As the Obama administration came to a close, it quietly released a study finding that its biggest education initiative—a $7 billion program to dramatically improve the performance of struggling schools—was a failure. The massive School Improvement Grant investment “had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment,” the study concluded.
The finding was a major rebuke to what former Education Secretary Arne Duncan called his “biggest bet”: an effort to improve performance in the nation's worst performing schools by one of four options—firing at least half the teachers, allowing charter schools to take over management, closing schools, or terminating the principal to bring about a “transformation” under a new school leader.
On one level, the results were stunning. How do you spend $7 billion, Andy Smarick of the American Enterprise Institute asked earlier this month, and end up “with results no better than similar schools that received zero dollars”?
Paradoxically, the results were also utterly predictable given the reform strategies on which it relied. Duncan's preferred approaches for reform consciously ignored the finding of Brown v. Board of Education and 50 years of social-science research: that separate schools for black and white, and rich and poor, are almost always unequal. When he launched the program, Duncan bragged that as chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools, one of the most highly segregated school systems in the country, he and his colleagues “moved the adults out of the building, kept the children there, and brought in new adults.” Duncan’s whole idea of keeping the children there was premised on the belief that economic school segregation is either irrelevant to student performance or impossible to address.
Duncan has since acknowledged that failing to tackle segregation is one of his greatest regrets. Educators have long known that reducing poverty concentrations of children improves their chances of success; today, as my colleague Halley Potter highlighted late last year, 100 school districts and charter schools are acting on that knowledge. High-poverty schools are 22 times less likely to be consistently high-performing as low-poverty schools, according to a study by the economist Douglas Harris of Tulane University. Meanwhile, data from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress in mathematics show that low-income students stuck in high-poverty schools are as much as two academic years behind low-income students in more affluent schools. Given the right environment, however, low-income student achievement can improve significantly. Giving low-income students access to economically mixed schools exposes them to peers who are, on average, more academically engaged; a parental community that has the flexibility to be actively involved in school affairs; and stronger teachers.