By Alex Zimmerman  –

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious and expensive Renewal turnaround program appeared to push schools to improve attendance rates, but did not lead to significant gains on key academic metrics such as graduation rates or test scores, according to an internal education department report that has not previously been made public.

The report, prepared by the RAND Corporation, is the most rigorous study to date on the effectiveness of the mayor’s turnaround program, which cost $773 million and has been widely criticized for producing disappointing results. The city recently announced the program will not continue.

First some bright spots: The turnaround program resulted in students attending school more often. Renewal boosted daily attendance by 1.5 percentage points and led to a 5 percentage point reduction in chronic absenteeism, defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year. The initiative also led students to accumulate more credits in high school, a sign that students were more poised to graduate on time.

But many of the report’s findings are not as positive, often pointing to only slight improvements that were not statistically significant. The program did not produce clear effects on graduation rates or test scores. Worse, the program slightly raised high school dropout rates. And the researchers, looking at variables such as curriculum, “high expectations,” and teacher teams and leadership, did not find any clear positive effects on instruction or school culture.

David Hay, the education department’s deputy chief of staff, said in an interview that officials found the results encouraging. “All of the sorts of things that we would look for to be improving at this moment in time we’re seeing improved,” he said, noting the report only looks at the first two full years of the four-year effort.

To isolate the effect of Renewal, the researchers compared schools in the program with other low-performing ones that fared just well enough to avoid being placed in Renewal. Differences between the schools could then be linked to the effects of the turnaround program, which gave schools a suite of additional social services and academic resources.

That means some of the lowest-performing schools were not included in the report, an important limitation. (Thirty-eight of the original 65 Renewal elementary and middle schools were included in the study; 26 out of 29 high schools were.)