By Thomas Wei, Evaluation Team Leader
NOTE: Since 2009, the Department of Education has invested more than $6 billion in School Improvement Grants (SIG). SIG provided funds to the nation’s persistently lowest-achieving schools to implement one of four improvement models. Each model prescribed a set of practices, for example: replacing the principal, replacing at least 50 percent of teachers, increasing learning time, instituting data-driven instruction, and using “value-added” teacher evaluations.
Other than outcomes, how similar are our nation’s low-performing schools? The answers to this question could have important implications for how best to improve these, and other, schools. If schools share similar contexts, it may be more sensible to prescribe similar improvement practices than if they have very different contexts.
This is one of the central questions the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance is exploring through its Study of School Turnaround. The first report (released in May 2014) described the experiences of 25 case study schools in 2010-2011, which was their first year implementing federal School Improvement Grants (SIG).
The report found that even though the 25 SIG schools all struggled with a history of low performance, they were actually quite different in their community and fiscal contexts, their reform histories, and the root causes of their performance problems. Some schools were situated in what the study termed “traumatic” contexts, with high crime, incarceration, abuse, and severe urban poverty. Other schools were situated in comparatively “benign” contexts with high poverty but limited crime, homes in good repair, and little family instability. All schools reported facing challenges with funding and resources, but some felt it was a major barrier to improvement while others felt it was merely a nuisance. Some schools felt their problems were driven by student behavior, others by poor instruction or teacher quality, and still others by the school’s external context such as crime or poverty.
Given how diverse low-performing schools appear to be, it is worth wondering whether they need an equally diverse slate of strategies to improve. Indeed, the report found that the 25 case study schools varied in their improvement actions even with the prescriptive nature of the SIG models (see the chart above, showing school improvement actions used by sample schools).
It is important to note that this study cannot draw any causal conclusions and that it is based on a small number of schools that do not necessarily reflect the experiences of all low-performing schools. Still, policymakers may wish to keep this finding in mind as they consider how to structure future school improvement efforts.
The first report also found that all but one of the 25 case study schools felt they made improvements in at least some areas after the first year of implementing SIG. Among the issues studied in the second report, released April 14, 2016, is whether these schools were able to build on their improvements in the second and third year of the grant. Read a blog post on the second report.
UPDATED APRIL 18 to reflect release of second report.