North Dakota Invests Federal Funds in Innovative and Sustainable Programs

NEW: Updates on Implementation

Strategy In Review:

The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (NDDPI) invested $1.4 million in federal recovery funding to equip districts with a tool for monitoring education recovery. Through a survey of the education field, educators requested instructional and assessment supports to support student learning and recovery. Families indicated a need for a single platform serving students K-12. After soliciting a Request for Proposals, the department allocated funds to provide each district with a one-year license for Exact Path, the progress monitoring and individualized instructional platform. NDDPI intended to enable districts to identify and support students who need more time on recovery and target resources accordingly. Acknowledging that an online platform was not a silver bullet, NDDPI knew that districts needed just-in-time solutions to overcome the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic.

Investigating and Correcting Course:

While utilizing the Exact Path program was optional, NDDPI officials hoped most districts would take advantage of the tool. When initial uptake did not match expectations, NDDPI stepped back to assess, reflect, and refine. State officials specifically sought to determine whether the districts that opted in benefited from the platform and whether encouraging additional districts to utilize Exact Path would be beneficial. This investigation ultimately led to changes in implementation for future years, including:

1. NDDPI learned that it was more challenging to implement any new system, no matter the design, early in the 2020-21 school year. Some districts that intended to make use of Exact Path were unable to prioritize it.
2. Officials acknowledged that district administrators were the “pressure point” for nearly all education issues during the pandemic and that it was difficult for local leaders to decide in the moment whether Exact Path was “one more thing” added to educators’ plates or would be truly beneficial.
3. Since initial licenses were for a single year, some districts, especially smaller ones that were more likely to implement Exact Path, worried that they would not be able to continue paying for the program in later years.
4. Districts that chose to apply Exact Path have continued using it, showing that the investment was well worth it in some cases.

In response to these challenges, NDDPI modified its approach and stepped-up communication. They invested more resources into increasing parent awareness and familiarity with Exact Path, enabling them to communicate with their district and moving the “pressure point” from district leaders to families. In addition, state officials also became more business savvy – amending the statewide Exact Path contract to include only licenses that are used and ensuring that participating districts will grandfather in a lower cost-per-license once recovery funding runs out.

NDDPI officials also acknowledged an additional step that they now recommend for other states at the frontend of implementation: ask districts what platforms they already use before deciding on state procurement. Since NDDPI collects no district-level curriculum information, state officials realized after selecting Exact Path that they may have been able to help more districts had they invested in other platforms already in use across North Dakota. However, Exact Path was the only product offering a single K-12 sign on platform, so weighting product criteria within the RFP is an important consideration. While there are always tradeoffs in capabilities between instructional or curricular platforms, implementation would have been easier during the pandemic if more districts weren’t starting from scratch.

Other Tools in the Toolbox:

To support education recovery, NDDPI has since invested in additional strategies beyond Exact Path. The agency has struck up partnerships with North Dakota State Parks, Prairie Public Broadcasting, and North Dakota’s Regional Educational Agencies to provide additional educational opportunities and professional learning. Officials have also stepped-up partnership with the state’s postsecondary institutions in an effort to fill vacancies in hard-to-staff subjects and grades. These strategies illustrate how the state’s approach has evolved in response to observed district behavior and better understanding of district needs.

State Strategy & Vision

Amid national uncertainty regarding allowable uses and timelines for recovery spending, NDDPI knew it would be helpful for school districts to have a vision and guide for spending that they could trust. NDDPI developed a concrete spending model, aligned to its vision for recovery and applied to its own use of state set-aside funds, that all school districts could choose to follow.

Sequenced over three years, the model recommended that school districts allocate 1/3 of their ESSER funds in the first year on the expansion of programs that directly impact student success – including hiring more tutors, expanding summer school, and increasing after-school program enrollment. In the second year, the state recommends that districts and schools spend the next 1/3 on innovative and new programs that could aid student learning. The third year is meant to evaluate which efforts have had the greatest impact on learning, with the remaining 1/3 of funds then targeted to scale successful efforts and build a sustainable system of funding supported by permanent federal, state, and local funds. The agency also made big bets to address learning loss by both providing a free diagnostic assessment system statewide and targeting specific districts with comprehensive literacy grants.

Why We Like It

The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction set out a strategic vision and directive for how state and local entities should spend their federal relief funds. This type of guidance and leadership is welcome as districts and local leaders struggle to make smart decisions with a large influx of funds, especially as they emerge from the pandemic. In addition to their leadership and direction, the state is investing in the use of data and systemic improvements to literacy in areas that need it the most. We appreciate the great lengths the state agency has gone to work with various relevant stakeholders to develop strategies that best served the communities most affected by COVID-19. The commitment to funding what works, encouraging a space for innovation, and creating suitable, data-driven funding streams for their most successful programs is a model to be followed.

North Dakota laid out a clear vision for how to strategically spend federal relief funds to help ensure all students will graduate ready to be successful in life.

What They Did

The NDDPI invested $1.38 million to provide the Exact Path system, free of charge, to schools to help ensure they had the tools needed to address student learning loss due to COVID-19 disruptions. This online, adaptive diagnostic assessment helps pinpoint student strengths and weaknesses and helps teachers target and tailor curriculum for individual students. The districts that committed to implementing the system are seeing promising growth for their students and have had a consistent tool to support learning either in-person or virtually.

NDDPI reserved ESSER III funds to provide seven districts with a System-Wide (Birth through Grade 12) Literacy Improvement Grant. The competitive grant application will target districts that have not received federal Comprehensive Literacy Grants within the past five years. Funding will support a literacy audit to identify areas for improvement, professional development to address the district’s specific literacy instruction needs, acquisition of curricular resources and supplies, and technical assistance to achieve system alignment. The state’s focus on literacy came as pre-pandemic concerns about flagging reading abilities intensified during school closures and disruptions.

And to help schools and educators maximize their collaboration with parents amid disrupted learning conditions, the PK-12 Alliance, in partnership with NDDPI and the Center for Innovation in Education, designed a series of resources and strategies called the Family Partnership Strategy Playbook. The strategies specifically focus on helping educators communicate to families how and why interventions and accelerated learning techniques can be needed and beneficial for learners. Alliance members designed the resources with feedback and input from educators, caregivers, and students and hope that the tools will help schools engage stakeholders who have not been effectively engaged in the past.

For more information about North Dakota’s K-12 recovery strategy, please contact Laurie Matzke, assistant superintendent at the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.

About the Author

Chad Aldeman is a nationally recognized expert on education policy, including school finance; teacher preparation, evaluation, and compensation; and state standards, assessment, and accountability. Keep up with Chad on the EduProgess: Unpacked blog.