Failing Schools, Federal Grants, and Turnaround Efforts in Colorado

We ended last week on a high note, with conservatives banding together to preserve accountability in Colorado even in the absence of federal requirements to do so. Then a Sunday Denver Post story about federally funded school turnaround efforts in Colorado drove home the fact that—brace for impact—federal efforts at school improvement aren’t always all that helpful. From the story:

At best, the results of this nationwide experiment that shoveled money at the country’s lowest-performing 5 percent of schools are unconvincing. A Denver Post analysis of student achievement data and federal School Improvement Grant funds found little correlation between money and academic gains.

The story examines data from No Child Left Behind’s School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, which is a roughly $7 billion federal grant program under Title I of ESEA. Well, at least it was a roughly $7 billion federal grant program under ESEA. The grant program is not included under the new version of ESEA/NCLB known ESSA. Education sure does love its acronyms…

Anyway, the program was aimed at improving the lowest-performing schools in the country. Basically, the feds awarded money to state education providers (like CDE), and those providers then turned around and offered the money through a “competitive” process to local school districts. In turn, the local school districts were supposed to target the money toward effective improvements in their lowest-performing schools.

In Colorado, there are currently 29 schools with one year remaining on the state’s accountability clock. Created in 2009, that clock was intended to ensure schools and districts  cannot remain in the lowest two categories—turnaround and priority improvement—for more than five consecutive years without penalty. In concept, the State Board (with assistance from a state review panel) is supposed to step in at year five and… do something. For traditional public schools, that could include being charterized. For charters, it could mean having operators switched out. For all schools, the possibility of closure looms large.

In practice, things are not as clear. Last year’s HB 1323 put school and district ratings on hold for this school year—a nod to the difficult transition our state experienced on the testing front. That effectively stops the accountability clock, giving struggling schools and districts a little more time to get their acts together. However, the clock will start back up next school year. Given the spotty results of Colorado turnaround efforts so far, it’s very likely that the State Board will need to make some tough calls in 2017.

From the Denver Post story:

Of those 29 schools that are nearly out of time, six shared $8.8 million in federal grant funds. Four of those have yet to show progress or had test scores decrease, while two — Carpenter Middle School in Westminster and Trevista Elementary in Denver — saw improvement, moving up a level in the state’s four-tiered accountability system: performance, improvement, priority improvement and turnaround.

In the past five years, 39 failing schools in Colorado received federal grants totaling more than $50 million. Most have a couple of years left on the clock to improve test scores, achievement gaps and graduation rates that would pull them out of failing, or turnaround, status.

Of the schools that received federal aid, half have either dropped a level or remained static, while the other half moved up one level from turnaround status to priority improvement.

That’s not a particularly rosy picture.

Things are especially ugly in Aurora and Pueblo 60, home of some of Colorado’s best-known failing schools. Improving Aurora’s schools has been a major focus for education reformers in recent months, especially after the “If Not Now” coalition released a report showing that the district’s proficiency rates in math, reading, and writing were roughly 20 percentage points lower than the state average, and that nearly half of Aurora students don’t graduate on time. Despite federal grants, Aurora has made only glacial progress and Pueblo 60 has actually gotten worse (!). 

Honestly, though, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that we haven’t seen massive improvements from the SIG program. As Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners points out in the article:

If you funnel a whole lot of money to the same dysfunctional districts that have been running the dysfunctional schools, these are the results you should expect. What’s mystifying to me is that people thought the school improvement grant program was going to get dramatically different results than the dozens of other similar efforts at school turnaround in the past.

I don’t want to put words in Andy’s mouth, but I think he’s using a version of a statement that I employ frequently: How you spend money is an awful lot more important than how much you spend.

The results of the SIG program bear that assertion out. While the program has seen some small gains overall, there are legitimate questions about whether those incremental improvements were worth seven billion smackers. And the fact remains that a great many SIG schools in Colorado have made no meaningful progress.

But there are some standout exceptions. For example, Trevista Elementary in Denver—a school that serves almost exclusively low-income minority students—has posted an astonishing 24-point improvement in math proficiency rates.

Why the difference? Because Trevista and Denver chose to invest the money they received wisely. The catalyst for Trevista’s improvements, the school’s not-so-secret sauce, was a leadership shakeup that involved a new principal and two new assistant principals. According to the Denver Post article, these leaders focused their efforts on fundamentally altering the school’s culture.

Let’s pause and consider that for a moment. While I’m sure Denver and Trevista spent at least some their grant money on things, a good deal of it was invested not in stuff, but in people. I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of different schools, and I’ve noticed a distinct pattern: The most successful schools are those that combine strong leadership, a culture of high expectations, and a truly dedicated staff. That’s as true in traditional public schools as it is in charters and private schools.

In fairness, the Denver Post article points out that Pueblo 60 also spent a sizable chunk of change on consultants who specialize in training leaders and changing culture. I’m not completely sure why that didn’t pan out while Denver’s efforts did, but I’d be willing to bet it has a little something to do with the people involved in the process.

At the end of the day, successful schools are defined not by curricula or textbooks or facilities, but by the people who work in them and the culture those people create. That intuitive truth is often lost in the education reform conversation, but we’d do well to remember it.

While we’re at it, we should probably also remember that simply throwing money at problems isn’t a real solution. See you next time!