Episode 3: Is It Working? Connecticut Leads in Evaluating K-12 Recovery Spending
Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker explains how Connecticut has partnered with colleges and universities to determine the effectiveness of summer school and other programs funded by recovery dollars. In turn, Connecticut has become a leader in the transparent spending of federal funds, as well as in engaging students and their communities in determining how federal dollars should be invested.
Jim Cowen This is Jim Cowen from the Collaborative for Student Success, and this is the “Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery” podcast. Each week, we travel the country on a kind of “road trip” to talk about the ways federal recovery dollars are being used in states to reshape education. Along the way, we’ll hold up the best examples with the hope that those practices are repeated in other schools.
Today, I am excited to be talking to Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education, Charlene Russell-Tucker. We invited the commissioner today because her state has been out-front on transparency and the use of data when evaluating the effectiveness of education practices. You’re going to hear her talk about a unique partnership they built with private and public universities to gauge which investments are helping the most kids. It’s a practice we hope to see play out in other states as well.
Jim Cowen Commissioner, welcome and thank you for taking time to join us today.
Charlene Russell-Tucker Thank you, Jim. It’s wonderful to be here with you.
Jim Cowen We’re approaching this podcast under a theme of “road tripping,” right? So, before we dive into the topics around education recovery, I have to ask you, because we ask each one of our guests, what was one of your most memorable road trips? And is there a song that captures it for you?
Charlene Russell-Tucker That’s a great opening question, Jim. So, for me, road trip memory and song goes together. Maybe a little known fact is that I have recorded a couple of musical projects. So, for me, singing and putting music together, it happens in my head all the time. So, when you think about road trips and just journey and distance, I have always listened to different genres of music. And the key here is to be able to learn something new flawlessly, right? So, putting something in new, listen to it, learn it, and to be able to sing it flawlessly by the time I get to my destination. Just as if you’re in the recording studio and working on several parts.
Jim Cowen I was not aware of this. And now I’m going to have to talk to your team to find out what those other musical ventures were for you because now my interest is very much peaked. So, I’m glad to have that nugget. I’m not sure if the rest of your team knows that or the rest of Connecticut knows that either, but now we do. You’re hearing it here first. OK, so, let’s get into a little bit more on the more meaty subject area around education recovery.
And I just want to start by teeing up that it feels like there’s never really been more of an important time to have transparency and monitoring in our education system. And I say that because we know that states have, much like your own, created initial plans for how to use the recovery funds. But we’re just only seeing like a fraction of those dollars being used so far. And we know that the plans are probably going to evolve. So, leaders like yourself aren’t going to have the luxury of sort of long-term studies and analysis on those practices. You’re going to need real time information on what’s working and what’s not working so you can put those practices in motion fast. Sooner, rather than later, and full disclosure, that’s exactly why we developed the Educational Recovery Hub, which you’re familiar with. And that platform has been the impetus of us really starting a strong relationship with your office because we’ve been holding up a bunch of examples that Connecticut has taken on as an exemplar for how to prioritize things like transparency, sustainability, long-term evaluation, and that’s been great to see amongst your team.
Can you tell us a little bit more about Connecticut’s approach and how you’ve sort of looked at the fundings as, you know, the schools are struggling, but as you’re starting to come back, you know, in person and really starting to look at the learning loss problem.
Charlene Russell-Tucker So, Jim, thank you. And I really appreciate the ability to talk about Connecticut’s approach. So, as you likely know, there were three phases or three rounds of federal funding, and we are talking about the elementary and secondary school emergency relief or what we like to call ESSER funds. So, three rounds that states received during the pandemic and the first amount that we received, you know, it’s grown over time for us in Connecticut. We now total over $1.7 billion. Ninety percent of which goes directly towards school districts, and 10% remaining here at the state level for state level funded. So as for approach, we’ve come to, to say that ESSER 1 was about surviving—making sure school districts had the personal protection equipment they need [and] supplies to maintain safe and healthy schools.
And with the second round we set out collectively, really to think about how our students can thrive. And so that included evidence-based methods to accelerate learning to engage students and families with their school communities. And now with the American rescue plan, ESSER funding, we really thought about this as transforming our schools. This means, as you’ve mentioned in interviews that you’ve done on the “road trip,” utilizing bold strategies. And we’re thinking, as the pandemic has actually forced all of us, not only in our personal lives, but school in Connecticut to think differently. And so, we began to rethink how time outside of school enhances learning with programs such as our summer enrichment grants, which I’ll talk about later. You know, last year our summer enrichment grants deployed over $8.6 million to deliver a high-quality accessible summer enrichment programs to more than 108,000 for students here in Connecticut. And we’re really excited, and we’ll make that link later about how we are able to get real-time information to inform the work that we’ve done. But in sum we hear about our approach, I think a key Connecticut approach that has served us well was really establishing investment priorities. They are interrelated and I believe foundational in achieving improved outcomes.
Number one, investments in learning acceleration or academic renewal student enrichment, as I mentioned before. Number two, investments in family and community connections. Number three, investments in social emotional wellbeing and mental health supports for students and staff. Number four, investments in strategic use of technology which includes developing staff and addressing the digital divide. And number five, investments in safe and healthy schools.
So those priorities are foundational to all the work that we’re doing here as we think about COVID recovery.
Jim Cowen How are you thinking about sustainability? Some schools are concerned about being able to fund those programs once the spending stops. How are you thinking about that?
Charlene Russell-Tucker So, that’s a great question. In our guidance to our school districts, we’ve said to them we encourage them to think strategically about two types of investments: investments that are self-sustaining ones and others that are focused on measurement and impact. And so, by focusing on these types of investments, we can maximize both the short-term and the lasting impact of the federal funding. So instead of us thinking about the funding coming to an end and thinking about it as a funding cliff, which we will talk about, instead here we talked about creating a parachute instead of a cliff. To what we’re saying is a safer landing when these spawns go away and how you do that is by collecting the evidence to support continued funding for strategies that work. And as you mentioned before, we are committed to data informed policymaking, which I know we’ll talk about in a little bit more detail, but with data showcasing strategies and investments with high impact, I believe we’ll be able to gather support from federal colleagues and also our state government, as well as private entities and philanthropists to sustain the funding.
So, we’re basically saying, “show us what works.” If we can prove what works then we are better able to really require an ask for the support for sustainability to prevent us from falling off this funding cliff.
Jim Cowen Would love to talk a little more about that as well because Connecticut, and we’ve looked across the country, is one of the few states where we’ve seen this kind of intentional front-end thinking on how to use data to track the effectiveness of programs that are funded with recovery dollars. We’ve been looking and your example keeps popping and percolating to the top as a really great method of doing this. In fact, on the EduRecoveryHub, it’s the most reviewed, most liked recovery practice that we have featured. We’d love [to hear] how it’s work with other universities in your states has worked with other researchers. And we hear constantly about this need for actionable data, so how does it work? How does it set up? And we’re anxious to make sure like other states see this as a great example—and full disclosure, we have talked with other members of your team about this to get a little more data, but I’m hoping that you can share a little more on the research collaborative.
Charlene Russell-Tucker No, that’s great, and thank you for talking to our staff about that as well, because it’s really important. And so, this really is a collaboration and really a shout out to our chief performance officer who is really on the forefront of doing this for us. And you know, what we’ve done is to set aside funding to connect with researchers in our state, private and public universities, like the likes of Yale and UConn, I know Connecticut state colleges and universities and more. And so, a part of this, we use our set aside dollars to basically have these researchers look at I call them “problems of practice” or what we’re invested in to say, “Tell us about the efficacy of the programs and the supports that we have in place” and “tell us about our outcomes. What are we getting?” And so that really is what we’ve done. And it’s really been looked at as a groundbreaking, really, strategy and concept here because so many times, and you’ve alluded to this before, you have to wait for a long period of time for a program to end.
Jim Cowen Right.
Charlene Russell-Tucker And then you do the research to figure out what happens. Now, we’re trying to do this in as real time as possible. So go back to our summer enrichment programs that we talked about. We had the collaborative or research collaborative at the end of last summer, they did research and evaluation. They did site visits, they talked to program folks, they talked to students. And so, we ended up with evaluation results about how did that program really work this past summer. And we immediately use that information to inform the new programs that we’re setting up, actually pretty much getting ready to launch, for this summer as well.
So that is really what we’re trying to do here: to get information about what works and to be able to make adjustments as necessary as we keep going forward. So, it is a practice that I am looking at to really make it a part of standard operating procedure beyond COVID. We really need to know if, as a state legislators are investing in programs and supports and services, why shouldn’t we be able to answer that question very quickly? Is it working and if not, why not? So that we can make adjustments as necessary.
Jim Cowen Yeah. It’s a great point. And your team was very humble about the project because we were saying, “we’re not seeing this in other states. And we would love to find other states that are doing it.” And they were a little bit surprised by that. And so, we’re scouring and asking others if they know of other examples like this, please let us know because we, you know, we keep holding you guys up as the beacon on this one, but we’d love to see others doing it as well. So, we appreciate what you all have started at least what we’re seeing right now.
Connecticut is also one of the few states where we’ve seen you involve student voice in the consideration of how to use federal funding. How is that working and what are they saying?
Charlene Russell-Tucker Another exciting project and initiative here that we’ve launched, again, Connecticut was first in the nation to launch a statewide student participatory budgeted campaign. A statewide silicon-based engagement initiative, meaning we’ve allowed students to develop ideas and how they’ve used up to $20,000 of our state set aside funding to reimagine their schools. Schools participated, they had an election, students had to vote for their favorite idea. And so, this was our voice for change. That was what we called it. And in early April we announced the winners, 54 schools across Connecticut, as well as five commissioners’ choice awards for particularly innovative projects that we saw from students and Jim, they are saying a lot.
I am so proud of their students. They really took this serious. They had great ideas and we also mapped back to the five priorities that we use for investments. So at least we gave them some guardrails as to what to be thinking about as they’re planning their projects. And so everything is aligned. And I have to tell you the majority of the projects that they came up with, the winning projects were addressing social emotional and mental health supports. I am sure you’re not surprised about that. But across the way we see proposals where they thought about purchasing translating earbuds, for example, for multilingual learners. These are students thinking about how to support other students in their communities.
They’ve developed programs about nice gardens, outdoor gardens and spaces for them to have outdoor classes and those kinds of things. So, they really came up with great ideas; mentoring programs, leadership programs, and some of them even look at community projects. So how can they engage the whole community in the work that they’re doing? So, we’re really excited about what they’ve put out. And this was a state initiative. We had our governor visiting students in schools, our lieutenant governor, I was out there listening to their pitch for their projects and inviting them, encouraging them to vote on the initiatives towards the end. So, we’re really excited. Our website has all the initiatives there, again, by the categories, the priorities that we’ve talked about. And it was just awesome just to see the leadership that they really engaged in and just how involved they were along with even some of their teachers. Some of the educators took it as a project-based learning opportunity and used it in classrooms.
So, we’re really thrilled. We’re not getting inquiries from some other states about how we put that together, but, you know, I always say it’s not about them. That’s our students. Not about them without them and so we really need to make sure we amplify their voice. They’ve got a lot that they want to share that we can put into practice.
Jim Cowen It’s got to feel empowering for them, and I would think for their teachers as well, to know that they’re being heard at the highest levels in the state and seeing results from that. So, congratulations on that.
The students that were hurt most by the pandemic are, unfortunately, the same students that have historically been marginalized. Are there special considerations that Connecticut’s approach is taking to education recovery to try to make sure that the resources reach them in particular?
Charlene Russell-Tucker Yeah, absolutely, really important. We’ve noticed that we have students that, you’re exactly right, were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and we made sure in all our plans that this commitment to equity was really central to everything that we were doing. So, we talked about, you know, state planning in our guidance to districts, really stressed the importance of investing in evidence-based practices that’s aimed at those populations of students who are disproportionately impacted. We’re talking about students with disabilities or students who are multilingual learners or the students who are experiencing homelessness. And we made sure that in our plans that we really asked for districts and also the work that we’re doing to pay special attention to that population of students and making those connections.
And again, it goes across the priorities, Jim. This is why I said the priorities were really central, the investment priorities, because we’re saying in academic recovery and renewal make sure you’re paying attention there. In family and community engagements, make sure that you’re doing that there. As we’re talking about social emotional and mental health supports, make sure that you’re paying attention there. And so, that really is what we’ve done to call those out. And we continue to provide supports to our educators, to our school districts and actually to our entire community here because we know it’s so critically important. The pandemic has really unearthed numerous challenges, but I also think comes with that tremendous opportunities. And it’s about our systems aligning and working together to support them.
Jim Cowen Lastly, for each of our podcasts, we reach out to a parent for a question since their perspective is one of, if not the most, important on education recovery. This week our question comes from Corey Shane from West Hartford, Connecticut.
Corey Shane Hello commissioner, I know that Connecticut has made significant investments in education using COVID-era relief money. I’m curious as to how the department is engaging parents on those efforts. How do we stay informed and get a better idea about what’s working in the state? Thank you.
Charlene Russell-Tucker I so appreciate that question and for me, family engagement is critical to educational success and outcome for students. So, this question is great timing because just the other week we held our second round of our ARP ESSER stakeholder forums, which are facilitated by one of our external partners here at the State Education Resource Center. And I heard that even one of our participants in the room asked specifically about accountability and we were able to share and talk about the collaborative, the research collaborative, and the work that we’re doing. But they’re really opportunities, we’ve really amplified not only, as we said, student voice, but parent voice and we’ve used all kinds of forums and all our stakeholder groups that we put together here at the department. Parent groups are a part of the equation when we put them together. It is really important, and as we talk about all of our best in class collaboration, a part of that is making sure organizations that are parent focused are connected to us, and they know exactly what we are doing for investments. They understand our priorities, and we’re also really circling back to share what we’re learning and the outcomes. And so, as a result, you’re making sure that district plans are known. They know how to, and in that form we share with them the website, to go to so they can download. All ESSER applications are online, they’re publicly available, you know. She can go and take a look at what is it that the West Hartford Public School District planned for their investments. So as a parent, you can monitor if those things are truly happening. Certainly, they can circle back to us and so it really is important. Five years ago, I started the Commissioners Round Table for family and community engagement in education. And that was because I wanted to make sure parents voice was critically important to everything that we’re doing. So, we’re really making sure that as we put information out there that we’re connecting to families, we’re connecting to parents. We’re hearing from them, and they know how to access information that’s readily available for them. So, to make sure that they are in the know. They’re critically important with everything that we do in education. They’ve got to be a key partner, not only for districts to make sure they engage, but for the state to also make sure that we engage with them.
And just finally, we have a diverse stakeholder mailing list group that we do everything we put out here for press conferences, press releases that we send it out to this group. And a lot of parent organizations, faith-based organizations, parent run organizations are a part of that to make sure that they’re in the know and that they can disseminate them amongst other families as well throughout the state.
Jim Cowen Commissioner, thank you again for your time today. Before we go, I did notice the very last line of your bio, which reads “On a personal note, Ms. Russell-Tucker believes in finding and fulfilling one’s life purpose” and I thought that was a nice touch and I hope that journey is going well for you. Congratulations on the great work that you and the entire team at the Connecticut State Department of Education are doing. I hope you all have a wonderful summer, so thank you again, and we’ll talk to you soon.
Charlene Russell-Tucker Thank you very much, Jim. Appreciate it.
Jim Cowen This is Jim Cowen from The Collaborative for Student Success. Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery. For each week, we’ll travel the country to showcase the ways federal recovery funds are reshaping schools. Along the way we’re talking to people doing the hard work to educate America’s kids. Got a question or insight you’d like to share about what’s going on in education? We’d love to hear it. Reach out to us at EduRecoveryHub.org/RouteK12 or follow us on Twitter at our handle @StudentSuccess.
About Jim Cowen
Jim is the the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit organization that defends strong K-12 policies that benefit all students.