The Obama Administration has spent $4.6 billion overhauling failing schools. But critics say the investment might not pay off in the long run.


President Obama sits next to U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan at a school in Virginia / Reuters

The federal School Improvement Grant program is one of the most aggressive -- and, at $4.6 billion and counting, arguably one of the most expensive -- investments ever made toward fixing the nation's most struggling schools. But is it working?

The existing grant program had been modestly funded until 2009, when it was revamped as a centerpiece of President Obama's education reform initiative. The overhauled program received an unprecedented $3 billion infusion in stimulus dollars through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Another $1.6 billion has since followed. SIG money is now earmarked for schools with the weakest student achievement, with the funding prioritized by both need and a willingness to implement reforms.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced earlier this week that the first-year data suggest student achievement is on an upswing at campuses that have received a slice of the SIG pie. He reported that at nearly 60 percent of SIG schools, more students are demonstrating proficiency in reading and math. At nearly a quarter of those schools, the improvement in math is in the double digits, and close to 20 percent of schools saw double-digit gains in reading.

At the same time, state officials -- surveyed by the Center on Education Policy for two new reports -- say they believe the federal initiative is helping schools improve the quality of instruction for students. However, those same officials also have concerns that because not every eligible school ultimately received a grant, many campuses are unable to provide more intensive services and programs for their equally needy students.

As Duncan pointed out at Monday's Build A Grad Nation Summit in Washington, D.C., more data and more time are necessary before the SIG effort can be evaluated fully. However, "At the heart of all these successes are teachers and school leaders who are excited about the prospect of change," Duncan said.

"Nobody should expect all of these school turnarounds to be successful; in the business world, turnarounds most often fail."

The new CEP reports were based on interviews with Title I directors (the state education officials responsible for overseeing the implementation of the federal grants) in 46 states, rather than quantitative data such as state report cards or student test results. CEP researchers also focused closely on SIG efforts in Idaho, Maryland and Michigan for a separate report.

"These are the people following the individual schools, looking at the test results, and making a judgment about whether or not they're seeing progress in the implementation of the (SIG) models," said Diane Rentner, CEP's deputy director. "Yes, we are talking about people's perceptions, but they are highly informed perceptions."

To qualify for the funds, districts must follow one of the approved blueprints: "turnaround," which requires replacing the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff and starting over with a new philosophy; "transformation," in which significant changes are made to instructional programs and professional development; "restart," in which the school's management is turned over to an outside operator such as a charter school; and closure, with students provided transfers to more successful schools.

School closures account for just 2 percent of SIG grants, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and only 4 percent of campuses opted for the restart model. Another 20 percent of schools went with the turnaround model.

The most popular option -- accounting for nearly 75 percent of SIG schools -- has been the transformation model, which is hardly surprising, given that it offers the most leeway in terms of staffing and programs.

Replacing key staff and teachers has been a struggle for many schools across the country, the CEP researchers say. But some rural schools, like those in Idaho which were the focus of the CEP case study, have found their staffing options to be even more limited than their urban counterparts. Rural districts have also had difficulty finding providers to deliver supplemental programs and services.

The CEP report included an opportunity for state education officials to share -- anonymously -- their concerns about the SIG program. One state official expressed frustration with the closure model, because it didn't include a provision that the SIG dollars would follow the students. That seems like a fair point; the needs of the students don't change just because they get assigned to a new school, one that might not even be adequately prepared to serve them.

One of the SIG programs more vocal critics has been Mike Petrilli, vice president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank in Washington, D.C. Petrilli said he's not surprised by the CEP study findings. "It's not exactly shocking that educators are glad to see the federal government spending a lot of money on low-performing schools," Petrilli said. "But that's a very different question of whether this is a cost-effective investment."

When asked what the threshold should be for the SIG program to be considered a success, Petrilli said that might be hard to qualify.

"In all fairness, nobody should expect all of these school turnarounds to be successful; we know in the business world that turnarounds most often fail," Petrilli said. "If half the schools improve, is that a success? If there's mild improvement at a handful of schools, is that enough? Is the only alternative turning a blind eye or closing them all down? This is where you're going to have a lot of debate."

If SIG turns out to be a tool for fixing chronically failing schools, "that's wonderful, because that's a nut we haven't been able to crack before," Petrilli said. "I'll be happy to say this was worth every penny. However, until that data comes out, I remain somewhat skeptical."

CEP researchers are also eager for there to be more data to evaluate SIG. That's going to require looking at student achievement, staffing and instructional trends over a minimum of three to five years, at both SIG schools and comparable campuses that didn't receive the extra funding. (For a summary of what the studies currently say about school turnarounds, check out EWA's research brief.)

There's another concern on the horizon, said Rentner, CEP's deputy director: What happens when the third year of funding runs out?

"The fear is the school is going to slide back on any progress that is made," Rentner said. "There has to be some thought about how the progress can be sustained. I don't think you can pull out this support all at once and expect the schools to succeed."

This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to