CURMUDGUCATION: How Not To Improve Schools

CURMUDGUCATIONThe slightly-cranky voice navigating the world of educational “reform” while trying to still pursue the mission of providing quality education.

Source: CURMUDGUCATION: How Not To Improve Schools

How Not To Improve Schools

The report is in from the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences– “School Improvement Grants: Implementation and Effectiveness.” It is our last lesson in school reform from the Obama-Duncan-King education department, and although that version of the department is being bulldozed under even as I type, there are still important lessons to be learned here.

The full report is over 400 pages long, and if you want to read the whole thing, be my guest. But I don’t think there are any devils lurking in these details. Because the fourth-of-five findings pretty much tells the story:

Overall, across all grades, we found that implementing any SIG -funded model had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment. 

The Obama administration spent $3 billion dollars on school improvement grants (actually $7 billion by the time you factor it all in), and it did not produce any measurable improvements, at all.

Some folks are going to jump straight from there to their favorite conclusion– throwing more money at schools doesn’t do any good. But that’s the wrong conclusion, for two reasons.

First, this results of the study are inconclusive because they checked only for Big Standardized Test scores, graduation rate, and college enrollment. For the sixty gazzilionth time, let me point out that these are narrow, twisted, not-very-good measures of education. I would argue, for instance, that if the three billion had been used to add music and art teachers to every single school in America, education would have been vastly improved– but that improvement would not show up in a study like this. Likewise more guidance counselors, more welding instructors or field trips would improve education, but not in ways that would show up in these metrics.

Second– and this is probably the more important lesson– is the question of how SIG money was spent. Because the feds did not at any point say, “You know, you are the experts there on the ground who best know what your school needs to be better, so we are going to trust your judgment.” No, as the report aptly sums up, the money was not just tied to strings, but wrapped up in strings, bound in strings, woven into a menacing macrame of strings:

SIG allowed grantees to implement one of four school intervention models (transformation, turnaround, restart, or closure). These models promoted the use of many improvement practices in four main areas: (1) adopting comprehensive instructional reform strategies, (2) developing and increasing teacher and principal effectiveness, (3) increasing learning time and creating community-oriented schools, and (4) having operational flexibility and receiving support.

SIG was like food stamps that could only be spent on baby formula, ostrich eggs, and venison, and it didn’t matter if the families receiving the stamps lived on a farm with fresh milk and chicken eggs, or if they were vegetarians, or if they lived where no store sells ostrich eggs, or if there are no babies in the family.  USED used SIG to dictate strategy and buy compliance with their micro-managing notions about how schools had to be fixed.

The moral of the story is not that money doesn’t make a difference. The moral of the story is that when bureaucrats in DC dictate exactly how money must be spent– and they are wrong about their theory of action and wrong about the strategies that should be used by each school and wrong about how to measure the effectiveness of those strategies– then the money is probably wasted. We’ll see soon enough if anyone left at the Department of Education can identify that lesson.

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