School Improvement Grants and the Lessons of History

There is no doubt in my mind that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cares deeply about disadvantaged kids. He deserves our admiration and respect for bringing a renewed sense of urgency to addressing America’s persistently failing schools.

His devotion to the hope of school turnarounds is rooted in very real and very painful experiences. When he closed a number of underperforming schools during his tenure as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, many displaced students were moved into similarly low-performing schools, and worse, inadvertently exposed to gang violence.

I’m certain this heartrending episode influenced him profoundly. I’m sure he committed himself to finding a better way to help boys and girls assigned to schools that weren’t working. I sincerely commend him for that sentiment and the passion behind it.

But this sentiment and passion also blinded him and his team.

Hence the tragedy of School Improvement Grants (SIG).

Mountains of studies had clearly demonstrated over many years that the success rate of school-turnaround efforts was miniscule. The research showed that regardless of the intervention used or the amount of money spent, persistently low-performing schools stubbornly remained that way.

I will never know if the Department of Education simply hadn’t done its homework or if it had but believed that it could defy the lessons of the past. I suspect the latter was the primary culprit.

Slogans like “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” followed by a history-changing election, didn’t exactly infuse early Obama administration officials with a sense of modesty. Instead, they were imbued with an exaggerated sense of the possible. In the new era of Hope and Change, acceding to history’s caution flag would be tantamount to defeatism.

Yes, We Can! …Do Anything.

And so it was that $5 billion dollars of taxpayer money was invested in a venture with a decades-long unmitigated history of failure. So much of the education-reform community was so desirous of Duncan’s success—one of our own!—that it suspended disbelief and too fell victim to the Turnaround Craze.

Nearly a year ago to the day, the Department released dreadful first-year SIG data, results far worse than even an inveterate turnaround skeptic would’ve predicted. Fully one-third of schools receiving SIG funding and interventions had either made no progress or actually gotten worse. Just as bad, though the package of material made available by the Department was conspicuously thin, it still couldn’t hide that most of the schools that had made progress had only barely improved.

When critics confronted the administration with the implications of these grim findings, the Department, unchastened, decided against reassessing its position and instead followed the well-worn script of previous floundering turnaround proponents. “This is just the first year. With more money and more time, this will work.”

But this year’s results obstinately give lie to the notion that time and money are on the administration’s side. In fact, the data is so discouraging that even the Department’s press statement found it difficult to conceal disappointment.

There was a time when Secretary Duncan confidently discussed turning around 5,000 of the nation’s lowest-performing schools. He talked about “dramatic” and fundamental” change. He said, “We want transformation, not tinkering.”

But after two years of results, the most sanguine assessment the Department’s team could muster was “incremental” progress.

Needless to say, we did not spend $5 billion for incremental change.

Despite another year of lots of money and lots of effort, the first SIG cohort made virtually no progress: We’re two years in, and still one-third of these schools have gone backward or remained in neutral.

Even worse, across all cohort-one schools, the average reading-proficiency increase was a mere five points—a cost of one billion dollars for each point of improvement in reading proficiency.

The Department tried its very best to frame this as a success by showing that this five-point gain was better than the two-point gain seen in all U.S. schools over the same period. But not only is it barely better, SIG schools got millions of dollars and are the lowest-performing schools in America. The most modest interventions should’ve helped, not to mention the statistical phenomenon of regression to the mean.

It is noticeable that the Department did not compare SIG results to other low-income schools or schools that applied for but didn’t receive SIG funding. Such comparisons almost certainly would’ve been even more unflattering.

The second cohort is somehow doing even worse. For example, after a year of funding and interventions, 38 percent of schools went backward and 7 percent made no progress in math. That means that in these 144 schools, we’re spending about $300 million and getting absolutely no results.

In reading, across all of cohort two, the average school gained just a single point in reading proficiency. That’s the same amount as all schools nationally.

But the coup de grâce was that all of the intervention models failed to produce true turnarounds. Some observers contended that the stronger models would far outperform the weaker models, giving the Department something to hang its hat on—e.g., “Had districts chosen tougher interventions, this program would’ve succeeded.”

But instead, in reading, the light-touch “transformation” model netted three points of gain, while the ostensibly stronger “turnaround” model produced six points of gain.

There is no doubt now that SIG has come miles and miles short of its promise. To the extent there has been progress, it has been marginal at best. This program did not produce dramatic, transformation turnarounds as advertised.

The biggest takeaway is just how perfectly SIG squares with our previous experience with turnaround initiatives: Big hype, big money, paltry initial results, requests for more time and money, and then more paltry results. Sad but true.

I’d like to end where I began, honoring Secretary Duncan for his compassion and verve but noting its sad consequence. Eighteenth-century British author Henry Fielding perceptively wrote, “The prudence of the best heads is often defeated by the tenderness of the best hearts.” Indeed, those who opposed SIG from the start, pointing to the unremittingly disappointing and expensive history of turnarounds, were trumped by those betting on hope.

It is too late to save SIG, which may very well go down as the most expensive misadventure in the history of the U.S. Department of Education. But we can make use of its lessons. Robert E. Lee once wrote, “We must expect reverses even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies, and to prevent our falling into greater disasters.”

In the years to come, Secretary Duncan and his team will be followed by other idealistic and empathetic Department leaders similarly tempted to ignore history. Hopefully, the failure of SIG will instill in them wisdom and prudence and forestall another multi-year, multi-billion dollar mistake.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College