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Lots of blame, but less accountability with state’s School Improvement Grants

By Theresa Harrington
Friday, July 15th, 2011 at 1:22 pm in California, Education.

Glenbrook Middle School students gather in the school library. The Mt. Diablo school district received a $1.7 million three-year School Improvement Grant to help boosts test scores, but forfeited nearly $1.2 million after trustees decided to close the campus.

Glenbrook Middle School students gather in the school library. The Mt. Diablo school district received a $1.7 million three-year School Improvement Grant to help boosts test scores, but forfeited nearly $1.2 million after trustees decided to close the campus.

The state Board of Education meeting on Wednesday showed that when it comes to failing schools, there’s a lot of blame to go around, but seemingly less accountability.

BLAME

As the board considered about $500 million in federal School Improvement Grants, discussion included blaming the U.S. Department of Education for failing to communicate clear and consistent guidelines, blaming California Department of Education staff for lax administration and oversight of the grants, blaming the state Department of Finance for denying a request for more money to send staffers on school site visits and blaming school districts for failing to reform their schools as promised.

Blameless in the discussions were the people the grants were supposed to help: struggling students. Yet, these students could suffer as result of failures by the agencies entrusted with helping them.

Although the discussions revealed several flaws in the process, the overriding failure by all agencies appeared to be one of communication.

If the federal government had communicated its expectations and grant requirements consistently and clearly from the beginning of the grant process, the state would have been better able to communicate those requirements to districts. But since the state wasn’t clear on the requirements, it gave often confusing advice to districts.

Districts wrote up applications based on this advice, trying to meet the requirements as they understood them. For 2010-11, the state approved 41 applications and disbursed the first year of more than $400 million in three-year grant funding, with the expectation that districts would follow through on their plans.

In March, the federal government sent representatives to three districts that received the grants to see how the money was being spent. The visits revealed that many schools had not done what they promised, such as replacing principals or other staff, increasing instruction time for all students and providing time for teachers to collaborate on lesson plans and other improvement strategies.

This led the U.S. Department of Education to send the state a highly critical report, outlining four areas in which California failed to administer and monitor the grants appropriately. Stung by the criticism, the state reviewed all 41 applications based on this new feedback and found that in most of schools, the plans didn’t meet federal requirements or weren’t being implemented on time.

Yet, the state didn’t officially inform districts of this until Monday, when it published a list of schools that needed “corrective plans” to come into compliance with the grant program in order to receive the second year of funding they were expecting for 2011-12.

In a stunning move, the state also denied all 25 applications it received for up to $69 million in new funding intended to help additional schools starting in the fall, saying the planned reforms weren’t rigorous enough. Since most districts wrote their new applications based on what worked the first time around, many felt blindsided by the denials.

Some district reps showed up to the meeting to oppose the denials, but were unable to explain why they thought their applications should be approved, because the state hadn’t yet given them any feedback.

Everybody was frustrated.

Trustees were frustrated by the “searing” report from the U.S. Department of Education. State Department of Education staffers were frustrated by being caught in the middle without fully understanding the rules. Districts were frustrated from being pushed and pulled one way, then the other, only to be told in the end that they hadn’t adequately followed directions.

A few earnestly insisted they were doing what was required and were being unfairly punished by the state. Others laid low, quietly waiting and watching to see if they’d get another chance to make things right.

ACCOUNTABILITY

Despite all the finger-pointing, the state Board of Education ultimately decided to dispense what amounted to “tough love” to districts. Trustees informed districts that the leniency to which they had grown accustomed has ended.

Now, districts throughout the state are scrambling to ramp up their efforts the get the money. If they succeed, the students they are supposed to be helping may receive much-needed instructional improvements.

But if districts are unable to comply with federal requirements by the first day of school, they won’t get more money and students may not get the help they were promised.

Are you satisfied that the board’s actions will prompt schools to implement required reforms as promised?

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