A few years ago, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) launched the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, which is designed to award grants to “persistently low-achieving schools” to carry out one of four different intervention models.
States vary in how SIG-eligible schools are selected, but USED guidelines require the use of three basic types of indicators: absolute performance level (e.g., proficiency rates); whether schools were “making progress” (e.g., rate changes); and, for high schools, graduation rates (specifically, whether the rate is under 60 percent). Two of these measures – absolute performance and graduation rates – tell you relatively little about the actual performance of schools, as they depend heavily on the characteristics (e.g., income) of students/families in the neighborhood served by a given school. It was therefore pretty much baked into the rules that the schools awarded SIGs have tended to exhibit certain characteristics, such as higher poverty rates.
Over 800 schools were awarded “Tier 1” or “Tier 2” grants for the 2010-11 school year (“SIG Cohort One”). Let’s take a quick look at a couple of key characteristics of these schools, using data from USED and the National Center for Education Statistics.
The table below compares SIG schools with all U.S. schools in terms of poverty, ethnicity, school type, and school location in 2009-10, the year prior to their receiving the grants.
Clearly, Tier 1/2 SIG schools are different in terms of these characteristics. The free and free/reduced lunch (FRL) rates are almost twice as high as those for all schools, as is the percent of minority students. On a similar note, SIG schools are also overrepresented in cities, and about half of them are high schools, compared with around 20 percent nationwide.
Again, this is not surprising, and it is to no small extent due to how these schools were chosen. For example, poor students tend to score lower on tests, and so the schools that serve more such students, including those located in cities, have tended to be the ones identified to receive the grants. In other words, the SIG criteria do not really identify low-performing schools as much as schools serving low-performing students.
This is not necessarily a “bad” thing – after all, there is a good case for providing extra assistance to those students who are most in need of help, and that seems to have been the program's intent (even if the prescribed interventions are controversial and their efficacy is unproven). That said, parents, teachers, and other stakeholders should be aware that “persistently low-performing school” may be a somewhat misleading label.
- Matt Di Carlo