By Thomas Wei, Evaluation Team Leader, NCEE
NOTE: In an effort to turn around the nation’s chronically low-performing schools, the Department of Education injected more than $6 billion into the federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) program over the past several years. SIG schools received a lot of money for a short period of time—up to $6 million over three years—to implement a number of prescribed improvement practices.
What is the prognosis for low-performing schools now that many federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) are winding down? This is an important question that the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE) addressed through its Study of School Turnaround.
The second and final report from this study was released on April 14 and describes the experiences of 12 low-performing schools as they implemented SIG from 2010 to 2013 (Read a blog post on the first report). Findings are based on analyses of teacher surveys and numerous interviews with other school stakeholders, such as district administrators, principals, assistant principals, members of the school improvement team, instructional coaches, and parents.
After three years trying a diverse array of improvement activities ranging from replacing teachers to extending learning time to installing behavioral support systems, most of the 12 schools felt they had changed in primarily positive ways (see chart below from report).
The report also found that schools with lower organizational capacity in the first year of SIG appeared to boost their capacity by the final year of SIG. At the same time, schools with higher capacity appeared generally able to maintain that capacity.
Many experts believe that organizational capacity is an important indicator of whether a low-performing school can improve (see chart below showing schools with higher organizational capacity also appeared more likely to sustain improvements). Organizational capacity is indicated by for example, how strong a leader the principal is, how consistent school policies are with school goals, how much school leaders and staff share clear goals, how much collaboration and trust there is among teachers, and how safe and orderly the school climate is.
Despite these promising results, the report found that the overall prospects for sustaining any improvements appeared to be fragile in most of these 12 schools. The report identified four major risk factors, including (1) anticipated turnover or loss of staff; (2) leadership instability; (3) lack of district support, particularly with regard to retaining principals and teachers; and (4) loss of specific interventions such as professional learning or extended day programs. Most of the case study schools had at least one of these major risk factors, and a number of schools had multiple risk factors.
It is important to note that this study cannot draw any causal conclusions and that it is based on surveys and interviews at a small number of schools that do not necessarily reflect the experiences of all low-performing schools. Still, it raises interesting questions for policymakers as they consider how best to deploy limited public resources in support of future school improvement efforts that will hopefully be long-lasting.
NCEE has a larger-scale study of SIG underway that is using rigorous methods to estimate the impact of SIG on student outcomes. The findings from the case studies report released last week may yield important contextual insights for interpreting the overall impact findings. These impact findings are due out later this year, so stay tuned.