Scanning for Success

You can often hear the most interesting things on talk radio, particularly at the height of campaign season.  This afternoon, Eduflack was surfing the AM stations and came across and interesting tale from primary season in Indiana.  As he is barnstorming for his wife in the Hoosier State, former President Bill Clinton spoke on education.  More importantly, he spoke on scientifically based education.

In what I’m guessing was a detour from the approved stump speech, Clinton told the audience that there were now machines out there that could scan the brains of everyone in the audience.  With those scans, he continued, we could get every person (except those with diagnosed learning disabilities) to learn and achieve.  If we can do it, why aren’t we getting our children to learn?

If I didn’t know any better, the Clinton campaign is now advocating for scientifically based education research.  For those in the trenches of the reading wars, we’ve long heard the impact of such scans and brain patterns on learning.  Just take a look at the work from folks like Sally Shaywitz, Guinevere Eden, and many others, and you can see the power of the scan.  It is just amazing to see how brain activity changes as students are stimulated with scientifically based instruction.

For many, learning is just as much art as it is science.  And that’s unfortunate.  In the past decade alone, we have seen significant quantitative research on effective instruction.  We know what works.  We know what we can prove (and we know what we can’t).  Scientifically based education is about getting what is proven effective into the classroom.  It’s about ensuring that every child can indeed succeed in the classroom.

Bill Clinton is right.  We can scan the brain, and use the technology to improve instruction and classroom success.  The research is clear.  Scientifically based education research works.  Maybe those steadfast opponents of scientifically based research need a quick run in the old scanner themselves.

Eight-Dollar Words

Secretary Spellings’ big national NCLB policy announcement came yesterday in Minnesota.  And the closely guarded secret was exactly what Alexander Russo and others thought it would be — greater flexibility in determining student achievement and AYP.

We all know it was an important step, and one that was a long time in coming.  The Commonwealth of Virginia is aggressively looking at pulling out of NCLB over the issue, willing to refuse its federal education dollars because of issues involving AYP and ELL students (among others).  For years now, the states have been clamoring for additional flexibility, noting unique demographic and data circumstances in their states.

Such flexibility is not an excuse for avoiding federal requirements, rather it is a recognition that some states have to take different paths to reach proficiency and to get every student achieving.  While we’re all heading to the same ultimate goal, it may take some longer and it may require more work and more innovation from others.

The U.S. Department of Education should be commended for finally offering this lifeline to those states trying to do the right thing when it comes to AYP.  And we likely have groups like CCSSO for helping push it forward.  Now, the spotlight will be placed on which 10 states will gain this newly found flexibility (and from the speakers list yesterday, it seems Minnesota and South Dakota are likely to be in the pool.  And Spellings also singled out Maryland, North Dakota, Louisiana, and Massachusetts.  Here’s hoping that Eduflack’s home state of Virginia makes the cut as well.

But in all of the excitement of a major education policy announcement, I can’t help but notice the need by some to secure a triple-word score on the announcement.  For years now, the talk has been on flexibility.  Yet if we look at all of the headlines from the “official” documents coming out of the Minnesota announcement, we’ve decided to rebrand flexibility as a “differentiated accountability pilot.”

If the goal is to win over the research professors in our schools of education and public policy, then the rebrand is genius.  But if our intent is to demonstrate that ED is listening, and has answered the call for greater flexibility, we are falling a little flat.

Over the past few years, one of the greatest criticisms of this Department of Education (and this Administration) is that it is inflexible.  It is their way or the highway.  And that has been particularly true of NCLB.  It is enforced the way those on the seventh floor intend it to, and there is little (if any) room for interpretation or flexibility.  That is why you have seen so many states (along with ed organizations like AASA, NEA, and the others) grouse about the law and its implementation for the last seven years.

We blunt that criticism by showing we are flexible.  We scream from the rooftops of our ability to recognize and adapt to the needs of our constituencies.  At this stage of the game, we should become virtual Gumbies of public policy, doing whatever it takes to reauthorize the law and recommit to boosting achievement in all students.  These last 10 months are all about legacy, after all.

Instead, we fly such flexibility under the banner of “differentiated accountability pilot.”  After reaching for our latest copy of Webster, we may figure out that ED is demonstrating flexibility.  Or we may just move on, seeing it as just the latest in policyspeak and education gobbledygook.  Worse, we may think there is something unknown and hidden in such a complicated term, fearing there is an enforcement shoe to drop that we don’t see or don’t understand.

Don’t get me wrong.  A differentiated accountability pilot is a good step, particularly if ED selects the right states — those who need the flexibility the most and those who can demonstrate that, with a little help, improved achievement is just around the corner.  But we should look to use common-sense words to describe complex issues. 

We don’t need eight-dollar words when a 50-cent one will do.  The name of the game here is flexibility.  Hopefully, educators and policymakers will overlook our Scrabble-speak and recognize the opportunity and possibility behind the actions.  After all, this is what they’ve been calling for for years.

The Standard Approach

It’s a standards-based world, and we’re all just living in it.  We all are looking for improvement in our schools.  We want to see real results.  To get there, we need strong standards by which to measure the results.  As Yogi Berra said, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re never going to get there.

Whether they be state, national, or international, standards are necessary to school improvement.  We need yardsticks to know how our kids and our classrooms are doing.  And we need to know how we compare to schools, both across the state and around the globe.

Personally, Eduflack would like to see a common national education standard.  Yes, local control of schools is an important part of both our history and our future.  But with a constantly evolving population, one that is more and more transient, it is just as important to ensure a quality education for all.  From our urban centers to our rural heartlands, from New England to Appalachia to the Badlands to the Pacific Northwest, all children should succeed.  A fifth grader is a fifth grader, wherever she is studying.  A high school graduate is a high school graduate, wherever he receives his diploma.  National standards ensure that equality, putting equally strong instruction and curriculum in classrooms across the country.


So why don’t we have such standards yet?  Some still question why standards are needed.  Others can’t see how to develop and implement them effectively.  And still others see it as infringing on the rights of educators across the country.


The urban legend tells us that teachers are opposed to such standards, believing they stifle creativity and true instruction in the classroom.  We hear that teaching is more art than science, and standards simply reduce us to teaching to the test.  To some, teachers are one of the greatest obstacles to adopting meaningful education standards.


That’s the fiction, but let’s take a look at the facts. Good teachers actually embrace standards, seeing them as goals on which to focus.  They ensure that curriculum and data collection and training and learning materials are being chosen wisely. They work to leave no child behind.  And they empower teachers to strengthen the necessary linkages between meaningful standards, classroom content, and student performance.


Case in point is the latest issue of American Educator from the American Federation of Teachers.   
http://www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/issues/spring2008/index.htm

American Educator has focused its spring 2008 edition on the need for clear, content-specific state education standards.  Offering perspectives from both educators and researchers, it is an interesting read.  It reminds us of the AFT’s commitment to standards, while helping us erase the fiction that has blamed teachers for blocking standards.

If our goal is national standards, then meaningful state standards are a necessary step.  Today, we can look at standards like those developed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and say, “that state gets it.”  Imagine if we had such strong standards in all 50 states.  Imagine if those states then all got together, and agreed to a common national standard.  And imagine if AFT was a part of such a discussion.  It’s enough to instill just a little bit of glee in the heart of an ed reformer.

It’s a Matter of Principal!

We all know education gets coverage in the media.  Typically, though, we read, watch, or hear about problems in the schools — budget shortfalls, disappointing test scores, and such.  And those stories are usually found in the back of the metro section or as an afterthought on the evening news.  After all the debate on education and its impact on the community and the future, education doesn’t drive the news.  It tends to just come along for the ride.

Every once and a while, though, education media can surprise you.  Over the last year, we’ve seen cover stories in Time and Newsweek.  Today, USA Today give prominence to NASSP’s Principal of the Year.

No, it is not unusual for USA Today to cover education issues.  They tend to do a terrific job at it, and have a great team of education reporters.  What makes a profile of Louisville, Georgia’s Jefferson County High School Principal Molly Howard — NASSP and MetLife’s 2008 Principal of the Year — so special?  Maybe it is the fact that USA Today gave Principal Howard more than a half page … in the Money section.

Check out the full interview here – http://www.usatoday.com/money/companies/management/2008-03-16-principal-advice_N.htm.

Publishing this interview in the Money section is important to note.  We often talk about how business can influence education reform.  Performance pay.  Management systems.  Return on investment.  We seek to improve our schools by laying business principles on our educational frameworks.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  But there seems to be common belief that business lessons can improve education delivery.

Today’s profile of Howard — in USA Today’s Executive Suite interview series — demonstrates that the business world can also learn a thing or two from educational leaders.  By talking about leadership, data, relationships, listening, and understanding, Howard focuses on the same issues successful business leaders care about.  And she does it through an education lens, demonstrating the universality of such observations.

Further, it demonstrates that leaders are leaders, regardless of their chosen industry sector.  Principals are the CEOs of their building, overseeing facilities, HR, sales, data collection, marketing, and customer service.  They are both building managers and instructional leaders.  And those like Howard demonstrate that true leadership traits are universal.

The Gift of Educational Giving?

Even after all these years, everyone wants to get their products or ideas on Oprah.  Authors, community activists, actors, and the wannabes want to hear their names (and hopefully some praise) come out of the Queen of Television’s mouth.  And those in the education community are no different.

For those who have missed it, Sunday nights for the past month have been home for Oprah Winfrey’s Big Give.  The premise is simple.  They send a pack of volunteers to raise money or make a difference for an individual, a family, or a community.  Each week, the weakest philanthropist is sent home, with the remaining givers moving on to the next fundraising event.

Tonight, Oprah sent two teams to Houston to raise money for two low-income elementary schools.  Aided by sports phenoms Andre Agassi and Tony Hawk, the amateur philanthropists had a great impact on the two schools — and the two school communities — they were tasked with serving.

Among all the hoopla of tennis events and skateboarding and Santa Claus and new playgrounds, there was a lost PR opportunity for the education sector.  In the middle of the program, there was a visit from former President George H.W. Bush.  And a throwaway line thanking his son for giving curriculum to the school.

It is presumed that a tip of the hat should go to Neil Bush and Ignite! Learning.  We have to assume that Ignite! stepped up and provided one of these Houston schools with their computer-based curriculum.  After all, no other Bush children are in the curriculum business (unless you count the current president).

It isn’t unusual for a company to participate in such an act.  Typically, it is so it can get prime “advertising” space, having its name plastered across the screen or coming out of the mouths of the program’s host.  It’s a marketing tactic, designed to build name recognition and demonstrate the company is committed to the community.

But it is unusual to make a donation on a national television program, and not demand such recognition.  Maybe the applause for Ignite! was left on the cutting room floor.  Or maybe Bush and his company just wanted to give a little to a Houston school that can’t afford its software.  Regardless, Ignite! should get a little credit for its giving.  And maybe, just maybe, it is part of a larger corporate commitment to getting its learning platform into the schools that need it, even if they can’t pay for it today.

It Just Adds Up

Nearly eight years ago, the National Reading Panel released its findings before Congress, officially starting the push for scientifically based reading research — or SBRR — in the classroom.  Then, just as now, we knew that all students needed reading skills in order to achieve.  We knew that an inability to read at grade level by fourth grade would hamper learning ability throughout a student’s academic career.  And, thanks to the NRP and the previous work done by the National Academies of Science, we know what our classrooms needed to do to transform every child into a reader.  The research was clear, the NRP documented it, and the challenge became equipping every teacher with the knowledgebase and ability to use that research and get kids reading.

In many ways, the NRP report was a revolution.  Strong supporters and equally strong opponents went through it recommendation by recommendation, idea by idea.  Other researchers, such as Camilli, re-analyzed everything to determine if the findings were accurate (they were).  And in the end, the research stands as strong today as it did in April of 2000.  Some may attack the personalities involved in the NRP.  Others may wish the NRP had studied more issues or made additional recommendations (particularly as they relate to literature or to qualitative research).  And still others may wish the NRP findings had been more flexibly adopted as part of Reading First.  But no one can question that the NRP started a revolution, giving us a new way to look at education, a new way to look at educational research, and higher standard for doing what works and seeking return on educational investment.  (Full disclosure, Eduflack was senior advisor to the NRP, and damned proud of the Panel, its work, and its impact on education.)

It took years before we saw the full impact of the NRP findings.  SBRR didn’t enter the discussion until two years later, after NCLB and RF were signed into law.  (Yes, the NRP was a Clinton-era initiative).  But look at it now.

It is significant to remember this as we look at this week’s report from the National Mathematics Advisory Panel.  For those who missed it (and it was hard to, with the significant media coverage it received from the nation’s leading newspapers), the Math Panel offered significant recommendations on the math skills our students need to succeed and how our nation’s teachers can empower all students with such skills.

In doing so, the Math Panel has now planted a firm flag in the name of education reform and improved student achievement.  By looking at ways to improve the PreK through eighth grade math curriculum, the Panel has clearly articulated what our kids should know as part of their mathematics education.  And they have provided specific goals for math instruction, goals that can and should guide curriculum development, program acquisition, teaching, and learning in schools and classrooms across the nation.

The Panel’s members should be applauded for their hard work and their commitment.  This report is an important milestone in the improvement of math education in the United States.  Unfortunately, it is just the first step of many.  From Eduflack’s experience, the hard work begins now.  Now, we have to move those findings into practice.

Too often, we’ve seen important government studies that never live up to their potentials.  Reports are published.  Copies are distributed.  Then they sit in closets or on bookshelves never to be seen again.  Many believe simply distributing the report, and raising awareness of its existence and contents, is all that is needed.  We know, however, that is far from the case.

For the Math Panel report to have the impact it should have on our schools, we need to look beyond mere information distribution and focus on changing math teaching and math learning.  If we learned anything from the NRP, it is that an aggressive public engagement campaign is key to long-term impact.  Yes, it is important that we learn of the Math Panel’s findings.  But it is more important for teachers to understand how they need to change their practice and the impact it will have on students.  We need administrators to know what they must look for in selecting curricular solutions.  We need teacher educators to know what skills and abilities they must equip future generations of math teachers with.  We must let all of our key stakeholders know what they have to do differently to meet the Math Panel’s goals — and we must arm them with the resources and support necessary to achieve it.

The time is now for the National Mathematics Advisory Panel and math educators, math advocates, parents, and policymakers who are committed to boosting math achievement among U.S. students.  And it is a time to act.  With a clear blueprint, we know where we need to go and what we need to do.  Now, we must learn from the experiences of the NRP, avoid the political roadblocks and the straying from the research, and focus on doing.  It’s the only way our kids can ensure that classroom experience times research-based practice equals long-term results.
 

“America’s Worst Teachers”

The job of public school teacher is one of the hardest out there.  Low pay.  Abuse (mostly verbal, but at times physical) from students and parents.  Lack of autonomy.  Proscriptive instructional approaches.  Regular turnover.  And we know it is only going to get worse in the coming years, as more than half of the current teaching workforce gets ready to retire after committing their adult lives to education.

Yes, the job is hard.  Yes, it takes a very special person who is able to go into the classroom, day in and day out, for decades and do whatever is necessary to inspire kids to learn.  Not everyone can be a teacher, despite what many of us would like to think.  It is still a calling for most, and on that just isn’t understood or appreciated, particularly in today’s environment.

That is why is was so disheartening to see the very worst of our “reality TV” culture hit the teaching profession this morning.  If you’ve missed it, in several leading national newspapers (I saw it in this morning’s USA Today) the Center for Union Facts is running a national contest to “Vote for the Worst Unionized Teachers in America.”  The anti-union group intends to pay 10 teachers $10,000 each to quit their teaching jobs.

The ad provides a strong image of a rotting apple, complete with worm.  And the ad copy is short, but none to sweet.  “Old union rules keep incompetent teachers in the classroom.  It often costs over $100,000 in legal fees to replace a teacher.  Help our kids get the education they need — let’s replace the bad apples.”

Of course, a good teacher would teach you that it should be “more than $100,000” since over signifies a spacial relationship.  But I’m not an English teacher, and this isn’t a grammar lesson.  This is a lesson on the impact of our communications activities.

The Center for Union Facts definitely knows how to grab attention.  These ads will undoubtedly result in a number of news articles about the issue.  (USA Today is running the ad, and has a story about it in the paper).  And the Center is committing big bucks to this.  Such full-page ads don’t come cheap, and there is the $100,000 bounty as well.

But this seems to be more of a “gotcha” experience than a real quest to improve the schools.  The 10 worst teachers all have to agree to allow the Center to publicize their exit from the profession.  How many teachers out there are willing to be publicly humiliated, even for $10,000?  How many of any of us would be willing to admit or accept that we are one of the 10 worst in our chosen profession?

In this time of highly qualified and highly effective teachers, we all want to see successful educators in our classrooms.  We all want to know our kids have good teachers.  We want to know they are doing what works, and that our kids and our schools are better for it.

How, then, does the Center — or anyone for that matter — determine who they worst teachers are?  If we base it on test scores alone, don’t we need to factor in the resources we made available to the teachers?  Do kids and their parents vote, allowing them to go after the “hard” teachers or those who won’t cut them a break or let them slide?  At what point do we have to look at the kids and appreciate what a teacher has to work with?  Is there a test they take, sort of an NBCT-lite test?  Are there computer rankings, like those we’ll see this week for the NCAA basketball tournament?  How, exactly, do we measure “worst?”

Clearly, the Center is targeting the NEA and the AFT.  If not, this wouldn’t be about “unionized” teachers.  Clearly, a charter school teacher or a private school teacher should be able to qualify as on of the nation’s worst teachers, no?  That’s only fair and equitable.  We all should have the chance to be the very best … or the very worst at what we do.

Yes, there are likely some teachers in our public schools today who probably shouldn’t be there.  And those teachers know it.  They know they don’t feel the passion.  They know they feel the frustration.  They know they aren’t having an impact.  But they tend to be the exceptions, not the rule.

If the Center for Union Facts has issue with the NEA and AFT, they should go after the unions and go after them hard.  There are areas where unions can be called to task for failing to meet the needs or follow the intentions of their membership.  But don’t go after the individual teachers.  Their job is hard enough.  These ads only make it harder. 

Want to deal with the worst teachers?  Spend that $250,000 or so on PD for struggling teachers.  Think of it as supplemental ed support for those teachers.  That will help kids get the education they need.