A Necessary ARRA Watchdog

Typically in federal education policy, we hear a great deal about inputs, but not much about outcomes.  We talk about how many dollars are going to go into a program, how many students or teachers might be affected, and how many stakeholders were involved in the process.  It is almost as if we are secure in the notion that how a decision was made is far more important than the impact of the decision itself.

It’s why, for instance, the good folks over at Education Week are unable to get specific information on how $5 billion in Reading First dollars were actually spent.  Sure, we know how the states and the LEAs intended to spend them.  But after requests, cajoling, and such, Kathleen Manzo and the EdWeek team still can’t get specific answers on what those dollars were actually spent on.  And don’t even get Eduflack started on how effectively we are measuring the impact and results of that federal expenditure.
So when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act offers up tens of billions of new education dollars with virtually no strings attached, it is easy to see why some people get worried.  Yes, each state will submit a plan for how they spend their new windfall, with such plans due to the U.S. Department of Education this week.  Checks will be cut two weeks from now, after a pro forma review of those state plans.  We should expect a few states to have their initial plans rejected, if for no other reason than ED can “demonstrate” that they are reviewing the plans and have protocols in place for how the money should be spent.  If South Carolina comes in requesting dollars to retire their school bonds, that will be rejected.  If California comes in expecting to spend its ARRA buckets on teacher salaries, I suspect that will get the “NO” stamp as well.  But on the whole, states will be approved, and then we will leave it up to the LEAs to actually spend to the state guidelines and deliver the results that ED is expecting from this stimulus.
I so want to believe EdSec Duncan and his team when they state that stimulus dollars (and we assume future ED fiscal obligations) should be primarily focused on boosting student achievement.  Innovations need to align with student performance.  The Race to the Top is all about closing the achievement gap and boosting high school graduation rates.  And it is all tied together by new data systems that ensure we are effectively capturing, tracking, and utilizing student achievement data to improve instruction, performance, and quality.  Makes perfect sense.  After all, what is the role of our public schools if not to teach our kids and get them performing at proficient levels at the very least?
But the devil is always in the details.  For many, relying on ED to measure the effectiveness of their own policies and their own spending is much like letting the fox guard the hen house.  After a year or two, after more than $50 billion in new money sent out to the districts, do we expect ED to come back and say the money was misappropriated?  Do we expect OPEPD reports demonstrating that funds did align with intended goals or that we have no demonstrable return on investment?  Of course not.  We expect all to declare “mission accomplished.”  ED provided protocols for how the money would be spent, the states assured the feds they would spend the funds per those guidelines, and LEAs were given their new dollars after promising the states they wouldn’t blow it all on video games and bubblegum.  We’re all happy, even if there is no uptick in student achievement and there is little movement in innovation because we have met our process goals.  We’ve achieved the desired inputs, outcomes be damned.
That’s why I am so excited by the announcement coming out of Education Trust today.  Through their Education Watch, Kati Haycock and company will offer an unbiased, third-party analysis of “how effectively states are using the infusion of federal support.”  They do so believing that “the public will need accurate, reliable data” if we are to truly measure the success of ARRA on school improvement.
EdTrust’s full announcement of the initiative can be found here.  The series of Education Watch indicators, broken down by state, can be found here.  Most interesting is the “starting line” Ed Trust provides, a detailed chart tracking state achievement gains and achievement gap closings over the past decade.  Building on their past successes the ARRA Education Watch is modeled after EdTrust’s similar efforts in 2003, 2004, and 2006.  
I realize that EdTrust didn’t set out to be the ARRA watchdog, but someone has to do it, and there are few as qualified and capable as EdTrust.  Does Education Watch abdicate ED’s responsibility to do the same?  Of course not.  Does it prevent other groups, including NGA, CCSSO, and even the teachers unions from acting in the same manner?  Golly, I hope not.  But someone had to be the first to step up to the plate, and better EdTrust that a status quo voice just trying to protect what is theirs.
Over the last few years, EdTrust has gotten a bit of a bad rap.  Many in the chattering class have seen the organization, and Kati Haycock in particular, as being the cheerleader-in-chief for No Child Left Behind.  It is an unfair criticism.  EdTrust has always been about pushing for higher student achievement for all students, particularly those who had been the forgotten cause of our rising achievement gaps.  When NCLB became the law of the land, it only made sense that EdTrust would fight to make sure the law lived up to its promise.  They pushed hard on achievement and assessment, believing that data would guide us out of the land of mediocrity and show us the path to equity and achievement, particularly for low-income students and students of color.  After all, one is far more effective using the tools (and the funding streams) available to exact change and improvement than they are shouting into the wind and simply wishing upon a star for things to be different.
As we got caught up in the politics of NCLB and deciding who was with us or against us, we seemed to lose track of the true mission of groups like EdTrust.  For the Education Trust, the mission is simple.  “The Education Trust works for the high academic achievement of all students at all levels, pre-kindergarten through college, and forever closing the achievement gaps that separate low-income students and students of color from other youth.  Our basic tenet is this — All children will learn at high levels when they are taught to high levels.”
So who, exactly, wants to stand against that goal?  If anything, the U.S. Department of Education adopt that mission as their own, applying the lens of high academic achievement and the elimination of the achievement gap to every policy and spending decision it puts forward.  If that isn’t the goal for public education in the United States, what is?
I know the folks over at EdTrust have thick skins, and they are prepared for any of the slings and arrows the status quoers will throw at them, either now or in an expected post-NCLB era.  I also know that the team shies away from no fight, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to move us closer to the overall goal of student success for all.  If that means being the ARRA watchdog, so be it.  Regardless, Education Watch should provide some valuable insights, data, and recommendations as we move forward.  (And if this makes me a cheerleader for EdTrust, so be it.  I’ll gladly pick up the pom-poms and the megaphone if it means narrowing the achievement gap as quickly as possible.)  
Who knows, it may actually help ensure that all of these federal dollars are actually spent on efforts that boost student achievement … and we are able to actually see such a boost.  Wouldn’t that be something different and innovative.

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