Awash in Federal Dollars, Schools Have a Chance To Reinvent Themselves

Infusion of federal cash offers a chance to test new models for local schools.

After an unprecedented infusion of federal money in local schools to deal with the devastation and learning loss stemming from Covid, the public is learning that districts and states have billions still waiting to be spent.

As schools use the dollars to pay for tutoring, teachers, and technology to accelerate student learning, they also have an opportunity to use the money to create a new range of schooling models to leapfrog the performance of today’s schools.

New York City, for one, still has $4.4 billion in stimulus funds that must be spent by the 2024–25 school year. Out of the $3.02 billion budgeted for 2021–22 school year that concluded, over half a billion dollars in federal money have yet to be committed.

Many schools have used the dollars they have spent to contract with tutoring companies, mental health services or Covid-related infrastructure, including better air flow in classrooms, air purifiers, and personal protective equipment.

Those are important. But experts are alerting educators that the investments in tutoring, accelerated and remediation classes, summer school and other such techniques to catch students up barely scratch the surface of what students need.

At the same time, as schools struggle to determine on what else to spend this money, education finance experts have warned against using these dollars to add roles or services that are unsustainable after the funding dries up.

Yet there is mounting evidence that this is just what many schools are doing. A new Rand study suggests that 77 percent of districts have “increased their number of teaching and nonteaching staff above pre pandemic levels.”

The same Rand study suggests schools are aware of the perils of this strategy. Many report that they know a fiscal cliff is fast approaching. They still appear to be either walking headfirst into that fiscal trap or paralyzed.

There’s a better strategy for schools. Following it would allow schools to both support students and families with what they need to make progress yet not take on a set of services and obligations they can’t sustain.

Embarking on this strategy means acknowledging that schools weren’t serving the majority of students — from all backgrounds — well before the pandemic. For example, only a third of all American students are proficient readers.

To catch students up, many schools are doubling down on more of the same they’ve always done: more summer school, more whole-class reading and math instruction, more remedial classes, and the like.

Given that this schooling experience wasn’t working before the pandemic, it’s unlikely to be what students need now. Doing the same thing and expecting different results, as we’re told often, is insanity.

What students instead need are new schooling models that better personalize for the different academic, emotional, and social needs they have so that they can all make progress. They need an escape from the traditional one-size-fits-all district school system.

That means creating new models that leapfrog the traditional ways of doing schooling. Creating these models takes temporary, up-front investment. After the initial start-up phase, if they’re not self-sustaining — sunset them.

The infusion of federal dollars is a perfect match. Schools can stand up temporary autonomous teams, much as Toyota did when it created the Prius and then rolled the innovation back into its traditional car designs to transform its operations.

In the case of schools, that could be everything from the creation of new schools, microschools, schools within schools or learning pods. Anything, in other words, that allows them to create capacity to build something outside of the traditional school model.

Transcend Education is a research and design shop for innovative school models. Its chief executive, Jeff Wetzler, told me that schools can also use these dollars to pay for release time for teachers, after school and summers for intense design sprints, and outside support.

The ultimate final product will be a set of schooling models that can be funded on the normal per-pupil dollar amount without needing continued outside investment. They must also deliver extraordinary results for the students they serve.

This isn’t to say that federal money can’t also be used on temporary infusions to support students’ mental health or tutoring. Just that this by itself won’t be sufficient for helping schools, students, and society get to where we all need to go.

The New York Sun

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