a widely used approach, but the FutureEd authors point out that the results then don’t say much about the effects of the grants on the lowest-performing schools. The studied schools were also disproportionately urban.

The new report also highlights a number of studies that focus on specific states and cities which paint a much more positive picture of the initiative. Most, though not all, of these studies find that the grants had positive effects on test scores.

“There are legitimate questions of whether the SIG program represented the best way to use federal funding to improve struggling schools,” the FutureEd authors conclude. “But it is wrong to suggest that there was no return on the SIG investment.”

Dragoset acknowledges that national results might not apply to all SIG schools, but says there’s nothing inconsistent with seeing no clear national effect but positive results in certain states.

“Ours, to my knowledge, is the only large-scale, rigorous study of the SIG program nationwide,” she said.

Dan Goldhaber, a University of Washington professor and vice president at the American Institutes for Research who reviewed the FutureEd report, said the limits of the federal study suggest policymakers shouldn’t “jump to the conclusion that the SIG program didn’t work.” But the study “was competently done,” he said.

The FutureEd analysis concludes that the U.S. Department of Education should spearhead a review of the research on turning around struggling schools. Tom Dee, a Stanford professor who found that the federal grants led to higher test scores in California schools, echoed this.

“I believe the question we should be asking is the following: why do federal reform catalysts seem to generate positive change in some states and communities but mere cosmetic regulatory compliance in others?” he said. “It seems to me that knowing more about the answer to that question is critical to efforts to drive meaningful change at scale.”

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.

next steps

Adams 14 pledges ‘transformational change’ as Colorado revisits school improvement plans

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

Two Colorado school districts face critical hearings this fall that will determine how much autonomy they’ll retain after failing to turn around years of dismal performance.

Two schools in the Pueblo 60 district in southern Colorado, Adams City High School, and the entire Adams 14 district based in Commerce City are now in their eighth year on a state watchlist and will need to come back before the State Board of Education in November to explain why improvement plans approved last year didn’t generate the hoped-for progress in student achievement.

These hearings will mark the first time state officials revisit the school and district improvement plans. While state takeover isn’t on the table, as it has been in other states, they could tell school administrators to keep working on their plans, make small tweaks, or order more drastic intervention, including closing schools, turning over management to outside organizations or even dissolving districts, though that last option would be politically challenging.

A spokesman for the Adams 14 district said leaders there recognize they need to make “transformational change.”

“We will have to prove to the state board that we are serious this time,” said Alex Sanchez, the district spokesman. “We’ve been at this eight years, and we need to be reflective of those eight years and make sure we are moving forward with an actual plan that will truly address the needs of Adams 14 children.”

The Colorado Department of Education released preliminary school ratings based on spring test scores and other data late last month. Adams 14 remained on “priority improvement,” the second lowest tier in the state’s five-tiered rating system for districts.

Through multiple school boards and three superintendents, the district did not meet promises to raise scores enough to escape from the state’s watchlist — also known as the accountability clock. The State Board of Education last year gave Adams 14 just one year to demonstrate progress. Most other schools and districts on the list got at least two years to see if their plans yielded better outcomes.

In test scores and then ratings released in August, Adams 14 showed some areas of improvement, but not enough to raise the state’s overall rating for the district.

Schools and districts can appeal their ratings, and they don’t become final until December.

Adams 14 may appeal the ratings of up to three schools, and that could change the district’s overall rating. But Sanchez said Superintendent Javier Abrego, his new leadership team, and the school board recognize that the district needs to make large-scale changes regardless of the outcome of those appeals.

“It’s not about going after a decimal of a point here and there,” Sanchez said. “We really need to address the hard realities.”

State education officials don’t want to wait too long before looking at next steps for struggling schools and districts.

“We’re moving forward,” Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Alyssa Pearson told the state board earlier this month.

Colorado Department of Education

A state review panel will visit Adams 14 schools and make recommendations by October. The state also plans to solicit written feedback from community members before the next hearing.

State accountability officials want the state board to render a decision on the same day as the hearing.

The quick turnaround is intended to allow plenty of planning time if the state board wants to order more substantial changes. The first time the state board reviewed improvement plans, in spring 2017, it largely accepted districts’ proposals and shied away from more aggressive interventions.

But some board members complained that the short time frame essentially gave them no choice. How, for example, were they to order turning over school management to a charter organization for the next school year if no potential operator had been identified in the spring?

Will the state board press for more changes this time? That remains to be seen. State board member Jane Goff asked skeptically if her fellow board members want districts to “start from scratch” and suggested these meetings would be a “check-in” rather than a full hearing.

Board member Val Flores said pushing for too much change can hurt kids.

“We want change for the better, but change can hurt — and the people who hurt the most are kids,” she said. “We can’t hurry along a process that is going to take time.”

The improvement plan for the 7,500-student Adams 14 district includes a partnership with Beyond Textbooks, an Arizona-based nonprofit now also working in the Sheridan district. The nonprofit’s role in Adams 14 includes training teachers to help students reach state standards and to better work with students who don’t grasp material the first time, as well as train coaches for teachers.

The improvement plan was partly tied to a biliteracy program that the district has put on hold, a source of ongoing disagreement and frustration in the district, which has one of the highest percentages of English language learners in the state.

The pressures of turnaround work have frayed relationships with the community and with district staff, with parents pushing back against the loss of the biliteracy program, cuts to recess, and other changes. The top leadership team saw extensive turnover in the past year, and the board president resigned.

Communication has not always been smooth either. State officials went to Adams 14 board meetings throughout the year to provide updates, often alerting the school board that the district was not on track to meet targets. School board members were sometimes surprised to hear the news. After hearing the concerns of one state official at a meeting in February, board members argued about whose responsibility it was to keep up progress toward the state-ordered plan.

Sanchez said district officials and board members know they need to work with the state and that the district may need outside help to make big changes.

“Moving forward, we have to think big, we have to think bold, we have to think transformational change,” he said. “It will take many resources and many strategic partners to get that work done.”

Chair Angelika Schroeder said the state board will be focused on the needs of students.

“Poor education hurts kids,” she said. “The kids are why we’re thinking about intervening in a district.”

Reporter Yesenia Robles contributed.