John Fensterwald contributed to this report.
California received a double dose of good news this week about the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced yesterday that a $63 million check is in the mail to cover the second-year funding for schools awarded SIG grants in round two. And, perhaps more promising, a new study found that student test scores in SIG schools showed significant improvement in the first year.
Schools that implemented SIG-funded reforms increased their API scores by an additional 34 points beyond what would have been expected if they hadn’t received the funding and implemented a schoolwide reform. That amounts to a 23 percent jump toward closing the gap between their API scores and the state’s goal of 800 points, according to the study, “School turnarounds: Evidence from the 2009 stimulus.”
“The results were striking; it was more than we would expect to see at this point,” said Stanford University education professor Edward Haertel, who provided feedback on an early draft of the study.
The author, University of Virginia researcher Thomas Dee, analyzed achievement in 82 of California’s 89 schools that received grants in the first SIG cohort. He eliminated those that chose to reopen as charters or to shut down completely. Dee found the biggest differences between schools butting up against each side of the eligibility line; on one side were those whose baseline achievement was just low enough to make them eligible for SIG grants, and on the other side, almost close enough to touch, were schools whose scores were just high enough to make them ineligible.
In addition to receiving SIG funds, the schools that improved the most were almost exclusively those that implemented the turnaround model, the most severe change short of shutting down. Turnaround schools are required to replace the principal and at least half the teaching staff. Just 29 schools in California’s first cohort chose that model. Nationwide, 20 percent of SIG schools were turnarounds.
“This underscores the role of school culture and a break with a past of low expectations,” said Dee. “It could be that the turnover in staff was catalyzing that change.”
Still, Dee hadn’t expected the improvement to be so strong. He had followed the painfully slow process of awarding SIG grants in California and knew that many schools got a late start on implementation. “Schools were told they won the awards once they were in session or were about to start. Elements of their plans could not be implemented in the first year,” explained Dee. “That is another reason why results surprised me.”
California received more SIG funds than any other state from the U.S. Department of Education’s $4 billion program. In the first round, which started two years ago, the state received $416 million, about $1.5 million for each school in the three-year program. Since then, another $129 million has been awarded to 36 schools in cohort two.
Don’t overlook the buying potential of those funds in contributing to the API improvements, said Fred Tempes, director of the California Comprehensive Center at WestEd, which is helping the State Department of Education with SIG implementation.
“When you have a lot of money then you can actually pay people to sit down and do the formative assessment exams, have coaches go in and look in the classrooms and make sure that people are actually following the reorganized curriculum. So I suppose you could go faster,” said Tempes.
Plus, the first year is always the easiest to show improvement because a bunch of small tweaks can go a long way, Tempes said. “You tighten up the curriculum, you institute some formative assessment that’s common to everybody, and it’s just kind of the low hanging fruit syndrome.”
What happens next may offer a clearer picture into the sustainability of the reforms. Dee calls it the “fade out” period that occurs after an initial big jump in scores, and intends to keep following California and other states to see what happens after SIG runs its three-year course.
Even Secretary Duncan tempered his delight – a bit – and urged patience. “These data are still preliminary. Several years of data will be needed to demonstrate robust, long-term growth in student outcomes in SIG schools,” said Duncan in a news release. “But Dee’s careful study belies the conventional wisdom that little can be done to significantly boost student achievement in low-performing schools.”