On the Road Again

For the past few weeks, Eduflack has spent the majority of his time well beyond the DC beltway.  Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Delaware, Virginia, Arkansas, and Louisiana to name just a few.  And the coming weeks add Minnesota, Maine, Michigan, Indiana, and Colorado.  One thing’s clear, discussions of education reform are occurring well beyond Capitol Hill and One DuPont.

The discussions in these communities have been remarkable, both for what is discussed and what is not discussed.  In virtually all states, educators are focused on improving opportunities for their students.  The core message is not that of a high-quality high school diploma.  Instead, the focus is a good-paying, secure job.  Students are eager to take more and more math and science courses, even if they hate the content.  For these students (and I spoke primarily with low-income students) they see STEM as the golden ticket to a good job and a good future.

What didn’t I hear?  In visits to state departments of education, to school districts, and to classrooms, I can’t recall a single instance where I heard the acronym NCLB.  Maybe it is just a part of life we’ve come to accept.  Maybe it is irrelevant.  Maybe it is too scary to say by name.  Regardless, the decisions of state ed officials, superintendents, and educators seem to be driven my more practical, more day-to-day factors than the federal NCLB banner.

What does this all mean?  To Eduflack, it means the intentions of NCLB may actually be working.  For some of us, the law was never about high-stakes testing, teacher punishments, and accountability without effective interventions.  No, for folks like Eduflack, NCLB was a vision for the future.  It was a vision where every student has the opportunity to succeed.  Where every classroom has research-based instruction and measurable student achievement.  NCLB equates a nation of hope, of opportunity, and of success for all students who worked for it.

And that’s exactly what I’m seeing on my travels.  Here in DC, we get lost in trial balloon legislative drafts, amendments to bills that will never see the light of day, and the most inside-iest of inside baseball.  Outside of DC, we’re seeing educators doing whatever is necessary to give their kids a chance.  The counter plant closings, lost jobs, and economic downturns with dual-enrollment courses, academic partnerships, and strong student-teacher relationships.

Makes us wonder who should be teaching whom, huh?  I’ve long advocated we need to move the education reform debate from the ivory towers to Main Street USA.  It was always a cute turn of the phrase.  But it is also 100 percent true.  The true impact of school reform is not felt on Maryland Ave., SW.  Long-term impact can only be felt in those cities and towns across the country, where tomorrow’s leaders are busily taking the algebra, physics, and ELA classes they dread … but know they need to succeed.

A Big Win for Us RF Zealots

Eduflack has pulled no punches when it comes to Reading First.  I can’t say it any clearer — RF works.  The science is clear.  We know it works.  We know what it takes to get virtually every child reading at grade level.  We know what tools teachers need to engender reading success in the classroom.  The goal of RF was to take decades of proven-effective research, and put it to use in our classrooms.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  We apply the research completely and with full fidelity, and kids will read.

For much of the last year, though, RF critics have been piling on, sensing a soft-spot in the law.  We’ve dubbed the research and the program a failure because of poor execution on the implementation.  Yes, implementation has been poor.  But skepticism about moving research to practice has led many to pull the rug out from under the entire program.  Congress is looking to dramatically slash federal RF funding, and virtually everyone is parroting the phrase “RF doesn’t work.”

Over the years, we’ve expected groups like the Center for Education Policy to add to the funeral pyre of NCLB and RF.  So imagine Eduflack’s surprise when, this week, CEP comes out with a study detailing that RF is having a real, positive effect on student achievement.

Imagine that.  Despite all the implementation problems.  Despite the army of whole language researchers bashing the law from day one.  Despite the congressional inquiries and the growing chorus of doubting Thomases.  Despite all that, Reading First works.

What did CEP find?  In what was Reading First’s roughest PR year, the percentage of states deeming RF very successful rose from 33 percent last year to 40 percent this year.  Those who found it moderately effective rose from 27 to 38 percent effective.  This year, only 2 percent found the law minimally effective, and non found it not effective at all.

I challenge anyone to show me an education law that has posted such strong positive impressions across the board.  Nearly 80 percent believe the law to be very or moderately effective.  Nearly eight in 10.  That’s a presidential landslide we’ve never seen before.  That’s two and a half Hall of Fame hitters.  That’s a grade good enough to kill any classroom curve.

As an education community, we like to believe in urban legends and things that go bump in the night.  And perhaps that’s why we’ve heard mourning bells for RF for many months now. 

But there is also no shaking that we live in an ROI environment.  We all way to see return, particularly when it comes from our education dollars.  And if we are to get that sort of ROI, we need to be investing in the strategies and interventions that are proven effective.  We invest in the unproven, and our money is likely heading down a black hole.  If we pay for what works, we get results.  It really is a no-brainer.

We need to open our ears and listen to those who know best.  No, we don’t have to believe those in the U.S. Department of Education who ask for more RF moneys.  So let’s listen to CEP, and the more than 300 schools they surveyed who clearly stated RF works, and by extension needs proper funding.  Let’s listen to the International Reading Association — never a BFF of the Administration — who is similarly calling for increased funding for RF.  And let’s listen to the countless classroom educators who have raised their right hands and sworn that student achievement has increased because of scientifically based reading in the classroom.

Thanks, Jack Jennings and CEP for showing us, once again, that RF works.  Hopefully, this recent study gets us one step close to ending the debate on to use or not to use Reading First, and instead change the discussion to one of how to effectively implement RF.  We know it works.  Let’s put it to work for us.

How Not to Make Friends

When Eduflack used to work on Capitol Hill, he was all too knowledgeable about how organizational “score cards” worked.  Cast one vote, and the League of Conservation Voters would give you a perfect score.  Cast another vote, and the National Federation of Independent Businesses would quickly be investing in the district, working to get your opponent elected.

The one constant in all of this — scorecards were based on votes.  The only way to effectively “score” a congressman or senator was the voting record.  Yays and nays.  No points for abstentions or missed votes.  And a quick check of the Congressional Record verified any and all scores.

The National Education Association, though,  has decided to change the dynamic.  For an organization that seemed almost devoted to protecting the status quo, they are charting new territory in the lobbying front.  Earlier this week, it was revealed that NEA is now threatening poor scores on those congressmen who fail to co-sponsor NEA-supported amendments to NCLB reauthorization.  Kudos to DFER (www.dfer.org) for shining some sunlight on this situation.

Believe it or not, Eduflack hates to criticize the NEA.  Too often, we attack the organization, and some see it as an attack on teachers themselves.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I’ve said it many times — teaching is one of the toughest assignments out there.  The stakes couldn’t be higher, and we struggle to bring the profession the respect and recognition it deserves.  And at the end of the day, even the most successful curricular program will fail without a good teacher.  An effective teacher should be untouchable.

Unfortunately, the NEA often acts like a political monolith, and not like the membership organization for millions of public school teachers that it is.  By changing the game, and judging members of Congress based on their co-sponsorships, the NEA is doing a significant disservice to its rank-and-file members.  What is NEA saying?  Issues like family leave, safe workforce conditions, children’s health, equal protections, environmental safety, student loans, and other such policies important to teachers are now taking a backseat to amendments that will never see the light of day.  We don’t even know what NCLB 2.0 will look like, and already NEA is demanding tidings at its altar.

What about those members of the Appropriations Committees, who traditionally do not co-sponsor any bills or legislation?  Guess they are anti-teacher.  Same goes for the leadership, that often stays out of the amendment fray.  They must be against the NEA.  And for those members who have an education LA who failed to get the memo who may miss the deadline, looks like they are destined for the NEA hit list.

Without question, the NEA is, and should be, a major force in the development of K-12 policy and K-12 politics.  The NEA knows it has the organizational ability, the financial resources, and the grassroots power to influence elections.  I, for one, had been most appreciative of the phone banks and volunteer support NEA has provided my bosses in past elections.

NEA’s strong-arming tactics, though, send the wrong message at the wrong time.  Yes, NCLB is an important issue for the NEA.  But it shouldn’t be the only issue.  Instead of scare tactics and threats, NEA should be in the room, with sleeves rolled up, working with Miller and Kennedy and company on how to improve the law.  Those improvements don’t come from the flurry of amendments that will never make it to the floor, nor do they come from state-by-state anti-NCLB lawsuits that will never be adjudicated.  Improvement comes from negotiation.  It comes from partnership.  And it comes from a shared commitment to a common goal.

When NCLB was passed, it was heralded as a law to ensure that every child had an opportunity to succeed, both in school and in life.  Some of us still believe in that goal, and are still committed to that reality.  We should all throw our full efforts into improving opportunity and options for all students.  And it takes hard work, not score cards or lists of signatories, to get us there.