WILL Blog | Flanders: Did Obama’s 7 Billion Dollar Education Experiment Fail Wisconsin Too?

A report released by the U.S. Department of Education during the final hours of the Obama administration showed how the federal government spent more than $7 billion on low-performing public schools with School Improvement Grants (SIG) – but the grants failed to lead to any significant changes in the academic performance of those schools.  Some, like Andy Smarick of AEI, have made the case that this is the greatest failure in the history of the Department of Education. Given that this was released during the final hours of the Obama Administration, it is safe to say that this story is flying under the radar.

Some of the money was spent in Wisconsin and the findings have major implications on the debate over how to improve failing schools.  

First some quick background.  SIG grants have the admirable goal of making dramatic changes to the education environment in failing schools.  Grant recipients must choose from one of four improvement models:  turnaround, restart, closure, or a transformation model.  The turnaround model involves replacing half the staff and the principal.  The restart model involves closing the school and opening it as a charter school.  The closure model (obviously) involves closing the school.  The transformation model is far more nebulous; it describes additional training for staff and better application of data.  Not surprisingly, the most common model chosen among SIG grant recipients is the one for the least dramatic reforms:  the transformation model was chosen 50% of the time while the restart and closure models were chosen 3 and 1 percent of the time respectively.

The final report on these grants released by the Department of Education examined all SIG grants made from 2010 to 2013 by the Obama Administration.  Using sophisticated statistical analyses, they found that the grants had no impact on reading or math scores, graduation, or college enrollment.

Wisconsin was not left out of this funding source.  Since 2009, more than $50 million in SIG grants have flowed to poor-performing schools in the Badger state, mostly in Milwaukee.  These grants went to schools across the educational spectrum, from grade schools to high schools.

Bradley Technology High School, a traditional public school in the Milwaukee Public School system, was the recipient of a SIG grant in 2011 of $1.2 million.  MPS chose to implement the transformation model in this school.  I examine their results on the reading portion of the WKCE in the chart below before and after the intervention.


Bradley Technology High School WKCE Reading Proficiency, Pre and Post SIG Grant

2017-1-25 blog graphic SIG

The high point of proficiency at this school over the nine-year period for which WKCE data is available was about 12%.  After the SIG funding, scores not only didn’t improve significantly, they remained stagnant. The school remained well below its proficiency high mark from 2007.  This is admittedly just one example.  But the Department of Education’s own comprehensive study shows that results like this were seen across the country.

What lessons can be learned from this $7 billion failure of an experiment in policy?  First, it lends credence to the argument that the system is the problem more so than the individual players.  When the same public school regulatory regime is in place, replacing the principal is more akin to replacing a cog in a broken wheel than with replacing the wheel.  The time is right for more radical reforms than those attempted by most schools here.  Throwing more money at the problem just doesn’t work. Lastly, this has implications for the implantation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  ESSA requires the state to choose policies to intervene in low-performing schools.  The SIG failure shows how not to do it.

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