sig: the sequel

Did Obama’s federal school turnaround program really fail?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius read to students enrolled in a Head Start program at Rolling Terrace Elementary School March 1, 2013 in Takoma Park, Maryland. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

It has become a talking point for Betsy DeVos and a powerful example of the challenges of turning around struggling schools: a national study, released by the federal government, showing that its multibillion-dollar turnaround program failed.

“The previous administration spent seven billion of your dollars on ‘School Improvement Grants,’ thinking they could demonstrate that money alone would solve the problem,” DeVos said soon after becoming education secretary. “They tested their model, and it failed miserably.”

A new report says, not so fast. It points to studies of places like San Francisco, where the approach seemed to help students, and the limitations of the government’s study to conclude that the federal report painted too grim a picture.

“The autopsy on the grant program is flawed and its core conclusion faulty,” says the analysis, released by FutureEd, a Georgetown-based think tank generally supportive of Obama-era education policies.

It’s a year-old debate that remains relevant, as the study has become a touchstone for the idea that the federal government is unable to help long-struggling schools improve. And it comes as states, now with more freedom, are grappling with how to intervene in their lowest performing schools.

The federal turnaround program, known as School Improvement Grants or SIG, was a signature initiative of the Obama administration. In exchange for federal money, schools had to make changes, but had to use one of four approaches. About three-quarters chose the least disruptive option: firing the principal and making adjustments like lengthening the school day or toughening their teacher evaluations. Others replaced the principal and half the teaching staff. Few chose the other options, turning a school over to charter school operator or closing it altogether.

The initiative was evaluated by the external research firm Mathematica and the American Institutes for Research and released by the education department’s research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences. The results, released in January 2017, weren’t pretty.

“There was also no evidence that SIG had significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment,” the study said.

The FutureEd report, written by two former Department of Education officials, suggests those conclusions are flawed for a few reasons, some of which were noted when the study was first released.

For one, it points out that even if School Improvement Grants successfully improved students’ academic outcomes, that would have been hard for the study to detect because the study’s bar for “statistical significance” was a very high one to clear.

The study actually estimated that the grants led to modest boosts in reading test scores and small declines in high school graduation rates — but neither impact was statistically significant, which is what the researchers mean when they say they found “no evidence.”

One of the report’s researchers, Lisa Dragoset of Mathematica, defended its approach. Setting a high bar for significance is reasonable for a program, like SIG, that was quite costly, she said. And even ignoring statistical significance, the estimated gains in reading were small and essentially zero in math, she noted.

“It’s unlikely that there were substantive or large impacts that were undetected by our study,” she said.

Second, FutureEd points out that the subset of schools in the federal study were not representative of all schools receiving federal grants.

The study compared schools receiving SIG grants to those schools near the eligibility cutoff that didn’t get grants. This is a widely used approach, but the FutureEd authors point out that the results then don’t say much about the effects of the grants on the lowest-performing schools. The studied schools were also disproportionately urban.

The new report also highlights a number of studies that focus on specific states and cities which paint a much more positive picture of the initiative. Most, though not all, of these studies find that the grants had positive effects on test scores.

“There are legitimate questions of whether the SIG program represented the best way to use federal funding to improve struggling schools,” the FutureEd authors conclude. “But it is wrong to suggest that there was no return on the SIG investment.”

Dragoset acknowledges that national results might not apply to all SIG schools, but says there’s nothing inconsistent with seeing no clear national effect but positive results in certain states.

“Ours, to my knowledge, is the only large-scale, rigorous study of the SIG program nationwide,” she said.

Dan Goldhaber, a University of Washington professor and vice president at the American Institutes for Research who reviewed the FutureEd report, said the limits of the federal study suggest policymakers shouldn’t “jump to the conclusion that the SIG program didn’t work.” But the study “was competently done,” he said.

The FutureEd analysis concludes that the U.S. Department of Education should spearhead a review of the research on turning around struggling schools. Tom Dee, a Stanford professor who found that the federal grants led to higher test scores in California schools, echoed this.

“I believe the question we should be asking is the following: why do federal reform catalysts seem to generate positive change in some states and communities but mere cosmetic regulatory compliance in others?” he said. “It seems to me that knowing more about the answer to that question is critical to efforts to drive meaningful change at scale.”

Are Children Learning

Second study shows Indianapolis charter students fare better on tests

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The second study in a week shows strong test scores for students at Indianapolis charter schools, bolstering the claims of advocates in a city where school choice continues to expand.

Indianapolis elementary students who attend mayor-sponsored charter schools beginning in kindergarten — and remain in the same schools — make bigger improvements on state tests than their peers in traditional schools across the city, according to the latest study.

The study contributes to emerging research that suggest that charter schools that are well managed and have good instruction can be successful, said co-author Hardy Murphy, a clinical professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the IUPUI School of Education.

The results of the study indicate Indianapolis charter school students are doing better than they would’ve done if they hadn’t enrolled in charter schools, Murphy said.

“This does not appear to have happened by chance,” he said. “I believe that the school experiences and the instructional teachers of those schools they are enrolled in are actually a big part of the results that we are seeing,”

The educational landscape in Indianapolis is defined by school choice. About 18,000 students who live in Marion County attend charter schools, and thousands more transfer to nearby districts or attend private schools with vouchers, according to state data. In recent years, the state’s largest district, Indianapolis Public Schools, has also become a national model for partnerships with charter schools. That makes understanding school performance essential for parents — but unpacking whether schools actually help boost student achievement can be particularly thorny for researchers.

With this study, Murphy said he and co-author Sandi Cole, director of the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning at Indiana University Bloomington, hope to disentangle one factor that makes studying charter schools difficult: the dips in test scores that students often experience after transferring to new schools. Murphy’s research focuses on students who began in charter schools in kindergarten and compares them to similar students in traditional public schools in Indianapolis.

“It’s time to move beyond the debate about whether or not charter schools are effective and start talking about, when they are effective, why, and for whom?” Murphy said, adding that successful approaches can be used in other settings.

The study focuses solely on students who attend charter schools authorized by the mayor’s office. For the control group, the study included township districts as well as Indianapolis Public Schools. The researchers plan to present their results to the education committee of the Indianapolis City-County Council and the 2019 Conference on Academic Research in Education.

The findings add to a growing body of research on Indianapolis charter schools. Last week, the Stanford-based group CREDO released a report that found that students at charter schools had test score gains that mirrored the state average, while Indianapolis Public Schools students made smaller gains on math and reading tests than their peers across the state. Another recent study found that when students moved to charter schools their test scores held steady.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas.