Eduflack’s 2007 Seventh Inning Stretch

The temperatures are heating up again in DC, the Mets are now only two games up on the Phillies, and we may actually see NCLB reauthorized this calendar year (if George Miller and Buck McKeon have anything to say about it).  So instead of getting too giddy or too anxious about any of these or similar developments, Eduflack is going to rest the ole pitching arm for the next week as he and the family take a little time away to rest, regroup, and recharge.

Postings will resume September 10.  Let’s Go Mets!

An Intriguing View from the Trenches

Typically, Eduflack comments on what is appearing in the media.  What does it say about education reform activities?  How successful is it as a communication vehicle?  How does it contribute to the overall push to improve the quality of education for all students.

We hear a lot about student data.  This week brought us the debate on what a dip in SAT scores really means, and the Miller-McKeon bill offered the idea of multiple assessments to determine student achievement.  You know where I stand — there should be one national standard that all students are measured against.  It is the only way we can ensure that every student, regardless of hometown or socio-economic standing, has the skills and opportunities to achieve in the 21st century workplace.

So when the following piece came across Eduflack’s inbox, it piqued my interest.  It was written by Hayes Mizell, the former director of the Program for Student Achievement at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and former school desegregation advocate in South Carolina during the 1960s and 1970s.  While I may not agree with all of his points, it is a commentary definitely worth a read.

Why?  It is written from experience in the trenches.  It gives a different voice to an issue that is widely debated.  And it provides a call to action that isn’t seen too often in our middle-of-the-road commentaries.

So I offer the following from Mizell:

“Resting in their heavenly repose, South Carolina’s civil rights pioneers of the 1930s and 1940s must be scratching their heads. A prominent African-American state senator, also a Democrat and minister, says many of his generational peers are longing for the days of racially segregated schools. Another minister says most African-American children ‘fared better when we were segregated.’

These leaders are understandably frustrated. Too many children are not reaping the academic gains that African-Americans hoped would follow public school desegregation. On last year’s state achievement test, more than 40,000 African-American students in grades three through eight scored ‘Below Basic’ in English/Language Arts. An average of 60 percent of all African-American students in third through eighth grade performed at the Below Basic level in science.

There is some good news. Thousands of African-American students are performing well, scoring at the highest levels, “Proficient” or “Advanced,” on the state test. However, thousands more have the unrealized potential to do so.

Proposals to solve students’ academic problems abound, but many are simplistic. South Carolina has long favored such approaches in public policy. Human bondage would fuel economic development. Secession would free South Carolina of the federal yoke. Racial oppression and segregation would preserve ‘our way of life.’ Low taxes would attract industry. Providing a ‘minimally adequate education’ will secure the state’s future.

Now comes school choice. Some African-American leaders are tempted by the prospect of state financial support, one way or another, for constituents to choose private schools for their children. Perhaps they genuinely believe this will improve the education of the more than 275,000 African-American students in South Carolina’s public schools. It may be just as likely they are focusing on the relatively small number who attend or may attend private schools operated by some African-American churches.

There is no doubt some public school educators lack the cultural orientation, sensitivity, and pedagogical skills to educate some African-American students effectively. This is not universally true, however. Several months ago, the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee issued a report examining 26 ‘gap-closing schools.’ During four consecutive years, the schools significantly reduced the achievement differential between ‘historically underperforming students’ and the schools’ other students. Three of the schools had poverty rates greater than 70 percent.

What were the reasons for the schools’ success? The report concludes: ‘Not only do gap-closing schools maintain an instructional environment that supports high achievement, but these schools also create a positive school climate that fosters the attainment of high student performance.’ These conditions do not exist in every public school because local education leaders choose not to make the effort and take the risks necessary to develop and sustain them.

All South Carolinians, not just African-Americans, should be enraged that too many children are failing to meet the state’s academic standards. Where this is persistently the case, citizens should organize to demand and support improvements in their local public schools.

At the same time, African-Americans are entitled to the same portion of nostalgia as any other segment of the population. After three centuries, they also have the right to seek or create what they consider to be the most effective education venues for their children. Their unique history, however, provides them a useful guide to discern what is false and what is true. Separation, withdrawal, and isolation are anathema to authentic education. They did not serve African-American children well when required by law. They will not serve them well if sought by choice.”

Definitely gives folks something to think about as the Ed in 08ers push for greater education-speak in South Carolina and as we continue to look at (or look away from) the achievement gap.

In Search of Relevancy

It’s been a busy week in education, what with SAT scores released, the Miller-McKeon draft dropped, and classes starting in school districts across the nation.  It can be a tough time to gain some meaningful news coverage this year, even if you are the educator-in-chief.

We’ve all commented on the incredible media coverage Margaret Spellings has received since becoming Secretary of Education.  She has been focused on issues, level-headed in her comments, and in control of the situation.  Even as Reading First scandals swirled and IG reports became best-sellers, Spellings knew how to stay on message, reframe the issues, and remain relevant.

But this week, Spellings has Eduflack scratching his head.  First, she’s up in Alaska, doing a day of NCLB “tours.”  While I understand the call to support a Republican Senator in trouble, are the votes in the Alaskan congressional delegation and the public opinion in our northern-most state really a pressing need for the U.S. Department of Education?  And if the goal was to focus on rural education issues, there are far more effective ways to draw attention the challenges of rural ed than leaving the lower 48.

And then there was the Q&A in today’s USA Today.  Spellings has always played well with USA Today, and the newspaper has always had a clear understanding of the intent of the law, the progress it has made, and the challenges Spellings and company face during reauthorization and beyond. 

Check out the Q&A, though.  It is an interesting read, sure.  But there seems to be a disconnect between the interview and the very real issues policymakers are dealing with on NCLB and related issues.  There was no sense of urgency.  There was no sense of the push to improve the law.  There was no unwavering commitment to improving the quality, delivery, and impact of education for all students.  It reads more like a coffee shop chat than it does a call to action to more than a million readers.

Could it be that the U.S. Secretary of Education has lost her relevancy in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act? 

Turning the Corner on NCLB?

For months now, one of the greatest parlor games in DC education policy sectors has been when No Child Left Behind will be reauthorized.  Depending on who you listen to, it’ll happen next month, this fall, or maybe 2009.  We’ve seen a number of “alternative” bills proposed, and we’ve heard the calls for outright elimination of NCLB.

A few weeks ago, we heard from Congressman George Miller on his views of NCLB.  Again, nothing earth-shattering there, other than the good congressman floated the trial balloon of multiple assessments in evaluating student achievement.  The rhetoric seemed to stick, if this week’s proposal is any indication.

I’ll leave it to the policy wonks to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the Miller-McKeon “draft” for NCLB reauthorization.  From the cheap seats, Eduflack is glad to see key components of NCLB remain intact, is a little disappointed in the proposed perceived weakening of accountability provisions, and concerned about the future of full funding for Reading First.

No, what is really of interest is HOW Miller and McKeon are working this reauthorization, and what it says about the future of NCLB 2.0.

First, they are offering a bipartisan solution.  At a time when rhetoric and vitriol is at its best (or worst) on Capitol Hill, we’ve got a powerful Democrat and an equally powerful Republican joining together to offer a meaningful solution to a politically charged problem.  Just as NCLB was positioned six years ago, this is not a blue or red issue.  Providing all students with a high-quality education, an effective teacher, and opportunity is an American issue.  We entered the NCLB in bipartisan fashion, and we now enter 2.0 the same way.

Second, the two demonstrate they understand the challenges stakeholders, bomb throwers, and status quoers pose to meaningful legislation.  They opened the tent, leaving no voice out at this point in the process.  This week’s announcement is intended as the start of the dialogue, purposely released so all concerned can comment, criticize, and offer improvements.  Miller and McKeon may know well, but they admit that the views of others are equally important in improving the law.  They opened the lines of communication, versus cutting them off from the start.

Finally, they issued no ultimatums.  There is no line in the sand.  Just the commitment that we are continuing the law, and we are seeking to improve the law.  Opponents can’t shoot down this draft … yet.  And if one seeks to wait to criticize after the reauthorization bill is dropped, they are guilty of refusing to participate in the process.   You gotta play the game in the early innings if you expect to win it in the ninth.

Yes, there are still many miles to go on NCLB reauthorization.  And this draft still needs a lot of work before it is a true improvement in the law.  But if this week is any indication, Miller and McKeon understand how to marketing and promote their vision and their intentions.  A bipartisan approach, an approach that invites input and offers the time and space for continued improvement, is just what the current situation calls for.  These two congressional leaders have reduced the temperature a little on NCLB, and provided a tad bit of hope in what was once seen as a hopeless situation.

Expanding Our View

Typically, the education community focuses on its own universe.  Practitioners talk to practitioners.  Researchers to researchers.  Policymakers to policymakers.  Influencers to influencers.  Even flacks to flacks.  We rely on those who understand our position, have stood in our shoes, and know of what they speak.

It’s only been recently that we have seen the business community for more than just its checkbook.  In recent years, states, districts, and schools have seen the enormous role the corporate sector can play in improving instructional quality, boosting focus on results and the bottom line, and focusing our work in the classroom with the work our students may face after passing through the schoolhouse doors for the last time.

As a result, we’ve seen growing dialogue between educators and business, all in the name of the 21st century global workforce, global competitiveness, and relevant instruction.

This approach serves two core communications purposes.  The first is to get educators thinking about the end game — preparing students for the real world.  The second (and the one often overlooked) is it gets the business community thinking about and acting on the educational needs of their business, their industry sector, and their current and future employers.

Case in point, Jeffrey M. Lacker’s commentary in today’s Washington Post.  If you missed it, it was because it was in the Business section (a place where few educators dare to tread), and not in Metro or the A section.  Lacker is President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, and the piece in question was excerpted from Lacker’s presentation at the Governor’s Summit on Early Childhood Development in Virginia.  Check it out for yourself —

And why is this commentary so important to the communication of education reform?  First, it clearly examines public education through a private sector lens, exploring issues like human capital, skill differentials, and the rest.  More importantly, it expands the education-business continuum.  Instead of only focusing on high schools and skill acquisition, Lacker also cites the need to attend to and invest in early childhood education.  In its simplest way, you invest in a three- or five-year-old’s education now, and it will pay exponential dividends come high school or college graduation.

Too often, we think the concerns over the global economy can be fixed with last-minute interventions in secondary school.  But anyone who has been in a classroom knows that if we don’t equip our kids with the skills and educational building blocks from go, its gets harder and harder to achieve as you move through the school system.

Lacker’s right.  A children’s education is a smart investment.  And like all smart investments, we need to properly fund it, watch it grow and mature, and reap the benefits once it has run its course.  Lacker and the Federal Reserve may be onto something here.  Is anyone listening?

Looking for Ed Improvement in the Montana Sky

In focusing on an issue like education reform, Eduflack never expected that he would be writing multiple entries about the great state of Montana.  In March, we talked about how pre-K advocates in the state understood effective communication and effective advocacy.  Now, we focus on Montana Sen. Max Baucus, and his effort to solve multiple education ails with his proposed Education Competitiveness Act.

The Billings Gazette has the full story —  The highlights are simple.  A big focus is making sure that kids are ready to learn when they start kindergarten.  But the more interesting focus is his commitment to provide full scholarships to any high school student looking to major in science, technology, engineering, or math.  The catch — those students would have to teach for four years after college graduation. 

Why is this so interesting?  Simply, it sends several powerful messages:
* It cements STEM education as a national priority.
* It places recruiting qualified teachers for hard-to-staff courses like math and science on the national education priority list.
* It makes clear that teaching STEM is just as important as learning it.  Being a STEM teacher is just as important as being a rocket scientist or a cancer curer.

What is also does is focus on solutions.  The Education Competitiveness Act is not about casting blame for the lack of teachers in rural communities or to bemoan the loss of U.S. jobs to competitor countries overseas.  It recognizes that economic success begins with educational success.  And educational success begins with the teacher.

Of course, this proposal is simply the latest to be thrown on top of the pile of education reforms, NCLB realignments, and other such legislation that Congress is using to keep the front doors propped up.  Soon, it may just be time to take a look at these proposals, take a look at the current laws, and actually craft a meaningful national K-12 education law focused on evidence-based instruction, improved student performance, and effective teaching.  An eduflack can dream, can’t he?

More College Ranking Brouhaha

Just when we thought it was safe to go back into the higher education waters.  Last week, U.S. News & World Report released its annual college rankings, suffering the growing criticism around methodology and the swelling group of four-year institutions choosing not to submit their data for review.  Still, the top 25 remain strong (with Eduflack’s alma mater still one of the top public universities — Wahoowah!).

This week, Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed unveils a new rankings controversy — the ranking of our nation’s top community colleges. 

Working with data from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, Washington Monthly has assembled a list of America’s Best Community Colleges, published under a subhead banner — “Why they’re better than some of the ‘best’ four-year universities.”

CCSSE is quick to point out that its survey was not intended to serve as the ruler for the measurement of two-year colleges.  Regardless, Washington Monthly has taken the available data, mixed it with graduation rates, and provided a vehicle to make educated choices, compare institutions, and help students better understand where their education dollars are going.

Does it matter?  Of course it does.  At no time in our nation’s history has our network of community colleges played such an important role in our education continuum.  Community colleges and technical schools are now key in providing students the skills and knowledge they to perform in the 21st century economy.  The pipeline between two- and four-year institutions is growing larger and stronger every year.  And community colleges are finding the demands for education growing, as they deal with everything from an increased immigrant pool to workforce retraining and mid-career changers.

More importantly, though, Washington Monthly placed two-year colleges on relatively equal footing with four-years, an action that educators have struggled with for decades.  The publication measured community colleges through categories such as enrollment, tuition rates, student-faculty interaction and graduation rates.  It appears Education Sector assisted Washington Monthly with the study.

Why is it all so important?  One may be able to quibble with the methodology or question some of the rankings, but this community college list sends some powerful messages. 
* Quality and impact are key factors in choosing a school, whether it be two year or four year.
* There is a growing demand for data on our educational institutions.
* Community colleges are now one of the successful paths high school graduates can take to a rewarding career.

Community colleges should look at Washington Monthly’s rankings with pride.  We rank when demand outweighs supply.  We rank when we seek high quality and don’t want to settle.  We rank when we want to know we’re making the right choices.  We rank when we see value.  This is a sign we are now starting to value the role of the community college in the K-20 education continuum.

Time Magazine: Ed Reform Pub of Record?

We regularly bemoan that the mainstream media doesn’t pay much attention to education reform issues.  Check out the editorial pages of the top 25 dailies, and see how many op-eds or letters to the editor or front-page headlines speak to education topics.  While there are some pockets of strong coverage (USA Today for one), education still lacks the top billing of domestic issues like healthcare or the environment.

And then there is Time magazine.  If you haven’t seen it already, this week’s cover has a picture of a cute baby dressed up as Albert Einstein, under a header noting we have a genius problem.  Or more simply, NCLB is ignoring the smart kids.  Not a new concept, but one that is now getting national attention on newstands across the United States.

Writing about the “smart kids” makes for interesting copy.  While every parent wants their child to fall into that category, it can be difficult to personalize a story on the topic in a way that the reader understands the problem and wants to do something about it (particularly if it may take resources away from their child).  So Eduflack was ready to write this off as a one-time exception, an itch that Time editors needed to scratch.

But Eduflack would be wrong.  Last month, there was the Time cover on Myths about Boys (the good news for those of us with sons is they are not lost causes).  In June, they ran a “Report Card on NCLB” cover.  April brought a cover story on teaching the Bible in public schools.  And December 2006 offered us a great cover series on how to build a student for the 21st century.

That’s five cover stories in the last nine months.  And Eduflack hasn’t even mentioned the April 2006 cover on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Stand Up campaign, billed under the header “Dropout Nation.”

It’s hard enough to get a story written in a publication like Time.  Getting a cover story can be downright impossible.  So what does it say when Time has dedicated five covers in recent months to K-12 education reform issues?  Time recognizes that education reform is a top domestic issue in the United States, and is a top priority for its readers.  There are new and different things are happening in the education arena.  And education issues draw reader attention … and magazine sales.

I don’t know why Time continues to do it, but I’m glad they do.  These collection of covers demonstrate that education reform is more than just NCLB and testing.  Hopefully others can take a lesson from some of Time’s editorial pursuits.   

Leaving a Lasting Ed Footprint

For months now, the drumbeat for education reform in the presidential campaigns has grown louder and louder.  Until recently, we got a tease in a stump speech here, a response to a YouTube question there, but little of any real substance and little of any real meaning.  Democrats have bashed NCLB, promising to overhaul it or kill it off completely.  Republicans have made mention of local control.  But few really tried to wade into the rhetorical waters, seeing if they could withstand the waves generated by the status quoers.

So it was refreshing to see that no fewer than four aspirants — on both sides of the aisle — for our nation’s highest office weaved education into their communications portfolio this week.

In the red corner, we heard Mitt Romney turn a great (though not original) rhetorical phrase, calling education a civil rights issue.  And from Rudy Guiliani, we heard the call for expanded access to school vouchers.  Both are speaking to the same concern — that every child, regardless of where they may lay their heads at night — is entitled to a high-quality, effective education.  And that education is a ticket to success in college and in career.

In the blue corner, we heard from John Edwards, focusing on the need for multiple pathways to high school graduation.  And just yesterday, we heard Barack Obama again praise the potential value of merit pay for teachers.  Here, both candidates called for a little innovation in our education reform, seeing merit in what is either unpopular with key constituencies (Obama) or shaking the foundations of that which we’ve known for decades (Edwards). 

And what can we glean from these forays into the ed reform arena?  First, it seems the growing demand for educational rhetoric and ideas is finally being heard in the campaign offices.  Be it Ed in 08, be it increased questions on the stump in Iowa or South Carolina or New Hampshire, but candidates finally see that education is a top domestic concern of the voters.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, we are finally talking about education reform with an eye on the outcomes, not just on the inputs.  For years, education-speak was about what textbooks were purchased, what tests were to be given, and what a teacher payscale may look like.  Our focus was on the front end — what was going in.

With these latest remarks, we may have finally made the shift into outcomes.  The impact charter schools have on low-income students.  Equal access to a high-quality education.  Increased value of a high school diploma.  And rewarding effective teaching.

We’re still a long way from getting to the point where our educational successes are assessed on the achievement of our students and the measurable successes in our classrooms.  But we are starting to get there.  At the end of the day, outcomes are the only reliable measure we have.  We are still a nation at risk.  We are still leaving children behind.  If education is to truly become a civil right, we need to empower our teachers, our schools, and our communities to ensure that all kids get access to instruction that works, all students are measured effectively and equally, and all teachers have the support and incentives needed to drive such a train.

Yes, that is Eduflack’s educational dream.  Once we put aside the NCLB punching bag and start talking about the instructional issues that are of most importance to us and our children, we start seeing what is possible.  Education shouldn’t be a defense of the status quo and a firm “no” to new and innovative ideas.  There is a chance to leave a lasting educational footprint, a footprint that future generations can follow to continued improvement, achievement, and success.

A Sign of the Times

We spend a lot of time focused on the meaning (or lack thereof) of specific words when it comes to talking about education reform.  What’s the intent?  What’s the goal?  What’s the measurement?

But sometimes, a item hits Eduflack like a sledgehammer, and just doesn’t need such exploration.  Case in point — “My Child’s Pack.” (  Special thanks to Alexandra Bruell at PRWeek for throwing the spotlight on this latest back to school product.

What is it?  There is now a line of ballistic backpacks for middle and high school students designed to “provide on the spot protection against guns and knife violence!”

MJ Safety Solutions clearly knows the problem, the solution, and are not shy to talk about it in the bluntest of terms.  Do we even have to ask what message this sends?  Or what parental concern it is addressing?  Of course not.  There’s no misunderstanding the message here.

I loved back-to-school time because it meant a new Trapper Keeper.  Oh how times have changed.