Chart showing change in states' school funding since 2008. (Click to enlarge.)
New York City’s controversial school turnaround proposals represent a tiny piece of a sweeping effort, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, to overhaul the country’s lowest-performing schools. In the second of three articles about the reform effort produced by Education Week, The Hechinger Report, and the Education Writers Association, Andrew Brownstein looks at the strange juxtaposition of School Improvement Grants against a context of state budget cuts — an issue that is less acute in New York than in many other states but relevant nonetheless.
For the casual visitor, it’s easy to miss that Southeast High School in rural Kansas — once among the lowest academic performers in the state — is in the midst of a profound transformation.
Like so many other Kansas schools, the building in Cherokee (population: 722) shows the telltale signs of a suffering economy. Bus routes have been cut, as have supplies. Custodians, secretaries and cafeteria workers took an eight-day pay cut. During the harsh winters, students bundle up to make it through classes where the temperature hovers at an uncomfortable, but cost-saving 68 degrees.
But look deeper, and another picture emerges.
Every one of those students is assigned a MacBook for the year. Teachers use iPads on classroom walkthroughs designed to improve instruction and boost student engagement. And the entire school improvement process is underscored by consultants from Cross & Joftus, a Washington, D.C.-area consulting firm.
The schizophrenic portrait of school funding is not unique to Southeast. It is one of roughly 1,200 schools in the nation to win a federal School Improvement Grant (SIG), given to those in the bottom 5 percent in the country to spark radical improvements in school culture and student performance. The backdrop of the recession means that many of these schools have funding to do things they’ve never done at the same time that they’re hamstrung to fund many of the basic things educators typically take for granted.
New York City's controversial school turnaround proposals represent a tiny piece of a sweeping effort, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, to overhaul the country's lowest-performing schools. In the first of three articles about the reform effort produced by Education Week, The Hechinger Report, and the Education Writers Association, Alyson Klein examines the effects of federal School Improvement Grants on districts across the country — and the grants' uncertain future. GothamSchools was one of a dozen news organizations to contribute to the reporting.
After two years, the federal program providing billions of dollars to help states and districts close or remake some of their worst-performing schools remains an ambitious work in progress, with roughly 1,200 turnaround efforts under way but still no verdict on its effectiveness.
The School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, supercharged by a $3 billion windfall under the federal economic-stimulus program in 2009, has jumpstarted aggressive moves by states and districts. To get their share of the money, they had to quickly identify some of their most academically troubled schools, craft new teacher-evaluation systems, and carve out more time for instruction, among other steps.
Some schools and districts spent millions of dollars on outside experts and consultants. Others went through the politically ticklish process of replacing teachers and principals, while combating community skepticism and meeting the demands of district and state overseers.
It’s not at all clear if the federal prescription can cure the most ailing schools and lead to long-term improvements, but preliminary student achievement data for the program offer some promise. The U.S. Department of Education looked at about 700 of the schools in their second year of the program and found that a quarter of them posted double-digit gains in math during the 2010-11 school year. Another 20 percent showed similar progress in reading.
A collaborative reporting project drawing on the efforts of more than 20 news organizations and affiliated journalists paints a mixed picture of how the SIG program is playing out on the ground. The major findings show: