In 2009, the Obama administration saw a chance to tackle a problem that had bedeviled educators for decades.
“Our goal is to turn around the 5,000 lowest-performing schools over the next five years, as part of our overall strategy for dramatically reducing the dropout rate, improving high school graduation rates and increasing the number of students who graduate prepared for success in college and the workplace,” said Arne Duncan, the administration’s new secretary of education in August of that year.
The administration pumped $3 billion of economic stimulus money into the School Improvement Grants program. Six years later, the program has failed to produce the dramatic results the administration had hoped to achieve. About two thirds of SIG schools nationwide made modest or no gains — not much different from similarly bad schools that got no money at all. About a third of the schools actually got worse.
In total $7 billion has been spent on those 5,000 schools.
But then why has the SIG program, created in 2007 under President George W. Bush, produced such uneven results at a total cost of about $7 billion?
A comparison by POLITICO of two troubled high schools — one in Miami and one in Chicago — both of which received millions in SIG funds, both of which followed a similar turnaround strategy, reveals that education officials at the federal, state and local levels paid too little attention to a key variable for success. One school made impressive gains, rebounding in three years from an “F” rating to a “B.” At the other, less than 10 percent of juniors are proficient at reading, math and science — the same level as before the grant.
The difference between the schools was in their readiness to make use of the sudden infusion of money. In Miami, school district officials had prepared for the grants. They had the support of teachers, unions and parents. In Chicago, where teachers fought the program and officials changed almost yearly, schools churned through millions of dollars but didn’t budge the needle.
So let’s look at what worked in Miami.
When the $43 million in SIG money arrived in 2010, Carvalho and Vitti knew that improving personnel in the failing schools would be the key to their success. That meant moving weak teachers out and replacing them with stronger teachers from high-performing schools.
After years of failure, the state ordered Edison to hire a new principal, who started in 2009. Then, with the help of nearly $1.5 million over three years in federal grant money, officials changed out more than half of the school staff. The district brought in Teach for America recruits and held teacher recruitment fairs. Top teachers who volunteered to work at Edison were given financial incentives, like signing bonuses and extra pay for boosting student test scores.
The strategy worked.
So what worked:
- Being able to move out weak teachers
- Using Teach for America
- Financial incentives for top teachers