The Great SIG Debate

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By Education44 staff

Is effective policy change is in the eye of the beholder? For anyone who has taken part in a debate about public education policy, the answer is likely yes. The question of whether or not chronically low-performing schools can be improved is no exception.

In January 2017, as the Obama administration came to a close, Institute of Education Sciences, the respected and renowned research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, released a report on the multi-year, multi-million dollar School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. Two public education gurus took a look at the report and came to two very different conclusions on whether or not SIG was worth the time and money.

On the one side is Andy Smarick, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and president of the Maryland State Board of Education. On the other side is Peter Cunningham, executive director of Education Post and former assistant secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama Administration’s first term. Each has their stake in the SIG program.

Smarick claimed SIG was doomed from the start, advocating for school choice policies in place of large-scale investments in revitalization efforts. He points to the conclusive summary from the report and the program’s price tag as primary criticisms.

“No matter how the researchers crunched the numbers, the abysmal results were the same. SIG didn’t improve math scores. Or reading scores. Or high school graduation rates. Or college enrollment. SIG didn’t improve elementary or secondary schools. It didn’t help schools in Race-to-the-Top states or non-Race-to-the-Top states.

The results are almost too much to believe. How in the world do you spend billions and billions of dollars and get no results…”

Cunningham, an Education44 alum who played a key support role in developing and promoting the administration’s education policy agenda, including SIG, begged to differ. He took a step back from the study to paint a bigger picture, pointing to the narrow scope of schools evaluated in the report.He goes on to cites an alternate 2015 report with a balance of promising and critical findings then pairs it with anecdotal examples of schools that benefited from SIG.

“Specifically, the study compared schools just below the bottom five percent eligibility line to those just above. This is sort of like comparing D+ schools with C- schools. It makes for a nice comparison, but, as Neerav Kingsland points out, because the study focused on such a small sample, it cannot rule out the possibility that SIG had substantial positive effects.


The fact that the study did not even look at the program’s effects on D- or F schools is also important because these schools had nowhere to go but up. As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened in some of them. When the 2015 analysis was released, Edweek reported that, “’SIG schools were more likely to see double-digit gains in reading and math than other schools.’”

The shame is that something good happened in many of these schools. There is anecdotal information everywhere.”

In the middle of this debate are many communities of educators, students, and families who want their schools to succeed. Clearly, the question of how to help make that happen is still open for debate.

Take a look for yourself at the two sides of this discussion. Read the original commentary by Smarick and Cunningham on Education Next. Or help paint a clearer picture by contributing to the discussion: What does it take to turn around a chronically low-performing school?


Are you a principal, teacher, parent or student whose school has made significant improvements? Tell us how. Share your story and supporting data at [email protected].