Eighteen low-performing Washington state schools that have received more than $40 million in School Improvement Grant money have mostly used the money for incremental changes, according to a new study.

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A high-profile federal program intended to spark dramatic change at struggling schools is instead being used mostly for “tinkering” in Washington state, according to a report released Thursday.

A handful of the 18 schools in Washington receiving multimillion-dollar School Improvement Grants (SIG) are making bold changes, according to the study, but most are implementing marginal or unfocused changes, such as a slightly longer school day.

The study only examined the ways that schools are spending the money from the grants. Its authors said it is too early to analyze results such as test scores.

The report out of the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education focused on this state specifically, but it was still being seen nationally as an indictment of the SIG program that President Obama launched in 2010 as a way to turn around the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

“Despite the hard work on the part of many district administrators, principals and especially teachers, the overwhelming majority of the schools studied so far exhibit little evidence of the type of bold and transformative changes” envisioned by the program, the report concluded.

The report does not name the schools and school districts studied.

In Seattle, where three schools are receiving a combined $5.8 million (Cleveland High, Hawthorne Elementary and West Seattle Elementary), officials pushed back against the study.

“This funding has made a difference for our students,” school-district spokeswoman Lesley Rogers wrote in an email. “These schools are showing real signs of success.”

Randy Dorn, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, noted that the program is only in its second half of implementation. He said it’s too early to evaluate SIG schools.

“Are the School Improvement Grants moving the needle?” he said. “I think we need a little more time before we know.”

The three-year grants totaled about $3.5 billion nationwide, included more than $40 million to Washington state schools.

In receiving the grant money, schools agreed to make changes under one of four models: permanently closing; restarting under the control of an outside organization; reopening with a new principal and mostly new staff or replacing the principal and implementing broad curriculum changes.

The final and least disruptive, called “transformation,” was the choice of a majority of school districts across the country and at 14 of the state’s 18 schools; three others chose the third option and the other school used the money to close its doors.

All three Seattle schools chose the transformation model.

The UW report released Thursday recommended eliminating that option.

The report’s lead author, Sarah Yatsko, said in an interview that the changes made under transformation were too timid, resulting in a missed opportunity to help hundreds of students at chronically failing schools. She blamed the tight deadlines required by the program; an error by the federal government, she said.

According to Yatsko, the schools that were making significant changes backed by research have one thing in common: a visionary principal brought in to lead the effort.

That description matches a change made at one Seattle SIG school: West Seattle Elementary. Cleveland and Hawthorne kept the same principal in place because, in each case, she had been on the job for less than two years.

At West Seattle, the new principal, Vicki Sacco, helped engineer a turnaround effort that included a staff of mostly new faces, a more collaborative-teaching culture, a schoolwide focus on behavior and a 15-minute extension of the school day.

“Some people might say, ‘Oh, 15 minutes, that’s nothing,’ ” Sacco said in an interview last month. “But every minute counts.”

The two other Seattle schools also added time to the day, in addition to refocusing their curriculum (science and technology at Cleveland, the arts at Hawthorne).

The district administrator charged with overseeing the district’s three SIG schools acknowledged that the district did not opt for radical change.

“Nothing we did is that out there,” Scott Whitbeck said in an interview last month. He was not available for further comment Thursday.

Seattle’s first statistical results, test scores from last spring, were mixed.

At its two SIG elementary schools, the percent of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders passing the state math tests roughly doubled from the year before, while reading scores also spiked. Still, the scores were significantly below the district average. Cleveland, on the other hand, saw its test scores and graduation rates rise only a few points or stay flat.

“Incremental change is still change in the right direction when we’re talking about our students,” Rogers said.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.