A Family Engagement Advocate for EdSec!

Last week, Education Week published an interesting look ahead at what could be when a new Education Secretary is selected. In her piece, the always terrific Alyson Klein asks what might be if Hillary Clinton bucked tradition and selected, as her next U.S. secretary of education, an individual coming from the higher education side of the realm.

Historically, we are used to EdSecs coming from the K-12 perspective. That’s definitely true of the past four, with Rod Paige, Margaret Spellings, Arne Duncan, and the current EdSec John King all cutting their teeth on the mean streets of K-12. Before that, we had governors like Dick Riley and Lamar Alexander, who brought a policy perspective but whose educational lens — due to the nature of a state chief exec — was far more primary/secondary ed than higher education.

Sure, it is fun to throw out names and rank this state chief over that urban superintendent over this university president over that former governor or congressman, to talk about who the unions will give an approval to versus who some of the big money reform donors can live with. It can even be interesting to envision what an EdSec with a higher ed focus might bring to the bully pulpit when it comes to topics like student loans, for-profit education, and even the threatened reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

But what if maybe, just maybe, we went in a different direction? What if instead of looking at the two sides of the coin — P-12 and higher ed — we instead looked at the ridged edge that brings the heads and tails together? What if we took the cabinet search in a completely different direction, and instead looked for a parent voice, a family engagement advocate who could talk with some authority on the full continuum, from early childhood education through adult professional learning and all points in between?

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on the value of high-quality early childhood and the linkages between health and education …

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on K-12 issues well beyond “the test” and instead key in on what students should know and be able to do to succeed and how families can be a part of the learning process along with educators …

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on higher education issues, bringing real-life experiences to fights over student loans, free college, and gainful employment …

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on the role continuing education plays after finishing formal P-16 pathways, or about the importance of career and technical education, or about how education and labor can work together to address workforce readiness issues …

There is a reason groups like the National Assessment Governing Board insist of having specific parent voices on their boards. Parent and family advocates bring a particular focus to a range of education policy issues. They can be the link between practitioner and policymaker. And they can ensure the work focuses on both the inputs and the outcomes, with every action focused on how it impacts the learner.

Sure, we’ve had discreet projects like the Parent Information Resource Centers (PIRCs) that sought to give voice to such parents. And sure, a new EdSec could always appoint a special advisor for family engagement. But such an appointment can be empty. Without a formal voice, and without a formal budget, those special advisors can be hamstrung from bringing the best of ideas into practice.

So let’s forget this East Coast/West Coast style battle of K-12 and higher ed. Instead, let’s look to place the first honest-to-goodness parent advocate in the biggest chair on 400 Maryland Avenue. Let’s give the rostrum to a family voice who can work with teacher and policymaker alike, one who can see that P, K-12, and higher ed are deeply connected and should never be separated.

And if we can’t have such an EdSec, and we have to fall back on tradition, can that new EdSec at least create a new Assistant Secretary for Family Engagement position? Please? Pretty please?


Improving #TeacherEd for Today … and Tomorrow

Imagine if teacher preparation programs were focused on the doing, instead of just on time served. Educators already know the best learning happens when it is rooted in real-world problems and real-world engagements. So why aren’t prospective teachers learning in programs that are designed in the form of such challenges and that mirror the real work of real teachers?

Imagine if teacher preparation programs embraced individualized instruction. Educators already know that their young students arrive at the classroom with different levels of knowledge, different experiences and different preferred learning styles. Prospective teachers are no different than those they will one day teach. So why aren’t more teacher education programs focused on the learner, with programs based on the needs and preferences of that adult learner?

From my latest at US News & World Report, looking at how competency-based learning may be the future in teacher preparation

The Trump-ization of Local Edu-Politics

When Eduflack first ran for local school board six years ago, I remember questioning my own sanity. I spent countless hours knocking on doors, wanting to talk education policy with voters who just weren’t looking for such deep dives. Instead, they just wanted the promise that our schools would stay as strong as they had been, that taxes wouldn’t grow astronomically, and that their kids would continue to have the same opportunities that students before them did. They wanted soundbite politics, like they got in other political campaigns.

As a member of the Falls Church (VA) Public Schools Board, I served as both vice chair and chairman. I spent almost as much time working with the public and the schools as I did in my day job. Much of that time was spent talking with families about their own experiences and challenges. And much of it was informing the community of the limited role of a local school board – to approve an annual budget, to hire a superintendent (if necessary), and to review the performance of said superintendent each year. Many failed to realize that a good school board member was one who let the superintendent, the administrators, the principals, and the teachers do their respective jobs. It was to provide the resources to those entrusted with our kids; it wasn’t to micromanage every action, every decision, and every thought that occurred in the district.

I was reminded of this last week in seeing the horrible actions coming out of Bridgeport, CT, where an exemplary superintendent by just about all measures resigned from a challenging urban district. There, the supe didn’t resign because she received a better job elsewhere, or because she struggled managing the budget, or even because of test scores or student behavior issues. No, she resigned because of the school board. One particular board member, actually. There, a member of the board of education dramatically overstepped her role, and  allegedly made it her mission to regularly harass and malign a superintendent who was doing a strong job. Playing the role of the bully, the school board member has now dealt a painful blow to every child and every teacher in that district.

I’d like to chalk it up to a once-in-a-blue-moon experience, but I hear too many stories of school board members who fail to understand their roles, seeing the board as an opportunity to stick it to a supe they disagree with or dislike, or general seeing board service as a stepping stone to world domination. In many of these instances, we see local school board races now taking on the tone, tenor, and vitriol of a Donald Trump presidential campaign, with those seeking a school board seat hurling insults, falsehoods, and blame, all in the hope of securing a job that pays nothing and demands long, thankless hours.

In fact, I’m seeing such a Trump-istation of local edu-politics in my own local school district in New Jersey. Earlier this year, Eduflack wrote about the growing discord in my community on the future of our highly rated public schools. That community infighting has now spilled into next month’s school board election, with some candidates doing their very best to “make WW-P schools great again.”

Most communities would celebrate being a high-ranking school district, particularly in a competitive state like New Jersey. According to the most recent high school ratings in NJ Monthly, our community’s two high schools are ranked number 2 and number 9 in the state. Yet we have two candidates, running as a ticket for school board, condemning the current district leadership for “lowered educational standards and learning.” As an “example” of such mismanagement, they note that “High School South was always ranked in the top 10 high schools in NJ. Now South is ranked 35.”

It’s a terrific soundbite for two candidates seeking to run as change agents and against the system. It’s also a soundbite that warrants four Pinocchios by any political fact checker. That 35th-ranked high school is actually the ninth best high school in the state. But we shouldn’t let the facts get in the way, should we?

This Trumpian duo is also quick to attack “teacher resignations,” noting that educators leaving the job are a reflection that “teachers are unhappy, and leaving in droves.” Of course, these highly educated individuals don’t note how many of those teacher resignations are actually retirements, earned by teachers after decades of service. And they certainly don’t note that many teachers postponed retirement after the collapse of markets (and retirement plans) in 2008, and that we just happen to see the markets now back up to pre-2008 levels. Such distinctions just muddy a good “damn the establishment” talking point.

Sadly, the campaign has also taken on the tenor of a Trump rally, as the two look to scapegoat and blame others for perceived wrongs. The superintendent is to blame for focusing on social-emotional learning and the whole child, and is regularly attacked because he — <shudder> — actually hires administrators to help manage a complex district. The state is to blame for taking away “final exams,” (yes, they are actually campaigning to “restore final exams.”) Technology is blamed for many of our ills, with the added wrinkle of the candidates wanting to “focus on children as individual learners,” but failing to note the very reason technology is used as part of a strong personalized learning program in a district like ours.

The most egregious of the attacks and scapegoating is directed at supposed bleeding heart parents who are concerned about the mental health and general well being of their kids and of students throughout the district. These candidates and those who stand up for him actually have attacked the notion AP classes should be available to all those who wish to do the work. Instead, they say it should just be for the elite of the elite.  The candidates accuse misguided parents for watering down the AP program and costing kids like theirs a chance to get into Harvard or Princeton. The candidates allege that our community has so destroyed the value of AP classes that’s 80 percent of the district’s students are in honors language arts classes, when the actual number is half that (just 40 percent). I guess it is just far easier to attack “those kids” who are devaluing honors classes and denying “our kids” what is rightfully theirs.

Typically, Eduflack chooses to stay out of such local education politics, wanting to keep my views to myself. It’s a tough job serving on a local school board. Those who choose to pursue such public service have to do it eyes wide open, for the right reasons. They have to do so seeking to speak for the community and do whatever is necessary to support a superintendent and all of those who work for the school district. And they have to do so fully not understanding what is — and what is not — the appropriate role for a school board member.

So it is unfortunate when one sees the negativity, blame, and vitriol playing out on the national presidential campaign stage seep into the local edu-politics in a community that would be the envy of most cities and towns across the United States. It is sad to see candidates put forward incomplete stories, whispered innuendo, and downright falsehoods to try to justify a narrative of a school system in crisis. And it is disheartening to see individuals try to heighten an “us versus them” thinking in a community where all should be focused on our kids, what we do well, and how we can do it even better TOGETHER.

Hopefully, such political shenanigans are an anomaly. Hopefully, we see that positivity trumps negativity and that a “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy beats out “they are out to deny us what is ours” approach. Hopefully, we put the interests of kids above the personal grievances and petty politics of the adults in the room. Hopefully.

But the recent actions in Bridgeport tell us that “hopefully” isn’t a synonym for likely. Sadly, we may soon see many more Donald Trumps in waiting using local school boards to practice the politics of blame, negativity, hatred, and lies to forward their own personal agendas. And it will be great superintendents, exemplary educators, and our own kids who will ultimately pay the price.

A Personal Dream, Shattered

Those who know Eduflack well know that one of my life dreams is owning and running a small-town weekly newspaper. Perhaps it was having my first written work published in the Sharon (MA) Advocate when I was seven years old. Maybe it was all my dealings with weekly newspapers in West Virginia while working for U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd. Or it could be I just love how newspapers remain a hub of community in small towns across the country.

A few years back, I came really close to buying a weekly pub in Connecticut (after kicking the tires on another one in Tennessee). But the timing just wasn’t right. Don’t you hate when life just gets in the way?

We’ve all seen those contests every few months from someone who is raffling off a bed and breakfast. Write an essay, submit a $200 fee, and you could win your own B&B. I’d look at those ads and wonder, who wants all of the work of actually running a B&B (and having all of those strangers in your house all the time)?

Earlier this year, though, I read an article on a similar contest. Only instead of a B&B, the price was the Hardwick Gazette, a small-town weekly newspaper in northern Vermont. I immediately romanticized the idea of owning the Gazette. I penned  a beautiful essay. I was the next publisher of the Hardwick Gazette.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. A few months ago, the owners alerted all contestants that not enough submissions were in to make the contest go. So they extended the deadline. Then they added a Kickstarter campaign to try and add enough charitable contributions to make the deal worthwhile for the family. Today, I got word that none of those worked as intended, and the contest was cancelled.

As they noted in their email, “The quality of essays received to this point is outstanding. I am heartened by them. The essayists have journalistic and business experience. They convey an appreciation for independent, local journalism, an understanding of community and a knowledge that hard work and thick skin go with the territory. Their passion for newspapers shines through.” But it just wanted meant to be.

I wish the Hardwick Gazette the best of luck as they now try to find a traditional buyer for their paper. I hope they get what they are looking for. I just need to see it as a dream deferred. There may still be a newspaper in my future yet.



Let’s Mess with Texas Teacher Ed

Over at the Houston Chronicle, yours truly has a new commentary on the challenges of teacher retention both across the United States and specifically in Texas and what the Lone Star State can do to improve the teacher pipeline.

As I write:

When it comes to many of the major factors driving teacher shortages, Texas is no different than most states. The politics surrounding teaching and the demands on teachers aren’t too different in Texas than they are in other states, particularly since Texas isn’t part of the day-to-day, vitriolic churn of Common Core. Yet retention problems seem far more significant than in other states.

One reason is teacher preparation. Texas currently has a higher percentage of inexperienced teachers than other states. And with high turnover rates, that percentage of new teachers continues to climb. In its zeal to address teacher shortages, the state has opened its doors to a range of low-quality, new, and alternative teacher preparation efforts, resulting in vast discrepancies as to the rigor of teacher prep here.

I also highlight three things that Texas can do to boost teacher education and teacher retention, including creating a clear set of performance measures for pre-service teachers, better root teacher education in clinical practice, and invest in strong mentoring for new teachers.

Give it a read. I promise it’ll be worth your time. You can find it here.


A Diverse Group at #EPNL2016

Over the weekend, Eduflack wrote on the personal value I found in engaging and learning from a group diverse in its thinking and its experiences. In the coming weeks and months, I’m sure to reflect here on some of the specific lessons I learned at the Stanford Graduate School of Business’ Executive Program for Nonprofit Leaders (EPNL). But I wanted to share some of the demographics on the program and its range of views.

In terms of participant citizenship,  we had 31 from the United States; nine from Australia; two each from Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, and Singapore; and representatives from Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Mauritius, New Zealand, Nigeria, and Peru.

Industries represented included 16 from social services, eight from education, six from both art & culture and healthcare, three from energy/environment and investing/philanthropy, two from food/agriculture, and representatives from economic development, government, media, and technology. Also a huge number (7) who simply claimed they represented “other.”

Five represented organizations with annual budgets less than $500k, 13 from orgs with a $500k-$1M budget, 14 in the $1M to $5M range, 20 in the $5M to $50M range, and three with annual budgets of more than $50 million.

Age was also interesting distributed. Eight were under the age of 35, with 12 between 35 and 39. Twelve of us were between the ages of 40 and 44, with another 8 between 45 and 49. And 15 were over the age of 50. Women comprised a (slim) majority of the group.

For those curious, here is the 2016 EPNL2016 class. I’d suggest we play Where’s Waldo, but it seems pretty easy to find dear ol’ Eduflack in this pic.


Cultivating #STEM Teachers in Michigan

It is only because of the commitment of states like Michigan that there is now a critical mass of educators experienced enough to mentor others. Collectively, Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellows demonstrate the potential and power of the opportunity for teachers to learn from peers, one example of the way in which teachers at various points in their career path can and should enjoy incentives to collaborate and lead. When teachers collaborate with each other, they leverage the investment of time and preparation each teacher has made into a return for thousands of students beyond their own classrooms.

Woodrow Wilson Foundation EVP and COO Stephanie J. Hull in the Detroit News