To Veto is to Improve

I’d like to think that everything I’ve learned about the legislative process, I learned from Saturday morning cartoons (and those five years working on Capitol Hill, I guess).  Just about everyone from my generation should know how a bill becomes a law, even if it is just from remembering Schoolhouse Rock.  But where is our song about the meaning of vetoing one’s signature domestic policy bill?

For those who missed it, President Bush, at his year-end briefing yesterday, tossed the biggest rhetorical softball possible to his critics and to those on the NCLB fence.  The President states that if he gets an NCLB reauthorization that weakens the law, he would veto it.

We may talk about lines in the sand, but Bush has now drawn a rhetorical Grand Canyon.  As other policymakers are debating multiple measures and increased funding and escape clauses, the President stands clear and emphatic in his position.  It’s improvement, or it is nothing at all.

This is an extremely bold stance from a lame duck president with low national approval rankings and little record on education these past couple of years.  And it is just the sort of bold statement the President needed to make if he is to save the one potential legacy piece of his domestic agenda.

With such a strong statement (albeit in a relatively throw-away media session), 2008 could be an interesting one, if we can get NCLB to the front of the policy agenda.  Why?

* Senator Kennedy continues to explore reforms to NCLB, and it is clear the law will change.  The big question is whether the law is strengthened, the law is watered down, or the law is tabled until a new president can put his imprint on the nation’s K-12 law.

* Advocates of the law have regained their stride.  For much of the year, NCLB critics have dominated the debate.  But we are starting to see cracks.  Earlier this week, Governors Thompson and Barnes of Aspen’s NCLB Commission had their oped on the law printed in The Washington Times.  Ed in 08 continues to push on the hows and whys presidential candidates should stand up to strengthen our nation’s commitment to K-12. 

* Recent NAEP and PISA scores have many talking about how we continue to improve the quality and measurement of education.  There is a growing hunger for proven, long-term improvement.

For years, Eduflack has opined on how NCLB could serve as President Bush’s true domestic policy legacy.  The changes he has made in how we teach, how we use research, what we expect of our teachers, and how we measure our schools will be with us for a long time.  The federal dollars spent on K-12 have never been higher.  And he has given federal education issues a singular voice under the banner of 2008.  Like it or not, the relationship between the federal government to K-12 public education is vastly different today compared to 2001.  And that relationship shows a vision from which Bush and his education team have never wavered, no matter the criticism, attack, or obstacle.

But if the President wants that legacy, if he wants an NCLB reauthorization he can sign, he needs to be both bold and proactive moving forward.  Now is the time for Bush (and Spellings) to step forward and clearly articulate those improvements they would agree to and those improvements that result in a better, stronger NCLB.

Like what?
* Provide schools and districts more flexibility to meet AYP, assuming their actions follow the spirit of the law
* Demand full funding for Reading First, while offering stringent oversight protections to ensure the funds are being used only on “gold standard” interventions with unquestioned research
* Take states to task for weakening their state standards just so they can claim proficiency on state tests
* Amend the HQT provisions to include provisions for effective teaching
* Ensure that real educators, policymakers, and the business community are involved in implementing NCLB 2.0 and evaluating its effectiveness
* Remind us of the primary audience for NCLB.  Yes, teachers and counselors and researchers are important.  But our primary focus is the student — how do we use the law to ensure all students are provided a high-quality education that prepares them for the high-skill, high-wage jobs of the 21st century.

I’m just an eduflack.  I’m sure there are a number of other ways we can strengthen the law, doing so in a way that will gain the President’s signature and the education community’s endorsement.  Mr. President, consider it my Christmas present to you.  No need for a thank you card, and no reason to consider returning it.


With a Song in Their Hearts

What role should music and the arts play in our schools?  We all know that NCLB places the spotlight firmly on reading, math, and science.  Does that leave music classes as value-adds, where kids can further enhance their core competencies, or does it leave them as non-necessities, programs quickly shut down as budget dollars grow tight?

Musicians from Steven Van Zandt to Quincy Jones have established foundations and programs to ensure that music is not stripped from those K-12 years.  They are approaching it in a way that integrates history and sociology and other social sciences.  Eduflack has heard many a story of K-12 music classes designed to boost math skills.  And all of us who have participated in a school chorus or picked up a school-issued instrument would like to believe it helped us, even if we had not musical ability whatsoever.

All of that is a long-winded path to an entirely self-serving entry (though I am quite taken by what Van Zandt is trying to do, honestly).  Today is the birthday of Eduflack’s youngest sister.  She was one of those students that K-12 music programs were designed for.  She played in the orchestra.  She starred in the school musicals.  She excelled in the chorus.  She then went on to get a bachelor’s and master’s degree in jazz music.  Today, Edu-sister is a professional jazz singer in New York City.

More importantly, this month, she released her first album to rave reviews.  The album is “When the Night is New.”  The artist is the one and only Abigail Riccards.  If you love jazz standards (the sorts Ella Fitzgerald would sing), this is the album for you.  It is available at, as well as through and iTunes.

Yes, I am a proud brother.  And yes, it is her 27th birthday.  But the album is also really, really good.  And it’s not just Eduflack saying it.  It’s,, Midwest Record, Jazz Police,,, and many others.  And the buzz keeps growing.

At this rate, we may soon see an Abigail Riccards-led foundation on getting jazz into our schools.  Wouldn’t that be something?

A “Broader Yardstick”

Yesterday’s Washington Post continued the public debate on how we measure the efficacy of our public schools.  Under a headline of “Calls Grow for a Broader Yardstick for Schools,” the Post’s Maria Glod fan the flames of high-stakes testing and NCLB mandates.  But if we peel back the clamoring and positioning, what is the Post really poking at?

Eduflack will try to look past the American Society of Civil Engineers’ calls for national science testing.  Last I saw, science was one of the three subjects NCLB is slated to test, with those fourth through eighth grade exams coming online shortly.  There’s one demand that has already been met.

So let’s look at the broader picture.  NEA’s Reg Weaver is right when he says student success should be more than just one test score.  And CCSSO’s Michael Casserly is dead-on when he states that different audiences have different answers to the question of how to best measure our K-12 schools.  But instead of looking at “multiple measures” and examining how one state’s proficiency measures stand up to another’s, there has to be a simple way.  Oh, wait, there is — national standards.

If we look at the hand-ringing in the Post piece and in public and private discussions these past few years about accountability and the measurement of student, teacher, and school achievement, there is rarely discussion of national standards.  It’s as if it is the third rail of education reform (or maybe the 3 1/3 rail, after teacher accountability).  We’re afraid to talk about national standards, not knowing what might be behind the curtain if we allow that show to truly take the stage.

But isn’t national standards the rhetorical solution to all of these criticisms?
* It offers a bold solution that demonstrates that we, as a nation, are committed to strengthening our schools and ensuring our students have the skills they need to succeed in the workplace and the community
* It provides a strong fix to the notion that some states may be lowering their standards to appear proficient
* It states that every child, regardless of their home town or economic standing, has the right to a strong, proven effective public education
* It brings equality to our expectations and measurement of classroom teachers, whether they be in urban, suburban or rural settings
* It may just be the only “fair” approach to measuring our schools – with one common yardstick

Earlier this year, Gov. Roy Romer — now heading Strong American Schools — suggested we bring together many of the nation’s top governors and let them hatch the plan for adopting national education standards.  Eduflack said it then, and he’ll say it again, it is a visionary approach that may be just what the ed reform community is in search of.

Most still bristle at the notion of national education standards.  We reflect on the belief that education is a local issue, left to town councils and local selectmen.  While that may have been true a century or so ago, results from NAEP and PISA tell us a very different story.  If we are to maintain a thriving economy, if we are to be home to the world’s top industry and innovative thinking, we need to get serious about how we measure our successes.  It just doesn’t get more serious that national standards.   

The Blame Game, Iowa and Hollywood Style

We may not be all that adept at determining solutions for improving our nation’s public schools, but we certainly know how to assign blame.  Case in point this week, conservatives in the GOP presidential debates and liberals on the TV show “Boston Legal.”

If you missed it, earlier this week the Republican candidates for president had yet another debate.  At this one, multiple presidential hopefuls attacked the NEA as the primary obstacle to education reform.  Tagging the teachers unions as the defenders of a broken school system, these Republicans (yes, I’m talking about you Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson) seem to think that if the NEA would just step back and allow school choice, all would be made right in our K-12 schools.

On the flip side, Boston Legal ran a plotline of a high-achieving high school student stealing her school’s standardized tests to spotlight the inadequacies of high-stakes testing.  Lines like standardized tests are producing a school of “idiots” and this is all the fault of the “No Child Left Behind nazis” certainly makes for good television.  Throw in a sobbing staffer from National Geographic bemoaning student mapping abilities, a principal believing NCLB is denying him the ability to teach what students need, and a student believing she is being denied a quality education at a predominantly white high school in Boston, and we see how NCLB can become must-see prime time TV viewing.

What does it all mean?  We still aren’t taking education seriously as a topic for discussion, debate, and thought.  Instead of the GOP discussing the merits of school choice and the impact it has had on disadvantaged youth or those from low-performing schools, we seek to tar the NEA.  Then we use NCLB as a punchline, sandwiched between suing the National Guard for failing to stop a flood and a former teen madame.  We’ve resorted to using education reform as an applause line or a punchline, take your pick.  (Don’t believe me, look at a recent Family Guy cartoon, that also focused on NCLB and AYP.)

We’re continuing to blame others for our educational problems, rather than offer solutions where we take responsibility.  As Mitt Romney is attacking the NEA, can’t he also be blamed for the fictitious school failures in Boston Legal.  After all, these were his schools 11 months ago.  Where are the Romney and Thompson’s K-12 education plans?  What will they do to fix the problems?  How are they going to expand school choice?  How will they get effective teachers in the classroom, and ineffective teachers out?  And what are they going to do to get Candice Bergen’s sure to be Wellesley College-bound grand-daughter to stop destroying the tests and ensure that her high school is accurately measured?  (Interestingly, Romney was actually mentioned on the program, while Massachusetts’ current education governor, Deval Patrick, was not.)

The only positive out of all this, I suppose, is that NCLB is known well enough as a brand that it can stand as a story line on a top prime-time television program, without needing explanation or set-up.  As silly as blaming NCLB for our high school woes may be, those TV producers assume that their viewers know NCLB, know the issues around AYP and high-stakes testing, and will buy into the concerns over teaching to the test and preparing students for the challenges of the future.  Maybe the NCLB brand name is better recognized than Eduflack has assumed.

As we close out the pop reference portion of today’s program, it all comes back to our of Eduflack’s favorite movies of recent years, Thank You For Smoking.  In the movie, the lead character — a tobacco industry lobbyist — explains the lobbying game to his son.  It isn’t about proving you are right, he opines, it is about proving your opponent is wrong.  If your opponent is wrong, the electorate has not choice but to assume you must then be right.

Clearly, this is what we are seeing these days in education reform.  Few are stepping up to show us how they are right and what they will do to approve it.  Instead, we’re giftwrapping blame and defending bad behavior by attacking.

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to change the channel.  I’ll read the blogs and the websites and the newspapers for my news and education reform information.  I want mindless bubblegum entertainment on my TV programs.  Let’s leave the social commentary to the Sunday morning talk shows and the news channels I never seem to reach, up past ESPN and Noggin on my cable box.

Forget the Pointy Heads, Bring it to Main Street

As many continue to push (with limited impact) to make education a primary discussion topic for the 2008 presidential races, some education discussion is starting to seep through.  Maybe we’re getting sick of talking about waterboarding and obstructionists in Congress and four-year old votes.  But little by little, we’re starting to get a few interesting nuggets.  And none more interesting that Hillary Clinton and the writeups she received in The Washington Post these past two days.

In this morning’s editions, the Post has Hillary running new campaign commercials calling for the end of No Child Left Behind.  This may be news to Senator Kennedy and his work on NCLB 2.5, but Hillary is now opposed to the law.  Perhaps the rhetoric is the price one pays to win the endorsement of the NEA.  Or perhaps she has heard the high-stakes testing chorus sing one too many verses on the perils of NCLB.  Regardless, Hillary now joins Bill Richardson on the “all our educational ills are due to NCLB” bandwagon.

The more interesting piece, though, was included as part of a massive profile of Hillary appearing in the Sunday Post.  Dana Milbank has a great piece, entitled Teaching the Teachers, that provides a glimpse into how Hillary truly thinks about education.  The article can be found at

What it demonstrates is that, in Hillary-land, education is a discussion between policymakers and practitioners only.  It is a talk for the government and for teachers.  And those other stakeholders we know are necessary — the parents, the students, the business community — and all those affected by the end result of our K-12 system,  are really just an after-thought, unimportant to the discussion.

Milbank sums up Hillary’s thinking best — “Let’s hear it for facility preparedness and adequacy! Put your hands together for kinesthetic learning and the de-homogenization of the classroom! Save the in-age cohort!”

Hillary’s talking inside baseball, and she only seems to want to speak to those who are warming up on that field.  Instead of seeing education as a great equalizer, as an issue that touches virtually every citizen, and as a continuous issue with real impact on the economy and the healthcare system and criminal justice and all points in between, she sees it as a theoretical discussion for the practitioners.  And that’s a real shame.

Yes, these issues may indeed be important when discussing education reform with teachers and administrators.  Sure, you need to show teachers you know the issues and you are one of the smartest people in the room when it comes to their concerns and their priorities.  But you can’t lose sight of the larger constituency here.

We all want to hear how you are going to improve our schools, improve the quality of teaching, and boost student achievement.  But instead of presenting a doctoral dissertation on the motivational misgivings of the North American third grade classroom, how about offering some practical solutions on how we, as a community, can do better?  When you were First Lady, it took a village.  When it comes to improving our public schools, it still takes a village.  Relate it to me.  Talk to me.  Show me what I can do to improve the quality of our schools and the instruction they offer.

Clearly, Hillary must have demonstrated this vision when she won the AFT endorsement earlier this year.  Again, now is the time to show it to us.  If you want to kill NCLB, that’s great.  But tell us what you will do instead.  We’ve had enough of the politics and communications of destruction.  The time has come for the rhetoric of solutions.  And if they are real solutions that can work in a school and a class like mine, all the better.

Math is Hard? Ha!

Back in the late 1990s, Mattel came out with a Barbie doll that, among other things, informed many little girls (and some little boys) that “math is hard.”  It was the wrong message to send then, and the wrong message now.  We all know that girls (and boys) should be encouraged to pursue math and science, and not feel they aren’t smart enough to take these essential courses.

The worry, at the time, was that Barbie would plant her message of underachievement in a many young girls, denying us a generation of Madame Curies, Sally Rides, and even Danica MacKellars.  After all, would a plastic doll lie?

Fortunately, our fears seem to be unfounded.  This week, women were the big winners of the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology, taking top honors for individual and team projects.  Looks like those chemistry sets had a far greater impact than Malibu Barbie and her dream house.

Congrats to Isha Jain, Janelle Schlossberger, Amanda Marinoff, and all of the others who participated in the Siemens competition.  Now winning Siemens, that’s hard.

The Need for STEM: Exhibit P

For the past few years, there has been a growing debate on the need for STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) education.  To some, STEM is a program for the elites, an honors program that doesn’t affect the majority of kids who need it.  For others, it is too expensive.  And for others still, it is a complicated issue that doesn’t fit neatly in the K-12 box.  As a result, STEM education efforts have been sporadic to date.  Some states — like Minnesota — have done a tremendous job building a STEM education effort that reaches all students in the continuum.  Unfortunately, far too many are playing a wait and see, holding off before making significant intellectual, time, or capital investments.

And then the PISA scores come out.  Of the 30 nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States ranks 25th in math and 21st in science.  Not only are we no longer the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox of STEM, we’re now dangerously close to being the cellar-dwellers, the Tampa Rays of K-12 math and science education.

Of course, PISA is usually one of the inside-iest of inside baseball games.  For the average parent, the average teacher, and average elected official, PISA is nothing more than a leaning tower in Italy.  We are just starting to understand NAEP, and now you throw this other acronym at us?  Are we really going to lose a night’s sleep over PISA scores?

The PISA data should serve as a dramatic wake-up call to all those who are resisting or avoiding STEM education.  No one should be happy that we are in bottom quartile or so of OECD states when it comes to math and science.  It used to be that Finland and Canada and Korea and the others looked to us for high-quality education, scientific innovation, and academic achievement.  Today, we are in a deep well of mediocrity, struggling to even see the bucket up top.

How, then, can we use such lackluster data to successfully communicate the need for robust, results-based STEM education in our schools?  Simple.  We use PISA to launch an aspirational, forward-looking effort that recognizes:

* We can’t settle for second (or 25th) place.  We need to set a national goal to boost our science and math instruction, knowledge, and performance.  Students, parents, and teachers need to know that goal.  And we all need to be working to achieve it.  If we can’t have national standards, we should at least have national goals.

* We must all understand that STEM education is not merely an education issue.  It is an economic issue, first and foremost.  It is a health issue.  It is an environmental issue.  It’s even a criminal justice issue.  Effective STEM education improves virtually all sectors of the community.  It brings jobs.  It prepares a workforce.  It improves health and environmental conditions.  And it provides real hope and opportunity.

* STEM is not just for the future doctors, engineers, and rocket scientists.  ALL students benefit from STEM.  It offers the critical thinking, teamwork, and problem-solving skills virtually all 21st century jobs require.  

* STEM education isn’t a responsibility just left to the schools.  At the end of the day, companies and employers are the ones most hard hit by our 25th and 21st place performances.  Those are their future employees coming up the rear.  The business community needs to continue its investment in STEM, increasing it to ensure it affects all students and is effectively linking K-12 to future careers. 

* We can’t sell our kids short.  Ask the average high school student, and they know they need math and science ed if they need a good job.  Yet many of us keep saying the students aren’t up to the challenge, the courses are too hard, or the courses aren’t relevant to what we expect of our kids.  All wrong.  Let’s push our kids.  Every student takes Algebra II.  All take advanced science, whether it be on an AP or a CTE track.  There are STEM pathways for every student.  We just might need to clear the brush a little.

No, Eduflack is not suggesting we overreact because of one set of testing data.  But PISA serves as a warning.  This isn’t the first time we’ve seen our test scores falling short against of international peers.  The solution isn’t to ignore them and focus only on ourselves.  If we boost math scores 2 percent, but our peers are boosting them 4 percent, tomorrow’s great American minds will never be able to catch up.  We should strive to be the best, not strive to be the best south of Canada and north of Nicaragua.

The United States has long held the reputation of being a nation of innovation, of invention, and of success.  That comes, in large part, from the outcomes of previous investments in science, math, and technology.  If we seek to be the leader in 21st century innovation, we have no time to waste.  We need to invest in high-quality, effective STEM education today.