Obama Administration Spent Billions to Fix Failing Schools, and It Didn’t Work

Emma Brown, Washington Post, January 19, 2017

One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis.

Test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received money through the School Improvement Grants program — the largest federal investment ever targeted to failing schools — than in schools that did not.

The Education Department published the findings on the website of its research division on Wednesday, hours before President Obama’s political appointees walked out the door.

“We’re talking about millions of kids who are assigned to these failing schools, and we just spent several billion dollars promising them things were going to get better,” said Andy Smarick, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has long been skeptical that the Obama administration’s strategy would work.

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The administration funneled $7 billion into the program between 2010 and 2015 — far exceeding the $4 billion it spent on Race to the Top grants.

The money went to states to distribute to their poorest-performing schools — those with exceedingly low graduation rates, or poor math and reading test scores, or both. Individual schools could receive up to $2 million per year for three years, on the condition that they adopt one of the Obama administration’s four preferred measures: replacing the principal and at least half the teachers, converting into a charter school, closing altogether, or undergoing a “transformation,” including hiring a new principal and adopting new instructional strategies, new teacher evaluations and a longer school day.

The Education Department did not track how the money was spent, other than to note which of the four strategies schools chose.

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Just a tiny fraction of schools chose the most dramatic measures, according to the new study. Three percent became charter schools, and 1 percent closed. Half the schools chose transformation, arguably the least intrusive option available to them.

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The study focused on schools that received School Improvement Grants money between 2010 and 2013. The administration awarded a total of $3.5 billion to those schools, most of it stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. “Since then,” she said, “the program has evolved toward greater flexibility in the selection of school improvement models and the use of evidence-based interventions.”

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The latest interim evaluation, released in 2015, found mixed results, with students at one-third of the schools showing no improvement or even sliding backward.

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Smarick said he had never seen such a huge investment produce zero results.

That could end up being a gift, he said, from Duncan to Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary and a prominent proponent of taxpayer-supported vouchers for private and religious schools.

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Smarick said: “I can imagine Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump saying this is exactly why kids need school choice.”

 

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