One Principal Knows What to Do With Stimulus Money. Do Others?

By Jay Mathews
Monday, March 16, 2009

I doubt we will get much school improvement out of the roughly $100 billion in stimulus funds the Obama administration is about to spend on education. The windfall will save the jobs of many hardworking educators, which is good, but we already know that dumping big pots of money on schools tends to help adults more than kids.

Since 1965, the federal government has sent billions of dollars to states and localities under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Another $13 billion will flow through Title I in the next two years under the stimulus law, one of the largest chunks of the $100 billion.

Title I funding is focused on high-poverty schools. Children from such schools posted achievement gains in the 1970s and '80s, but scholars such as Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom argue that Title I did not have much to do with that. In the past two decades, impoverished students have improved somewhat, but gains have been modest compared with increases in state and federal spending under the No Child Left Behind law.

It often seems that the grander and more expensive the vision for school improvement, the less likely any significant increases in achievement become. Think of the painfully unsuccessful efforts of the Washington Redskins to get to the Super Bowl by outspending other teams on players.

In 1993, philanthropist Walter Annenberg launched a five-year, $500 million "Challenge to the Nation" to redo urban education in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay area. It funded what seemed to be good ideas and provided employment for many innovation experts but produced little measurable impact. Education historian Diane Ravitch notes the outcome of an even more ambitious initiative by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Establishing 2,600 small high schools in 45 states and the District at a cost of $2 billion, according to a November report, had this result: "We have not seen dramatic improvements in the number of students who leave high school adequately prepared to enroll in and complete a two- or four-year postsecondary degree or credential."

The Obama education team includes many people intimately familiar with these disappointing episodes. The president himself chaired the board that helped distribute Annenberg money in Chicago in the 1990s. His people say this time the money will help kids improve. They acknowledge that localities will make final decisions and that the emphasis will be on protecting paychecks so the economy can recover, but they say they will be watching to ensure schools put the money where it can have the most impact on how much students are learning.

When policymakers make such promises, I seek a reality check from teachers and principals in schools that might be affected. Seat Pleasant Elementary School in Prince George's County is one such place. About 70 percent of its 300 students are from families poor enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies, so the school got $124,000 in Title I funds this year. Kasandra Lassiter, the principal, told me when I visited last week that she knows what to do with any extra money that falls in her lap.

Lassiter's teachers seem to be using the federal money they already have pretty well. Last year the school hit state achievement targets in reading and math. Almost 80 percent of students in grades 3 through 6 were rated proficient or advanced in math and reading. One reason the students in those grades scored so well on the Maryland School Assessments might have been that Lassiter used Title I funds to give them an extra two hours a day, two days a week, to work on reading and math. The after-school program was not mandatory, but 80 percent of parents signed up.

With any extra money, Lassiter said, she would create a similar program for pre-kindergarten through second grade. It would not cost that much. Lassiter spends $20,000 a year on the after-school program. Extending it to all grades, she estimates, would cost another $17,000. The Obama administration also has said it wants more public pre-kindergarten spaces for low-income children, because research shows early preparation for school can raise long-term achievement.

To Lassiter, the greatest boost to student achievement is to have "the best possible teacher in front of that class." Most of her classroom instructors are, in her words, "rock stars": very experienced, on top of their games. But a third of them have less than three years of experience. Schools with as many low-income students as Seat Pleasant has typically find it difficult to fill every classroom with an experienced educator. Lassiter knows how to help young teachers improve, but that takes more staff time, and for that she needs more money. The stimulus funds could help there, too.

Will more money find its way to Seat Pleasant Elementary? The funds must pass through many hands before they reach Lassiter. We don't know whether other principals will be as ready, or as able, to use the money as Lassiter is. Unleashing educators' creativity is the key. President Obama, as much as he wants to help, cannot make that happen with a snap of his fingers. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said states must commit to raising learning standards, improving teacher effectiveness and tracking student progress to get the new money, but it will be hard for the administration to guarantee this.

Keep in mind that in 1994 Congress passed a renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that committed the states to similar reforms, but many did not comply. That is why Congress adopted No Child Left Behind, with sanctions to give their rules some teeth. This is an emergency. We don't have time to work out such details. The $100 billion is likely to help the economy. In a way, that helps kids. But their schoolwork is unlikely to show much improvement from all that spending.


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