Mar 29 2017
Elementary school classroom

School turnarounds can be successful, but evidence-based reforms and a dollop of patience are essential ingredients.

That’s the key finding in a new study by a University of Washington College of Education researcher and colleagues at the University of California, Irvine and Stanford University who explore the effects of federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) aimed at improving the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

While a recent report from the U.S. Department of Education found little impact for the $7 billion in funds channeled to thousands of schools across the country, the UW’s Min Sun, assistant professor of education policy, said the picture changes dramatically when looking across the entire three-year duration of a SIG award rather than just one year.

“Other recent studies have only looked at effects after the first year of a SIG award or a limited set of academic outcome measures, mainly test scores,” Sun said. “What we found, looking at multiple dimensions over three years of effort, is that after two years of modest improvement we see pronounced, positive effects of SIG interventions on student achievement in year three.”

In her study, Sun explored a decade of data from San Francisco Unified School District, which received $45 million in SIG funding over three years to transform its 10 “persistently lowest-achieving” schools.

The lowest-performing schools saw increased average student achievement in math and English language arts (ELA), with the gap between these turnaround schools and the rest of the district narrowing from 0.80 standard deviations (SD) in spring 2010 (right before the reform) to 0.50 SD in the third year of SIG efforts.

Sun noted improvements in student achievement were reflected in measures of positive school processes, including changes in the composition of the teacher workforce and supports that teachers received for their work.

Teacher retention. A key piece of San Francisco’s SIG reforms involved staff reconstitution to improve school effectiveness. With a one SD increase in a math teacher’s demonstrated ability to improve student performance, the odds of that higher value-added math teacher remaining in a SIG school increased by 2.68 times in year 1 and 1.78 times in year 3 compared to the pre-reform years, with similar positive effects observed for ELA teachers.

Teacher supports. SIG schools also worked to improve teacher capacity and instructional leadership (e.g., visiting a fellow teacher’s classroom to watch him or her teach, receiving meaningful feedback on teaching practice from a principal). By the second year, SIG teachers reported a level of teacher support that was 0.50 points higher than the level reported in non-SIG schools (an increase of 0.26 SD). By the third year, this difference was 0.81 points higher (an increase of 0.41 SD).

Family preferences. The percent of families listing a SIG school as their first choice was decreasing in the years prior to reform efforts but began to increase after reforms were implemented. In the first year of reform, the odds that students selected a SIG school as their first choice significantly increased by 31 percent relative to the odds of making the same choice before the intervention, after accounting for student characteristics, distance from their home to the school, and school fixed effects. The odds that students listed a SIG school as their first choice increased by 65 percent in year 2 and 117 percent in year 3. This same pattern was seen among high-achieving students.

“Given the importance of teachers to student success, our results suggest schools benefit from the practices that were adopted, such as developing teacher capacity and changing the composition of the teacher workforce,” Sun said. “We also see evidence of the importance of effectively engaging families.”

Comprehensive school reforms take time to implement, she noted, and an important design feature of these efforts should be the gradual emergence and intensification of reform impacts.

“Policymakers and the public need to have patience to allow systemic and dramatic reform efforts to come to fruition,” Sun said.

With the Every Student Succeeds Act giving states more responsibility for addressing their low performing schools, Sun said the results from San Francisco demonstrate the importance of adopting evidence-based and theory-driven strategies for school improvement.

“The overall positive findings in this study illustrate a case where the district used rigorous evidence to inform the development of its theory of change and implementation,” Sun said. “That is critical to success.”

Sun’s study “Resource- and Approach-Driven Multi-Dimensional Change: Three-Year Effects of School Improvement Grants” is published in the American Educational Research Journal.


Min Sun, Assistant Professor of Education

Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications