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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about federal education funding during a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House with a group of superintendents and leaders of the Council of the Great City Schools to discuss efforts to strengthen educational opportunities for students in city schools March 16, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Failure of the Obama-Duncan "School Improvement Grants" and Its Lessons for Today

Sadly, the Obama-Duncan Race to the Top program promoted the same strategies and goals as No Child Left Behind.

A while back, I read a vitriolic article in a rightwing publication that expressed contempt for the public schools and congratulated Betsy DeVos for trying to cut federal funding for schools.

The article asserted that public schools are “garbage” and the government should slash their funding. A major piece of evidence for the claim that money doesn’t matter was the failure of the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grants program, which spent more than $3 billion and accomplished nothing. The evaluation of SIG was commissioned by the U.S Department of Education and quietly released just before the inauguration of Trump. The report was barely noticed. Yet now it is used by DeVos acolytes to oppose better funding of our schools.

The wave of Red4Ed teachers’ strikes in 2019 exposed the woeful conditions in many schools, including poorly paid teachers, lack of nurses and social workers and librarians, overcrowded classrooms, and crumbling facilities. The public learned from the teachers’ strikes that public investment in the schools in many states has not kept pace with the needs of students and the appropriate professional compensation of teachers. Many states are spending less now on education than they did in 2008 before the Great Recession. They reacted to the economic crisis by cutting taxes on corporations, which cut funding for schools.

A refusal to look at evidence and history blinds us to seeing what must change in federal and state policy.

Sadly, the Obama-Duncan Race to the Top program promoted the same strategies and goals as No Child Left Behind. Set goals for test scores and punish teachers and schools that don’t meet them. Encourage the growth of charter schools, which drain students and resources from schools with low test scores.

One can only dream, but what if Race to the Top had been called Race to Equity for All Our Children? What if the program had rewarded schools and districts that successfully integrated their schools? What if it had encouraged class-size reduction, especially in the neediest schools? Race to the Top and the related SIG program were fundamentally a replication and extension of NCLB.

When Arne Duncan defended his “reform” (disruption) ideas in the Washington Post, he cited a positive 2012 evaluation and belittled his own Department’s 2017 evaluation, which had more time to review the SIG program and concluded that it made no difference. The 2017 report provided support for those who say that money doesn’t matter, that teacher compensation doesn’t matter, that class size doesn’t matter, that schools don’t need a nurse, a library, a music and arts program, or adequate and equitable funding.

The Education Department’s 2017 evaluation shows that the Bush-Obama strategy didn’t made a difference because its ideas about how to improve education were wrong. Low-performing schools did not see test-score gains because both NCLB and RTTT were based on flawed ideas about competition, motivation, threats and rewards, and choice.

Here is a summary of the SIG program in the USED’s report that the Right used to defend DeVos’s proposed budget cuts.

The SIG program aimed to support the implementation of school intervention models in low-performing schools. Although SIG was first authorized in 2001, this evaluation focused on SIG awards granted in 2010, when roughly $3.5 billion in SIG awards were made to 50 states and the District of Columbia, $3 billion of which came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. States identified the low-performing schools eligible for SIG based on criteria specified by ED and then held competitions for local education agencies seeking funding to help turn around eligible schools.

SIG-funded models had no significant impact on test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment…

The findings in this report suggest that the SIG program did not have an impact on the use of practices promoted by the program or on student outcomes (including math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment), at least for schools near the SIG eligibility cutoff. In higher grades (6th through 12th), the turnaround model was associated with larger student achievement gains in math than the transformation model. However, factors other than the SIG model implemented, such as unobserved differences between schools implementing different models, may explain these differences in achievement gains.

These findings have broader relevance beyond the SIG program. In particular, the school improvement practices promoted by SIG were also promoted in the Race to the Top program. In addition, some of the SIG-promoted practices focused on teacher evaluation and compensation policies that were also a focus of Teacher Incentive Fund grants. All three of these programs involved large investments to support the use of practices with the goal of improving student outcomes. The findings presented in this report do not lend much support for the SIG program having achieved this goal, as the program did not appear to have had an impact on the practices used by schools or on student outcomes, at least for schools near the SIG eligibility cutoff.

What NCLB, Race to the Top, and SIG demonstrated was that their theory of action was wrong. They did not address the needs of students, teachers, or schools. They imposed the lessons of the non-existent Texas “miracle” and relied on carrots and sticks to get results. They failed, but they did not prove that money doesn’t matter.

Money matters very much. Equitable and adequate funding matters. Class size matters, especially for children with the highest needs. A refusal to look at evidence and history blinds us to seeing what must change in federal and state policy. It will be an uphill battle but we must persuade our representatives in state legislatures and Congress to open their eyes, acknowledge the failure of the test-and-punish regime, and think anew about the best ways to help students, teachers, families, and communities.

The findings of the report were devastating, not only to the SIG program, but to the punitive strategies imposed by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which together cost many more billions. 


© 2021 Diane Ravitch
Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University. Her most recent book is "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools."  Her previous books and articles about American education include: "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,"  "Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform," (Simon & Schuster, 2000); "The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn" (Knopf, 2003); "The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs to Know" (Oxford, 2006), which she edited with her son Michael Ravitch. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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