• by Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2009

Dr. Abelardo VillarrealThe recent infusion of federal funds into education through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) represents an unprecedented opportunity to jumpstart a new vision to promote and strengthen educational equity. We can embrace a renewed perspective that discredits negative, stereotypical attitudes and beliefs about students and families and that values every child, with a fresh “out of the box” approach to elevate the overall quality of education in the United States.

From the application it is clear that the use of ARRA funds will not be business as usual. Applying for funds will require a thoughtful, reflective process and a commitment that is focused, transparent, sustainable, data-driven, needs-driven and accountable. The requirements also underscore the importance of building capacity and increasing teaching quality to sustain the momentum of success beyond the life of these funds.

The application refers to this process as strategic planning and allows the use of funding to ensure that this process is at the core of all reform efforts. The purpose of this article is to share with school and community stakeholders 10 key strategic planning tenets that are the foundation of IDRA’s technical assistance program designed to help schools and districts develop their strategic plans for the efficient use of ARRA funds in addressing key educational issues.

School effectiveness literature converges on one finding: a successful school is strategic, commits to equity, and engages all stakeholders, including the community and parents, in its endeavors. Being strategic means having a vision and a clear path to success for an organization. In education, the shared vision should be that all children will have achieved a high level of academic success. It also means that schools seize every opportunity available to reach this vision, by engaging stakeholders in designing change and by taking risks to explore new and proven approaches to achieve equity.

For schools, being strategic means identifying the most pressing issues and taking bold steps to close achievement gaps. This includes addressing high student dropout rates, low academic achievement, and disproportionately low numbers of minority and low-income students who are enrolling in and graduating from college. Being strategic also means making wise investments of resources that have high rates of return as measured through increased human capital.

The ARRA application for funds strategically earmarks resources to address these educational areas. It also offers a level of flexibility that affords school districts and campuses leeway to be selective in the manner that they feel best addresses their specific areas of need.

Although much flexibility is afforded in the use of ARRA funds, there are stipulations that must be observed unless a waiver has been granted. These stipulations include:

  • Meet and comply with regular Title I rules and regulations;
  • Comply with the requirement of supplementing and not supplanting local and state funds;
  • Meet the maintenance of effort (MOE) requirement; and
  • At a minimum, spend 85 percent of these funds by September 30, 2010.

These stipulations are subject to some exceptions that are discussed in the federal document, ARRA Title I Guidance, available online at http://www.ed.gov/policy/gen/leg/recovery/guidance/title-i.doc.

IDRA’s highly qualified researchers and practitioners, in collaboration with school personnel, have developed a program of technical assistance for schools engaging in a strategic planning process. The 10 strategic planning tenets embodied in IDRA’s technical assistance program that echo the spirit of the ARRA legislation include the following.

1. Use an equity lens when revising or developing a vision and an approach to create a system that values and capitalizes on the assets that all children bring to school and that builds an educational environment second to none. The future of this country depends on the strength of its diversity and its inclusion of different viewpoints.

Dr. Bradley Scott, director of the IDRA South Central Collaborative for Equity (the equity assistance center that serves Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas) describes this lens, “Public schools can do what they choose to educate their students within certain limits and parameters, but they are accountable for educating all learners to high academic standards and outcomes regardless of differing characteristics of those learners” (2009).

2. Build on current research about successful schools with diverse student populations, with particular emphasis on minority, low-income, special education, and English language learner students. Learn from their lessons. Robledo Montecel, et al., describe a process for assessing a quality educational program in IDRA’s guide, Good Schools and Classrooms for Children Learning English (2002).

3. Build on a theory of chnage and envision success through the use of a logic model. Schools must undergo a thoughtful process that defines change and the way change must be engineered in order to have the most impact on the lives of the children under their care. Having a clear and common image of how change will occur and how success will be measured creates the right environment to foster creativity and commitment. See the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Logic Model Development Guide for a detailed description of how to build a theory of change or develop a logic model (https://www.wkkf.org/resource-directory/resource/2006/02/wk-kellogg-foundation-logic-model-development-guide).

4. Be transparent in the definition of problems and issues, barriers and solutions so that improvement efforts promote buy-in and reflect the convergence of different viewpoints from internal and external stakeholders. Transparency is usually accomplished by: (a) involving school personnel, parents and community in sharing ideas; (b) ensuring broader participation in the design of strategies and initiatives; (c) creating benchmarks and metrics to measure success; and (d) regularly and predictably sharing results with parents, the public, school personnel, state education agencies and the U.S. Department of Education.

5. Institutionalize data-driven decision making where decisions are informed and strategic, based on a rationale and a foundation. Relevant data must be used. Student outcome data are the results of school inputs. The data about quality teaching, access to a rigorous curriculum, student engagement, and parent involvement must be examined throughout the school year. Data are the foundation for effective school reform decision making.

In Texas, the AEIS and PEIMS are crucial databases that must be consistently reviewed and analyzed before and during the implementation of school reform efforts. IDRA has created an online portal where high school communities in the state can access critical student data to use in developing a strategic plan. The School Holding Power Portal is available at http://www.idra.org/portal.

6. Create goals and objectives that are aligned with the school district and campus vision and that emerge from a meaningful review of existing data on: (1) student achievement; (2) teaching quality; (3) principled leadership; and (4) problems and barriers that impede academic success in the district or campus. This involves a review of student achievement data disaggregated by student group and socioeconomic status and the identification of goals and objectives for closing the academic achievement gap. This will increase the ability of the school district and campuses to hold on to students through graduation, ensuring that a critical mass of students from each student group is college-ready and enrolls in and graduates from college.

7. Ensure that teaching quality and leadership excellence are major goals and objectives that are factored in to any school reform effort. As a first step, build on strengths and assets that presently exist in the school district or campus by conducting a contextual analysis of the qualities that must exist in order for the school reform effort to prosper and succeed. This analysis should be followed by an assessment of strengths and areas in need of improvement in the organization.

ARRA funds can then be used to strengthen school personnel, teaching quality and leadership skills by enhancing existing capacity through professional development activities or adding the necessary expertise to support implementation of the strategic plan. IDRA can assist schools with its Contextual Analysis Toolkit that helps schools efficiently zero in on target areas needing intervention.

8. Integrate a plan to ensure sustainability beyond the life of ARRA funds. Sustainability is ensured when support for the change (a) is based on reform strategies and initiatives that are proven and research based, (b) has buy-in by community, parents and school personnel, (c) is articulated and assigned high priority status by the school board, and (d) is integrated into the regular school or campus budget and improvement plan.

9. Start with the end in mind. Failure is not an option in the ARRA legislation. It is clear that a district or campus strategic plan must integrate an evaluation plan that is guided by your vision, goals and objectives. A formative and summative evaluation plan is fundamental to informed decision making and continuous improvement. Creating performance measures and benchmarks are expected and will be used to measure progress and share results with key stakeholders.

10. Be accountable for the success of the strategic plan. For years, federal spending has been likened to a runaway train with no consequences for failure and no clear end in mind. ARRA is an example of legislation where intent and accountability have never been as clearly articulated or more vigorously accentuated. Informing community, parents and other stakeholders periodically of the progress being attained is required to ensure transparency, full equitable implementation and a positive outcome from the use of these funds.

Strategic planning is not only a necessity to ensure success, but also an ARRA expectation. Furthermore, strategic planning serves to: (a) define purpose, provide clearer focus and promote unity; (b) ensure transparency, sustainability, data-driven decision making and accountability; (c) build consensus and create a sense of ownership among stakeholders; (d) ensure that the use of resources is carefully planned and cost effective; (e) make certain that decision making is informed by a conscientious and well planned and managed evaluation system; (f) provide the glue that keeps the mission focused; and, most importantly, (g) increase productivity for greater results, ultimately, success for every student.

For a more detailed description of IDRA’s technical assistance program to strategically implement ARRA funds, contact IDRA.


Robledo Montecel, M., and J.D. Cortez, A. Cortez, A. Villarreal. Good Schools and Classrooms for Children Learning English: A Guide (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2002).

Scott, B. IDRA South Central Collaborative for Equity web site (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2009).

W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Using Logic Models to Bring Together Planning, Evaluation, and Action – Logic Model Development Guide (Battle Creek, Mich.: W.K. Kellogg Foundation, January 2004).

Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is director of IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2009, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2009 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]