Tale of the Tape, the Edudaughter

A moment of self indulgence, if you please.  As many know, two weeks ago today, we brought Edudaughter home from Guatemala for the first time.  She is now 13 months and one week old, and has immediately become ingrained as the central figure of the edufamily.  Again, we have lucked out with a perfect child, a smiling, laughing, happy little girl who sleeps through the night and takes great interest in anything her big brother or parents seem to be involved in.

This week, we had to take her over to the pediatrician for her wellness visit.  All looks terrific.  At 13 months, she comes in at 20 pounds, four ounces (25th percentile), 29 3/4 inches tall (50th percentile), with a head circumference of 17 1/2 inches (25th percentile).  In each category, she is far more advanced that her brother was.  And she is smart as a whip, far more intelligent than her meager year and a month would reveal.
The painful part of the wellness visit came down at the lab.  With all international adoptions, U.S. doctors need to verify that all immunizations and vaccinations previously received with honestly delivered and of medical quality.  That means drawing four vials of blood from a baby.  We’re only half the way there.  She has to go back for more draw.  But we went through this process with Eduson, who had the same doctor in Guatemala, and all was fine.  So no worries as to how this has turned out.
As I wrote two weeks ago, Eduwife and I are the fortunate and blessed ones here.  The challenge now is making sure both educhildren take full advantage of the opportunities before them, have access to high-quality education, and model the love for learning of their mother, while staying away from the general cynicism of their father.  
Tonight will be Edudaughter’s first Halloween celebration.  Since we brought her home, I have called her princess, a name that she takes great glee (maybe a little too much) in hearing.  So here’s to the “princesa” getting a large haul this evening and dreaming the happiest of dreams afterward.

The True Cost of Higher Education

For years now, we have heard how the cost of college has been increasing dramatically.  Higher education costs have risen far higher than virtually every other sector in our economy (aside from healthcare), with increasing easily outpacing raises, cost-of-living adjustments, or savings interest rates for the average family.

Based on the annual college price increases, Eduflack estimated it would cost more than $125,000 a year to send eduson to Stanford University for his undergraduate education (following in his mother’s footsteps).  This, of course, recognizing that in addition to tuition and fees, he may need to buy a book or two, find shelter for his head, and eat the occasional meal.  (It doesn’t account for the costs associated with the extracurriculars, the frats, the girls, and the spring break trips, though.)  Thank goodness I’m planning on edudaughter to head down to daddy’s alma mater at the University of Virginia, her first step to becoming governor of our fair Commonwealth and ultimately the senior senator from the Old Dominion.
In today’s USA Today, Mary Beth Marklein takes a closer look at college costs for the current academic year, a year when virtually every family is worried about where the dollars will come from to afford college this year and next.  Marklein looks at just tuition and fees (just the first of many line items in the cost of college), and finds the average private four-year college now costs $25,143 a year, up 5.9% from last year.  The average public four-year (for in-state students) clocks in at $6,585 a year, up 6.4% from last year.  And the average public two-year is $2402, up 4.7%.  Every number reflects an increase after adjusting for inflation, except for our average community college.
The full story can be found here — <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2008-10-29-college-costs_N.htm
Of course, USA Today is looking at College Board numbers on sticker prices, released this time every year.  What we need is a closer look on the actual purchase price.  Eduflack has never met an alum who actually paid sticker at Boston University, for instance, knowing that BU offers a Harvard sticker with a sizable markdown for those willing to drive off in a BU education today.
As we’ve noted throughout the week, the common drumbeat in education is that every student needs some form of postsecondary education if they are to succeed in the 21st century economy.  But what is it saying when such an education requires home mortgage-sized debt?  What does it say when, as Marklein notes, that except for the wealthiest of families, family income over the past 30 years has not kept pace with tuition increases?  
As part of his education platform, Obama pledges to make $4,000 a year available for every family to make college possible.  A noble idea, yes, but does it solve the problem?  Some would say it creates a deeper class system, where those who qualify for the federal assistance can only manage to attend their local public institution.  (Not that there is anything wrong with that.)  But it still puts private institutions or out-of-state public institutions far out of reach for far too many families.
When Eduflack has discussed the cost of college in the past, he’s often heard, as ridiculous as it sounds, that the simple fact is that college is still TOO affordable.  The economic model follows that there is great demand for seats at colleges and universities throughout the nation.  As long as applications outnumber enrollments, the price is still too low.  Demand outweighs supply, thus price can and should be increased.
I’m not going to redebate what a silly notion that is.  Yes, there will always be people who will pay $50,000 a year this year to go to Harvard, or $125,000 a year in 2024 to attend Stanford.  But if our goal is universal postsecondary education, we need to get our hands around costs and affordability.  It isn’t an issue of making college cheaper, it is an issue of putting college costs on par with the earnings of an average family and what is reasonable when it comes to family contributions, scholarships, loans, and work study.  Its an issue of colleges making cost savings that get passed on to the actual student, instead of simply getting absorbed by the administrative infrastructure.  It is about impacting the bottom line for the customer, and not for the seller.
And all of this is an issue of understanding where higher education dollars are going.  How is that $25K a year at the average private college being spent, particularly if most undergraduate courses are being taught by graduate assistants?  How many tuition dollars are going to support non-academic issues, such as athletics?  And what are the benefits of top publics, like my alma mater U.Va., are making due as a public institution receiving less than 8% of funding from the state government they were constructed to serve?
If we truly believe that every student needs postsecondary education to succeed, we need to provide them with multiple clear paths to high-quality postsecondary education.  And those paths require real choices and real options.  Is it too bold to say that every student, if they work hard, meet the requirements, and gain admission should be able to attend the college of their choice?  Is it too bold to ask that students — the true customers of higher education — fully understand the return on their investment?  I think not.  

Failing to Meet Our Parents’ Expectations

Earlier this month, we had the American Council on Education release data showing that today’s students are attaining less education than their parents.  At the time, I took that to mean that many students stopping at their BAs have parents with advanced degrees, the kids of BA parents are wrapping up at the associates level, and some children of college grads are settling for just a high school diploma.

Over the past decade, particularly over the past three or so years, it seemed pretty clear to Eduflack that there was universal agreement, at least among adults, that a high school diploma was a non-negotiable in today’s world.  I’ve even say that every student requires some form of postsecondary education — be it training program, community college, or four-year degree — if they are to compete and succeed in the 21st century economy.  We may say it, but the Education Trust’s latest report is enough to send a chill down my eduspine.
If you’ve missed it, CNN.com has the story — beta.cnn.com/2008/US/10/24/dropout.rate.ap/index.html.  The headline says it all.  Kids are less likely to graduate than their parents.  What the headline is missing, but the lede provides, is that we are now talking about HIGH SCHOOL.  Today, in 2008, teenagers are less likely to graduate from high school than their parents were.  And according to the EdTrust numbers, one in four kids is dropping out of high school, a number than has held steady for a half-decade now.
This story should be a punch in the gut to all of those who have been working on high school reform efforts for the past decade.  After all of the time and money and attention and effort that the Gates Foundation and the Alliance for Excellent Education and Jobs for the Future and the National High School Alliance and others have poured into improving the high school experience, we still haven’t convinced our young people that a high school diploma is a worthwhile goal.
Yesterday, we heard the EdSec talk about the importance of a common high school graduation rate, so we know where every state stands when it comes to handing out the diplomas.  Alliance President Bob Wise likened it to Fedex, providing us real-time data to understand where every student is along the continuum.  But according to EdTrust, even when we let each state set their own rates (and some set the bar awfully low), only half of states are hitting the mark.  Once every state adopts the NGA formula mandated by the U.S. Department of Education, state grad rates are likely to fall in the short term (and not just hold) in a great number of states.  It becomes hard to hide behind the data when you don’t get to set the data collection terms.
Don’t worry, I am not hear to rant (or to continue to rant) about what we need to do to make high school more rigorous or relevant or how to better capture data.  We have enough of that information from those individuals and organizations that have dedicated their work lives to the process.  One just has to look at a state like Ohio, both through its OHSTI and ECHS efforts, to see how you improve the secondary school experience.
No, the EdTrust data isn’t a clarion call for yet another round of ideas on high school reform or redesign.  Instead, it is a clear and unquestioned alert that we need to do a better job communicating with today’s young people.
Speak to many involved in high school redesign efforts, and they will talk about their work with school administrators, teachers, and state policymakers.  They’ll talk about the role of the business community.  Some may even mention a parent or a member of the clergy.  But when it comes to talking about primary audiences for high school reform, we often take students — the end user and ultimate customer — for granted.
All the reform and improvement in the world doesn’t mean squat if the student doesn’t see the value and importance of it.  And the only way we can effectively communicate that value is to communicate with the students themselves.
Are kids dropping out because class is too hard or because it is too boring?  Are they dropping out to pursue a job opportunity or because they want out of school?  Are classes fun and interesting?  Do they have career plans?  Are they getting classes that align with those career plans?  Do they know what it takes to secure the job they want?  What do they deem a good job?  Are they engaging with their teachers?  Are they using technology?  Do they see high school dropouts who are succeeding?  Who are they getting advice from?  What’ll it take to keep them in the classroom?
Over the years, Eduflack has done more than his share of focus groups with high school students.  Each time, I am surprised by how we underestimate them and their views on the value of education.  Often, these sessions are the first time a 15-year-old has been asked by an adult what their goals are and how they get there.  I’ve spoken with kids in some of the poorest areas in our nation, urban and rural, and I can tell you one thing — every kid knows dropping out simply isn’t an option.  They know it is a wasted opportunity.  And they know it means a future of struggle.
So what do we do about it?  As a nation, we have invested billions of dollars into high school redesign efforts, working to improve instruction, delivery, measurement, rigor, and relevance in our secondary schools.  We’ve made great strides.  But the EdTrust numbers and last year’s study on dropout factories tells us we still have a long way to go.  
We don’t need more redesign.  We need a better sales job.  We need state policymakers and superintendents to better understand what works, both to increase the grad rate and boost student achievement on the state exams.  We need teachers to better understand how to relate to today’s students, connecting lessons in chemistry or history or English to student interests and student desires.  But most importantly, we need to sell students on the notion that this is just the first major step down the path they want to take, that they need to take.
Students need to better understand that secondary and postsecondary education are requirements for a good job in this economy.  Students need to know dropping out is never a viable choice.  Students need to know the career and life options before them, and the education required to get them there.  Students need to be challenged, both in terms of curriculum and its delivery.  Students need choices and options, whether they be honor students or struggling learners.  Students need to value a high school diploma as much as their parents or grandparents do.
It is easy to lecture at a kid and tell them this is important.  It is even easy to inform them on why they need to stay in school and why they need to take their education seriously.  And it is somewhat comforting to know that we don’t need to overly worry about three out of every four students out there.  But for that remaining 25%, we need to take bold action to change their minds and change their behavior.  We need to get them to stay in school.  That doesn’t come by changing the drop-out age to 18 or mandating exit exams for all.  That comes from communicating the value and need of secondary instruction.  That comes from engaging today’s kids (and often before they get to high school).  It comes from selling kids on school and their future.  
We may think we are doing it, but the data shows we clearly are not.  Instead of communicating with students, we are speaking past them.  We need big change, at least when it comes to the attitudes of young people.  Without it, our schools, our economy, and our nation will never live up to the sta
ndard we set or the potential we have.

Re-Skilling Our Students

More than a year ago, Eduflack opined on the very real problem of our schools “deskilling” our students.  What does this mean?  In an era where most kids are multitasking, multimedia fiends, we take away the multimedia learning, strip away the collaboration and student interaction, and place them into a learning environment with rows of desks and educators who read to them from traditional textbooks.  In doing so, we are stripping students of the 21st century skills they need to compete, forcing them into a 19th century learning continuum.

Fortunately, many schools and districts have stepped up to align current learning with the current student.  Look at the virtual education movement, where students offered access to high-quality, relevant instruction through and medium and in a venue they are comfortable in.  Look at new charter schools, those with strong oversight and infrastructure designed to meet the needs of today’s communities.  Look at those traditional school districts and states that are integrating technology in the classroom, adopting STEM education programs, or improving the overall rigor and relevance of what is happening in the schools.
When we talk about technology in the classroom and the concerns of deskilling students, discussion often turns to the teacher.  Over the years, I’ve heard that teachers aren’t comfortable with technology.  Teacher ed programs didn’t prepare educators for such developments.  I’ve even heard you won’t truly move into the digital world of public education until the retirement exodus we’re all waiting for happens. 
At the same time, I’ve heard that technology can’t truly permeate the classroom because of the students as well.  As the legend goes, today’s urban students, today’s rural students, and today’s African-American and Hispanic students simply don’t have access to computers to the Internet.  Despite the data from groups like Project Tomorrow that demonstrate virtually all students have access, we like to believe it is still the issue of have/have nots that we experienced a decade ago.
I have just one word in response — hogwash.
Earlier this week, a new survey from Cable in the Classroom crossed my virtual desk, and it provided some fascinating data points.  More than 75% of K-12 teachers either assign homework that requires Internet use or know teachers that do.  More than four in 10 students (and six in 10 high schoolers) are producing their own videos as part of the classroom process.  And this doesn’t even account for the vast numbers of teachers who make homework assignments available online for parents and students to see, as well as those educators who offer email addresses to provide students with additional help and guidance and parents with an additional lifeline to the classroom.
As we look at education improvement and 21st century opportunities, we all know that technology is king.  Tomorrow’s jobs require a technology-literate workforce.  Kids have abandoned the libraries for the Internet.  They are interested in video production and interactive learning and digital opportunities.  At the same time,  we worry about student engagement in the classroom and keeping kids interested enough in learning to keep them in school for a high school diploma or beyond.  There has to be a way to marry the two.
The data recently offered by Cable in the Classroom, coupled by the annual data offered by Project Tomorrow, demonstrate that the sea change is starting to happen.  We are engaging students in the ways they want to learn, and not in the ways their grandparents learned.  We are recognizing the worry of deskilling our students in school before needing to reskill them when they enter postsecondary education or the workforce.
The challenge before us is keeping up with the evolving trends.  Years ago, Eduflack judged a video production competition for a career academy in Texas, and was amazed by the effort and quality of work offered by the students.  In Michigan, students produced the videos the state department of education is now using to promote stricter high school graduation requirements in the state.  And district after district are turning to students to help build online presence and social networking opportunities for the learning process.  
That is all yesterday’s cutting edge, and may now be as new as a VHS tape.  If we are to ensure the value of a public education and to guarantee such education leads to the pathways of 21st century opportunity, we need to continue to innovate, experiment, and engage in the classroom.  Our future depends on it.    

Riding NCLB Off Into the Sunset

At high noon today, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings officially announced her “final regulations” to strengthen No Child Left Behind.  Speaking to a wide range of stakeholders in South Carolina, Spellings focused on issues like high school graduation rates, improved accountability, better parental notification of supplemental services, and greater school choice.

Of course, Eduflack has a lot of thoughts on a lot of this.  But I am most taken by the banner under which this announcement has been made.  These are the “final regulations to strengthen No Child Left Behind.”  If the future of NCLB was left to question in anyone’s mind, the EdSec answered that today.  Today is NCLB’s last gunfight in the ed reform corral.  After all of the talk of reauthorization and improvements to the law, these final regs make clear that, regardless of the political future at ED, NCLB is done.  A new law will rule the land, replacing, and not simply improving or supplementing what was one of the few positive domestic policy legacies of the Bush Administration.
But if we dig deeper here, where is the news?  In terms of high school graduation rates, Spellings is simply validating the process the National Governors Association began a few years ago.  NGA has already secured all 50 states’ agreement to common graduation rate based on the number of ninth graders who graduate high school four years later.  Sixteen states have this common formula in place already, and most of the others are in process.  These regs may “establish a uniform graduation rate” but we all need to realize such a rate has already been established and agreed to by all, and adopted by many.  
As for the rest, Eduflack completely agrees that all parents should have access to information on the supplemental education services and the school choice options available to them.  I was under the impression that was a core plank of NCLB from the start, and had been in place for more than six years now.  Has it really taken us six years to realize and require that parents get clear and timely notice of their options?  If so, where is all of the money that has been poured into SES since its establishment in 2002?
And finally, we have accountability.  Months ago, ED finally demonstrated some flexibility in the establishment of its growth model pilot project, allowing some states a little give when it comes to achieving AYP.  The pilot announcement had real value when announced, both in terms of policy and rhetoric.  So codifying the pilot in these new regs is a good thing.  In fact, it may be the strongest part of the EdSec’s announcement today.
It’s not all bad, though.  For a law that was originally criticized for focusing only on elementary education, these new regs codify the importance of high schools and the growing need to attend to dismal graduation rates.  With both presidential candidates embracing school choice, it is important to get credit for making vouchers and charters a foundation of NCLB.  With concerns about AYP and federal rigidity, it is important to remind all of the flexibility displayed by ED through its pilot effort.  And probably more important than any, today’s announcement reminds all those involved of the importance of parents in the educational process, ensuring we are getting them good information fast so they can make knowledge-based decisions on their kids’ educational paths.  But these new regulations are rhetorical devices, and have little to do with policy or real school improvement.
During my time in Texas, I often heard of the “all hat, no cattle” syndrome.  The New Yorker in me prefers “all sizzle, no steak.”  Regardless, these new regs — greatly hyped for the past week — provide little that is new, little that is innovative, and little that improves.  They are almost a set of defeatist treatises, a reminder to many of the original intent of NCLB (an intent that has, in part, gone unfulfilled) without seeking to make any new changes or new improvements as the law winds down.
Personally, I prefer the westerns where the protagonist fades to black in a blaze of glory, fighting until the bitter end to protect the town and defend its future.  I’ve never been one for the “Shane” ending, with the hero riding off into the sunset, slumped over in a sense of defeat and even death.  Today’s announcement was definitely a sunset ride.  

When It Comes to Reading, It’s All in Our Heads

Over the last decade, we have seen a real evolution into scientifically based reading instruction.  The work of the National Research Council and the National Reading Panel both focused on the research base that was out there, and what the data told us about good, effective instruction.  The American Federation of Teachers released a report on reading instruction titled “Teaching Reading is Rocket Science,” hoping to dispel, once and for all, that there was a proven scientific method behind effective reading instruction madness.

Those who believe in the whole language philosophy (and it is a philosophy folks, it is not an instructional method), would tell you that good reading instruction is actually more art than science.  We need to let students learn at their own pace, do the things they enjoy, and gain skills (or not gain them) on their own terms.  Instead of focusing on the need for practice and skills development, those who stand up against proven instructional methods would almost prefer we let our kids feel their way around reading, guessing in the untested instead of learning through the proven.
When we think about proven reading instruction, particularly in elementary schools, we often think about teachers, teachers’ aides, reading specialists, parents, and after-school programs.  How often, though, do we think of neuropsychologists?  But today’s Washington Post, the Health section no less, reminds us of the lasting and meaningful role hard sciences can have on teaching our children.
WaPo’s Nelson Hernandez paints a compelling picture of the impact neuropsychology, MRIs, and brain scans can have on diagnosing reading difficulties and helping educators provide the interventions specific students need.  The full story is here — <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/24/AR2008102402987.html?hpid=sec-health.
Eduflack has had the privilege of spending time with Laurie Cutting at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and seeing how this science works and how it can guide effective classroom instruction.  It is truly amazing to see the process the Post describes in action, to see how brain activity changes, both during an individual session and over time.  It is incredible to know we can use brain maps to literally see scientifically-based reading approaches take hold in a child’s head, giving the instructional foundations virtually all students need to learn to read.  And it is that science that must serve as a foundation for the future of reading instruction.
In the coming year, we are likely to see a de-emphasis in our attention to scientifically based instruction.  We’ve all heard how much scientifically based research was included in the original NCLB legislation.  We’ve all questioned the true impact and validity of the findings offered by the What Works Clearinghouse.  And we’ve are even slowly seeing the differences between both good research and bad research, though most are still learning how to tell the difference.  
Both presidential candidates, along with legislative leaders such as Senator Ted Kennedy, Congressman George Miller, and Congressman Buck McKeon have all spoken to the need to continue to “do what works” in our classrooms.  That means spending our valuable education dollars on methods and materials that are proven effective and based on real, replicable research.  No matter who is calling the shots come January 2009, we all must remember that guiding principle.  We pay for what is effective.  We reward what works.  
And we make a national commitment to move evidence-based instruction forward, regardless of the direction ESEA reauthorization may take.  At the end of the day, we are investing in our children, placing a large bet that virtually every child can succeed and every kid can perform.  We win that bet by putting our marker on a sure thing.  Evidence-based instruction is as sure as it gets these days.

The Call for ROI in School Reform

Ever since Eduflack got involved in STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) education, I’ve spent a great deal of time talking, writing, and thinking about the ties between public education and economic development.  As I’ve said before, education does not operate in a vacuum.  By focusing on relevant, high-quality, results-based education, we directly impact student learning.  We also greatly affect jobs, economic development, healthcare, the environment, and even national security.  Education is the common linkage between all of our national areas of concern, and it is a linkage that deserves our utmost attention.

It’s no secret that our national attention has been solely fixed on the economy this past month or so.  Personally, I’m tired or reading the articles wondering when the markets will officially crater.  Each day, I look at the Business section, thinking the Edufamily needs to heed Warren Buffett’s advice and invest what we have now, buying when people are scared (and selling during the joyous times).
Through it all, I’ve given little thought as to how this economic roller coaster is going to affect public education.  Sure, we know that colleges and universities are worried about how students will pay tuition and how money concerns will impact public versus private decisions (just check out the front page of today’s USA Today for that story).  We worry about the short- and long-term impact the current rises and falls will have on philanthropy and the vast supports coming in from foundations, corporations, and others invested in improving the public schools.  (Personally, I was glad to hear that Bill and Melinda Gates are personally guaranteeing all of their current grantmaking, even as Microsoft stock has lost about 25% in value in the past month).  And yes, some may even think how reduced earnings, rising unemployment, and shrinking property tax pools impact a state’s ability to fulfill all their obligations.
This morning, the Boston Globe really drives this issue home.  Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is now dramatically scaling back his ambitious plans for P-20 education improvement, citing the state’s budget woes.  Plans for free education for all — from preK to community college are now being scuttled, all in the name of economic woes.  Check out the full article here — www.boston.com/news/education/k_12/articles/2008/10/27/patrick_pulling_back_on_education/  
Over the next decade, the great education improvements are going to happen at the state level.  We often forget that the feds are only responsible for 7 cents of every dollar spent on public education.  The federal government’s greatest strength is that of the bully pulpit — highlighting the successes of reform, spotlighting best practices, focusing on the issues of most importance, corralling our desire to jump from issue to issue to issue and instead focus on the few areas where we can really boost student achievement and make a lasting difference.
It’s up to the states (and the school districts) to implement what works and do what it takes to help all students.  But what happens when the financial wells run dry?  How do we invest more in education, as Gov. Patrick has proposed, when we have fewer dollars to pay for healthcare, police, prisons, pensions, roads, and other equally important issues?  
It is a good question.  But there is a better one.  How do we improve education without boosting our financial commitment?  How do we reform our system at the $10,000 or $14,000 per student we are already paying in struggling districts, without inserting more dollars into what may be clearly broken?  How do we better use our existing resources to improve options, improve quality, and improve results for all students, and not just the fortunate ones?  How do we build a better educational mousetrap with the materials already lying around the workshop?
The minds who know best say our national economic pain is likely a multi-year ride, with good days and bad days, but ongoing worry and angst.  If that is true, the visionaries who can answer the question of how we do better educationally with fewer resources are ultimately the ones who will rule the kingdom.  We have tough choices to make.  Now is the time to set education priorities and identify true return on investment.  Now is the time to think hard, act boldly, and spend wisely.  The bumper sticker is simple, we need to focus on what works.  It’s a new concept for the education field, but ROI is soon going to rule the day.

The Future of Charter Schools?

With both presidential candidates discussing school choice as a plank in their educational platforms, it is only natural to start thinking about the role of charter schools in the coming years.  It is no secret that charters were vigorously fought by the educational establishment for many years, seen as a vehicle for taking money from the old-school publics and “diluting” the school district’s mission.  As years have gone by, we’ve seen many charters do extremely well (and some still very poorly), as the model has moved into the mainstream and status quoers’ ire has instead been directed at vouchers and similar programs.

Earlier this week, Eduflack was discussing the future of charter schools with a colleague, and the discussion took an interesting turn.  What model would a future president embrace?  Would the charter school movement still be dominated by “mom-and-pop” schools, the sort that defined the poor quality at the start of the movement but have been able to turn themselves around with quality management and strict performance rubrics?  Would we turn to a not-for-profit model, leading the way for continued national scalability of programs such as Green Dot and KIPP?  Or would there be an opening for for-profit providers, as those corporations formerly referred to as EMOs take center stage once again.
Personally, Eduflack believes that choice number two is the likely path of choice, regardless of who is running the U.S. Department of Education.  Providers like Green Dot and KIPP can demonstrate results and produce data, some almost providing the sort of longitudinal studies we’ve long been looking for on student performance.  They also allow implementation at scale, providing a common level of quality and a common measure of achievement from school to school, whether it be across the city, across the state, or across the nation.  And at the end of the day, the education establishment still doesn’t feel comfortable turning over the future of their schools to for-profit providers.  Sure, we’ll procure services or programs, but we aren’t ready to hand over the keys and the alarm codes to a “money-making” corporation.  (We can debate this argument at another date.)
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education released a new report on quality charter schools.  www.ed.gov/admins/comm/choice/csforum/report.html  In its expected call for greater innovation in our nation’s public school infrastructure, the policy document lays out six key principles for quality charter schools:
* Charter schools achieve excellence early in their operations
* Charter schools improve their performance year in and year out
* Charter schools that achieve consistently strong results can expand and replicate
* Charter schools have access to robust infrastructure to help students and teachers succeed
* Authorizers address chronic underperformance by closing the school and opening superior options swiftly
* Charter schools strengthen all corners of public education by sharing successful practices and fostering choice and competition among the schools
These principles are dead on, not only for charter schools but for all public schools.  Shouldn’t all our schools achieve excellence?  Shouldn’t all improve year in and year out?  Shouldn’t we replicate best practices at all schools?  Shouldn’t all have a robust infrastructure?  Shouldn’t we do something about chronic underperformance at all schools?  These should principles should be nailed to the schoolhouse doors of every school in the United States, not just our charters.  These should be shared national goals, embraced by every principal and every superintendent across this land.
Even after all this time, we still see public charter schools as completely separate entities from our public school systems.  In cities like Washington, New Orleans, Cleveland, New York, Chicago, etc. charters are a major part of the public instruction infrastructure.  Yet we put them in their own bucket, separated from the very schools they are intended to supplement and divided from the school districts they are intended to improve.  We set academic standards for charters that are far higher than those set for old-school publics, yet expect them to achieve it with far fewer resources.  We want them to do more, but we want them to do it quietly where few will actually notice.
In many ways, quality charters can serve as incubators for best practice in our school districts.  They allow us to strengthen administrative functions and oversights.  They allow us to set tough standards and chart the path to reach them.  They allow us to innovate, both in terms of instruction and social structures.  And they allow us to break the notion that we can’t expect more, and we should be satisfied with the status quo.
Last week, the Brookings Institution released a new paper from Andrew Rotherham and Sara Mead on the federal role of supporting innovation in education.  www.brookings.edu/reports/2008/1016_education_mead_rotherham.aspx  As I read this paper, I can see the opportunity for high-quality charter providers, those who can demonstrate their results and hold the opportunity to replicate their successes in new schools or in new communities.  A chance for charters (along with highly successful traditional publics) to spotlight their best practices and use them to improve quality throughout our national school framework.  If that isn’t how we should be spending federal educational R&D funds, I don’t know how else we should. 
Just imagine — federal investment in proven innovations that establish strong, well-managed schools, boost student achievement, and model best practices?  Doesn’t matter if it is a public school, a charter school, or a finishing school, that’s an investment we all benefit from.

Student Testing V. Student Portfolios, Caught on Flypaper

We’re all eagerly awaiting the showdown up at Teachers College this evening between the McCain Campaign’s Lisa Graham Keegan and the Obama campaign’s Linda Darling-Hammond.  And we can all watch it live on the Web, courtesy of Education Week.

Until this morning, I thought the most intriguing question may be how Hammond’s opposition to ideas like Teach for America fits into Obama’s platform of innovation and new ideas to bring more effective teachers into the classroom.  Then I read Mike Petrilli’s post over at Flypaper.
It is worth checking out — www.edexcellence.net/flypaper/.  Apparently, on the Diane Rehm Show this morning, an Obama campaign surrogate touted the idea that an Obama U.S. Department of Education may revert back to the idea of “portfolios” to measure student achievement.  As Petrilli notes, this is indeed news.  Retreads of failed experiments are certainly not innovations in education improvement.
And we thought the education portion of the presidential exam would be boring.

Putting Parents First

When we talk about education improvement initiatives, we often immediately focus on the role of the teacher.  Eduflack is quick to note that teaching, particularly in the 21st century, is one of the most challenging careers out there.  Some people are cut out to be excellent, effective teachers.  Others simply aren’t up to the challenges and rigors of our current classrooms.  One of our most important responsibilities in ed reform is making sure we are getting the right teachers in the right classrooms, and we are helping those teachers that just aren’t up to the challenge.

But what about the role of the parent?  When we talk about changing student learning behaviors, classroom instructional approaches, and school environments, what is the responsibility of the parent?  It is a question we ask far less than we should, but it is an issue that is becoming front and center.
At last week’s presidential debate, Barack Obama donned the Bill Cosby sweater (as he has before) and spoke of parental responsibility, the need to turn off the television, pick up a book, and focus on a child’s future.  In his education-focused campaign commercials, Obama says much of the same, placing responsibility for student achievement squarely on the shoulders of the parents, along with the new, effective teachers he is recruiting.
Over at Education Week, David Hoff has a piece on how the presidential candidates’ views on parental engagement differ.  www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/10/15/08parents.h28.html  But Hoff’s piece is really just the start of the story.
For years now, parents have almost been the third rail of education reform.  Teachers and school administrators expect a subset of parents to come in and “complain” about learning conditions each year.  These squeaky wheels are what keep our schools moving, as some parents demand more for their kids, require more slack for others.  For every other parent, we just hope they show up for the annual parent/teacher conference, sign the permission slips, and generally stay content and out of the way.
If we are to truly improve our schools, we need active, educated parents involved in the process. This means more than just complaining about the here and now.  It means getting invested in the future and what can be.  Yes, it means turning off the TV (or the computer or the Wii/XBox/360).  But it also means so much more.  Parents are a linchpin to improving student achievement and closing the achievement gap.  They are key to getting more rigorous programs in the schools, including more AP courses and more STEM courses.  They are central to improving school choice, including charters, magnets, and virtual learning opportunities.  And they are important to successful teacher recruitment efforts, getting the very best into our classrooms and ensuring that they stay in our communities.  In the collective sense, parents are the one constant in our ever-changing education universe. 
What does parental improvement really mean, in today’s era of accountability, school improvement, and student achievement?  Eduflack has seven simple tenets, based on the real needs of our real classrooms:
* Parents need to understand standards and what is expected of their students academically.  What does it mean to be proficient?  What is my student expected to learn during this particular grade?  Ideally, parents would demand a common national standard so they know how their child measures up to children across the nation.
* Parents need to know how their child is actually doing.  Am I getting regular progress reports?  Where are the gaps?  What are the available interventions?  What can I do to supplement instruction at home?  Parents need to obtain their own child’s data and know what it means.
* Parents need to understand the curriculum.  What textbooks and workbooks are my kids using?  What materials are coming home?  What instructional materials are my kids enjoying?  Parents need to ensure we are implementing what works.”
* Parents need to know their kids’ teachers.  Am I engaging with the teacher during more than just the traditional parent/teacher conferences?  Am I taking advantage of email addresses or phone numbers?  Am I taking an active interest in the process, and not just complaining about what is happening to my kid?  Parents need to be partners with their teachers, not adversaries.
* Parents need to know their choices.  Have I visited my child’s school?  Do I know about charter school opportunities?  What about virtual school opportunities?  Do I understand the supplemental services that may be available to my kid or my community?  Parents need to know their rights and know all the opportunities available to them.
* Parents need to get involved.  If we are requiring community service for students to graduate from high school, why can’t we require school service for families whose kids are moving from grade to grade?  Parents need to be a fixture in the classroom and the school.
* Parents need to know learning happens beyond the schoolhouse doors.  Education is not limited to classrooms and teachers only.  Parents have a responsibility to supplement education at home, providing learning opportunities, encouraging their kids, ensuring homework is complete, and moving education from obligation to opportunity for all kids.  They need to be the first and the constant teacher in their child’s life.
Too often, we think it is easier in public education if we can keep parents out of the mix.  Keep them content (or keep them uninvolved), and it is easier to get things done.  It is also easier to protect the status quo.  Parents are a key lever to truly improve education.  But that only comes with knowledgeable, motivated, involved parents.  Perhaps the time has come for a real parental education bill of rights, one focused on the parents’ roles and responsibilities in improving the school, boosting student achievement, and increasing opportunity for all students … particularly their own children.