Engagin’ in Austin

We’ve talked about SXSWedu in this space before. It is part Woodstock, part prom for all of those who spend their waking hours thinking about education issues and how technology and innovation and social change can influence what is happening at our educational institutions.

Well, I’m thrilled to announce that Eduflack will be speaking at this year’s SXSWedu conference in Austin in March. On Tuesday, March 10, I’ll be leading a solo session on the importance of parental engagement. More specifically, my Forget Leaning In, We Need to Dadprove session looks at how we “need to inspire a generation of men to realize what they can and should do as dads, being active in their children’s lives and involved in their learning processes.”

The presentation will be based on my Dadprovement book, which examined the topic from about as personal a perspective as possible, me and my own family.

We’ve all heard the stories. Women are told they can’t have it all, so they need to “lean in,” and all but forget about families if they want to be successes. Men pretend they have both, but largely go through the motions on the home front (or on forums like Facebook” to appear like the ideal. And what happens when a father falls from a high-profile position? He inevitably announces he is departing for “family reasons,” until we can regroup and get back on that career ladder.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. And it shouldn’t. When we talk achievement gaps and student learning outcomes and college/career ready and our hopes and dreams for our kids, we can only help our children achieve it when we are all truly active and engaged parents. We need to be active, invested participants in the process, recognizing that parenthood is the most important job we will have, or at least the job with the greatest potential impact.

If you’re down in Austin for SXSWedu, be sure to check out my session. I’m the solo act for the 1:10 slot that Tuesday. You’ll never forgive yourself if you miss it. (and I’ll even have some free books for those who check it out)

Free College, With Caveats

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama announced his plans to provide all “hard working” students with two years of free community college. But such a grand promise comes with a great number of questions, questions that we just aren’t getting a lot of answers to at this point.

Over at Education World, Eduflack opines on some of the many questions that come out of a promise to free college. Impact on dual-enrollment programs and proprietary colleges? Improved quality of community college programs? Impact on Pell? Future of competency-based education? And are we putting the emphasis on the right higher ed items?

As I write at Education World:

Will this be another good idea that only gets tossed aside because it lacks the funding and the changes it calls for are too hard (or too ambiguous) for institutions and policymakers to take on? Or is it just the innovation needed to begin to shake up higher education policy and place greater power and focus on the students, and not just on the institutions?

Give it a read. And please, offer answers if you have any …

Jeb Bush and the Politics of Education Policy

Over at the New Yorker this week, there is a terrific deep dive from Alec MacGillis on former Florida Gov. and potential GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush and his deep work in education reform, both in Florida and nationally.

MacGillis does a great job of really telling the tale of the breadth of Bush’s efforts in education, how his thinking has evolved, and how one action or issue led to his involvement in another. It’s definitely worth the read.

And dear ol’ Eduflack is included in the piece:

Some friends and associates saw personal motivations behind Bush’s initiatives. Patrick Riccards, who, as counsel for the federal government’s National Reading Panel, discussed education reform with Bush, said, “As the father of Hispanic kids, you become far more sensitive to disparities—kids who look like your kids not getting the skills they need or getting into the right colleges.” (Bush’s children attended private schools in Miami and Jacksonville.) Others detected a competitive desire to surpass his brother’s agenda in Texas.

I’m speaking personally in the above. As the father of two Latino kids, talk of achievement gaps grew far more personal to me. It was no longer just a rhetorical point, but it affected my kids and kids just like them. Having engaged some with Jeb over the years, I have to believe it has had the same impact on him. If not, he wouldn’t be as passionate about the topic as he is.

Definitely take the time to read MacGillis’ piece in the New Yorker. There is a lot flying around about Jeb and Common Core, but this is the first piece I’ve seen in a good long while that really takes a thorough look at a complex issue.

Common Core Test Camp?

One of Eduflack’s favorite streams on Twitter these days is @ThanksCommonCore (also with #thankscommoncore hashtag). With each passing day, it seems more and more that leads to the potential downfall of western civilization is being blamed on Common Core.

We, of course, know it isn’t actually Common Core’s fault. Those who actually take the time to read and understand what is in the standards realize Common Core that Common Core really isn’t to blame for all of the horrors in the world. And neither are the Common Core tests. A good assessment measures the progress of student learning. It isn’t something that is prepped or crammed for the evening before.

But back to today’s story. Over the weekend, the edu-family decided to check out a summer camp fair at the local shopping mall. Being new to the area in New Jersey, we wanted to see what local day camps were available for the summer, hoping to avoid the “free-range children” approach we took to last summer.

And much of what we saw was what we expected. Several nature camps. A number offering Minecraft and robotics. Camps run by the YMCA. Fabulously expensive day camps run by local private schools. Even summer camps run by our daughter’s gymnastics school. But I was sucked in by a banner from a local “learning center” trumpeting PARCC Preparation Camp.

Yep, you read that right. We now have folks looking to turn a summer buck cashing in on parents’ fears about the dreaded Common Core test.

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“Spaces are limited!”

The marketing materials go on to say:

We know PARCC is on everyone’s mind. We are actively working to make sure our students are prepared for whatever the test throws at them this March and May. If you’re not sure what you can do to help your child prepare, come speak with us. We can diagnose your child to see where there may be some areas of weakness and put together a game plan on how to fill those gaps in understanding.

That’s right. For all those parents worried about the dreaded Common Core test, have we got a product to prey on you. And we do it with the big logo and image that PARCC uses, so you think it is official. Worried the test will doom your kid to a life of flipping burgers? Have we got a program for you. Concerned the neighbor kids will do better than yours? Enroll today. Fear that some of the top public schools in the nation are falling down on the job? We are here to help.

They also offer to supplement the Common Core Test Prep Camp with other programs to better your kids in English, math, literature, creative writing, and critical thinking. And they throw in essay writing to ensure your kids can get into college once they’ve mastered that dreaded Common Core test.

Eduflack realizes that companies looking to profit on changes in education is nothing new. A decade ago, I spent far too much time dealing with new companies looking to cash in on the Reading First largesse. It seemed everyone had a new product “aligned” with scientifically based reading, and was more than happy to take money from the state, a school district, or a parent to ensure that all kids were reading. Unfortunately, too many of them were smoke and mirrors, magical elixirs and silver bullets that had no basis in what works and just wanted to score a quick buck while the going was good.

And now we see that in Common Core. Everything from Common Core-aligned (and Star Wars-themed) workbooks for parents to purchase to now CCSS test prep camps. It’s just shameful how often we look to take advantage of the legitimate concerns of parents and teachers to make a quick score and pick up a few more bucks in the process.

My kids won’t be going to Common Core camp this summer. There is likely Minecraft and gymnastics camps in our future. Our son (a third grader) also wants to go to one that will help teach him to make his own Lego movie. But he won’t be cramming on things that most likely aren’t even found in the Common Core State Standards.

And they may even go to one of those nature camps. Should they get sunburn, I’m just going to blame Common Core.

Capturing the Magic

In education, we tend to focus most of our attentions on all that is wrong with our schools. By emphasizing the problems and trumpeting the shortcomings, we thing we can drive greater attention to potential solutions and possible fixes.

In the process, we tend to drive out meaningful conversations with the buzzing white noise of negativity. We simply don’t take the time to celebrate the successes, examine the promising practice, and acknowledge a job well done.

Last week, Eduflack had the opportunity to spend the day at Episcopal Academy, a terrific P-12 independent school in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. The reason for my visit? To observe and help with the school’s J-Term, an interdisciplinary program that the school’s high schoolers undertake.

The projects were fascinating, demonstrating just the sort of teamwork, collaboration, and integrated, project-based learning that we all seem to seek from a 21st century learning environment. More importantly, learners are engaged in new ways, bringing together what they’ve learned in other academic subjects and applying them in ways that align with the personal interests and passions.

Don’t believe me? Check out some of the items that have come out of this year’s J-Term. Tools like videos that look at:

More of their work can be found on Twitter, with the hashtag #EAJterm. And it is definitely worth checking out.

Some may say that there isn’t much a “public” school can learn from an independent school. They would be wrong. What drives students to learn is universal. Great teaching is universal. And innovative approaches to learning is universal. We may not be able to replicate down to the letter, but we can look to all schools – traditional publics, charters, independents, and parochial – for new and interesting ways to approach teaching and learning.

Many thanks to the teachers and students who let me share in the J-Term experience. (Particularly to those students who reinforced that Instagram is king with today’s students, Twitter is still a major driver, and Vine isn’t the “be all” that some say for the upcoming generation of college students.) And special thanks to Dr. T.J. Locke, the head of Episcopal Academy and a truly inspirational educator and leader. I learned a great deal during my day on campus, and seeing J-Term at work rejuvenated my desire to better focus on the positives and the truly transformative efforts underway in education today.

Edu-Deja Vu All Over Again?

Nearly 20 years ago, Eduflack remembers working on Capitol Hill and in political campaigns when the “hot” thing was calling for the dissolution of the U.S. Department of Education. The Contract with America was the law of the land. A new Republican Congress was seeking to scale back, make cuts, and return more money and power to the American people. Big government was a dirty word (or a dirty two words).

If I were 150 pounds heavier and had hair again, I’d swear I was back in the mid-1990s. Catching up on some evening reading last night, I saw a post from New Hampshire Public Radio detailing U.S. Senator Rand Paul’s visit to the Granite State. We all know why the junior senator from Kentucky is visiting the first presidential primary state in the union. He has his eyes on a bigger prize that being an elected representative for just the people of the Bluegrass State.

According to NHPR, Paul visited a Manchester charter school and called for “a rollback of common core, the repeal of no child left behind, and the elimination of the department of education.”

I won’t ask why NHPR chose to decapitalize Common Core, NCLB, or the U.S. Department of Education. That’s an English lesson for another day.

And I won’t ask how, or better, why, a Libertarian candidate for President of the United States would be take a position that the President should take a leading position in demanding governors take specific action with regard to state law (i.e. Common Core).

But I will ask why we are back on the refrain that the republic will be saved, achievement gaps will be closed, and all will be well with American society if only we could get rid of that pesky U.S. Department of Education. When every national survey shows education is NOT an issue that folks cast their national election (Congress, president) votes on, why do we continue to go after the folks on Maryland Avenue?

I get that bureaucracy isn’t popular, and Feds are an easy target. And I can appreciate trying to tap into “testing rage” by blaming the federal government and its call for accountability when it comes to educating ALL students. But is this really where we want to plant to the great change, the great libertarian, the great states’ rights, the great power of the people flag?

Even more importantly, do we want an education system without a U.S. Department of Education? One where:

  • Student loans are run and administered by banks, rather than by the U.S. Department of Education
  • There are no national safeguards to ensure special education rights are protected for all who qualify
  • Civil rights protections for students, particularly those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, will vary greatly
  • A third grade education in Massachusetts is the equivalent of a seventh grade education in Mississippi
  • There are no national incubators for education research and innovation, as we can find in the RELs and through IES
  • There is no real oversight of diploma mills taking students’ money and issuing worthless college degrees
  • Equity and opportunity shifts from every student graduating college and career ready to students in many states having equal access to lousy public schools

Let’s remember, the Feds are still responsible for less than one thin dime for every dollar spent on public education, Some may dislike ED’s growing use of the bully pulpit or of competitive grant programs, but true power still rests with the states. And none of us should forget it.

Could we get by without a U.S. Department of Education? Probably. But do we just want to get by? Probably not.

It’s frustrating that we can’t have meaningful national discussions of education on the campaign trail. And it is plum irritating that we are resorting back to this red meat, half-thought rhetorical throwback. Voters, particularly families, deserve better.