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Sustainability and Funding

Mark St. John

Hands-On Science In Seattle Public Schools, K-5
Mathematics and Science Enhancement II (MASE II)
TEAM 2000
Valle Imperial - Project in Science

Note: The piece below is an excerpt from reflections written by Mark St. John on one of his recent airplane trips. The original piece is quite a bit longer, and more colorful, and we have put it in its entirety in the resource section of this conference site.

Mark asked me to convey to you that the following were some informal thoughts, a work still in progress. He mentioned that writing this made him begin to think in a different way about the whole issue of sustainability. Reading his comments has done quite the same for me as I am sure it will for you. --- Joni Falk

Please use this link for the full article: "Airplane Thoughts About Sustainability" by Mark St. John

Reflections from an Airplane on Sustainability and Funding

Here are some questions and thoughts I have about the whole issue of "sustainability". (I am sitting on a plane and thinking out loud to myself about this issue of "sustainability").

First, I always try to ask myself -- exactly what is the question that is being asked here and equally important where is that question coming from? What is the motivation for the question and what are the assumptions that underlie the question?

And this question, like many other questions that project leaders and evaluators encounter, reflects the not unreasonable concerns of the Funding Agency. In this case, I think the question might be expanded from the funder's point of view as follows:

The funder (in this case, NSF) : "We have invested millions of dollars in your district, This has been money aimed at building your capacity, at doing the initial training needed and at supporting the very large effort that is needed to accomplish a district-wide curriculum implementation effort. So we want to know how if and how the district is now taking on the task of "sustaining" the program that we have invested heavily in so that it can be put in place."

The theory of the (LSC) grant is that by the end of five years the program will be "fully" implemented... that is, all teachers will be teaching the designated curriculum. Furthermore there is an assumption that that an infrastructure will have been put in place to support the ongoing needs of the program. That is, (for elementary science) science kits will be purchased, a materials warehouse set up; teacher leaders set up to conduct workshops; and assessments designed and put in place. All of this results in a fully functioning program that is centered around the high quality usage of a well designed curriculum. And so, not unreasonably, the funder wants to make sure that the foundation they have paid to put in place, and the house that has been constructed with their money, will both be maintained. So in one sense sustainability comes up as a question because the funding agency wants to make sure that its investment is not lost.

From the point of view of the district the question of sustainability might look a little different:

The district: From their point of view the situation usually is that they have deeply enjoyed and appreciated the benefits of having the NSF grant. They have appreciated the work that the TOSAs, and teacher leaders have done. Usually they are very appreciative and admiring of the work of the project director. And after five years they typically are in a situation where there is a significant portion of the teachers in the district using the new curriculum, another group of teachers who use it a little, and another group that does not use (and may not want to use) the new curriculum. If the grant is in, say, elementary science, then they feel that as a district they have in same way "handled" elementary science -- that it is an area they have paid attention to... And mind you, it is not always clear that the district wants a uniform program but rather they see the NSF funds as supporting a program that a portion of their schools and teachers may well want but they do not want to impose that program on everyone, especially in an era of local control and site based management. The district may well want to be able to point to a range of approaches and a diversity of practice. So the NSF goal of uniform adoption and usage may well not be the district goal...

And district leaders look at this situation as the grant comes to an end, and they look at the tremendous resources they have had through the NSF grant and they look now at the upcoming absence of those resources and they see the cost of professional development, of the materials warehouse. They also see all their other priorities and pressing issues... and they have to ask themselves not so much "how do we sustain this program?" but rather "where do we go from here?" "What are our priorities and where does elementary science fit into the bigger scheme of things?" So the question of "sustainability" looks a little different from the point of view of those who have responsibility of running the whole district. In fact, they may well see the need to address OTHER areas, given how much money and attention has gone to the area already covered by the grant...

The term "sustainability" has within it a set of assumptions -- beliefs about the work of projects and about the reality of districts -- that, I think, are not always true. That is, there is an assumption that as a result of an LSC grant, and the end of the LSC grant, a fully implemented program will be firmly in place... (that is, the whole house will be built)... and that now it will require less effort and fewer resources... These assumptions are, frankly, over optimistic. But not because the grant was not successful. And not because the district does not value the work. Rather the problem raised by the issue of "sustainability" cuts much deeper...

Perhaps the implementation of a new curriculum is not really like building a house...Perhaps it is not a one time event... not even a five year event... but rather an effort that is more like keeping the Golden Gate Bridge painted....

I was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge the other day and I was impressed by the crews that are always there working on the Bridge...and the equipment they have in place... These crews and their equipment are there full time. It is their only job and it is a full time job. The Bridge does not go out to get a grant to paint the Bridge... Rather the Bridge managers realize that keeping the Bridge painted requires steady ongoing work... There is always sun and wind and salt that works away at the paint job; it is not an exception or a surprise that the paint continues to erode away... Rather the Bridge managers have realized this fact and they realize it requires an ongoing steady effort, and the ongoing allocation of resources, to "sustain" the paint job.

And this need for ongoing replenishment, renewal, maintenance points out for me how very different education is from other enterprises - especially it is different in terms of the way it thinks about and finances its own maintenance and improvement. The Golden Gate Bridge maintains and supports a permanent working capacity that is capable of continually "sustaining" and "re-implementing" the paint job. But, because resources are very very limited, education relies on short term grants, like the LSC, that must be then in turn be "leveraged" and "institutionalized". There is little real thought or design given to the process of sustaining the programs that are implemented.

Compare education to drug companies like Merck, or aircraft companies like Boeing, or software developers like Microsoft. They all spend a very significant portion of their revenues on improvement: on basic research, on developing the next generation of products, on refinements and upgrades, and on quality control and monitoring of their work. These companies have embedded within their structure what is called an "improvement infrastructure." They have resources and people and structures set up to monitor the quality of their work, to maintain it, and to improve it in the future.... Typically, industry spends 8 to 15% of its funds on the improvement infrastructure.

In education we as a nation spend less than 1% of all educational revenues on improvement. on all of the work we do that is specifically focus on IMPROVING education... Think about this: Math and Science Education is touted as a national priority; and NSF is certainly a lead player in the effort to improve math and science education... But their budget is on the order of .5 billion for all their K-12 education initiatives... This is .5 billion trying to improve a system that is 350 billion large... About one tenth of one percent... That is, out of every $100 to run education, we spend about 10 cents to improve math and science education.... No wonder we worry about sustainability... we are in some senses desperate because we by necessity really really have to leverage our resources....

But equally important to the lack of resources is the lack of conceptualization. States, districts and schools do not have any way to think about their own ongoing improvements. There are fewer and fewer district specialists in science and math; and there are fewer and fewer state or regional specialists. And these people often have many duties (eg science fairs) that are really about running the system -- and not improving the system. So in education I think that we do not even think about having people, institutions and structures that are truly part of an ongoing improvement infrastructure for education. There are universities, and labs, and even district science and math specialists, but most of these people and institutions live on "soft money." They are a shifting and transitory improvement infrastructure.

Think of how this might be different -- What if there were a law that said all states and districts had to devote 10% of all funds to an "improvement infrastructure." They had to devote resources so that they had people who had the time, expertise, resources and mandate to improve the system. Surely it is clear that districts who DO somehow accomplish a lot with their NSF and other grants have people who are, at least for a short time, working effectively as an improvement infrastructure. But districts and schools are strapped right now, and they devote any additional resources to immediate needs and crises rather than investing in a long-term infrastructure for improving their work. (This is very clear in the degree to which both states and districts have eliminated science and math specialists over the past few years.)

Now does this mean that NSF should stop trying to assist the most needy districts, or give up on high quality programs? No not at all... but it might mean that we should be more realistic about how much change can be brought about and also sustained. Maybe it would be better to be less ambitious in the degree and nature of change and more ambitious in trying to develop ongoing capacities within the district for program maintenance and support.

Another way of saying all of this is that one has to be careful about the match-up of soft money and hard money. Soft money can provide a district with all the resources and work of an LSC; but if the district lacks the hard money to provide itself with an improvement infrastructure, an ongoing set of supports, then there is a great likelihood that the LSC work will, in fact, not be sustained.

What gets sustained in a district is what can get supported... The bridge will stay as painted as there are permanent painters and paint to work on it... Not as painted as it gets under best conditions... This is why textbooks are, in fact, "sustained" in most districts. The permanent infrastructure, and district capacity, is just sufficient to adopt, buy and distribute texts... but not sufficient to provide all the supports needed for, say, an inquiry-based kits program.

This is why the question of "sustainability" for me begs a deeper question: How can we begin to help education leaders and the public see the need for ongoing permanent improvement infrastructures for their state and local systems? When we raise the whole challenge and problem of "sustainability," we are in essence saying that the work of the soft money has gotten out in front of the work of the district's operating money. We somehow need to better connect the soft money and the hard money.

Somehow we need to use the NSF grants and other soft money not to do the work of reform but rather to help augment the permanent capacity of districts to both improve and maintain their programs... NSF could help states and districts put in place more permanent improvement infrastructures... The programs districts and schools end up with are the ones that they themselves can support and can understand...That is why we see lots of textbooks and not many inquiry-rich science kits... Thus, while it is important to have efforts like the LSCs bring in resources, energy and expertise, we also desperately need to change the structure and funding of districts and schools so that it is normal, and not abnormal, to find highly qualified people working full time on a permanent basis to ensure that the quality is always being checked and improved.

And, very importantly, I think it is critical that we need to find ways to evaluate the investments made by NSF on this basis. That is, LSCs and other NSF programs should be evaluated as to how well they build the capacity of districts to implement, maintain and improve their science and math programs. And, frankly, trying to evaluate them in terms of student achievement is conceptually wrong and a fatally flawed endeavor. It sends all the wrong messages, wastes time and energy, and is ultimately very counterproductive in the long run. Trying to find (and jury rig) evidence of student achievement may well be detrimental to achieving the sustainability of our efforts (in spite of the fact that the political thinking is that student achievement is key to sustainability... but this is a longer discussion). I think we would all be better off to simply have the courage and wisdom to invest in the long term growth of capacity of districts and states -- and to make the case for our investments on that basis. We need to design and evaluate our investments so that they help to build the improvement infrastructure within states, regions and districts. Otherwise we will continually be asking ourselves - "how do we 'sustain' the (unsustainable) programs we have tried to put in place?"