Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Potential Winners and True Losers

obriena's picture

Earlier this week the California Department of Education awarded (though only temporarily) $315 million in School Improvement Grants to over 100 schools in 31 districts. These grants are designed to reform persistently low-achieving schools, so this is great news, right? Over 100 low-performing schools have a better chance to improve.

The problem is that California identified 188 persistently low-achieving schools back in March, which means that not all the schools that need this money got it.

Now, this was a competitive grant program. Districts containing schools identified as persistently low-achieving applied for the funds to reform them, knowing that the state would decide whom to fund. So we knew going in there would be winners and losers.

The kicker is how they chose the winners:

[S]tate officials gave priority to those [districts] that requested grants to help turn around all campuses on the list. Districts that didn’t request money for each of their lowest-achieving schools were placed behind others for funding, even if the other districts didn’t score as highly on their grant application.

What this ultimately meant: No district that did not include all its persistently low-achieving schools got money, regardless of its application score. Take Pajaro Valley Unified. They requested funds to reform three of their five persistently low-achieving schools but received none, despite scoring a 98.00 on their application (the highest score was 100), better than 21 districts that did receive funding. (See the list of proposed winners and losers [.doc*] for more details).

While it was apparently clear from the application guidelines that a district would get “priority” status for applying for funds to reform all its persistently low-performing schools, the fact that no district would get money without including all its schools was not. And so it seems many districts did what Los Angeles Unified (another loser, whose application scored higher than nine districts receiving funds) did: “chose schools that would benefit the most from reform and submitted applications that were well thought-out.”

A good strategy, in my opinion. Districts that know they lack the capacity to reform all their struggling schools should not promise the world. They should make actionable plans that are truly likely to produce results. Particularly in tough economic times, districts need to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. While I haven’t seen the reform plans, according to what I’ve read that is what some of the losers in this competition did.

Of course, the true losers in this competition are not the districts that did not receive funding. The true losers are the students in the persistently low-achieving schools that did not get funding: for example, students at Roosevelt Elementary in the Stockton Unified School District, which applied for funds to reform three of seven low-achieving schools. The reform plan for Roosevelt included increased instructional time, a new computer lab, tying teacher evaluations to student performance and after-school tutoring. The principal was also looking forward to bringing in a counselor, which the school currently does not have. According to this principal, “[T]he more I think about it, the more sad I am for the students who won’t be getting all of the resources that were in that grant.”

Of course, in competitive grant programs, there will always be winners and losers. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be competitive grants—limited resources should be concentrated where they will do the most good. But in designing these programs, we have to be clear what the standards are. Those applying for funds need to know what is expected of them. And we have to ensure that the best proposals win. Competitive funds should to go to those most likely to get the best results from them, based on as objective a system as possible. That does not seem to have been the case in California.

The silver lining here is that the state Board of Education has postponed the award decision and is holding conversations with the U.S. Department of Education about the award process. So children in Pajaro Valley, Los Angeles and other districts may have another chance at these school improvement funds.

(Hat tip to Alice Mercer for sending out this news)

(*available from http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/ag/ag/yr10/agenda201008.asp as Item 4 Addendum Attachment 8).