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March 29, 2012 at 10:14 AM

UW report: Large federal grants yielding mostly small changes in struggling schools

A high-profile, expensive federal program crafted to spark dramatic change at the nation’s lowest performing schools has instead been used for “tinkering” in Washington state, according to a report released this morning.

The study, conducted by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, faulted state schools and school districts with using the millions of dollars they have received through federal School Improvement Grants for incremental changes such as adding a few extra staff members or a bit of extra time at the end of each school day.

“Despite the hard work on the part of many district administrators, principals, and especially teachers, the overwhelming majority of the schools studied so far exhibit little evidence of the type of bold and transformative changes” envisioned by the program, the report concluded.

Schools were not able to radically change, the study found, in part because the tight deadlines of the program required them to rush.

The report was meant as a general study of Washington state; it did not name specific schools. But it did say that some schools are using the grant money in significantly more successful ways than others.

The School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, launched in 2010, allowed schools performing in the lowest 5 percent on state tests to apply for three-year grants. In exchange, the schools agreed to make changes under one of four models: permanently closing; restarting under the control of an outside organization; replacing the principal and half the staff or replacing the principal and implementing curriculum changes.

Of the 18 Washington state schools that received SIG grants, 14 chose the final option, the least disruptive.

That included the three Seattle schools: Cleveland High, Hawthorne Elementary and West Seattle Elementary.

Those schools used most of their combined $5.8 million in federal funding on slightly extending the school day and adding administrative staff.

Two of the schools  — Cleveland and Hawthorne — even managed to keep the same principal in place because, in each case, she had been on the job for less than two years.

“Nothing we did is that out there,” said Scott Whitbeck, the district administrator tasked with overseeing the SIG schools, in an interview last month.

The biggest change has been in the schools’ culture, Whitbeck said. In each case, principals have made a major effort to implement an attitude of success.

At the two SIG elementary schools, the percent of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders passing the state math tests roughly doubled from the year before, while reading scores also spiked. Still, the scores were significantly below the district average.

Cleveland, on the other hand, saw its test scores and graduation rates rise only a few points or stay flat.

Comments | More in Education | Topics: Cleveland High School, Hawthorne Elementary, School Improvement Grants

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