Some Long-Struggling Schools That Received Federal Grants Saw Positive Changes, But Doubts about Sustainability of “Turnaround” Linger, AIR Researchers Find

Washington, D.C. — Despite positive changes at low-performing schools that received federal grants to spark dramatic improvement, teachers from a diverse group of case-study schools question whether those changes are sustainable.

That finding is part of a multiyear examination, led by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) for the Institute of Education Sciences, of schools that receive School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds from the U.S. Department of Education. Although the program has been dismantled, the struggle to jump-start long-struggling schools continues. The study offers a detailed look at commonly used strategies and lessons learned from such efforts, but also echoes educators’ widespread fears about the fragility of so-called “school turnaround.”

The case studies—conducted by AIR and its research partner, Mathematica Policy Research—examined 25 SIG-funded schools from 2010-2012 and a smaller subset of 12 schools over the grants’ entire three-year lifespan, ending in 2013.

Most teachers in seven of the 12 schools that the study team followed for all three years reported that their schools had changed in primarily positive ways during the grants’ lifetime. Only two of those same 12 schools appeared likely to sustain their improvements. Six appeared to have mixed prospects, and prospects for the remaining four appeared weak, according to teacher survey responses and site-visit data. Many interviewees expressed fears about their schools’ ability to recruit and retain strong leaders and effective teachers once SIG funding ran out.

“There have been many hypotheses about what variables might lead to sustained improvement, from the amount of the grant to the type of intervention model used,” said Kerstin Le Floch, a managing researcher at AIR and lead author of the report. “But these variables appear to have had little effect on the schools studied. Overwhelmingly, the biggest risk factors were related to human capital. Teachers at these schools expressed fears over losing staff and impending changes in school leadership.”

In seven of the 12 schools, it appeared that efforts to build human capital in a grant’s first two years increased the likelihood of boosting organizational capacity for improvement by the grant’s end.

Staffing issues also weighed heavily in observations of the larger group of 25 schools that received grants during SIGs’ first two years. Notably:

  • Only three schools maintained the same principal for the full three-year grant period. Most (21) of the 25 schools replaced their principal at least once in the year before receiving grant funds or in the first year of funding. By year two of SIG, nine had replaced their principals twice. Of the new principals, half were described as improvements over their predecessors.
  • About half of the schools (12) replaced at least half of their teachers during the three-year period. During SIG’s first two years, most schools added nonteaching positions—most commonly, instructional, technology and data coaches (14 schools), followed by additional school administrators (11 schools). However, the principal and district officials in three-fourths (18) of the schools indicated that recruitment or retention challenges made it hard to build a skilled and motivated staff.
  • Most schools reported receiving support from their districts (all 22 schools with sufficient data) and external support providers (22 of 25 schools), but some said support fell short. Only 10 of 22 schools with sufficient data described their districts’ overall efforts as useful to their schools’ improvement aims.

The report, Case Studies of Schools Receiving School Improvement Grants: Final Report, is available on the U.S. Department of Education website. A blog on the study, written by lead author Kerstin Le Floch, is available on the Education Policy Center website.

About AIR
Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of health, education and workforce productivity. For more information, visit