Pundits Vs. Analysts on Ed

Is it or isn’t it?  Yesterday, the Ed in 08 folks held a forum up in New Hampshire, offering an impressive list of “pundits” discussing how education was becoming a key issue for the upcoming presidential elections.  Today, This Week in Education has a link to a CNS News story, where their “analysts” say education will not be a significant issue in 2008.  (http://www.crosswalk.com/news/11560325/)  Who’s right?  And does it matter?

At the end of the day, they are probably both right.  Education may be a top five issue when it comes to voter concerns, but it simply is not an issue that people vote on, particularly for presidential elections.  We’ll vote on the war.  On healthcare.  On the general economy.  Even for a balanced budget.  But education is viewed as a local issue.  The president may carry a rhetorical stick, but the vast majority of reforms, improvements and dollars are coming from state and local sources.  Governors and mayors and city councils get elected on education issues.  Not presidents.  As a result, education won’t be a significant issue in 2008.

But it can become a key issue in differentiating some of the presidential candidates (and that’s likely Ed in 08’s hope).  To date, Obama has done the most with the issue, calling for merit pay before the NEA and offering a fairly comprehensive education agenda earlier this month.  Others have dabbled in issues like preK or college loans.  Most have come out strongly against NCLB (even in GOP circles), particularly when it comes to testing.  That leaves a great deal of room to play in, position, and orate.

For months now, folks have been waiting for Ed in 08 to seize the podium as it intended this past spring, and really make the case for national leadership in education reform.  The organization has set a goal of advocating for three key issues with presidential candidates — 1) agreement on American education standards; 2) effective teachers in every classroom; and 3) more time and support for student learning.  Hardly the call to action that makes hearts skip a beat and convinces the citizenry to slay dragons with a butter knife.

Democrats want to advocate for education policy that aligns with the wishes and dreams of the NEA and AFT.  Republicans want to return education issues to the localities.  That leaves a wide lane for bold, strong action and rhetoric.

What would Eduflack be screaming on the stump?
1) A high school diploma is a non-negotiable that every student needs to obtain a meaningful job.
2) In the 21st century, every student needs some form of postsecondary education, be it community college, CTE training, or four-year institution.  A well-paying career requires postsec ed.
3) K-12 is no longer just an education issue.  It is an economic development issue.  If we want economic development, if we want good jobs, if we want job growth in our community, we need a strong K-12 system (and a strong PK-16 system would be even better).
4) Teaching is a hard job.  We need to make sure every classroom has a proven effective teacher, and that teacher has the support he or she needs to do the job (see Aspen’s Commission on NCLB for the blueprint on this one)
5) We only teach what works.  Proven effective rules the day.  Curriculum, teachers, and students must all show their worth and must demonstrate success.  The era of silver-bullet education and quick fixes is over.  It takes real work and proven effective instruction to do the job.
6) Education reform is a shared responsibility.  From the fed to the locality.  From teachers to parents.  From the CBOs to the business community.  We all have a role, and an obligation, in improving our public schools.
7) We need to publicize the successes.  We spend too much time talking about what’s going wrong in our schools.  We need to provide the megaphone to what is working, and use it a teaching and modeling tool.  We all benefit when we see what schools like ours and kids like our are doing to succeed.  And there’s a lot of good happening in our schools.

Yes, such messages are bound to offend some.  But isn’t that what bold communication is all about?  If we want to protect the status quo, we can speak in vague generalities with words that have muddled meaning and virtually no impact.  Improvement is reform.  Reform is change.  Change is rocking the boat.  

For the past few decades, public education has been home to the status quoers.  Look where it has gotten us.  If we expect to get real traction on issues like national education standards, performance measures for teachers, expansion of charter schools and school choice, and a number of other reforms and ideas that are thrown about, we need an environment that allows for change.  That’s the only way we get education into the top tier of issues for federal elections.

Without doubt, the good people at Ed in 08 have the resources, the experience, and the know how to do this.  The snowmen have had their chance to ask the tough questions.  Now’s the time to put the candidate’s feet to the fire on what exactly they would do to boost student achievement and educational quality in our public schools.  Don’t tell us what’s wrong with the system; we know it better than you.  Tell us how your administration will fix it.  Please.

If Ed in 08 can get us those answers, then we really have something to talk about.

The After-Effects of After-School

Does learning only happen during school hours, behind school house doors?  For years, the education community has debated the impact of after-school programs on student achievement.  Today, Education Week’s Debra Viadero has a story on a new research study showing dramatic achievement gains for those students who regularly attend and participate in “top-notch” after-school programs. 

The story can be found at: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2007/11/28/13afterschool.h27.html

The findings seem common sense to Eduflack.  Take at-risk students.  Put them in a high-quality after-school program that reinforces the curriculum and learning strategies they are getting in the classroom.  Ensure that they come to all of their after-school sessions.  Observe the benefits.  Repeat.  More instruction, particularly if it is proven to work, is bound to help even the most at-risk student.  That’s why we advocate for more instructional time or for parents to reinforce classroom lessons at home.

As is now par for the course in education reform, the critics are out, attacking the methodology.  The driver for this — a 2005 study that showed no measurable effects for after-school programs.  Questioning how experimental groups and control groups were chosen and the legitimacy of comparing students from group A to group B is destined to quickly turn this report, known as the Promising Afterschool Programs Study, into yet another inning of inside baseball, where researchers will continue to throw brush-back pitches as those students in need aren’t even allowed a ticket in.

Education reform is about improvement.  We advocate for what works, and we push to adopt what is proven effective in schools and with kids like ours.  As we look at the pool of at-risk students, can anyone — with a straight face — honestly say that the current classroom instruction is enough to turn those kids around, have them catch up to their cohort, and achieve on assessments?  Of course not.  They’ll always be a step behind without additional help beyond school hours.

When an affluent student struggles in the classroom, his parent is quick to hire an after-hours tutor to turn things around.  Some after-school sessions and special attention (and much money) later, the student gets the concept and is able to keep up in trig or biology or physics. 

So why would it be any different for an at-risk student in a low-income community?  Research-based after-school programs are designed to provide students that same sort of instruction and attention, giving them a boost in the classroom the next day.  If such programs are proven effective (and the Promising Afterschool Programs Study is posting eye-popping positive results) then shouldn’t we encourage their continued use?

Research can often be a double-edged sword in education.  Yes, we can and should use it to measure the effectiveness of a school, a class, or a student.  We should use it to ensure that instructional programs are effective and are proven to work.  We use it to validate our decisions, when faced with vocal resistance.  It is a powerful communications tool.

But research can also be used to tear down.  Yes, the 2005 study found after-school programs to have no effect on student achievement.  But that doesn’t mean this new study is wrong.  If anything, it tells us we need to take a closer look at the type of after-school program we’re looking to.  Like everything else, there are good and bad programs.  If continued research of after-school programs gets us closer to replicating the good and eradicating the bad, it’s a win for researchers, a win for the schools, and a huge win for the students.

Mini-Eduflack Weighs In

It is that time again to reflect on Eduflack’s other primary interest, and one of the reasons why education reform is so important.  Yes, it is time for another shameless plug for the mini-Eduflack, who recent discovered that books are for more than just throwing.

Eduflack-ito just completed his 18-month well visit.  At 18 months and 26 days, here’s the tale of the tape.  24 pounds, 8 ounces (up a pound from August, definitely not like dadda).  32 inches long.  18 1/4-inch head circumference (still no Barry Bonds HGH action here).  More than 20 spoken words.  And he is a sponge when it comes to receptive speech, both in English and Spanish.  He seems to understand just about everything we say (though he chooses to ignore what he doesn’t like).

In a few short years, mini-Eduflack is going to head off to his first year of public school.  And this dadda wants to make sure he has effective teachers, research-based instruction, and a true hunger and passion for learning.

Where Have All the Readers Gone?

The National Endowment for the Arts is out with a new research analysis that looks at the nation’s reading habits.  And the results are not pretty.  According to the NEA, less than a third of 13-year-olds are daily readers.  Americans ages 15-24 are spending two hours a day watching TV and seven minutes a day reading.  And reading scores for 12th graders fell sharply from 1992 to 2005.  The full report can be found at: http://www.nea.gov/news/news07/TRNR.html.

For years, we’ve been hearing of the Harry Potter effect, the belief that the boy wizard has dramatically increased the number of teens and pre-teens who have read for pleasure these past five years.  NEA is now saying Hogwarts is not a draw, and My Super Sweet 16 is a better attention-grabber than Harry versus Voldemort.

What’s interesting is that NEA compares TV time to pleasure reading.  Eduflack was surprised to see that 15-24 year olds are only watching TV for two hours a day.  So where’s the rest of the time going?  Video games?  Internet?  Volunteerism?  (Just kidding on the last one.)  If it is the web, how does that factor into reading?  Several unanswered questions.

Regardless, it is easy to draw the line between pleasure reading and reading ability.  When it comes to pleasure activities, just about all of us do the things we enjoy and that we can do.  If reading comes easily, we do it for pleasure.  If it is a struggle, it is a chore.  Some would rather do long division on a Saturday afternoon then be forced to read a book.  It’s sad but true.

So which comes first?  Do we become good readers by reading for pleasure, or do we read for pleasure because we are good readers?  Can one gain vocabulary and fluency and comprehension skills by spending more time with books and practicing their reading?  If adults are not reading, do we honestly think their children are going to choose to?

Reading should be a skill that permeates into just about everything else we do.  In school, reading skills will eventually impact a child’s ability to succeed in science, social studies, and even math.  In life, those reading skills are going to open pathways in high school, postsecondary education and careers. 

NEA does a good job at detailing some of the negative impacts that come from not reading.  But if we’ve learned anything from recent education communications efforts, it’s that scare tactics don’t work.  Students needs to hear what is possible from reading.  They need to hear of the doors it opens.  The jobs it offers.  The successes it results in.  Let today’s middle schooler pick a career.  I dare you to find a 21st century job that doesn’t require reading and critical thinking skills.  That comes from reading, both early and often. 

We can have the best instructional strategies and interventions in the first grade.  We can throw in the best, most effective teachers.  We can assess it and package it into a law.  It all gets lost if we aren’t supplementing it at home.  Kids mimic and copy and model their behavior after parents and family members.  Children will read if their parents make it a priority.  In our house, our 19-month-old eduson now demands two books before he will go to sleep at night.  He knows how to hold a book.  He knows one reads left to right.  He’s starting to identify the pictures.  We can now hope that he will read for pleasure (particularly since eduwife is a voracious reader).  We do it now, in part, so he is ready to read when he hits kindergarten.  And we do it now so he has it with him for a lifetime.

Virtually everyone can agree that students would benefit from additional reading instruction time during the school day.  Now we just have to remember that the learning day is 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  If we want classroom reading instruction to stick, we need to reinforce it early and often at home and just about anywhere else outside the schoolhouse doors.  

Does Creativity Matter?

In recent discussions of 21st century jobs, the focus is usually on science and math skills, problem solving, multi-tasking, and the ability to work in a team.  From there, the talk moves to postsecondary education and the much-cited stat that 90% of new jobs will require some college education?

Some critics of the STEM focus, like Checker Finn, have drawn attention to the need of a classically liberal arts education, one that includes civics and history along with science and math.  The goal being a nation of thinkers, not just a nation of workers.

So where in all of this discussion does the need for creativity come into play?  Honestly, Eduflack doesn’t know if he has heard the word used as part of the needs of a 21st century workplace until this morning, when he saw the following AP article posted on edweek.org on a conference held by Washington-based Creativity Matters.  http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2007/11/16/13apseattle_web.h27.html

It is an interesting concept, tying workplace success to creativity and the ability use one’s imaginations.  And it raises larger questions.  How do you teach creativity?  How do you measure it?  What do you do with a linear thinker who follows the rules, and can’t “think outside the box?”  And are we really talking creativity, or do we mean those who solve problems and try different approaches?

In Eduflack’s mind, creativity is a term associated with artists and musicians and writers and others who express emotions and thoughts.  I don’t think I’d use it to describe someone working at a Boeing plant or writing code for Microsoft.  But maybe the word is taking on new meaning and new context.

Regardless, the focus on including creativity in K-12 instruction is an important one for one central reason.  It demonstrates that the recent push to link high school education to meaningful careers has taken hold.  We no longer have to convince the American people that a high school diploma and postsecondary education are essential components to a successful career.  We now know they are non-negotiables.

Instead, we now get to focus the discussion on what constitutes a high-quality secondary education.  Whether it be STEM education, rigorous and relevant instruction, classic liberal arts, or creativity 101, the talk is on what skills can be taught now to take advantage of opportunities tomorrow.  We’re not convincing people of why, but rather leading them down the path of how.

It demonstrates that progress has been made in marketing the need and effectiveness of high school reform over the past few years.  People get it.  Even without creative thinking, we now see that a strong education leads to a good job. 

Marketing NCLB

On several occasions, Eduflack has advocated for a national “marketing” effort for NCLB, seeing public support and demand for the law as one of the only means to get it reauthorized with real improvements, but without significant overhaul.  Earlier this week, a reader asked, “Wonder what I would write for a NCLB marketing campaign. Isn’t Spellings a walking sound bite?”

Anyone who has been reading the ed blogs — particularly Alexander Russo’s — knows there’s been a lot of talk about the teacher unions’ ability to scuttle any talk of NCLB reauthorization this year.  AFT and NEA deserve a lot of credit for their execution of a good communications strategy.  They were able to control the NCLB story, keeping it an inside baseball discussion and limiting to a small collection of policy wonks, education organizations, researchers, and, at times, ed bloggers.  Thus it was easy for the House and Senate decisionmakers to table the issue for a new year.  The unions planned and executed an effort  that worked.  The set a goal, the set the terms of debate, and they dominated the discussion.  That’ll get you victory on just about any stage.

Which gets us back to the question about a marketing campaign.  Are communications victories won by sound bite, or won by solid strategy?  If we go with the former, Margaret Spellings should indeed be taking a victory lap on NCLB reauthorization.  Last year, she deemed the law, like Ivory soap, 99.99% effective.  And this year, she’s had many a good turn of phrase with the education media, the general media, Jon Stewart, and countless others.  Yes, she knows her message, nows how to stick to it, and knows how to get folks to listen to it.

The NCLBers are fine when it comes to message.  The law works.  It’s effective.  We have data to prove it.  Education improvement shouldn’t be flavor of the month.  Et cetera, et cetera.  But message is one of the last pieces to the effective strategy.  And in many ways, the U.S. Department of Education has skipped over many of the needed steps, in the hopes of advancing directly to Boardwalk and Park Place.

What’s missing?  Eduflack suggests a few key components to a solid communications strategy:

* Goals — Media coverage is not a goal for a communications plan.  Goals are things like effective implementation, reauthorization, teacher recruitment, etc.  Any campaign needs clear and achievable goals.  And we must recognize we can’t be everything to everybody.  If we have multiple goals, we may need multiple strategies to get there.

* Analysis and Application of Research — No, I’m not talking the student achievement data.  Year after year, we get public opinion surveys from PDK, NEA, and others charting NCLB satisfaction.  That data should be analyzed, broken down, and used as a foundation for communications planning.  It tells you what messages work, and what don’t.  And it provides third-party validation for communications activities.

* Audience Identification and Segmentation — Who are we talking to?  For years, NCLB was a dialogue between ED and educational researchers.  It should be a discussion on Main Street USA, not in the ivory towers.  Who is important to getting the law effectively implemented?  Who is important to getting it reauthorized?  It’s parents, teachers, business leaders, and community leaders across the country.  It may be easier dealing with the AFT then rank-and-file teachers, but those individual teachers are the ones who carry the message into the classroom.

* Message Development — Some like to call these sound bites, but sound bites are canned sentences.  Messages are the themes that all should be communicating.  Whether it be the SecEd or the Secretary of Labor talking about jobs, the message needs to be on the need for NCLB, the progress to date, and the impact it will have on education and economy for decades to come.

* Relationship Development — Be it the media, influencers, organizational leaders, or the like, relationships are key.  The days when ED could exclude organizations from the debate are over.  They need all the help they can get on NCLB, and need to build the relationships that result in that help.

Then we get into the PR 101.  Media relations.  Public events.  Conferences.  New media/Internet.  Speaking opportunities.  Etc.  These are the tactical pieces that ED tends to do well.  The key is to bring them together under one umbrella, so all activities are working toward a singular, clear goal.  If the tactic doesn’t help us reach the goal, then it isn’t necessarily worth doing.  Time is precious.  We use it on those activities that make a difference.

This is just the early outline of what an NCLB marketing plan needs to focus on.  Sound bites are great, but they are a tactic, not a strategy.  Just like the law itself, an NCLB communications plan needs goals.  It needs methods of measurement.  It needs feedback loops.  It needs highly qualified professionals.  It needs accountability.

Get a half-dozen communications professionals (with education policy knowledge) in a room for a day.  Set some programmatic goals.  Embrace the Yankelovich model for changing public behavior.  And you could have a real blueprint for selling NCLB across the nation, and moving the debate from inside the ed blob to onto Main Street USA. 

NCLB is all about doing what works.  This sort of approach works.  And it may be the only way we see NCLB reauthorization before the end of 2009. 

Best of, Worst of for Student Test Data?

Two data sets on student performance are out this week.  But what exactly does the data tell us?  And more importantly, what do we say about the data?

According to TIMSS, math and science scores for U.S. students simply aren’t keeping pace with performance of students in foreign countries (particularly those in Asia).  We’ve heard this story time and again, but TIMSS provides us some pretty clear data that we have a ways to go before our students are truly about to compete on the evolving global economic stage.

And then we have yesterday’s release of the Trial Urban District Assessment (or as it is affectionately know, the NAEP TUDA).  This data set shows that students in our urban centers are making gains in math and reading.  And the math scores are really showing promise.  Of course, these urban scores are still below the national averages.

So what does it all tell us?  With regard to NAEP TUDA, one has to assume that some of the interventions made possible through NCLB are working.  Districts like Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, DC, and LA are prime targets for NCLB and Title I dollars, and these test results demonstrate that students in those schools are posting increases higher than the average American student.  That speaks of promise and of possibility.

But juxtaposed with the TIMSS data, it sends up a warning flag.  If we’re making gains at 2X, but our international counterparts are running at 3X, it doesn’t take a NAEP numbers cruncher to see that we are never going to catch up.  How are we supposed to read all this?

The communications challenge here is identifying our goals, both in terms of policy and public perception.  Do we seek to be the best in the world, or do we focus on the gains in our backyard?  Does it matter how we are doing against Singapore if our Title I schools are making the gains necessary to put all students on a pathway to a good-paying job?  And when are we going to see the quantitative proof of reading gains that we have witnesses anecdotally for the past two years?

At the end of the day, the message is simple.  Our schools, particularly those in low-income communities are improving.  Our focus on student achievement, effective assessment, and quality teaching is starting to have an impact.  And by identifying what works in Houston, NYC, and other cities, we can glean what will work in other cities and towns across the country.  We’re gaining the data to move the needle and get beyond the student performance stagnation we’ve experienced for the past  few decades.

Yes, the TIMSS scores are disappointing.  But sometimes we need to set the negative aside, and concentrate on the positive.  Let’s look at what works, and use it to fix what doesn’t.  Who knows?  Those NAEP TUDA students may be just the answer we need to right the TIMSS ship in four or eight years.