“An Army of Teachers”

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.

Sure, there were a few veiled references to No Child Left Behind and how it has saddled our schools.  Many speakers talked about the need for more student loans.  But other than a few sentences in former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner’s speech and in current Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s remarks, education was an also-ran issue.
But last night, Barack Obama upped the ante.  Yes, his spoke globally on a range of issues, focusing mainly on the economy and on foreign policy.  Education, though, also popped up in his speech.  The most interesting line, perhaps, was his notion that, as president, he would recruit a “new army of teachers” for our schools.
We all have heard the stories about how more than half of all teachers will be retiring over the next five years.  We know that there is a teacher “shortage” out there, particularly in subjects such as math and science.  And we’ve seen the stories about school districts recruiting for new teachers outside of their state and even outside of the United States.  But it is a bold statement to say that the federal government is soon going to get into the business of identifying and recruiting a new “army of teachers.”
At a Jobs for the Future conference last fall, the Gates Foundation’s education director, Vicki Phillips, spoke of the Foundation’s need to get into the human capital business.  Few noticed the line, but it left a lasting impact on Eduflack.  Imagine the impact on teacher recruitment if the Gates Foundation put its money and its willpower behind the teacher recruitment, bringing individuals into the fold who can lead the new classrooms of the 21st century.  It was an interesting idea, an idea that hasn’t been fleshed out since Phillips tossed it into the pool.
Getting the federal government — and, thus, the U.S. Department of Education — makes it just a little more interesting.  Imagine an assistant secretary for teacher recruitment, leading an office that is looking at new incentives and alternative certifications and performance pay and teachers at charter schools.  I know I am jumping to conclusions here, but it is an interesting thought that the feds could soon be in the teacher recruitment business.
Yes, the chance if far greater that this is a line that will soon be forgotten and never adopted into policy.  In an Obama Administration, even if it moved forward, it could simply be an initiative run by the National Education Association, looking so much like efforts that have come before it.  
Or it could just be a bold way to truly improve education, putting everything on the table and making clear that the teacher in front of the classroom is the most important component to student achievement.  It could redefine how we think of a qualified, effective teacher.  And it could re-energize a new generation to become classroom teachers.

The Very Real Costs of Free Public Education

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.)

Each year, I would watch as my mother bought her school supplies as well.  My mom was (and is) a dedicated high school English teacher.  She’d buy videos (and now DVDs).  She order supplemental books and student incentives.  She’d have pens and pencils for those students without.  And she’d buy all of the communal products needed in her classroom.  It always seemed unfair to me, that she, instead of the school, had to buy all of the supplies for her classroom.  But that was the way it was, and she just waited for those sales when teachers got an extra 10% off.
Last week, the D.C. Examiner ran several stories on the “costs” of attending public schools.  Parents bemoaned the activity fees and snack fees and similar costs associated with going to school.  The tales of laundry lists of needed supplies seemed to be a bit of an overstatement.
Then I checked out the list for the kids of a close family friend.  This blue-collar family was preparing their first for the start of the new school year out in Loudoun County, Virginia.  Eduflack took a peek at the shopping list, and was shocked by both the length and the specificity involved.  
Three composition notebooks of three different colors (black, red, and blue), none with perforated or spiral pages.  One blue and one red plastic pocket folder.  One school box no larger than 5″ by 8″.  One box of crayons, 24 count only.  One pair of scissors with a 5″ sharp tip.
But that wasn’t all.  Those were for the student’s personal stash.  Then we moved into the student’s communal responsibilities.  Each student is required to provide the class 24 glue sticks of .21 ounces each, a 175-count box of tissues, 36 sharpened #2 pencils, and a box of 80 baby wipes.  Each girl in the class also had to bring a box of resealable plastic bags, quart size, and each boy had to bring a box of the same, in gallon size.
Imagine it.  In a class of 25, students are providing 600 communal glue sticks and nearly 900 sharpened pencils.  This cache would then supplement the students’ individual needs.  What teacher has the storage space?
It took shopping trips to three different stores, and several hundred dollars, to collect all of the items on the list.  And then there was the electric pencil sharpener needed to sharpen the 36 pencils (no surprise, no one sells sharpened pencils).  All, in large part, to get a six-year-old ready for school. 
Makes you want to ask where exactly all the per-pupil expenditures and rising property tax bills are going.

Too Good?

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.

What does all this have to do with education reform, you may ask?  Actually, a great deal.  Let’s first look at the message we are sending children.  After a decade of soccer games where do don’t keep score, trophies for all kids who participate, and the elimination of games like dodgeball because they make some kids feel bad about themselves, we are now ostracizing students for excelling.  We are telling them that the goal is mediocrity.  Better to remain in the pack rather than strive to be the leader.
It is hard enough to be a student in today’s world.  If we believe media reports, peer pressure, bullying, and the like are far worse today than they were when Eduflack was a kid.  We hear tales of students who downplay their intellect and are ashamed of their achievement, fearful of the repercussions on the playground or in the neighborhood.  And now they have to worry about attacks and dismissal from the adults that were trusted to teach them and further develop their skills?  League officials should celebrate this kid for being an all-star and achieving at levels of kids two, three, or four years older than the one in question.
It is no wonder we have such a difficult time encouraging, supporting, and demanding improved student achievement.  We don’t focus on those schools that regularly make AYP.  Instead, we come up with excuses as to why so many schools are failing to excel.  Instead of offering incentives to ensure that the very best teachers are in DC classrooms, we accuse the DCPS chancellor or racism, sexism, ageism, and any other ism we can think of.  Instead of ensuring all U.S. schools are world class, and can compete with our international colleagues, we turn a blind eye to how our lax U.S. national standards measure up to other industrialized nations.  Instead of striving to continue to offer the best public education available in the free world and a system of meritocracy, we are content with status quo and a life of mediocrity.
Sure, this is a lot to deduce from a Little League pitcher.  But look at the past two weeks.  We celebrated U.S. performances in the Olympic Games, cheering the fact the United States won more medals than any other nation.  But how much attention did educators pay to the educational olympics offered by the Fordham Foundation, which show our standing slipping in critical academic areas?
We should be asking ourselves how we get out kids to throw lights-out when it comes to algebra II or chemistry, Spanish or world history.  We should be encouraging STEM education in the elementary grades and advanced-level courses at the start of high school.  We should be asking how we can get every kid excelling academically — exceeding expectations and grade-level requirements.    

Mini Me, Version DCPS

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.

But sometimes we can take modeling a little too far, giving the impression we are just mimicking or copying those that others like.  Case in point, DC Public Schools.  For a school district that is supposedly all about innovation and improvement, they seem to be an awful lot like the new student trying to dress, talk, and act like the “cool kid” on the playground.
We saw it last year when DC Mayor Fenty decided he would channel NYC Mayor Bloomberg, appointing a schools chancellor (instead of a superintendent) and choosing a non-traditional choice (former Justice Department official Joel Klein in NYC and New Teacher Project founder Michelle Rhee in DC).  Since, we’ve seen it in Rhee’s dealings issues such as school closings and dealings with the unions and even parental engagement.
Yesterday, though, Rhee officially became Klein’s mini-me.  She announced a new pilot project to “pay” middle school students for showing up for school and doing their work.  If successful, Rhee intends to take the pilot project across all middle schools in DC, offering up crisp Benjamins for students who do their jobs as students.
Let’s forget that there are still unanswered questions about the effectiveness of NYC’s own pilot effort.  What message does it send when we offer middle school students pay for play?
Supporters of such efforts would argue it is simply an equity issue.  Upper-class families have been paying their kids for good grades for years, the line goes, why can’t we give at-risk students the financial incentive to come to class, pay attention, and do their homework.  After all, fair is fair.
Unfortunately, such thinking completely misses the larger picture.  Pay for play is necessary when there is no larger reason for the action.  In recent years, though, we’ve been telling students and their families that a good education is necessary for a good job.  We need more rigorous classes.  We need kids with high school diplomas and postsecondary educations.  We need students with the academic and social skills to succeed.
Step one to getting there is actually showing up for school.  Step two is paying attention.  Step three is doing the work.  Step four is measuring proficiency.  Repeat.  
The reward should be the proficiency and the skill acquisition.  A crisp $100 bill shouldn’t be the incentive for student performance.  If it is, getting middle school students to show up is the least of our problems.
If DCPS wants to borrow from the NYC DOE playbook, it should be focusing on increasing student achievement and closing the achievement gap.  Gimmicks such as pay to play may look good in the local papers, but they simply aren’t going to solve the larger issues facing DCPS and other urban districts.

What Reading Program Works

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.

Thinking Less of Our Schools

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.
  
 

What is Great in Education?

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.