In the last two debates, President Barack Obama has told the nation that one of his biggest accomplishments on K-12 is helping to spur turnarounds at hundreds of underperforming schools around the country.
"We've seen progress and gains in schools that were having a terrible time. And they're starting to finally make progress," Obama said during the third presidential debate in Florida, earlier this week.
Even though he didn't mention it by name, Obama was clearly referring to the School Improvement Grant program—by far the administration's biggest initiative aimed at fixing low-performing schools. The program was actually first authorized in 2002 under the No Child Left Behind Act, but the Obama administration "supercharged" it, pouring $3 billion into it under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and requiring states to employ one of four highly controversial turnaround models.
So has the program actually worked, as Obama is claiming? It's really tough to tell—unless you have the time and ability to comb through hundreds of state and district websites to crunch Adequate Yearly Progress data.
The U.S. Department of Education has been collecting the data for the first year of the revamped version of SIG for months—in fact, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a sneak preview of (promising) national results back in March. He also said that the Education Department would release the data, likely this summer.
It's now almost November, and that still hasn't happened
It's true that this data exists—but you'd have to find it on state and district sites. It took me more than an hour to locate it on one state's website, for example. And in most cases you have to compare the AYP data to the list of SIG schools—states don't single them out.
The president isn't the only one touting the promise of the turnarounds without citing the figures to back it up. Duncan also mentioned turnarounds in his speech at the National Press Club on Oct. 2.
In July, Deb Delisle, the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, told a crowd of superintendents at the American Association of School Administrators that the department was combing through the data to understand its implications for policy—and figuring out how best to present it to the public. Department officials are "wordsmithing," she said at the time.
Once the data is released, there will be tons and tons of caveats. First of all, it's nearly impossible to tell very much about the efficacy of any program from just one year of data. Second, many of the schools selected might have already been in the midst of their own homegrown turnaround efforts (including the Academy@Shawnee, which Edweek wrote about in this series of stories.)
Still, the data could have big implications for the future of SIG, which House Republicans have already tried to eliminate. The program's nearly $534 million pricetag, while small in the scheme of the federal budget, could look pretty tempting to lawmakers trying to save a few bucks in the face of a looming fiscal cliff.
My guess? Even if the data appears to show that the program is effective overall—a definite possibility, given the double-digit gains some schools have already posted—I'm sure there's something in it that doesn't look particularly great (as there would be in any large data-set about low-performing schools). Maybe schools that have improved overall are still struggling with graduation rates, as Delisle seemed to suggest—it's tough to get those up in just a year, no matter how robust your turnaround. Or maybe the program hasn't worked as well with a particular set of states as it has with others.
No matter the reason, it seems pretty clear that the administration is sitting on the data until after the election—and could even continue to withhold it through the end of the year, as Congress tries to figure out some kind of short- or long-term solution to the nation's debt crisis.
Still, if the president is going to tout the success of SIG as a reason for voters to give him a second term, the public has a right to know what he's talking about.