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“SIG”N OF IMPROVEMENT?: Federal Report on School Improvement Grants Program Identifies Positive Results for Nation’s Lowest-Performing Schools, Little Change in Others

Schools receiving funds from a federal program targeting the nation’s lowest-performing schools showed mixed results, according to findings released November 12 from the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Overall, schools receiving funds from the School Improvement Grants (SIG) program improved graduation rates at two and three times the national average and increased the percentage of students who were proficient in reading and math at rates faster than other schools. At the same time, however, roughly one-third of SIG schools showed no change or regressed in math and reading proficiency rates.

“When searching for a cure for a disease, medical scientists don’t give up when they see progress, but not all they hoped,” said Alliance for Excellent Education President Bob Wise in a statement. “They see it as confirmation for their hard work, roll up their sleeves, and redouble their efforts. [These] results are not perfect; not all SIG schools are improving. The SIG program is not a complete cure for what ails the nation’s lowest-performing high schools, but it is a vitally important program—one of the very few federal programs that targets the toughest cases in the education reform hospital and identifies possible new cures.”

As shown in the graph below taken from the report, the first group of SIG schools (Cohort 1) improved their collective graduation rate from 63 percent in School Year (SY) 2010–11 to 69 percent in SY 2012–13, compared to a 2 percentage point gain in the national average. The second and third group of SIG schools increased their collective graduation rates by 4 percentage points. (Click on the image for a larger version.)

SIG Graduation Rates

Among individual schools, 45 percent of schools in Cohort 1 improved their graduation rates by 6 percentage points or more while 33 percent of schools saw their graduation rates remain roughly unchanged or even decline by more than 2 percentage points. Among Cohort 2 schools, 38 percent improved their graduation rates by 6 percentage points or more while 44 percent saw no change or decreases.

In math, Cohort 1 SIG schools increased the percentage of students reaching proficiency from 32 percent in SY 2009–10 to 40 percent in SY 2012–13—a gain of 8 percentage points, compared to 3 percentage points for the national average. As shown in the graph below, approximately 70 percent of Cohort 1 SIG schools made single- or double-digit gains while 26 percent saw single- or double-digit losses, compared to 56 percent and 37 percent, respectively, of schools nationally. (Click on the image for a larger version.)

SIG Math Gains and Losses
In reading, Cohort 1 SIG schools increased the percentage of students reaching proficiency from 39 percent in SY 2009–10 to 45 percent in SY 2012–13—a gain of 6 percentage points, compared to 2 percentage points nationally. The percentage of SIG schools in Cohort 1 making single- or double-digit gains (69 percent) was higher than the national average (59 percent) while the percentage of SIG schools seeing declines (28 percent) was lower that the national average (35 percent).

In a November 12 article, Politico reporter Caitlin Emma says the SIG results are “mixed” and that the report “[glosses] over some of the shortcomings of the multibillion-dollar [initiative].” She writes that the report excludes a “substantial number of schools from the achievement data analysis because of changes over time in state assessments and other structural changes to schools.” Additionally, she notes that it “doesn’t provide data for the 2013–14 and 2014–15 school years and it doesn’t allow for the comparison of schools that won grants and similarly underperforming schools that didn’t.”

In a November 3 article, Emma examines why some schools made gains while others did not. She focuses on two high schools—one in Miami and one in Chicago—that received millions in SIG funds and followed a similar turnaround strategy. The Miami school made “impressive gains, rebounding in three years from an ‘F’ rating to a ‘B,’” Emma writes. “At the other, less than 10 percent of juniors are proficient at reading, math, and science—the same level as before the grant.” Emma attributes the differing outcomes to the schools’ “readiness to make use of the sudden infusion of money.” Miami, where school officials had prepared for the grants was ready. Chicago, where teachers “fought the program and officials changed almost yearly,” was not.

More information on ED’s report, School Improvement Grants National Summary: School Year 2012–13, as well as an accompanying report released on the federal Race to the Top competitive grant program, is available at

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