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.