In 2009, then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, under the direction of the Obama administration, took a dramatic $7 billion step towards improving poor schools around the country. They used the testing models of the No Child Left Behind Act to identify under-achieving schools and awarded School Improvement Grants (SIGs) to state and local education agencies to help those districts improve the quality of education. And in Washington state, those grants have definitely paid off.

The worst-performing schools, meaning the lowest 5 percent of test scores or schools where the graduation rate was below 60 percent, were given on average $2.2 million each towards improvement. States that received the money were expected to distribute the funds to low-performing schools. In exchange, those schools were asked to take dramatic steps like overhauling their curricula, finding a new principal, extending class time, and replacing at least half of the staff.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos quietly halted funding to the School Improvement Grant project in 2017 when a single paper claimed that the money had not helped 22 out of 50 states.

A current, more rigorously done study of schools in Washington state disagrees with those results. Washington schools that received grants saw large leaps in test scores, particularly in math and among younger students. They also saw a nearly 30 percent growth in graduation rates within six years of receiving a grant.

Most notably, those results were consistent between white students and students of color, and across income levels, which means the School Improvement Grants were successful in bettering educational access to the underserved.

Min Sun, the lead researcher on this matter, notes that Washington’s results aren’t typical, and that her study is insufficient to detail just why. But she regards it as a strong indicator that the School Improvement Grant program needs to be reinstated.

Sun’s study includes 99 schools in Washington, North Carolina, San Francisco, and an unnamed urban school district, using data from 2007 before the SIGs were available, to 2017 when they were halted. Her study compared change in test scores and graduation rates between schools which did and did not receive grants, weighted for external factors like local economic change.

“The most important takeaway is there can be lasting change from federal education policy,” said Stanford professor of education Tom Dee. “I think there’s a false public narrative that the era of highly restrict[ed] federal education reform has been a failure.”

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