The Call Heard Round the District

By now, things are starting to settle on Fairfax County, VA’s great snow day voicemail saga.  It’s the same old story.  Disgruntled high school student calls school district COO at home.  Leaves message.  COO’s wife returns the call with some choice insults for student.  Said student posts voicemail on the web for all to hear and turn into their favorite ringtone.  Media adds fuel to the fire by giving it prime real estate on the evening news and the front of the metro section.

Over at Municipalist (www.municipalist.com), they have done a good job of chronicling the saga, as well as examining it from a communications/new media perspective.  This coverage includes thoughts from yours truly, who finds the whole story both interesting and a little frustrating. 

Eduflack’s full post follows, but it is worth the visit to Municipalist to see some interesting commentary.  Of course, I was wrong of one thing.  The student violated school policy (using a cell phone during school hours), and is visiting detention for the violation.  So I have been shown the school policy he violated.  Otherwise, it is still on point, a week after the offense went public.



“Like it or not, we are entering a new frontier in public education.  Parents are now checking assignments and progress on the Web.  Teachers give students their email and IM addresses that are accessible at all hours.  Today’s students process information 24-7, and their engagement knows few boundaries.



One of the greatest challenges our schools face is getting the learning process to match how students communicate and how they interact.  If we don’t get our information from one source, then we simple move on to the next.  And that’s exactly what Dave Kori did.  He wanted his voice heard.  He called the office, but no response.  So he called a listed phone number and gave voice to his concern.  If any of us had access to the home number for Bill Gates, the CEO of US Airways, or the owner of our favorite sports team, we’d probably do the same thing.





As is typical in our 24-7 communication world, the problem was not with the action, but it was with the reaction.  Had Candy Tistadt simply deleted the message or ranted about it to her friends, no big deal.  But she couldn’t let a call from a “snotty-nosed little brat” go.  And her reaction is what got the whole tsunami going. She used the wrong message with the wrong audience, and it is only exacerbated by the fact that she wasn’t even the recipient of Kori’s call in the first place!  She injected herself into a public debate, when she wasn’t even invited to take the podium.



Should the school district punish Kori?  Of course not.  Show me one law or school rule he violated.  He called a public official at a phone number that is both public and easily accessed by anyone who may want it.  And while he may have been overly casual in his language or even addressed the topic inappropriately, immaturity is hardly a crime. 



It’s laughable, though, to think that Kori’s action are, as Fairfax Schools spokesman Paul Regnier suggested, harassment.  Dean Tistadt is a public figure, like it or not.  He got a phone call from a concerned citizen, who identified himself and left his phone number.  That seems to be the sort of responsibility we want high school students to demonstrate, not what they should be reprimanded for.



At the end of the day, the school district would have been wise to have stayed out of the issue altogether. By commenting on the situation and throwing around terms like harassment, the district only raises the temperature of the whole situation.  We need to choose our fights, and this is one that the schools just can’t win.  This boils down to an issue between a teenager and the wife of a public official.  Do we really want Superintendent Jack Dale or his spokesperson to get in the middle of this?  Of course not.  Their attention should be on far more important issues facing the district and the community.



We preach that today’s students need to be responsible and innovative.  They need to solve problems and be resourceful.  They need to stand for what they believe, and they need to advocate for those issues.  Imagine if Kori put his organizational and advocacy skills to work for an issue that mattered.  A snow day is hardly standing up for civil rights or equal education, but it is a start.”

The Next Education President?

Does a personal endorsement of a presidential candidate matter?  Last week, Eduflack suggested that college presidents should play a more active role in endorsing political candidates, lending their support to those who can best help grow the institution, support the students, and improve the quality and access to postsecondary education.

This week, U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy (MA) threw his support to Barack Obama, symbolically passing the torch from JFK to the junior senator from Illinois.  Much has been written on the issue, particularly on whether Obama or Bill Clinton is more Kennedy-esque.  It raises another question though.  Is Senator Kennedy also endorsing his preference for the next “education president?”

After all, Kennedy has worked with both Obama and Hillary Clinton on his Senate Education Committee these past three years.  He’s seen them both in action.  They’ve both introduced legislation that has been heard before his committee.  He’s campaigned for both of them in their respective Senate races.  He must know more about their education policy stances than the average bear, no?

Yes, Clinton has already gained the endorsement of the American Federation of Teachers.  They are strong in New York City, strong in New York State.  Obama, meanwhile, spent part of his summer talking about merit pay for teachers, and issue the unions have resisted.  So an AFT endorsement for Clinton, particularly last year when all assumed the race would be over by now in a Clinton blowout, was to be expected.

During the past month, Obama has picked up the endorsement of both Kennedy and House Education Committee Chairman George Miller (CA).  That’s a powerful statement to the education community.  Kennedy and Miller are likely the leaders who will shepherd NCLB’s successor in 2009 (assuming we don’t heed the President’s call and reauthorize this election year).  As chairmen of their respective committees, they speak for education policy in the U.S. Congress, and have for some time.  And they have both stood up to say Obama is their guy.  That means something, particularly with the policy community and the education blob here in our nation’s capital.

What about the Republicans?  By CongressDaily’s latest count, House Education Chairman Buck McKeon (CA) has lent his support to Mitt Romney.  Based on McKeon’s commitment to education reform issues, that endorsement says a great deal about the possibilities of the former Massachusetts governor.  On the Senate side, Education Chairman Mike Enzi is still in the uncommitted category.  Maybe he is waiting on Romney or John McCain to talk about the importance of rural education for his Wyoming constituents.

What does it all mean?  Will we see an Obama education platform in the fall that shows Kennedy and Miller’s full fingerprints?  That certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing for teachers and kids across the country.  What about a Romney education platform that shows the imprimatur of the school improvement-minded McKeon?  It sure beats past GOP platforms calling for the dismantling of the U.S. Department of Education.

Either way, while the candidates may not be talking in public much about education issues, these endorsements signal the candidates are listening to the right people and are saying some of the right things behind closed doors.  And that is why such personal endorsements are important.  None of us know what an Obama or a Romney Education Department would look like.  But if they are working in partnership with Kennedy or McKeon, we have some understanding of — and some hope for — what the future of federal education policy may hold.  

Powerful Rhetoric on Vouchers

For years now, vouchers have been a highly controversial topic in education reform.  Proponents see vouchers as a way to deal with failing schools, giving families a chance for a better education and increased opportunity.  Opponents see it as taking funds from our public schools, further reducing the dollars available for struggling schools to right their ships.

As a nation, we’ve seen pockets of success on the voucher movement.  Cities like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, DC have staked much of their reform on the program.  And Florida has implemented several statewide voucher systems, including one for special education.  We’ve seen initial success, to a degree, while many continue to wait to see the long-term impact.

While the wait continues, the language continues to evolve.  Vouchers evolved into school choice.  Such language moved the discussion from one of finances to one of family choice.  After all, what could be more important than a family deciding what school was best for their child, and then sending them there.

During last night’s State of the Union address, we saw the language evolve even further.  President Bush has long been a supporter of vouchers.  His Administration pushed hard to get the Washington DC voucher program into place in during his first term.  Initial research shows that the DC program has had a positive impact from the start.  In fact, so many inner-city students were choosing to use their vouchers to attend DC Catholic schools that the Archdiocese is now looking to convert a significant number of those schools into charters to allow even more students to be educated at the school of their choice.

So how does the President build on his initial DC voucher investment?  First, he calls for $300 million to expand school choice across the nation.  Then, he crowns the initiative with a new name — Pell Grants for Kids.

The President’s words are worth revisiting, as they set a new tone and new playing field for the debate on school choice.  Even the most liberal of Democrats are firm supporters of the original Pell Grants, designed to help low-income students attend college.  How, then, can they oppose the idea of Pell Grants for Kids, a scholarship program that lets low-income families send their kids to good schools?  It was a bold move, and a bold choice of words, since one can’t imagine that former U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell would ever put his name on an educational program from this President.  Yet, somehow, it all works.

Let’s look at the President’s actual remarks:

“We must also do more to help children when their schools do not measure up. Thanks to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships you approved, more than 2,600 of the poorest children in our nation’s capital have found new hope at a faith-based or other nonpublic schools.

Sadly, these schools are disappearing at an alarming rate in many of America’s inner cities. So I will convene a White House summit aimed at strengthening these lifelines of learning.


And to open the doors of these schools to more children, I ask you to support a new $300 million program called Pell Grants for Kids. We have seen how Pell Grants help low-income college students realize their full potential.


Together, we’ve expanded the size and reach of these grants. Now let us apply the same spirit to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools.” 

Over the next few days, we’ll hear how the President played small ball in his SOTU, discussing manageable ideas without swinging for a “we will land on the moon” moment.  And we all expected very little in terms of education policy in the speech.  Yes, he called for the reauthorization of NCLB, touting its results to date and its bipartisan foundations.  But the true education moment was the announcement of Pell Grants for Kids.  Who is opposed to liberating poor children trapped in failing schools?  Who doesn’t want kids to realize their full potential?  Who doesn’t want to support opportunity and hope?

Voucher opponents will likely come out swinging against the proposal, citing flaws in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program and again bemoaning taking money from well-meaning public schools and handing it to faith-based and nonpublic schools.  But Bush’s words shift this from a policy debate of voucher advocates and opponents to a discussion of families and community leaders of options and pathways to help low-income students in struggling schools.  It moves this from inside baseball to a game the whole community can play in.

We’ll have to wait and see if “Pell Grants for Kids” sticks as a brand and a call to arms for vouchers in 2008.  But it definitely has potential.   

Taking Responsibility for School Reform

We all know that our schools do not operate in vacuums.  They are a part of our local community.  They serve as meeting places and as learning places.  They feed our students, house after-school programs, and often host adult education efforts.  They serve as a focal point for all in the community, whether they be teacher, student, parent, or none of the above.  As such, we all play a role in their success … or their failure.

That is why Eduflack has advocated for a big tent when it comes to school reform.  It is unfair that teachers take most of the blame for the failure of our schools.  Likewise, it is unreasonable to expect teachers to take sole responsibility for improving our schools and boosting student achievement.  We all benefit from stronger schools.  We all have a responsibility to get there.  Teachers and school administrators.  Parents and students.  Business and community leaders.  Colleges, universities, and trade schools.  Federal, state, and local policymakers.  Coaches and the clergy.  School reform is hard work.  We aren’t in a position to turn anyone away from participating in the improvement.

Over the weekend, though, Eduflack engaged in an electronic give-and-take with a reader who saw things differently.  The reader suggested that the only stakeholder who should be involved in K-12 reform is the teacher, with the intent being only those who have taught (and taught for more than a year or two) are knowledgeable and qualified enough to opine and decide on what is taught, how it is taught, and how it is measured.

I would like to believe that we all can agree that our K-12 institutions are in need of improvement.  We can agree that we all are affected when our schools fail.  We all can play a role in improving them.  And the current state of public education in the United States doesn’t allow us to turn away those who want to help or should help.  So how do we rectify this with the beliefs of some that only those who have taught should talk about teaching (or more importantly, improving teaching)?

If we buy into the status quo logic, we have a lot of people in education who need to get out.  By the reader’s logic, Ted Kennedy has no business overseeing education policy in the Senate.  Wendy Kopp had no right to start Teach for America after graduating Princeton.  Most school boards, populated by business and community leaders, should cease meeting immediately.  And Bill Gates clearly has no business telling school districts how to redesign their high schools.  After all, he is a college dropout!

We can even say that many teacher educators, those who train our classroom teachers, need to stay out of the discussion, as they moved from their doctoral programs to the faculty senate at the local teacher’s college, without putting in the prerequisite years of K-12 classroom instruction.  All, of course, absurd suggestions.

Ultimately, improving our schools means reforming our educational system.  And reform only comes from change and overcoming the status quo.  That comes from multiple audiences, with multiple perspectives and interests, all calling for similar reform.  Policymakers and the business community pushing top down.  Teachers and parents and community leaders pushing bottom up.  All ultimately squeezing out real, meaningful reform.

Don’t get me wrong.  Experienced, effective practitioners are an essential voice in the reform process.  They can help other stakeholders understand what is possible and what is not.  They have walked the walk, and know what we need to get us to our intended destination.  But they can’t do it alone, and we shouldn’t expect them to.  They need policy and financial support from their school district and elected officials.  They need the investment and interest of the business community.  They need the involvement of parents and families.  It takes a village to raise a child, and it surely takes a community to educate one.

If we don’t see this, then the failure is not an instructional one, it is a communications one.  If we cannot see the value and necessity of a broad coalition of stakeholders when it comes to education reform, then we have not communicated the urgency successfully enough.  Whether you are watching from the home, the community center, the state capitol, or the ivory tower, it should be clear that our schools need help.  The status quo isn’t cutting it.  And none of us should be saddling our teachers with the sole responsibility of fixing it all.

Let’s empower our good teachers to teach.  It’s up to the rest of us to provide them the policies, the funding, and the support they need to teach effectively and boost student achievement and enthusiasm for learning.
 

The Relevance of College

For some time now, a hot topic in education reform has been the relevance of high school.  We talk about aligning courses with student interests.  We discuss how good jobs require high school diplomas.  We hypothesize on the hard and soft skills today’s high schools provide tomorrow’s workers.  The result?  Dual enrollment, STEM education, new graduation requirements, and higher-stakes exit testing.

But what about the relevance of postsecondary education?  We’re quick to throw out the statistic that 90 percent of new jobs in the next decade will require postsecondary education.  But what type of education?   It all leaves us with a big question — are our colleges and universities preparing today’s undergraduates for careers?  More importantly, are our institutions of higher education producing graduates who can meet the needs and demands of our 21st century economy?  Should they be?

These are very big questions.  We like to believe that college is a place to learn new things, experience new experiences, and meet new people.  College is a place to broaden our minds, home to lessons on topics such as art history, philosophy, Mesopotamian history, and ancient tools of ancient cultures.  Many will tell you, if you want to prepare for a job, go to a trade school.  College is for developing and conditioning the mind as a whole.

Where does the truth lie?  Yesterday, USA Today’s Mary Beth Marklein wrote of a new Association of American Colleges and Universities study of 301 business leaders.  http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2008-01-22-graduate-assessment_N.htm  The findings seem fairly straight-forward.  The majority of employers believe half of college graduates lack the skills and knowledge for today’s jobs.  Internships are far more important than college transcripts.  And we want to know which schools do the best job of preparing our students for work.

What does this all mean?  For one, it validates Eduflack’s personal experiences.  I am a proud graduate of the University of Virginia, one of the top public institutions in the nation.  I took classes such as the Female Gothic (far more Jane Austin than any man should ever have to read), and I considered taking courses such as History of the Circus.  All of it in the name of broadening my mind.

I also recognized the importance of internships and skill development.  (Self motivated, mind you, there were no advisors or professors telling me how to secure internships or about the skills for my career path.)  A polisci course in U.S. Congress helped me secure an internship with U.S. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, which led to other Hill internships which then led to full-time jobs.  I spent a year as managing editor of The Cavalier Daily, U.Va.’s paper of record, which gave me the experience of putting out a 16-page newspaper each day, while managing a volunteer staff of more than 100.  I left U.Va. with a full clip packet (showing I could write) and practical experience from my internships and newspaper leadership.  The result — lots of good jobs.  In my early days, I showed a lot of my past op-eds or news clips and I talked of my Hill experiences.  I was never asked about my GPA, never probed on the courses I took, and was never asked about the symbolism of Mary Shelley’s monster.

Why does all this matter?  Today’s students spend a lot of money for those college diplomas.  The tab for an in-state, public college degree is now likely to run at least $50K.  THose going to private institutions could end up spending more than $200K when all is said and done.  And that’s assuming one completes a program in the expected four years, not the more likely five or six.  We take out those loans because we expect return on the investment.  And that return is not to be the smartest person at a cocktail party, it’s to gain a rewarding, well-paying career. 

Ultimately, there needs to be a balance.  Yes, we can study Gothic novels, but we also should be taking the courses that help develop critical skills for the workplace.  College students should be able to demonstrate that they attained knowledge in college and they know how to effectively apply it in real-world or real-career situations.  College not only gave them the tools to success, but it showed them how to use it.  A college degree means one is career and life ready.

The business leaders in AACU’s study seem to recognize that.  And it is a message we all should take to heart. 

College is indeed a worthwhile investment.  It provides an opportunity for exploration and thought.  It stimulates both the mind and soul.  But it also needs an end game.  The goal of college should not be to gain access to a graduate school, where we gain the training needed to secure a good job.  That undergraduate degree should be a gateway to gainful employment.

The AACU data also raises an interesting question.  Employers hope college graduates will be ready for available jobs.  How far are we from employers expecting guarantees from colleges and universities?  If a graduate lacks the skills to handle an entry-level white collar job, they should go back to college (at the college’s expense) to gain the needed skills and experiences.  Then, a college diploma will mean something, college will be relevant, and all involved will see the true ROI of postsecondary education.

Presidents for Presidents!

Every four years, we see swelling lists of presidential endorsers, those individuals and organizations that are backing a particular candidate.  Any savvy (or semi-savvy) political staffer (Eduflack included) knows the enormous value of such backing.  The right names signal support from those in the know.  Their endorsement can often bring buckets full of votes and contributions.

We get endorsements from business leaders, veterans, labor leaders, entertainers, other politicians, teachers, church leaders, environmentalists, Nobel Prize winners, past Cabinet officials, and just about any other group we can think of.  Those endorsers make a choice based on what they believe is best for the nation and best on those issues they are most passionate about.

Which makes a news item in today’s Inside Higher Education all that much more interesting.  Scott Jaschik reports on the president of the University of Florida endorsing John McCain.  (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/01/23/endorse)

Yes, UF President Bernie Machen’s endorsement of the Straight Talk Express is major news in higher education.  College presidents just don’t do such a thing.  Maybe they are above such politics.  Maybe there is too much at risk, with federal research dollars riding on presidential appointments.  Whatever the reason, it just isn’t done.  College presidents are supposed to be non-partisan and apolitical.  After all, there is more than enough campus politics to whet their appetites for a true political fight.

But it is the right thing to do?  As we consider presidential nominees, do the carpenters and the longshoremen and the WWII veterans and former secretaries of agriculture carry a stronger voice than college presidents?  Does the voice of a college president matter?

For the past six or seven months, the education community has been stammering and stuttering on the need for greater emphasis on education in the presidential elections.  We look at presidential education platforms, and many of them are chock full of details on students loans and college readiness.  We listen to speeches on the economy and job creation, and can’t shake the notion that colleges and universities are often the largest or second largest employer in their communities.

All that said, shouldn’t university presidents be coveted endorsements?  And more importantly, shouldn’t college presidents be on the record as to which candidate or candidates are strongest when it comes to student finances, college readiness, research dollars, or general support for our postsecondary institutions? 

As the son of a retired college president, I watched as my father carefully walked the nonpartisan college presidential line.  He worked successfully with governors and senators of both political parties, winning support and dollars for his institutions, regardless of what party was in power.  I knew, though, that he was also a community leader, and that people sought his perspective on the issues and candidates of the day (and it didn’t hurt that he is a presidential historian by training).  His endorsement could have helped local and state candidates.

That said, leaders like Bernie Machen or University of Miami President Donna Shalala (who has endorsed Clinton) should be the norm, not the exception.  If we want education to have a prime position in the debate, we need strong advocates and experts to step forward and ensure that education is at the table and heard in all corners of the room.  Any union official can tell you that happens when you endorse at the national scale.

So for all those college presidents, chancellors, system heads, and even K-12 superintendents watching Campaign 2008, take note.  If you want greater dollars invested in your schools, if you want more attention and resources devoted to your students, if you want your economic development investments noticed or your community programs emulated, you need to stand up and articulate what you believe in and what candidate best aligns with your mission and your successes to date.  You need to tell us what type of president will strengthen your institution and your community.  You need to put your stake in the ground, before all of the prime real estate is taken.

Grading the Schools

Back in November, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg released a report card grading all of the city’s public schools.  It was a bold move at the time, though the impact of grading the schools took a few months to come to a boil.  Now we are seeing it, as New York parents are now taking exception with the grades their neighborhood schools received.

That should come as no surprise.  As Eduflack has written previously, we all want to believe our own schools are doing just fine, even if the system around it may be falling apart.  We believe in our teachers and our administrators, taking solace that our child is receiving a top-notch education, regardless of the conditions around us.

When Bloomberg announced the grades, he did so in an attempt to do something about underperforming schools.  And we can’t do anything about such schools if we don’t first identify them.  So he issued them grades, grades based on student achievement.  After all, shouldn’t we measure our schools based on how well they do their primary job — educating our kids?

To be expected, the critics are now hitting back against Bloomberg and his report cards.  It took a little time, but we are now hearing the hollow refrains of high-stakes testing, teaching to the test, and abandoning “non-essential” courses like art, music, and the like.  Such grading must be unfair because it doesn’t align with our popular thinking.

Let there be no doubt, we should be grading our schools.  Every parent has the right to know if their school is achieving and if their school compares with the school across town, across the state, or across the country.  Every student has the right to an effective education, and education as good as any other student is getting.  Every superintendent has the right to know how his schools compare to each other, and which are getting it done and which need additional help, support, and direction.  And every taxpayer has the right to know that our tax dollars are going to effective education and demonstrable student achievement.

So how do we measure that?  What’s the most effective rubric to get the job done?  And more importantly, if Bloomberg’s way is wrong, what is right? 

It all comes down to whether we grade the process or the outcomes.  Measures like parental involvement, per-pupil expenditure, class size, teacher experience, tutoring programs, transfers, grade promotion, and such are all good process measures.  But we can check the box on all of those and more, and still be left with a failing school.  it is frustrating, yes, but true.  We can do it all “right,” and still not demonstrate results.  What good is that?

Which gets us back to the Bloomberg formula of outcome-based grading.  It sends a strong message to virtually every stakeholder audience in a school district to say we measure our schools based on student achievement.  Our schools (and our teachers) succeed when our kids do.  How we get there is important, sure, but our primary objective is where we went.  Did our kids learn what is necessary to succeed in school and in life?  If not, our schools aren’t doing as good a job as they should.  There is room for improvement.

We can quibble about what tests should be used to grade a school, whether there are multiple quantitative measures and such.  We can dream of a national standard by which every school in the country is graded.  We can even look to models like Quality Counts or Newsweek and US News & World Report’s top high schools rubrics.  But we all should agree that our schools should be evaluated, graded, compared, and appropriately improved.

If you have a better idea for determining whether our schools are effective or not, I’m all ears.  I’m sure there are folks far smarter than I who are exploring such issues at think tanks, NFPs, and universities across the country.  But until we have a better way, shouldn’t we use the best way we have now?  Let’s grade our schools, and let them figure out how to earn the extra credit and do the make-up work necessary so they all achieve.