We Are Agitators, Not Advocates

We’ve reached halftime at the Aspen Institute’s National Education Summit.  So far, the sessions have been interesting … and a little surprising.  What’s surprising?  No one is calling for the abolition of No Child Left Behind.  Even on a panel with two superintendents and the new president of the AFT, no one called for NCLB’s demise.  In fact, everyone seemed to believe the law has had a positive impact on education in the United States.  Why aren’t these folks talking to Congress?

But this is clearly not a conference on NCLB.  If the morning sessions are any indication, the future of education is about one thing and one thing only — accountability.  Perhaps EdSec Margaret Spellings is correct that accountability is going to be the lasting legacy of the NCLB era.  Today, everyone is talking about accountability, and everyone is talking about it in positive and glowing terms.
Some of the highlights from this morning:
* Spellings is reporting that test scores are up, the achievement gap is closing, and we are making great progress, particularly when it comes to math instruction.  EdSec also used the forum to promote her notion of Key Educational Indicators, her banking-industry metaphor for improving education (though the timing of modeling yourself after banking today is a little iffy.  I’d even prefer Tommy Thompson’s comparison to evaluating nursing homes).  What are those Indicators you may ask?  Simple measures — effective educators, reliable data, proven strategies.
* Ed in O8’s Roy Romer used his time at the rostrum to focus on his group’s new study on remedial education in postsecondary education, reporting one in three college-going high school grads needs remedial ed.  An important statistic, yes, but Eduflack thinks we should first figure out how to eliminate the 35% or so high school drop out rate, before focusing on those who made it through the system (even if it was a mediocre system at best)
* NPR/Fox commentator Juan Williams surprised the room by stating one of the biggest issues facing public education is the need (or the requirement) that we must be willing to challenge the unions.
* NYCPS’ Joel Klein has apparently heard one too many times that you can’t fix education until you fix poverty.  He countered with the mirror.  You can fix poverty once you fix education.  He also served as the chief voice for national education standards.
Surprisingly, Roy Romer seems to now be backing off his support for national standards.  A year ago, the former Colorado governor laid out what Eduflack thought was a terrific plan for using the nation’s top education governors to develop national education standards that could be adopted by all states.  Today, Romer said national standards just weren’t doable.  Instead, he proposed states developing their own standards that aligned with international standards, with the feds rewarding them for basing benchmarks on things like PISA.  An interesting idea, yes, but isn’t it more important to have the United States develop a single standard that matches up with PISA or TIMSS, and not that Arizona and Virginia have figured out how to do it by themselves, leaving the other 48 behind?  If national standards are not doable, tell us why and let’s task some folks to solve the problem.  Surrender isn’t the option, particularly on national standards.
The morning closed with an interesting discussion that focused, in part, on staff development.  Prince George’s County (MD) superintendent John Deasy focused on the concept that “teaching matters.”  Atlanta supe Beverly Hall called for professional development to be job embedded, and not simply an add-on offered one morning a month (Are you listing National Staff Development Council?  Hall is singing your song.)  Even Ed Trust’s Kati Haycock got in the act, suggesting that our schools need more programs like Core Knowledge if we are to really close that achievement gap and boost student achievement.
The takeaways?  No fireworks.  The Mayflower Hotel is hosting a room full of power players with the ability to enact real change.  They spent the morning listening and gathering information.  This was not about posturing or getting your slogan mentioned (since there are no open mikes for statements or questions) or showing you are the smartest person in the room.  Instead, this was about hearing and really understanding.  It was about making sure your view (and your motivation) for education reform is motivated by the same issues as your colleague across the table.  It is about making sure we’re all working together to solve the same problem and seeing success in the same way.
The event is being billed as “An Urgent Call.”  What is clear, though, is that there is still an absence of a national sense of urgency for the issue, particularly with those who aren’t running school districts, organizations, or corporations.  We still believe our individual school is doing a great job, regardless of the available data.  We still believe our students can compete, despite our slippage in international competition.  And we still think our kids are ready for the future, despite the growing dropout rate and increased remediation rate.  Clearly, we need an urgent call to Main Street, USA … and we need it now.
For years, Eduflack has talked about the need for public engagement and advocacy, particularly when it comes to the issue of school improvement.  But EdSec Spellings had it right when she said we should not settle for being advocates.  Instead, we should be agitators.  We’ve advocated for reform for decades.  Maybe the only way to really make a difference — to close the achievement gap, to boost student achievement in national and international measures, to measurably improve and support teaching, to broaden school choice and school opportunities — we really need to agitate.  I’m ready.  I’m Eduflack, and I’m an agitator.

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