After spending $44 billion in one-time federal education aid to shore up sagging budgets during the recent recession, states report they’ve made progress in improving school data systems and more equitably distributing highly qualified teachers across all schools.
But big questions remain about their overall progress on key education improvement priorities mandated under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus package approved by Congress in 2009.
The ARRA poured nearly $100 billion into education overall. The largest single pool—the $48.6 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund—required states to show improvements in four specific areas: low-performing schools, data systems, teacher effectiveness, and standards and assessments.
According to the first annual reports filed by states to account for spending under the stabilization fund:
• Thirteen states, including Florida, New Mexico, and Wyoming, said that their longitudinal-data systems feature all 12 elements that are outlined in the America competes Act, a broad federal law focused on strengthening the nation’s economic competitiveness and used as a yardstick for ARRA progress. They include the ability to track students from preschool through college, match individual teachers to students and their data, and monitor student-level transcript information such as grades earned and courses completed.
• Four states—Connecticut, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin—have data systems that meet fewer than half the criteria.
• All states, in one way or another, have declared they’ve made progress on or have solved the challenge of equitably distributing highly qualified teachers across all schools, including schools that primarily serve poor and minority students.
• Seventeen states, including Arizona, Kentucky, and Minnesota, answered “no” to the question of whether they’ve analyzed the appropriateness and effectiveness of testing accommodations offered to English-language learners and special education students.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education
Together, school districts reported spending 70 percent of their share of stabilization fund dollars in fiscal year 2010 on salaries and benefits.
Twenty percent of their stabilization fund money was spent on what the reports label “other” uses—a broad category that represented spending on everything from online formative assessments and computer monitors in Connecticut to textbooks and utility bills in Nebraska. (The remaining stabilization fund dollars were either carried over to fiscal 2011 or were spent on school construction or repairs.)
Linking the bulk of that spending to specific education improvements could be a stretch, however.
“It would be like if someone gave you a gift of $1,000 and then turned around a year or two years later and said, ‘What did you spend the $1,000 on? I hope it was educational stuff,’ ” said Michael Griffith, a fiscal analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “What happens is the money was blended in with the rest of your money.”
The fiscal-stabilization fund gave states great flexibility in spending the money to help stay afloat during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. States and districts didn’t necessarily have to spend their money on specific purposes, but they did have to agree, in general, to make progress in the four improvement areas as a condition of receiving the money. In fact, when the second and final batch of stabilization money was released, states were required to outline how they planned to make progress in those four “assurances.”
The first annual reports, made public late last month, represent $43.9 billion in spending and offer early details on how states are doing regarding data systems and equitable distribution of highly qualified teachers among schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students. More detailed information will be out in June and September as states complete more reports.
While some questions were cut and dried—such as whether a state’s data system meets certain criteria—other questions were more descriptive. For example, states were asked to outline their progress in reducing inequities in the distribution of “highly qualified teachers,” which most education policy experts agree is a fairly low standard created under the No Child Left Behind Act that seeks to get certified teachers into classrooms.
Some states offered far more lengthy answers than others. Kansas, for example, gave a long explanation of how it is improving teacher effectiveness overall, especially in high-poverty schools, detailing specific goals set and progress made. The state is working on collecting better data about teacher transfers, assignment, and distribution. Through that step, Kansas officials discovered problems around an inequitable distribution of math teachers in high-poverty schools.
Vermont, on the flip side, declared “there are no inequities in the distribution” of highly qualified teachers across its poor and minority populations.
From the U.S. Department of Education’s standpoint, any answer was acceptable. “The main purpose of this question is to make [our] monitoring transparent and public,” said spokeswoman Liz Utrup.
But to some education advocates, the reports reveal little on the teacher-equity front, since Education Department data show that nearly 100 percent of teachers already are highly qualified under the NCLB law.
“We didn’t learn anything, because we didn’t ask states to do anything,” said Amy Wilkins, the vice president of government affairs and communications at the Washington-based Education Trust, which advocates educational improvement for disadvantaged students. “We rained money down on their hands and asked them for nothing.”
The Education Department points to other stimulus-funded programs, namely the $4 billion Race to the Top grant initiative, as the real driver of education change. Ms. Utrup cited the 28 states that have enacted laws to improve teacher quality, and the 16 states that have changed laws to increase their ability to intervene in low-performing schools, all in an effort to buff up their Race to the Top applications. That competition, which ended last year with 12 winners, also rewarded states for proposals in areas such as improving data systems.
For Aimee Guidera, the executive director of the Data Quality Campaign, including data systems as one of four key reform areas was far more valuable that any money states might have spent on actual building their systems.
“I would argue that it was more the exposure and the priority that the data issue was given,” said Ms. Guidera, whose Washington-based group tracks and promotes the use of data to shape policymaking and instruction. “States were well on their way to putting into place these systems, but by having these assurances and commitments, it really added extra fuel.”
Having a data to-do list for states is only the beginning, she said.
“It’s valuable information, but so what?” Ms. Guidera said. “The real value comes with ‘So, what are we doing with this data?’ ”
Library Director Kathryn Dorko and Library Intern Ruth Lincoln contributed to this report.
Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the May 25, 2011 edition of Education Week as Stimulus Aid Sparked Progress on Some Goals, States Say