BAM! EdWords

Eduflack readers know that I co-host a regular radio program on the BAM! Radio Network about Common Core and successful implementation efforts around the country. I’ve been doing those segments for about two years now, and greatly enjoy the opportunity to talk with educators and education leaders about what is actually working in our classrooms.

Recently, BAM! decided to launch a new platform called EdWords, providing commentaries that complement the content on its radio programs. I’m proud that Eduflack has been asked to contribute the written word to that platform, writing about Common Core implementation.

The first piece I have up on EdWords is a familiar one to Eduflack readers. Late last year, I wrote of a terrific third grade teacher who was using science and astronomy and non-fiction texts to help teach Common Core standards. That piece is now up at EdWords, focusing on how Common Core and content can get along.

I hope you’ll give it a read and give it a share. And check out all of the fabulous written content that BAM! is now making available to the education community. It is definitely worth the time.


Fathers and the Role They Can, Should Play

When it comes to family-school relationships, too often we still see the old stereotypes. It’s the mother’s responsibility to deal with the school, the teachers, and the homework. But should it be?

Over on Medium, Eduflack has a new piece as part of the Ashoka Changemakers series. In it, I write:

Too often, we leave educational decisions to the mother in the relationship, thinking it isn’t part of a father’s job. In reality, we shouldn’t just show empathy to those fathers looking to get involved, we shouldn’t just be praising those who choose that path, but we should be demanding it from all fathers. Fathers must be more involved in their kids’ education, beyond helping with homework at night. That’s what involvement really looks like. At its very heart, it is a simple, common-sense idea.

I also offer up some tips on how a dad can be a little more involved in the process. I hope you’ll give it a read.


Teaching and Respect for the Profession

If more parents understood what serious teaching looked like, what would they do instead? Maybe, at parties, they’d talk to teachers about their craft. They might ask to sit in on classes instead of just coming to concerts and games. And if they understood what their children would miss, they might not want them to be late for school.

From Amanda Ripley’s tremendous article in Washingtonian, Stop Talking About Teachers As If They’re Missionaries

The Ghosts of Reading First

This week, the Center for American Progress released a new report, “A Look at the Education Crisis: Tests, Standards, and the Future of of American Education.” In it, the researchers at CAP take a look at recent NAEP data to see if the state of public education is as bad as some say or on a rocketing upward trajectory as others say (guess it really depends on who your friends or online trolls are).

USA Today’s Greg Toppo has a great summary of the report here. We’ve all seen that high school graduation rates are at all-time highs. But it is hard to celebrate such a statistic when we still see that only one in five low-income fourth graders achieved reading proficiency on NAEP. Or that only 52 percent of “nonpoor” fourth graders were able to hit that proficient mark.

It doesn’t get better for eighth graders in reading. Only a third of them are proficient in cities like Charlotte, Austin, Miami, and San Diego. Boston comes it at only 28 percent proficient. NYC 27 percent. Chicago 24 percent. Philly 16 percent. Cleveland 11 percent. And Detroit at only 7 percent.

So why do these eighth grade numbers matter so much? Most of the students in the eighth grade NAEP sample never attended school when Reading First was law of the land. Sure, they may have benefited from textbooks that were developed to meet RF requirements years prior. And some of their teachers may have utilized the PD and supports they received during the height of RF. But each of these kids has now gone through eight or so years of public school where scientifically based reading instruction was not demanded nor expected.

These latest NAEP numbers, and the analysis from CAP make one thing very clear. We need scientifically based reading instruction in the classroom. Our teachers need to be prepared for it. Our elementary schools need to be based around it. Our students need to be instructed in it. And our families need to know it when they see it (and know when they aren’t seeing it in their community schools).

Yes, Reading First had implementation issues. Yes, at times it was more steel hammer than velvet glove. But can we really say we shouldn’t be using what is known to be effective in teaching kids to read? Can we really say, with all the data that we have, that early reading instruction based on phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension isn’t the correct path? Can we really say a a philosophical approach to reading trumps and research-based instructional approach? And can we really say we should’t be using what is proven effective in the classroom?

For those who condemn the Common Core’s emphasis on non-fiction texts, it is ridiculous to assume that a low-income eighth grader can read the rich literature sought when only a third of them are reading proficient in the first place.

When scientifically based reading instruction became the law of the land in 2002, it was an approach that was embraced by all comers. The teachers unions. The principals groups. The superintendents. The teacher education community. The business community. All saw the value in using proven-effective approaches to instruction. All saw the need to do something to improve literacy, particularly with low-income learners. All embraced SBRR.

We need to find that solidarity again. The most recent eighth grade NAEP scores show us that taking a different path has failed too many kids … again. We need to remember that literacy is not, or at least shouldn’t be, a political issue. Whether we want all kids to pass a high-stakes, state-based, standards-aligned exam or we want all children to find a love for learning and literature, the ability to read is a non-negotiable.

While Reading First has now been relegated to the history books for the past decade, we cannot and should not ignore the hundreds of thousands of research studies that showed the effectiveness of scientifically based instruction. We cannot and should not ignore the reality that, when SBRR was in full effect in the early to mid 2000s, reading proficiency rates were on the rise, both with the low-income students the program targeted and other learners who benefited from the focus on SBRR-based instructional materials and PD. And we cannot and should not ignore that far too many kids — particularly those that are black, brown, or low-income — are struggling when it comes to reading … and we know just what should be done to help them.


Data Literacy and Teacher Ed

When one thinks about the pieces that go into effective teaching and effective teaching education, much comes to mind. Content knowledge. An understanding of effective teaching techniques. Classroom management skills. Teamwork. The ability to wear about a zillion different hats, depending on the situation, the student, and the desired outcome.

Yes, we expect classroom teachers today to be educators and guidance counselors. Nurses and social workers. Juvenile justice surrogates and substitute parents. And now, of course, with such an emphasis on student testing and the use of assessment data in the classroom, we now look to educators to also serve as psychometricians.

Unfortunately, too few teacher preparation programs really do an adequate job in preparing aspiring educators with the knowledge and abilities to both understand the data provided to them by the school district and then put it to use in their classrooms. And even when a teacher is data literate, too often they are given student achievement data too late in the term (or after the term is completed) for them to even attempt to tailor instruction to meet the needs of their particular classes or students.

Step one in the process is understanding what it means to be “data literate.” What do we expect teachers to both know and be able to do with student assessment data? And how do we make sure that today’s classroom educators have the preservice and inservice supports to actually do what so many of us are asking of them?

The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation recently released a series of case studies that look specifically at this topic. In partnership with WestEd, the Dell Foundation examined what teacher preparation programs like those at Western Oregon University, Relay Graduate School of Education, Boston Teacher Residency, and Urban Teachers are doing to key in on the data literacy need. (Full disclosure, Eduflack has worked with Urban Teachers in the past, and just thinks the world of the program they have built.)

Coming out of these case studies, Dell — along with WestEd and the Data Quality Campaign — offered a set of nine skills that 21st century educators must possess to be “data literate” in today’s classrooms. They must:

  1. Define “data” broadly to include standardized test data as well as broader academic, socioeconomic, situational, behavioral and environmental data that affect student performance.
  2. Understand how to identify and apply critical grade-level standards in the context of individual students’ needs.
  3. Prioritize and validate relevant student data as it relates to learning and standards mastery.
  4. Develop high-quality informal and formal assessments in order to collect usable data on students’ progress against those standards.
  5. Administer assessments on an ongoing basis to monitor student understanding.
  6. Develop responsive lesson plans and differentiate instruction based on assessment and other contextual data.
  7. Use data-informed insights to communicate student achievement and needs to students and their families.
  8. Use data appropriately, knowing what conclusions can be drawn from what types of assessments.
  9. Understand that, although data is important, data alone does not define a student. Empathy and relationships matter.

Without question, this is asking an awful lot from teachers, particularly from those who never signed up for such “data-literate” priorities when they themselves first went through their own ed school experiences. But it isn’t too much to ask when one thinks of the students in their classrooms, what we expect of them, and the aspirations they may have for their own futures.

One can question the Common Core and its assessments and still believe in the need for data literacy. One can support the opt-out movement and still believe in data literacy. And one can demand the most stringent of student data safeguards and protections and still believe in data literacy for teachers.

At its core, data literacy is about improved teaching and improved learning. It is about further empowering teachers to do all they can to connect with that student or students who are struggling. It is about getting the most out of the classroom setting, and being able to demonstrate that the most has been achieved.

Testing has always been and will always be a key component of the K-12 learning experience. Regardless of what happens to a particular assessment instrument, assessments in the general sense will always be part of the learning process. It is the responsible thing to do to make sure those assessments are put to good use.

No, we don’t test kids for testing’s sake. We assess so we can improve the instructional process for a given class or child. And we can’t do that — or at least can’t do it well — if educators are not data literate.

In Search of That School Choice Unicorn

As most realize, this week is National School Choice Week. By organizers’ count, there will be more than 16,000 events this week across the country, with more than 230 local or state officials recognizing the event and wearing the trademark yellow scarves all in the name of choice.

Dear ol’ Eduflack was over on KNX 1070 NewsRadio in Los Angeles to discuss what school choice really meant. There, producers wanted to dig a little deeper than the traditional talking points, and try to learn what school choice really means for California families.

Surprisingly, California already seems to be close to an ideal when it comes to choice. Nearly one in four school-aged children is already enjoying school choice, with 9 percent going to private schools, 8 percent attending public charters, 5 percent going to magnets, and almost three percent choosing the homeschool option. It’s a relative cornucopia of K-12 school pathways. It’s a quarter of students (and their families) opting out of the traditional public school pathways and choosing another route seen as best for them and their young learners.

But questions from the show’s hosts demonstrate how school choice has become a quest for that edu-unicorn. That parents are choosing charter schools because it guarantees a better education, a better chance at graduation, and a better chance of getting into a good college. That families are choosing private schools because the teachers are just plain better there. That homeschooling ensures the most successful path of them all.

I’ll admit, charter schools are not at the top of the list of edu-topics Eduflack likes to talk about. In the current rhetorical frame, we forget that charters were originally intended as incubators to help improve the traditional public schools (and thus education for all students, and not just the select number who get into charters). We forget that parents originally chose charters because they were the “safer” option, and keeping kids safe was the top priority. We overlook that for every terrific charter school – like those in Democracy Prep – we also have a number of lousy charters. And we can’t miss that many charters promised to build a better mousetrap under the available frames, only to come back and tell voters that the only way they get those results is through a major influx of new tax dollars (despite never saying they needed to match traditional publics dollar for dollar to deliver the promised results).

So I took my time on KNX to correct a few things:

  • The research is mixed on the academic differences between charter schools and traditional publics. There are some studies that show a real difference, some that don’t. The ultimate answer lies in the specific charter school and its specific successes, not in it simply being a charter school.
  • Yes, charters do a good job graduating kids and moving them on to college. This is particularly true when one compares inner-city charters with the public high schools we used to call “drop-out factories.”
  • Private schools are indeed an option. But few families can afford to send their kids to the top private schools, even when vouchers were in place (and they never were in Cali). Even with vouchers, choice usually resulted in attendance at Catholic schools, not the top-tier privates attended by the children of presidents, governors, and senators. And those Catholic schools can also be hit or miss.
  • Before choosing a private school, parents need to realize that they are already paying for the traditional public schools and the charter schools already in their communities. Without vouchers, they get none of those tax dollars back, and then have to pay for private schools out of pocket, meaning they are paying twice for the same K-12 education.
  • Homeschooling is indeed a viable choice, but families must be realistic about what it entails. Homeschoolers will still be competing with other students when it comes to college admission. They largely still have to take the same standardized tests to get there. So it falls to parents to both develop and administer a high-quality instructional program that moves students successfully down those paths.

I don’t offer these points to discourage anyone. Eduflack did so to make sure that we see the whole picture when discussing our kids’ education and the options available to them. A great education can be had from even the most struggling of traditional public schools. A great charter school doesn’t necessarily work for every child. And writing a check to a private school doesn’t guarantee a good education at all.

Parents need to be educated consumers when it comes to their children’s education. They need to understand data about enrollment and student retention and student performance. They need to understand what is expected from educators in the school and how they are supported. They need to know what tests are taken AND how assessment data is used as part of the teaching process. And they need to determine what is most important to them – the general safety of their child, increased odds of getting into college, a diverse curriculum filled with art and non-core subjects, a disciplinarian approach that emphasizes respect, or something completely different.

We can’t find all of these items in one school. As parents, all we can do is search for the best learning options for our own kids. And we must recognize that the edu-unicorn — that one school that offers everything we every dreamed of and more — likely isn’t out there. School choice is about prioritization. Of all the factors, which is most important to the family? If we can’t have everything, what is the non-negotiable?

School Choice Week is ultimately about learning. It is about understanding the options and really knowing what each of those options mean when it comes to our kids and to our families. It doesn’t mean we need to make a new choice or choose a new path. It means we need to be vigilant about knowing what is available to our kids and what is best for their behaviors, learning styles, and long-term goals.



Do We Care About Education in the Prez Race?

A few weeks ago, Eduflack penned a piece for Education Post on how the presidential candidates from both parties are not talking about education issues (beyond some of the red meat on Common Core and college affordability), but probably should. Specifically, I urged a deeper discussion on issues like accountability, teacher education, and the federal/state role in education.

Earlier this week, ASCD released its weekly EdPulse poll, this time focused on what edu-issues ASCD readers wanted to see presidential candidates focus on. No surprise, college affordability came in first place with 26 percent. Student testing was a close second at 24 percent, and the new ESEA was at 23 percent (particularly interesting because we still don’t quite know what is in the new law). Following up the rear were teacher evaluations (7 percent), Common Core (4 percent), and charter schools (3 percent).

We can talk about the need for presidential candidates to talk about education, but the simple fact is the American voter doesn’t vote based on education issues. For decades, education has been an “also ran” when it comes to campaign policy issues. And nowhere is this clearer than in the most recent piece from the incomparable Rick Hess.

Over at Ed Week, Hess takes an interesting look at how public concern for education issues stacked up in presidential years 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012. In looking at the numbers, we see that education was the strongest issue in 2000. It should be of no surprise, then, that we elected (or the Supreme Court selected, based on your perspective) a president who honestly and enthusiastically focused on education issues.

Then we see the nosedive. A huge drop off in 2004, when NCLB rules the roost and people understood what presidential interest in education looked like at a policy level. Four years later didn’t fare much better, despite the efforts of Ed in ’08. And not much change in 2012 either.

Even in today in 2016, with all of the worries about Common Core and testing and college costs and federal oversteps and all of the things that go bump in the edu-night, education interest in the presidential campaigns is shaping up to be only about a third the priority it was in 2000.

It’s a sad fact … and sadly predictable. We will rally around a candidate who wants to build a giant wall around the country or some other ridiculous idea, but we won’t give a second thought to a candidate who makes public education a cornerstone of a campaign.

If the voters don’t prioritize education at the ballot boxes, we can’t expect candidates to give a damn.