It should be no surprise that there was little real discussion of K-12 education at this week’s Democratic convention. As we’re seeing in polls, education simply isn’t an issue on which people cast their national vote. It isn’t a red-meat topic to rally the troops and build true excitement. Despite all of the best attempts from groups like Ed in 08, education just didn’t register this week, and isn’t expected to register next week.
As a child, Eduflack loved this time of year. The start of a new school year meant new school supplies. Just as I do today, back then I loved a good stationery store. And as I do today, I was always looking for the unique product. The Trapper Keeper design unlike the others. The unique pens in inks other than blue and black. Notebooks as narrowly ruled as possible to hold my small chicken scratch and not have it get lost on the page. (And, interestingly, I never bought pencils, as I push down too hard when I write, thus unable to keep the point on any wood or mechanical pencil. Even did my algebra and trig and calculus in pen.)
In New Haven, CT, a nine-year-old boy was just told he couldn’t play Little League baseball. His offense? League officials have determined that the boy is just too good. His team is 8-0. A pitcher, the boy throws a 40-mile-per-hour fastball (which for those unfamiliar with the game is just filthy good). It means most opposing players are unable to hit his pitches. He broke no rules; he did nothing wrong. In fact, he did it all right, performing as all of us former Little Leaguers wish we could. The result? The nine-year-old has been banished from the league, and his fellow teammates have been offered slots on the remaining teams in the league.
Educators are very big on the concept of modeling. We find what is effective in a similar situation (with a school, a class, or a student just like mine) and put it into practice in our own situation. Makes sense — if it is works for someone else, it just may work for me.
Earlier this week, the What Works Clearinghouse released its analysis on the research base for the Open Court and Reading Mastery programs. To the surprise of many (or at least many of those who are paying attention to the WWC these days), both programs were found to lack the research umph that WWC and the Institute of Education Sciences demands under the “scientifically based” definition.
EdWeek’s Kathleen Manzo has the full story here — http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/08/13/01whatworks.h28.html?tmp=1851512060.
The reports are particularly interesting because most believed Open Court and Reading Mastery were two of the leading programs for which Reading First and SBRR were intended. Open Court is the program of choice in Los Angeles, for instance, and both programs have been credited with boosting student reading achievement in the classroom.
Critics of RF will use this as yet another “I told you so” moment, that such golden list programs lack the research merit to warrant inclusion. And while it might make good AERA chatter, there is a much larger issue we should be discussing.
What is the true impact of the What Works Clearinghouse? Based on these reports, does anyone expect LAUSD to drop its contract with Open Court? Of course not. LAUSD has long believed the program has helped students in LA, and they’ll point to their own student achievement numbers to prove it. Same goes for most of the schools using both Open Court and Reading Mastery. It is in those schools because administrators, teachers, or both have found it effective with their kids.
As with much of the federal education reforms of the past decade, WWC is in a time of transition. Now is the time for the Clearinghouse to figure out what it really wants to be, and what role it is to play in P-12 education. Is it an evaluator of commercial programs? Is it an arbiter of scientifically based research? Is it a Consumer Reports for education? Or is it a tool to help education decisionmakers make intelligent decisions about instructional practice?
We need to start shifting from an “all or nothing” thinking and start determining how WWC fits into the larger framework. Otherwise, it could be another story of unfulfilled potential.
This week, Education Next and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University released their second annual survey on public education. There is a lot of interesting data here (http://www.hoover.org/publications/ednext/26380034.html).
For years, we have subscribed to the notion that we believe our own schools are doing a great job, even if we think public schools nationally are struggling. What does the data say? Nationally, only 9% of those surveyed would give their own schools an A (still a huge improvement from the 2% who give us an A nationally). More than half of those surveyed said their own schools scored a C or worse, while more than three-quarters of adults gave a C or poorer to our schools nationally.
By comparison, 19% give our local police force an A. Heck, 22% give the post office an A.
But we are schizophrenic on our views of our schools. Three quarters of adults rate the schools average (C) or worse, yet 56% believe our schools are heading in the right direction (with two of three teachers surveyed seeing an upward trend).
The right direction must be because of NCLB, right? Wrong. Half of adults say NCLB should either be overhauled or not renewed at all. With teachers, three-quarters of educators give it a thumbs down.
Huh? How can that be? We are headed in the right direction, but we need to dramatically change or reject the path we’ve been taking for the past six years? It just doesn’t make sense.
Education Next does deserve credit for its definition of NCLB. Over the past five years, survey after survey has tried to capture similar data, with varied results. And it often comes down to the questions posed. For this survey, NCLB is defined simply: “the No Child Left Behind Act requires states to set standards in math and reading and to test students each year to determine whether schools are making adequate progress, and to intervene when they are not.”
On the plus side, 69% of adults want national education standards, and want standards defined as “one test and standard for all students.” (A majority of teachers, 54%, support a single national standard.)
What does all this tell us? Unfortunately, we’re back to a familiar refrain from Eduflack. We must do a better job of promoting the progress, the successes, and the good works of our local schools. For the past few years, we have dwelled on the negatives and the negatives only. Failing students. Over-their-head teachers. Overworked administrators. Unconcerned parents. Is it any wonder we don’t see any A schools out there, either nationally or in our own communities?
Reforming schools is about improving schools. We can put in the right curriculum. Train and support the right teachers. Demonstrate improved student achievement. It is all for naught if we aren’t “selling” reform and educating stakeholders on what’s really happening in our classrooms. If this data is any indication, effective marketing and PR for our schools may be almost as important instruction.
Five or so years ago, the hot read was Jim Collins’ “Good to Great.” Company after company made it required reading. The cocktail party elite tried to recite sections from the book. The technology industry groused that they were excluded (since most lacked the shelf life of Collins’ methodology). And most wanted folks to see that little red book proudly on display on their office book shelf.
I’ll be honest. Eduflack was whelmed by the book at the time. (An aside, I am a firm believer that whelmed is a word. If I can be overwhelmed and underwhelmed, I can be whelmed. Please feel free to use in your day-to-day conversations.) I felt several of the companies really lacked the “greatness” I would expect. And the future developments, such as Circuit City eliminating experienced staff for cheaper, unexperienced employees only reinforces the point.
But my greater concern was how quickly those in the non-business community, particularly those in the education sector, were quick to embrace the “Good to Great” philosophy and try to apply it to their organizational situation. Too much is different — from resources to rubrics to results — to say what works for business must work for education, without question. Yes, education can learn a great deal from business (and vice versa), but the education pegs don’t always fit through the corporate holes.
Over the weekend, I picked up Collins’ monograph “Good to Great and the Social Sectors.” It is 30 some odd pages, and well worth the read. And I was won over by the first sentence. “We must reject the idea — well-intentioned but dead wrong — that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become ‘more like a business.’ Most businesses — like most of anything else in life — fall somewhere between mediocre and good. Few are great.”
Somehow, we all missed that point when the original book came out. We all want to be great, so we looked for our own organization in the text. We never bothered to ask what it took to get our school, district, or education NFP to even the good status.
In the monograph, Collins spends little time talking about education. Instead, the focus is on traditional non-profits. But he does make mention of K-12 education when describing the economic engines in the social sectors. To paraphrase, a strong education engine requires “heavily on political skill and maintaining political support.”
There is much good here on leadership traits and on how the social sector builds on Collins’ concepts of the Hedgehog and the Flywheel. Like most, it results in far more questions than answers.
Collins puts us on a number of good paths. The most important of which is that we need to plot the path from good to great in public education. How do we take the original book, and this monograph, and build a guidebook for our K-12 leaders? And just as important, how do we use what we know to build a path to get the majority of schools to “good,” just so they have the possibility of becoming great schools.
Mr. Collins, I’m certain such an approach would make John Gardner proud. And if you need a hand, drop me a line.