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Eligibility for Federal School Improvement Grants Helped Ohio Students, Study Says

School Improvement Grants from the U.S. Department of Education had a significant positive effect on student achievement in Ohio schools, according to a new study published by two academics.

The study, "School Improvement Grants in Ohio: Effects on Student Achievement and School Administration," found that by the second year of schools becoming eligible for federal SIG funding, students at those schools performed significantly better in both math and reading than those at schools that just missed the cut-off for becoming SIG-eligible. The academic gains for those students at SIG-eligibile schools increased during the third year of SIG eligibility. The achievement gains persisted into the fourth year, but diminished somewhat. 

Staffing turnover at the SIG-eligible schools was comparable to that of schools that came close to but did not end up qualifying for SIG, although the latter group of schools already had high rates of staff turnover: 70 percent over four years. During the time period studied by the authors, school spending increased significantly as well at the SIG-eligible schools—total per-student spending rose by 11 to 14 percent in the second year of eligibility, 18 to 23 percent in the third year, and 9 to 11 percent in the fourth year.

The study was written by Deven Carlson, an associate professor and associate director for education at the National Institute for Risk and Resilience at the University of Oklahoma, and Stéphane Lavertu, an associate professor at Ohio State University who studies education policy. It was published in the academic journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

The $7 billion SIG program was one of the more hotly contested pieces of the Obama education blueprint. SIG was originally authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act, before President Barack Obama took office, but got a big makeover—and a lot more cash—during the Obama administration. Obama's long-time Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said the grants got less attention than the administraition's Race to the Top initiative, but were crucial to his department's plan for helping schools, and talked them up as a big part of his education legacy. (Duncan has written a book about his tenure at the Education Department, which we offer highlights from here.)

However, an Institute for Education Sciences report released at the end of the Obama administration and covering hundreds of schools found that the SIG program, which exceeded the price tag for Race to the Top by roughly $3 billion, failed to move the needle on student achievement

Previous studies of SIG also paint a mixed picture of the program's effect on schools

Ohio received $130 million in SIG money during the academic years covered by the study, and 107 schools received SIG funds across three different cohort years, all of which were during the Obama administration. Of the major SIG strategies used in Ohio schools, none involved closing schools, the study says. 

Carlson and Lavertu warn that good SIG news from the Buckeye State in their report comes with caveats. For example, they stress that their research shows no evidence that students' improved performance under SIG in Ohio will be long-term. They also highlight the history of research showing different outcomes for federal school improvement aid. 

And they point out that while differences in staff turnover between SIG-eligible schools and their close-but-not-quite peers were negligible overall, teachers at schools using the "turnaround" SIG model were less likely to be employed at the same school three to four years later than schools using the "transformation" model. Under turnaround models, a new school principal took over, and the new principal in turn could rehire no more than 50 percent of the previous staff. Transformation models also involved a new principal but not the same level of required staff turnover. 

"If prior school improvement efforts are any guide, there are reasons to think that these achievement increases may ultimately prove transitory," Carlson and Lavertu wrote.

Read the full study here

Assistant Editor Sarah D. Sparks contributed to this post. 


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