The Measure of a Student

State assessments are always good as an educational conversation-starter.  We like to talk about high-stakes tests, teaching to the test, and whether such exams are a true measure of learning in the classroom.  Like it or not, we take such exams seriously, seeing them as a measure of the student … and the teacher.

Earlier this week, Eduflack was told a story of a Northern Virginia student and a Northern Virginia teacher.  The student is your typical pre-teen boy.  He’s smart, but he lacks focus.  From an immigrant family, his parents are limited in their English language ability, so many notes and instructions home fail to have maximum impact.

This week, the student took a practice test for Virginia’s SOL in history.  Regardless of the reason, he only got about 60 percent of the questions right.  He should be doing better, particularly after nearly a year studying the subject in class. The teacher was naturally worried, so sent a note home.

The note was classic passing of the buck.  The teacher informed the parents of the poor performance on the practice test.  Then the teacher informed the parents that the student had a notebook full of study materials he was required to bring home every night.  The teacher reminded the parents he is to “study every night.”

At face value, the conversation seems pretty basic enough.  Yes, parents need to take responsibility for their children’s performance.  Yes, parents need to make sure their students are studying and successfully completing their assignments.  And yes, parents should care about their children’s achievement on state assessments.

But there are two other issues here.  The first is shared responsibility, the second the intention of state assessments.  Teachers administer pre-tests so they know where their students stand.  Such tests allow teachers to administer targeted interventions to address student learning needs.  It allows for adjustment in classroom instruction, letting teachers see what lessons have sunk in and what lessons have not.

Students succeed in the classroom when parents, students, and teachers all take responsibility for learning.  Teaching is not merely assembling a notebook of study materials.  Requiring a notebook go home each night doesn’t translate into learning.  Such materials are designed to enhance classroom learning.  They can’t replace instruction.

Which gets us to the larger point — the intent of state assessments.  In Virginia, we assume the SOLs will measure what a student has learned over the course of the academic year.  While some may say teachers teach to the test, SOLs (or similar tests in other states) are not meant to be an exam we cram for.  To suggest that SOL success comes from students studying sample questions at home undoes the intent and purpose of the state assessment.

It’s no wonder people have such issues with state assessments.  It cheapens the value of the test when teachers give the impression and all-nighter will result in passing marks or students will learn through notebook osmosis or when parents think the responsibility is all on them to prepare their kids for the state exam.  At the end of the day, state assessments should never be the vocal point of the classroom.  The academic year should be about good instruction.  If teachers teach well, students will succeed.  And they will achieve on any independent exam the state or nation want to throw at them.

I wish my young friend luck on his history SOLs.  And I hope his teacher experiences success with applied instructional methods.  It’s good to encourage parents to get involved, as long as the teacher shares the responsibility, instead of passing potential blame.

Tale of the Tape, April 2008

Yesterday, April 28, marked the two-year anniversary of Eduson’s birth.  Two years ago, he was born in a tiny village in Guatemala.  Seven months later, he officially joined our family, arriving in Washington, DC two days before Thanksgiving 2006.

Today, he is clearly the brightest young toddler of his age.  He usually knows to say please and thank you (particularly if the please will get him something he wants).  He knows how to get Eduflack and Edugrandma to give him whatever he wants, whenever he wants it.  Not only is he bilingual, he knows who to speak which language to.  And when he hears Eduflack speaking Spanish, all he can do is laugh.

He is an educational sponge, quickly picking up the words and actions of just about everyone (again, with Dad clearly at the top of his list).  He is a mini-me at this point, and even mimics my pacing when I talk on the phone.

No question about it — he is absolutely perfect.  And I am reminded of that every morning when I get my good morning kiss and every evening when I read him a stack of books before he will go to sleep.

This morning, this perfect child had his two-year wellness visit, and the numbers are now in for Eduson:
* Weight — 26.2 pounds
* Height — 33 1/4 inches
* Head Circumference — 18 1/4

Yes, he is only in the 5th percentile on the head (while his father wears a size 8 Mets cap).  But everyone needs something to work on. The good news — he now has the green light on peanut butter.  Nothing but happy days ahead … including the Chuck E. Cheese birthday party Friday evening (the boy’s choice, not dad’s.) 

Happy Birthday, Miggy!

The End of Squishy

A decade ago, there was one word that was often used to describe educational research.  That word — squishy.  Despite all we knew about what worked and what didn’t in education, the research base was often soft or without merit.  Once you peeled back all of the layers, so-called research studies would end up being nothing more than consumer satisfaction studies, focus group reports, or public opinion surveys without the intellectual heft.

The issue came to a point with the National Reading Panel, which brought the term “scientifically based reading research” into vogue.  (Again, full disclosure, Eduflack was senior advisor to the NRP, and damned proud of it.)  Two years later, NCLB took on the term, and used it more than a hundred times in the law.  We began to shift toward an industry driven by science and documentable proofs.  It was about what works, and a clearinghouse to hold that research.  It was about a medical model, with real control groups and replicable research models.  It was about proven effectiveness.  It was about making a difference.

As part of that shift, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Research and Improvement (OERI) met its demise.  Many scientifically-based proponents placed the blame for squishy research firmly in the laps of OERI.  For decades, it funded qualitative studies and those that would never be mistaken for the medical model.  To be fair, OERI also endorsed the findings of the NRP and the call for more rigorous research.

After passage of NCLB, Congress approved new legislation to eliminate OERI and create a new research arm for the U.S. Department of Education — the Institute of Education Sciences.  IES became the father of the What Works Clearinghouse and the champion for scientifically based education research.  And since its inception in 2002, IES has been led by Russ Whitehurst.

Whitehurst’s six-year appointment ends in November, and we’re already seeing his obituaries.  Many tag the recent AERA meetings as his swan song. Today’s Washington Post wrote a quite reflective piece on his tenure, which can be found in full here …

The Post does a good job of laying out Whitehurst’s legacy at the helm of IES.  But the big question is where do we go from here.  Some seem to think IES should revert back to more of an OERI-style operation, more closely intertwined with ED and more forgiving when it comes to “different” forms of research.  IES has taken a hard line and bears the scars.  Some fear the Institute.  Others try to avoid it.  And others more think it is one of the most positive steps we have taken to strengthen education in this nation.

Put Eduflack down in the third of those three categories.  We need to do what works.  We need good research.  And we need to make sure our federal education research dollars are being spent wisely and on replicable research.  Unlike healthcare, education doesn’t have a big private-sector investment in education R&D.  We don’t have an FDA or a similar organization to vet outside research.  But we have IES.  And we have several years of good work from the Institute, work that has eliminated our house on the sand, and put it firmly on a concrete slab.

Sure, there are things that IES could do better.  It could improve communication with key stakeholders.  It could better promote the WWC and the impact it is having.  But most of those improvements are in the communications arena.  In terms of policy and content, IES is on firm footing.

So where do we go from here?  Who is the next Director of IES?  And what path should he or she take?

Clearly, many of the likely candidates this administration would offer have been tagged in one way or another by the IG investigation into Reading First.  Others may choose to stay away for that same reason.  So I’ll leave it to Knowledge Alliance and the true wonks of the policy wonks to throw out some specific names (I have two or three on my preferred list).  But I will offer five characteristics the Administration (or the future Administration) should look for to fill the IES Director’s chair come November:

* A Strong Research Background — This should be a no-brainer, but we have to say it.  He has to walk the walk.
* Classroom Experience — One of the greatest criticisms of most scientifically based education researchers is they don’t have K-12 classroom experience.  Even if it is only for a few years, they need that line on the resume to be able to talk effectively with classroom teachers
* A Collaborator — For IES to grow and continue to strengthen, the new Director must build bridges between ED departments and the ED blob around town.
* An Understanding of Relevance — Methodology is important.  Knowing how to take that research and put it to use in the field is priceless.  IES must link its growing research base to practice in public P-12 schools across the nation.
* A Communicator — In its second term, IES must better communicate its mission, its goals, and its successes.  It is doing great work, but if we don’t know it, they may as well be whistling in the wind.  The Director is not only chief researcher, he is also chief spokesman and chief cheerleader.  And the latter two are often more important.

That’s not asking too much, is it?  Too often, we squander our progress during transition.  It doesn’t have to be that way with IES.  With Whitehurst’s legacy, and his and ED’s help in transitioning to the next six years, we can build on the successes, and not let them rot from neglect.  We have an opportunity here.  Let’s hope ED takes advantage of it.

The “Face” of Teaching

We all like to believe our work life is our work life, and our private life is our private life.  But despite the best of intentions, we know those lines are blurred.  Employers monitor web traffic to see what employees are viewing.  Too many individuals use their work emails for personal things (including job searches).  Many of us spend far more than the traditional eight hours working, resulting in a blending of work and personal as we try to take advantage of those free moments when we get them.

This is particularly true of teachers.  They have their traditional work day, then typically have hours of grading or prep work during their “personal” time.  They give up evenings for parent-teachers and before- and after-school time for student conferences and tutoring.  Many teachers even make themselves available online to students, offering IM and email addresses for questions or concerns.

Now along comes Facebook.  For those living under a rock, Facebook (and similar sites like MySpace) seem to be designed to purposely blur the lines between public and private life.  Over the last year, Facebook has grown as a tremendous professional networking tool.  Even Eduflack has a Facebook page, with 61 current friends (I know, pathetic, but I am still waiting for fellow U.Va. alum Tina Fey to accept my invitation).  It is an interesting tool to keep up with friends and colleagues, and witness how circles of influence spread and grow.

This morning’s Washington Post has a story on the darker side of Facebook, with a piece on teachers “going wild.”  See the full story here at

It is a fascinating piece.  The special ed teacher who posts an online bumper sticker using the term “retard.”  Risqué photos of scantily clad educators.  Vulgar words and semi-smutty thoughts.  All the things you would expect from 20-somethings engaging in modern day versions of bull sessions.

These sorts of articles are unfortunate because they tag all teachers with this same judgment brush.  Now, when we hear a teacher is on Facebook or MySpace, we expect the worst.  It could simply be a way to keep in touch with members of the college honor society or the local bible study group, but all we’ll see is “Teachers Gone Wild.”

When Eduflack first started working on Capitol Hill as a wet-behind-the-ears 20-year-old, one of the first things he was cautioned on was elevator conversations.  Never say anything on a Hill elevator.  You never know who is in the box with you.  You never know what they hear.  You never know who they’ll repeat it to.

When I do media training, I always caution my clients about anything they say (or write in an email).  They can say it is private and confidential, but you need to be prepared for it to make the front page of the paper, the lead of the evening news, or the breaking story on a blog or website.

Teachers know this too.  You don’t see a teacher throwing back a six pack at the high school football game.  Too many people are watching.  Too many will talk.  The same is true about web content.  We’ve been googling people for years.  Now, we can learn far more than we want to from individual websites, blogs, twitter accounts, and Facebook pages. 

We have to believe that virtually all teachers show proper discretion and don’t post information on the web that would embarrass them, their families, or their employers.  Heck, we expect this of most professionals, whether they be educators or not.  Is it fair to question the professional judgment of a teacher who lacks the personal judgment to distinguish between public and private information?  Maybe.  Should we monitor the online postings of our children’s teachers?  Probably.  Is this a problem we need to add to the global worry list?  Of course not.

Perhaps newbie teachers just need a little sibling advice from their big brothers and big sisters at the AFT and NEA.  Caution new teachers about blogs and websites and such and how public school critics may be monitoring them.  Remind them that anything they post on their personal life could enter into their professional life.  Ask them if they really want their students and their parents to see those photos of the last beach week or the beer bash at last year’s homecoming.

If those photos and musings are so important to you, keep a scrapbook.  If you wouldn’t post it on your classroom’s bulletin board, it probably shouldn’t be on your Facebook site.

God Bless the Texas Higher Ed Board

Many in higher education bemoan the role of regional and state regulatory bodies.  Years ago, Eduflack worked with a start-up higher ed company seeking regional accreditation for new graduate programs.  We wanted accreditation fast, and we wanted it a week ago.  Each, week, we seemed to lament the latest hoop to jump, report to write, and visit to prepare for.

We must remember such processes are there for a reason.  Regional accreditors and state higher education boards are there to protect the quality and value of higher education.  Not everyone can run a college out of their basement or a warehouse.  Someone needs to go in and evaluate the quality of the program, the faculty, the facilities, and the school.  Think of these accreditors as the IAB of the higher ed system.  No one wants a visit from internal affairs, but all need to pay attention.

We remember this when we see articles like that recently published in the Dallas Morning News.  It seems the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board rejected a proposal from the Institute for Creation Sciences to establish a “creation sciences” degree for teachers looking to teach an alternative to evolution.  No doubt, legal action is sure to ensue.  Check out the full article here —

I’ll leave the problem of teaching creationism in the public schools aside.  At some point, we need to respect the authorizing process and recognize these state and regional boards know exactly what they are doing.  Opposing this degree in a religiously charged environment like Texas is a hard thing to do.  Someone out there owes the Texas board a word of thanks for standing tall on such a controversial issue.

When I was in higher ed, many liked to say the regulators were simply defending the status quo and protecting the establishing institutions from true innovation.  Maybe that is partly true.  But they also preserve the integrity of our institutions and ensure that a licensed and accredited institution of higher education is held to high standards and is expected to teach proven facts.

Don’t mis-hear me, there is a place for creationism in classroom debate and intellectual discussion.  But what proven scientific texts is one using in a creation sciences?  Who has peer-reviewed the Bible?  And how do you play Devil’s advocate in a discussion on the fourth day of creation?

A Nation in Transition

Virtually everyone in the education community seems to be celebrating the 25th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk.”  For many of us, 25 meant two things.  First, we got to rent a car without special surcharges.  Second, parents and their friends could start asking us the question, “So what are you going to do with your life?”

For more than a decade now, I have heard educated folks — those far more educated than I am — ask the latter, lamenting the future of “A Nation at Risk.”  We throw the term around all of the time, but fail to really delve into its deeper meaning.  I can try to explain it, but Eduwonk said it far better earlier this week —

So after two and a half decades, where are we … really?  We’ve spent a lot of time fighting the status quo, those folks who believed the schools simply needed more time and more money to fix what ailed them.  We went through a magic-bullet stage, where schools adopted anything and everything that vendors claimed could boost student performance or improve learning.  And we’ve spent the last seven years in the era of scientifically based learning, where research and “doing what works” is supposed to trump all.

I’ll be honest, I am not a true believer, and I don’t drive the Kool-Aid.  Eduflack believes in conspiracy theories and things that go bump in the night.  I’m a natural cynic who doesn’t worry if the glass is half full or half empty.  I want to know who took my damned water.  So it is very easy to see flaws and problems in a Nation, 25 years later.

But as I look across the landscape, I’d like to believe — to paraphrase Ronald Reagan — that we are better off now than we were 25 years ago.  Today, we are talking about student achievement and student ability on state standardized tests.  Today, we are putting research-based instructional models into the classrooms that need it most.  Today, we are focusing on high-quality teaching, giving our educators the support, PD, and such they need to succeed in their classroom.  Today, we are talking about a common national graduation rate, allowing us to effectively measure high schools across the city, the state, or the nation. Today, we are focused on outcomes, not just caught up in the inputs and processes of education.  We look for a return on investment, and we measure that return based on student success.

Don’t get me wrong.  We still have a LONG way to go.  “A Nation at Risk,” along with other reports that have come after it, provide us a collaborative blueprint on how to improve our schools, and more importantly, how to improve the quality and the impact of our schools.  We’re seeming select successes in pilots and programs across the country.  We’re seeing Reading First raising the test scores of young readers.  We’re seeing STEM programs engage all students in critical thinking.  We’re seeing teachers take a greater pride in their craft and defend their field with a zealousness not found in decades.

One author has opined that “A Nation at Risk” should be renamed “A Nation in Crisis.”  Based on what I’ve seen in the field, based on what I’ve heard and read from the experts, even this certified cynic has more hope than that.  We may be “A Nation in Transition” now, with the possibility of become “A Nation of Opportunity.”


Let’s STEM Together

Collectively, we give a great deal of lip service to the idea of collaboration.  We seem to know that we should engage other stakeholders in our reforms.  We recognize the importance of different voices from different perspectives.  But in the end, we tend to flock around our own.  Teacher-focused reform.  Policies driven in a decisionmaker vacuum.  Even students who try to go down the change path all by their lonesome.

This week, Eduflack was fortunate enough to moderate a panel discussion on behalf of the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Team Pennsylvania Foundation.  The groups brought hundreds of individuals to Harrisburg to discuss the importance of a statewide STEM education effort.  The audience was a textbook definition of the collaboration we typically seek — representatives from P-12, higher education, business, NFPs, and government.  High school students and 30-year veterans.  All five regions of the state strongly represented.  All gathered together to improve STEM education for the state.

The panel discussion, in particular, was an interesting one.  We purposely heard from a variety of voices in STEM education field.  Two newish educators collaborating to build a STEM high school in Pittsburgh (doors opening in 2009).  A corporate representative who has demonstrated his commitment to STEM skills and STEM hires for years.  The president of Saint Francis University, whose TEAMS effort could teach a lot of IHEs how to prepare teachers for the rigors of STEM.  And two students currently participating in STEM apprenticeship programs with Lockheed Martin — both enrolled in community college, both excited about the career paths available to them.

This diverse panel gave the full audience a great deal to think about, helping them answer some key questions we all seem to dwell on.  Why is STEM education so important?  Who benefits from it?  What is my role in adopting a STEM program?  What do we do if we don’t have money to open a new school or start an apprenticeship program?  How do we know we are successful?  What’s the end game, both in terms of results and calendar.

Father Gabe Zies, the president of Saint Francis, was particularly powerful in discussing the final question.  This is not a two-year effort, with a calendar dictated by the term of a grant from the NGA.  Investment in STEM education is a long-term game.  We don’t look for an end.  Instead, we constantly look to improve and enhance.  The effort will continue to evolve as our technology and our skill needs evolve.  In essence, Father Gabe is saying that STEM is about meeting the challenges of tomorrow.  It is about innovation, an innovation that never stops and should never waver.  And that means an initiative that is perpetually adapting and changing to address those needs continually ensure our students, our teachers, and our schools are up to the challenges ahead of them.

There was universal agreement that STEM education is a shared responsibility with shared returns on investment.  No audience can go it alone, and none should be forced to.  Through collaboration, these Pennsylvania STEM advocates were confident they can build a strong, sustainable effort that strengthens both P-16 education and the workforce.

The group also heard from Pennsylvania Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak, who kicked the forum off with an inspirational discussion of hope and opportunity.  Channeling football great Vince Lombardi, Zahorchak cited a goal of perfection.  He noted Lombardi consistently pushed all his players to achieve perfection.  Whenever they were asked about it, they said they aren’t there yet, but they are a whole lot better today than they were before.  And they would be better tomorrow.

Such sentiment is important in education reform, and it is often lost in the NCLB era.  We seem to look for excuses as to why every child can’t succeed and how we need expand exceptions to the law or look for loopholes to get us out of the problem.  In discussing STEM, Zahorchak recognizes what the end goal is — a fully STEM-literate society.  High school diplomas that hold real value in the work world.  Postsecondary academic pathways that were previously unavailable to many.  Career opportunities that strengthen the family while strengthening the region and state’s overall economy.  Opportunities for all, not just for those seeking to be rocket scientists or brain surgeons.

I don’t know about the other participants, but Coach Zahorchak, I’m ready to suit up and get down in a three-point stance.  Perfection should be our end game.  The panelists I spoke with clearly demonstrated we have the tools, the experience, and the passion to get there.  Now we just need to harness all those tools, work together, and ensure that our strongest team is on the field.

After this week, I am certain Pennsylvania is up to the challenge, and has the opportunity to serve as a true model for STEM education in the coming years.