So can the biggest federal investment—and tightest federal strings ever—actually make a difference for the nation's lowest-performing schools?
That's the $3.5 billion question behind the School Improvement Grant program, which got supersized under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. And so far, the very, very preliminary answer seems to be that the program holds promise.
The department has begun crunching data for about 700 of the roughly 850 schools that entered the program back in the 2010-11 school year (the only year for which results are available). In all, 43 states are part of that very early, in-no-way-the-final-word-on-the-program analysis.
And? About one in four schools saw double-digit increases in math proficiency. And about one in five schools posted double digit increases in reading proficiency. In all, during the first year of the program, the percent of students who were proficient in math or reading went up in roughly 60 percent of SIG schools, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the crowd assembled at the Building a Grad Nation Summit in Washington.
Lots and lots of caveats: The department won't have comprehensive student achievement data for every school in the program until later this year. And even the first-year results of the program won't be the final word; any edu-data-nerd can tell you that one year of student results doesn't say much about the bottomline effectiveness of a federal program as large and complex as SIG.
Even Duncan is not breaking open the champagne just yet.
"As encouraging as these increases in academic achievement are, I want to be clear that they are still preliminary," he said. "We're only talking about the first year of data, and everyone recognizes that we will need several years of data to confirm a lasting improvement in academic achievement."
Still, Duncan couldn't help but remind folks that the department got a lot of flak when it rolled out the four SIG models in late 2009.
"Almost immediately, armchair analysts, bloggers, and pundits virtually uniformly predicted that the SIG program would flop," he said. "They said it would be a terrible waste of time, talent, goodwill, and money. .... Fortunately, great teachers, great community partners and parents—and most importantly, committed students—didn't listen to the skeptics."
Some background: The Obama administration's version of the SIG program calls for some major shake-ups, like removing a school's principal and half its staff, creating new teacher evaluation systems, and extending the school day.
Despite all the asterisks, the numbers are still something to chew on, particularly since up on Capitol Hill, lawmakers have already all but given the eulogy for the administration's brand of the SIG program. Congress is sympathetic to arguments from teachers' unions, principals' groups, and advocates for districts and state education officials, all of whom say the four models are inflexible and limiting.
The Senate education committee approved a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that allows states to submit their own turnaround ideas to the secretary for approval. And the House education committee just wiped out the program altogether.