One of the Obama administration’s most ambitious school reform initiatives was its dramatic increase in funding for so-called School Improvement Grants (SIGs) aimed at turning around the nation’s worst performing schools. Under the 2009 economic stimulus act, the SIG program spent an additional $3 billion above its previously allocated $546 million, beginning in the 2010–11 school year, to support more than 1,200 struggling schools with high concentrations of students from low-income households. The grant awards to each school amounted to as much as $2 million a year for three years.

Lessons From School Improvement Grants That Worked by TCF senior fellow Greg Anrig synthesizes that evidence about the SIG initiative and provides recommendations for enabling many more chronically struggling schools serving low-income populations to better educate their students. Some of the key findings are:

  • Fundamentally transforming the culture of deeply troubled schools in impoverished environments is extremely difficult to accomplish over a fairly limited time frame of three years, even with a large surge in funding.
  • While most SIG schools showed greater improvement in student outcomes than similar schools without grants, those relative gains were usually quite modest and may be difficult to sustain after the grants expire.
  • The small number of schools that demonstrably transformed to the benefit of their students all pursued very similar strategies, which the federal government and states should proactively communicate to low-income districts, especially including future grant recipients.
  • Common strategies that proved successful include (1) an intensive focus on improving classroom instruction through ongoing, data-driven collaboration, led largely by teachers with oversight from the principal; (2) a concerted, systematic effort to create a safe and orderly school environment through implementation of research-supported practices that all staff members can learn to adopt; (3) expansion of time dedicated to instruction and tutoring in core academic subjects; (4) strengthening connections to parents, community groups, and local service providers to help support school staff efforts to build a culture that expects success of all students; (5) confining reliance on outside expert consultants to jump-starting changes that school leaders and teachers can sustain, rather than spending substantial resources on contractors who either micromanage or provide inadequate assistance.

Read and download: Lessons From School Improvement Grants That Worked.