How Do You Understand the Long Game of Federal Funding?

Currently, almost two trillion dollars in federal funding is available through the American Rescue Plan (ARP), with a large portion of the pot being made directly available to elementary and secondary learning organizations to help them recuperate and regenerate after the hardships caused by COVID-19.  In a rush to make plans, engage stakeholders and meet pressing deadlines, leaders at the state, district and school levels are moving at lightning speed to best figure out ways to prioritize an influx of funds unlike anything ever experienced before.  

In the frenzy, I’m reminded of one of my favorite Denzel Washington quotes. His character, Alonzo Harris, emphatically states in Training Day, “This shit is chess. It ain’t checkers.” He was trying to get his younger, less experienced rookie partner to understand the larger strategy behind his hard-to-understand tactics. The same rings true of current efforts to strategize and make budgeting decisions using ARP dollars. 

Many plans are leveraging funds much like one would play the game of checkers, with each black or red piece representing one short term, forward move. Examples include updating or acquiring additional technology, engaging tutoring specialists, or utilizing summer school programs to address learning recovery and acceleration. But what if we considered these unprecedented relief funding efforts as chess instead of checker pieces?  

Chess is a game in which each piece serves a different, strategic purpose and can move both independently and in complement to other pieces.  It is a game that has been described as “easy to learn, but hard to master.” Unlike checkers, chess pieces are not regulated to a single, forward motion but can also move backwards or sideways to achieve the ultimate win.  

What is the Most Important Piece to Leverage for Lasting Impact?

Some savvy educational leaders are already seeing the benefit of moving through the gameboard of ARP funding like the King piece in chess, reimagining status quo solutions to move in more innovative ways.  Examples include creating new roles within organizational structures, adding more options in learning delivery systems, and even leveraging funding for long overdue overhauls to physical infrastructures. While these are definitely more strategic and longer-term moves, I would press us to think even more strategically. Ultimately, how can you use ARP funding like the moves of a Queen, the most powerful and flexible piece on the chessboard?  

The Queen is uniquely positioned in the game of chess because she has maximum mobility and is not tethered to standard, predictable movements like the other pieces. She is used both offensively and defensively. Educational leaders could prioritize the Queen version of ARP funding by utilizing their most powerful resource—the PEOPLE within the organization. It has long been understood that we monetize what we prioritize. So the question becomes how can we invest monetarily in the people that have sacrificed tremendously during this pandemic as they provided students and families with the services and supports they so desperately needed?

How Do You Invest in Your People with Purpose?

The answer lies in utilizing part of ARP funding in extensive, aligned professional learning systems that lead to fully transformed organizations of learning. Investing in systems and structures that build the professional skills and knowledge of people at all layers of the organization will ensure a long-term strategy that has enduring, sustainable and scalable effects for decades to come. And it goes way beyond the content created or a bevvy of on-demand trainings housed in a learning management platform. 

The Queen move is to think about how to motivate and educate an entire ecosystem of adult learners and leaders so that they are moving systematically through aligned content, equitable practices and continuous improvement, both individually and collectively. It is no easy task and requires more than content specialists or even professional learning specialists. Indeed, it requires adeptness at organizational change management and leadership—true Grandmasters of the game who deeply know the purpose, strengths and timing of how to use all the chess pieces. The focus should be on how to maneuver both the “next right move” and how to be successful in the long game. 

Consider how open your organization is to transformative structure of learning by asking if your current systems:

  • Enable an ecosystem of reflection and learning? Do they regularly take time and make space to step back and reflect in teams and communities of practice? Do they provide ongoing opportunities for staff in all roles to grow their skills and capacity as individuals? Do team members feel psychologically “safe” communicating what they don’t know and where they have room for growth? Do you discuss honestly what is and isn’t working with your teams? 
  • Appreciate differences and new ideas of adult learners? How are differences of opinion handled in your organization? What role does hierarchy play in how new ideas or differences of opinion are responded to? Are people rewarded for taking risks? Punished for failures?  Are voices that are typically marginalized, brought to the center and highlighted through the planning and implementation process?
  • Have that capacity to access data and use it for continuous improvement? Who has access to what data and what are the expectations for use? How different is this from the realities of use? What is your team’s capacity to understand and make decisions based on data? How does this vary by role and/or level? How do you support growth in learning and practicing data capacity? 

Ultimately, educational leaders need to pull back and take a look at the structures, practices and habits that are woven into their organization’s current ways of functioning, how consistent these practices are at all levels, and how they envision people in every stratosphere continuing to learn, adjust, grow and improve. The hardships of these past 14 months have been harrowing for the people in your organization. How will you reinvest in their capacity to rebuild with a renewed, shared purpose?

What is the “Next Right Move”?

In one of the pandemic’s most binged Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit, the main character imagines all the possible moves of her opponent in what seems like hyperspeed. In essence, she plays out the entire game in her head before making her first move. Visualize, mobilize and realize your greatest dreams of reinvesting in your people through the strategic use of ARP funds in a professional learning system that ensures a long-term return on investment. ARP funding won’t last long, so act fast. The federal government has already started the game clock and the next move is yours. Just say, “Queen me!”