Federal school improvement grants don’t work!

Jul 21, 2013 by

failedNearly $39 million in federal school improvement funds did not buy quick turnarounds at the troubled Georgia schools that got that money over the past two years, a review by the state Department of Education shows.

Academic performance and graduation rates have gotten better at some of the 14 schools that got school improvement grants in 2011 and 2012. Others, however, saw dips in those areas.

The department had previously reviewed the performance of another group of Georgia schools that received SIG funds and found mixed results there, too.

The reviews were limited; firm trends in education show up most clearly through data produced over several years.

Still, the department’s reviews line up with national studies of the grant program, which has doled out $4.8 billion since 2007. Those studies — one by the U.S. Department of Education and another by the Center on Education Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group based in Washington, D.C. — have showed that SIG funds have not led to uniform, dramatic academic improvements.

National studies of the SIG program have indicated that many grant recipients report a culture change that they say will, eventually, lead to measurable and sustained academic improvement.

An improved culture, without spikes in test scores, might not be enough to spur Congress to renew the program, which has been a linchpin in the efforts of the Obama administration to turn around struggling schools.

“My sense, from working in this town for a while, is that the school improvement program as we know it will end when this administration walks out the door,” said Maria Ferguson, the Center for Education Policy’s executive director.

Persistently low-performing schools must apply for assistance through the U.S. Department of Education and commit to one of several “turnaround models” to receive SIG funds. Some of those models include replacing the school principal or replacing teachers.

Georgia’s recent review of grant recipients, conducted as the state is poised to distribute fiscal year 2014 SIG funds, examined performance on end-of-course tests in four subject areas: Math I, Math II, 9th-grade literature and American literature, in 2011 and 2012. The review also compared graduation rates for those two years.

Only two schools, East Laurens High in Laurens County and Greenville High in Meriwether County, improved in each area. Six schools improved in four of the five areas. Three schools improved in three of the five areas, and three improved in two of the five areas.

Three metro Atlanta schools — the Therrell High School of Law, Government and Public Policy in Atlanta Public Schools, Towers High in DeKalb County and Lithia Springs High in Douglas County — were included in the review.

Therrell, which received a combined $1.3 million in school improvement grant funds in 2011 and 2012, improved in two of the five areas. Its Math I and American literature scores rose.

Therrell’s graduation rate, however, plummeted to 39 percent in 2012 from 66 percent the year before.

Towers High has received $2.5 million in SIG funds and saw improvements in five of the five areas.

Shandra Stephens, PTSA president at Towers, had one daughter graduate from the school in 2008 and another this year. “Between the two of them, I have been working with five principals,” she said.

This past school year, Towers struggled to communicate to parents, Stephens said, adding that her daughter at one point expressed fear that she might be treated differently because of her mother’s parental involvement.

“My daughter shed a lot of tears,” Stephens said. “She told me, ‘I don’t want them to mess with me because I’m your daughter.’ That broke my heart.”

Towers has a new principal this school year, and Stephens said she is hopeful that improvements at the school will go beyond test scores.

Lithia Springs High received $3.9 million in grant funds, but saw improvements in only two of the five areas, including in Math II, which was marginally up in 2012.

Pam Nail, associate superintendent for student achievement and leadership in Douglas, said Lithia Springs did struggle some in 2011 and 2012 but raw data from 2013 is promising: End-of-course test scores are up in every area except U.S. history.

“We’re pleased with the progress that Lithia is making, and we’re optimistic it will continue in the future,” she said.

Georgia schools are set to receive another $16 million in SIG funds this year, the final of a three-year funding cycle.

Georgia Superintendent John Barge said the review did pinpoint some trouble spots.

“I was concerned about some of the dips, especially with the grad rates at some of the schools,” Barge said. “Overall, I think the grant has been really successful. We’ve seen some improvements.”

Officials in the Meriwether County School District, southwest of metro Atlanta, are proud of the improvements made at Greenville High.

Greenville saw improvements in each of the academic areas reviewed by the state Department of Education, and its graduation rate rose to 78 percent in 2012 from 63 percent the year before.

Greenville Principal Thad Jackson, who just completed his third year at the school, said the school used its $2.2 million in SIG funds in a variety of ways, including teacher training and purchasing enough Apple iPads so each of the school’s 390 students could use them in class.

Jackson said the iPads heightened student engagement with their work.

“They’re more confident,” Jackson said. “They’re comfortable with technology. We’ve seen some creativity, too, incorporating videos in their assignments. They can email assignments in instead of writing it out.”

Teachers have come in on Saturdays for professional development. They’ve done extra work with students on Saturdays. And, Jackson said, teachers have embraced a new requirement that they attend at least 10 extracurricular activities involving Greenville students.

“That has sparked conversations with students that wouldn’t have taken place,” Jackson said. “We wanted the students to feel that somebody really cares about them.”

William Edgar, Meriwether’s assistant superintendent for school improvement, said bluntly that, for years, Greenville simply wasn’t a very good school.

“There was an acceptance that, ‘Hey, we’re just not going to do well,’ ” Edgar said. “But they have created a culture change. We are very proud.”

Jackson said he and his colleagues have been careful not to become permanently reliant upon the SIG money.

“One of the things that helps us is we did not spend a lot of the money on personnel,” he said. “We have created a culture so that, when the money’s gone, we still have the staff that’s trained and will go to that next level.”

A review by the state Department of Education shows that schools receiving federal school improvement grant funds have a mixed performance record over the past couple of years. The review compared the percentage of end-of-course test takers who met or exceeded state standards in Math I, Math II, 9th-grade literature and American literature as well as a year-to-year comparison of graduation rates in 2011 and 2012. Three metro Atlanta schools were included in the review. Here is how those schools fared:

Therrell High School of Law, Government and Public Policy (APS)

Total SIG funds: $1,379,248

Math I: 14 percent in 2011; 40 percent in 2012

Math II: 28 percent in 2011; 23 percent in 2012

9th-grade literature: 65 percent in 2011; 64 percent in 2012

American literature: 82 percent in 2011; 83 percent in 2012

Graduation rate: 66 percent in 2011; 39 percent in 2012

Towers High School (DeKalb)

Total SIG funds: $2,587,873

Math I: 30 percent in 2011; 42 percent in 2012

Math II: 29 percent in 2011; 31 percent in 2012

9th-grade literature: 59 percent in 2011; 64 percent in 2012

American literature: 79 percent in 2011; 82 percent in 2012

Graduation rate: 44 percent in 2011; 47 percent in 2012

Lithia Springs High School (Douglas)

Total SIG funds: $3,902,909

Math I: 37 percent in 2011; 35 percent in 2012

Math II: 35 percent in 2011; 35 percent in 2012

9th-grade literature: 76 percent in 2011; 74 percent in 2012

American literature: 76 percent in 2011; 60 percent in 2012

Graduation rate: 63 percent in 2011; 65 percent in 2012

Note: Figures have been rounded up

Source: Georgia Department of Education

Federal school improvement grants haven’t led to quick… | www.ajc.com.

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