To Be An Urban Superintendent

Over the past few weeks, the national education media has reported on the perils of being (or more importantly hiring and retaining) the urban superintendent.  By now, we’ve all read of the soap opera down in Miami-Dade, first with Rudy Crew’s departure and then with the delay on the official appointment of Alberto Carvalho as Crew’s permanent replacement (it is always the fault of those reporters, after all, isn’t it).

Most recently, the spotlight has been focused on the revolving door of the St. Louis superintendency, where it seems no one really wanted the top job, or at least no one wants to hold the job.  The Associated Press has Oklahoma City Schools on its 25th supe in 39 years, with the average tenure for a school chief now less than three years.  (See the full story here at <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26932546/)
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There is no question it is hard, hard work to lead an urban school district these days.  Reduced financial resources.  Greater academic expectations.  AYP demands.  Struggling schools.  Collective bargaining with teachers unions.  Increased energy costs.  School violence.  Drugs.  Drop outs.  And we haven’t even gotten into the issues of effectively educating today’s young people.  Being a superintendent may be one of the most difficult jobs out there, particularly when you factor in the searing spotlight, the high stakes, and the even higher expectations.
Two years ago, Prince George’s County, MD, handed over the keys to their educational kingdom to John Deasy, a promising educational leader from a small beach community in California.  His old Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District was one-tenth the size of PG’s 130,000 student system.  He was a white man coming into a predominantly minority school district.  And he brought real stability — and real improvement — to a district in need of some positive development.
We all know that it takes a good five years to see the true impact of educational reforms, particularly those classroom-based changes.  We need many years of data to view the long-term result.  But after a year or two, we can see some promising practices.  And in PG, Deasy has posted some real promise.  Test scores seem to be rising, and rising faster than the state average.  The number of schools on the state watch list has dramatically declined since Deasy’s arrival.  The district is now a beacon of possibility, and not the punchline for school failure it once was.   
Why is all this so important?  This morning’s Washington Post reports that Deasy will depart from PG in February, to take a senior position with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  No doubt, it is a great opportunity for Deasy and it will be a strong asset for the Gates Foundation.  Deasy’s experience in PG will be of real value to Gates, as he has solved problems in just the sort of school district that Gates is trying to reach with its education reform efforts. 
But it is a sad development for Prince George’s Public Schools, and a sadder day for urban education in general.  As the lifespan of an urban superintendent continues to shrink, we need to do everything we can to keep the good ones in place.  We need continuity in our district leadership, ensuring that good supes are sufficiently recognized, rewarded, and supported.  We need a system for mentoring the next generation of superstar superintendents, where the Deasys and Joel Kleins and Tom Payzants of the world can mentor and teach.  And just as we focus on teacher recruitment, we need a national investment in high-quality, effective school and district leadership.
Superintendent Deasy should be congratulated on his new appointment.  Through Gates, he has the opportunity to impact millions of students and dozens of school districts like PG.  He has the chance to take his PG experiences to scale, demonstrating to a larger audience that school improvement is possible, student test scores can rise, and schools can take the necessary steps to make AYP.  
Eduflack only hopes that PG will seek out a replacement from the reformer/improver model, someone who can continue the work Deasy has moved forward since his arrival in 2006.  Now is not the time for caretakers or those who won’t cause ripples.  Deasy shook up PG.  Gates saw that, and wanted to see more of that.  Hopefully, PG will stay the course.   

Will Real Formative Assessment Please Stand Up?

As Eduflack has previously noted, the issues of accountability and assessment have risen to the top of the education reform heap.  Thanks to the Aspen Institute and others, we seem to have consensus — at least with education and business leaders — that accountability should lead the day.  And to get there, we need strong, reliable, replicable assessments that effectively measure the effectiveness of our programs, our schools, and out students.

Earlier this month, Scott Cech did a piece in Education Week reflecting on internal disagreements within the testing industry on the issue of “formative assessments.”  (http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/09/17/04formative_ep.h28.html)   The piece is an interesting one, particularly in light of recent focus by major school districts on Response to Intervention, or RTI.  Like issues before it, education companies throughout the nation see RTI as a pending blank check, a major money-making program for those who can sell an answer to the problem.
While Cech’s piece raises some good questions on the issue of assessment and the role of both corporations and teachers in implementing meaningful assessment measures in the classroom, the piece — and the questions it raises — is being used by some to celebrate the end of accountability and is, unfortunately, being used to trumpet the demise of modern-day assessment models.
Because of issues like RTI, we have seen some very strong formative assessment models developed.  Just take a look at the investments made by organizations such as Wireless Generation, and you can see what high-quality, high-value assessment models can look like.  Focusing on pre- and post-assessment tools, educators gain the mechanisms they need to effectively evaluate student progress and determine the additional interventions needed to get every student succeeding.
Like most areas in education reform, there are good assessments and there are bad assessments.  There are research-based assessments, and there are squishy assessments.  There are assessments that work, and those that simply don’t.  The job of a good educator or a good policymaker is to learn the difference, and make sure we are using what works in our own schools and our own classrooms.
Those that celebrate articles like these as the “end of assessments” do so for one of two reasons.  Either they don’t truly understand what formative assessments are or they don’t have the research to prove that their models work.  
Cech is right.  This is an issue that many educators simply do not understand.  Nor is an issue that should be the exclusive playground of vendors or for-profit industry.  If we are going to hold our schools and our policymakers accountable for results in the classroom, we need to ensure that they have effective assessment tools AND understand how to use them appropriately.  We need to empower teachers to measure their students’ progress, and do so in a way that aligns with state and, hopefully, national learning standards.  And we need to simplify the assessment process so the average parent, the average teacher, and the average community member gets it.
Understanding meaningful assessment of student achievement should not require advanced degrees nor should it demand a multi-step, multi-part process that looks more like Swedish furniture assembly instructions than a benchmark of student progress.  There are simple, effective assessments out there.  We just need to redouble our efforts to get them out into the classroom.

RF: Political Punching Bag

By now, we’ve all come to accept that education issues just are not going to be major players in the presidential election.  We didn’t see it in the political primaries.  For the most part, we didn’t see it during the two national conventions.  And it is incredibly unlikely we will see it over the next six weeks.  As the nation struggles with economic issues, ongoing mortgage issues, and trillion-dollar financial market bailouts, education reform is just not a top-of-mind issue, particularly for those undecided voters that will determine the next President of the United States.

But sometimes — heck, most times — it is just too hard to not to hook a good red herring or not to throw a strong left hook at a political punching bag.  That is even true in education.  Don’t believe Eduflack?  Then you clearly missed Meet the Press this morning.
This AM, Tom Brokaw hosted a presidential debate autopsy with the senior strategists for Senators Obama and McCain. The discussion, as expected, was focused on economic policy, what the candidates thought of the expected financial bailout bill that will be unveiled by Congress tonight, and who is better suited to help the nation move forward from our current financial problems.  On Friday night, little time was spent discussing what programs would have to be cut if we were to pay for $700 billion in buyout and the added costs of new financial oversights, agencies, etc.  The issue came back around this morning on Meet the Press.
David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist and the primary architect of his incredible campaign, zeroed in on one program and one program in particular — Reading First.  While not citing it by name (and why not?, it would score him points in some sectors), Axelrod attacked the “boondoggle” of a reading program the Bush Administration has been funding, a program, he went on to say, “hasn’t helped a single kid.”
I understand the need for hyperbole and vitriol in a political campaign (in fact, I was once accused by a weekly rag of a newspaper for injecting the latter into a 1996 congressional campaign).  And in full disclosure, I have financially supported the Obama campaign, and have done so since before the first primary/caucus vote was cast in Iowa more than nine months ago.  But I must say, if that is the belief of the campaign, and if it reflects the plans for federal education moving forward, I am severely disappointed and quite a bit surprised.
Let’s set aside, for a moment, the fact that the $300 million or so currently being spent on Reading First will do little to fund the bailout or the billions of dollars in new programs and new initiatives being put forward.  The simple lack of understanding for Reading First and the impact it has had on our schools, as demonstrated by the talking point, shows that politics, and not results, can rule the day.
Eduflack would urge Axelrod — along with Obama education advisors Jon Schnur and Mike Johnston — to take a real look at RF and its impact on real schools and real kids.  Heck, let’s just take a look at the swing states that will determine the results on November 4.  Let’s look at RF’s impact in Pennsylvania.  In Ohio.  In West Virginia.  In Colorado.  In Florida.  Let’s even take a look at its impact in cities like Chicago and New York City, major hubs of Obama support.  Let’s place a careful eye on those schools, districts, and states where we’ve done what’s works and we’ve implemented scientifically based reading with fidelity, and we can see that Reading First has helped millions of kids.  And it could help millions more with better management, better oversight, better fidelity, and better support.
When presidential administrations change, we should look to build on the successes of the previous administration, fixing those programs and efforts that didn’t work, and ensuring our taxpayer dollars are wisely spent.  Spending federal education funding on programs that work is good public stewardship.  And scientifically based reading is such a program.  if we set aside the political packaging of RF, the core goals, the core intent, and the core outcomes of the program remain solid and should remain a national priority.
If Obama is serious about making sure every child has the math and science education needed to compete, he must first start by making sure every student is literate and can read at an appropriate grade level.  Scientifically based reading is the strongest, fastest, and only path to get us there.  It may not be a good campaign issue, but it is a damned good policy issue.

Read Early, Read Often

As we have reported many times before, far too many people have written Reading First off for dead.  Eduflack doesn’t want to go through the litany of reasons why.  It is simply too depressing.  But I will say for the record, just one more time, that Reading First works.  The science behind the program, making sure we are implementing what works in the classrooms that need it.  Collecting data and putting it to use effectively.  Implementing research-based reading programs with fidelity.  All are no-brainer steps in boosting student reading ability and reading achievement in schools and classrooms across the country.

Yes, I am pleased by the notion that RF seems to be getting a one year reprieve before it heads out to the ed reform gallows.  Thankfully, Congress’ inability to move on most FY2009 federal spending bills means that the federal reading program will be continued for yet another year.  One more year of funding for SBRR.  One more year for reading data collection.  One more year for research-focused reading professional development.  One more year of doing what works and doing what is right (before we figure out what comes next).
Often forgotten in this whole debate of RF is the fate of its baby sister — Early Reading First.  To a casual observer, the two programs appear joined together, bearing a similar fate.  It only makes sense to some that Early RF should be punished for RF’s sins, even though the program is different, the funding is different, and the intended audience and impact are different.
So imagine my surprise when I saw a major uptick on Early RF news over the past week.  Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced that 19 states would share more than $100 million in new Early Reading First grant moneys.  EdSec Margaret Spellings began talking about Early RF last week (likely because of the release of new funding).  And just yesterday, the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE) released a new report — “The Impact of Two Professional Development Interventions on Early Reading Instruction and Achievement.”  (Thanks, Kimberly, for the tip.)  Add to that the What Works Clearinghouse’s re-examination of early reading programs, and it seems beginning reading is the HOT topic in literacy once again.
This is a refreshing and positive development for those who have been fighting in the scientifically based reading trenches all these many years.  Yes, there have been some real problems with the implementation of Reading First.  But whether we are Republicans or Democrats, liberal or conservative, reformers or status quoers, we all have to agree that solid reading skills are essential to student success.  Those kids who are unable to read at grade level by the end of third grade or the start of fourth grade are, unfortunately, in an academic hole they may never be able to dig themselves out of.  
Reading ability is indeed a civil right.  To participate in school, participate in the workplace, and participate in this democracy, we need to be literate.  The era of working hard and signing your name with an X is no over.  Reading ability is the great equalizer.  A kid who can read (and one who can comprehend what she has read) is able to accomplish anything.  And proficiency only becomes a reality when one begins learning the skill as early as possible.
That is why the focus on Early RF is so important.  Reading at grade level by third grade requires work at the earliest of ages.  We know what skills students need before they reach kindergarten.  We know what parents should be doing at home with their toddlers to develop skills they need to become readers.  We know literacy instruction does not begin at the age of five.  And we know it is much harder to make up the lessons that can be learned early on than it is to teach them right at the right time.
In the long term, Reading First works when Early Reading First has done its job.  If we’re going to agitate for increased attention and increased support for RF, we need to make sure that Early RF remains a part of our educational fabric.  And we need to make sure we are conducting the proper students to measure its effectiveness.  Those committed to Early RF interventions know they work, now let’s show the world the data to prove it.  

Baby Eduflackette — The First Birthday

OK.  Time for Eduflack to get a little personal.  For those in the know, Eduflack and the missus have spent much of the past year working to bring baby Eduflackette home from Guatemala.  About a year ago, we made the decision to bring little Anna Patricia into our family.  Anna is our son Michael’s full birth sister.  This past Saturday — September 20 — was her first birthday.  As celebration, we have learned that we have passed through the latest legal/regulatory hurdle in Guatemala, and with a little luck and a lot of prayer, baby Anna will be nestled snuggling in her new home in Falls Church, Virginia before the Christmas stockings are emptied and the holiday gifts are unwrapped.
As for the tale of the tape, Anna had her last doctor’s visit about a month ago.  She’s weighing in at 19 pounds, 3 ounces.  She’s 67.4 centimeters long.  And now she’s got those big beautiful teeth setting off her fabulous smile.  She’s also incredibly gorgeous, as any can see, and I am sure she is going to cause me a great deal of trouble in about 15 or 16 years when the boys start calling.  
As I regularly say, Edu-son is one of the primary reasons why I am so zealous in regard to education reform and education agitation.  Little Eduflackette just redoubles that commitment.  With a strong education, she and her brother can rule the world.  I just have to do everything I can to get them the high-quality, results-oriented education they both need and deserve.
Happy birthday, baby girl.  Momma and dada will have you home in the Old Dominion soon enough!

The Measure of College Admissions

Down here in Eduflack’s temporary offices in Central America (long story, but the good news is that it looks like baby Eduflackette, who turned one on Saturday, should be coming home to the DC area for good before the end of the year), my eye was caught by a newsbrief in the NYTimes Digest (even I’m not willing to pay $8 for the full NYT down here) about the latest commission report on college admissions.

Headed By Harvard University Admissions Dean William Fitzsimmons, the latest report recommends that colleges and universities reduce their dependence on SAT and ACT scores when it comes to admitting new students.  Instead, the commission is recommending specific admission exams more closely tied to high school curriculum and student achievement.
For years now, we have seen leading national colleges and universities back off of SAT and ACT scores as requirements for admission.  Researchers have claimed that high school grades, and not standardized admission scores, are the true measure of student success in the postsecondary classroom.  And still more see the tests — particularly the SAT — as yet another example of the high stakes testing that has permeated P-16 education today.
At the very heart of Fitzsimmons’ report, though, I can’t help but think we are simply rearranging some of the deck chairs for postsecondary admittance.  After all, how different do we expect an “admissions exam” to be from the SAT or ACT.  All will serve as standardized tests.  All will measure students on a common level of English, math (and hopefully science and social studies, and maybe even foreign language) abilities.  All will be used to determine the cutoff line, knowing that a score of X gets you in, a score of Y puts you on the border line, and a score of Z puts you in the also rans.
The real issue is how one goes about constructing the admission exam.  By early reports, the Fitzsimmons commission is proposing an admissions exam based on high school curriculum.  A noble idea, yes.  But is it worth the paper it would be printed on (or the computer it would be coded on?)  Can national college admissions exams really be worth anything until we have national standards on which high school curriculum is based?
The answer, as we all know, is of course not.  College entry exams are intended to demonstrate that entering students have the skills and abilities to do basic postsecondary education work.  At a time when nearly half of all college-going students are forced to take remedial reading or math courses, such a determination has never been more important.  Are our high schools turning out students capable of college-level work?  Are our kids ready for postsecondary education?  And if not, what is it our secondary schools should be doing to ensure they are meeting their responsibilities in the P-16 education continuum?
It all brings us back to the simple concept of national education standards.  A rising senior B student in Alabama should have the same skills, abilities, and access to information as a B student in Connecticut, or one in Wisconsin, or one in Oregon or Nevada.  Algebra II should mean the same thing, no matter what state or what school district is taking it.  And a high school diploma should come with a guarantee of a basic knowledge and ability in English, math, and science.  As a nation, we should have common goals.  As a national education system, we should have common expectations from all of our students, regardless of location or socioeconomic status.
Yes, our goal should be getting a greater number of diverse students into postsecondary education.  We need to increase the number of first-generation students entering the halls of higher education.  We need to promote the notion that postsecondary education is a requirement for success in today’s ever-evolving economy.
A college admissions test simply doesn’t get us there, and in today’s environment, too many colleges may be required to develop dozens of such tests to reflect the vast differences in standards and performances across our 50 states.  If college admissions deans really want to make a difference, they should be out there advocating for national K-12 standards.  They should be demanding that every applicant be measured on the same scale.  They should require that a high school education — rural, suburban, or urban; northeast, south, midwest, or southwest — provides the same levels of skill, preparation, and knowledge.  They should require national standards.

Accountability!

This past week at the Aspen Institute’s National Education Summit, there was one clear super password for education improvement — accountability.  Superintendent after superintendent positioned accountability as the lasting mark of the NCLB era.  Business leaders spoke of how accountability was the true GPS to education reform.  Even EdSec Margaret Spellings has been using it to describe the education legacy of the Bush Administration.  Leaving the summit on Monday evening, one thing was clear, if we are to improve our schools and better educate our students, we must redouble our commitment to the notion of accountability.

Newly embracing the tag of educational agitator, Eduflack is ready and willing to trumpet the need for greater accountability in our schools.  As we discuss shared responsibility and shared gains in education, accountability is an action in which we can all take part, whether we be practitioners or policymakers, business or community leaders, parents or students, agitators or even status quoers.  When we hold our nation, our states, our districts, and our schools more accountable for both the instruction and the outcomes of that instruction, we have to believe that real, measurable student gains will only follow.
From the rhetoric in recent months, it seemed that both presidential candidates were equally supportive of the notion of increased accountability in our schools.  While neither has come out to wrap a bearhug around NCLB (and we shouldn’t wait for either to do so), both seemed to indicate that strengthening both standards and accountability are goals for the future.  Regardless of what wrapping we may place it in, the era of every educator for himself with little repercussion for success or failure is over.  It is time to put up and prove it.
So Eduflack was taken aback by Bruce Fuller’s September 18 blog piece on the New York Times online, which seems to indicate that an Obama administration would turn back the clock on accountability measures.  From his perch at the University of California Berkeley, Fuller states that Obama’s plan is one that simply sets learning standards, records student data, and recruits a stronger teacher base.
Don’t get me wrong, all three are important objectives.  But these are process-driven goals, not outcome-driven goals.  What good are learning standards (and please, oh please, can’t we come out for national standards instead), if we aren’t holding the students, their teachers, or their schools accountable for hitting levels of proficiency?  What good is recording student data if we aren’t using it improve instruction, identify what truly works in the classroom, and ensure that our teachers and our schools are hitting the benchmarks we have set for them?  And what good is teacher recruitment if we don’t have the systems in place to truly identify good teaching, reward it, and replicate it?  
The Aspen event has left the education policy community in an interesting position.  Not only did they bring together a who’s who of policy, business, and practice, but they moved nearly everyone to ask, what now?  This was more than just an informational session, it was a call to action.  It now falls to those leaders, both those at the rostrum and those in the audience, to drive us to real action, to real agitation, and to real improvement.
It is clear that accountability is neither a Democratic nor a Republican issue.  Educational accountability is an American issue, and it is the necessary path to true school reform and true educational improvement.  We’ve spent decades fretting about processes.  Now is the time for action — for clear standards and even clearer accountability measures, both of which are enforced, and not just talked about.  That’s the only way we truly move our rhetoric to action.