CHALLENGES TO IMPLEMENTATION
Interview and case study data revealed several challenges faced by schools during the first four years of program implementation, including:
➊ Financial Challenges
➋ CSR Logistics
➌ Staffing & Turnover
➍ Cultivating Commitment to Change
➎ Beginning Collaboration
➏ Understanding QEIA
➐ Balancing Responsibilities
➑ Community Challenges
One of the most common challenges cited by principals, school staff, district representatives, and county officials were those associated with the ongoing financial crisis in California.
Ninety-one percent of county interviewees highlighted the state budget crisis and resulting uncertainty as a key challenge for schools and districts while they were attempting to plan for six years of program implementation. One district interviewee noted, “I think right now, again, the budget is the biggest challenge. We’ve met already once and we’ll have another meeting next week to help put together this year’s budget as well as look at a long range plan, but even with the QEIA dollars, the district will be looking at some serious budget challenges.” Two county interviewees underscored the significance of the budget challenges: “I think again the budget issues are the biggest concern at this point in time. Without adequate funding, I don’t know how schools can be expected to do what they need to do,” and “Clearly, if schools keep losing and losing funds, there’s going to be a point where I think it could jeopardize the program. Because you can only do so much and the money only can go so far.”
The severity of the economic downturn that began in 2007/08 and accelerated in 2008/09 in California was unanticipated when QEIA was created, but its effect on the program was significant. According to stakeholders, the crisis made implementation of the K-3 CSR requirements particularly challenging. Originally implemented in 1996/97 as a statewide voluntary funding program to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through grade 3, QEIA’s funding structure was predicated on schools participating in the statewide CSR program, and the per pupil QEIA funding amount of $500 annually was based on that assumption.
After the declaration of a fiscal emergency by then Governor Schwarzenegger, in February 2009 the Governor and Legislature reached agreement on a budget package that made extensive changes to existing programs. One of the changes was to reduce the penalties under the statewide K-3 CSR program for participating schools. Prior to that year, escalating reductions in funding were imposed for any class that exceeded 20.44 students; funding was eliminated when any class reached 21.9 pupils. Under the provisions adopted in February 2009, the maximum penalty for exceeding 20.44 students per class became only 30 percent of funding and applied only when class size is 25 or more. In response to the change, many districts raised class sizes to 25 or above in grades K-3 penalty because the cost savings outweighed the penalty costs. However, QEIA schools were required to maintain their class sizes of 20; they risked losing their QEIA funding if class sizes were raised.
Interviews revealed that many districts (25% of districts in interviews during 2010) were indeed unable to support the smaller class sizes they had prior to QEIA funding. Several districts reported raising class size thresholds in grades 4-12 and no longer supporting class sizes of 20 to 1 in grades K-3. Therefore, in order for QEIA schools to meet class size requirements, more of their QEIA funding was used than previously anticipated to offset the lack of district funding.
One principal commented: “The state no longer funding CSR had a large impact on the District’s ability to keep class sizes down across grade levels. The state is underfunding QEIA.” Other principals echoed: “Reducing class sizes would cost more than QEIA,” and “Our challenge has been keeping the classes to 20 to 1. The rest of the district has increased. This year the school needs to spend more of QEIA funds on staff than before.”
In interviews, district representatives explained:
It’s a bad convergence of things. Requirements have increased while the general fund goes down. The district is not reducing at 20 to 1 anymore so schools need to use more of their funds. In high school, it is even more difficult - maintaining electives while also reducing funding. We can’t do it with our general fund. We are trying to maintain solvency.
District wide class sizes are being raised so QEIA funds need to be used to bring them back down. All their funds have been cut - other categories. Since they have to maintain 20 to 1 or 25 to 1 in the upper grades, it’s tough. The rest of district is going up to 31 to 1.
Because schools used more of their funds to support class size reduction, less discretionary funds were available for other QEIA plans (e.g., new intervention programs, professional development, etc.). In addition, district offices scaled back on funding for other initiatives due to shrinking general funds. One principal explained, “Our District has cut funds for Intervention programs and Saturday school. We have used QEIA to help us maintain these valuable instructional support programs.”
In surveys, approximately 20% of principals in QEIA schools reported that districts withheld their QEIA funding in Year 2; about 15% of principals surveyed reported having funds withheld in Year 3. Additionally, across all implementation years, about 10- 12% of principals surveyed indicated that school categorical funding had been eliminated due to state budget cuts and replaced by QEIA funds.
School stakeholders also described feeling apprehensive about the state budget crisis, its potential impact on future QEIA funding, and upcoming district budget cuts that had not yet been made. A few stakeholders noted that their district offices had withheld QEIA funds from schools, used QEIA funds to supplement the general fund, or reduced other school allocations and replaced those funds with QEIA dollars. In a few schools, budget cuts limited professional development and classroom materials. One principal lamented, “It has impacted morale due to pink slips and layoffs. We are scrambling to find money. We are down to bare bones. Our students need it.”
Moreover, several stakeholders in schools expressed concern about how to sustain class size reductions and other interventions in the long term or when QEIA funding ceases. As explained by one teacher: “We’re worried that the QEIA money will just stop. When schools start doing well, the money gets pulled away. We won’t be able to sustain the changes.” A principal commented: “If we lose QEIA funding, we are not quite ready to sustain this.”
Many schools and districts struggled to maintain class sizes in grades K-3 and reduce class sizes in the upper grades. Securing the space and facilities required was difficult for some: “Space. The reality of what your school can hold vs. space. We are trying to think of alternatives - perhaps 40 kids in a classroom, but two teachers - two rosters.” One principal added, “A larger incoming K population now necessitates utilizing a portable previously used for after school programming and miscellaneous instructional/counseling space - we’re bursting at seams.” Principals at other schools shared struggles related to itinerant teachers without classrooms and the need to use other teachers’ classrooms during conference periods as an alternative.
Furthermore, many school stakeholders talked about the challenges associated with reducing class size in middle schools and high schools, in particular. Managing enrollment and juggling class schedules was a struggle for many. Stakeholders explained:
It’s the CSR at the high school level that is really hard. We have applied for a waiver, but we anticipate it will be denied. But we will have a facility problem.
At middle school, it is a challenge to maintain class size of core classes because of how the classes fluctuate - working with the master schedule.
Some school stakeholders noted that the class size reduction requirement was too inflexible given changing enrollment patterns and student mobility. One principal noted: “Populations are changing, we still have to maintain the same numbers, even though we have increasing enrollment.” A district representative added:
It’s hard to serve new families. Class sizes are inflexible. If you have 2 new children, but only 1 spot, you can’t be 1 or 2 over. We are a district that has a lot of student mobility so it’s tough. So more flexibility would be helpful. Helping parents to understand this as well, that we can’t take their children. They think, ‘add another teacher.’ So we have to put students where we have room.
District representatives noted that the requirements for grades 4-12 were especially challenging for small schools. According to one district representative, “The formula for reducing 4th and 5th grade is a challenge. Because we are small we have to reduce to 17. That is difficult. The bottom should be 20. In our next year, all our money will need to be spent on this - none will be left for the other things.” Other district representatives commented, “When targets are so low, this is a challenge. I need to create a lot of combo classes - that isn’t good,” and “A challenge is keeping strict adherence to CSR. We are a small district and spread out over 50-60 miles. We can’t just shift kids to another school.”
Finally, according to district and county representatives interviewed, class size reduction in QEIA schools resulted in tensions around equity and jealousy from non-QEIA schools that were experiencing increasing class sizes due to budget constraints:
The challenges are more for the non-QEIA schools. Other schools have to take overflow students, so it caused an equity issue, a capacity issue, a morale issue. “You have 20 to 1, I have 30 to 1 and have to take your kids.”
Jealousy, envy - other schools are really struggling, and they can’t believe how much money is going to QEIA schools…So, there’s been some uncomfortable feelings.
STAFFING & TURNOVER
Moreover, funding challenges at state and district levels resulted in high numbers of turnover at schools, making it difficult to sustain momentum. Budget constraints led to staff layoffs – teachers, administrators, and district personnel – making it difficult to maintain a consistent staff. One principal explained:
Our turnover rate from last year to this year was 80 percent. We had teachers that were shocked and not quite sure how to follow through with all the procedures for our school being a QEIA site, the required hours, the extra training, the extra time. It was mess, to be honest…I almost fully attribute that to the reason that we weren’t able to meet API this year.
Another principal added, “Because of RIFs, I’ve lost some wonderful teachers who were making a big difference for kids.” Other stakeholders commented:
One of the things that we found is that there was a fairly large turnover in district staff, school administration, and school staff that was directly tied to QEIA…when the new school year opened in 2008, the faces at the table were all new - a lot of them were new.
When the budget crisis started, we slashed the district first, now facing teacher layoffs, so some academic support at the district has been lost - coaches, etc. so QEIA schools might pay for more of this.
Teacher turnover also greatly affected the morale of staff and school stakeholders: “The budget deficit has been devastating. We’ve lost a lot of teachers at vulnerable schools...There’s been a loss of morale.” One county representative emphasized the negative impact of turnover and subsequent transfer on school communities:
Teachers are being transferred. So, you have a situation where teachers that are working there don’t necessarily want to be there. QEIA schools are underperforming schools. Not everyone wants to be there. Some teachers have been placed there and don’t want to be there. It’s unfortunate, because schools were working hard with their staff, though. They lost staff, and now they have new people.
Additionally, teachers expressed frustration over changes in principal leadership at various stages of implementation. In some schools, principals inherited QEIA from previous administrations which resulted in a learning curve and new period of building buy-in and commitment. One teacher in a case study school commented:
We come back [from planning at Summer Institutes] and we never had the support to implement the plans that we had come up with...It seems like each time we change principals, we kind of have to bring them along, sometimes drag them along.
In some cases, successful principals were transferred to other struggling schools in the district, greatly affecting the morale of staff and bringing changes to policies and programs. After a change in principal leadership at one very high performing school studied, school performance suffered, and the school’s API began to decline.
Both district representatives and principals expressed difficulty hiring the most qualified teachers due to “contract and seniority rights. You can’t hand select the teachers you want because of contracts. We have the same problems with other programs too. Sometimes the teachers are the best teachers - sometimes they aren’t but you can’t do anything because of contract rights.” A principal added: “The teacher contact – we are not able to keep teachers. After we train them for a year they leave. We have lost 50% of our teachers in the last 2 years.”
CULTIVATING COMMITMENT TO CHANGE
For many schools, creating a culture of change and “generating the buy-in” necessary for reform was difficult. School stakeholders noted that at times it was difficult to “get everyone on board” or “on the same page.” Moreover, several stakeholders acknowledged that a true change in teaching practice was needed in addition to class size reduction and professional development. Such change takes time and is difficult without the commitment of all stakeholders. As one district representative explained, “If you have a school site that has different beliefs going in a lot of different directions…without a clear plan, it just doesn’t happen.” Another district representative added, “One major challenge is changing the culture to becoming more student centered.” A principal noted, “Smaller class sizes and intervention are very important and made more feasible with QEIA monies. We still need good first teaching and more effective ways of dealing with teachers who have lost their commitment to their jobs and their students.”
In the process of getting teachers and staff onboard and “on the same page,” principals and teachers in schools often cited resistance to collaboration and data-sharing, in particular; those processes really forced teachers to “step out of their comfort zones” and “put their egos aside” in favor of less isolated teaching. One teacher explained:
Oh, I think there’s been some resistance in the staff. Even though, I will say that when we got the grant, we were all told about the grant and we all signed something basically that said this is what we need to be doing. Now, are you onboard?...And everybody signed that they were onboard. But, I don’t think everybody is completely onboard. So, that’s been, I think, the biggest challenge.
Several teachers underscored the challenges associated with just getting started with collaboration, including scheduling issues, finding the time, and putting the appropriate structures in place to support teachers. Some teachers mentioned challenges related to dealing with different teacher personalities and establishing trust and respect. Other challenges included getting the commitment from staff and ensuring teachers had the necessary skills, tools, and training to be able to collaborate effectively. One teacher explained, “Just teachers’ commitment to it and kind of really trying it out. Like again, collaborating and talking with one another and realizing that it was really actually benefitting us and just seeing the results, just the test results showed it, right there proof that we overcame.” Another teacher explained that it takes time to build rapport and experience the positive results of collaboration:
I think it’s just one of those big things about working in a group of any kind, that it takes time to learn to develop that rapport and that ability. I don’t think that you start off knowing what to do in collaboration. I think for the most part, even though we’re all very professional and we’ve all been teaching a long time, most of us anyway, it’s certainly true at second grade, it still took a while to be able to understand what the purpose of our getting together was, and to see that it was doing some good and that it was helpful to us. It wasn’t just oh, we’ve got another meeting what’s it for.
In the early years of implementation, principals and teachers cited challenges around understanding the QEIA requirements. For example, there was some confusion over the formulas used for class size reduction, professional development, and API targets which were seen as complicated, as well as figuring out the necessary forms to use for the monitoring process and how schools might be penalized if requirements were not met. One teacher expressed the challenge and said, “The only things that we had to overcome was in the beginning of QEIA, because at the beginning of QEIA, not even the state was really clear on the implementation…And so I think we would have been in better shape financially if we would have known the things that we knew two years in.” A teacher in another QEIA school explained that the staff wanted to be sure from the very beginning that they were making the right choices and meeting requirements, but were unsure about the appropriate steps to take:
In the beginning, I kind of felt like QEIA itself, they were kind of doing things on the fly. They really weren’t sure yet what they were doing…So that was a little crazy in the beginning of the documentation of professional growth, and teachers were worried about that because we didn’t want to mess up and not do it. If your scores weren’t exactly where they should have been, were they going to take that money away? Some of them even had the idea that we were going to have to pay it back…I felt in the beginning maybe it could have been a little bit more organized. Forms would have been nice.
A district representative commented, “QEIA is a language of its own. Not everyone can get on board, because it’s like Greek. I am an Assistant Superintendent, and I can’t even talk to my Cabinet about it because they don’t understand it. And, if those really bright [people in my Cabinet] don’t understand it, then who will?” Another district representative remarked, “CSR calculations are onerous. I’m sure it made sense when they came up with it, but it seems pointless. Just pick a number or range.”
Stakeholders in schools mentioned the ever-present challenge of dealing with time constraints and learning how to prioritize and manage one’s time better. They reported increased workloads and more responsibilities due to the requirements of the grant. Teachers repeatedly mentioned feeling tired and overworked. One teacher summarized it well and said, “We’re all very tired because we are working our tails off. And money isn’t the issue for working your tails off. We’ve made a commitment but we’re still all very tired, more tired than other teachers in other schools, where they’re not moving at the speed of light.”
In schools visited, teachers and principals expressed several challenges related to community issues. Living in lower socioeconomic areas, students face daily challenges related to crime and gang violence. As a result of changes in parent employment, students are also highly mobile, affecting enrollment and the consistency of instruction and learning. Parent engagement is also difficult due to language/cultural barriers, challenging work schedules, and childcare issues. One teacher explained: “There’s a poverty issue, you’ve got parents working in the evenings and they’re home with an older brother or sister or things like that, where they’re [students] are just not getting the kind of help they need.”
In dealing with the challenges of the surrounding community, one teacher also expressed the difficulty of overcoming certain mental models of students and community members and promoting a culture of success: “Changing the mindset of kids, change the mindset that - and even in the community - that this is a school that’s viable and we have no excuses.”