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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Nationally, many schools applied for program just for shot at money

In the two years since Congress made the federal government’s largest one-time investment in public schools, change has rippled through classrooms from coast to coast.

Tennessee and Delaware have revamped their laws to promote the growth of charter schools.

Massachusetts and Maryland have launched efforts to tie teacher evaluations to student performance.

Reflecting similar moves elsewhere, a persistently failing high school in Oregon is investing a record amount in additional training for teachers.

Nationwide, the economic stimulus package has prevented massive teacher layoffs, spurred states to devise sweeping reform plans and jump-started a national conversation about overhauling the worst schools.

But over the long term, will the nearly $100 billion investment bolster academic achievement, particularly for the most at-risk students? Will what U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has described as the country’s education “moon shot” hit its target?

“We have a long way to go. We have not done it,” Duncan said in a December interview, adding that his goal is for the U.S. to lead the world in academic achievement.

“We’re not even close,” he said.

Education was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the $814 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, designed to correct the worst economic nosedive since the Great Depression and signed into law by President Barack Obama on Feb. 17, 2009.

With the stimulus money devoted to education, an estimated 368,000 school-related jobs were either saved or created during the 2009-10 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In collaboration with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news outlet, and the Education Writers Association, reporters from 36 news outlets in 27 states spent nearly three months examining the impact thus far of this historic influx of cash.

Interviewing scores of students, teachers, researchers and education officials at all levels of government, participating reporters set out to determine how the nation’s schools are actually spending the money and whether the changes it sparks are likely to last.

They found that the stimulus package’s long-term impact on public education is far from certain. Indeed, many of the resulting policy changes are already endangered by political squabbles and the massive budget shortfalls still facing recession-battered state and local governments.

The Obama administration’s hallmark Race to the Top program, which at $4.3 billion is the largest grant competition ever undertaken by the federal education department, and which was part of the stimulus package, underscores just how tough it has been to overhaul the education bureaucracy, even with such massive federal rewards up for grabs.

Fragile coalition

A case in point is Massachusetts, a state that uneasily melds an industrial Northeast-style union economy with the modern biotech start-up world. A national leader in student achievement, Massachusetts won $250 million in the RttT competition.

In patching together the fragile coalition of interests needed to successfully pursue its bid, the state approached negotiations like Middle East peace talks, seeking agreement first on broader issues and putting off fights and controversies over specifics.

But as Middle East negotiations have shown, there are plenty of opportunities for everything to ravel as things move forward, given the deeply held philosophical differences.

Although an important element of the state’s application was buy-in from local teachers unions, their support for the proposed reforms remains tenuous. At issue is whether standardized tests should be used to judge teachers, which the state promised to move toward in exchange for the federal money.

The document signed by teachers unions supporting the state’s application actually has several escape clauses. It requires only a “good faith effort” from all parties to implement the promises made in the application, and it pledges that nothing in the application will override collective bargaining agreements.

That means any changes will have to be negotiated district by district in a state with historically strong unions. The agreement also terminates when the grant money runs out in four years, meaning there is no guarantee of enduring change.

In December, the Massachusetts Teachers Association did become one of the first unions nationwide to release its own plan for using student test scores to help evaluate teachers. Even so, some of its local affiliates still have deep reservations.

“We’re a cash-strapped city that doesn’t support public schools,” said Timothy Collins, the head of the Springfield Education Association. “We need the resources.”

Meanwhile, the lure of new federal funding hasn’t persuaded the influential Boston Teachers Union – not an MTA affiliate – to budge from its strong opposition to such evaluations.

“It’s been clear all along that people were only signing onto it for the money,” said Richard Stutman, the BTU president. “No one has signed this because they thought it was a sound education concept. People have signed on because there’s a recession.”

There are also signs of uncertainty among many of the school districts that will have to help Massachusetts make good on its application promises.

In recent weeks, 19 districts dropped out of the RttT effort, mostly because they realized they wouldn’t be getting large grants under the formula used to divvy up the money. Those defections, though mostly from smaller districts, point to the fragility of the coalition.

Evaluation issues

Maryland, another RttT winner that has also been a national leader in education reform, made big promises in its application, too. And like Massachusetts, it’s struggling with teacher-evaluation issues.

Last year, Maryland’s legislature passed a reform package that requires student assessments to be “a significant factor” in judging teachers and principals.

The state education board took the law one step further, pledging in its RttT application that it would pass a regulation requiring 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on student academic growth on tests.

But so far, political and policy wrangles have prevented the fulfillment of that promise. Indeed, teachers and state leaders are finding it more difficult than they imagined to decide how to evaluate teachers – particularly those who aren’t teaching the routinely tested subjects such as third-grade reading.

In Anne Arundel County, which borders Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, the idea still sounds crazy to physical-education specialists such as Kathryn Davis, a well-regarded educator who was a finalist for Teacher of the Year in her county.

The high school teacher can’t imagine how anyone could judge her based on how well students perform fitness tests such as sit-ups and timed running trials.

“This is perplexing,” she said. “I don’t really think someone can rank me or give me a raise based on my subject matter.”

“I personally feel we are all working together, but we are working aimlessly,” said Cheryl Bost, president of the Baltimore County teachers union, who’s working on the statewide committee and trying to figure out how teachers should be evaluated. “The task is daunting.”

The rocky outlook for changes in K-12 policy isn’t limited to the 12 RttT winners. In the run-up to the competition, 13 states changed their laws to create or allow more charter schools in their states, and at least 41 states have agreed to enact common academic standards in English and math. Eleven states changed laws to tie teacher evaluations to student achievement.

Such competitive maneuvers have turned out to be a costly gamble for many states that lost the RttT race.

Funding search

Connecticut, which has one of the largest achievement gaps in the country, is on the hook for a $300 million reform agenda, which was created when state lawmakers passed a sweeping new law.

Now, with the state facing a $3.5 billion budget deficit, school districts still reeling from painful budget cuts last summer will have to figure out how to pay for the online and Advanced Placement courses the law mandates. They’ll also have to track student data, create new tests and provide remedial help to struggling students.

In addition, they must hire more math, science and language teachers – and possibly build science labs – to implement a more rigorous high school curriculum set to launch in 2014.

“Talk about unfunded mandates,” said Elin Katz, a school board member in suburban West Hartford. “I don’t know how we’re going to do this.”

Another losing state, cash-strapped Illinois, is turning to the private sector in hopes of raising $86 million over four years to undertake key reforms such as boosting science and technology education in its high schools and creating a model evaluation system for teachers that includes student growth.

Illinois’ financial uncertainty makes the investment a tough sell to private foundations that worry about the state’s ability to shoulder the cost over the long haul. Even so, state education officials say they have no intention of backing away from the plan they developed as part of the competition.

“These were the right goals and ideals,” Illinois Schools Superintendent Christopher Koch said in November. Losing RttT was “a bump in the road. … But we haven’t slowed down.”

State officials and donors credit RttT with spurring dialogue. While the Chicago Public Schools have long partnered with private foundations to boost everything from the arts to literacy, the state education agency traditionally lacked those connections. The federal race changed that.

Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, a bipartisan education policy group, said, “We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it wasn’t for Race to the Top.”

While RttT seemed to get all of the publicity, another pot of money was almost as big – and it was spread among all states: $3 billion in school improvement grants aimed at fixing the schools that persistently rank in the bottom 5 percent in each state.

Few high schools in the nation are getting as much related financial help as the 700-student Roosevelt High in Portland, Ore., which was awarded nearly $12,000 in extra funding per student.

How will this school, which graduates fewer than 50 percent of its students, turn around? Roosevelt teachers say one key element is the all-out focus on improving teaching strategies, including robust training and in-class coaching from some of the school’s strongest teachers.

Teachers say that, until this year, they had gone years without a supervisor observing them in action. That left them free to plot their own course, set their own standards and, at times, flail without support.

“To never have someone check in on what you’re doing was just not right,” math teacher Alison Strom said.

Unlike most of the other stimulus funds, the school improvement grants came with significant strings. States and school districts had to choose among four models prescribed by the federal government:

 • Closing the school and sending students to higher-performing ones.

 • Replacing half of a school’s staff.

 • Restarting as a charter school.

 • Or using a “transformation” model that includes a basket of strategies such as extended learning time.

But a report by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy found that school districts were largely unprepared to implement the models. A third of the nation’s school districts said they weren’t familiar with the models, and only 12 percent had any experience trying them out.

“Prescribing four specific models is not wise,” said Jack Jennings, the center’s president and chief executive officer. “There’s an awful lot of money that’s going to be spent very fast.”

In Oklahoma, a mostly rural state with large pockets of poverty around Tulsa, the biggest chunk of school improvement money is concentrated in six persistently low-performing schools in Tulsa. All have adopted the transformation model, but two are doing something that hasn’t been tried in previous reform efforts here because of its price tag: increasing time in the classroom.

“If kids are behind, they need more time on task,” Tulsa Superintendent Keith Ballard said. “But with the financial difficulties we have been dealing with, we couldn’t have done this without” this money.

At Tulsa’s 330-student Gilcrease Middle School, the grant is funding an extra 90 minutes for teachers and 70 minutes for students each day, plus salaries and benefits for five new employees. Two are “pride promoters” who help ensure safety and order in the halls and provide extra support to teachers dealing with minor discipline issues.

Discipline problems got so out of hand at Gilcrease during the 2008-09 school year that the superintendent canceled classes there for three days in the middle of the year. Phyllis Lovett, who was introduced as Gilcrease’s new principal at the beginning of 2009-10, says the additional help from the “pride promoters” is contributing to growing stability at the long-struggling school.

“The perception among parents is that this school isn’t safe,” Lovett said. “This school is safe now, but the reputation has preceded us.”

District and school leaders readily admit the precariousness of state revenue sources makes the sustainability of expensive school-improvement reforms, such as additional classroom time, questionable at best.

“The way I see it now is at the worst, we had three years of extended learning time for those kids,” said Ballard, the Tulsa superintendent. “At best, the tough financial times will be over and we will find a way to continue it.”

Spending money on professional development is a common use of stimulus funding in general and school improvement grants in particular. Yet much of this spending has escaped scrutiny, overshadowed by the splashier components of RttT.

“It worries me very much that they spent their own money and federal money on professional development when I think most districts do very poor professional development,” said Tim Daly, executive director of the New York City-based New Teacher Project, a teacher-training organization.

Professional development

In Texas, most districts that used the federal money for professional development focused on supporting current programs or training teachers to use new technology or instructional materials purchased with other stimulus funds.

There were several reasons that districts shied away from investing in major new programs, said Sandy Maddox, associate director of a Texas Education Agency regional service center that provides staff development to school districts.

First, districts were concerned about starting programs for which they would have to find funding later. Second, the money came quickly and “needed to be spent,” she said.

One exception to this is in Garland, Texas, a large suburb of Dallas. This district is using $150,000 in stimulus funds to try to change education across the district by providing several training sessions over two years to help all employees – from bus drivers to administrators – deal with students better.

“Change in the classroom? We hope so,” said Phyllis Parker, assistant superintendent.

Meanwhile, as the federal stimulus effort enters its third year, there are at least some signs of lax accountability over how recipients are spending the money.

In a letter issued to all New Jersey districts in October, acting state Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks said nearly half hadn’t kept required documentation for stimulus-funded hiring. She added that more than 75 percent of districts violated the stringent bidding requirements for equipment and service purchases that came with stimulus funds.

Such missteps are likely to attract scrutiny from members of Congress. And the GOP’s victories in November’s midterm elections will probably stir up renewed debate over the federal government’s role in education.

With the federal budget deficit soaring, there are already signs that federal spending sprees on education are likely over for the time being: The latest federal plan flatlines K-12 spending through March 4.

Jon Schnur, a former education adviser to Obama, wonders whether the same tenacity and persistence that have rallied policymakers through this recession and helped turn the nation’s attention to improving education will wane once the urgency is gone.

He emphasized, however, that regardless of what lies ahead for the stimulus effort launched two years ago, Obama continues to say that education is the key to the nation’s economic future.

“Anybody who thinks he’s not going to focus on education in any significant way is wrong,” Schnur said.

Michele McNeil is an assistant editor covering federal education policy at Education Week. Contributing to this story were Noah Bierman, Boston Globe; Liz Bowie, Baltimore Sun; Grace Merritt, Hartford (Conn.) Courant; Tara Malone, Chicago Tribune; Betsy Hammond, The (Portland) Oregonian; Andrea Eger, Tulsa World; Karel Holloway, The Dallas Morning News; Jeannette Rundquist, Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger; and John Mooney, NJSpotlight.com.