Baby Steps Toward Better Formula Grants in Education

2013-06-27-HPPicture.jpgWhen I speak with policy folks about evidence-based reform, I often hear something like this: “Sure, you can give preference points for using proven programs in competitive grants, but that doesn’t work in formula grants, like Title I and Title II, and that’s where the real money is.”

This is indeed a serious problem. Formula funding is universally popular, and educators and most policymakers argue these days for greater flexibility and local authority in the use of formula funding. After NCLB’s ham-handed efforts to force schools to use significant Title I funds on unproven (and ultimately ineffective) after-school tutoring programs and transfer provisions, there is little appetite for limitations on uses of Title I funds. Further, in a time when increases in education funding are unlikely, politically popular formula funding streams will surely remain, but less understood competitive grants are not likely to be added.

What’s the formula for increasing the use of proven programs in formula grants? Baby steps. After all, who knows formula better than babies?

The idea I’m suggesting is to gradually increase the role of evidence-proven approaches in Title I and other formula grants in a step-by-step fashion. First, find any money not firmly tied down and use it to support development, evaluation, and scale-up of proven approaches specific to a particular formula funding stream. Right now, Investing in Innovation (i3), which is funding development, validation, and scale-up of proven approaches, is playing this role for Title I; most of the i3-funded programs, if proven effective, will be immediately useful to Title I schools in addressing their most important objectives. Similar research/development/evaluation/scale-up approaches might create whole-school reforms to inform school turnaround programs, technology applications, RTI or special education approaches to support IDEA programs, and so on.

As the evidence base grows, national, state, and local leaders can exert influence to encourage use of proven models, including disseminating clear and usable information on them. This means not only websites, but also effective-methods fairs, where local educators can see new visions of what their schools could become.

The costs of robust research, development, evaluation, and dissemination are consequential, but so small compared to the formula funding streams themselves that they may be tucked into legislation or policy with little pain or notice. For example, Title I already has a 0.5% set-aside for evaluation. In a $15 billion grant program, that’s $75 million a year. Imagine if this money were added to i3 (currently $150 million a year) specifically to develop, evaluate, and scale-up turnaround models for failing schools. As more proven programs developed and flourished, Title I schools could be encouraged to use them.

The most direct application of proven approaches will always be to competitive federal funding streams, not to formula grants, but these can and should be strategically designed to serve as a step toward reforming the bigger formula funding streams. For example, imagine that NCLB had allocated a tiny proportion of its funding to development, evaluation, and scale-up of proven after-school tutoring models, and had established a competitive grant program in which applicants received preference if they used proven approaches. Had this been put into the NCLB law, by now we’d have dozens of proven, replicable after-school tutoring models operating all over the U.S., with districts clamoring to use them.

Someday, ESEA will be reauthorized. If the past is a guide, most of it will focus on accountability and formula funds, which will be endlessly debated. But alongside the big headline-catching issues, I hope there will be strong support for the baby steps that will lead to genuine transformation of America’s schools.


Lessons from Innovators: The National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform


The process of moving an educational innovation from a good idea to widespread effective implementation is far from straightforward, and no one has a magic formula for doing it. The W. T. Grant and Spencer Foundations, with help from the Forum for Youth Investment, have created a community composed of grantees in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program to share ideas and best practices. Our Success for All program participates in this community. In this space, I, in partnership with the Forum for Youth Investment, highlight observations from the experiences of i3 grantees other than our own, in an attempt to share the thinking and experience of colleagues out on the front lines of evidence-based reform.

This blog, based on an interview between the Forum for Youth Investment and Debby Kasak, director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, shares how school-to-school mentoring is both bringing about substantial improvements and itself serving as an important sustainability strategy.

Mentoring is Good for Mentors and Mentees
Coaches and mentors, whether at the individual or school level, can improve their own practice by helping others. That is what has begun to happen among schools involved in the National Forum’s i3 project. The National Forum is an alliance of educators, researchers, national associations, and officers of professional organizations and foundations committed to promoting the academic performance and healthy development of young adolescents. Through its Schools to Watch (STW) program, the National Forum has developed criteria for identifying high-performing middle-grades schools and created tools to help schools use them.

The National Forum’s i3 development grant is focused on improving 18 low-performing schools in three states using the STW framework and criteria. The goal is for those schools to learn from other STW schools that have been performing well. “We are inspiring schools to change their practice through whole school intervention,” says Kasak. “Each i3 school is matched up with demographically similar STW schools so they can see that it is possible to make change, even with a tough student population. It helps bring the theory to life for them. Given all the things that teachers get confronted with, they really respond when they see other teachers who are getting results.” But it isn’t just the low-performing schools and their teachers and administrators who are benefitting. “Successful schools can be powerful change agents in the lives of schools that need help, but interestingly, we’ve found that those mentor schools are improving their practice too,” reports Kasak. By helping others – coaching and sharing tools and strategies – schools and individuals within them are reminded to shore up their own promising practices.

Building Relationships is Key
“It sounds like a cliché, but one thing we have learned that can’t be underscored enough is that relationships matter,” Kasak shares. “The first six to seven months that we were involved in this project it was really important that we had coaches in the buildings who could form good relationships with teachers and principals. We needed to take the time to nurture those relationships. And as we did that, we saw the culture and climate of those schools changing.” Supportive relationships help schools weather the inevitable transitions that occur at the senior administration level. If teachers and coaches have a strong network and are committed to the work, it is less disruptive when a principal or superintendent leaves. A cadre of advocates for the initiative remains to educate new leaders. According to Kasak, that is exactly what happened in Chicago. “In Chicago, schools across the city are divided into networks. Originally, all of our schools were part of one network and we had a really supportive network leader. When the district administration changed, the networks were reorganized and our schools were no longer in the same network. One of our new network leaders wasn’t as supportive. But in one school, a teacher invited the Mayor to come visit the school; low and behold he did, and he brought the network leader with him. Seeing the school in action, hearing the teachers talk about their experiences, and building that relationship with the school staff made all the difference. He (the network leader) has been much more supportive since.”

Evaluation Can Be a Powerful Tool
Another way the National Forum has built relationships is through evaluation. Although it may sound counterintuitive, Kasak has found that working with the project evaluation team to look at what they are doing in a developmental way has helped them to share more information with schools than they might have otherwise and to build trust and commitment to the effort. “We are finding that in the second year we have gotten much better participation rates – almost 100% of the faculty in our 18 buildings – than we did the first year,” reports Kasak. In speculating why that might be, the National Forum came up with a couple of explanations. “In part, we know this has to do with being in our second year – teachers understand the process better. But we also credit our evaluation team. They regularly give data back to the schools which helps them better understand how all this work is impacting their school culture. Our evaluation team has really helped us to ask: Are doing what we said we would? Is it working? And how can we improve?”

Participating Schools are Part of the Sustainability Pipeline
The National Forum has an innovative approach to scaling their innovation and sustaining those schools where they are already working. Their two networks – low-performing schools supported through the i3 project and higher-performing Schools to Watch schools – create a natural pipeline toward STW status. The goal is to have all of their i3 schools eventually become STW schools who then mentor and support other low-performing schools that may receive funding through additional i3 funding or other sources down the road. Only three years into the i3 initiative, this pipeline is already in action in North Carolina. “We have one rural school in our i3 project that has just been terrific over the past several years. Recently, it applied to be a Schools to Watch school. They were evaluated and received a very high score, so were designated as a STW school. Now they are in a position to mentor other i3 schools in North Carolina. They benefit from the mentoring process itself, and then every three years will have to go through a re-designation process to maintain STW status, ensuring they are always on their game and thinking about how to get better. This school just went from being one site in a project to being part of a sustainable system of reform. We hope to do this with all of our i3 schools.”

Many Programs Meet New Evidence Standards


One of the most common objections to evidence-based reform is that there are too few programs with strong evidence of effectiveness to start encouraging schools to use proven programs. The concern is that it looks bad if a policy of “use what works” leads educators to look for proven programs, only to find that there are very few such programs in a given area, or that there are none at all.

The lack of proven programs is indeed a problem in some areas, such as science and writing, but it is not a problem in others, such as reading and math. There is no reason to hold back on encouraging evidence where it exists.

The U.S. Department of Education has proposed changes to its EDGAR regulations to define “strong” and “moderate” levels of evidence supporting educational programs. These standards use information from the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), and are very similar to those used in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program to designate programs eligible for “scale-up” or “validation” grants, respectively.

As an exercise, my colleagues and I checked to see how many elementary reading programs currently exist that qualify as “strong” or “moderate” according to the new EDGAR standards. This necessitated excluding WWC-approved programs that are not actively disseminated and those that would not meet current WWC standards (2.1 or 3.0), and adding programs not yet reviewed by WWC but that appear likely to meet its standards.

Here’s a breakdown of what we found.

Beginning Reading (K-1)
Total programs                              26
School/classroom programs      16
Small-group tutoring                   4
1-1 tutoring                                   6

Upper Elementary Reading (2-6)
Total programs                               17
School/classroom programs       12
Small-group tutoring                    4
1-1 tutoring                                     1

The total number of unique programs is 35 (many of the programs covered both beginning and upper-elementary reading). Of these, only four met the EDGAR “strong” criterion, but the “moderate” category, which requires a single rigorous study with positive impacts, had 31 programs.

We’ll soon be looking at secondary reading and elementary and secondary math, but the pattern is clear. While few programs will meet the highest EDGAR standard, many will meet the “moderate” standard.

Here’s why this matters. The EDGAR definitions can be referenced in any competitive request for proposals to encourage and/or incentivize the use of proven programs, perhaps offering two competitive preference points for proposals to implement programs meeting the “moderate” standard and three points for proposals to adopt programs meeting the “strong” standard.

Since there are many programs to choose from, educators will not feel constrained by this process. In fact, many may be happy to learn about the many offerings available, and to obtain objective information on their effectiveness. If none of the programs fit their needs, they can choose something unevaluated and forgo the extra points, but even then, they will have considered evidence as a basis for their decisions. And that would be a huge step forward.