Education Week

New York

Nationally, federal turnaround funding generates mixed reviews

New York City's controversial school turnaround proposals represent a tiny piece of a sweeping effort, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, to overhaul the country's lowest-performing schools. In the first of three articles about the reform effort produced by Education Week, The Hechinger Report, and the Education Writers Association, Alyson Klein examines the effects of federal School Improvement Grants on districts across the country — and the grants' uncertain future. GothamSchools was one of a dozen news organizations to contribute to the reporting. 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 jumpstarted 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 2010-11 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: