The Straight-A Fund: Efficient, Yes; Effective, Time Will Tell

John Mullaney

This week, $88 million dollars were awarded in the first round of the Governor’s Straight-A Fund to twenty-four schools across Ohio, out of a pool of 569 applications submitted. This one-of-a kind initiative is intended to incentivize innovations in teaching and learning across the state, to save money to the district, and to prove replicable in order to benefit other districts. The awards ranged from $14 million to $205,000.

I and four other colleagues from the philanthropic sector were among the educators, administrators, and business and venture capitalists invited to sit on the Grant Advisory Committee. One clear message to the committee was that the Straight-A Fund is attempting to create a set of demonstration projects across the state. The Fund holds the promise to truly change the way the public typically thinks of education in Ohio.

The process is creating a portfolio of projects that, if successful, will deliver the public a robust System of Schools with a portfolio of creative learning environments, rather than a one-size-fits-all School System. The grants have been awarded, and that is a good start. For the program to truly succeed, however, the follow-up will be the Governing Board’s greatest challenge. If done well, the Fund will serve as a national model.

For those of us in the philanthropic sector, the selection process was unlike anything we had ever seen. To ensure anonymity and impartiality, the state employed the expertise of statisticians from Ohio State University to assist. The committee was introduced to sophisticated algorithms and briefed on how to make use of “logit” scores to determine cut-off points, which then determined which grants the Governing Board could select from. The model is a wonderful example of how a “big-data” model played an invaluable role in producing an unbiased consensus agenda for the Advisory Committee and Governing Board.

It was curious that only one element, called “Item 9” on each grant application, posed a challenge to a relatively flawless system. I will address that below. In the end, I would argue that the Advisory Committee found the selection process highly efficient in meeting the requirements of the legislation. For overseeing a smooth and timely grant review process, we offer our kudos to the civil servants who were involved. How effective this process will be remains an open question and a concern.

The Governing Board must realize that their greatest challenge begins now. In philanthropy, we know from experience that the most successful grant making occurs when foundations establish partnerships with nonprofits and become partners to ensure success. That effort includes focus, attention, and reliable models for benchmarking success. Our colleagues from the business sector know that turning ideas into actual breakthrough products, services, and process improvements requires discipline. “Ideating is energizing and glamorous but by contrast, execution seems like humdrum, behind-the-scenes dirty work. But without execution, Big Ideas go nowhere.

Each of the grants—regardless of size, duration, or purpose—is in essence an experiment. Unless there is an intentional and disciplined system to gather, evaluate, and act on and learn from these investees and the challenges they face in replicating their successes, the Straight-A Fund will wind up looking like too many of the well-intentioned efforts to reform schools.

The current law contains two reporting requirements for the Fund: First, “the board shall issue an annual report to the Governor, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the President of the Senate, and the chairpersons of the House and Senate committees that primarily deal with education regarding the types of grants awarded, the grant recipients, and the effectiveness of the grant program.” Second, “a grant advisory committee for the Straight-A Program is hereby established….The committee shall annually renew the Straight-A Program and provide strategic advice to the governing board and the Director of the Governor’s Office of 21st Century Education.”

The reporting requirements are broad and beg for a disciplined evaluation process. A few questions one might ask are as follows:

(1) Who will capture the material that will be provided in the annual report to the Board, as required in the legislation? (2) Is there a designated leader who will direct this effort? (3) Does the system allow for failure and, more importantly, track the lessons learned from the failure? (4) Is there a method to help foster the replication of successful models? Our experience in philanthropy shows that there are many cases of innovative teaching and learning already taking place in schools throughout the state. Often these successes are not because of but in spite of school leadership. (5) Is there a way to capture these ideas and blend them with the successes we may or may not see among the twenty-four grantees? (6) How open is the Governing Board and the Director of the Governor’s Office of Twenty-First-Century Education to the advice from the advisory committee? And, most importantly, (7) How risk-tolerant are the legislators tasked with making the radical changes that might be necessary to have the impact the law intended?

Fredrick Hess’s new book, Cage-Busting Leadership, points to the complexity of incentivizing innovation, because the State System is culturally risk adverse. To this point he writes,

[T]hink about school and district leaders . . . as living in a cage. That cage restricts what they can do and how they can do it. Lost in the K-12 leadership equation [is]—the cage-busting half that makes it easier for successful and professional cultures to thrive.

More specifically to the challenge facing the Governing Board, Hess writes,

One way to free leaders is by removing the bars that cage them in. District contracts and procurement processes, rules and regulations, state statutes and board policies hinder leaders in all kinds of ways, making it harder to repair a fence, hired talented staff or schedule grade-level team meetings. [These] policies present real problems, but smart leaders can frequently find ways to bust them—with enough persistence, knowledge, and ingenuity.

I encourage these grant recipients to explore the barriers to their success. They must not be afraid to articulate how these policy elements help or hinder success and list the precise legislative elements that will be required to change them.

Earlier, I mentioned the puzzling “Item 9” on the grant application. Item 9 asked, “Are realistic barriers to the work identified and are reasonable solutions to the barriers being proposed?” This question about barriers caused confusion for both the applicants and the scorers. The variance in the answers caused “noise” in the algorithm. To eliminate that “noise,” the statisticians may eliminate the question for the next application round.

Our reaction is quite the opposite. Don’t eliminate it, but perhaps rethink it. The barriers question is perhaps the most important one for applicants to answer. It is no surprise to those in philanthropy that this question threw off the data sets. Answering this question is very difficult for school leaders, because (to quote Hess) “the problem is, [leaders] don’t know they can bust challenges. Or don’t know how to get started. Or are too nervous to try, or have never been taught they are supposed to push.”

It has been a privilege and honor to serve as a member of Advisory Committee. As the real work begins, I encourage the policymakers to make use of the philanthropic and business communities to help realize the potential the Fund holds for education.

Note: John Mullaney is the executive director for the Nord Family Foundation, an Ohio-based charitable trust. John served on the Grant Advisory Committee for the Straight-A Fund. Aaron Churchill of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute also served on the Advisory Committee.