Analyzing the Ed Stimulus’ Impact

So it is more than a year and a half since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was signed into law and the faucet of federal education stimulus dollars was turned on, sending a stream (either a raging river or a trickle, depending on your perspective) to states and school districts across the nation.  While much has been done (particularly from the good folks over at EdWeek’s Politics K-12 blog) on whether we are actually spending the ed stimulus dollars or not, a larger question may very well be if such spending is having any impact.

For the past year, we’ve heard how Race to the Top has completely changed the game, with states across the union overhauling their policies on data systems, teacher firewalls, charter schools, turnaround schools, and many topics in between.  A new reform era has been ushered in, according to many, leaving status quoers with nothing to show for decades worth of work.
But a new study released today by Bellwether Education Partners and Education First Consulting finds that the stimulus’ impact on education reform may not be as definitive as both cheerleaders and critics may believe.  InConflicting Missions and Unclear Results: Lessons from the Education Stimulus Funds, Bellwether’s Sara Mead and Andy Rotherham and Ed First’s Anand Vaishnav and William Porter lend an analytical eye to whether the $100 billion in ed stimulus cash is having the sea change impact we expected.
Their findings?:
* Stimulus dollars are being used primarily to make up for cuts in state and local budgets, with most of those cuts coming in the HR arena
* Districts are confused by mixed messages from the US Department of Education as to whether stimulus bucks are intended to preserve jobs or advance reform
* ARRA spending is being driven by existing processes and expected inertias in many school districts (instead of by the reform priorities in the stimulus rhetoric)
* In districts that used ARRA dollars in a strategic way, it went more to local leadership, local capacity issues, and local factors, instead of to federal reform priorities
* The edu-problems ARRA intended to solve aren’t going away
For those at the district or building level, such findings should be no surprise.  Stimulus money was primarily for stopping the bleeding, not for inventing new 21st century educational sutures.  So once the money passes from the feds to the states to the localities, those much needs dollars are used for tactical needs, not strategic visions.
What can we learn from these findings?  Bellwether and Education First offer a few insights.  First, federal funds won’t generate reform unless they are attached to clear reform requirements (does Eduflack hear NCLB?  Anybody?).  Competitive grants (like RttT and i3) have the greatest chance of driving reforms.  Formula-based programs, not so much.  Reform plans need to be strategic.  Policymakers need to support strategies that build capacity of all types (data, analytic, research, instructional).    
Most interestingly, Conflicting Missions touts the importance of advocacy in the reform process.  During the NCLB era, we lost this point, believing that the federal stick was enough to force long-term change.  It didn’t work.  In the early days of ARRA, we re-found the importance of advocacy, with the EdSec and other ED officials working hard to reach out to key groups and stakeholders so they understood the problems, what ED was doing to fix those problems, and the expected outcomes we would all reap following the fix.
Heading into ESEA reauthorization, we have lost some of that focus on advocacy.  But history tells us that effective public engagement is the best way to drive real and lasting reforms and improvements.  Erect a big tent and give all stakeholders a voice.  Make the process open and public.  Make clear the problem and the available solutions.  Give stakeholders a choice on such solutions, making clear that ED’s vision is the best for the current situation.  Underpromise and overdeliver on the agreed solutions.  Rinse and repeat.
Yes, Conflicting Missions focuses on ARRA.  But it also offers some real lessons for moving ESEA forward in 2011.  The big question, will anyone listen.
(Full disclosure, Eduflack has provided counsel to Bellwether Education Partners.)


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