Learning from Another Gates Failure: It’s Not Just the Money—It’s What You Accomplish With It

How to Spend ESEA’s Title IV Money Wisely

Dear Colleagues,


   During the past few weeks, I have had the privilege of working on-site with new clients outside of Seattle, in Philadelphia, outside of Cincinnati—and on the phone with educators from Wisconsin, New Hampshire, California, and Florida.  They are all working as hard as they can to impact their students, colleagues, and schools. . . but they all recognize that what they are doing is not working.

   As I have said in the past:  With all of the new research, new curricula, new software, and new “ways to do things”—most educators do not have the time to effectively evaluate what is real (evidence-based, successful, and applicable) and what is illusion (marketed, ineffectively researched, and invalid).  Indeed, they do not have the time to objectively determine what approaches are scientifically sound, and then what sound approaches can be appropriately applied to their settings, situations, and students.

   Today, I want to talk about how money is used in education.

   And my ultimate message is:  It is not how much money we have. . . It’s how we use it, what we use it on, and what we accomplish with it. . . relative to students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes.

   And even though educators often tell me that they do not have enough money to fund what they need (and, I understand), I want to remind us all that even when we had (have) plenty of funds, our outcomes were (are) not impressive.

   Examples?  Look at the student-focused outcomes when districts received their millions of dollars of Reading First funds in the mid-2000s. . . when they received their millions of dollars of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds in 2009. . . and when they received their millions of dollars of School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds thereafter.

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   And yet, once you get to the end, my biggest fear in writing this message is that it will be perceived as promotional.

   Education is an interesting profession.  Unlike most other professions, educators are wary (at best) of individuals who are perceived as self-promoting. 

   Instead, because of their limited time, educators often trust “the big names” that are marketed by the publishing companies; the “effective programs” that are singularly promoted (and often provided “free”—but funded with our tax dollars) by the U.S. Department of Education; the “flashy” outcomes that are touted by the popular press; and the testimonials of other colleagues—regardless of their lack of objective validating data. 

   Moreover, educators often confuse the terms that some use to promote their work. . . specifically, the terms “scientifically-based,” “evidence-based,” and “research-based.”

   [CLICK HERE for the second of a three-part Blog Series titled: “Scientifically-based” versus “Evidence-based” versus “Research-based”—Oh, my!!!”]

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   All I can say before you read the remainder of this piece is:

   If this message is seen as too promotional, I apologize.  But all I am promoting are real data-based and well-established student, staff, and school outcomes—in districts across the country where I have worked for over the past 35+ years. 

   Indeed, my work has been listed on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services’ (SAMHSA) National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices directory as evidence-based since 2001. 

   But it is not my work.

  • It is the hard and persistent work of our educator and school partners in every state in the country (and internationally) from preschool through high school. . . including schools in residential, special education, and juvenile justice settings.
  • It is the multi-tiered science-to-practice work that is anchored in organizational and systems, social and group, cognitive and learning, developmental and ecological, and normal and abnormal psychology.
  • And, it is the work of systemic change—that occurs, albeit at different speeds, by matching science-to-practice blueprints to local conditions, needs, people, resources, and circumstances.

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Today’s ReminderIt’s Not About the Money

   Last week, an evaluation of the Gates Foundation published the results of its $212 million multi-year effort to improve the effectiveness of teachers while increasing student achievement in three large school districts (Memphis, TN; Pittsburg, PA; Tampa, FL) and one charter school consortium in California.  With the required district investments, the total cost of the initiative was $575 million.

   The bottom line?  The evaluation, conducted by the RAND Corporation and the American Institutes for Research (AIR), found that student graduation rates, the achievement of students in general, and the achievement of low-income and minority students specifically were largely unaffected.

   According to a June 21st Education Week article:

  • This conclusion to an expensive chapter of teacher-evaluation reform shows the difficulty of making sweeping, lasting changes to teacher performance. The results also demonstrate the challenges of getting schools and teachers to embrace big changes, especially when state and local policies are in flux.
  • The school sites agreed to design new teacher-evaluation systems that incorporated classroom-observation rubrics and a measure of growth in student achievement. They also agreed to offer individualized professional development based on teachers’ evaluation results, and to revamp recruitment, hiring, and placement. Schools also implemented new career pathways for effective teachers and awarded teachers with bonuses for good performance.
  • “The initiative itself tried to pull a bunch of levers to have a big impact on student performance,” said Brian Stecher, a RAND researcher and the lead author of the report. “The sites did in fact modify all of these levers, some more than others, but in the end, there were no big payoffs in terms of improved graduation [rates] or achievement of students in general, and low-income and minority students in particular.”

   These results fall on the heels of the Gate Foundation’s mid-2000’s “Small Schools initiative” that similarly did not impact student achievement or graduation rates.

   Indeed, a January 2009 annual letter issued by the Foundation and signed by Bill Gates stated:

Nine years ago, the foundation decided to invest in helping to create better high schools, and we have made over $2 billion in grants. The goal was to give schools extra money for a period of time to make changes in the way they were organized (including reducing their size), in how the teachers worked, and in the curriculum. The hope was that after a few years they would operate at the same cost per student as before, but they would have become much more effective.

   This same letter went on to talk about the Foundation’s “new” effort to focus on teacher effectiveness and the dissemination of best teaching practices. 

   That “new” effort was the initiative described above which—as noted in the RAND/AIR report was largely unsuccessful.

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   So what have we learned from this and other large-sum (but, from my perspective, largely naïve) educational initiatives?

   Beyond the fact that “It’s not about the money,” we have learned that:

  • Change requires a multi-tiered science-to-practice blueprint that is anchored in organizational and systems, social and group, cognitive and learning, developmental and ecological, and normal and abnormal psychology.
  • You can’t focus on just one facet in the educational equation. . . student achievement is impacted by a multi-tiered understanding of effective and targeted curriculum and instruction as interfaced with the individual and groups needs of struggling students.
  • Change occurs through professional development that focuses on teacher skills and sustained implementation, and that effective and ongoing mentoring and coaching is required, along with supervision, evaluation, feedback, and administrative action (the latter, if needed).

   And so, have schools learned “their evidence-based lessons?”

   In many cases. . . apparently not.

   Not if we look at the significant number of schools that continue to use approaches that are either invalid (e.g., mindfulness), or that do not substantially contribute to student achievement (e.g., growth mindset approaches).

  [CLICK HERE for last month’s Blog Series on “Making Mountains Out of Molehills: Mindfulness and Growth Mindsets”]

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   Not if we look at districts and schools (“If it’s free, it’s for me”) who have implemented the PBIS Framework pitched by the federally-funded Positive Behavioral Support and Interventions (PBIS) National TA Center . . . without reading (or understanding, or attending to) the U.S. Department of Education-commissioned study that completely questions its impact and utility.

   [CLICK HERE for our 2017 Blog on “Improving Student Outcomes When Your State Department of Education Has Adopted the Failed National MTSS and PBIS Frameworks: Effective Research-to-Practice Multi-Tiered Approaches that Facilitate All Students' Success”]

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   And, not if we look at districts and schools adopting the heavily-marketed, but research-thin (if not nonexistent), restorative justice approaches.

   [CLICK HERE for our 2017 Blog on “Effective School-wide Discipline Approaches: Avoiding Educational Bandwagons that Promise the Moon, Frustrate Staff, and Potentially Harm Students. . . Implementation Science and Systematic Practice versus Pseudoscience, Menu-Driven Frameworks, and ‘Convenience Store’ Implementation”]

   But, we do have another chance with this year’s new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) funding.  Read on.

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The Next Funding OpportunityESEA’s Title IV

   This year’s Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (Title IV of ESEA) received a huge increase from Congress this past year—from $400 million during the 2017-18 school year, to $1.1 billion for the 2018-19 school year. 

   Providing districts with a great deal of discretion relative to targeting specific areas, Title IV funds can be used across a wide range of programs to make students safer, healthier, and more well-rounded, or to enhance the role of technology in learning.

   According to a recent Education Week article: 

Activities aimed at improving student health and safety include things like promoting parent and community involvement, establishing or improving dropout prevention programs, and putting in place or bolstering health and nutrition programs, or programs to combat the opioid crisis.
Well-rounded activities can include initiatives to bolster foreign-language courses, college counseling, dual enrollment, musical theater, and computer science.
Districts can also use the money for technology, including blended learning and building technological capacity.

   With the increase in Title IV funds for the coming school year, an estimated 125 districts (up from 25 the year before) will receive grants of $1 million or more.  In addition, an estimated 1,000 more districts will receive grants of at least $100,000, up from about 460 in the program's first year.  And, about 2,800 districts will get grants of at least $30,000, up from just over 1,100 in the program's first year.

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   NEWS FLASH !!!  Just today (June 26, 2018), the Senate Subcommittee for Education Appropriations passed and sent next year’s Fiscal 2019 education funding bill to the full Senate for consideration. 

   Included in the mark-up is an additional $125 million increase in Title IV funding (now totaling $1.2 billion).

   If passed by the Senate, and then the House, and then signed by the President, this would help districts to fund some long-term efforts in the Title IV areas described above.

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What are the Funding Guidelines?

   ESEA has very specific guidelines for Title IV funding:

  • Districts receiving at least $30,000 must spend 20% of their funds on activities that help students to become more well-rounded, and 20% in the student health and safety area.
  • Districts must limit technology infrastructure expenditures to 15% (or less) of their total Title IV funds.
  • Every district is supposed to receive at least $10,000. Districts can combine their money--using it for joint initiatives.
  • Districts can choose to transfer all or part of their Title IV funding to other ESSA programs, including Title I grants for disadvantaged students, or Title II for teacher training.

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Two New Surveys Outline Districts’ Planned Use of Title IV Funds

   Two recent surveys are projecting how Districts plan to use this year’s Title IV funds. 

   The surveys—by the National Association of Federal Education Program Administrators, and the AASA, the School Superintendents Association—suggest that many districts will use (rather than transfer) their Title IV funds, investing in the following programs/initiatives:

  • Approaches to develop safe and supportive learning environments such as social and emotional learning (SEL), as well as mental health supports, school resource officers, bullying prevention, and other school climate initiatives.
  • School counseling initiatives, including violence/crisis prevention and trauma-informed classrooms.
  • STEM initiatives.
  • College and career readiness initiatives.
  • Positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) to create common sets of behavioral expectations in schools.
  • Professional development in the area of technology.
  • Blended learning initiatives.

   Unfortunately, this list suggests that some districts, once again, will invest their money, professional development time, student support services, and focus and attention on programs (like PBIS, and non-evidence-based SEL or bullying approaches) that will not be as successful as other evidence-based practices that have been integrated into field-tested and well-documented science-to-practice implementation blueprints.

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Evidence-Based Suggestions for Your Title IV Funds

   As noted earlier in this piece, for over 35 years, I have been working in districts across the county in the following critical psychoeducational areas:

  • ESEA/ESSA Strategic Planning and Preparation
  • School Improvement or School Turn-Around Planning and Execution
  • Leadership, Teaming, and PLCs
  • Staff Evaluation, Supervision, and Coaching
  • Differentiated Academic Instruction and Academic Interventions for Struggling Students
  • Multi-tiered (RtI/MTSS) Services, Supports, and Program
  • School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management (SEL/PBSS)
  • Disproportionality Relative to Office Discipline Referrals or Suspensions/Expulsions of Students from Minority Backgrounds or Students with Disabilities
  • Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Interventions for Challenging Students
  • Formative and Summative Evaluations, Data Management Systems, and ESEA/IDEA Reporting

   My work, organized as Project ACHIEVE (www.projectachieve.net) has been listed on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services’ (SAMHSA) National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices directory as evidence-based since 2001. 

   And it was the ESEA School Improvement model, as well as the PBIS and MTSS models, for the Arkansas Department of Education for 13 years under its State Personnel Development Grant (SPDG) which I directed.

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   My ultimate point is that Project ACHIEVE provides an evidence-based and field-tested alternative to the U.S. Department of Education’s PBIS and MTSS frameworks (that have not worked) . . .

   . . . just as it provided a sound and proven alternative to the five untenable school turn-around approaches under the “old” No Child Left Behind—one of the primary reasons why millions of SIG dollars went to waste.

   But rather than give you the citations to the books, technical assistance papers, and refereed journal articles that I have published, I would rather that you listen to descriptions of Project ACHIEVE’s evidence-based blueprints, and decide if you would like to talk with me further.

   On my website [CLICK HERE] are seven free one-hour webinars that were taped for a national listening audience during the past 10 months.

   My Challenge:  If you are planning to allocate Title IV (or any of your ESEA funds) to anyof the areas covered by one or more of these webinars, I invite you to listen—by yourself or with your Leadership Team—to the relevant webinar(s)

   Then, if you would like a free telephone conversation with me to ask questions or to consider “next steps,” just e-mail or call me when you are ready.

   The free webinars [CLICK HERE] are:

  • A Guide to Strategic Planning, Shared Leadership, and Student Success  [Creative Leadership Solutions; with Dr. Doug Reeves]
  • Fixing MTSS: The Keys to Successful Multi-Tiered Academic and Behavioral Interventions [Creative Leadership Solutions; with Dr. Doug Reeves]
  • Planning Your Multi-Tiered (MTSS) Services for Next Year by Analyzing Your Current Students' Needs Today [Creative Leadership Solutions; with Dr. Doug Reeves]
  • Building Academic and Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Progress for All Students [PresenceLearning]
  • SEL: Critical Steps to Implementing a Comprehensive School-Wide Evidence-Based Program [Illuminate Education; with Dr. Chris Balow]
  • Decreasing Disproportionate Discipline Referrals through a Behavioral Accountability System that Work [Creative Leadership Solutions; with Dr. Doug Reeves]
  • Conducting Quarterly Student Achievement Review (Q-STAR) Meetings: An Early Identification & ESSA Progress Monitoring Approach [Illuminate Education; with Dr. Chris Balow]

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Summary and Recommendations

   One of my biggest professional frustrations is when districts and schools say that they do not have time for professional development or new initiatives . . . and then they invest time, money, and staff development on popular “band-wagon” programs, or strategies that have no, minimal, or potentially negative effects on student or staff outcomes.

   A related frustration is when they take money from others (as with the Gates Foundation funding), contingent on implementing programs and practices that many of us know—in advance—will not succeed, and that will set their students, staff, schools, and systems backwards.

   I believe that “every time you do a program or intervention with a student that doesn’t work, you make the student more resistant to the next intervention (as well as sometimes exacerbating the problem).”

   I also believe that “every time we do a school- or district-wide intervention that doesn’t work, we make the staff more resistant to the next system-wide intervention.”

   We need to do—from an objective, data-based perspective—what works. . . not what “people” say will work. . . or what they hope will work.

   Virtually all of you have now completed your school years.  While I hope that you take some “down-time,” I hope that this time also gives you an opportunity to think about the coming school year in a more restful and reflective way.

   What do your students need?  How can you be more successful on their behalf?  How can you maximize the use of your ESEA funds?

   I hope you will embrace my challenge.  Please listen to my webinars. . . and please feel free to take advantage of my telephone conversation invitation—even during the Summer.

   Now is the perfect time to prepare for your next school year’s successes.