The Next Great “Ed” Reform Idea

NCLB may be now, with reauthorization and merit pay being leading topics of education cocktail parties.  But as Eduflack friend and online marketing guru Geoff Livingston says, now is gone.  Now is what has happened.  We need to focus on what is to happen.  If the last few weeks has been any indication, the future of education reform could center around two key words — national standards.

For decades, almost no one wanted to touch the issue of national standards.  It was almost the third rail of public education.  It was an affront to local control.  It stood against hundreds of years of American educational tradition.  National standards was a dead-end issue before the words ever fully left the lips of the most eager reformer.

But not any more.  In recent days, we’ve heard from a varied chorus led by Diane Ravitch and DC area superintendents calling for some form of national standards.  And now, we get to enjoy a passionate solo from Roy Romer, chairman of Ed in 08.

At Jobs for the Future’s Double the Numbers 2007 Conference Thursday, Romer asked the question — Why are we, as a nation, not focused on what we can to improve public education?  If we truly want to improve our schools, Romer contends, we need to change the national discussion.  We need each and every citizen to declare, “I want my child to be ready for life.  I want them to have the opportunity for a good college and a good career.”

Amen.  For months now, we’ve been waiting on some bold statements to come from Strong American Schools and Ed in 08.  And bold may not even be strong enough for Romer’s call to action.  I might even call it visionary.

For those who missed it, Romer too has issued the call for national standards.  The former “education” governor of Colorado, the former superintendent of LAUSD, even took it a step further.  According to Romer, the time has come for a collection of leading states to come together and write common education standards.  He issued the call to “education” governors to be proactive, and create the measurements by which our nation’s schools should be evaluated.  Those founding states would all adhere to the common standard.  The remainder of states would soon follow.  And national standards are born.


That one standard, then, would benchmark with standards in countries across the world.  Finally, we would truly know how our students compare with learners across the world.  And the feds role in all of this — to pay for the test.  States set a national measurement and hold themselves to it, and the folks back in Washington write the check.  Sounds simple enough to actually work.   

The result — true consumer protection in American public education.  We have our standards.  We know what we’re doing.  And we know where we stand.  Doesn’t matter if a parent or student is in Seattle, Dubuque, Huntsville, or Boston.  Achievement is achievement, regardless of state border or school district boundary.

Some may be uncomfortable with this discussion, but it is just the sort of issue the education community should be talking about.  Worried about high stakes testing?  Make sure the national standard is one that measures true knowledge.  Concerned we need more stringent accountability measures?  Focus on a standard that truly means something, and doesn’t just speak to the common denominator.

If Romer and Ed in 08 want to really leave their mark on the upcoming presidential elections, this may very well be the way to do so.  We shouldn’t just talk about education, we should be talking about how to improve it.  True national school improvement requires more than asking a question on a YouTube debate or getting an oped printed.  It comes from changing the national discussion.  Only then can we really start identifying and adopting the sorts of solutions that can fix the problem … for good.

Unusual Allies

As one would suspect, there is a great deal of buzz in the ed reform community regarding this morning’s New York Times op-ed piece from Diane Ravitch.  With a provocative title “Get Congress Out of the Classroom” and a strong academic reputation, Ravitch gets people to take notice … even if NCLB bashing is cliché at this point.

What’s far more interesting, though, is holding Ravitch’s recommendations up against those made by Fairfax County (VA) Superintendent Jack Dale and others earlier this week in The Washington Post.  At the time, Eduflack wrote, with great surprise, of Dale and company’s call for national testing and the realignment of responsibilities between the states and the feds.

Who would have thought that Ravitch, Dale, and Montgomery County (MD) Superintendent Jerry Weast would all be singing from the same hymnal?  If researchers like Ravitch and urban superintendents like Dale and Weast keep sharing each other’s talking points on public education reform, we may just have meaningful, long-term school improvement yet!


Looking for Ideas Behind the Endorsement

This afternoon, the American Federation of Teachers endorsed Hillary Clinton for President of the United States of America.  It should be no surprise.  The former Clinton administration had strong support in the teachers unions.  And Senator Clinton has long been a friend of UFT, NYSUT, and AFT.  In its endorsement, AFT cites Clinton’s “proven ability to advance our nation’s key priorities, and her bold plans for a stronger America.”

And good for the AFT.  Rather than wait for additional polling data from the key early states, or wanting to see another quarter of fundraising totals, or waiting to hear more detail on specific issues and policies, the AFT has put its money down on the horse they expect to see in the winner’s circle.  And they’ve done so believing that Clinton represents the best opportunity for AFT-friendly policies come January 2009.

Eduflack is going to assume that Clinton just wowed AFT during the interview process, discussing those bold plans and awing them with her discussion of how she would deal with those key priorities.  Now she’s won their endorsement, and the organizational prowess, resources, and support that come with it.

But it’s got me scratching my head.  For those of us watching from the cheap seats, what exactly is Hillary Clinton’s education platform?  Visit her website, and you don’t even see “education” in her issues menu.  Take some time to explore, and in the “Supporting Parents and Caring for Children” list, you’ll find a bullet to attract and retain good teachers and principals, one to improve NCLB and a bullet increasing access to high-quality early education (a plank she has been quite vocal on and should be credited for).  But those issues are part of a laundry list that includes care for elderly Americans, support for “kinship families,” and opposition to sex and violence in the media.

We all talk about the importance of education.  About the need to improve our schools.  About the need to give every child a chance.  And about how high-quality education affects everything from jobs to healthcare to justice to environment.  Many of us cite education as the top domestic issue this nation faces.  And national polls seem to regularly put it in the list of top fives issues, foreign or domestic.

So if it is so important, why are we still hearing so little of it from presidential candidates?  What platform did Clinton offer to win the support of AFT?  What changes would she make to improve NCLB?  What commitments will she make to attract and retain good teachers?  Does she support merit pay?  What about alternative certification programs?  How about multiple measures of progress?  What interventions does she support to increase the graduation rate?  What is the platform?

I don’t mean to pick on Clinton.  She should be credited for putting forward a meaningful, thought-providing plan for improving early education.  And at the end of the day, she may be the strongest education candidate, in terms of policy ideas, an understanding for the possible, and the capability to reach for the near-impossible.  But if she wins the endorsement of the AFT (and we assume and NEA endorsement may not be too far behind), don’t the voters have a right to hear the specific ways the candidate will improve educational quality and delivery in the United States?  And if we don’t, how do we hold the candidate, any candidate, accountable?


In this rush to wrap up the presidential campaigns by this winter, we run the risk of placing assumptions and core rhetoric ahead of real ideas and policies.  In doing so, we continue to perpetuate the same old empty reform rhetoric, with no one being held accountable.  For those of us who vote on education issues, we want to hear those “bold ideas” Senator Clinton has.  That doesn’t come from one debate question or a well-placed oped.  It comes from an integrated, coherent strategic plan for improving K-12 education.  

Eduflack has bold ideas for a strong America too.  But no one is going to rush to endorse me for President.  Now that Clinton has the backing of AFT, I hope she will tell 1.4 million AFT members (and hundreds of millions of American voters) what specifically she is going to improve public education in the United States.  That would be something to truly endorse.  Now where’s Ed in 08 when we need them?

Advocacy from the Urban Superintendent

The common thinking is that the urban superintendent is the last line of defense for the status quo.  AASA has stood hard and long against the reforms in NCLB.  Urban superintendents, it seems, are leading the charge against classroom measurement and AYP and other such improvements to education delivery and measurement.

We forget, though, that the educational leaders in our urban centers are also the early adopters of reforms like Teach for America and KIPP and New Leaders for New Schools.  And we ignore that these superintendents are the ones with the highest stakes, and the ones most willing to try new reforms if they can deliver maximum impact.

And then we get slapped upside the head with a call for national standards.

For those who missed it, Eduflack is referring to an analysis in today’s Washington Post, written by Jay Matthews.  Based on interviews and public statements of Washington, DC-areas superintendents, Matthews paints a clear picture of a cadre of superintendents focused on reforms, improvements, and the bottom line.

It’s no secret that these leaders have voiced a real frustration with NCLB and many of its requirements.  And these frustrations have been translated — by many, including Eduflack — as opposition to the law.  But a closer look of the rhetoric paints a very different picture.

Just look at Fairfax County (VA) Superintendent Jack Dale.  Past statements maligning NCLB testing requirements have been interpreted as opposition to testing itself.  Yes, Dale has real issues with a series of state tests that don’t relate or integrate with one another, yet are governed by a single federal enforcement filter.  His solution — let the feds develop the tests, and empower the states (and LEAs, I suppose) to enact the specific interventions necessary to turn our low-performing schools around and offer virtually every kid the keys to success.

And Dale isn’t alone.  He seems to be joined in the call for national standards by the supes from Montgomery County, MD; Arlington County, VA; and others.

There’s no question that the voice of the superintendent has been almost non-existent when it comes to NCLB 2.0.  Again, we assume a defense for the status quo and opposition to reforms or attempts to build a better mousetrap.  We may assume, but we also need to verify. 

Failed reforms are littered with the remains of assumptions and generalizations.  If we’re looking to improve our struggling schools, we need to include the very superintendents who manage those schools.  They know the problems.  They know the reforms that have been tried and failed (or succeeded).  And they know that, just sometimes, we need a little bold thinking that no one is expecting. 

Now if only Dale and company can rally their fellow superintendents (and the organization that is supposed to represent their interests) to stand behind national standards, we may just have a reform that could make a lasting difference in every LEA and SEA across the nation.

Not in “My” School

Over the past few years, we’ve heard a great deal about the school choice provisions for families in failing schools.  When it was passed into law, the critics painted a picture of a nation of students, fleeing their neighborhood schools (and the poor academic conditions they might house) and running for the nearest suburban school with shiny new desks, just out-of-the-wrap textbooks, and higher per-pupil costs.  We stood by and waited for the great migration, as those schools that missed academic goals for two straight years would see all of their students flee.

According to The Washington Post (, that scenario hasn’t exactly played out.    In fact, it doesn’t even seem to be a consideration.  Of the 5.4 million students eligible under federal law to switch from a failing school, only 1.2 percent have made the move.  That leaves 98.8 percent who have chosen to stay put.

Why?  Why, when given a chance, are parents not willing to give up on a failing school in their community?  Why, when given a chance, are kids not choosing to attend a school that is better, or at least better on paper?  Why aren’t poor-performing schools forced to close, as all of their students move to higher-performing ones?

Some will say that there aren’t enough slots in those higher-performing schools, and families don’t have the choices we seem to think they do.  While that may be true for a handful of students, is that really what is keeping more than nine of 10 students in their community school, regardless of its performance?

Of course not.  Students stay in their schools because we don’t want to believe our neighborhood school is failing.  Despite the AYP numbers, we trust our schools.  We have faith in our principal.  We like our teachers.  Our child is happy at the school.  The numbers must be wrong.  Other schools in the area may be failing, but not mine.  I just know it.

Back in 1990, the nation voiced loud displeasure for the job Congress was doing.  Some minor scandals, coupled with an ever-growing budget deficit and the sense of a “do nothing” Congress had voters calling for them all to be thrown out.  Much like today’s poll numbers, we were clamoring for the whole Congress to be voted out of office prior to the November election.  They were all corrupt bums.  We needed a new class.  So Election Day came and … virtually every incumbent was re-elected.  The pollsters went back to see if they had messed up their previous interviews.  What they found was startling.  Across the nation, we still wanted to throw those bums out.  Everyone, that was, but our congressman.  They’re all bad, except for my guy.

And that’s what we’re seeing with our schools.  We recognize our nation’s schools need help.  And we know it is hard to find a single school that couldn’t benefit from a more effective curriculum, better student measures, or more effective teachers.  But we’re not ready to give up on our own school.  Those other schools may need to be overhauled or closed altogether, but not mine.  Mine has hope.  Mine has potential.  It’s my school, after all, and I’m going to protect it.

That’s not a bad sentiment to have.  The next task becomes transferring that defense of school into a school-based effort to improve.  Take that school pride, and transform it into reforms that can make a difference.  Really give those parents a school (and school outcomes) to be proud of.

The ability to transfer from a low-performing school is a lovely rhetorical tool.  It puts all schools on notice, and provides parents and families the power to decide the academic futures of their children.  It provides some hope into what was once a hopeless situation.  But it is not a panacea for low-performing schools.

At the end of the day, the goal should be to fix struggling schools, not abandon them.  The objective should be to have students both happy and achieving in their neighborhood schools.  If the threat of transfer gets us closer to that goal, terrific. 

Numbers don’t lie.  We know which schools are performing, and which are struggling.  The challenge is taking the data and fixing the latter, intellectually rebuilding schools so all kids, parents, and neighborhoods really have something to be proud of.       

In the NAEP Scrum

It’s been almost a week now, and the dust following the release of the latest NAEP scores is just finally starting to settle.  The story varies widely, depending on who you listen to and who you respect on such issues.  This year’s reading and math NAEP scores demonstrate we have greatly improved instruction over the past few years.  Or they show that we have actually taken a step backward.  Progress or regress, it seems.

What is clear is that both math and reading scores have ticked upward, with math performance rising more than reading.  What is even clearer, though, is that we still have much work to do.  The education community is quibbling over the “meaning” of the small rise in reading scores and its implications for the future.  It’s like listening to a faculty senate meeting, focusing on the personal periphery rather than the ultimate outcomes and impact.

But there is a lesson to be found in the stacks of disaggregated data and he said/she said debates.  Set aside all of the rhetoric.  Put away all of the interpretation.  Forget all of the hidden meanings.  What’s left?  A national commitment to boosting student achievement.

For some, the scores were badges of success.  For others, they were indicators of inadequacy.  But for all, the NAEP scores were the tool for determining whether we have demonstrably improved student achievement.  For once, the education industry was focused on outcomes, and not just on the inputs.  We were talking results (or lack there of) and how to further improve those results.

Without question, there is MUCH work that still needs to be done to improve student proficiency in reading and math.  The experts will spend the next few weeks determining the significance of these gains, comparing them to previous gains.  But these scores do send a message to all willing to listen.  Improvement is possible, but it requires significantly more work, attention, and resources.  And that’s a far harder lesson to learn.