sig: the sequel

Did Obama’s federal school turnaround program really fail?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius read to students enrolled in a Head Start program at Rolling Terrace Elementary School March 1, 2013 in Takoma Park, Maryland. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

It has become a talking point for Betsy DeVos and a powerful example of the challenges of turning around struggling schools: a national study, released by the federal government, showing that its multibillion-dollar turnaround program failed.

“The previous administration spent seven billion of your dollars on ‘School Improvement Grants,’ thinking they could demonstrate that money alone would solve the problem,” DeVos said soon after becoming education secretary. “They tested their model, and it failed miserably.”

A new report says, not so fast. It points to studies of places like San Francisco, where the approach seemed to help students, and the limitations of the government’s study to conclude that the federal report painted too grim a picture.

“The autopsy on the grant program is flawed and its core conclusion faulty,” says the analysis, released by FutureEd, a Georgetown-based think tank generally supportive of Obama-era education policies.

It’s a year-old debate that remains relevant, as the study has become a touchstone for the idea that the federal government is unable to help long-struggling schools improve. And it comes as states, now with more freedom, are grappling with how to intervene in their lowest performing schools.

The federal turnaround program, known as School Improvement Grants or SIG, was a signature initiative of the Obama administration. In exchange for federal money, schools had to make changes, but had to use one of four approaches. About three-quarters chose the least disruptive option: firing the principal and making adjustments like lengthening the school day or toughening their teacher evaluations. Others replaced the principal and half the teaching staff. Few chose the other options, turning a school over to charter school operator or closing it altogether.

The initiative was evaluated by the external research firm Mathematica and the American Institutes for Research and released by the education department’s research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences. The results, released in January 2017, weren’t pretty.

“There was also no evidence that SIG had significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment,” the study said.

The FutureEd report, written by two former Department of Education officials, suggests those conclusions are flawed for a few reasons, some of which were noted when the study was first released.

For one, it points out that even if School Improvement Grants successfully improved students’ academic outcomes, that would have been hard for the study to detect because the study’s bar for “statistical significance” was a very high one to clear.

The study actually estimated that the grants led to modest boosts in reading test scores and small declines in high school graduation rates — but neither impact was statistically significant, which is what the researchers mean when they say they found “no evidence.”

One of the report’s researchers, Lisa Dragoset of Mathematica, defended its approach. Setting a high bar for significance is reasonable for a program, like SIG, that was quite costly, she said. And even ignoring statistical significance, the estimated gains in reading were small and essentially zero in math, she noted.

“It’s unlikely that there were substantive or large impacts that were undetected by our study,” she said.

Second, FutureEd points out that the subset of schools in the federal study were not representative of all schools receiving federal grants.

The study compared schools receiving SIG grants to those schools near the eligibility cutoff that didn’t get grants. This is a widely used approach, but the FutureEd authors point out that the results then don’t say much about the effects of the grants on the lowest-performing schools. The studied schools were also disproportionately urban.

The new report also highlights a number of studies that focus on specific states and cities which paint a much more positive picture of the initiative. Most, though not all, of these studies find that the grants had positive effects on test scores.

“There are legitimate questions of whether the SIG program represented the best way to use federal funding to improve struggling schools,” the FutureEd authors conclude. “But it is wrong to suggest that there was no return on the SIG investment.”

Dragoset acknowledges that national results might not apply to all SIG schools, but says there’s nothing inconsistent with seeing no clear national effect but positive results in certain states.

“Ours, to my knowledge, is the only large-scale, rigorous study of the SIG program nationwide,” she said.

Dan Goldhaber, a University of Washington professor and vice president at the American Institutes for Research who reviewed the FutureEd report, said the limits of the federal study suggest policymakers shouldn’t “jump to the conclusion that the SIG program didn’t work.” But the study “was competently done,” he said.

The FutureEd analysis concludes that the U.S. Department of Education should spearhead a review of the research on turning around struggling schools. Tom Dee, a Stanford professor who found that the federal grants led to higher test scores in California schools, echoed this.

“I believe the question we should be asking is the following: why do federal reform catalysts seem to generate positive change in some states and communities but mere cosmetic regulatory compliance in others?” he said. “It seems to me that knowing more about the answer to that question is critical to efforts to drive meaningful change at scale.”

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.