The Ed Trust White Hat

If the latest movie reviews are any indication, westerns are back.  And they are back for a very simple reason.  They effectively tell a story.  We have a protagonist.  We have an obstacle to overcome.  Things seem bleak.  Then the hero rises to the challenge, saves the town and wins the gal.  If that were too hard for us to follow, we just need to know that the good guys wear white hats; the bad guys black.

In many ways, education reform is like that time-tested genre.  And we only need to look west to California to see what Eduflack means.

The setting — California public schools.  An old regular around the corral, going by the name George Miller, notices that his education town is lacking.  It’s missing those experienced or enthusiastic hands needed to lead in the classroom.  Without such teachers, Miller will never strengthen the schools and bring academic hope to those who had lost it.  The town may just fade away, the victim of another lost generation of students.

So Miller gathers his posse of Democrats and Republicans, advocates and business leaders, and draws up a plan.  We’ll bring those teachers to town the way we recruit good sheriffs or businessmen or such professionals.  We reward success.  We incentivize the job, paying more to those teachers willing to take on tough assignments and to those teachers who succeed when all said it was hopeless.  We recognize achievement, tipping our cap to outcomes, and not just inputs.

As Miller unveils his new plan to the town council, in rides the California Teachers Association, intent on thwarting Miller’s plans for improvement.  Topped in the black hats of the status quo, CTA calls Miller’s plan “unfair” and “disrespectful.”  Implementing it will destroy the town, driving teachers away and leaving our classrooms rudderless.    If there is money available for incentives, use it to give all teachers a raise, regardless of their effectiveness.

In the past, when CTA has ridden into town, community elders have acquiesced to the demands of the CTA.  One can’t risk standing against an organization as large and powerful as the CTA, particularly on an issue like teacher pay.  After all, if you cross these rhetoricians in black, their omens may come true and all could be lost.  Better to stick with the status quo than to raise the ire of the CTA and its supporters.

Out in the distance, though, approaches a white horse.  With six-shooters loaded with research data, the Education Trust has ridden to Miller’s defense, and to the defense of those inner-city teachers determined to make a difference and improve student achievement.  Performance pay works.  Our schools need change.  The status quo cannot remain.  Incentives boost student achievement and teacher satisfaction.  This should be the law.  And EdTrust will stay here until it the legislation is wearing its little tin star of “law.”

Will our reformers on the white horse succeed?  Will Miller find a way to incentivize teachers?  Or will the CTA keep its grip on public education in California?  We’ll all stay tuned for the next installment, as we wait to see who rides in to join EdTrust in this showdown at the performance pay corral.

South of the ELL Border …

With all of the policy talk on AYP and teacher incentives and such issues, it is easy to see how we can lose sight of an enormously important issue facing school districts — English Language Learners.  Take a listen at any large urban school, and you’ll hear dozens of languages spoken.  And Spanish is leading the pack.

When Eduflack’s mother came to the United States at the age of 5, she didn’t know a word of English.  At the time, the response from the public schools in New Jersey was to hand her a paintbrush, point her to an easel, and let her draw until she started picking up enough English to handle the rigors of Sayreville Public Schools.

That approach may have worked then, but we all know it won’t work now.  In many classrooms, if we followed that approach, we’d need a few dozen easels, and only a couple of school desks.  So what is a school district, or a teacher, to do when faced with the challenges of teaching a growing Spanish-speaking population?

There’s an interesting answer coming out of Oregon.  Following efforts being pursued by school districts in Washington, California, and Texas, the Oregon Department of Education has sought out a unique solution to this growing problem.  Oregon is now working with Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Education, gaining the textbooks, Internet sites, and interactive materials developed by our neighbor to the South to teach math, science, and history to its Spanish speakers. 

The story is here, courtesy of the Associated Press.

Undoubtedly, some will have real problems with such an approach.  We hear we only need English-speaking classrooms, and anything else just grows the problem.  For these folks, the solution is more paintbrushes.

Our public schools, though, have an obligation to educate all students who come through their doors.  And if those schools can find a method to successfully teach their students the math and science skills they need to succeed in school, and are able to effectively measure such learning, they should pursue it.  And as we demonstrate effectiveness, we should be looking to replicate it in districts and schools that face similar student challenges.

No one is saying we give up on English language instruction.  That is a non-negotiable in our schools, even those where 100+ languages are being spoken.  But we can’t afford to wait for those skills to be mastered before we provide math, science, or social studies instruction.  It isn’t an either/or solution.  And the Oregon Department of Education recognizes that.

What does this approach say to the education reform community?  If we are going to have every student in our public schools achieving in the classroom, we need to explore multiple pathways, solutions, and ideas to get us there.  As we opine on best practices and modeling, we need to realize that those best practices are not limited to our schools of education or the lessons learned in the lower 48.

And the Prize Goes To …

When talking school improvement, we often hear that an individual school or even a school district may be beyond repair.  Wrong teachers.  Wrong curriculum.  Wrong buildings.  Wrong students.  Sure, we may hear that, but it is just the wrong thing to say.

If you look at public education across the United States, there is not a single district, school, or student we can afford to give up on.  It may be hard.  It may take time.  It may require suspending previous thinking.  But Eduflack would like to believe any school can be turned around with the right culture, knowledgebase, commitment, curriculum, measurement, and feedback loop.  Don’t believe me?  Take a look at the Broad Prize.

Nearly impossible to miss, yesterday the Broad Foundation awarded the New York City Public Schools with the annual Broad Prize, the sixth urban school district to win the prestigious award.  A $1 million pot speaks volumes about the impact of the Prize, but what does the Prize tell us about urban school reform?

If you look at NYC — along with past winners like Houston, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Norfolk, and Boston — you see a collection of urban school districts that, a decade or two ago, we were ready to complete give up on.  We see districts that many, especially those who knew them best, said were beyond repair.  Spurred by a desire to improve and encouraged by the prize across the Broad finish line, these school districts did the impossible.  They made real change.  They reinvented the school culture.  They demonstrated real student achievement.  Simply, they got the job done.

And this year’s winner?  Chancellor Klein and company have much to be proud of, even without the oversized Broad check.  In reading and math, NYC outperformed other New York districts serving students of similar income levels.  African-America, Hispanic, and low-income students showed great improvement in reading and math.  The city has made real strides in closing the achievement gap.

This isn’t a revolution.  By definition, a revolution has a finite end.  Instead, NYC and its fellow winners have started a movement.  An ongoing process of improvement and success designed to continue to gain momentum.

What lessons can we learn from the Broad Prize, aside from the notion that school improvement is a universal possibility?  Interestingly, the Broad Prize can serve as a teaching tool for those who are weighing the future of NCLB and AYP.  Much has been written, spoken, and shouted about the issue of multiple measures.  Is there one — and only one — way to effectively measure student achievement?  Or are there a number of factors that must be taken into account when evaluating the success of a school or classroom?

If Broad is any indication, the true measure of school improvement requires multiple measures.  Looking at quantitative and qualitative data, analyzing a range of topics and issues, taking all facets of the school and the operating environment into account, Broad makes its decisions.  It is a complicated process.

It’s one thing to give an award to the urban school district that simply shows the greatest year-on-year improvement in student achievement.  It is something completely different to recognize that there are a number of factors — some immeasurable — that contribute to the overall success of a school district.

It’s enough to give even the strongest of data-driven decisionmakers a little something to think about.

“All We Are Sayin’ Is Give NCLB a Chance …”

What a way to start the week.  As Eduflack was trying to re-engage into the world after less than a week of family vacation, there is the New York Times oped calling on Congress and the U.S. Department of Education to resist the National Education Association and its attempts to weaken No Child Left Behind.  Today, we get the Washington Post editorializing that we cannot weaken NCLB, and they complement it by dedicating two-thirds of their op-ed page to essay-ettes on the virtues (or lack thereof) of the nation’s K-12 law.

That’s a lot of column inches dedicated to the protection of NCLB.  Heck, it is a lot of words dedicated to national education policy.  And it was just the sort of rhetoric that caught many by surprise, and had some downright fall out of their chairs.

Yes, we expect folks like NEA’s Reg Weaver and Fairfax County, Virginia Supe Jack Dale striking out against NCLB.  But did anyone expect the growing chorus of support for NCLB?

No, we didn’t expect it, but we’re thrilled to hear it.  Finally, the talk is about NCLB. Finally, the buzz is about the strongest possible interpretations of student achievement.  And finally, the focus is on effective measurement and evidence-based decisionmaking.

In doing so, we have taken a major step in the messaging and PR surrounding NCLB.  This is no longer a yes/no decision.  The voices of support have broken through the white noise, and we now see that NCLB (and its accompanying subsidiaries like Reading First and Highly Qualified Teachers) will remain the law of the land.  The rhetoric is not about gutting the law.  Instead, we are talking about improving it.

There is agreement on the need to assess student learning.  Now we just need decide on the merits of a single measure versus multiple measures.  There is agreement on quality teaching.  Now we just need to decide on the merits of training and pedagogy versus classroom results.  There is agreement on evidence-based instruction.  Now we just need to distinguish between the good research and the bad.  And now there is agreement that effective education is based on student achievement.  Now we just need to determine how to bring that new focus to every state, school district, and classroom throughout the nation.

One thing’s clear, it is going to be an interesting fall.  Yes, there are still many cards to be played in this game.  But if we start peeking at the hand that’s been dealt, the odds of NCLB 2.0 fulfilling the wishes of folks like WaPo, EdTrust, and others are looking stronger by the day.