Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Stimulating Times!

Very soon, an additional $80 billion or so will be flowing into K-12 schools. Spending it in a way that will improve education will be a challenge. While the majority of the funds are intended to ward off teacher layoffs or to supplement existing funding streams—and will therefore keep things mostly as they are—other large chunks of money are aimed at promoting change. It is hard to keep the zeros straight but it appears that $650 million goes to education technology; $250 million to state data systems; $200 million to teacher incentive projects; and billions to what Secretary Duncan is calling a “Race for the Top” fund. Of course in the current context a mere billion dollars seems like small change. But it is enormous, considering that it has to be spent quickly, and there is little precedent for how to do the spending.

Mike Smith, a senior advisor to Secretary Duncan, recently outlined the goals of the stimulus plan this way: (1) get the money out fast; (2) create jobs; and (3) stimulate reform. While some hope that this funding amount will constitute a new default level, we are being warned to expect a “cliff” when the one-time funding is exhausted. Thus a wise use of this money would be for new jobs that have the effect of creating something that won’t have to be paid for at the same level on an ongoing basis. Repairing a school building illustrates the idea. The work can start quickly and generate short-term jobs and, once completed, the repaired building will be around for a long time before another infusion of repair money is needed.

What is the analogy in the domain of education reform? If a school system uses stimulus money to purchase services with a fixed annual cost, the service may have to be discontinued when the money is spent. On the other hand, if the school system purchases two years of professional development, then teachers may be able to carry their new practices forward without continuing operational costs. Similarly, investing in data systems and building school district capacity for analyzing local data and for evaluating programs could pay off in sustained systemic improvements in district decision processes.

The stimulus package does contain funds for data systems-an investment that will pay off beyond the initial implementation. By themselves, data systems are technical capacities, not reforms; alone they do not change how educators can generate useful evidence that can improve instruction. With the stimulus funding, we now have an opportunity to put in place local district capacities for data use-not just at the classroom level but also at the level of district and state policies and strategies.

To harness the stimulus funds for reforms involving data systems, we need to look at the instances in the stimulus package where data would actually be used. This leads us to the places calling for evaluations. For example, the $650 million in technology grants will flow through the mechanism of Title II D, which includes the suggestion to use funds to “support the rigorous evaluation of programs funded under this part, particularly regarding the impact of such programs on student academic achievement…” Thus these funds may be used to enhance the use of data systems to conduct local evaluations of the technologies, thereby building the capacity of districts to generate useful evidence.

In a section on teacher incentive programs, the stimulus bill specifically calls for “a rigorous national evaluation.” We don’t think this should be interpreted as a single large national evaluation. In our view, a large number of local evaluations would be a more productive use of the funds, as long as each is rigorous. Doing so—that is, distributing the available funds to the local districts implementing the incentive programs—stimulates district hiring (or retaining district staff who specialize in evaluations).

We should be viewing data use and evidence generation in districts as an important part of the reform agenda and not just as an isolated technical problem of data warehousing. By distributing program evaluation to districts, we can fulfill the goals of creating (or retaining) jobs while stimulating reform that will endure beyond the two years when the extraordinary funds are available. —DN

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