Feds’ fix for failing schools falters

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In fall 2011, Marshall High welcomed students to an upgraded facility and a brand-new staff, thanks to a federal School Improvement Grant.

Catalyst file photo / Cristina Rutter

In fall 2011, Marshall High welcomed students to an upgraded facility and a brand-new staff, thanks to a federal School Improvement Grant.


In 2009, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tapped $3 billion in federal stimulus funds to supercharge the existing School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, which gives states money to turn around their lowest-performing schools.

A year later, four Chicago Public Schools won SIG funds: Fenger, Harper, Marshall and Phillips high schools. Eventually, 20 CPS high schools would win grants, typically $6 million over three years, to give themselves substantial  makeovers. (In 2014, for the first time, three CPS elementary schools won SIG grants.)

The goal of the grant program was to get big improvement in student outcomes. “We want transformation, not tinkering,” Duncan said in a 2009 speech.

But making big change for students in urban high schools with a history of failure is perhaps the toughest challenge in U.S. education. At Marshall High School, among the first in Chicago to win SIG money, then-principal Kenyatta Stansberry made some headway on school culture and lifted the school’s special-education program out of state sanctions. But making transformational progress on academic achievement eluded Marshall.

Meanwhile, schools like Marshall—non-selective, neighborhood high schools in tough city neighborhoods—also have slid into fiscal crisis. With the advent of charters and other schools of choice in Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities, these neighborhood schools are losing students—and thus dollars—at a rapid rate. A three-year infusion of unsustainable cash could not make up for the loss of funds due to declining enrollment.

See “Last ditch tactic,” and “Why it matters,” Catalyst October 2011


To its credit, CPS learned from its first go-round with SIG. In the second round, it sought schools that already showed an “upward trajectory” that could be accelerated with a sudden infusion of cash. In these cases, the district favored the less-dramatic “transformation” strategy rather than engage in wholesale uprooting of staff. That strategy worked at Hancock High, where on-track rates quickly soared.

Two years in, collaborative reporting by education news organizations found lots of action among states and districts, some strides on school culture and academic rigor, but no solid advances in academic achievement. A local report on Illinois’ first SIG grants showed similar findings.

Most recently, another federal report on SIG schools suggests the grants did not provide much bang for the buck. Last month, a Politico story contrasted the success of Miami’s SIG high schools with Chicago’s struggles, arguing that the revolving door of CPS leadership left SIG schools here in limbo.

See “Federal money jump-starts school ‘transformation,’” and “Federal program a work in progress,” Catalyst April 2012


Nationally, SIG as we know it is about to disappear. The long-awaited rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known popularly as No Child Left Behind, would consolidate SIG back into the general Title I fund, which supports low-income and low-achieving students. But the proposal, which looks likely to become law, would allow states to increase their Title I set-aside by up to 7 percent for school turnarounds; currently they reserve no more than 4 percent.

As many feared, some SIG schools have struggled since their three-year grants ended. At Fenger, the end of the grant meant the school lost 36 of 100 staff members.

Meanwhile, Marshall High was awarded a second SIG grant in FY 2015, which provides $3.75 million over three years to support a transformation effort. According to Marshall’s application, the turnaround model was rejected this time “since Marshall has gone through so many changes, uprooting the staff once again would be negative to the culture and climate of the building.” Fenger and Phillips also reapplied but were not re-funded.

See “For the record: ‘Chicagoland’ and Fenger High,” Catalyst March 2014

  • Ari

    The SIG Grant at Bogan has been an absolute travesty. Millions down the drain to vendors and contractors, with very little benefit being seen by the students.

    Most metrics at the school have not increased. The only ones that have are those that are easily manipulated- graduation rates and attendance. The school is barely above the threshold for Level 3 schools. Enrollment has plummeted and staff turnover is very high.

  • Crystal Battin

    I am one of the few left at Marshall from the Turnaround staff. It must be noted that after 25 years, Marshall is off probation. We are now a level 2 school, but we have not gotten any press about it. Catalyst, you should come visit and see the great things we’re doing!

    • Ari

      First of all let me say that educators at Marshall (current and past) have done tremendous work with little or no real support from CPS. I am sure you are doing great things, as I am sure the staff was before turnaround.

      Scapegoating teachers and ignoring the very real affects of poverty and crime, while gobbling up federal grant money for assorted vendors and education privateers is the order of the day.

      I don’t think CPS used the term probation 25 years ago. Furthermore, the term has not been in official use since last year. The level system (1+, 1, 2+, 2, and 3) is merely a new way to divide the old system (1, 2, and 3). CPS did this to create the mirage that their chaotic system has shown gains. Most “school improvement” has come from attendance, freshmen on track, and graduation rates- all are things that can be manipulated by administrators at the local school level. That said, teachers and students deserve credit for some of this as well in spite of manipulation at higher levels.

      Using “data” as a measure shows that turnaround hasn’t been a success for Marshall- enrollment has plummeted- from around 1000 the year before turnaround to well under 500 today. PSAE scores for 11th Grade Reading, Science, and Math show barely any significant growth since the year before turnaround. The schools ranking has remained in the lowest 2% statewide.

      What I am saying is that turnaround is a farce, federal grants are largely wasted, and that educators alone cannot significantly improve a school’s academic standing. Marshall teachers and students before turnaround received no additional support, and the support they have received since has not shown real gains.

      • Crystal Battin

        I do not disagree with you. But, the change has been great. There used to be a huge issue with gang fights and a lack of students seeing academic potential after high school. That has changed. Culturally we have changed. That being said, we still receive students who all read below the 7th grade level from all over the city. I teach sped and we have fluctuated between 40 and 24% without resources. We do not have a functioning library or reading resource teachers, although we have many students who come to us as pre-primer or emerging readers. I earned my Ed leadership degree while working here because of these issues. It’s systemic…. How can a kid get to high school and barely read??? I wanted to be the change. Unfortunately, the cards are stacked against CPS and schools like mine. They don’t care about these kids, the schools, or their futures. CPS will continue to lose great educators and leaders because they fail to address the necessity for a district wide standard curriculum AND district wide intervention systems to address the diverse learning needs of its students.