The U.S. Department of Education recently released a one-year evaluation of how students are faring under the School Improvement Grants program. Launched three years ago, $2 billion in SIG grants has been awarded to more than 1,300 low performing schools nationwide.
The snapshot found student proficiency in two-thirds of SIG schools had improved; however, student performance declines were documents in one-third of SIG schools. Interestingly, in most of those schools (nearly 30 percent each) math and reading performance declines were in the double-digits (p. 1). In some cases schools that had been improving before the SIG grants posted student performance declines after receiving the grants (p. 4).
“There’s dramatic change happening in these schools, and in the long-term process of turning around the nation’s lowest-performing schools, one year of test scores only tells a small piece of the story,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “But what’s clear already is that almost without exception, schools moving in the right direction have two things in common; a dynamic principal with a clear vision for establishing a culture of high expectations, and talented teachers who share that vision, with a relentless commitment to improving instruction.”
Sensible enough. But imagine how much more “dramatic” the change could be if students were allowed to transfer to better performing schools with better teachers and principals in the first place?
It’s all well and good to turn poorly performing schools around. But children shouldn’t have to sacrifice their learning to schools’ “long-term process.”
Perverse incentives to increase test scores at all costs is another point to consider.
Raoul Carubelli of Oklahoma City explained in the Daily Oklahoman that at one local school receiving SIG money:
Reports from former teachers and students include allegations of grades being changed by administrators, and of a student who didn't attend English classes, required for graduation, receiving a passing C. A student who couldn't handle algebra was told to have another student to take the course online; an administrator allegedly collected $250 from this student. Poor attendance records, which have a negative impact on grades, were also altered.
Reports indicate that cheating is rampant and the faculty turnover is alarming. Teachers were ordered not to assign homework and "to pass all students no matter what." Since this school gets federal funding through School Improvement Grants, it appears that these maneuvers were aimed at preserving this funding.
Thankfully, the Sooner State has two parental choice programs so students can escape poorly performing schools now—not years from now if they graduate.