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From Merriam Webster:

paradigm shift


Definition of paradigm shift

: an important change that happens when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way

This is part 1 of a series that tells a story intended to help people understand the cultural context of changes happening in education.

How Federal Education Grants Work

The federal government influences public education by incentivizing schools to do things to get federal funds.  There are several different ways they provide funds.  Some funds are provided using formulas, such as Title 1 money.  The amount of Title 1 money a school district gets is based on the number of kids who get free/reduced-price lunch (or who would qualify if they would sign up.).  The other way the US Dept of Education influences public schools is with federal grants.  You may be familiar with some of the influence of the federal Race to the Top education grants.  To get these grant funds, schools had to agree to use Common Core curriculum.  A lot of states agreed to do this to get the money.  Schools also had to agree to evaluate teachers partly by growth in student learning. Schools will adopt practices to get grant funds.  The grant funds can be massive.  The evaluation of grant-funded programs includes some very prescribed reporting.  I do these program evaluations for a living.  I’ve seen significant changes in what is funded and what is required for the evaluation reports over the 25 years that I’ve been doing this.

I have worked in schools in every county in North Carolina evaluating grant-funded programs.  My company is sometimes hired by a school system, university, or a non-profit agency to evaluate a grant they received.  Other times, we have been hired by the government agency that is providing the grants throughout the state and we evaluate all of them. I have a team of people to evaluate grants. One person is a professional writer, another staff member and I are statisticians/data analysts.  I have field experts do observations and interviews. Tech people support us in the technology that we need.  Another employee stays on top of the legislation and policies that impact implementing educational programs.  We get a lot of information and different perspectives from our team members.

The Paradigm is At Risk

I have seen a paradigm shift in federal grants over the past decade.  What gets funded gets done.  What is required to get federal grant funds in education shifted significantly around 2006.  Before that, many federal education grants would have “at-risk” students as the target population.  School systems or non-profit agencies would get these grants and serve low-income or minority students, believing them to be “at risk.”  There was no clear definition of “at risk.”  Grant-funded programs sometimes provided services that the poor kids needed and their families couldn’t afford, such as health care or high-quality after-school care.

Schools could buy products or pay for training with the grant funds, as long as they could justify doing so with some narrative description of how this would be good for “at-risk” kids.  When grant funds were available for “at-risk” kids, products and programs would be packaged as being designed help to “at-risk” kids.  Many such programs included remedial academic support for struggling students, and training or professional development to teach program staffs how to have more empathy for low-income children and their families.  The trainings often either implied or gave overt reasons why these students would be academically challenged.  The poverty trainings did not provide actionable information—only a context for developing empathy.

Snake Oil

Many products on the market claimed to address the needs of “at-risk” students, and claimed to fix the reasons they were not academically successful.  Back at the office, we referred to many of these products as snake oil.  Some of the products gave kids skills that anyone would benefit from, and others seemed kind of questionable to us.