For the first year that the state's SIG program was evaluated, a typical low-performing campus closed 23 percent of the achievement gap when it came to
meeting the state's performance targets for student test scores, Dee said. The SIG reforms (while by no means an inexpensive approach) also appear to
have produced relatively cost-effective improvement, particularly when compared to high-price initiatives such as class size reduction, Dee said.
As was the trend nationally, the majority of California's
SIG schools (60 percent) opted for "transformation," the most flexible of the federally approved reform models, which requires significant changes to
instructional approaches and professional development. Roughly a third of the state's SIG schools opted for the more aggressive "turnaround" model,
which mandates that the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff be replaced. The first-year achievement gains attributed to the SIG-funded
reforms were largely concentrated at the "turnaround" campuses, Dee said.
There were significant changes to the schools' learning environments in the wake of receiving the SIG grants. As a result of turnover and new hires,
the average level of teacher experience at the SIG schools dropped by two years. The restructuring also meant class sizes also got smaller, with the
average ratio dropping by about five students for every one teacher.
Dee said he was surprised to find any measurable effects of the SIG program in its first year.
"My presumption had been that schools sought out this money largely because they were in fiscal crisis," said Dee, who is a research associate with the
National Bureau of Economic Research. "I worried that the local buy-in to the required reforms would be poor, and that the implementation would be
What he found instead "were sizable first-year improvements in school performance as a result of the SIG-funded reforms," Dee said.
Even the SIG program's most ardent supporters, like Education Secretary Arne Duncan, are careful not to give too much
weight to results that are based on relatively limited data. Dee recommended similar prudence.
Until there's more information as to whether early gains will turn into long-term growth, as well as how SIG schools are performing nationally, "we
have to be cautious about how we judge this historic effort," Dee said. But "the clear inference" is that SIG dollars and whole-school reforms
"catalyzed meaningful improvements in California's lowest-achieving schools."
Another factor, as was pointed out by researchers at the Center on Education Policy, is whether states will be able to sustain progress once the
federal grants run their course. As Diane Rentner, CEP's deputy director told me in a prior interview, "the fear is the school is going to
slide back on any progress that is made. 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."