Rewarding Effective Teachers

Kudos to the Center for Teaching Quality for their upcoming report on teacher pay.  For years, the education community has been talking about the need to pay teachers more.  One camp has sought to raise all salaries, under the auspices that all teachers are grossly underpaid.  The other camp has sought to tie teacher salary to performance, offering financial rewards only to those teachers whose students achieve.  The result — tinkering around the edges, minor pay raises, but no real changes to the system.

Eduflack has been calling for bold words to bring attention to meaningful education reforms.  And the Center for Teaching Quality has indeed put forward some bold ideas.  Jay Matthews and The Washington Post bring us the facts …

So what’s the story?  The Center, in proposing a tiered structure for teacher pay, has keyed in on a couple of key points that help them communicate effectively with their primary audience — the American taxpayer.  Remember, any teacher pay proposals are ultimately funded by the taxpayers.  Convince them that your plan is meaningful, and they gladly pay more for the promise of a better school system.  Take them for granted, and more money for the schools could face a brick way.

What key beliefs did the Center apply to their call to action?

* We are a merit-based community — Like it or not, we are a pay-for-play society.  When talking about teacher pay, most non-teachers will begin to apply the proposal to their own work situation.  To get a 10% or 20% raise, you have to make a major contribution to the office.  Such bumps in pay are merit based, they aren’t simply based on longevity.  We’re willing to pay teachers more if they are successful in their jobs.  But we hear far too many horror stories of our failing schools to trust the money is well spent.  Promise us that we are rewarding performance — acknowledging merit and student achievement, and it doesn’t take much to convince us that teacher raises are worthwhile investments.

* We earn on a curve — Moving from school to work doesn’t eliminate the grading curve.  In most workplaces, not every employee is entitled to the largest raise possible.  You want to be in the top 10% of what you do so you benefit financially.  But the common perception is every teacher gets the same raise each year.  Doesn’t matter if they are training future Nobel winners or handing out word jumbles each and every day.  Such perception breeds resentment.  The most effective teachers get the best pay bumps.  Those teachers who take on more responsibilities have more to show for it at the end of the day.  It is a cornerstone of the non-educator’s work world, and we want to know our tax dollars are being spent in the same fashion.  We need to hear that more new money isn’t going into the same old system. 

Buy what you need — If a school is short two math teachers, you don’t hire a driver’s ed and an art teacher because they have the seniority or because tenure dictates that a job has to be found somewhere for them.  For the past several years, we have been effective convincing many that school improvement is required in order to effectively compete in the 21st century global workplace.  That means hiring the teachers to teach the skills and knowledgebase that make us competitive.  Science, math, technology, foreign languages.  We hear so much about the shortages in these areas, but our actions don’t match the words.  We need to hear that teacher money is going to fill our real needs.  We want our money spent wisely.  

At the end of the day, all of this comes down to a simple message — we need qualified and effective teachers.  Aspen’s NCLB Commission called for it, as have others.  The Center for Teaching Quality has taken that message, and put some real measures and real policies around it.  If anything, it has given us a lot to think about.  If we’re selling boosting spending on teacher salaries, what details do we need to see in the specifications? 


Teacher Shortage?

Hyperbole is an important tool in any communicator’s toolbox.  We love to paint dire pictures, stories that require revolutionary change, monumental reforms, and “no choice but …” solutions.  Such storytelling is masterfully done when we talk about teachers in the classroom.  For years now, talks about teacher shortages have resulted in alternative certification policies, pay raises, and serious discussions about pre-service and in-service educator requirements.

Case in point — the following article from West Virginia’s Charleston Daily Mail.
In it, we read about concerns that too many teachers are facing retirement.  Too few new teachers are entering the classroom.  The only solution — our schools need more money to pay teachers.

I’m all for giving effective teachers a great wage for a job well done.  As I’ve said before, there is are few jobs as important, and as difficult, as a classroom teacher.  But continued threats of looming teacher shortages, in an attempt to garner increases in pay, can ultimately have the reverse effect.  You cry wolf too many times, and soon the taxpayers are wondering where all of their money is going, particularly if student test scores remain stagnant.

Let’s be honest.  With all of our past teacher “shortages,” have there ever been instances where a growing number of classrooms were without teachers, long term?  Where eager-faced students looked forward, and found no teacher standing there?  Where kids were hungry for knowledge, but no one was there to feed them?  Of course not.

If there were, that would be an incredibly compelling visual to communicate impending teacher shortages.  Real classrooms without teachers.  Students without mentors.  Schools without leaders.  But that doesn’t happen.  At the end of the day, our schools figure out a solution, ensuring that no child is left without an actual teacher.  It isn’t necessarily easy, but one of the few things we can count on is a teacher in every classroom.

Ultimately, the public debate should focus on a shortage of effective teachers in our schools.  How do we get those teachers who are successful in improving student achievement in front of those classrooms?  How do we equip colleges of education to prepare their prospective teachers for the rigors and expectations of the classroom?  How do we help principals, parents, and community leaders understand the qualities, measures, and commitment embodied in effective teachers?

That is the story worth telling.  Seeking additional funds for teacher pay?  Tell us how increased salaries will be used to ensure that teachers have the skills, tools, and motivation to effective boost student achievement in the classrooms.  That story is one virtually any state or local official can embrace, and one that any right-minded taxpayer would eagerly invest in. 

Standing Tall?

After stewing on Friday’s Reading First hearings for the past 72 hours, there is so much I want to say.  So much I think I should say.  But at the end of the day, such ruminations should be left to the policywonks and the policymakers charged with fixing RF and improving the law.  

EdWeek has a good summary of Friday’s hearings —

Like usual, it got me thinking.  But one of my conversations today helped focus my thoughts onto the communications value of Friday’s testimony.  For those who had read the IG reports, consumed the media coverage, or lived on the front lines of reading for any of the past six years, there wasn’t a great deal of new information to consume.  But the rhetorical approach taken by former RF Director Chris Doherty is one that cannot pass without a closer look.

The setting for Congressman Miller’s RF investigation was nothing unique.  Such hearings have become typical on Capitol Hill.  Usually, a team of witnesses are brought up, with the expectation that someone will soon be singing mea culpa.  “I’m sorry.”  “I didn’t intend …”  “If I had it to do over …” are but some of the refrains we expect to hear.  The typical Potomac Two-Step is a quick apology, followed by absolution.  That act of contrition, it is believed, turns the page and allows witnesses to proceed with their lives.

The true effectiveness of the “I’m sorry” is still a study in progress.  It is said so much, it has lost its effectiveness.  In recent weeks, Don Imus and Alberto Gonzales and Paul Wolfowitz and even Pacman Jones have issued their apologies.  Were they heartfelt?  Did the public believe them?  Can they now move forward?

On the flip side, crisis communications guru Eric Dezenhall is a firm believer in never uttering that five-letter word, “sorry.”  Recently, he has said that Exxon was right (by not apologized for their Alaskan oil spill) and Johnson & Johnson wrong (for apologizing profusely for the Tylenol scare in the 1980s).  Dezenhall’s track record speaks for itself — no one is better of dealing with a crisis.  Period.

Chris Doherty has clearly studied from the book of Dezenhall.  In his congressional testimony, he spotlighted his pride in the law and his pride in the program.  He was unapologetic in his support for RF and his commitment to seeing NCLB succeed.  He embraced the work that was done.  At a time when many expected he would fall on his sword, instead Doherty stood tall.  He did not express sorrow; he had nothing to apologize for.  He firmly stood by his actions and his record.

It was a bold communications tactic that could serve Doherty quite well.  He didn’t go on the defensive.  He didn’t apologize.  He didn’t appear contrite or seek forgiveness.  Chris Doherty stood for what he believes in.  Even under scathing questions, he stood up.

I don’t mean to demean Friday’s testimony by referring to it simply as a communications tactic.  But at the end of the day, Eduflack’s goal is to look at how successfully we are communicating about education.  So that is the filter I apply.  Understand, though, that such an approach is not for the feint of heart.  For such a tactic to work, one must:
* Be A True Believer — You have to believe, 100% in what you are saying.  Any sense of waffling or second thoughts is a sign you may think you’ve done something wrong.  If you are thinking it, others will hear it in your words and see it in your actions.
Know the Facts — Sorry comes when we acknowledge errors.  If you are confident in the facts, and can speak without hesitation and caution, you can stand tall.  Speak strongly.  If you are unapologetic, you must be armed with the facts and transform them into strong, decisive, unquestioned words.  Declarative sentences.  No room for misinterpretation.  Statements that can be taken one way and one way only.
* Prepare to Accept the Concequences — When we stand up for what we believe in, we have to be prepared to take responsibility for our actions.  It is a hard fact of life.  But when we stand on a soapbox we have constructed of our principles, our beliefs, and our actions, we have be ready for that box to break under the strains of the situation.  If we have built it right, on words and deeds that can withstand the pressure, we will be OK.  But we need to be prepared for the worst, willing to suffer the punishments from doing or saying what we believe.

A little preachy, yes.  But an important lesson, and one that Doherty seems to have learned.  At the end of the day, Reading First has taught us a great numbers of lessons.  About policy.  About people.  And about communications.  Great teachers continue to teach well after the class is over, and RF may be one of those instructors.  Only time will tell.  

Friday’s hearings have clearly demonstrated, though, that potential scandal does not mandate pro forma apology.  It may not be the norm, but as Jefferson once said, “a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing.”  True for Jeffersonian governments then; true for communications today.

Speaking Ed Reform Truth … Who’s Listening?

Terrific piece in today’s Politico from Andy Rotherham and Richard Whitmire on helping 2008 presidential candidates craft an education agenda.  As you’ll recall, about a month ago, Eduflack offered his own thoughts on how the candidates should be talking about education reform.

At any rate, it is well worth the read —

This oped, along with some discussions I have had earlier this week, got me thinking.  Who are we reaching with such agendas and manifestos?  A few weeks ago, I talked about employing the right spokespeople to move reform forward.  But it begs the question — to whom are we speaking?

Too often, education reform becomes a complicated game of inside baseball.  Researchers talking to researchers, and the like.  Then we wonder why long-term, wholesale reform doesn’t take hold.  The recent GOP revolts against NCLB demonstrate one clear fact — we just aren’t talking to the right people.  We aren’t necessarily talking to those whose behaviors we are seeking to change.  We aren’t necessarily talking to those who ultimately embody the reform we are seeking.  And if we aren’t talking to those on the front lines of ed reform, like teachers and families, we are simply contributing to the white noise.  We aren’t making a difference.

Who should we communicate with?  Who are our target audiences when it comes to education reform?  Who is truly listening, hoping to hear how reform will impact them, benefiting their families or improving their schools or communities?

When it comes to target audiences, one must be both broad and deep.  By talking to multiple stakeholders simultaneously, you get all key parties involved in the reform.  And that is needed today.

Communicating education reform seems to grow more and more complicated each day.  Following the passage of NCLB, virtually everyone in the educational marketplace began making claims about improved student performance and school success.  As a result, teachers, administrators, and parents have grown more and more weary of hearing about the latest and greatest, if they are hearing about it at all.

At the same time, after decades of being beaten up on student achievement and measures of success, many districts have convinced their educators and community leaders they are doing the best they can with the resources available, and nothing more can be done to improve our schools.  The result — many educators are incredibly wary of those offering fixes, improvements, or reforms.  That is why it is essential to understand all of the key players and communicate directly with them.

The growing chain in institutional decision making and implementation is clear.  Policymakers and district administrators turn to principals and teacher leaders for input.  Those principals rely on their teachers and specialists to provide feedback on implementation and effectiveness.  And teachers receive ongoing input from parents and the local community (including CBOs, church leaders, and the like) on their success … or failure.  Add to the mix the growing concerns regularly raised by the local business community, and you have an ever-widening circle of voices in the process.

What does that mean for those seeking to improve our schools?  Effective communication means including a wide range of audiences in the discussion, the decision, the implementation, and the measurement.  This includes:

* School administrators, those superintendents, deputy superintendents, district-level administrators, and principals who must balance the demands of parents with the abilities of teachers and the resources of the schools

* Policymakers, particularly those local school board members, state boards of education officials, state departments of education leaders, and local and state elected officials who want to see top student performance for minimum cost and want schools and teachers to be held accountable for meeting standards

* Teachers, the primary audience on the front lines when it comes to the success of our schools

* Parents, one of the most important audiences in moving change in education, but often the least informed of stakeholder groups 

* Business community, those who know that their future success depends on a workforce that is effectively educated

Yes, we need the right spokespeople.  But we also need to make sure they are talking to the right audiences.  If we are to truly improve public education in the United States, as Rotherham and Whitmire outline in their oped, we need to broaden our reach and raise our voice.  Candidates, take note. 

There is a role for virtually everyone when it comes to improving education and boosting student achievement, making change relevant to virtually everyone.  By communicating that, we can empower all audiences and all communities to assume their responsibilities, contribute to the solution, and raise student achievement.  

Rediscovering NCLB

Finally, President Bush has rediscovered NCLB.  I’ve long said NCLB could be a key part of Bush’s domestic policy legacy — but for that to happen, advocates of the law need to talk about the impact NCLB is having on communities across the nation, and how students will gain the tools they need to compete in the global workplace as a result.

WTOP has the story —  What does it all mean?  Yesterday’s actions hold hope that the President has learned three key communications lessons:

* Power of third parties — Yesterday’s event demonstrates the impact third-party voices can have on the process.  It is one thing for the government to tell us their law is working.  It is something entirely different for leaders in the business, education, and civil rights communities to extoll the virtues of education reform.  If parents and teachers are to believe NCLB is working, they need to hear from folks like Philadelphia Schools CEO Paul Vallas and the CEO of Prudential Financial.  They need to hear from those actually implementing the laws … or those reaping the benefits.

* Frame the discussion — For years, critics have attacked NCLB for its unreasonable levels of accountability and for the fear-inducing battle cry that the law simply leads to “teaching to the test.”  Such attacks have put NCLB supporters on the defensive, somehow apologizing for setting high expectations and expecting schools to meet those expectations.  Yesterday, the President clearly articulated the need for accountability, the impact of accountability, and the value of accountability.  By reframing the discussion, he now forces critics to explain why we shouldn’t hold our schools accountable for effectively teaching our students.  Success isn’t an accident.  It is the result of measurable change, demonstrable improvement, and being held accountable for both.

* Respect your stakeholders — It was an interesting panel of voices supporting the president.  The business community.  In-the-field educators and administrators.  Parent advocates.  School choice supporters.  What does this say?  Clearly, the President may now realize truly implementing NCLB requires a big tent.  It is not enough to decree change from Washington.  We have to engage those audiences who need to act, helping 1) raise their awareness on the need for reform, 2) show what actions they need to take to enact reform, and 3) demonstrate the impact reform will have on them and their constituencies.

At the end of the day, strengthening NCLB will be all about relevance.  How will greater accountability or national standards benefit local communities, educators, or families?  How does NCLB (and its reauthorization) impact me directly?  By raising the bar, will my kids raise their achievement?  Will they raise their access to opportunity?  Will they raise their ability to compete and succeed, both in school and in life?  

President Bush took a strong step forward with this new approach to discussing NCLB.  Let’s hope he follows through.  Effectively using third parties, reframing the debate, and including stakeholders are key components to communicating the need and impact of NCLB.  But such usage must become a way of life, not a one-time, one-day attempt to get back into the game.

Talking Research

The very concept of education research seems to scare many.  Yet NCLB mentions scientifically based research more than 100 times.  While the intent is clear — ensuring that research is being used to guide policy and instruction — how exactly do we communicate that intent?  How do we talk about a topic — research — that is misunderstood, mischaracterized, and downright shied away from so often?

A few years back, I conducted focus groups with parents on the topic of scientifically based reading research, or SBRR.  The intent of these sessions was to better equip parents to implement SBRR in their schools and communities.  But the discussion quickly focused on the words themselves.  Parents didn’t like SBRR.  They didn’t want scientifically based research in their schools.  To them, it sounded like our schools were becoming the dens of mad science, where teachers were conducting scientific experiments in the classroom, with the children serving as the latest round of lab rats.

Of course, that was the furthest from the truth.  But it demonstrates how the policy venacular gets out ahead of the stakeholders we are trying to reach.  Talk to anyone involved in NCLB at the time, and SBRR was shorthand.  It’s in the law, they would say, and not give it a second thought.  To those on the receiving end, it was unfamiliar vocabulary with no rooted meaning.

Those focus groups, though, were significant and changed my thinking and my words.  Sure, I still use SBRR when talking to researchers or those in deep in the policy debates.  But when it comes to talking about NCLB or Reading First or SBRR with the parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders we are most trying to reach, it requires an all new vocabulary.

How do we talk about research in a meaningful and thoughtful way?  A few simple words are all that is needed:
* Proven
* Effective
* What works

When discussing education research, inevitably, words like assessments, data, fidelity, disaggregation, and the like quickly surface.  All important words, yes, but most have little meaning in the context of getting a fourth grader to read at grade level or helping a first grader for whom English is a second language.  At the end of the day, teachers and parents just want answers to a few simple questions: Does it work in a school like mine?  In a class like mine?  With kids like mine?  It is proven effective?

Translation: RF isn’t about implementing SBRR in the classroom.  It is about ensuring that our reading instruction strategies are proven effective.  That we are doing what we know works.  That we are doing what is successful in teaching children to read.  That’s what parents and teachers want to hear, and, at the end of the day, that is what research is all about.

When it comes to healthcare, you rarely hear a pharmaceutical company or the FDA say that a drug is “scientifically based.”  We assume when we see the commercial that if they are selling it, they have done the research.  We just want to know if it will cure our allergies or our high blood pressure or whatever else ails us.  If it doesn’t, even if you told us it would, we’ll switch to another drug that will get the job done.

The same should be true in education.  In the era of NCLB, we should expect that interventions and curriculums are indeed scientifically based.  You don’t need to tell us that.  But do they fix our reading problems?  Do they fix our math setbacks?  Will they get our students to achieve at grade level?  If you say yes, but we find they aren’t working, we need to switch to an elixir that will deliver what it promises, a solution that will work with kids like ours. 

At the end of the day,  if it works for me, as it has worked for others, then it is research based.  That is how one effectively talks about education research — by demonstrating success.  

NCLB 2.0

What does the future hold for NCLB?  The magic 8 ball is telling far too many people to ask again later, but over the weekend, the NYT offered its analysis on the tough road to reauthorization.  The song being sung is not a new one, but those in the chorus seem to continue to grow.

Here’s the story …

But what does it all tell us?  Can opposition from both the left and right really signal the end to NCLB?  Three simple facts for us all to consider (or remember):

* First, NCLB is simply the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  NCLB is the wrapping and marketing strategy put around the reauthorization in 2002.  NCLB is going nowhere.  ESEA will be reauthorized.  NCLB will fight another day.
* Second, NCLB and local control are not mutually exclusive.  Localities should still control what happens in their schools, but the feds need to hold them accountable.
* Third, and perhaps most significant, the U.S. Department of Education and NCLB supporters are still letting the opposition define the debate.  The NYT does an excellent job pointing out NCLB’s shortcomings and where pockets of resistance are coming from.  What is missing, though, is how those critics would improve the law (other than “give us the money and don’t ask us about it after we cash the check”).

It isn’t a popular position these days, but I am a big supporter of NCLB.  And I believe in the law for a few simple reasons.  It assures an effective education to ALL students, particularly those who can most benefit from proven-effective instruction.  It calls for federal education dollars to be spent on instructional practices that are proven effective, and not on the latest silver bullets.  And it puts students first — forcing us to think about education reform in terms of how it boosts student achievement and prepares all kids for the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century.

Most importantly, it works.  Take Reading First.  If we look at those districts that have implemented SBRR with fidelity and are effectively measuring its impact, we see it works.  It works with students in urban, suburban, and rural schools.  It works with white, Black, and Latino students.  It just works all around.

So what do NCLB supporters do with all this?  How do we build a better NCLB?  And more importantly, how do we talk about a better NCLB?  If the Department of Education is looking to shore up the status quo, it will fall to other voices — including early advocates like Senator Kennedy and Congressman Miller — to step up and truly advocate for the law.  As is typical for me, I’ve got three key reccs:

* Be bold.  Many critics want to tinker around the edges, rearranging components with the hopes of offending fewer constituents than we are offending today.  Reauthorization should be about improvement.  Meaningful improvement requires bold action and bold words.  Let’s increase NCLB funding to greatly enhance accountability and assessment measures at the state and local level, not weaken accountability.  Let’s strengthen HQT, adding measures of effectiveness, not lessen our expectations of teachers.    

* Be visionary.  Reauthorization allows us to build on the strong foundations of the original NCLB.  How do we make it even stronger?  What areas require enhancement?  Build on Early Reading First and Reading First to extend through adolescence.  Address the unaddressed issues of ELL.  Provide real, tangible, actionable school choice for those who need it, and take revolutionary action to fix those schools too many students are leaving.  Propose something, anything, that will change the world and improve public education for each and every student in the nation.

* Be unapologetic.  NCLB works.  It is proven effective.  Let’s strengthen the law, not weaken it.  Let’s enhance accountability, not provide more loopholes.  Let’s raise hope, not lower expectations.  We should not apologize for expecting much from our teachers, from our schools, and from our students.  We should demand more public education, not less.  Instead of letting critics set the terms of debate, advocates should make clear what NCLB stands for, why it is important, and how we make it even better, both short term and long term.

We can all agree there is room for improvement in NCLB.  If we are to strengthen the law, we need to enhance and expand on the good parts, fix those that are lagging behind, and inspire more parents, teachers, students, and community leaders to do whatever is necessary to wholeheartedly move NCLB’s rhetoric and legislative language into true, effective practice.

Finding One’s Voice

Messaging.  Framing.  Talking Points.  Guiding Questions.  Bridging.  It doesn’t matter what you call it.  Communicators and strategists spend a lot of time thinking through what is said, whether it be about education reform, healthcare, or the latest widget.  We often spend so much time focused on the “what” that we forget all about the “who.”  This is particularly true as we talk about reforms surrounding NCLB.

It took a visit with an old friend from my NRP days to remind just how important the “who” is in communicating education reform.  For a reform effort to take hold and be successful, the right person (or persons) need to be saying the right things.  The right message but the wrong messenger, you fall flat.  Likewise, the right messenger with the wrong message loses all credibility.

And just who is that right voice?  The effective messenger carries some distinctive characteristics:

* Credibility — A simple truth.  One needs to be believable.  One needs to be knowledgeable.  One needs to be trustworthy.  If you are advocating change, you can’t afford to have audiences question your statements before they message has taken hold.  My first mentor on Capitol Hill had a simple instruction for me, “Don’t ever lie … ever.”  While it offered as advice for dealing with the media, it holds for any advocacy effort, working with any audience.  One just has to be credible.  Hands down, with NCLB our most credible voices are the teachers and parents on the frontlines of learning.

* Likeability — One can be credible and trustworthy, and still disliked.  It is unfortunate, but all too real.  A good messenger needs to be liked by those she is talking to.  In a previous life, I used to do a great deal of crisis communications for hospitals and healthsystems.  I would always ask for a nurse as a messenger.  We trust doctors.  We know they are credible.  But we LIKE nurses.  They are empathetic.  They understand us.  They have a likeability factor that is unmatched.  Same is true for most teachers and parents.  We may respect a superintendent, but we generally like our child’s teacher. 

Relatability — This is probably the hardest to quantify.  I’ve conducted scores of focus groups with teachers and parents around the country, and the effect of education reform comes down to a few simple questions.  “Will it work in a school like mine?  In a class like mine?  With kids like mine?”  Stakeholders want to see themselves in those who are advocating change.  Parents need to hear from other parents.  The Latino community needs to hear from the Latino community.  And, yes, business leaders need to hear from other business leaders.  If I am being asked to change my thinking and my behavior, I want to hear from someone who has walked in my shoes, shared my thoughts, and understands my hesitations.

A wide chorus of voices is important to any debate.  But with all of the discourse on NCLB, Reading First, research data, accountability, and the like, we need to hear from the right voices, not just from those contributing to the white noise of the day.  Researchers and government officials all play an important role in improving our education system.  There is no question about that.  But for real reforms to take lasting root in schools and communities across the nation, we need to hear from those most affected by the reforms.

Advocating for Early Reading First?  Let’s hear from the mother in Arizona whose child has gained the developmental learning skills to succeed when he hits elementary school.  School choice?  Let’s hear from the reverend in Atlanta whose has seen more and more parents asking the right questions to ensure their kids are getting an effective education.  Testing?  Let’s hear from the second grade teacher in Pennsylvania who now has the data to key in on the learning skills many in her class seem to be missing.

We need to hear from those in the game, those teachers, parents, administrators, and such who are swinging for the fences and doing whatever is necessary to boost student achievement in the classrooms.  Those are the voices that launch successful reform.  Those are the voices that move us to improve.  Those are the voices we need most.

At the end of the day, the success of NCLB will not be heard from those at the U.S. Department of Education or at one of the national education organizations.  NCLB success will be heard in the words and actions of those in our local communities and our neighborhood schools.  When they are trumpeting the benefits and impact of scientifically based education research and a renewed commitment to accountability, then the law has truly succeeded.

Teach Your Children Well

I recognize teaching is one of the hardest jobs out there.  My mother is a retired high school English teacher.  She taught in rural, suburban, and urban high schools.  She taught in charters, magnets, and run-of-the-mill traditional high schools.  She walked the picket line for weeks with the NEA in West Virginia in 1990.  And she was often the only thing that kept many a student from dropping out or giving up.  It was just incredible to see the difference she made with kids at a DC charter high school, showing kids that everyone else had given up on that they should demand more of themselves.

Sometimes, I don’t know what pushed my mother to show up for another day of teaching, after getting bombarded by administrators and parents and all other sorts of external forces the previous day.  But she did.  Because she was, and always will be, a teacher.  And she is an effective one, regardless of whatever new state test or requirement was thrown at her (and there were a lot of them over the years).

That’s why I almost fell out of my chair this afternoon when a press release from the Teachers Network landed in my inbox.  The Cliff Notes version — Point 1: NCLB is forcing almost seven in 10 teachers to quit the profession,
Point 2: 1 percent of teachers think NCLB can effectively measure a school; and, even more startling, 
Point 3: Only 3 percent of teachers surveyed said NCLB encouraged them to improve their effectiveness. 

Most disturbing is that last point.  With a law created to ensure every child has access to a high-quality education, and a time when a third of all students will drop out of high school, 97 percent of surveyed teachers felt no need to improve their effectiveness.  Where are these teachers teaching?  I can tell you none of those teachers ever served in one of my mom’s schools.  Just about every effective teacher I know consistently pushes to improve, both for themselves and for their students.  Put simply, effective teachers feel pressure to improve, have well before NCLB, and will long after we’ve forgotten the acronym.

What do we learn from all this?  It is easy for folks to tell you what they are against, but far harder for people to stand up and declare what they stand for.  And at the end of the day, we are measured based on what we believe in, what we stand for, what we advocate for, and how passionately we advocate it.  That’s at the root of any successful communications effort.

No, it is no big surprise that Teachers Network is opposed to NCLB.  Such a position is all the rage.  But in its zeal to oppose NCLB, the Network failed to tell us what they advocate.  Effective PR 101 — Stand for something.  If NCLB doesn’t effectively measure a school, tell us what will.  Solve the problem, don’t just point to it more emphatically than the guy next to you.

The real truth here is that Teachers Network (and many others, I shouldn’t make them stand alone) isn’t looking to solve the problem.  Its accusation is based on a question it doesn’t want to answer — How do we effectively measure a school?  Effective PR 201 — Don’t ask a question if you don’t know the answer … or if you don’t want to hear it. 

I can’t fault the Network.  They were going for the easy headline, and stating that 99 out of 100 teachers think NCLB doesn’t effectively measure a school is a quick way to do it.  But the short-term gain of a headline isn’t worth the long-term consequence of credibility.  Such numbers simply don’t jive with the data you see from NCLB un-lovers like PDK, and they certainly don’t match what I’ve heard from countless teachers around the country.  If I read between the lines, though, I fear we are just using NCLB as shorthand to describe any program of reform or diversion from the status quo. 

Effective teachers want to succeed.  They want their students to succeed.  They want to use instructional practices that will get them there.  And they want to be able to document and measure that success.  NCLB was designed to help them get there.  If it does, then the law fulfilled its goals.  If it doesn’t, then propose a better solution.  How about national standards?  Expanded school choice?  A common data set for comparing schools or school districts?  Or even just agreement that the status quo isn’t working?

Anyone?  Anyone?


Putting Reading First?

When the history books are closed, we will find that Reading First improved the reading skills of U.S. students.  It is based on solid research.  It is proven success in schools and classrooms across the nation.  And there is clear data a scientifically based approach to reading skill acquisition rooted in phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension is the most effective way — without question — to teach kids to read.

So how can a program with so many successful attributes be in danger of failing?  When it is unable to translate that effectiveness into a public perception of support.  Recent reports from the IG and GAO have pointed to potential implementation problems and concerns about the perceptions of possible conflicts of interest.  Such worries put RF under a real microscope.  It calls for greater scrutiny and adhering to a higher bar of both achievement and standards of quality.  So what comes next?

The Associated Press provides the facts:

Full disclosure, I am one of the individuals quoted in this article.  And I feel strongly about the public perception of this revelation.  At the end of the day, few people care that RMC Research secured a small portion of the RF assessment contract.  Even fewer choose to understand the process by which contractors and subcontractors (such as RMC) secure such contracts from the federal government.  But for an organization, like RMC, committed to seeing Reading First succeed, this sends the WRONG message, arming RF and scientifically based reading critics with the ammo they need to continue to question the program as a whole.

Federal contracting is best explained by the federal government.  But what lessons can we learn from the facts uncovered by the AP?:

* Independent third party means independent third party.  No one is questioning RMC’s ability to assess a federal education program.  But independent third party assessment means just that.  Contractors involved in the planning, implementation, training, and technical assistance of a program should not assume a role to evaluate the success of that same program.  How can we trust the impartiality of a contractor who was previously paid to help build what they are now evaluating?
* Scientists have forgotten the science.  NCLB was passed on the presumption that education research needs to undergo the same protocols and be held to the same standards as that which passes through NIH.  Can anyone point to an NIH grant program where the same contractor was paid to develop a clinical study, then paid again to evaluate their own work?
* Size doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter if the contract was for $1.5 million, $15 million, or $15.  When a program is as scrutinized as RF is, third-party assessment needs to be as clean as the newborn snow.  Such a relationship just makes it too easy to feel like the wolf is guarding the RF henhouse.
* Set high expectations … and exceed them.  There is an axiom in business that you want to underpromise and overdeliver.  When it comes to RF, we now need to both overpromise and overdeliver.  If implemented effectively and with fidelity, RF will improve reading skills for virtually every student in the country.  That is now the expectation, and it can’t get any higher.  Now we need to exceed that.  That happens by demonstrating measurable results, being able to replicate those results, and having decisionmakers embrace them and put them into place in other schools and other districts.  That is the only way RF will truly change the fabric of our nation’s education system.  That only happens if we all trust the data and those delivering it to us.

For years, we have said the success of RF lies in the hands of those school administrators, teachers, and parents who were putting it to use on the front lines.  The focus was on communicating with those audiences.  How do we get them to embrace RF?  How do we get them to recognize the need?  And, most importantly, how do we get them to put it into practice?  

Today, though, the success of RF lies squarely on the shoulders of Margaret Spellings.  The IG, the GAO, and the media have given educators plenty of reasons to question Reading First.  We don’t trust our decisionmakers, and without trust, we aren’t willing to put our own necks on the line to change.  For the average educator, it is now easier to protect the status quo, and believe that RF will go with the way of the dodo, replaced by the next latest and greatest.

So it is up to Spellings and her team to change that public perception — a tall order to say the least.  But it is achievable through three key steps:
* Take responsibility for the past. President Truman had the buck stopping with him. Spellings must do the same.  She should accept personal responsibility for all the mistakes and misperceptions of the past six years.  With that responsibility, she has learned a great deal, and is taking all steps possible to improve the law and help our nation’s teachers and students.
* Speak … and act with authority.  This is more than apologizing or discussing the issue at a conference.  For years now, Spellings and her team have acted out of a defensive posture.  It is almost as if they hope any mention of RF will just go away.  Instead, they need to embrace the law.  In those schools where it is implemented with fidelity, we are seeing demonstrable improvements.  Now is the time to be bold.  Embrace RF and its original goals.  Demand expansion.  Demand greater accountability.  Show that the U.S. Department of Education is a partner in this effort, not simply the wielder of the stick.
* Move the discussion out of DC and into our schools.  Goodbye, SW DC, hello Main Street USA.  Get into the field and learn (and promote) how it is working, where it is working, and who is responsible.  Success is because of educators in the field.  Share the credit with those on the ground.  Doing so is like throwing a pebble into a lake.  The impact will ripple out, ultimately hitting all shores.  That is how RF, and NCLB, can have a lasting impact on our schools and really establish a legacy for this Administration.

Conflicts of interest, debates on contractors and subcontractors, and technical assistance instructions are the insidest of inside baseball.  It is time for Reading First to move onto a different field, and play the game that was meant to be played.  The law was written because of a national commitment to ensure every child learns to read, and every student had access to proven-effective instruction.  Let’s remember that.  Reading First is a simple message — its about students, and its about results.