A Preliminary Progress Report on Turning Around the Lowest-Performing Schools

As Secretary Duncan highlighted earlier this month at the Grad Nation Summit, we are now starting to get preliminary achievement data on the first year of state and local efforts to turn around the nation’s lowest-performing schools. The results, while preliminary, are encouraging: A significant share of persistently low-performing schools are seeing substantial gains in student learning in just the first year of the “SIG” program, the shorthand label for the groundbreaking School Improvement Grants initiative.

SIG seeks to accelerate achievement in our nation’s lowest-performing schools through rigorous, comprehensive interventions. Each school gets a three-year grant of up to two million dollars per year. The grants support school leaders, teachers, parents, and community partners to undertake the difficult, demanding, and rewarding work of turning around a chronically low-performing school.

For the first time, the Administration has put serious resources into supporting state and local school turnaround efforts—more than four billion dollars to date. For the first time, federal grants require states and districts to undertake rigorous interventions in chronically low-performing schools. And for the first time, so-called high school “dropout factories”—high schools where graduation is not the norm—are a major target of school turnaround efforts.

Nationwide, about 830 schools were in the first SIG cohort, and roughly 45 percent were high schools. We now have preliminary achievement data from 43 states, covering about 700 of the 830 schools.

Many observers predicted that SIG would be a flop, with little positive impact on student outcomes. But our preliminary data suggest that great teachers, gifted school leaders, and committed community partners and parents—and, most importantly, students themselves—didn’t listen to the skeptics.

In the first year of the program, initial data show that roughly one in four schools had double-digit increases in math proficiency, and one in five schools had double-digit increases in reading proficiency.

Just as encouraging, many more schools reported substantial, double-digit gains in proficiency in year one than reported double-digit declines in proficiency.

In math, more than 25 percent of SIG schools reported double-digit gains in proficiency, compared to 7 percent of schools that reported double-digit losses.

The picture is similar in reading. Close to 20 percent of schools made double-digit gains, more than double the 8.5 percent of schools that had double-digit declines.

Given the difficulty of school turnaround efforts, few anticipated that a substantial number of schools would in fact make advances in achievement in the first year. But for the vast majority of SIG schools, gains in proficiency in math or reading in the first year of the program are far more common than not. The preliminary data indicate:

  • In 63 percent of SIG schools, math proficiency increased, compared to 33 percent of schools where math proficiency declined—meaning that increases in math proficiency were almost twice as common as declines.
  • In 58 percent of SIG schools, reading proficiency increased, compared to 35 percent of schools where reading proficiency declined.

What are the ingredients of successful SIG schools? Schools that boost student achievement tend to share at least two common elements.

First, they have a dynamic leader who is deeply committed to the students and the surrounding community. I recently visited Hammond High School in northwest Indiana where Principal Leslie Yanders has helped lead a dramatic turnaround in the school’s performance, including increases in student achievement and graduation rates.

Second, successful turnaround schools also have teachers and other school professionals who share a relentless focus on improving instruction, both through expanded collaboration and the use of data. The SIG program is providing those professionals with the resources and tools to be ambitious with their teaching.

At the heart of successful turnarounds are teachers and school leaders who are excited about the prospect for change. These leaders recognize how demanding the work is but they also see the potential for fundamentally transforming the life chances of their students. They believe they are part of “something big.”

As encouraging as these preliminary achievement data are for the first year of the SIG program, they are still preliminary. Our goal is to publish this achievement data in the early summer once we receive complete data from all 50 states.  We are continuing to gather data from states on other critical outcomes like graduation rates and “leading indicators” that forecast progress in student achievement, including changes in dropout rates and discipline incidents.

Moreover, the preliminary achievement data are just the first year of data. Everyone recognizes that we will need several years of data to confirm a lasting improvement in student learning. None of these schools are where they need to be to provide a world-class education just yet. But the progress and sense of momentum in the field is real.

And don’t take my word for it alone. Listen to the students who report that they are “more engaged,” “being pushed more”, and “now given a chance to succeed.”

Like Secretary Duncan, I approach the work of turning around low-performing schools with an abiding humility, coupled with a sense of urgency.

We know that this work cannot be done alone—and that it is incumbent upon all of us to learn from one another about what’s working and what’s not.

As a former teacher in a high-poverty school, I know that improving outcomes in a struggling school is some of the toughest, most controversial work that an educator will ever face. But I also know that we can no longer turn a blind eye to schools that persistently fail to educate their students.

I know that, as educators, we cannot accept the proposition that some schools, some students, and some communities are destined to fail. And I know that successfully improving teaching and learning in an underperforming school is not only enormously demanding but enormously rewarding work.

In year one of the SIG program, schools and communities across the country are taking that first, tentative step toward making the promise of equal educational opportunity a reality for all of our students. Now, it’s time to learn from their experiences in the field—and to build on their momentum.

Jason Snyder, a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, oversees the implementation of the SIG program.


  1. While having obtained all my education in the US, I have extensive experience in turning around schools in international school systems and cultures. I am a US citizen, an educator passionate about helping students achieve their full potential, and currently residing in NC. I would love to make a difference for schools and students in my community and my country. My expertise in the field of education seem to be useless in the US school systems because all positions require licensure of some sort or another. How would someone like me help in the school improvement initiatives?

  2. The immediate results of SIG participant schools are encouraging. I do, however, have several questions: (1) How is the curriculum different now than in the pre-SIG days–address content herein? (2) What else changed: instructional time, more homework, classroom management approaches? (3) What’s different about the school culture? (4) What standards are being utilized to advance students towards a world-class education? (5) Are education technology programs utilized? The answers to these few questions will tell me and other education consultants whether SIG is really on to something awesome. There are so many challenges to righting what’s wrong with education in the United States that the trial and error process to bring about systemic changes will take several years and will be arduous, but, if the will to effectuate change is genuine, education change will result in a world-class education for all youngsters. regardless of their race and socioeconomic status

  3. If you are looking for a school Dis. to help, please at Lakewood New Jersey, before it’s to late, for the children.

  4. This report is far too important to release snippets of data.

    “In math, more than 25 percent of SIG schools reported double-digit gains in proficiency, compared to 7 percent of schools that reported double-digit losses.”

    So what happened to 75 percent of the SIG schools?

        • @Doug – Thanks for the comment. Final SIG data is still being compiled and should be available in the coming months.

          Cameron Brenchley
          Office of Communications and Outreach

  5. Is it possible to view the data on this? The initial release said that scores in Math OR Reading had increased in just under 60% of SIG schools. This suggests that in both Math and Reading scores increased in 58% or more schools. Those are completely different conclusions. Is this just a case where the initial statement was inadvertently inaccurate?

  6. So, you can turn around schools with just an attitude adjustment? What were we waiting for?

    Or, you’re so wrong you don’t even know it.

    You insult our intelligence when you claim to turn schools around with higher expectations.

    We teachers know the problem, and you don’t. You need to listen to us. But you don’t. We’re through with you.

    • Not so fast. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. That School Improvement Grant (SIG) is mighty filling. But if teachers know and others do not, that seems to make teachers a bunch of know it alls unable to impart all they know to either their charges or someone who has charged them to instruct the ignorant. I am listening. Please tell me why I should not give you a failing grade.

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