The Every Student Succeeds Act gives individual states and districts unprecedented flexibility—even a mandate—to experiment with new ways to improve achievement and other outcomes for all students.
After more than a decade of prescriptive federal accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act, though, it can require a fair bit of administrative chutzpah to take advantage of that newfound flexibility. The Performance Partnership Pilots, or P3, which launched in 2014 as an interagency federal grants program targeted to efforts to help the country’s most vulnerable students, gives a window into the potential and pitfalls of a more experimental approach to education programs.
Backed by the White House and led by the U.S. Department of Education, the P3 program is in its second round of competition this month. It allows local education groups to waive regulations and blend money across federal grants to test creative ways to serve the students who are most at risk of disengaging from school.
That kind of change has been slow, though. A newly released study by Patrick Lester, the director of the Social Innovation Research Center, found that only four of the nine pilots in the $7.1 million first round received permission to blend different federal funding streams, and most asked for only a couple of regulatory waivers to start their projects.
“This is an area of nervousness for all involved,” Lester said. “The feds and the local projects are still exploring what is allowed and what isn’t under P3. I think the guardrails have been a significant roadblock to flexibility so far, but they may be able to work through that. Time will tell.”
Ann Gettys has run up against those roadblocks in Oklahoma City, where through the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, she coordinates a P3 project to streamline supports for foster students.
The pilot allows her to waive some spending and performance requirements and braid together money from several federal programs, such as AmeriCorps, Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act grants for youths, and Health and Human Services Department grants for students transitioning from foster care. But there’s still a lot of red tape.
Red Tape in Oklahoma
The pilot works with foster students at age 14 to set their education and career goals and start planning for the legal transitions they will need to make when they age out of foster care at age 18.
But the career-transition experts generally funded under the workforce grants are not legally allowed to work with anyone under age 16. And under banking rules and financial-reporting requirements, foster students often need a guardian to open bank accounts, approve work programs, and so on.
“There’s little things like that that make it more difficult,” Gettys said. “They aren’t insurmountable, but they are frustrating.”
The Oklahoma pilot is trying to document those roadblocks to build evidence of the broader regulatory changes needed for at-risk students.
“There’s always tension between flexibility and accountability,” said Kathy Stack, the vice president for evidence and innovation at the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, who helped create P3 and other evidence-based policy initiatives as a deputy associate director at the federal Office of Management and Budget.
“There aren’t a lot of incentives for people to get together and brainstorm,” she said. “In so many communities, those conversations just never happen—or they happen between two agencies or three. … There are tons of myths about what limitations exist.”
Dreama Gentry, the executive director of Berea College’s Partners for Education Project and one of the coordinating partners for Kentucky’s P3, agreed that many projects can get stymied by “imagined barriers.”
“There were a couple of places where we didn’t get a waiver because we asked for something and were told, ‘Oh, you can already do that,’ ” Gentry said. “I think that’s really important, because I think sometimes we have these grants and we make assumptions about what we can do.”
In southeastern Kentucky, Gentry is hoping to connect with more than 1,000 teenagers in seven rural counties who are disengaged from school and pushed out of the local labor market by adults left unemployed by the decline in the state’s coal industry.
Bringing together people from different agencies has helped those working with disconnected youth in Kentucky to “deconstruct” persistent education problems, like chronic absenteeism, Gentry said. Disconnected Kentucky teenagers who are still in school can miss as many as one day in five each year; while truancy courts have been an option, “you need to make sure that lever is not a hammer,” she said.
With 60 staff members from education, housing, labor, criminal justice, social services agencies, and others digging into the problem, Gentry said they began to piece together the things keeping students from school: Teenage parents in need of child care; high schoolers cut adrift by parents’ substance abuse problems and couch surfing with grandparents or friends; a homeless but still-intact family terrified of being split up if they asked for help.
The collaboration has also “shifted the conversation” on how the Kentucky service agencies think about their goals. “It’s about thinking about young people attaining success, and not about young people attaining an education or young people attaining a job,” Gentry said. “The beauty of this is, if it works … It changes the conversation more to ‘What does it take for kids to be successful?’ rather than, ‘How do I run this grant program?’ ”
Similarly, in Oklahoma, Gettys said different agencies are identifying ways existing services can build on one another. For example, Oklahoma’s public schools offered online credit recovery, and its human services agency offered free tutoring, but both programs had few foster students using them and fewer succeeding. Now, through P3, each foster student’s academic progress is evaluated each semester, and if they fall behind or have to change schools before completing a class, a tutor in that subject can be assigned to help the student prepare to finish the course online. “We’re able to coordinate two existing programs which were underutilized,” she said.
Seeking ‘Bold New Ideas’
A spokesperson for the federal Education Department, which heads up the interagency grants, said it is trying to encourage groups to be a little bolder in the next round of grants, by doubling the weight it gives to proposals explaining their “need for requested flexibility.”
“It is critical for pilots to tailor flexibility to their projects; as the programs involved and populations served may vary greatly, it can be difficult to recommend any particular ones,” the ED spokesperson said in an email to Education Week. “That said, we think there are great advantages to blending funds from multiple programs, both in terms of enhancing services to youth and reducing the paperwork burden for providers. ... We hope to see ambitious proposals for using the P3 flexibilities to enhance and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of services delivered to disconnected youth.”
The initial pilots will run through 2018, but Stack said states and districts can already learn from the P3 as they plan to implement ESSA.
“One of the things we identify as a clear need was for agencies to ... think about kids improving not just their education outcomes, but employment outcomes, reduced involvement in criminal justice system, reduced substance use ...,” she said. “Unless people at the local level redefine how they think about kids’ outcomes, you will not achieve much.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 2016 edition of Education Week as Collaboration Comes Slowly in Federal ‘Partnership Pilots’