“The 21st Century Begins Now?”

We are a nation of lists.  We love lists.  To do lists.  In lists.  Out lists.  Check offs.  Top 25s.  Up and comers.  Give us a list, and it is something that we can embrace.

This month, Esquire magazine (yes, thank you Chris Whittle for saving this pub a few decades ago) is running a cover story on the 75th anniversary of the magazine, focusing on “The 21st Century Begins Now.”  The magazine’s publishers lay out the 75 most influential people of the 21st century.  The selections are more photo than caption (typical for the magazine), and many of them are quite interesting.
What is most startling, though, is how small a role education seems to play in the 21st century (at least in Esquire’s eyes).  When Time magazine did a similar list last year, we saw names like Bill Gates, Wendy Kopp, and others.  Real names that have been involved in real education reforms — and, more importantly, improvements — over the past decade.  Since then, we’ve seen continued investment from Ed in 08 to draw attention to education issues, we’ve heard the phoenix story of New Orleans public schools, and we’ve seen new superintendents take over new districts with a zeal that hasn’t been felt in quite some time.  Now we have events like Aspen’s National Education Summit tomorrow, designed to harness the power, enthusiasm, and sense of urgency that has been brought to modern day education reform.
Esquire seems to turn a blind eye to the influence of educators, though.  We have actors and musicians, futurists and techies.  But it seems educators struggle to make the top 75 list.  Perhaps they’ve forgotten that education has the potential to be the great equalizer, or that it serves as one of the most significant civil rights issues of our time.  Maybe they’ve failed to recognize that better education today results in better jobs and a stronger economy tomorrow.  Whatever the reason, education got little respect from Esquire.
NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg makes the cut, but it is all about organizational reform and environmentalism.  Michael Milken is one it, but for his work with FasterCures healthcare reform, and not his previous education efforts.   Recent TED honoree Dave Eggers is on the list, and he nobly talks about the importance of reading, even in the 21st century society.  Bill Gates, of course is there, with a chart of his July charitable giving — only a fraction of it went to education causes, though, showing the diversification of his efforts (health, poverty, microfinance, policy, and education).
That would be the full list.  Maybe we can add actor Will Smith to the educators list because of his recent good work with charter schools.  But at the end of the day, we have one person on the list — an author — who is full-time involved in education.  Two on the list with education experience, though you can find it on their bios.  And one who’s impact on education has been quite measurable, even if it is a small part of the overall philanthropic impact.
I’ll say it.  That simply isn’t enough.  If we are looking at the 75 most influential people of the 21st century, we need to be looking at those who are influencing the actual leaders of the 21st century.  Actors and musicians and politicians may be trendy choices, but are they affecting real influence?  And can we really project the influencers of the century, when most organizations lack the foresight to thoroughly develop a 10-year strategic plan?
That’s why Eduflack is going to assemble a list of the nine individuals with the potential to influence education reform over the next decade.  If nine is good enough for a baseball team, it is good enough for me.  Maybe we’ll add a bench and some role players, but for now, the focus is our starting nine.  And I’m looking for some nominations for my draft.
Who is going assume the HR lead in getting hundreds of thousands of teachers hired following mass retirements over the next five years?  Who is going to harness disparate interests and move us to national education standards?  Who is going to redefine science and research in the classroom?  Who will lead the change evolve the role of principal into instructional and institutional leader?  Who has the approach to close the achievement gap?  Who’s got the inside track to end drop-out crisis?  Who moves STEM from the fringe to a central movement?
Our all-star team is not intended to be a list of well-known urban superintendents or organizational CEOs.  We’re looking for thinkers and voices.  We seek innovators and defenders.  We want the known and those who need to and should be discovered.  Eduflack has had a lot of fun playing parlor games regarding who will become the next EdSec.  But at the end of the day, I know that real reform and real improvement comes from those on the front lines.  EdSecs can provide vision and leadership, and they may even be able to coach the ed reform team, but they will never be the one to win the game.  We’re looking for true game changers and game winners.
Perhaps the Aspen Institute summit will spotlight on some individuals and some ideas that deserve consideration.  Perhaps the lists from Edutopia and others will help educate.  Regardless, the hunt is on.  Who wants to join the search?

“An Urgent Call”

It is rare for Eduflack to get generally excited about a particular event.  Those who know me know I am the supreme by nature.  As I’ve said before, I’m not a glass half full/half empty sort of guy.  I just want to know who broke my damned glass.

But every so often, I even surprise myself with real and genuine enthusiasm.  And that enthusiasm is kicking in as we lead into the Aspen Institute’s National Education Summit on Monday.  Under the banner of “An Urgent Call,” Aspen is bringing together an unmatched who’s who on education reform, education policy, and corporate support.
I recognize that some may ask, why the enthusiasm?  After all, these sorts of meetings and forums have been a dime a dozen in recent years.  But there just seems to be something a little different about Aspen’s Summit.  And it is those difference that make all the difference:
* The major players will be in attendance … and will be participating.  EdSec Margaret Spellings, Supes Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, reformers like Jon Schnur and John Chubb, policy influencers and leaders like Gates’ Vicki Phillips and Ed in 08’s Roy Romer.  
* The summit is speaking with multiple voices.  Too often, these events come with a specific point of view and a myopic intent.  Here, we have AFT’s Randi Weingarten and EdTrust’s Kati Haycock.  We have urban superintendents and the corporate leaders who are pushing them to change.  And we have an A-list of media members to connect all the voices and provide a clear voice for the future.
* It is about more than diagnosing the problems.  Yes, there will be some focus on how public education in the United States has gotten where it is.  Yes, they will assess the current problems, while providing clear understanding on why the problems need to be fixed.  More importantly, though, the summit is pledging to help “sustain a national will for effective reform.”
As I’ve worked with education organizations and corporations across the country, I’ve always tried to talk about communications and public engagement in the simplest of terms.  Ultimately, one often wants to lower public expectations, and then greatly exceed those expectations.  Why?  We all love a winner.  Those who set goals, and then far exceed those goals, are perceived as winners.  Those who set high public expectations, and then struggle to achieve them, are seen as failing — even if that 80% success rate means a lasting impact on the field (and has far more of an effect than those who easily achieve lower expectations).
Without question, the Aspen Institute has set higher than high expectations with this summit.  More importantly, they are bringing together the right people to actually achieve these goals.  This isn’t just a room of talking heads, brought together to discuss the issues and wring their hands about all that is wrong with our public schools.  On Monday, Aspen is bringing together 300 of the top people best positioned to bring real change and real improvement to our education system.
Sustaining a national will for effective reform is not easy.  Sure, it’s easy to diagnose the problems or to share information about what is wrong and why it is important.  One of the hardest things to do, at least in the communications field, is to move beyond information sharing and move into changing public behavior.  Aspen is seeking to change public behavior, and Monday’s summit serves as their flag in the sand.
The Aspen Institute has demonstrated, through its work with the NCLB Commission, that it is committed to education improvement and to provided the time, support, and leadership to see the issue through.  In my humble eyes, the NCLB Commission’s report — released a year and a half ago — still serves as one of the better blueprints for improving the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  If this summit can serve the same purpose, we may really have something here.
That’s why I am enthusiastic about Monday.  As always, Eduflack will be looking and listening for those issues he knows are essential to improving our schools — national standards, data collection and application, school choice, and STEM among them.  Here’s hoping I leave Monday with the same enthusiasm I’m holding this afternoon.

“Those Who Do Not Learn from the Past …”

We’ve all heard George Santayana’s famous quote (often attributed to others), that “those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.”  It is a poignant statement on the importance of understanding what has happened in the past, so we can learn and grow from it.

Personally, Eduflack prefers the words of baseball philosopher king Yogi Berra, who eloquently said that if we don’t know where we are going, we will never know if we get there.  Both are applicable to life, and both are certainly applicable to education reform.  In an our current era of “change,” we are all looking to do something different with the schools.  But for those who have been around the block a time or two, they are seeing reforms that are simply retreads of ideas past.  We put a new wrapping on them or give them a new name, but they are the same failed ideas, with no indication that we have learned from their participation in that first rodeo.
What does it all mean?  For the most part, it demonstrates that we have little sense for our current standing or what it has taken to get us there.  We still believe we have the best higher education system in the world, even though our college graduation rate has slipped from first place to 15th in 10 years.  We still believe our K-12 system has no match, even as schools in India and China manage to turn out more and more students to take our jobs.  And we still embrace an educational model that was developed nearly a century ago, a model built on the notion that 1/3 in college, 1/3 high school grad, and 1/3 dropout is acceptable, and the three Rs remain the king.
Put simply, we are getting by on our reputations, not on our current actions.  We often hear carbuyers talk about their desire to buy a Volvo because of its unmatched safety record.  Let’s forget, for a moment, that the safety record in question is now a few decades old and not applicable to the current models.  In education, we sell our superiority based on an outdated model and outdated comparisons, believing that tinkering around the edges today will make us stronger, and that no one can match what we really have to offer, because they couldn’t three decades ago.
Exams like NAEP, TIMSS, and PISA obviously tell us otherwise.  The growing national push for STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) tells us otherwise too.  But how do we really learn from our educational past, in a way that lets us strengthen our educational future?
On Monday, PBS will debut its “Where We Stand: America’s Schools in the 21st Century” program.  Hosted by The NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff, this program was developed to provide “an historic assessment of U.S. Schools in where we stand.”  Premiering at 10 p.m. on Monday, September 15, the program will tell the stories of a number of individuals and communities affected by the current state of public education, focusing on issues such as teaching foreign languages (like Mandarin classes in Ohio), addressing high-poverty, low-performance issues, and using STEM education programs to lift all boats and empower all students.
The program will address the issues in urban, suburban, and rural schools, recognizing our successes and our challenges are not limited to a sliver of our demographic.  More importantly, producers promise a “frank” discusses of public education’s strengths and weaknesses, an adjective that rarely finds its way into media coverage of education and education reform these days.  The show will focus on Ohio, as it is the microcosm of our nation, both politically and educationally.  
Kudos to PBS for taking up such a challenge and producing such a piece (and it isn’t even a John Merrow piece!).  And kudos to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for funding this effort, lending its resources to educating and teaching us, in addition to empowering us to change the classrooms.  Hopefully, “Where We Stand” will provide some important lessons for the reformers, the status quoers, and all those in between to learn from and model as we move forward.
Every GPS out there requires you to enter you start point in order to track your path.  Maybe, just maybe, “Where We Stand” can provide those many educators and policymakers lost out there in the wilderness with a reliable start point on which to plot a new course. 

Is Reading First Dead or Not?

Not much more than a month ago, it seemed the entire education community had written Reading First off for dead.  Congress has zero-funded the law.  The U.S. Department of Education was doing little, if anything, to do something about it.  IES had released an interim study questioning the program’s effectiveness.  All seemed relatively lost.

Yes, there was a small chorus of sane voices out there, trying to save this important program.  Sol Stern led a charge.  USA Today strongly weighed in.  Fordham Foundation provided intellectual heft.  Even little ol’ Eduflack got in more than its cent and a half.
Yet most have been planning for RF’s funeral.  Facts are facts, and the facts for RF were just not looking good.  Despite the need for scientifically based reading, despite the impact it has had on student achievement over the past five years, the simple fact was that RF was being zeroed out.  Those schools looking to implement SBRR would need to do so on their own, finding the necessary resources to fund programs that work (without the help from the feds).
The start of the school year may have shifted a little bit of thinking, though.  Tomorrow, EdSec Margaret Spellings will be in Des Moines, Iowa for a day o’ Reading First.  She’ll be touring RF classrooms at George Washington Carver Community School, and then will participate in a roundtable discussion with the superintendent and RF teachers.
More important, though, was the report issued late last month by the Reading First Federal Advisory Committee.  This advisory committee — led by Katherine Mitchell, the former Assistant State Superintendent in Alabama — issued its report as a direct response to the RF interim study released earlier this year by IES.  In their report, the Advisory Committee points to the interim study’s fundamental flaws (most of them methodological, which should be a surprise coming from IES).  More importantly, the committee states that the data found in the IES study is insufficient to make the claim that RF is ineffective.  The advisory committee’s ultimate conclusion — the Congress and ED should not make any long-term decisions on RF until better, more comprehensive data is collected.  They aren’t saying the IES study is wrong, they are just saying the data is insufficient to make any meaningful conclusions.
Of course, this study has gotten little (just about NO) attention from the media.  IES’s interim study was a dagger into RF’s heart, offering the media an entertaining Shakespearean education reform tragedy.  It made from great news, as IES (the office created, in many eyes, to build up SBRR and RF) was ultimately inflicting the wound.  It fell to alternate media, such as the blogosphere, to identify the flaws in the interim study.  It will likely fall to them once more.
So what comes next?  Despite the wishes of the chattering class, RF is likely to get level-funded for one more year.  As Congress fails to pass a new Labor/HHS/Education appropriations bill before the end of the month, Congress will simply move into CR mode, meaning that the new budget will simply be a carbon copy of the old budget. So RF programs will collect another year of federal funding, some $350 million or so.  One more year of life.  One more year of opportunity.
Why is this important?  It gives RF (and more importantly, SBRR) supporters a final year to ensure that the legacy of RF is not abandoned when the federal implementation funding dries up.  In a year when the White House, ED, and a number of state departments of education will change hands, those who have benefited from RF’s beacon will need to figure some things out.  How do we keep what works in the classroom?  How do we ensure our schools continue to prioritize scientifically based reading research?  How do we distinguish between good and bad research?  How do we empower teachers with research-based instruction?  How do we get all kids reading?
A lot of questions, yes.  But a lot of questions with clear answers.  We may need a change of vocabulary, but the core principles on which RF was built remain more important than ever.

Campaigning on Education

We are just about at the end of our political conventions, so how has education fared?  At last week’s Democratic convention, we had little mention of K-12 education, with the majority of it coming during Barack Obama’s acceptance speech, and more still coming from former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and current Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.  

So far, the GOP convention has been about the same.  Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee spoke of education last evening.  VP nominee and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin made specific mention of special education (and more importantly, made a play for the sped community, perhaps the best-organized grassroots community in the nation).  But on the whole, despite all of the money and attention heaped on the issue by Ed in ’08 and others, public education was barely an also ran in this lead-up to the general election.

Over the past two weeks, Eduwonk (www.eduwonk.com) had done a good job of bringing us education commentary from campaign advisors.  Last week, we heard from the Republicans (including former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, who, in the name of full disclosure, Eduflack helped defeat in a congressional race in 1996).  Swift and company offered some terrific insights into the education whispers being directed into John McCain’s ear, providing us more information in a week than the campaign had provided over the past year.
And this week, we are getting similar insight from Obama advisors Mike Johnston and John Schnur, who have given us both a 10-point plan and a real call to action (at least a call to action for policy wonks).
Yesterday, Greg Toppo reported in USA Today on the Democratic Party platform and how its education planks differ from years past and are seen as crossing the teachers’ unions.  Why?  Because the Party is supporting the idea of merit pay, one of the few education issues put forward by Obama during the primary campaign.
It all has Eduflack thinking.  Why is the issue of accountability seen as a Republican idea?  Don’t Democrats believe in measuring student achievement and knowing how our schools and kids are performing?  Why is the issue of supporting teachers seen as a Democratic idea?  Don’t Republicans care about making sure our teachers are well-trained, well-supported, and well-respected?  
We can go down the list.  School choice.  Charters.  Special education.  STEM.  High school reforms.  Principal preparation.  Alternative certification.  All are now seen as political issues, embraced by one side or condemned by the other.  It is no wonder that true, meaningful education reform is so difficult to come by these days.
I don’t mean to be Pollyanna-ish about this.  I get the ideology behind many of the policy issues.  I understand that it wasn’t so long ago that the national Republican Party was calling for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education.  I know the teachers unions have been myopic in their view of political candidates to support and limited as to their ability to embrace change.  But I also know we should demand more from our education community.
Earlier this year, I made recommendations on how Senators Obama and McCain can and should be talking about K-12 education during this campaign.  But I know that other than a possible question or two during the domestic policy debate, education will unlikely be a subject of presidential discussion.  But I would urge both campaigns to consider a few points, both as they message their campaign and as they prepare for their possible administration:
* Education is not an island unto itself.  A strong educational system leads to a strong economy.  It offers better jobs and better opportunities.  It improves the health and welfare of the community.  It is truly a tide that lifts all boats.  Education is the common denominator that links all of our domestic policy needs.
* We must teach to the 21st century.  These past two weeks, we’ve heard a lot about innovation and alternative energies.  If we are serious about this, we need to be serious about STEM education.  Reducing independence on foreign oil comes, in large part, from U.S. citizens with the skills and abilities to think, explore, and discover differently.  STEM is at the root of all of that, as well as countless other issues that will make us stronger as a nation.
* Education is about people.  We can develop the best curriculum or write an unmatched text, but if we don’t have a qualified, enthusiastic, and successful educators at the helm of the classroom and the school, we won’t see the results.  We need to invest in good teaching and good school leadership.  It starts in teacher training programs, and it continues through professional development for decades.
* Data is king.  We can’t improve if we don’t know where we stand today.  We identify best practices by seeing where our teachers and students are succeeding.  Likewise, we learn where we need to deploy resources and improve offerings based on the information.  School improvement requires high-quality, comparable data at the state, district, school, and student level.
* We need national standards.  We are not a union of independent states with different needs and different expectations.  There should be one national standard, a standard that brings us together and ensures that all students are receiving the high-quality education they deserve (and have been promised).  We can look to the governors to help us define what those standards should be, but a fourth grade education or a high school diploma should mean the same thing, regardless of state, social standing, or political party.
Education may not be THE defining issue of this campaign, but as we are discussing the middle class and small towns and the economy and the future, the one common thread is education.  Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, we all should agree that every child should have a high-quality education and every child should have the opportunity to succeed.  I know the campaign advisors agree with this, now we just have to get the nominees to say it out loud and in public.

“Glad” NCLB Wasn’t Reauthorized?

Over the past year, we’ve heard from a lot of people that were thrilled that No Child Left Behind hadn’t been reauthorized.  Folks who felt it was an unfunded mandate.  Those who felt it overemphasized high-stakes testing. Those who feared it federalized education, removing the local control we’ve long depended on.  And those who questioned particular legislative components, whether it be special ed provisions, lack of attention on rural schools, highly qualified teacher language, over-emphasis on scientifically based research, etc.  Take your pick.  NCLB opponents have had a virtual Chinese menu of reasons to be glad that reauthorization efforts have stalled over the last two years.

But it was surprising to hear that EdSec Margaret Spellings shared in the joy of a stalled NCLB.  In remarks reported in Education Week’s Campaign K-12 blog, Spellings said she was “glad” the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was not reauthorized last year, due in large part to her view of the Miller/McKeon draft that was put forward early in the process.  Even more interesting, she believes the delay in reauthorization has allowed NCLB supporters to rally the troops and strengthen our resolve to build a law around “accountability.”
To a degree, Eduflack can understand where Spellings is coming from.  Congressman Miller was advocating some real changes to the law, including giving states and localities the flexibility of pursuing their own assessments.  Miller and McKeon did not share the view that NCLB was 99.99% good.  In reflecting on their goals when passing the law in the first place in 2002, the Democrat and Republican came together on a trial draft designed to strengthen the law and improve those areas where implementation has clearly fallen short.
I can also appreciate the need to take the time to do it right, ensuring a reauthorization effort is focused on the right issues — such as accountability.  But can we forget that the sand is quickly leaving the hourglass?  In March of 2007, one may have been “glad” that reauthorization didn’t move forward.  But this is now September 2008.  Those 18 months mean one thing and one thing only — NCLB has met its end.  We have been rallying the troops around accountability issues, but we’re about to disband the battalions.
Regardless of who wins the White House and who holds what majorities in the Congress, NCLB will soon cease to exist.  New decisionmakers will reauthorize ESEA their way.  Hopefully, accountability will remain a core tenet.  Maybe national standards will be moved front and center, as it should.  And if the presidential conventions are any indication, issues like teacher performance pay, school choice, and the achievement gap are likely to play prominent roles as well, as they deserve.  But NCLB is over.
Sure, NCLB may face the same fate as the Higher Education Act — a protracted reauthorization effort that takes five or more years to resolve.  The law may simply be level-funded year-on-year as the Congress tends to other priorities.  But change is coming, whether it be in 2009, 2010, or even further into the future.
For years, Eduflack has talked about how NCLB was one of those legacy pieces for this Administration.  As the final grains of sand fall, it is clear that that legacy is going to be one, first and foremost, of missed opportunities.  The goals and intentions of NCLB remain strong, and should remain the guiding principles we follow, both today and into the future.  But we’re lacking on the action.  We let threats and ultimatums win out over improvements and innovation.  And that’s a cryin’ shame.

How Do Grad Rates Rate?

It is the start of a new school year, thus the perfect time to start talking about graduation.  Recently, the media has run two interesting stories on high school graduation rates.  Last week, Michigan announced a 75% graduation rate, a number that dropped 10% from the previous year.  The cause?  Michigan is using a new graduation rate formula, a calculation that — while a little harsher — is far more accurate in determining graduation rates.

This week, Florida announced it may change the way it calculates the grad rate, eliminating a formula that included students who passed the GED and state assessments as high school “graduates.”  The expected result, like Michigan, Florida may soon see a significant drop in the high school graduation rate overnight.
These are but two examples of the challenges facing states in high school improvement efforts.  Take a look at the longitudinal data on high school graduation, and the numbers are quite unsettling.  States like Michigan and Florida tell you one thing, while Education Week and its Graduation Counts effort tell a completely different story (and it is usually a far-scarier one).  Talk to an urban superintendent about his graduation numbers, and you’ll hear rates in the 70 or 80 percents.  Ask Jay Greene and the Manhattan Institute the same question about the same districts, and you will often get a number that is 30 to 40 percent less than the superintendent is offering.
Why the great variance?  How can intelligent people look at the same schools, the same students, and the same data, yet come up with results that hold no resemblance to one another?
Florida is the perfect example of that.  When we talk grad rates, we expect it to measure the percentage of kids who started ninth grade and then finished 12th grade four years later (or in some cases, five years later).  We don’t expect students who drop out to pursue GEDs to be included in the grad pool.  After all, those students did not graduate from high school.  They pursued an alternative education path, but they did not graduate.
We talk a lot about AYP and how to compare schools, districts, and states when it comes to academic achievement.  We question whether student reading proficiency in Mississippi is equal to student reading proficiency in Massachusetts.  So why is it so hard for us to wrap our hands around a singular, clear high school graduation rate?
Years ago, the National Governors Association got all 50 states to buy into a common graduation formula.  Take a look at how many kids start ninth grade.  Factor out the school transfers and similar considerations.  Then look at how many of those kids graduated four years later.  That’s the grad rate — how many students completed high school four years after beginning it.
Several states have adopted this formula (including Michigan, thus the change in its most recent numbers).  But many more still have yet to apply the common formula to their state’s data.  Some are holding off because they are fearful of announcing a significant drop in grad rate overnight.  Others are working on building the data collection systems they need to do the work effectively.  And still others are just trying to sort it all out, trying to fit this priority in with a growing list of state education needs.
No matter the reason, the time has come for all states to embrace a common longitudinal graduation rate.  There is simply too much at stake not to.  In virtually every state in the union, we talk about the need to prepare our students for the opportunities of the 21st century.  We talk about new skills and new jobs.  About working smarter.  We discuss that a high school diploma is no longer a sufficient terminal degree, and that postsecondary education is a necessary step for all.
Can we really get more kids into postsecondary education if we don’t know who is actually finishing high school?  How do we boost graduation rates if we don’t have an accurate baseline to build on?  How do we improve the high school experience if we don’t have good data on who finishes, who doesn’t, and why?
Michigan and Florida’s announcements are indications we are heading in the right direction.  The first step might be painful.  No one wants to see their grad rates significantly decline.  But it is the right thing to do.  And it is a necessary step if we are to improve our nation’s high schools, increasing the number of kids who graduate from high school and go on to college.

Fins to the Left, Teachers to the Right

Over the weekend, Eduflack and his far better half ventured out to the Jimmy Buffett concert.  It was indeed time for the “Labor Day weekend show.”  The perfect opportunity to check out from the real world for a few hours, putting concerns about education reform out of mind for a short period of time and instead focusing on great music and modern-day pirates.

Imagine my surprise, then, that amid the shark fins, Parrotheads, and rivers of margaritas, I stumble across a sign welcoming me “to the education revolution,” a promotional booth for EPIC, or Educators for Progressive Instructional Change.  Sure, it stood out from among the grass skirts, leis, and tequila, but it nonetheless caught my eye (and what exactly does that say about me?).
EPIC is a non-profit “focused on empowering teachers to impact the process of education reform.”  Its goal seems simple enough, to provide teachers the information and professional development so that they can get involved in the policy process.  The mission is similar to many others “to create education reform that will empower teachers.  Our efforts aim to connect, inspire, and motivate teachers to become the focus of education reform.  The primary goal is to unite teachers as an indomitable force for education reform.”
How?  At first blush, much of the same old, same old.  A brochure that looks like so many that have come before it.  LiveStrong style bracelets that have long lost their power.  And promotion of a march on DC later this fall, as a show of support by and for area teachers.
Talking with EPIC’s founder and president, Myra Sawyers, Eduflack learned that EPIC (www.epicreform.org) is focusing on the DC area first, with plans to roll out activities in other cities (Charlotte, NC was mentioned) down the road.  Sawyers is quick to note that the group is not a PAC, but instead is a non-profit organization with no political mandate.
This mission, indeed, is a noble one, one that is desperately needed in 21st century public education.  We do need to treat good teachers with more professionalism and respect.  Teachers should be involved in the policy process, at the local, state, and federal levels.  And teachers must be empowered to be self-advocates, voices in the schools and the community that not only trigger reform, but bring about meaningful improvement.
Many things must be done, though, to move from well-intentioned to impactful. There are scores of organizations like EPIC that are created each and every year.  And each and every year, even more organizations like it fail.  They fail for many of the same reasons, and many of them focus on communications.
So how does EPIC learn those lessons and continue to build a strong non-profit organization dedicated to teacher empowerment?  By following five simple steps:
* Have a plan — A NFP is no different than a corporation or a political campaign.  The first step to success is having a clear business plan you can follow.  What are your goals? Who are you trying to reach?  How will you measure success?  What resources (human and financial) are available to you?  In the words of baseball philosopher Yogi Berra, if you don’t know where you are going, you are never going to get there.  The plan helps you see where you are going.
* Know your audience — We all want to be everything to everyone.  But success requires clear identification of your target audience.  More importantly, it means understanding the stakeholders who can make the most difference in the shortest period of time.  Who’s in a position to call for change?  Who can implement change?  Who has the resources to bring about change?
* Have a clear ask — Too many start-up not-for-profits see themselves as information-sharing organizations only.  They believe that if they get the information out, their work is done.  Success comes when you drive your audience to take a specific action.  And that only comes from a clear ask.  If EPIC is targeting teachers, what exactly do they want them to do?  Speak at school boards?  Visit state legislatures?  Write letters to the editor?  Figure out what actions are needed to bring change, then ask for those actions (and those actions only).
* Don’t go alone — It is hard to have lasting impact if you are a singular voice trying to break through the white noise.  Education reform success often comes through relationships, partnerships, and advocates. Find those groups and individuals that share a common vision and common goals.  Use their communications channels.  Build on their membership and recognition.  Establish a network of champions and advocates that can carry your message well beyond your own resources.
* Evaluate, adjust, repeat — Yes, it is essential to set clear, measurable goals from the beginning.  A good reform organization knows to constantly evaluate its efforts, establishing ongoing benchmarks of effectiveness.  A truly successful reform group knows to take that evaluation and use it to adjust its communications and advocacy efforts, constantly improving and strengthening its activities.  Such an ongoing feedback loop only strengthens the organization and ensures the maximization of resources.
And one final piece of advice for Ms. Sawyers and the education reformers like her. PACs aren’t the only groups that advocate.  Under the law, not-for-profits and 501(c)(3)s can be effective policy advocates at all levels of government.  Yes, there is a fine line between lobbying and advocacy.  But for groups like EPIC to be successful, they must become successful policy advocates.  Simply spotlighting the importance of teachers is no longer good enough.  Those organizations that leave a lasting impact are ones that guide us to improvement.  They are groups that make specific policy recommendations to improve the power of the teaching profession.  And then they leave it up to the legislators to codify and fund it.