Leaving No Child Behind, Rhetorically Speaking

Today’s WaPo raises an age-old question (age old, at least, if you are now in kindergarten), can we truly leave no child behind? The premise, long promoted by critics of NCLB, is that it is impossible for every child to succeed, so why set that as our goal?

One its face, such a statement is insulting to the millions of students who have demonstrated improvement under NCLB. Under the hood, it demonstrates the dangers of literal communications run amok.

As a nation, our goal should be no child left behind. In Reading First, for example, do we really want the Federal government to call for the adoption of research-based instruction that will help three in four kids learn to read? Of course not. Policy goals should be simple. We teach every child to read. Every teacher who leads a classroom should be qualified. Every school should demonstrate its students are learning. Laws and policies are intended to affect ALL people, a scientifically proscribed subset.

Rhetorically, NCLB works. It is a simple statement that all audiences — teachers and parents, superintendents and community leaders, policymakers and the business community — understand. Every school, every classroom, every child should have access to what works and should have the chance of succeeding. It’s not only a noble goal, it should be a requirement of any law proposed by Congress.

Foes of NCLB have continuously headed down a dangerous path. By questioning the overarching goal of the law, they are demonstrating their lack of faith in our communities. Disaggregate the law enough, and soon you have policy that is meant to impact a subset of white students, between the ages of nine and 11 whose parents earn at least $123,000 a year. Our public schools are meant to serve all students. NCLB’s goals reflect that.

So how do we successfully talk about NCLB? We talk in the positive. We talk inclusively. We talk about our dreams and exectations for future success.
* Every child should have access to a high-quality, proven effective education.
* When implemented with fidelity, research-proven instruction can help every child achieve in the classroom.
* Success in our school requires the support of all those involved, from teachers and parents to elected officials and the business community.
* All children are entitled to opportunity and a chance to succeed. NCLB is the path to that opportunity.
* Change takes time. Through a long-term commitment to NCLB, we will see a lasting improvement in all of our schools.

Let the critics attack NCLB for only improving the academic achievement of 95% of students. Let them defend decades of flat test scores and diminished standing in international education performance. NCLB, now and in its expected reauthorized version, is about providing hope, opportunity, and equity of learning to all students. That is a platform that any policymaker or educator should be proud to stand for.

(Originally posted March 17, 2007)

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

When politicians, policymakers, and researchers are looking to make a point with regard to education reform, they almost uniformly point to statistics. I’m just as guilty of that, counseling that one needs to demonstrate measurable student improvement, while putting a real student and community face on those gains. We need to see who’s benefiting, not just that there are scientifically significant gains in scores.

This past week, we’ve witnessed two examples of the dangers of statistics as a rhetorical tool. The first comes in the NYT, in Schemo’s article that somehow claims Madison, WI students are better off by being denied research-based instruction. In it, the reporter throws around statistics claiming that student reading scores have dramatically improved after stripping the schools of feared phonics and scientifically based reading.

But a flurry of activity over the weekend indicates that the NYT’s numbers simply don’t add up. This can best be read on “D-Ed Reckoning”
http://d-edreckoning.blogspot.com/, where a further review of the data shows that Madison may indeed be suffering for failing to provide its students with research-proven reading instruction.

On the flip side, critics are attacking President Bush for his selective use of NAEP scores to demonstrate that Reading First is working. After years of critics calling for proof that RF works, they now say the NAEP data is attributed to other factors, because it is too soon to see the effects of RF on today’s elementary school students.

Through my informal educational research education, I know that you need to allow for up to five years to start seeing demonstrable, measurable improvement as a result of an instructional change. Improvement doesn’t happen overnight. But you can see signs of it almost instantaneously, the result of changes in behavior and changes in classroom attitude.

More importantly, though, I know that statistics are best serves as a “proof” of your message, not as the message itself. For instance: Reading First works. We know it works because we are seeing the improvement in classrooms across the nation. In schools large and small. Rich and poor. Black, Hispanic and white. And we know that a stronger adherance to research-proven methods is the only way to close the gap for those kids struggling to read at grade level. That’s the message.

How do we prove it? We have decades of scientific research to demonstrate effectiveness. We have classrooms, schools, and districts that have effectively used it. And we have NAEP and statewide data that demonstrate the improvements. Again, NAEP is a proof point, not the message itself. That’s where the President failed. By using NAEP as the message, we trigger a debate of the efficacy of data itself. Instead, he should be connecting the message with the people — the kids, parents, and teachers — he needs to carry RF forward.

As for the NYT, I’ll leave it to others to ascribe motives to their mis-reading of the Madison data. We all know data can often be shaped and pulled and prodded to meet our own political or rhetorical needs. What a shame that Madison students are being used as pawns in the reading wars. They deserve proven reading instruction. It’s a shame many of them can’t read the NYT piece about their own schools.

(Originally posted March 12, 2007)

The Reading Wars

Today’s NYT continues to try and stoke the phonics versus whole language fight. (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/09/education/09reading.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&ref=education) It’s sad that, even after everything we know about educational research, there are still those pushing WL, an unproven philosophy that has cost us a generation of readers in places like California.

The article starts off with a depiction of a whole language classroom, where we expect students to learn to read, as if by divine inspiration. Guess “pumpkin.” If that’s too long, and you recognize the first letter as “p” then maybe guess “pea.”

What parent wants to see her child learn through guessing games, in the hopes that they accidentally stumble across the right answer? No, we all want our kids learning through proven methods — knowing they are learning effectively, We don’t want them playing an educational game of Russian roulette, hoping the right answer may eventually appear in the chamber.

Why are we still having these debates, with the New York Times and WL researchers trying to justify whole language? There is no base of research to demonstrate its effectiveness. In fact, it isn’t even a teaching framework — it is merely a philosophy used to embody a “if it feels right, do it” approach, with no regard for whether it actually works.

Reading First is the law of the land. Reading First works. If implemented with fidelity, it effectively teaches virtually ALL children to read. Unfortunately, that message has gotten lost in panicked talks about IG reports, conflicts of interest, and who did what when.

Those involved in the initial passage of NCLB or the current reauthorization of the law should be proud of RF and its successes. If anything, we haven’t pushed RF and the research behind it hard enough — we’ve given schools and policymakers too many outs when it comes to implementing what the research demonstrates is effective.

The time has come to refocus the debate. Let’s talk about the impact of the law, not the administrative brawls that happen behind the scenes. How has RF impacted schools and classrooms throughout the nation?

Instead of responding to IG reports and playing defense on the law, Spellings and company should be focused on:
* Measurable data demonstrating that reading scores are starting to rise (as reported by journalists from Sol Stern to Kathleen Manzo)
* The effect those rising scores are having on real children, real families, and real classrooms
* Demonstrate, through real teachers and real schools, that RF is a key to increasing student achievement overall

Victory comes when we successfully demonstrate that RF works in cities like ours, in schools like ours, with students like ours. Focus on the positive, on the aspirational, and on the measurable benefits. Let the critics attack the personalities behind the fight. RF can win the day if we focus on those on the front lines, most affected by RF — the teachers and the students who benefit from a scientifically based curriculum each and every day.

(Originally posted March 9, 2007)

Ed Reform on the Presidential Campaign Trail

This week’s Education Week (http://www.educationweek.org/ew/articles/2007/03/07/26politics.h26.html) has an interesting piece trying to demonstrate that Barack Obama’s experience with an Annenberg Challenge school in Chicago demonstrates the education attention and experience he will apply to crafting an education platform. It then goes on to cite other Democratic candidates and their education experience. (Don’t ask me why it doesn’t even look at Republican candidates.)

Fortunately (and I mean that I hope no one implies that any of the leading candidates have in been talking education, because they haven’t), EdWeek notes that no candidate has come forward with a K-12 agenda. Heck, their Hillary Clinton reference is one from her days as first lady … of Arkansas.

Simple fact is that education reform has not broken through the white noise to make it onto the agendas of aspiring candidates. And with so much talk about NCLB, that is a cryin’ shame.

In the coming weeks, eduflack will be proposing some reccs for how Democratic and Republican aspirants can start talking about education reform. After all, it is not the policy itself that counts, but how well it excites the political base, interests the undecideds, and fits on a political bumper sticker. Stay tuned …

(Originally posted March 7, 2007)

A New World for Online Ed

Education Week is reporting on a new study that nearly two-thirds of public school administrators surveyed said they are offering some form of online education. Fascinating study, and even more interesting implications for how we talk about successful education reform.

High school doesn’t have the capacity to increase the number of AP courses? Access them online. Limited interest in foreign languages like Chinese or Arabic? Learn through the computer. Unable to build a sustainable early college program in your community? Dial in a reputable two-year or four-year college. And let’s not even talk the possibilities for home schoolers or charter schools.

The unanswered question is how did the 63% of those surveyed by the Sloan Foundation get buy in from their local teachers? How do you convince a licensed, veteran teacher to ultimately play the role of facilitator, as the instruction is handled by an image on a computer screen or on a DVD?

If access to online learning is to continue to grow in our public schools, we need to demonstrate to all stakeholders — especially teachers — that there is value to them. If the study is right, and 19% of all students will soon be taking all of their classes online, teachers will need to be under the online ed tent. Growth and success are one thing. Buy-in from the teachers is essential to successfully implementing classroom change.

(Originally posted March 6, 2007)

The NCLB Legacy

For years, I have said that No Child Left Behind could serve as President Bush’s legacy in terms of domestic policy. Love it or hate it, NCLB has changed the educational landscape. With the exception of some choice oppposition from groups like the NEA and AASA, most in the education community have supported (albeit quietly) a national call for research-proven instruction, greater accountability, and qualified and effective teachers in the classroom.

But the President’s words, delivered yesterday in Indiana, don’t quite match the rhetoric put forward by his Education Secretary. Last year, Spellings came out strong, stating that NCLB was 99.999% effective, leaving almost no room for improvement. Bush, however, is now saying while the law is working, “we can change parts of it for the better.”

The jury is still out as to whether NCLB will get reauthorized this year. Democratic congressional leaders voice support for the intent behind the law, but continue to call for additional funding (heck, a just-released study claims the state of Ohio needs to increase public education funding 30%). Meanwhile, Republicans are voicing greater concern with NCLB, claiming it is denying local control of the schools. Bush acknowledged that criticism in his remarks, using GOP grumblings as his justification for not having national testing standards.

So which is it? Are we 99.999% pure, or do need to change multiple parts of the law?

For the past five years, the U.S. Department of Education has been virtually all stick, no carrot when it comes to talking about NCLB. If they are serious about reauthorizing the law virtually intact, they need to shift their rhetorical focus.

NCLB is not about rules and regulations and unfunded mandates. NCLB is about ensuring that every child receives access to a high-quality, effective education. To do that, NCLB supporters need to put a human face on the law. Let’s hear from the kids and families and teachers who have benefited. When we hear NCLB, we need to see ourselves in the law. We need to know it is improving schools like ours and kids like ours.

The face of NCLB is academic achievement and student success. At the end of the day, who can oppose a law that says we need to teach what works in our classrooms, we need qualified teachers to teach it, and we need to make sure that every kid — not just those who can afford it — is given the academic tools to succeed?

(Originally published March 6, 2007)

The Launch of Eduflack

I know, I know, yet another blog on education policy in the United States. But don’t expect to see in-depth discussion and debate on the impact of high-stakes testing on the student psyche or how charter schools are destroying the framework of our urban school systems. No, this isn’t that sort of chronicle. Why take on issues that are already so deftly discussed by true leaders in the field?

Instead, eduflack was created to discuss education reform through a different lense — communication. Well before A Nation at Risk hit our school systems, true reformers have been using communications and public engagement strategies to promote their ideas, win supporters and advocates, mute the opposition, and ultimately change public behaviors so that meaningful reform can take hold in our schools, our communities, and out nation.

The coming year will play host to continued discussions on NCLB and its reauthorization, the positioning of presidential candidates and their policy platforms, and the impact of recent philanthropic investments in high school improvement and similar reforms. All important issues, and all requiring communications planning, implementation, and measurement to ensure they make a difference and leave a lasting mark.

For education policy reforms to succeed, they need to be understood and embraced both at the ivory towers and on Main Street, USA. Eduflack will seek to sort through the white noise, and track the successes and failures of communicating reform.

Improving our public education system requires the participation of all key stakeholders — students and parents, teachers and administrators, policymakers and business leaders. We need to move all corners of learning to act if we are to improve.

Too often, education PR is about cults of personality and attacking the messengers, rather than the message. That’s where eduflack is different. Demonstrate true communication skills, you’ll get the bouquets. Pander to the lowest common demoninator or simply contribute to the grousing chatter, you’re getting the brickbats.

Let the pageant begin …

(Originally posted March 5, 2007)