The Era and ARRA Funds Are Ending: Are They Stimulating Positive Change?

By Stevan Kukic

Could the times be any scarier? The economic situation in our great country is so volatile. The politics are so confrontational. Educational reform efforts are not improving achievement. We have a movie, Waiting for Superman, that suggests that the solution to our problems in public schools is to leave them. This blog endeavors to convince the reader that we do not have to wait for Superman because we have the resources, scarce as they are, to be Superman (Superperson is better).

We educators were given a rare opportunity a couple of years ago. The President proposed and the Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to confront the dire financial emergency facing our country. Suddenly, in the midst of major cuts, districts received significant funding, time limited—perfect for one-time investments in interventions, professional development, and technology. The funding ceases September 30, 2011.

Too much of this opportunity has been spent, with good and kind intent, on staff. On October 1, the well-publicized funding cliff appears. Loss of jobs was delayed; now they will be lost if funded by ARRA.

Too much of this opportunity has been spent on resources with no or specious evidence to prove their effectiveness. The trap was set: Provide resources of questionable quality. Offer a lot of free stuff with order. The companies get sales, districts get free stuff, student achievement does not improve.

Too much of this opportunity has been spent on resources with little sense of how these resources fit together. The great educational reformer Michael Fullan has criticized the ARRA funding for its lack of demand to spend this funding coherently. Without coherence of moral purpose, mission, strategies, structure, and resources, Fullan believes we cannot improve the achievement of our students.

One aspect of ARRA that does demand this level of coherence is the Race to the Top competition. To receive this funding, a state and its school districts must agree to one plan for school improvement. I agree with Fullan’s point: only when it’s “All Systems Go” do we have a chance to improve student achievement.

The structure that holds the most hope comes from an educational revolution happening around the country. Response to Intervention (RtI) is a process for serving students that uses data from evidence-based interventions to determine exactly what works best to improve academic and behavioral performance. The RtI revolution is promoting systems change across the country that is yielding significant improvement in outcomes.

The RtI revolution is morphing into a systems change initiative that centers on the development of a sustainable Multitier System of Supports (MTSS). There are many examples of school districts that have wisely used the ARRA opportunity to fuel the development of a coherent MTSS. From Los Angeles to Clark County, NV, to Wichita, KS, to Boston to Culpeper, VA, to Sanger, CA, to Fountain/Ft. Carson, CO, to Vail, AZ, to Ft. Bend, TX, to Lee County, FL; districts and the states they work with and in have seen the wisdom of building a system of academic and behavioral interventions to improve outcomes of all students.

According to the federal government, there are still millions of dollars of ARRA funding unspent. If funds remain in your district, use this opportunity to invest in evidence-based interventions, services, and technology. Be sure these investments fit together into an MTSS.

One last point: Evidence-based practice does not produce improved outcomes if it is not used with fidelity. There are innumerable examples of failed investments in education. It is truly unprofessional to implement well-proven practice in idiosyncratic ways. Foundational research that forms the basis of evidence-based practice demands that it be implemented consistent with that research. Only then can educators expect the results promised.

Atul Gawande proves this point in his book, The Checklist Manifesto. Dr. Gawande is a surgeon at Harvard. He found that the consistent application of research-based routine using a formal checklist greatly reduced the infection rate in his surgery suite. He found that the kitchens in the best restaurants in New York City were full of highly skilled chefs who all used checklists to ensure that every dish would meet high customer expectations. He found, in general, that in every complex task, there is routine. This routine, when followed consistently and proficiently, is the foundation of professionalism.

Are we educators somehow immune from the professional obligation to use the research we have to improve student outcomes? Of course we are not! Teaching is a delicate combination of art and science. It is an artful science, a scientific art. Our dedication to service, to our students—our heart for teaching—will have minimal effect without the careful, professional use of science, artfully implemented.

The ARRA opportunity can stimulate student growth only if we invest in evidence-based academic and behavioral practices, implemented with fidelity and organized into a coherent Multitier System of Supports. We can do this. It is a matter of will and not skill.

Go for it!

Stevan Kukic, Ph.D.

VP, Strategic Initiatives

Cambium Learning Group

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