Colorado’s Department of Education failed to create a rigorous application process and lacked oversight in a federal turnaround effort meant to spur improvement in the state’s lowest performing schools, a report from A+ Denver claims.

In turn, nearly $60 million in federal tax payer dollars has yielded poor results, leaving some of the state’s lowest performing schools in worse shape then before the effort started.

The report, released today by the education reform advocacy group, found fewer than half of all schools that received the federal grant money in the first three years of the program outperformed the state average growth percentile, or how the state measures academic progress by students and their academic peers.

The federal turnaround money, or School Improvement Grant program, is the largest nationwide investment in schools. More than $4 billion has been handed out since 2010.

In total, 38 Colorado schools have been awarded a grant. By comparison, 200 schools, deemed failing, are being monitored by the state on the so-called “accountability clock.” Schools on the list have five years to improve or the state must make recommendations to their governing district, including shutting the school down. If the districts do not comply, the state may downgrade a districts accreditation.

“It’s a very, very difficult to do an effective turnaround without bold changes,” said A+ chief Van Schoales.

But that doesn’t mean the state couldn’t have managed the money and process around the grant better, he said.

The study also concludes:

  • Nearly a quarter of schools that received federal dollars to implement a turnaround plan in the first three years had worse proficiency rates than before funding.
  • Only a handful of schools — nearly all new schools — saw strong enough growth to make a significant difference on college and career preparedness.
  • The cost per student that moved into proficiency during the grant period was $138,800.
  • There were few consequences for poor results.
  • The state funded nearly every applicant for the federal grant, while other states only funded about two-thirds of their applicants.

“The state is going to have to be much more proactive and intervene quicker, and more forcibly, to support the districts that are engaged in this kind of work,” Schoales said.

If the federal government continues to fund the program, the report concludes, the state should conduct better analysis of what turnaround efforts are working, monitor and evaluate grant recipients regularly, fund efforts that create new schools and systemic changes instead of small cultural shifts and provide greater autonomy to schools that receive the funds.

The report also boldly suggests the state consider a state-run district or network, like the one in Tennessee, to govern the schools that receive grant dollars. But, such an arrangement would be challenging because Colorado’s constitution guarantees local district control of schools.

Peter Sherman, the state’s director of school improvement and turnaround, said his department is considering the reports suggestions.

“At CDE we see a report like this as a good critical lens on the work we’re doing,” Sherman said. “I think some of the recommendations of the report are valid and will help us push our work forward.”

Sherman said he hopes future funds will be used to implement sustainable change at both a district and school level.

“We can’t throw all the money at one school,” Sherman said. “Turnaround requires a lot of buy in from the district.”

Read the full report here.