Punishing Those We Should Be Helping

Last year, Congress slashed funding for Reading First, citing the Inspector General’s report on the program and concerns from critics about the management of the program and its “political priorities.”  At the time, folks in the know saw it as a warning shot.  Popular thinking was that the 65% cut would be restored at the end of the day, once EdSec Margaret Spellings issued a mea culpa and promised to run a tighter ship.  After all, even House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey’s home district in Wisconsin saw demonstrable gains because of Reading First.  Clearly, he wasn’t going to deny his own schools, would he?

Of course, the funding was never restored, and RF is now a funding shell of its former shelf.  That was bad news for the program, but worse news for the countless schools across the nation that boosted student reading achievement because of RF support and programs.  Now, we’re moving into disaster.

Last week, House appropriators moved to eliminate the Reading First program entirely.  They want to zero out the program, putting an end to what was a signature component of NCLB.  One can’t blame, them, really.  The program has been a high-profile effort of the Administration.  There is plenty of blame to go around on the stumbling blocks and problems that arose during its early implementation.  And after the release of the IG report, the Department has done little — if anything — to promote the law, perhaps fearing greater attention or critique.  It’s become the bastard stepchild of NCLB.

Let’s forget — for a second — that RF works.  Let’s forget the data released last week — prepared by American Institutes for Research for the U.S. Department of Education — that shows the effectiveness of the program.  Forget that RF increased reading comprehension proficiency for first graders in 44 of 50 SEAs.  Forget that it boosted reading success of second graders in nearly 4 out of 5 SEAs.  Forget that third graders in 70% of reporting SEAs saw test scores increase.  And forget the similar positive impact it is having on both English Language Learners and students with disabilities.  Forget all of it.  

Forgetting it all is the only way one can justify action to eliminate the program.  Student proficiency increasing in first, second, and third grades (the very grades targeted by RF)?  Interventions that work with all students, including ELL students?  Funds for results-based teacher professional development?  Real interventions that work with virtually all students?  No, we don’t need any of that.

Yes, Spellings deserved (and deserves) to have her wrist slapped.  The problems with the implementation of RF happened under her watch, first as quarterback over at DPC and then over at the building of little red schoolhouses.  The proverbial buck has to stop somewhere, and it should be at her desk.  She has to take responsibility.  More importantly, she has to fix it.  The data is clear — the program works.  She needs to whatever it takes to keep the mission, vision, and goals of this necessary law in place.  She’s been fighting to save NCLB for the past year, demonstrating flexibility to bring more states and their politicians into the fold.  She should be doing the same thing for RF.

If she can’t, then she’s just letting Congress punish the wrong people.  When House and Senate leaders choose to zero out RF, the only people they are punishing are the teachers and students who depend on the funding and who are making demonstrable gains because of the guidance and support it provides.  They’re hurting those elementary school students who now finally gaining the reading skills they need to succeed in both school and life.  And they are penalizing those schools that have made a success of RF, despite the problems at the national level.

I’m all for strong rhetoric with real teeth.  Congress should demand more accountability for RF and NCLB programs.  They should expect the problems highlighted in the IG report to be remedied.  And they should use the stick when the carrot isn’t working.  But they also need to remember why we committed $1 billion a year to effectively teach reading.  They need to look at both the letter and intent of the RF law, and ensure it is implemented with fidelity.  They need to fulfill their commitment to our schools and beginning readers across the nation.

It’s easy to throw up our hands, get out the red pens, and draw and X through RF.  It’s far, far harder to teach kids to read.  If Reading First works (and even the recent Center on Education Policy data shows it does), we need to support it, not sentence it to a slow, political death.  Otherwise, we’re just punishing those kids that are picking up their first book … or it may be their last. 

Closing the Achievement Gap?

When No Child Left Behind was implemented back in 2002, one of its prime goals was to close the achievement gap.  Then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige made it the cornerstone of his stump speech, focusing much of the law’s early days on how to help low-income and minority students in struggling schools.  Supplemental funds were geared, in large part, to addressing the achievement gap issue.  Reading First funding was gift-wrapped for schools struggling with the problem.  Even Highly Qualified Teacher provisions were developed to ensure that urban (read minority) schools were getting qualified, effective teachers.

The multi-billion-dollar question out there is did it work?  Has NCLB made a difference in closing the achievement gap.  Critics of the law have made NCLB all about inflexibility and high-stakes tests and unreachable expectations.  And they’ve been successful, in large part, because many believe the law hasn’t worked (basing their beliefs on the opinion pages and coffee clatchs, instead of real, hard data).

This week, the Center on Education Policy released its comprehensive study, “Has Student Achievement Increased Since 2002?”

The findings are just fascinating.  USA Today draws out the highlights (http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2008-06-24-no-child_N.htm).

What does all this tell us?  First and foremost, the tenets of NCLB seem to be working.  Several states — including Texas and Arkansas — showed moderate to large gains in both reading and math.  Others — including Tennessee — showed similar gains in reading.  And others more — such as New Jersey and Ohio — showed those gains in math.  Scores are rising.  The achievement gap between white and black students is shrinking.  And states are far more serious about data collection and accountability today than they were six years ago.

We’re a far, far ways away from declaring “mission accomplished” with NCLB.  But we are starting to see its impact (and it is a positive one to boot).  Once we move beyond the rhetoric and vitriol of NCLB, and start looking at the resources it provides, the supports it offers, and the roadmap it lays forward, we can still see the positive impact the law can have if implemented correctly.

Sure, NCLB is the furthest thing from the collective mind of Congress.  And yes, it is far easier to kill the law rather than improve it.  But if our goal is to improve student achievement, particularly among low-income and minority students, it is hard to ignore this CEP data or the continuous roll call of teachers, parents, and students who speak on the positive impact the law has had on them.

And just imagine the success it could have if it went from being the education community’s Stretch Armstrong doll and once again enjoyed the bi-partisan support and encouragement it received in 2002?

SES Not Supplementing Learning?

There’s no doubt there are leaders and laggards when it comes to our public schools.  But how do we help those kids in struggling schools without condemning the teacher, the building, or even the school district?  For the folks responsible for No Child Left Behind, the answer was SES, or supplemental educational services.  The idea was brilliant in its simplicity — for students in struggling schools, make extra help and tutoring available to get them up to par.  SES was intended to provide all students with a common base of instruction and support.

Of course, those of us in education reform know that the promise and the reality are often far, far away from each other.  Exhibit 1, today’s Washington Post piece on how SES programs in Virginia and Maryland have done little to improve student achievement.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/06/12/AR2008061203681.html

For years, Eduflack has heard about the problems with SES tutoring.  For much of the NCLB era, SES funding sat dormant, with many schools not sure how to spend the money.  Originally, people said the tutoring funds would be spent to send poor kids to for-profit providers like Sylvan or Huntington or Kumon.  Makes sense, right?  If a family with means has a kid struggling to make the grade, they pick up the phone and book their kid in a tutoring program.  Why shouldn’t a family without the financial ability be able to take the same advantages with SES?

The hitch, of course, is that many of the for-profit tutors have business models that set them up near those families of means.  We see tutoring centers in the suburbs.  We certainly don’t see them in our urban centers, where many of the struggling schools are located.  So who provides the tutoring?

Unfortunately, in far too many of these struggling neighborhoods, the schools turned to classroom teachers to provide after-school tutoring (with extra pay funded through SES, of course.)  Imagine the logic.  Students are not getting the skills they need during school hours from their teachers, so we pay the SAME teachers extra money to teach the SAME kids after school?  And then we wonder why SES funding isn’t demonstrating measurable improvements on student assessments?  Only in America.

And the circle of life continues.  We look to education reforms to change practice and fix that which is broken.  SES is a well-intentioned reform with strong potential.  But like so many other NCLB-era policies, it fails in the execution.  With so much supplemental money available to boost struggling students, it’s a shame so many don’t get much more than a retread of the instruction that just doesn’t work in the first place.

Where does all of this take us?  Under NCLB, we also give those struggling students the option of transferring to better schools that provide the academic means get students on track.  We’ve all seen the numbers, and few families ever take advantage of the school choice provisions, fearing transportation costs and believing their neighborhood schools are doing the best they can. 

Maybe this latest data will have more families take a second look at the options available to give their kids the educational helping hand they deserve.


The future of urban education?  On this evening’s CBS News, Katie Couric and company threw the spotlight on Washington, DC Public Schools and DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee.  The relative puff piece credited Rhee with shaking things up, getting rid of the dead wood, and taking the steps necessary to change the culture and performance of an urban school system that has been in perpetual decline.

Yes, many would — and have — questioned some of Rhee’s actions.  The local AFT affiliate has had their issues, particularly with the notion of “firing” teachers.  Parents have been frustrated by being cut out of the loop, particularly when it comes to school closings and the elimination of principals they love.  But meaningful reform does not come without criticism.  If everyone agreed with Rhee, then she was likely avoiding hard decisions and just rearranging the educational furniture.

But there was one thing about the CBS segment that bothers Eduflack.  Rhee is shown teaching in an elementary school classroom.  For those of us in the greater DC area, we read about Rhee and DCPS almost daily.  (I personally think the Washington Post goes out of its way to find bad photos of the Chancellor.)  But I have never read or heard anything about her teaching in the classroom.  If she’s doing it, she needs a PR team to better promote it.  If not, the footage just contributes to the larger criticism that many actions are just for “show.”

The larger issue was the classroom Rhee was teaching.  Maybe it was the camera angle, but it appeared she was teaching to an virtually all white elementary class.  Nothing wrong with that, no, but if Rhee is taking a serious stand talking about the change needed to improve DCPS’ performance, she should be showing it in the classrooms that are most affected.  She should be in SE DC, and not Upper NW.

At the end of the day, though, we know this is all just the dress rehearsal.  How much longer will friends and foes alike give Rhee (and Mayor Fenty) until they ask to see the test scores and demand to see improvements in achievement?  Ultimately, it is all about the numbers.

Some Ed Reccs for Senator Obama

Now that he is all but the official Democratic presidential nominee, it is time for Senator Barack Obama to start putting out some real ideas — real policies — that complement his vision for the future.  For most Democrats, that means a clear education policy, one that goes from pre-natal to geriatric.

Unfortunately, Obama’s message of hope and opportunity doesn’t quite jive with the education (particularly K-12) mantras of hopelessness and obstacles.  How do we restore hope for education reform in an industry that has been paralyzed by the fear of change?

More than a year ago, Eduflack offered some recommendations to the Democratic candidates running for president on how they can focus on education.  Since then, we’ve seen Ed in 08 and others try to do the same.  What’s funny is how wrong I was in March of 2007.  I thought it was a gimme that the Democrats would focus on education, seeing it as a great equalizer and a bridge to a stronger economy and better jobs.  How wrong I was!  Even the talking snowman has gotten more media play than the party’s education ideas.

But let’s take a second to look back on Eduflack’s specific recommendations, knowing full well they are just as strong and pertinent today as they were a year ago:

1.  We all must commit to improve our schools.  We cannot and should not simply protect the status quo.  That means having hard conversations with the teachers unions and pushing them and school administrators to make hard decisions.  Sacrifices today can yield improvements tomorrow. 

2. Additional funding does not directly result in improved achievement.  For every carrot, there is a stick.  If we are to increase NCLB spending (and we should, particularly to get effective teachers in the classroom), we need to ensure that such funding increases are focused on proven programs, improved assessments, and effective interventions.  As a nation, we will pay more if we see the results.

3. National standards level the playing field.  Regardless of who controls Congress or the White House, no one should be afraid of national education standards.  Such standards offer a promise of equity in all of our schools.  For those traditional blue states, and the urban centers located in them, national standards ensure that all students, regardless of their hometown, race, or socioeconomic status, are taught and measured compared to every other student in the country.  That equal field only helps when it comes to college, to jobs, and to life.

4. The time has come for Democrats to push the unions.  Can anyone honestly say that our schools wouldn’t benefit from teacher improvement.  HQT provisions in NCLB are fine, but the NCLB Commission got it right — we need to focus on effective teachers, not just qualified ones.  Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs out there, but intellectually and emotionally.  We need to do everything possible to support those teachers on the front lines.  But we also need to recognize that not everyone is cut out for the challenge.  Our schools need an assessment/improvement/mentoring model for all teachers.  Good teachers will thrive.  Those not destined to teach can move on with their professional lives.

5. Education reform is a shared responsibility.  Meaningful change is not just left to the teachers or the national education organizations.  Just as Hillary Clinton wrote about it taking a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to educate one.  Improving our schools requires teamwork.  Teachers and parents, business and community leaders, local, state, and federal officials all play a role in identifying, implementing, and assessing meaningful, results-based reform.  Shared responsibility results in shared success.

I maintain that all of these are still cogent, winning issues for Obama.  Case in point, Obama’s previous endorsement of teacher merit pay.  It is a strong idea, and one that can have an immediate impact on teacher and instructional quality in the schools.  It is an idea that resonates with most parents, and means something to local decisionmakers.  And it is a concept that the unions — particularly the NEA — greatly oppose.  We all recognize that Obama and the teachers unions are allies.  But performance pay can be one of those flag-in-the-sand moments that demonstrates Obama’s independence and the priority of kids in his education policy.

But it all seems to loop back around to national standards.  The National Governors Association and CCSSO have long been champions of a the concept.  This week, the National Association of Secondary School Principals threw its collective weight behind the issue as well.  And Obama endorser Roy Romer has been carrying the banner for it over at Ed in 08. 

Imagine the rhetorical impact national standards could have coming out of Obama’s mouth.  The opportunity that all U.S. students, regardless of their home state, are learning and achieving together.  The belief that the nation is stronger academically, and can measure it, because of national standards.  The elimination of have and have not states, knowing that a kid in Alabama is getting the same education as a kid in Connecticut.  Imagine.

Senator Obama, it is quite easy for you to write off education policy as part of your stump speech this all.  You’ll have the endorsement of the unions.  Education has never been a strong policy concern of Senator McCain’s.  And the anti-NCLB crowds will crow a vote for a Dem is a vote against NCLB.

But as you have all year, you have the opportunity to tell us what you stand for, and not just what you speak against.  If your recent anti-NCLB remarks are coming from the heart, tell us what you will do to fix the law.  If you are concerned about high-stakes testing, let Romer and company develop a national standard that lessens the stress on our student test takers.  But please, please, please, do and stand for something.

We’ve spend far too much time in recent years talking about what’s wrong and what we’re opposed to.  We need more people — particularly our leaders — telling us what they stand for in education reform.

A Display of RF Commitment

Sometimes, we just have to trust our gut.  Despite the white noise around us.  Despite what the nattering nabobs are saying.  We just have to go with what we know, make a decision, stand behind it, and reap the benefits.

That seems to be the MO that the good educators down in Louisiana are following.  Yesterday’s Shreveport Times reports that the Caddo School District have committed $1.6 million to continue funding their Reading First programs.  And if the feds don’t make the funding available, they will find the money themselves in the district’s general fund.  The full story can be found here — http://www.shreveporttimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2008806050330.

Why?  The good folks in Caddo know that RF works.  They’ve seen it help their low-performing, high-poverty K-3 classrooms, and they don’t want to lose that help.  They recognize that once you find something that works, and I mean really works, you do what is necessary to keep it in place. 

The educators and decisionmakers down in Caddo deserve some credit.  Despite all of the RF “sky is falling” chickens out their waiving around the IES RF interim study, Caddo knows a good thing when they see it.  RF works in schools like theirs and with kids like theirs.  It works, and you can’t take that away from them.

Over at Flypaper, Mike Petrilli praises the folks in Caddo for stepping up to the plate and agreeing to fund RF even if Congress won’t.  And he’s absolutely right.  It’s easy for a district to complain about a federal decision, and bemoan stripped funding and say “if only.”  Caddo Interim Superintendent Wanda Gunn is acting, not talking.  If the feds won’t do it, she’ll do it herself.

But the situation down in Shreveport also raises one important issue that ed reformers and RF advocates alike need to be mindful of.  The Shreveport Times positions this as Caddo spending $1.6 million on “Reading First,” as if the federal funding law were an off-the-shelf basal reading curriculum that school districts can pick up at their next trip to the store.  If only it were that easy. 

RF provides clear guidelines about the sorts of reading programs that should be implemented in the low-income, low-performing schools most in need of assistance.  It requires an educated, savvy superintendent, curriculum director, or reading teacher to take those guidelines, gain an understanding of scientifically based reading research, and make an educated decision on what is best for them, their schools, and their kids.

Despite the growing urban legend, there is no golden list of reading programs that guarantees both federal funding and student success.  It falls to educators to make their way through the smoke, move beyond the mirrors, and really identify the most effective, research-based reading programs for their students.  Programs that embody both the letter and the intent of the federal law.

It seems like the folks in Caddo have done that, and are putting their money where their mouths are.  Here’s hoping other districts will do the same, continuing to build on the gains and successes of the past few years that can only be attributed to SBRR in the classroom.

Caffeinating NCLB

If we’re to believe the chattering class, the greatest problem in public education today is No Child Left Behind.  It’s destroyed our schools, bankrupted our districts, frustrated our teachers, and destroyed the morale of our students.  Those standards and high stakes testing, in particular, have been the death of us.

You hear it so much that you almost believe it.  Then you get that slap upside the head, much like an overcaffeinated espresso, that reminds of you the truth.  This week, that slap has come from Seattle, hardly the home of the George W. fan club.  It seems the Seattle Times has thrown its editorial muscle behind NCLB (kudos to Ed Trust’s Equity Express for highlighting it.)

In a strongly worded editorial this week, the Seattle Times praises NCLB for “injecting rigor and accountability into a system that previously had little of both.”  The editors also note that recent improvements to the law — including demonstrations of flexibility on AYP — will take years for us to see, and we need to be patient.  The full article is here — http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/editorialsopinion/2004444420_nclbed29.html.

It’s unusual to see such pieces these days, when NCLB has been left as a punchline to a national education joke.  But as the Seattle Times and many others have noted, there is value to the law.  Forget, for a moment, that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act isn’t going away.  There are real positives in this law, and states, municipalities, and schools are seeing that.  

The Times is absolutely correct.  We are a better nation because of NCLB.  A national commitment to academic rigor is a good thing.  A national commitment to student achievement is a good thing.  A national commitment to doing what works in getting kids to learn is a good thing.  And a national belief that EVERY kid can succeed, given the right opportunities and circumstances, is indeed a good thing.

These were the sorts of messages we needed to hear three years ago, when we actually had the chance to reauthorize NCLB.  As Spellings and ED now play out the clock, there are few sane policywonks that believe reauthorization will happen this year.  Most don’t even believe it will happen in 2009. 

That could be a very different story is editorials like those appearing in Seattle had been printed years ago, and with in greater numbers.  ANd the responsibility, or the failed responsibility, for that falls squarely on the shoulders of the U.S. Department of Education.  The want us to drink the kool-aid, but they failed to market it to us as the end-all, be-all thirst quencher for our educational woes.  They failed to build demand for NCLB, and instead tried to force it upon us, no questions asked.  Thus, we are in the situation we’re in today.

The age-old story of opportunities lost and chances squandered.  Hopefully, we will always have the intent of NCLB propelling our ed reform sails … even if it goes by a different name and has different champions.  Rigor, accountability, achievement, success should have no party affiliation and should always remain in vogue.