Montana Gets It; They Really, Really Get It

So, what does a community do when it wants all-day kindergarten for its students?  How do you trigger this sort of reform when the State Legislature has shot it down in previous years?  If you are the people of Montana, you build a cadre of advocates, recruit credible and relatable spokespeople, and deliver your messages in the most effective way possible to reach your intended targets.

The Billings Gazette relays the facts —

So what is the communications story they are telling?  Four simple things:
* You need to put a human face on the call for reform.  Focusing on the parents and kindergarteners affected by the State Legislature’s decision to strip all-day K from the agenda is effective.  No question about it.  How can you deny a fresh-faced (or voiced) five-year-old and his mother access to education?  You can’t.
* Have a specific ask.  Montanans aren’t just mobilizing around the concept that kindergarten is a good thing.  They have a specific ask.  They are calling on state residents to support all-day K and demand the Legislature provide the funding for it.  Simple issue.  Easy to understand.  And every stakeholder knows what their specific role should be.
* Don’t stand alone.  Concerned parents in Montana joined with education groups and unions to advocate for reform.  This puts a squeeze play on the Legislature, with multiple audiences demanding the same action.  When it comes to reform, better to form a strong chorus than sing alone against the white noise of the status quo.
* Effectively deliver your message.  This coalition didn’t just sit on the steps of the state capitol and shout for change.  They took to the airwaves.  And they did so in one of the more effective ways to reach citizens and decisionmakers in a state like Montana — they went on the radio.  Their message will be carried across the state, again and again, until folks are satisfied with the resolution.

So who wins?  It is too early to tell if the four- and five-year-olds of Montana will actually get their all-day K, but the Governor looks great, seen as an education reformer blocked by the Legislature.  The parents and ed groups and unions who are pushing this look pretty good too, demonstrating a desire to reform, doing what it takes to improve the schools, and doing so in a manner that the average mom or dad can get behind.  They definitely earn an A for communications strategy in this class.

Let this serve as a primer for all those other states grappling with the great universal pre-K and and all-day K debates.


Wither DC?

Yesterday, DC Public Schools announced “major” changes to their high school curriculum.  At a time when high schools across the country are focusing on improving rigor, offering college credits through early colleges, and holding schools accountable for preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs, DCPS has decided to take a slightly different tact — devalue high school by letting students choose a four or five year track for completion.

About a week after it was announced DC was receiving $122 million to improve its schools, yesterday DCPS officials send a clear signal their students are not up to the challenge.  Every state in the nation has signed on to the National Governors Association’s graduation rate compact — including a formula built on the agreement that high school is a four-year experience.  But it seems DCPS isn’t quite up to the national standard.

The rhetorical meaning of this announcement is earth shattering.  After decades of sentiment that DCPS is lagging behind its neighbors in Virginia and Maryland, DC schools has now sung from the mountain tops that DC students can’t measure up.  High school students can decide if they feel they are up for the four-year plan or the five-year plan (and for giggles, they threw in a three-year plan as well).

While, in the words of DCPS spokesperson Audrey Williams (as appearing in the Examiner) this announcement means DCPS students can learn in a “time frame they feel comfortable in,” the words say far more to those looking to improve our nation’s high schools.  While requiring four years of math, English, science, and social studies, DCPS does not believe its students can do it in expected four years.

What else is it saying?
* Many DCPS students are not up to the rigorous curriculum soon coming to them courtesy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
* DCPS doesn’t believe its teachers are to up to effectively teaching all the students in the system
* Students struggling to demonstrate proficiency will now decide how long they want to stay in high school
* DCPS isn’t up to fulfilling the same graduation rate compact every state in the union has endorsed
* DC residents will now start high school with a leg down on their neighboring school districts

If DC is any indication, it is no wonder that a recent NSBA survey shows that one in four urban teachers don’t believe their students will succeed in college.  These teachers have given up on their students before they ever step into the classroom.
Now is the time for DC parents, teachers, and students to stand up and say NO.  If the intention is to boost college graduation rates for DC students, the focus should be on a rigorous curriculum that prepares students for the challenges and opportunities of college.  What’s next — five years of high school leading to six or seven years of college?

While well meaning, DCPS’ announcement sends the wrong message to all stakeholders looking to improve DC’s schools.  DCPS’ public focus should be on rigor, preparedness, relevance, and focus.  Fifth-year seniors should be the rare exception, not an easy-to-make choice.


A Bold Proposition for the Big Easy

After just returning from a trip to New Orleans, I was struck by the public image New Orleans’ public schools have.  To date, they have run through the gamut of all the reforms one tends to propose when trying to fix a broken school system — including a brash, take-no-prisoners superintendent, state takeover, and the integration of charter schools — with no success.  Without doubt, the public schools in the Big Easy have been through a great deal, even without Katrina, and fixing them is no easy task.  So the million-dollar question — how do you improve the schools, the quality of their instruction, and their public image in one bold stroke?

Bold questions often yield bolder answers.  Without doubt, New Orleans is viewed as a district on the brink, or beyond the brink, of disaster.  No matter what action they take, what reforms they enact, the public view is the public schools are beyond salvation.  No lessons in rhetoric or clever media relations tricks are going to help them now, right?

So why not introduce the “lost beyond lost” school district with the darling of school reform — KIPP?  A few weeks ago, I wrote how KIPP was one of the truly great ed reform communications stories.  And their influx of new money puts them at the forefront of the school reform agenda.

This seems like a natural.  The State of Louisiana turns over the entire New Orleans school system to KIPP.  Every school, every building, every teacher, every dollar.  KIPP then implements its instructional programs and teacher trainings across the K-12 system, applying the lessons learned in Houston, Washington, New York, and other cities to the struggling Big Easy.  KIPP gets the entire district’s operating budget, full authority to manage the district, and five years to demonstrate improvement. 

It may sound like a silly proposition, or it may be just the sort of bold thinking New Orleans and its students needs these days.  With a KIPP education comes KIPP communications, and a chance for residents and the education community to witness a true school turnaround step by step in the media.  Certainly, local and national media would scrutinize ever step taken, but if KIPP succeeds, and its recent media coverage suggests it just could, it would stand as the gold standard in education reform, with schools, districts, and states clamoring for their own KIPP programs.

It could be a genuine public relations coup — for New Orleans, for KIPP, and for the ed reform agenda as a whole. 

Education Campaigning, Democratic Style

Unlike their Republican competitors, Democrats have been campaigning on education issues for decades.  Building off of Tip O’Neill’s adage that all politics was local, the Democrats have long focused on their local schools and their local school districts.  And with the local teachers unions offering organizational support, telephone banks, and scads of votes, campaigning on education issues has been a no brainer.

Certainly, the Democratic field will soon be deferring to the NEA and AFT on their education platforms.  As we saw in Education Week a few weeks ago, today’s Dem contenders have to go back 10 or 20 years to cite their commitment to education, and that’s even with Hillary and Obama sitting on the Senate Education Committee.  But if they are going to break through the white noise of typical union ed policy, they need to be bold and connect with those on the front lines, not their DC representatives.

For the record, I am the son of a long-time NEA school teacher.  In 1990, my mother walked the picket lines in West Virginia for two weeks.  And I never saw her prouder of being a teacher than during that 11-day exercise of civic duties.

And I know, as a former political operative, the value the NEA and AFT can play for a political candidate, particularly one on a national stage.  So I ask the Democratic field — Hillary and Obama, Edwards and Richardson, and the rest of the pack — to be strong, be valiant and stand up for education reform, not just for union education.

To that end, Eduflack has a five-point plan for our Democratic presidential candidates to frame education as a key component of their campaigns.  For most, they can’t speak of their work at the school district or state level.  But all can talk about education improvement for all.

1.  We all must commit to improve our schools.  We cannot and should not simply protect the status quo.  That means having hard coversations with the teachers unions and pushing them and school administrators to make hard decisions.  Sacrifices today can yield improvements tomorrow. 

2. Additional funding does not directly result in improved achievement.  For every carrot, there is a stick.  If we are to increase NCLB spending (and we should, particularly to get effective teachers in the classroom), we need to ensure that such funding increases are focused on proven programs, improved assessments, and effective interventions.  As a nation, we will pay more if we see the results.

3. National standards level the playing field.  Regardless of who controls Congress or the White House, no one should be afraid of national education standards.  Such standards offer a promise of equity in all of our schools.  For those traditional blue states, and the urban centers located in them, national standards ensure that all students, regardless of their hometown, race, or socioeconomic status, are taught and measured compared to every other student in the country.  That equal field only helps when it comes to college, to jobs, and to life.

4. The time has come for Democrats to push the unions.  Can anyone honestly say that our schools wouldn’t benefit from teacher improvement.  HQT provisions in NCLB are fine, but the NCLB Commission got it right — we need to focus on effective teachers, not just qualified ones.  Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs out there, but intellectually and emotionally.  We need to do everything possible to support those teachers on the front lines.  But we also need to recognize that not everyone is cut out for the challenge.  Our schools need an assessment/improvement/mentoring model for all teachers.  Good teachers will thrive.  Those not destined to teach can move on with their professional lives.

5. Education reform is a shared responsibility.  Meaningful change is not just left to the teachers or the national education organizations.  Just as Hillary Clinton wrote about it taking a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to educate one.  Improving our schools requires teamwork.  Teachers and parents, business and community leaders, local, state, and federal officials all play a role in identifying, implementing, and assessing meaningful, results-based reform.  Shared responsibility results in shared success.

Education is an easy topic for today’s Democratic candidates.  But now is not the time to sing exclusively from the union hymnals.  Democrats were a key part in getting NCLB implemented across the country, and Democratic presidential candidates can continue the push for results-based education reform by building on the foundations of NCLB and pushing for shared responsibility, shared desire to improve, and a shared commitment to increase funding for our schools … as long as it is spent on proven programs, training, and intervention.

Education Campaigning, Republican Style

For those Republican candidates currently pursuing the GOP presidential nominations, education seems to be the farthest thing from their campaign stump speech.  For decades, GOPers chose not to campaign on education (with President George W. Bush being the long exception), believing it was an issue that always should be left to local decisionmakers and subject to local control.

But poll after poll shows that education is a top concern for just about everyone — soccer mom, purple stater, etc.  So in our post-NCLB era, how exactly does a legitimate Republican candidate talk about education.  Rudy can discuss his management of the New York Public Schools.  Huckabee can talk about improving education in Arkansas, as Romney can in Massachusetts.  But for many candidates, legislative votes don’t translate into a policy platform.  And with Republicans turning on NCLB, it is important to have strong rhetoric that matches voter sentiment on education reform.

For that reason, Eduflack is offering its top five recommendations to Republican presidential hopefuls.  Backed by the overall belief that NONE should back away from NCLB, here are five ways for Guliani, McCain, Romney, Huckabee, and the rest to frame their education policy thinking:

1.  National standards benefit the nation.  Such standards don’t mean we are denying local control.  They empower our local districts to remain competitive in their state, across the nation, and throughout the world.  National standards, both for students and teachers, are the only way today’s students can succeed in tomorrow’s global economy.

2. Invest in education R&D.  We all understand the value of investing in medical or technology R&D.  Now is the time to invest in research focused on improving our schools and educational quality in our classrooms.  Such investment is key to triggering true innovation at the state or national level, leading to improved economies, better jobs, and better lives.

3. Respect the practitioners.  It is easy for some to say our schools have failed because our teachers have failed.  If any Republican wants to engender change in our schools, they need to respect the teachers delivering the curriculum.  They are on the front lines.  Without their support, reform will fall flat, destined for a garbage heap of good but failed ideas.

4. Don’t fear additional spending.  NCLB scared off many a Republican, particularly with increased federal education spending.  The feds are still only responsible for about 8 cents of every dollar spent on public K-12 education.  Additional funding is good for the system, as long as we are spending it on research-proven instruction and improvements we know will boost student achievement.

5. Focus on what works.  For decades, our schools have been bombarded with the latest in snakeoils and silver bullets.  Today’s educators want to see what works in schools like theirs, with kids lke theirs.  NCLB is all about replicable school reforms.  Now is the time to spotlight what is going right in your hometown or your home state, and use it as the model for why we need to continue federal education reforms.  Many of today’s improvements are directly tied to NCLB efforts.  Take credit for it.

These may be common sense, they may be simple, but they are effective.  By connecting with teachers and parents, focusing on the positives, the successes and the future, and demonstrating respect for those we are asking more of, a candidate can truly win minds and influence voters.  It is simple politics, but one with a high upside.

Can Reading Recover?

It is like the perfect storm for reading instruction.  The final IG report on Reading First implementation.  The ramp-up for RF reauthorization.  And now a review of Reading Recovery on the What Works Clearinghouse website.  I’ll admit, when I first saw the Reading Recovery report on WWC, I had to look again to make sure I was reading it correctly.

I waited patiently to see how long it would take for the conflict between RR and RF to make its way into the media.  It was only a matter of days.  Education Week posted a piece on the disparity on its website earlier this week.  And Eduwonk reflected on the debate earlier today.

Full disclosure, I was a consultant to the National Reading Panel throughout its entire lifespan.  And I remember clearly the discussions about Reading Recovery.  Their presentations to the Panel.  The review of their research base.  And the dialogue on how Reading Recovery aligned with the the charge placed on the NRP.

Education Week seems to be painting this to show that WWC, and thus the Institute for Education Sciences, is contradicting Reading First.  After all, WWC reviewed the research on Reading Recovery, and deemed it an effective program in teaching children to read, while RF has allegedly denied use of its funds for RR adoption.

As the media begins to dissect this issue (and I am sure they will), they need to remember there are clear distinctions between the intents of WWC, RF, and NRP.

The NRP was charged with looking at the existing research base and determining what components include a strong research base, could be put to use immediately in the schools, and could be implemented at scale.  That last piece — scalability — is essential in understanding this issue.  While RR has a research base (I’ll reserve judgment on the strength of the research itself), it has never been viewed as a truly scalable solution.  To many, RR is one-to-one intervention.  Can we really expect all of our elementary schools to implement a one-to-one instructional model?

Reading First was designed to take the findings of the NRP — the need for research-based programs built on the foundations of phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension — and empower our states, districts, and schools to put such research-based programs into practice in classrooms throughout the nation.  Regardless of what one thinks about the effectiveness of implementation or the motives of some of the players, the mission of RF is one we all should share.  RF is about ensuring that every classroom and every child receive access to research-based instruction proven effective in teaching children to read.  A mouthful, yes, but it is a promise that our classrooms would no longer serve as instructional test tubes, and that every student has a right to be a proficient reader, and every school has an obligation to fulfill that right.

WWC was designed to collect, screen, and identify the effectiveness of educational interventions.  Essentially, it validates the research, looking comprehensively at the design, analysis, and reporting of the data.  A simple explanation for a complex process.

So what does all this mean?  How does one really communicate the differences and not simply lump them all together?  Some key rhetorical points to consider:

* After all these years (we are now approaching the seventh anniversary of the NRP’s release) the findings of the National Reading Panel have withstood the criticisms, the character attacks, and the gross misrepresentations.  The five tenets of effective reading instruction still stand.  And when a Rutgers University professor decided to re-examine the NRP’s findings, in 2002, in an effort to show they were wrong, his own research demonstrated that the research findings of the NRP stood firm.  The NRP succeeded in mission — it identified and documented the essential components any reading program needed to succeed.

* Reading First is meant to empower schools to do the right thing.  By providing both the carrot and stick of federal funds to implement and enforce SBRR, the law provides the opportunity for every school in the country to put research-proven instruction in their classrooms, and get every child reading at grade level.
* WWC is not in the business of reviewing scalability, cost, or similar implementation issues.  It reviews the research it has been provided.  And, in this case, that research says, according to WWC, that in those classrooms that can afford RR and can implement it with fidelity, Reading Recovery can be effective in teaching children to read.  No one, not even the NRP, has ever said RR doesn’t work, particularly if placed in the right environment.

I recognize that this is more wonkish than most of what I tend to opine on, but it is essential to understand if we are to continue discussing Reading First and how we improve reading instruction in our schools.  NRP is a non-negotiable that has withstood the test of time and is the basis for a new era in education research, an era of accountability, replicability, and effectiveness.  If managed appropriately and with the full intent of the law behind it, RF is the mechanism for getting those NRP findings into the classrooms that need them the most, providing the resources to adopt SBRR programs and guidance on effective implementation.  WWC is the external reviewer, providing school districts with additional validation and understanding of the specific programs they may adopt in the pursuit of real instructional reform.

The short story — these are three distinct programs with three distinct impacts on the improvement of our schools.  Let’s not lump them all together, in an attempt to use X to disprove Y and Z to call Y into question.  These all serve a role, and they all can be a part of student success.

I yield the soapbox.

Higher Ed Reform, The Saga Continues

Inside Higher Ed ( today was good enough to share the list of the 200 or so individuals who will all be attending Secretary Spellings’ Higher Education Summit.  (  The initial grumbling, at least that that Inside Higher Ed is hearing, is that faculty members and faculty unions are not represented.  No shock there, faculty often grumble if there is a party and their invite is lost in the mail.

What disappoints me is the absence of communicators on the expected attendee list.  Yes, the government relations/lobbying side of higher education is represented, as it should be.  But if the reforms proposed by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education are to be effectively implemented (and implemented in a timeframe that may affect those students today in high school, or junior high school) there should be some full-time, proven-effective communicators around the table (or at least in the seats behind the table).

There are some great minds that will be sitting around the table with Secretary Spellings.  Individuals who have successfully taken on reform initiatives and have made a lasting difference in the quality and impact of their institutions or organizations.  And each and every one of them can tell you that effective communications played an important role in that success.

Undoubtedly, many attendees will take the content of the summit back home with them, relaying it to their communications staffers and identifying ways to do what they can to move recommendations and reforms forward.  But successful communications requires giving PR a seat at the table, not a summary after the fact.

I assume my invite to the summit was also lost in the mail, but here are my reccs:

* Focus on the ultimate impact — Who are these reforms designed to help?  How will they see that help?  When will they see it?  How can we put a face on higher education reform?  Discussion must move beyond structural and procedural changes and focus on the impact it will have on our communities.

* Define “what’s in it for me” — IHE presidents will be seen as true leaders.  The business community will gain the pipeline of qualified workers they seek.  Community leaders will have community members coming back to improve their neighborhoods.  Parents will see their children do better than they have.  Students will achieve their dreams.  Every stakeholder in the process has a role.  We’ll ask all to do something different.  Let’s demonstrate the result of that change in behavior.  If we want stakeholders to help implement change, we need to show the benefits to them and their core constituency

* There is no “one size fits all” — There is no simple way to trigger reform across all corners of higher education.  While our ultimate goal may be singular, each audience needs to hear it a different way and be asked to do a specific thing.  Don’t try to speak in a universal voice.  Speak to administrators as administrators.  Faculty as faculty.  Students as students.  Business as business.  It demonstrates respect and understanding for the audience, and gets us to the goal faster.

* Build a big tent — Today’s faculty grumbling should tell us something.  Not only do we need to define roles, we need to build an effort that offers everyone an opportunity to participate in reform.  Many audiences may choose not to join in.  They may oppose the recommendations, lack support among their own constituencies, or just not want to commit the time and effort to the cause.  Give them access to the party now, and it is harder for them to oppose the end result later. 

The cause is noble.  The recommendations are actionable.  The major players are at the table.  Now is the time to unleash the communications dogs and let them soften the ground for meaningful higher ed reform.

It’s KIPP-tastic

Yesterday, officials at the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, announced that the charter school group has received a $65 million influx of funding to expand its brand of charter schools to urban markets throughout the nation.  KIPP is much like phonics in the schools.  Those who love them, love them with an undying passion that cannot be swayed and will not be tempered.  Those who dislike them (or charters in general) will pick at an absence of research or the cult of personality involved in the program.

Regardless, any education reform rhetorician has to give KIPP an A+ for communicating the program, its successes, and its place in the K-12 framework.  KIPP isn’t the biggest.  It isn’t the oldest.  It may not be (yet) the most successful.  But KIPP and its leadership knows how to sell.  It knows how to market.  And it nows, better than most, how to generate public support and enthusiasm for its work in the schools.

How do they do it?  By following some key principles:

* KIPP understands its market — KIPP schools don’t try to be everything for everyone.  They sell a clear product intended for some of the most severely struggling schools in the nation.  Through its previous R&D work, KIPP knows the approaches and philosophies that can generate immediate results in the schools and communities they are serving. 

* KIPP taps the right voices — They bring in enthusiastic administrators and teachers.  They train them in KIPP thinking.  And they hold them accountable.  These educators, along with their students, become the faces and voices for KIPP itself.  How do you argue with those kids and teachers who have been in the program, and personally reaped the benefits?

* KIPP walks the talk — KIPP benefits because its founders have also been in the trenches, teaching the KIPP program in KIPP schools.  There’s nothing wrong with venture capital in education reform.  In fact, that outside money (and the perspective that comes with it) can often help turn a great idea into a scalable dream.  But when a community is looking to establish a KIPP school, they want to look — eye to eye — with those who have faced the same challenges … and overcome them.

* KIPP engages the media — KIPP schools are not afraid about putting the media spotlight on their work.  The KIPP organization has long recognized that earned media (those articles in the local newspapers, for instance) can be far more valuable that a full-page advertisement in Education Week.  Just as important, KIPP empowers its local programs and local schools to pursue its own media coverage.  The result — the local community feels invested in the successes of their school.  By reading about how this small KIPP school is succeeding despite the odds, community leaders start asking why we can’t have more schools like that KIPP school.  And market growth is born.

It will be interesting to see how this $65 million investment will effect the grassrootsiness of KIPP.  Clearly, funders see that the KIPP model is a replacable system for improving education, particularly in our urban centers.  For KIPP school, communications and stakeholder engagement is just as important as curriculum and teacher training.  For KIPP’s sake, I hope the plans for growth don’t lose site of their communications successes.  They are truly one of the rhetorical bright spots in the NCLB era.

The Mis-Education of NCLB

The dust from this week’s NCLB coverage in WaPo has finally settled. The ultimate impact on the reathorization is yet to be seen (though it is clear that the right and left flanks in domestic policy may make history by joining forced in an effort to weaken NCL, but the rhetorical jabs are being thrown at a rapid pace.

The current issues for debate — local control, national standards, the unfortunate souls stuck in upper-middle-class communities, and funding (or lack thereof). While this is a far cry from a decade ago, whent the Republican Party platform called for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education, putting such parameters around a debate on national education policy is dangerous — for the future of the law, for our ability to make meaningful change, and for the futures of all the kids in our classrooms throughout the nation.

Let’s take a look at these issues, and how they affect true education reform:

Local Control — This is a debate that has been raging since ED was first separated from the old Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Critics of federal education policy often latch themselves to this beacon, successfully rallying the support of community decisionmakers and parent advocates who want to keep Washington out of their schools (and out of their lives altogether). It is a fantastic rhetorical tool, getting right to the heart of personalizing the debate and effectively engaging all of the influencers involved in public education. But does it help the greater good? It depends on whether decisionmaking is based on what is safe and easy and what is proven effective. Local control works if they are adhering to what the research says, and putting to use programs and approaches that are proven effective in schools and communities like theirs. But local control does not work if it is merely used as a mask for avoiding hard decisions and doing what is politically easy and expedient (particularly for a local school board) instead of what is right, statistically effective, and potentially more difficult to stomach.

National Standards — The critics of national standards often use the same rhetorical tools that those advocating local control utilize. And they do so with same results. Do we really want bureaucrats in Washington, many of whom haven’t set foot in a classroom since their own school days, to make decisions on what is best for our schools, for our classes, and for our kids? After all, local communities should be the ones deciding what is best for their schools, particularly since they are the ones funding those schools. Again, effective messaging (when used effectively). But it was far more effective in the 1950s, when only a third of high school students were even thinking about college and even those who dropped out of school managed to find a decent-paying job in their hometown. Like it or not, we now live in a global economy. Such realization seems to have impacted just about every segment of our economy, save for education. Whether a student is attending a one-room schoolhouse in South Dakota, a trailer-based school in Louisiana, a classroom multiplex in Northern New Jersey, or a new campus in Southern California, all of those students will compete against each other (and similar students in a more widely diverse collection of schools across the globe) for jobs, careers, and a future. National standards guarantee that our students can compete in that global workforce. They ensure that a student in Mississippi is learning just as much as a student in Connecticut. And it provides a common, easily understood tool to measure the effectiveness of schools, districts, and states. Heck, we apply national standards to our hospitals, to a day care centers, even to our automotive service centers (thank you, ASE). Why not apply them to our schools? Defending local rights is great for policymakers, but it is far more rhetorically stronger to pledge to do everything possible to ensure that all students deserve access to high-quality effective education and meaningful career opportunities, regardless of their hometown of socioeconomic basis.

The Upper Middle Class — The Washington Post gave strong voice to one of the reddest of red herrings when it comes to opposing NCLB. The argument, as I understand it, is that NCLB is hurting those schools that have historically done well, particularly those in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. That the requirements of NCLB are severely burdening these successful schools, and, in many cases, we are labeling these schools as failing because their 99.9% success rates don’t provide adequate room for the improvements NCLB calls for. HA! If we have schools that are doing everything right, using the most effective curriculum available, employing highly qualified and effective teachers, and posting student achievement numbers that demonstrate all students are performing at or above grade level, we should be screaming it from the rooftops. The congressmen and governors who represent those schools should be demanding our nation model its schools after those unmitigated successes. Case studies and books and epic poems should be written on how those schools are achieving at such remarkable levels, and how they are able to do it on $6K or $7K a student. Those are the schools that should be the rhetorical basis for any and ALL discussions on education reform, NCLB, and the future of our great nation.

In reality, there are a great many schools that are doing a great many things right. Those successes should be promoted and advocated, but often are not. That is a shame. Equally as true, virtually every school district and every school has real room for improvement. More than a third of our fourth-graders aren’t reading at grade level. More than half of our classroom teachers are expected to leave the classroom (either by retirement or attrition) in the next five years. Student performance on international standards — such as TIMSS and PISA — show the United States just isn’t as smart, comparatively, as it used to be. We even are seeing a decrease in international demand for U.S.-based higher education. Public education is a process that should be continually assessed and improved. We can’t simply declare “mission accomplished” and set the schools in some form of hardened carbonite to lead and inspire for generations. That’s how we got into the problems we now have; we refused to adapt and improve for the times. For those who are truly committed to ongoing and meaningful improvement of our schools, we must talk about regular assessment, regular improvement, continued research, and increased expectations. Only through ongoing discussion of these issues can we bring about ongoing improvements. We’ve been stuck in the educational muck for decades now, before the release of a Nation at Risk, because we aren’t prepared for reform. We believe we are doing the best we can, and aren’t willing to be bold in both actions and words. That is the thinking that causes critics to hide behind the decent schools, pleading for us to leave them alone. NCLB is meant to rise the tide for all schools. Those who are cresting at the top of the wave should be inspiring and helping others, not turning their success into a weapon to puncture the hulls of those schools just pushing away from the docks.

Funding — At the end of the day, money is going to drive the NCLB reauthorization debate. And it should. NCLB 1.0 was about establishing the policies and identifying the research for improving our classrooms.
It was the beta test of national education reform, if you will. Reauthorization, or NCLB 2.0, is now about fulfilling the promise of the original law, ensuring that priorities are supported, financially, politically, and rhetorically. If HQT requires additional funding to ensure that effective, successful teachers are getting into the schools that need it the most, then we should do what is necessary to make it happen. If additional money is needed to support Reading First to ensure effective monitoring and administration of this important endeavor, then make the necessary deposits. Think about the flip side. Many NCLB critics are now claiming the law is good, but it is underfunded. Is the solution, then, to deny our schools meaningful improvement because we don’t want to pay for it? Of course not. The federal government pays less than 10 cents of every local school dollar. But it carries a big stick when it comes to policy and the funding of key programs — Title I, Title II, etc. Supporters of NCLB should be clear — “we’ll make funding available for NCLB as long as the states and localities are implementing programs with fidelity, are measuring the effectiveness of their reforms, and are providing the policy and rhetorical support to these initiatives and their goals.” There is no greater investment we, as a nation, can make than one in our schools and, thus, the future of our nation. Let’s see one congressman or senator stand up and say they are opposed to providing the adequate funding to improve our schools. That will be the true communications challenge.

What do we learn from all four of these rhetorical streams? They all bear the same communications challenges:
* Focus on the positive — NCLB should be about the cities, the schools, and the students who have benefited from an improved law and a more effective classroom education. This isn’t about who is wronged or who may not have gotten their “share” of the pie. NCLB is about improving the quality of education for all, and giving every child — regardless of race, geographic, or socioeconomic standing — the ability to succeed.

* Broaden the debate — At the end of the day, this should not be a discussion limited to members of Congress and mid-level bureaucrats at ED. NCLB is about giving voice to the principals, teachers, parents, business leaders, and community activists the law is intended to impact. And please, don’t substitute the national membership organizations for these voices. We want to hear from real school administrators, not the AASA. We need to hear from those first-grade teachers using RF strategies, not from the NEA. Let’s give actual voice to the people.

* Look forward — It is easy for critics to point to the past five years and focus on what has gone wrong. The IG reports on RF alone provide more than enough ammo for critics to bog down this process. Instead, we shoul define a rhetorical framework around where we are heading. How do we build on the successes of the past five years? What have we learned from the stumbles? What will we do to improve the law and improve our schools? Just as education reform itself needs to be a process of continual assessment and improvement, so must the debate on NCLB.

* Set the personalities aside — The early debate on NCLB has been a growing cacaphony of warring camps. This should not be a triangle cage match of Team Paige versus Spellings & Co. versus the Gang of Neysayers (NEA/AASA/AFT). I know it is tough for many of the individuals who have been in the NCLB trenches for the past six-plus years, but this isn’t about them. This is about the kids. This is how we improve their classrooms. This is how we help rise all boats and prepare all children for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

It is going to be far harder to pass NCLB reauthorization this year than it was getting the law through the first time in 2002. The critics and opponents are organized and well-funded. The Administration has taken mis-step after mis-step in implementing and defending its law. And even those responsible for its initial passage are now some of the most vocal critics against it. Despite all of this, NCLB can be reauthorized IF its supporters focus on the positive and on those affected by it. At the end of the day, we all want a better tomorrow for our kids. NCLB needs be a positioned as a catalyst, not an obstacle, for achieving that dream.