For School Reform, Is New Investment Enough?

The federal government has allocated billions of dollars to help failing schools restructure, but without a clear definition of success, the money may only be a temporary fix.

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In an interview at The Atlantic's " Jobs & Economy of the Future: Educating the Next Generation to Compete" Town Hall , U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pressed his case on the urgent need for America's public schools to "get better faster than we ever have."

But when it comes to the costly School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, a key plank in the Obama administration's efforts to fix public education, there is no specific framework for measuring whether the initiative has succeeded or failed. What, exactly, qualifies as "better?" How much time do students, teachers, and school communities have to satisfy the demand for "faster?"

Almost from its inception, No Child Left Behind was pilloried for setting what many educators (not to mention statisticians) argued was an unrealistic goal: that 100 percent of the nation's public school students would be proficient in reading and math by the 2013-14 academic year. The SIG program seems to be drifting at the other end of the spectrum, having set expectations that individual schools will improve -- using test scores, attendance, and other measures -- without a clear understanding of what will constitute success at a national level.

Conventional wisdom in education circles is that it typically takes at least three years for a new initiative to take root in a school, and for a positive impact to be demonstrated in measurable gains such as student test scores. That's a long time to wait for improvement, particularly for a hugely expensive federal initiative. It's also a lot to ask of students who only get one opportunity to learn.

Since 2009, the federal government has awarded $4.6 billion in SIG dollars to states, with the money earmarked to help turn around the lowest-performing campuses in each local district. To qualify for the funds, schools have to demonstrate both a high-need student population and a commitment to reform. But not just any reform: Schools must choose one of the feds' pre-approved models.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the overwhelming majority of the SIG schools -- 74 percent -- opted for what's known as the "transformation" model, which offers the most leeway with replacing staff and is in theory the easiest of the models to implement. Another 20 percent of schools went with the "turnaround" model, which requires replacing the majority of the staff. Only 4 percent of the SIG campuses opted to "restart" with a private operator at the helm, or convert to a charter school. School closures accounted for just percent of the SIG campuses.

At a recent one-day seminar for journalists (organized by the National Education Writers Association) at the University of Chicago, Jason Snyder, who oversees the federal Office of School Turnaround, acknowledged that the "calibrations" are still being fine-tuned for evaluating the SIG program.

Duncan recently announced improved student proficiency scores in reading at math at nearly 60 percent of the SIG schools. At nearly a quarter of those campuses that showed improvement, the improvement in math is in the double digits, and close to 20 percent of schools saw double-digit gains in reading.

While that's good news, Snyder said it's widely recognized that such early results are not enough to call the initiative a victory. His office is approaching this endeavor "with a strong sense of humility and sincerity, knowing we don't have all the answers here," Snyder said.

Another factor to consider: Given nation's long history of failed attempts to turn around schools -- mixed with a fair number of success stories that keep hope alive -- the odds are not in the SIG's program's favor.

"We know that not every single one of these schools is going to succeed," said Snyder, who is a deputy assistant secretary in the federal Department of Education. "It's just not going to happen."

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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