Following the money to the country’s worst schools

Where are the lowest-performing schools in America? They tend to be in California, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C. and Wisconsin (specifically, Milwaukee) — at least, as judged by where federal money is going.

A federally funded study out this week by researchers at the American Institutes for Research digs into the data on the group of schools eligible for the federal School Improvement Grant program (SIG). These are the “bottom 5 percent” that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has talked about, the ones that are “unsafe, underfunded, poorly run, crumbling, and challenged in so many ways that the situation can feel hopeless,” and for which the Obama administration has allocated $3.5 billion to fix.

Here are some highlights from the report:

  • Washington, D.C. had the highest percentage of schools eligible for a school improvement grant, followed by Massachusetts—a school system that many regard as one of the country’s best. It may be that Massachusetts ranked so high because of its tough accountability system, however. (To read the fine-print on what makes schools eligible, see this PowerPoint.)
  • Kentucky was the state with the greatest number of schools that actually received money to enact reforms.
  • Milwaukee was the city with the most schools—a whopping 46—that received money, nearly double the number in most other districts with high numbers of SIG schools. Philadelphia was second with 27. Jefferson County, Ky., which encompasses Louisville, had 26.
  • California got the most money: $415 million.
  • Charter schools were overrepresented on the list of failing schools: although they make up only 4.7 percent of U.S. schools, 6.3 percent were eligible. (In the end, 5.5 percent of those receiving SIG grants were charters.)

The total number of schools eligible for the grants numbered 15,277, about 2,000 more schools than the federal government had previously estimated. That’s 16 percent of all U.S. schools—a much higher figure than the “bottom 5 percent” policymakers frequently mention.

Eligible schools are—not surprisingly—more likely to be high-poverty, high-minority, urban schools, a combination that has traditionally been very challenging for educators. Seventy-three percent of the “worst of the worst”—known as Tier I, in SIG parlance—are high-poverty schools.

Only 1,223 schools have received federal money so far; there will be a second round this summer. On average, the lowest-performing schools (Tier I) received $2.6 million, or about $1,490 per pupil.

Schools had four reform models from which to choose, and the report breaks down which ones were selected. Only 2 percent of schools that received SIG money were shut down. Four percent were “restarted” as charter schools, 20 percent agreed to fire their principal and at least half of their teachers, and 74 percent went with the less dramatic “transformation” model, which includes firing the principal and other interventions such as extending the school day.

And, confirming a previous analysis here at Hechinger, high schools are disproportionately represented among schools that won federal money for reform. Although 20 percent of schools in United States are high schools, and only 19 percent of schools eligible for SIG grants are high schools, 40 percent of schools actually awarded SIG money are high schools. The Obama administration purposefully emphasized the upper grades, which in the past have received less federal money.

Additionally, schools in which minorities are the majority were overrepresented among SIG-eligible schools. Although schools that were eligible for grants tended to have higher percentages of Hispanic students, the schools that actually won the grants had higher percentages of African-American students.

The report has more information on how SIG schools were chosen and how their progress will be monitored, both of which vary by state.