It appears that not all pots of $4 billion are created equal, at least not according to EdSec Arne Duncan. Out at the Education Writers Association conference last week, Duncan was scratching his head regarding an interesting paradox. We talk, ad nauseam, about the $4 billion the federal government has committed to the 12 states that won Race to the Top (RttT). But why do we say virtually nothing about the $4 billion available through the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program that is serving the lowest 5 percent of all schools in the county?
Between the lines of his question, Duncan seemed to be saying that SIG, at its heart, could ultimately have more of an impact on student achievement across the nation than our deal ol’ RttT. After all, every state can get a piece of SIG. SIG is targeted specifically at boosting student achievement (as opposed to Race’s multiple goals and objectives). And ED even has specific expectations and measures to determine SIG effectiveness out of the gate.
So why is SIG not getting the love from the media or from school improvement folks that RttT is? First and foremost, Race is sexy. Huge dollars for a small group of states to think big thoughts and do interesting things. A competitive process that made all states equals, where a state like Delaware can best a state like California. The political intrigue of what states won, what states lost, and why. A public scoring process similar to the Miss America pageant. And repeated mentions of the promise of RttT in presidential speeches, State of the Unions, and now multiple budgets. Obama loves Race, but seems ambivalent about SIG.
Despite all of its upside and potential as a real change agent, SIG remains a bastard stepchild in the process. We want to talk about those states that are “winning,” not those schools that are our lowest performing. We want to focus on best of class. And those individual SIG grants ultimately pale in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars one particular state won in RttT competition.
It really is a shame, though. Duncan is right; $4 billion isn’t necessarily created equal. While Race may be a nice showhorse in the great education reform parade, SIG has is the real workhorse. When we look at the numbers and see the challenges before our schools — particularly those serving historically disadvantaged populations — it is SIG that is going to make the real difference.
At a time when we are lamenting education programs that have had their $20 or $25 million appropriation eliminated by the President or Congress (depending on your perspective), don’t we need a little more attention on the $4 billion that is being committed to help our truly struggling schools? Talking about the fun a dozen states may have spending their RttT largesse is fun, but the truly interesting stories are likely what those SIG schools are actually doing to change the fates and futures of the kids who walk through their doors.