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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Assessing Rep. Chu’s Attack on School Improvement Grant Program

By Rick Hess — May 26, 2010 3 min read
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California Congresswoman Judy Chu’s office has issued a fierce indictment of the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. The report, with pretensions of quasi-scholarly cred, has attracted the notice of some SIG advocates. Chu’s analysis, with the assistance of a couple dozen exceptionally vague citations, argues, “Instead of providing teachers and administrators with the tools necessary to build better schools, the [SIG] models deprive schools with the flexibility necessary to respond to the specific needs of their students.” Chu references the Commission on No Child Left Behind approvingly, arguing that the Commission “has asserted that it is critical to fully understand and to comprehensively address students’ behavioral, social, and emotional needs as well as their academic needs,” and she argues that any such effort should precede “punitive” measures.

Chu wants us to back off the teachers and to promote the “bigger and bolder” crowd’s call for increased attention to the students’ mental health, community engagement, and so on. In her own words, “Research has shown that the environment a child grows up in will have a powerful influence on how they will approach school. Support and wraparound services for children not only have to be provided, they have to be integrated into a school’s strategy for success.” Not surprisingly, her document has been greeted with enthusiasm by the likes of NEA chief Dennis Van Roekel, who wrote, “NEA applauds Rep. Judy Chu for her school improvement framework, which promotes collaboration, removes barriers to student success, and encourages community-supported solutions that will last.”

In truth, I have a fair bit of sympathy for Chu’s premise. Her document makes at least three valid points. First, it’s absolutely fair to say that no one has any real idea how to systematically intervene in or successfully improve lousy schools. Second, it’s true that the billions in SIG funding are based on being broadly prescriptive about permissible models when we honestly don’t have any reason to be confident that the measures will have the intended effect. Third, Chu’s “bigger and bolder"-esque assertion that stuff like family engagement and community health care can play an important role in boosting school success has an obvious plausibility.

Now, that said, there are a number of substantial problems with Chu’s stance. First, the standard of evidence posed is massively inconsistent. It’s true that we don’t know how to transform or turnaround lousy schools, but it’s at least as true that no one knows how to use community health services or spur parental engagement in a fashion that yields consistent school improvement. Second, focusing attention on lousy schools and creating political cover for overhauling staffing, leadership, norms, and program design makes good sense. Chu’s model would excuse the status quo and allow educators to shirk accountability for student learning, while throwing responsibility for improvement onto everyone’s (and, therefore, no one’s) shoulders.

Third, Chu’s preferred community-centric reforms are indistinct, largely beyond the control of educators, and reliant on community programs that have wildly divergent track records (with results that depend mightily on implementation and the willingness and ability of community groups to make them work). Finally, the track record of schools using the kinds of “flexible” approaches cited by Chu is certainly no better, in any systematic sense, than schools using more edu-centric improvement strategies. And, when it comes to that, we don’t have even an inkling of the metrics to gauge whether dollars funding community efforts are being spent as intended.

My bottom line? I’m fine with more calls for flexibility under SIG, so long as states and/or districts have to meet some kind of performance criteria if they’re permitted to spend SIG dollars on non-school services. Truth is, so long as an approach is producing desirable results, I’m fine with providing enormous flexibility. But that means the efforts need to deliver, and I’d like to see a claw back provision to recapture funds from those who were allowed to spend SIG dollars on non-school interventions and then fail to deliver results.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.