Big grants can mean big problems for poor schools

You’ve probably seen the big press announcement splash of a local school getting some big grant, and thought, “Great! Now they can do more for their students!” If only it were that simple.

The ugly, hidden truth, is that grant awards, particularly those to schools labeled as “failing,” “low-performing,” or “high needs” sometimes make conditions worse, not better for students and teachers in those schools. It’s not that the schools don’t need the money and the resources that come with such grants; they desperately do. For example, there are schools here in the MS Delta region for whom 20-30% of their operating budget is federal funding, most of that in the form of grants or entitlements (such as Title I).

However, anyone who’s ever worked in a Title I school can probably testify to how difficult it can be to teach and learn under the conditions created by outside efforts to “help” our students.

I was reminded of this as I talked with teachers from several cities on our way home from the recent ECET2 conference sponsored by Gates Foundation for many of its grantees. Several of the teachers were quite candid about the effects of layers of well-intentioned, but poorly implemented reform policies and grant requirements being forced on their schools.

While I was teaching at a small rural high school, our district administration had applied for and received FIVE (5) separate reading/literacy improvement grants for the same group of 6 – 8th grade students for the same 2-year period. These poor children and their frazzled teachers had to endure several days each month of repetitive testing (diagnostic, pretests, progress/formative) resulting in a huge waste of instructional time. Each of the grants came with its own curriculum materials, pacing guides, seemingly endless reporting requirements, and a troop of expert consultants. The program methods conflicted with each other, yet teachers were penalized if they could not prove they had followed them all.

To accomodate all these time demands, instruction in subjects other than reading were either halted or reduced to the occasional homework handout. That year, one teacher had a heart attack; several suffered stress related conditions; some left the school and the profession. The children’s reactions ranged from confused to angry.

After yet another standardized-styled reading test “just to see how they were doing,” one 7th grader looked up at me almost in tears and asked, “Mrs. Moore, how many times are they going to tell us we’re stupid?”

In that case, the foolishness did not stop until teachers and parents banded together to demand that the district cease the multiple programs.

I’ve seen many cases of school or district leadership applying for grants, bringing in consultants, and adopting reform models that they did not take the time to even understand, much less consider the full implications for staff and students. More than one teacher has told me how they dreaded the coming of any new administrator (which happens too often in high needs schools, anyway) and/or the discovery of yet another grant opportunity. “They hire a grant writer, and there they go, without so much as even asking our opinion. Next thing you know, here comes another so-called great solution.”

Teachers are often unwilling to speak up about these types of conditions because they’ve been warned not to do anything that might put the funding at risk. Under-resourced schools often use these grants to obtain hardware, learning supplies, and pay salaries. While many grants, especially federal ones, usually prohibit states or districts from supplanting [using grant funds to pay for what the state/district is required by law to provide], in reality that is often exactly what happens. Or worse, the misery and demographics of a needy school are used to obtain grant funds or resources that are then shifted to other schools.

This long-standing state of affairs has only been made worse under the feeding frenzy created by policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Sabrina Stevens Shupe has written eloquently in many of her blogs about those who are taking advantage of funds for turnaround schools [“Carpetbaggers and Charlatans“]. Sometimes these bogus attempts at reform block or divert resources that could have gone to genuine innovation or collaboration among teachers and parents already at a school that would lead to more profound and lasting improvement in student learning.

Educational researchers often comment on the need for (or lack of) “fidelity” in how an educational reform concept or program is applied in a specific school setting. While all such programs need to be adapted to fit the particulars of each community, program designers usually warn of half-hearted or sloppy program adoption rather than thoroughly understanding and committing to a program after considering all its benefits and disadvantages. These warnings too often go unheeded, especially when the children involved are poor or children of color.

Here’s a radical concept: What if teachers, parents, and students were consulted beforehand about such grant requests, and were part of the decision-making process as to whether and which programs were appropriate for their community?¬† What if grantors, from the federal government to private philanthropies, were more willing to support the development of local solutions by teachers and parents rather than imposing their reform model of choice on a school or community?

Oh, happy day.