Can schools use resources to meet needs in a much more direct way?

This post was originally shared in an email on April 16, 2021. If you would like to receive my next email update, you can sign up here.

This has been another hard week for humanity in a hard year in a hard history. First and foremost, I send my wishes for your health and safety and my prayer that we, as a people, find a way to uphold the dignity of every human being.

Last week I shared the lessons I learned from Race to the Top. Thank you to those who reached out with reactions and to share your own reflections. Most of the responses I received centered on two questions:

  1. Are you seeing anyone planning anything new and interesting with the money?
  2. Are you seeing anyone approaching the planning process in a new or interesting way?

I understand where the first question comes from but I have some concerns about the premise of the question. The second question is really interesting to consider. Let me take them one at a time.

Are you seeing anyone planning anything new and interesting with the money?

Because we’ve been through a year so different from anything we ever imagined, it’s understandable to believe that the best way to respond is to develop new solutions. And because we have seen the challenges of this year refracted through the prism of long-standing inequities, we know we cannot revert to a “normal” that has historically underserved far too many students. As a result, it is tempting to think that the path forward must come in the form of new ideas and new models.

Yet, across the Rethinking Intervention journey, I was energized by remembering how much we know. The challenge is doing those things well and rooting out whatever is stopping us from giving every student access to what we already know they need. Giving every student access to what we know works is very hard; but we can do hard things. However, we will not do hard things if we keep looking for a quicker, simpler, or easier way.

Rather than asking “How can we use the money to do something new or interesting?” I hope we will ask “How can we use the money to give more students access to what we know works?”

Are you seeing anyone approaching the planning process in a new or interesting way?

While I don’t think we need new ideas about what we need to do, I have been wondering whether there are new ways of thinking about who drives resource decisions that could allow the money to more nimbly meet needs.

Funding for schools is typically allocated first in block grants and prioritized based on a strategic plan. While the plans are informed by listening tours and committee engagement, the decision typically falls to a single person or team. Strategic plans are important and needed, but it is hard to account for a wide range of needs in one plan. I wonder if, in addition to having a plan, schools can hold funds that allow us to respond to those needs as they become evident.

Last fall I wrote about how I am obsessed with the way assignment completion data can serve as an early warning indicator and impressed by the power of teams of people who care about a child coming together to a) understand what is really going on and b) find a plan. As I talked to Elaine Allensworth about the way these problem-solving approaches played out in Chicago, she said there was no pattern to the root cause. Sometimes it was social, sometimes family-related; sometimes it had to do with motivation; sometimes it was academic; sometimes it was a transportation challenge; sometimes it came down to relationships. Going into these processes with a predetermined idea about what was going on actually prevented the team from getting to the right solution.

And yet, our current approach to resource allocation requires us to predetermine the needs we will meet. We decide up front that what students need for the next three years is additional mental health support, better academic interventions, and more computers.

What if schools held back some money and allowed teams to find out what students and families really need? They might find that a particular student needs mental health support and academic interventions, but they might determine that the key to that student feeling and doing better is attending an after-school dance class, or getting more books about aeronautics for the library, or having the bus money to stay for extra help. We know that teams of people who know and care about a student — including that student’s family and caregivers as well as the student themself — know a lot about what that student needs. What if we let them decide how to spend some of the money?

I don’t know how to do this at scale and I don’t even know if it is allowable. This is an early, conceptual idea. Thinking practically about how this might be done, there may be a connection to an expanded version of existing student-centered problem-solving processes (RTI, MTISS, etc.). There may still need to be some kind of grant for a trusted community partner to hire student and family coordinators that can coordinate data team meetings and more flexibly respond to emergent needs. Churches and neighborhood associations and, informally, schools have been doing this kind of needs-based problem solving forever. How can we learn from past examples to hold some of the funds for needs we cannot anticipate?

This chapter of funding may well be once-in-a-lifetime education resourcing, at a time of enormous need. Systems need strategic plans to work towards giving all students access to what we already know works. But I wonder what we would see if we used some of the funding to empower and resource the people who understand students’ needs to meet those needs, nimbly and directly.

If you have tried something like this at scale or if you hear about states or districts thinking about models to do so, I’d love to hear more.

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