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.

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”, 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. ( 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 ( 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)