When state report cards are released this fall, it will be the first time that overall letter grades are assigned to districts and schools. It will also be the first time that these overall grades are used to identify the state’s lowest performing 5 percent of schools, a requirement of ESSA.

It’s been a while since Ohio’s ESSA plan was in the news, so here’s a quick refresher on how the Buckeye State promised to implement the law’s provisions related to struggling schools. ESSA requires states to identify two separate groups of low performing schools: comprehensive support schools (which include the lowest-performing schools in the state) and targeted support schools (which include schools struggling with certain subgroups). Ohio chose to rename each of these categories—comprehensive support schools are known as “priority schools,” and targeted support schools are known as “focus schools.” Priority schools will be identified every three years starting this September. According to the state’s ESSA plan, there are three ways a school can be identified as priority:

  1. It is part of the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I schools, based on the report card’s overall grade methodology.
  2. It is a high school with a four-year graduation rate of less than 67 percent.
  3. It has one or more subgroups performing at a level similar to the lowest 5 percent of schools and has not improved after a state-determined number of years.

Once identified, priority schools must create improvement plans. They have four years to improve under these plans or face “more rigorous interventions” from the state.

While there’s plenty of research for school officials and district administrators to consider during their planning process, the most promising solutions often require substantial funding. Obviously funding isn’t a silver bullet; when it comes to school improvement, how funds are spent matters at least as much as how much money is spent. But data show that competitive funds can improve student achievement, and significant and multiyear resources are a key tenet of sustainable school turnaround.

That’s where school improvement funds come in. ESSA requires states to set aside 7 percent of their Title I funds to give to schools that have been placed in one of the two identification categories. State education agencies will award these funds to local districts using either a formula or competitive grant process. Based on the federal spending bill that was signed this spring, Title I funding is worth $15.8 billion—which means states will be distributing hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to identified schools over the next few years. Chiefs for Change estimates that the 7 percent set-aside could add up to nearly $41 million for Ohio.

In general, states can choose to dole out these funds however they want. The Texas Education agency used its ESSA plan to incentivize certain types of reform, like grouping identified schools together and providing them with operational flexibility. Based on Texas’s plan, my colleague Mike Petrilli has proposed using the funds to open new charter schools instead of trying to turn around low-performing ones. Ohio’s ESSA plan doesn’t explain how the state intends to distribute the 7 percent set-aside. It’s unclear if that’s because they weren’t required to reveal their plan, or if state officials just haven’t decided how to do it yet. Either way, Ohio’s recent history with the Straight A Fund offers an intriguing path forward.

Straight A was a competitive grant program proposed by Governor Kasich as part of his 2013 biennial budget. It was designed to “support ideas from local educators that promote academic achievement and economic efficiencies” and was funded at $100 million in 2014 and $150 million in 2015. Funding was dropped down to $15 million in both 2016 and 2017 before being cut entirely last summer. Despite its short life, the program showcased some promising ideas and results—all of which were developed by local leaders and teachers.

ESSA’s 7 percent set-aside is a chance for Ohio to capitalize on the strengths of Straight A, while also improving upon its weaknesses. Policymakers could do this by establishing a competitive grant program that uses federal school improvement funds rather than state tax dollars. The competition would be open to priority schools and Academic Distress Commissions, and would follow in Straight A’s footsteps by funding eligible schools with innovative, workable ideas. Rather than focusing heavily on cost savings—which many believe was the downfall of Straight A—the new program would reward promising ideas focused solely on improving student achievement and progress.

Empowering local leaders and practitioners in the form of a competitive grant program would ensure buy-in. One of the most complicated aspects of school improvement is stakeholder engagement, and many promising reform efforts have failed because leaders didn’t gather enough investment from key players like parents and teachers. Championing ideas from those on the ground is a great way to sidestep political pushback. More importantly, though, it’s an inventive way to pinpoint new and groundbreaking ideas. Colorado discovered this firsthand last year with the Succeeds Prize, an award that not only honors the transformational impact of schools and teachers, but also leverages their ideas into professional development designed to scale innovative solutions statewide.

Despite all this potential, though, Straight A had some problems, and state officials should learn from these missteps as they craft a school improvement grant program. (They could also learn from the SIG program, which similarly provided competitive grants to low-performing schools; research indicates that schools committed to the most intensive interventions fared best.) For starters, the application should be rigorous, simple, and straightforward. Administrators in low-performing schools have enough to manage without adding a hefty and needlessly complicated application to the mix. Second, ODE must include site visits as part of their application review process. As John Mullaney and Aaron Churchill have previously noted, this would offer a clearer context of how the proposal would be implemented, and would provide reviewers with an opportunity to ask clarifying questions. Third, the state must set aside funds to evaluate the success of programs. This would inform the public and policymakers about the impact of the funding and identify solutions that could be implemented in other low-performing schools.

Instead of spreading ESSA’s 7 percent set-aside across all eligible schools, Ohio should give these dollars to schools with the best ideas—and the strongest commitments—to dramatically boost student learning. A competitive grant offers the state an intriguing opportunity to capitalize on previous grant programs, elevate the ideas of local practitioners, and support much-needed changes to Ohio’s lowest-performing schools. The release of state report cards and the identification of priority schools are still a few months away. This summer would be the perfect chance for ODE to iron out the details of a school improvement grant competition modeled after the Straight A Fund.

Policy Priority:
Jessica Poiner - Fordham

Jessica Poiner is a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked as a high school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she taught for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. A native of Ohio, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Baldwin-Wallace University. 

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