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School-stimulus benefit may be short-lived

Mass. and other states received millions, but impact of aid appears to be flagging

By Michele McNeil
Hechinger Report/Ewa / February 13, 2011

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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, as districts have expanded school days, improved teacher training, and tried to tie teacher evaluations to student performance.

But the stimulus package’s long-term impact on public education is far from certain and may already be flagging, according to a three-month investigation by 36 news organizations working in collaboration with the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news outlet, and the Education Writers Association. Indeed, the research found that 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.

“We have a long way to go,’’ Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, adding that his goal is for the United States to lead the world in academic achievement.

Education was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the $814 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, designed to help correct the worst economic nosedive since the Great Depression. In interviews with scores of students, teachers, researchers, and education officials at all levels of government, the reporters set out to de termine how the nation’s schools are actually spending the money and whether the changes it sparks are likely to last.

Unquestionably, the impact has been widespread and dramatic. The $100 billion set aside for education through a number of programs has spurred states — including Massachusetts — to devise sweeping plans for change, jump-started a national conversation about overhauling the worst schools, and prevented massive teacher layoffs. An estimated 368,000 school-related jobs were either saved or created during the 2009-10 school year, according to the Department of Education.

The lowest-ranking schools in each state have been infused with money, which they have used to extend the school day, improve teacher training, revamp teaching strategies, and hire new employees charged with taking care of discipline problems.

But the review also found just how daunting it can be to overhaul the education bureaucracy. Massachusetts and 11 other states made bold promises to win a share of the $4.3 billion handed out as part of the Race to the Top competition, but following through has its obstacles.

Massachusetts won $250 million by patching together a fragile coalition of interests. Although an important element of the state’s application for the money was buy-in from local teachers unions, their support 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 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 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 — which is not affiliated with the MTA — 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 union’s 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 of them dropped out of the Race to the Top effort, mostly because they realized they would not 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.

Maryland, which also won a pot of money, is also 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, pledged in its application that it would pass a regulation requiring 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on student academic growth, including 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 like third-grade reading.

Another pot of money was almost as big, and it was spread among all states: $3 billion in improvement grants aimed at fixing the schools that persistently rank in the bottom five percent in each state.

At one 700-student high school in Portland, Ore., this grant provided nearly $12,000 in extra funding per student, which officials there are using in part to focus on improving teaching strategies, including robust coaching from some of the school’s strongest teachers.

Unlike other stimulus funds, the school-improvement grants came with significant strings attached. States and school districts had to choose among four models prescribed by the federal government: closing schools 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 chief executive. “There’s an awful lot of money that’s going to be spent very fast.’’

In Oklahoma, a mostly poor, rural state, the biggest chunk of school-improvement money is concentrated in six “persistently low-performing’’ schools in Tulsa.

All of them 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. “We couldn’t have done this without’’ this money.

But district and school leaders readily admit that the precariousness of state revenue sources makes the sustainability of expensive improvements, 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 Race to the Top. “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 Teacher Project, a training organization based in New York City.

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 they would have to find funding for later. Second, the money came quickly and “needed to be spent,’’ she said.

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 of them had not 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 President 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,’’ he said.

Michele McNeil is an assistant editor covering federal education policy at Education Week. Noah Bierman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Other contributors include Liz Bowie of The Baltimore Sun; Grace Merritt of the Hartford Courant; Tara Malone of The Chicago Tribune; Betsy Hammond of The (Portland) Oregonian; Andrea Eger of The Tulsa (Okla.) World; Karel Holloway of The Dallas Morning News; Jeannette Rundquist of the Star-Ledger of Newark; and John Mooney of NJSpotlight.com.