As Secretary Duncan highlighted earlier this month at the Grad Nation Summit, we are now starting to get preliminary achievement data on the first year of state and local efforts to turn around the nation’s lowest-performing schools. The results, while preliminary, are encouraging: A significant share of persistently low-performing schools are seeing substantial gains in student learning in just the first year of the “SIG” program, the shorthand label for the groundbreaking School Improvement Grants initiative.
SIG seeks to accelerate achievement in our nation’s lowest-performing schools through rigorous, comprehensive interventions. Each school gets a three-year grant of up to two million dollars per year. The grants support school leaders, teachers, parents, and community partners to undertake the difficult, demanding, and rewarding work of turning around a chronically low-performing school.
For the first time, the Administration has put serious resources into supporting state and local school turnaround efforts—more than four billion dollars to date. For the first time, federal grants require states and districts to undertake rigorous interventions in chronically low-performing schools. And for the first time, so-called high school “dropout factories”—high schools where graduation is not the norm—are a major target of school turnaround efforts.
Nationwide, about 830 schools were in the first SIG cohort, and roughly 45 percent were high schools. We now have preliminary achievement data from 43 states, covering about 700 of the 830 schools.
Many observers predicted that SIG would be a flop, with little positive impact on student outcomes. But our preliminary data suggest that great teachers, gifted school leaders, and committed community partners and parents—and, most importantly, students themselves—didn’t listen to the skeptics.
In the first year of the program, initial data show that roughly one in four schools had double-digit increases in math proficiency, and one in five schools had double-digit increases in reading proficiency.
Just as encouraging, many more schools reported substantial, double-digit gains in proficiency in year one than reported double-digit declines in proficiency.
In math, more than 25 percent of SIG schools reported double-digit gains in proficiency, compared to 7 percent of schools that reported double-digit losses.
The picture is similar in reading. Close to 20 percent of schools made double-digit gains, more than double the 8.5 percent of schools that had double-digit declines.
Given the difficulty of school turnaround efforts, few anticipated that a substantial number of schools would in fact make advances in achievement in the first year. But for the vast majority of SIG schools, gains in proficiency in math or reading in the first year of the program are far more common than not. The preliminary data indicate:
- In 63 percent of SIG schools, math proficiency increased, compared to 33 percent of schools where math proficiency declined—meaning that increases in math proficiency were almost twice as common as declines.
- In 58 percent of SIG schools, reading proficiency increased, compared to 35 percent of schools where reading proficiency declined.
What are the ingredients of successful SIG schools? Schools that boost student achievement tend to share at least two common elements.
First, they have a dynamic leader who is deeply committed to the students and the surrounding community. I recently visited Hammond High School in northwest Indiana where Principal Leslie Yanders has helped lead a dramatic turnaround in the school’s performance, including increases in student achievement and graduation rates.
Second, successful turnaround schools also have teachers and other school professionals who share a relentless focus on improving instruction, both through expanded collaboration and the use of data. The SIG program is providing those professionals with the resources and tools to be ambitious with their teaching.
At the heart of successful turnarounds are teachers and school leaders who are excited about the prospect for change. These leaders recognize how demanding the work is but they also see the potential for fundamentally transforming the life chances of their students. They believe they are part of “something big.”
As encouraging as these preliminary achievement data are for the first year of the SIG program, they are still preliminary. Our goal is to publish this achievement data in the early summer once we receive complete data from all 50 states. We are continuing to gather data from states on other critical outcomes like graduation rates and “leading indicators” that forecast progress in student achievement, including changes in dropout rates and discipline incidents.
Moreover, the preliminary achievement data are just the first year of data. Everyone recognizes that we will need several years of data to confirm a lasting improvement in student learning. None of these schools are where they need to be to provide a world-class education just yet. But the progress and sense of momentum in the field is real.
And don’t take my word for it alone. Listen to the students who report that they are “more engaged,” “being pushed more”, and “now given a chance to succeed.”
Like Secretary Duncan, I approach the work of turning around low-performing schools with an abiding humility, coupled with a sense of urgency.
We know that this work cannot be done alone—and that it is incumbent upon all of us to learn from one another about what’s working and what’s not.
As a former teacher in a high-poverty school, I know that improving outcomes in a struggling school is some of the toughest, most controversial work that an educator will ever face. But I also know that we can no longer turn a blind eye to schools that persistently fail to educate their students.
I know that, as educators, we cannot accept the proposition that some schools, some students, and some communities are destined to fail. And I know that successfully improving teaching and learning in an underperforming school is not only enormously demanding but enormously rewarding work.
In year one of the SIG program, schools and communities across the country are taking that first, tentative step toward making the promise of equal educational opportunity a reality for all of our students. Now, it’s time to learn from their experiences in the field—and to build on their momentum.
—Jason Snyder, a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, oversees the implementation of the SIG program.