By Susanna Loeb
The release of a new report on the effects of School Improvement Grants (SIG), part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act aimed at improving the nation’s lowest performing schools, called into question the viability of improving low-performing schools at scale. The report stated that, “Implementing a SIG-funded model had no impact on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.” A more careful read of the report, however, shows that the research was not able to tell whether the Grants affected any of these outcomes. The effects would have had to be unrealistically large for the study to have been able to detect them. The difference between the report’s conclusion that there was no effect and the more appropriate conclusion that they were not able to detect an effect is an important one, especially in light of state-specific research showing some success of the School Improvement Grant program.
Two studies from California show not only that schools improved student learning outcomes as a result of participating in the SIG program, but also some of the mechanisms by which this improvement occurred. In particular, rich data on SIG schools in one of the studies shows that schools improved both by differentially retaining their most experienced teachers and by providing teachers with increased supports for instructional improvement such as opportunities to visit each other’s classrooms and to receive meaningful feedback on their teaching practice from school leaders.
School improvement is not an easy task. Clearly, many school turnaround efforts have not been successful. Closing low-performing schools and reopening new schools or sending students to other, higher-performing schools has shown positive outcomes for students and may be the most beneficial choice in some cases. However, school closings come with other costs, and recent intensive efforts at improving low-performing schools, such as the School Improvement Grant program, have shown promise. These successes provide direction for states as they seek to implement new programs under ESSA.