More than a decade ago, the federal government began awarding Washington’s worst-performing schools roughly $2.2 million apiece to turn themselves around. It was part of an Obama-era federal program that offered School Improvement Grants.
Now there’s good news: the money didn’t go to waste, new longitudinal research shows.
Washington’s grants came as part of a $7 billion federal program intended to revive the nation’s underperforming schools, which often serve students of color and those from low-income families. The money was part of the 2009 federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus package and was primarily targeted toward the bottom 5% of schools based on test scores, or high schools with graduation rates below 60%.
States that received money were expected to distribute funds to such schools. In exchange for the money, the schools were asked to take dramatic steps such as overhauling curricula, finding a new principal, extending class time and replacing at least half the staff.
The new study is led by a University of Washington researcher and is the latest in a growing body of evidence hinting the reforms paid off, at least in some places; a large federal analysis and some local studies have suggested otherwise. Student achievement improved and graduation rates steadily increased, according to the new results released Monday, which are considered preliminary since they haven’t been peer reviewed.
Now that the program no longer exists, why do its results matter?
In part, because the study found that many gains made during the grant years remained relatively stable even after the money dried up.
The federal government has a limited role in shaping schools: although federal laws provide the framework for assessing schools, it’s up to states and districts to determine how they make reforms; and, as of the 2015-16 school year, federal dollars were only 8% of governmental education spending. With efforts such as the improvement grants and the Race to the Top, a grant competition designed to spur other changes, the Obama administration tried to test those boundaries. This study shows how the federal government’s limited levers can have an impact, said Tom Dee, professor of education at Stanford University, who was not involved in the research.
“The most important takeaway is there can be lasting change from federal education policy,” Dee said. “I think there’s a false public narrative that the era of highly restrict federal education reform has been a failure.”
The findings are in stark contrast to nationwide results from 2017 that deemed the grants a bust. That U.S. Department of Education study of 22 states found that the money didn’t move the needle on students’ math or English scores, high school graduation rates or college enrollment. The findings may differ because the studies use different methodologies and sample sizes, federal officials told The Seattle Times.
In the new study, lead researcher Min Sun and her colleagues looked at several types of data, such as student academic performance and graduation rates, at 25 schools in Washington as well as 74 schools in North Carolina, San Francisco and another urban school district that isn’t named. The data spans 2007 to 2017, which includes years before and after the grants were available.
The researchers looked at how student performance and graduation rates changed when the grants arrived, and after they ended, at individual schools. They compared this to trends at comparable schools that didn’t receive grants.
Schools with grants witnessed a leap in student test scores in elementary and middle school, particularly in math. Washington seemed to do better than other places at maintaining these gains after the grant money ended, said Sun, associate professor of education policy at the University of Washington.
Four-year graduation rates at schools with grants also shot up and outpaced growth at schools without grants. Again, Washington stood out, and saw a nearly 30 percentage point gain in graduation rates within six years of receiving the money — more than twice as many points than the other locations in the study. Sun is cautious to draw strong conclusions from those results, though, since only a few Washington high schools were included in the study.
Students of color and those from low-income homes did just as well or better than their peers, the study found.
The findings may offer lessons for schools that continue to perform poorly, said Alan Ginsburg, former director of policy and program studies at U.S. Department of Education. Ginsburg has studied the grant’s outcomes in other states but was not involved in the new research.
“This isn’t like giving a pill to a patient,” he said. “We have found if it’s not a comprehensive reform, it’s unlikely to work.”
So what made Washington’s gains so substantial? It’s difficult to know for sure, and the study doesn’t answer this question directly.
But according to Sun, it partly boiled down to technical support: Washington’s grantees were offered extra help from the state’s education department, such as access to instructional and leadership coaches, she said.
The state also tried to coordinate the roll out of the grants by working closely with the Washington Education Association union and a principals’ association, said Tennille Jeffries-Simmons, assistant superintendent for Washington’s office of system and school improvement.
Jeffries-Simmons was the chief human resources officer at Spokane Public Schools when the district received grant money and said, “there was really tight coordination between the school district and the local labor union.”
She said, “Everybody was dealing with questions in real-time and working together.”