This is part 2 of a series that tells a story intended to help people understand the cultural context of changes happening in education.
Prior to 2006, most federal and state education grants described the programs they wanted to fund in terms of demographic characteristics of the kids. There were rarely (if ever) measurable academic goals for the programs. Although some of the programs were supposed to fix what was keeping kids from being academically successful, they never graduated from the need for these programs. As long as kids were still seen as “at risk,” they would stay in the programs. My team and I often asked program staffs why the same students would be served year after year if these products they used were supposed to make them academically successful. We never got clear answers. Most commonly, they would explain to us that the students are still at risk.
The federal government would require that program evaluations document the demographic characteristics of the kids who were served, describe the training of the staff and whether they thought it was helpful, and describe the services. They did not require pre-post outcomes be reported.
We saw “at-risk” students would be referred to the programs based on however the referring staff members interpreted “at risk.” And this might vary from person to person. This usually included mostly low-income or minority-race students. Often, students would be provided snake oil that was supposed to fix them. But, they never got fixed. They could be in these programs forever.
The New World Emerging
Change is slow, and many grant programs still provide funds for serving “at-risk” kids. But, little by little, the federal grants have changed to requiring that programs serve kids based on their proficiency levels in academic subjects, or by whether they are on track to graduate on time, or prepared for success in college or the workforce. More and more, the programs purchased with grant funds have to have been developed to support the kind of progress the grant is promoting. There have to be clear goals and schools can’t have the money unless they can say how they will measure whether they’ve met the goals. In the old paradigm, a straight A top level poor kid could be served by a program for “at-risk” kids right along side the poor kid who can’t read. In the new federal grant paradigm, the funds might be to serve any kids who can’t read or just poor kids who can’t read. Either way, the focus would be on “can’t read,” not on a vague notion of “at risk.” The straight A good-reader poor kid can’t be in a federally funded grant program for kids who can’t read.
As the evaluator, for example, I am now required to include in my report pre and post reading scores for kids served by grant-funded reading programs. A recent grants evaluation that I completed on a high school program to prepare students to be college ready required that I include data on how many kids had to take remedial math or English when they got to college. And the program services cannot be snake oil. It has to be a program designed to help struggling readers learn how to read. It can’t be leadership training or play therapy. It has to be an actual reading program. This change is having a huge effect on every aspect of public education. I’ve had a front-row seat to see the kind of turmoil and cognitive dissonance this change has had, and continues to have in education. I think it is a good thing. But it is hard.