Eduflack In the Top Eight?

When I started the Eduflack blog nearly two years ago, I did so for two reasons.  One, I thought there was a whole in the education policy discussion landscape about effective communication.  There was a real need to see how we effectively discuss education reform, looking at the messages, tactics, and issues of the day that are capturing the public attention and driving real improvement in the community.

Second, I did so from a purely selfish point of view.  I find writing a way to recharge the mind and look at old topics in fresh ways.  Spending all of my day talking about education and school improvement, it only helps my craft by spending my free time writing about it.
Sure, it always interests me to see the rankings on Technorati and to read articles about effective education blogs, as was recently developed by Mike Petrilli in Education Next —  I know Eduflack is not a top-10 blog, but is nice to see how Eduflack ranks in Core Knowledge’s personal blog rankings or to know that this blog was a finalist for Ed in 08’s Education Blog of the Year back in the spring.
So imagine my surprise to learn this week that Eduflack has been named one of the top eight education blogs by the good folks over at DreamBox.  Their full posting is here —  As for me, they wrote:
An expert on educational advocacy, marketing and communication strategies, Patrick Riccards articulates the ripple effect of education in intelligent prose that make you stop and think. Eduflack is particularly laudable for its ability to take complex educational issues and synthesize them down to easily understood ideas. One stand-out read is Eduflack’s ten educational tenets.

I’m always surprised to find out that folks other than family and friends actually read my ramblings and put up with my Moby Dick-like hunts on issues such as Reading First, national standards, and the need for more public engagement campaigns for education issues.  So I thank the folks at DreamBox Learning for reading the blog.  And more importantly, I thank them for the company with which they place Eduflack.  Now I just have to live up to the hype.


It’s Virtually the Same Thing

A few months ago, the State of Florida mandated that all school districts make distance learning — or virtual education — available to all Florida K-12 students.  The announcement was a major shift in instructional delivery, yet it got barely a notice in the policy community.  For such a major shift — an idea that requires new regulatory oversight, attention to quality, improved standards, and a stronger sense of parental involvement (since they would be monitoring the student at home taking the class — it received minor attention.

Now, the plot thickens.  Last week, the Times Daily in Florence, Alabama reported on the evolution of virtual education down south, and traditional teachers embracing the new medium for instruction.  The full story is here —  
What makes this so interesting is that Alabama will soon require every student complete at least one virtual course before earning a high school diploma.  Imagine that — online education required to secure that public school diploma.  Not an option, not an alternative, but an actual requirement.
For decades now, institutions of higher education have experimented with the notion of virtual education.  Almost a decade ago, we talked about the transition from bricks-and-mortar institutions to clicks-and-mortar institutions, with the promise that online learning would reach more students, bring adult learners into the fold, and offer scheduling flexibility previously unavailable to college-goers coming directly from high school graduation.  The verdict is still out, though, on our ability to deliver on such expectations.  For every online college success story, there seems to be two or three of diploma mills and the triumph of profit over quality.
But how are these lessons applicable to K-12?  How do we deal with parental oversight, and family members who are staying home with kids learning in a virtual environment?  How are we ensuring the quality of online education, making sure it is up to the same standard as that offered in the classroom?  How are we aligning K-12 virtual education with the very real world of state assessments?  How are we ensuring that online ed is being delivered by quality, certified teachers, and not just teachers willing to work for a low dollar cost?  How do we ensure that virtual options don’t deny students the social interactions and soft skill acquisitions students pick up in the classroom?
Years ago, Eduflack was part of the online education arena, working on the development of a secondary school online education model.  During the process, I could see the positives.  Delivering relevant, interesting courses to students, even if there aren’t 25 other students who want to enroll in the course.  Further developing 21st century skills, specifically computer-based skills.  Offering learning opportunities beyond the 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. learning environment.  A real opportunity to personalize the learning process.  A chance to deliver urban or rural students courses and dual-credit programs that they otherwise couldn’t access.
But I quickly saw that the online education, at least in the high school space, was also rife with challenges.  Chief among them was ensuring the quality of instruction.  Through some models, teachers are reduced to mere facilitators, giving up their instructional leadership and merely serving as Vanna White to a collection of video lectures and online assessments.  What teacher wants to give up that authority?  And more importantly, what community wants to turn over instruction to the lowest bidder, viewing instruction as merely yet another commodity acquired by the central office?
Which gets us into the larger issue of instructional quality.  It is easy to find an off-the-shelf program and offer it up as an online learning opportunity. How do we ensure there is the proper R&D behind it?  How do we make sure the content and pedagogy match the expectations and standards of the school district?  And more importantly, how do we make sure online learning results match or exceed student achievement in the traditional classroom?  How do we hold districts responsible for AYP if instruction and learning is happening beyond their classrooms and beyond their classrooms?
Without question, our school districts need to explore ways to bring more innovation into the classroom and to offer alternative learning experiences that meet student interests and student abilities.  Our goal is not to de-skill our students, stripping them of the technology or the critical thinking skills they are already acquiring outside of the classroom.  But we need to do so smartly.  As states like Florida and Alabama look to mandate online learning opportunities for their students, they need to consider some safeguards to ensure quality and effectiveness:
* Regular online monitoring of student progress, ensuring that online learners are hitting state achievement marks and are as proficient, if not better, in reading, math, and science than their bricks-and-mortar learning partners.  At the end of the day, online works when we demonstrate it s an improvement to traditional classroom instruction.  Coming close doesn’t cut it.
* Families are committed to the online learning process, with parents not only pledging to ensure their students do the work, but to take advantage of the opportunities themselves to expand their learning and their skills.  Current online efforts are targeting families where parental engagement has been a weakness.  If we can’t get these families to get their kids to school in the morning, do we really expect them to monitor their kids’ online learning process on a daily basis?
* Online content must be delivered by experienced, certified educators, and that those with real K-12 experience are the ones delivering instructional content (and not merely teacher actors doing the work for $15 an hour)
* Online learning opportunities should be innovative, and not merely replications of the traditional classroom experience.  The online model provides a new way to teach and a new way to learn.  Forty-five minute lectures followed by quizzes is not the intent of online learning.  This should be about a new paradigm in learning and teaching.
* Standards are in place for online learning.  If we can’t have national education standards, we should at least have national standards governing online learning, standards that ensure quality and outcomes regardless of which area code is accessing the learning process.  If the thought is a kid in Alabama can take the same course as a kid in Minnesota and a student in New Jersey, we need one common standard that exceeds the expectations of any state assessment or measurement.
* Integration with the school system.  Online learning is a piece of the 21st century instructional puzzle.  It is designed to supplement, and not supplant, what is offered by our school districts.
States like Alabama and Florida should be commended for taking such bold steps forward to improve learning opportunities for their students.  The more options, the broader the options, the greater the chance for student success.  But we must do so the right way, with an emphasis on quality instruction, effective measurement, and real student learning.  Online learning is not the quick and easy path to education, nor is it earning a degree by drawing a turtle off the back of the matchbook.  It is designed to enhance and improve the overall learning process.  The medium is merely the tool, whether it be a classroom, a computer, a closed-circuit television network,
or a lecture hall of thousands.  The curriculum — and our expectations — don’t change.   

A National Spotlight on the Next EdSec

Over the past few days, Cabinet posts in the new Obama Administration have been assigned with great speed and zeal.  It seems we now have a heads for Treasury, State, Justice, Homeland Security, and Commerce.  A new Chief of Staff has been named, and the National Security Advisor seems close at hand.  But the likely question for those who read Eduflack is, wither the U.S. Department of Education?

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano was considered a possibility, until she got Homeland Security.  New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was running a darkhorse campaign for ED, until he was tapped for Commerce.  So what’s next for ED?  Personally, I still think one of the strongest choices is outgoing North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley.  He gets education, he has been willing to reform and innovate, and he has invested in ideas like high school reform, even taking the arrows that came with adopting the national graduation rate and seeing his personal numbers fall.  But no one is calling me for referrals.
If you read the blogs, you hear a number of other names — SC Education Commissioner Inez Tannenbaum, NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and Chicago Schools Superintendent Arne Duncan chief among them.  The Fordham Foundation has even been pushing United Negro College Fund chief Michael Lomax as a darkhorse candidate.  Lots of choices, all bringing different experiences and different points of view.
It should be no surprise that this morning’s Washington Post weighed in on the Obama cabinet announcements in its lead editorial.  Jobs like State, Treasury, and AG can generate some real excitement.  What has particularly interesting, though, was that WaPo dedicated the final paragraph (and the subhead of the editorial) to the selection of an EdSec.  No, we aren’t focusing our attentions on Defense or EPA or Labor or Veterans Affairs.  We aren’t looking at key diplomatic postings.  Instead, WaPo is recognizing the value of Education in this perfect storm of economic uncertainty, a shifting workforce, and a unprecedented demands for new skills among new workers.
What did the Post say?  Here it is, word for word:

Another selection that will merit scrutiny is Mr. Obama’s education secretary: Will the choice reflect his stated commitment to reform? Will it be someone with hands-on experience in education and a proven willingness to experiment? While the new president’s attention is understandably focused on the economy, not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s critical to have someone who comes to the education post with those credentials.   

In one paragraph, the Washington Post has done what Ed in 08 and countless other organizations tried to do — it has raised the profile of the federal role in education and has highlighted the importance of an EdSec in times of economic uncertainty.  And it did so without bemoaning the NCLB regime or the problems and roadblocks education has faced these past eight years.  It did so by focusing on the future and what may be possible.

WaPo is absolutely right.  The next U.S. Secretary of Education needs to reflect the Obama Administration’s commitment to reform.  He or she needs to be an EdSec willing to experiment and innovate.  An EdSec willing to effectively use the bully pulpit and proclaim that some actions and programs of the past simply don’t work, and we need to build a better mousetrap.  The EdSec needs to reconfirm our national belief that every student can succeed, when provided with proven instruction, effective and well-supported teachers, and a school system invested in their success.  The EdSec needs to become the educational motivator in chief, reminding us that education improvement affects all, and positive changes lift all learning boats.  That an education focus today impacts health, justice, jobs, and the economy tomorrow.  That education does not happen in a vacuum; it is the lifeblood of our nation and its future.
Does the new EdSec need hands-on experience in education?  That’s a question that many a policy expert has been debating since November 4 (or before).  The larger question is what is hands-on experience in education?  Does that mean they once taught, either at the K-12 or postsecondary level?  Does that mean the EdSec needs to be a former superintendent (remembering we have only had one of those previously, and many were resistant of it from the start)?  Does it mean they’ve led education reforms, be at the local, state, or federal level?  Yes, an EdSec needs education experience, but it is all a matter of what your definition of experience is.
Personally, Eduflack would broaden the search criteria for the new EdSec.  Experience and a willingness to experiment are important.  So are the following:
* A visionary who can see where 21st century education should take us, rather than be bound by the confines of the 20th century status quo
* A leader who can build bridges and strengthen relationships, establishing a network of support for federal education policy with teachers, parents, business leaders, community leaders, higher education, education organizations, the community at large, and even the media
* A thinker who views education through a P-20 lens, recognizing the equal importance of early childhood education, K-12 education (and the differences between elementary, middle,and secondary schools and their needs), and higher education
* A CEO who brings in the right people to lead the right efforts, including prioritizing teacher recruitment and quality, early childhood education, STEM, and college preparedness (all parts of the Obama change agenda)
* A rhetorical leader, one who can build stakeholder and national buy-in for major education improvements, even if we don’t have the funds to pay for it yet.  A true master of ED’s bully pulpit (and this is a character trait way overdo at ED).
* An individual committed to education improvement.  More importantly, an individual committed to the notion that every child in this nation can succeed when provided the proper support, instruction, and attention, both at school and at home.
On top of that, we need an EdSec who is going to better engage parents in the process, including families as part of the reform and improvement transformation.  We need an EdSec who better engages the business community as well, seeing them as more than just a funding source, but as a partner for identifying skills gaps and supplementing instruction with expertise that aligns with future needs.  And, yes, we need an EdSec who can effectively work with the teachers unions, partnering with them on school improvements and finding ways to work together, rather than work around or work against each other.
Does such a person exist?  Sure, I could name a few.  At the start of this parlor game, I believed a governor was the strongest choice, particularly if it was one who could blend an understanding of education policy, a track record of improvements, and an ability to master the bully pulpit and the relationship-building game.  But the Obama cabinet is already looking heavy with governors.  At the end of the day, the name of the new EdSec isn’t as important as the qualities he or she brings to the job.  Education experience and a commitment to reform.  Track record of relationship building and partnership development.  World view that education is a P-20 continuum and impacts the student and the community well after the schoolhouse door is exited for the last time.  We
need a leader to inspire, innovate, and motivate.  And we need it now.

“Read”ing All About It

Today, the final shoe dropped on the Reading First era.  The Institute of Education Sciences released the final version of the Reading First Impact Study.  A surprise to no one, the final impact study came to the same conclusions as the interim study.  The summary of summaries, RF schools aren’t doing a better job of making student reading proficient, compared with non-RF schools.

The full story can be found here at Education Week —  
When the interim study came out, many, including Eduflack, pointed out the vast flaws in the study’s methodology, chief among them being the issue of contamination, or the impact of RF programs and materials on non-RF schools.  Back in September, the Reading First Federal Advisory Committee issued its review of the interim study, calling for some wholesale changes before the final report was issued.  Unfortunately, little, if any, of the recommendations coming from the Advisory Committee were addressed in the final Study.
I’ve been mulling the issue all day.  As a surprise to many an Eduflack reader, I am not here to once again defend the goals of Reading First and point to the data that demonstrates that scientifically based reading is having an effect on schools, both those receiving RF funds and those that do not.  In the simplest of terms, been there, done that.  I’m a pragmatist.  I know that RF is dead.  It was dead the day the IG report came out almost two years ago, and the find shovels of dirt were thrown on the program with the release of this Impact Study.
And no, we are not here to eulogize RF, to discuss its merits, or to hash out why it failed to meet its promise or fulfill its mission.  Such tasks are best left to the think tanks and the academicians who can give a careful eye to how the research translated into practice, how effective that practice was, and how effective the measurement and feedback of the program was across its lifetime.
The question should not be what happened.  Instead, we must ask what comes next.  How do we move on from here?
The legacy of RF leaves us with three key buckets of policy we must consider — research to practice, a federal reading program, and IES.
At its heart, RF was a thorough attempt to move research into practice.  It was the development part of the R&D equation, an opportunity to take decades of research on literacy and reading acquisition skills and put it to use in the classroom.  How is the research applied to core materials, such as textbooks?  How is the research applied to teacher development, both pre-service and in-service?  How is the research embedded in instruction and in key interventions designed to get all kids reading?  And how does the federal government effectively do it all, guiding SEAs, impacting LEAs, and doing it all without endorsing specific commercial products or approaches?  
On some of these issues, RF provided a blueprint for success.  On others, it provided a clear portrait of federal failure.  Through it all, RF raised the profile of research in the instructional process, better equipped classroom practitioners to deal with education research, and increased the profile of data-based decisionmaking.  All of those are pluses for school improvement efforts moving forward.
Now onto stream two — a federal reading program.  For decades, the federal government has enhanced literacy instruction for K-12 students.  Before RF, we had the Reading Excellence Act. Before REA we had other federal programs.  That commitment is not going to disappear.  Long after RF is forgotten, there will still be dedicated federal investment in reading instruction. The question before us, now, is how do we do it.  How do we transform Early Reading First into a meaningful component of early childhood education efforts?  How do we enhance instruction for struggling readers, particularly in the early grades?  How do we promote literacy skills across the curriculum, using science and social studies in particular to boost reading skills for all?  What do we do for struggling readers in our high schools, those who have fallen through the cracks?  Now is the time to apply lessons learned and build a new federal reading program that delivers instruction to the kids who need it, that provides content-based PD to the teachers in need, and that boosts student achievement and closes the achievement gap for all students, from our urban centers to our rural schools.
And finally, IES.  The RF experiment has clearly demonstrated that IES is not functioning as it was intended.  Was IES tasked with determining the effectiveness of RF or the effectiveness of RF funding?  Has it providing findings that aid in the improvement of federal reading instruction?  is it serving the public good by providing clear research findings that are received, understood, and applied by practitioners in the field?  At the end of the day, IES needs to better serve the consumer — the schools, their teachers, and the students they serve.  It needs to  do a better job engaging the entire community, and not simply serve as a lifeline between educational researchers.  If anything, the RF experience has provided us a starting point for improving IES (and the What Works Clearinghouse) and transforming it into the R&D arm of the U.S. Department of Education, with the D being just as important as the R.
Will we take advantage of these lessons and build some real improvements?  That question will remain unanswered for some time now.  But now is the time we start talking about how we move forward and build on the RF experience.  A new program will rise from the RF ashes.  It falls to the program’s most ardent supporters and most critical adversaries to ensure that what comes remains solidly focused on a singular goal — empowering all kids with the reading skills they need to achieve and getting all kids reading at grade level as soon as possible (and maintaining it).    

Looking for a Few Good Men?

The “hunt is on,” at least according to the Boston Globe.  After generations of misguided thinking that teaching was somehow “women’s work,” school districts — particularly those in our urban areas — are recognizing the importance of male teachers, and male role models, in the classroom.

In Massachusetts, for instance, less than one quarter of all K-12 teachers are men.  The number is about the same nationally (25%), according to the Globe, representing a 40-year low.  The full story can be found at:  
For years now, we’ve been discussing the “problem with boys.”  As the legend goes, young women are making significant gains in the classroom, achieving at higher levels, graduating at higher levels, and going on to postsecondary education at higher levels.  And despite what former Harvard University President Larry Summers may have intimated, they are even going into the math and science fields, as they cement their roles at the center of educational and economic innovation and opportunity.
But what about those boys?  In looking at ways to boost high school graduation and college-going numbers in Maine, for instance, state leaders immediately targeted middle school boys.  Young men are seen as the weak link in the chain, more likely to drop out, more likely not to take their educations seriously, more likely to face the challenges before them only half-prepared.
Eduflack understands the premise behind this hunt for male teachers.  The logic goes that struggling male students are in need of strong male role models.  If they have a male teacher (or heaven forbid, teachers) involved in their daily lives, taking interest in them and building lasting relationships, then student achievement will improve.  And yes, the research does show that teachers who take an interest in their students and their personal lives are more successful in the classroom.
When I reflect back on my K-12 experience, there are a handful of teachers that stand out for me.  Two of them are male (Mr. Wolf in second grade and Mr. Ertmer for 9th and 10th grade social studies).  But the real standouts were my female teachers, led by Mrs. Lee (AP U.S. History) and Mrs. Sowers (AP English).  They stand out not because they were women, but because they were really good teachers.  They took an interest in me and my passions.  They related the content in a way that sparked curiosity in me.  And they continually pushed me to do more, do better, and expect more, both of myself and of my education.  The same could be said of Edu-mom, a tough high school teacher I carefully stayed away from in the classroom, but who has guided my learning from my formative years right up to today.  And she continues to do it through strong relationships and that constant push to do better and try my best.  Those are the qualities that are found in good teachers, whether they be male or female.
If the search is on, it shouldn’t be for more male teachers, it should be for more “better teachers.”  We are expecting more from our students than we ever have.  That requires a teacher who understands both content and pedagogy.  A teacher who relates to students and to school administration.  A teacher who seeks to boost student achievement, but is empowered to try alternative and innovative ways to get us there.  Teaching is no longer simply about being qualified.  It is about being effective, and it is about building relationships.  It is about becoming a learning partner, of sorts, with the student.
Yes, it is important that we get more men into teaching.  But this is far more than simply getting a Y chromosome to stand up in front of a classroom.  We need to get passionate, effective educators in the system, regardless of their DNA.  We need to acknowledge that some people are destined for greatness in education, and some are simply not cut out to be effective teachers.  We need to demonstrate that education is a noble profession, a leadership profession, a lifetime career where the individual can excel and make a lasting difference on the community.  We should be recruiting the best men and women possible to the field, give them the tools to succeed, and then reward them for their success.
A few good men?  Sure, if that’s what the situation calls for.  I’d settle for a whole lot of great teachers.  Demographics are shifting and a sea change is coming with a slew of teacher retirements on the horizon.  Now is the time to focus on getting the best educators in the classroom, particularly in those classes that need them the most.     

Pulling the Curtain Back on NCLB’s First Round Mistakes

For well over a year now, the education community has discussed what was wrong with NCLB, from unfunded mandates to poor implementation to conflicts of interest within the U.S. Department of Education.  But how much of that is smoke, and how much of that is real fire?

Eduflack is at a loss for words this morning, thanks to and an exclusive piece they have from respected reporter Andrew Brownstein.  Andy offers a look at ED, and more specifically, a look at former OESE chief Susan Neuman, that few have seen before.  
I can’t do justice by summarizing the piece.  Let’s just say ethics issues, lack of authority, and absence of core commitment do not an assistant secretary make.  The full story can be found here: <a href="
We all love a redemption story.  And maybe UC-Berkeley’s David Pearson is correct, and Neuman is now doing penance for the actions she took, the words she spoke, and the stances she made as assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.  Let’s not forget, though, that this was the Bush Administration official who defined her mission, in part, as teacher-proofing the curriculum.
What’s the takeaway here?  There is a lot that an Obama Education Department can learn from the Neuman experience.  First and foremost, your team needs to buy into the mission and vision, with no equivocation.  This is your agenda, and you need staff who believe it and who will carry it out with fidelity.  More importantly, you need staff that are there to serve the public good, with a prime goal of improving public instruction for all students.  Now is not the time for ego-building, resume enhancing, or rewarding those who are “friends of the program.”
School improvement is a tough game, a really tough game.  We need leaders who take true positions, positions they believe in, and positions designed to enhance all students, particularly those most at risk.  Hopefully, those moving into power will review Brownstein’s piece, and file it in the “Do Not Replicate” pile.  There is too much at stake for such amateurish mistakes. 

Increasing Federal Education Dollars

Many folks are looking forward to a new presidential administration and a Democratic Congress and believe that the floodgates are going to open wide when it comes to federal education funding.  Eight years of talk of unfunded education mandates can do that to a person.  But then reality sets in, and we realize that current economic conditions likely mean that additional education dollars are several years in the offing.  Sure, there may be a new prioritization of spending.  Some programs will be abandoned in favor of new priorities.  Federal investment in public education is not likely to grow any time soon, though.  

That’s a large part of why Eduflack has been focused on a new EdSec and his or her power from the bully pulpit.  We may not have more dollars to spend in the coming year, but we have the power of rhetoric and the strength of hope.  We can build public awareness around the important issues, ensuring that current dollars are well spent and human resources and attention are being spent on the issues that matter, the issues that can boost student achievement, close the achievement gap, and get every student learning.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we are starting from nothing, with our pockets out-turned and an empty jar of nickels left on the counter.  Financially, our federal investment in education has never been stronger.  This week, Businessweek magazine dedicates its “Numbers” page to federal spending on education.  The numbers, mostly provided through NCES, are quite surprising.  Adjusting for 2008 dollars, federal education spending has increased 45% over the last decade, from $64 billion in 1998 to $93 billion in 2008. For those focused on K-12, elementary, secondary, and vocational education spending increased from $23.3 billion to $39.7 billion alone.  Credit NCLB, credit Senator Ted Kennedy, credit whomever you want, that’s an almost 70% increase in such federal spending over the past decade.  And that’s some significant dollars.
The question now before those in power, the status quoers, and even the agitators is how we spend that money.  If we’ve increased federal investment in education by 45%, are we seeing the return on investment?  What are we doing to ensure every student has the early reading and math foundations they need to succeed throughout the education process?  What are we doing to use the middle grades to place students on the path for the future?  What are we doing to increase high school graduation rates?  What are we spending on to ensure all grades are offering rigorous and relevant courses that point every student toward opportunity and success?  And what has increased federal spending meant for additional dollars chipped in at the state and federal levels.  (Remember, of course, that the feds only account for about 7% of total K-12 education spending, and Businessweek is only looking at that federal investment.)
The big decisions are not about dollars, but about priorities.  How does the U.S. Department of Education ensure that that nearly $40 billion in K-12 is being spent wisely, particularly since the same decade has seen federal spending on training and employment decline by nearly 20%, from $6.4 billion to $5.2 billion?  Like it or not, that means we are now relying on our K-12 systems to prepare our kids for the challenges of the 21st century workforce.  And as we look at this economy and current job trends, that’s asking an awful lot from a system built on the notion that a third of students will drop out before completing their high school educations.
Spending and student achievement has long been a chicken-egg argument.  Does more money mean more achievement?  Or do we reward improved performance with additional dollars?  The betting odds are education spending will stay flat over the next few years.  If that’s true, and we are selling a new education agenda with new priorities and new programs, how do we ensure we are getting true ROI on that $93 billion investment?  Better yet, and even more simply, how do we effectively measure return?  These are the questions we’ll need to be asking in the coming months.

Working Around the Union in our Nation’s Capital?

Without question, now is a time of transition for DC Public Schools.  Chancellor Michelle Rhee, now hitting a year and a half into her tenure, has made (or offered) many a bold change since taking over the troubled district.  She closed schools.  She fired principals.  She’s offered teacher incentive pay.  She’s paying middle schoolers for high grades.  And she’s taken action when those before her have waited for direction.

Sure, there have been bumps along the way.  Parents have pushed back, wondering why the Chancellor was picking on their schools or their neighborhoods.  The City Council has wondered if the administration has over-stepped its authority, thus leaving Council members out of the process in determining the schools’ future.  But no pushback has been greater than that felt by DC teachers — and the DC teachers union — who are quickly going from primary drivers in DC instruction to also-rans.
Today’s Washington Post highlights the plans by Rhee and DC Mayor Adrian Fenty to “look for ways around the union” to deal with DC teacher reform.  It details ideas such as creating more nonunionized charter schools, declaring a “state of emergency” for the schools, and other opportunities designed to “eliminate the need to bargain with the Washington Teachers’ Union.”  The full story can be found here —   
As WP writer Bill Turque points out in the piece, the goal is to essentially do in DC what leaders did in New Orleans, create a major takeover of the system, allowing for major rebuilding and a whole new set of new rules.  Unfortunately, there was no major individual tragedy resulting in such a move, just decades of stops and starts and general inaction.
Triggering lasting improvement in a district like DC is hard work, really hard work.  It requires new thinking and it requires action that is far outside the norm and far beyond what may have been tried before.  It means holding all parties accountable, including the classroom teachers, and ensuring that all those involved in the educational and instructional process share a common commitment to boosting quality and improving student achievement.  The status quo won’t stand, nor will educators who are complacent or who simply want to do the bare minimum to earn a paycheck.
This may surprise many an Eduflack reader, but this bold move is the wrong step at the wrong time.  In her first year at the helm, Rhee was able to produce some promising first-year achievement gains.  But such gains are typical in year one, when you have a new system, a new leader, and new enthusiasm for it across the district.  The real challenge is maintaining those gains three and four years into the reform.  The real proof is demonstrating year-on-year gains of student achievement over a five-year period.  
If Rhee and her team are going to achieve that, they need full buy-in of DC teachers, they need meaningful team-building and relationship development, not ongoing skirmishes that are leading into outright wars.  In the WP, Rhee says that the vast majority of DC teacher support her plans for incentive pay, the elimination of tenure, and the removal of teachers unable to make the grade, and that it is the WTU that is standing in her — and her teachers’ — way.  That may or may not be the case.  But when Rhee took the job, she knew that WTU was the advocate for DC’s teachers.   Anyone who has studied Education Politics 101 knows that if you want to change the collective bargaining agreement, you need to work with the union.
Unfortunately, there is a deep history here.  Too many a DC teacher is used to hearing big promises from the central office, only to find reams of new regulations and, at times, an inability to even receive the paychecks they’ve earned.  But they are also still smarting from the scandal of WTU years ago, a scandal that stripped the union of its leadership and stripped the organization of the trust of the 4,000 teachers it currently serves.
At the end of the day, that is really where Rhee sees her opening.  Fair or no, George Parker is a weak leader of WTU.  He hasn’t been empowered by his membership to take the bold action needed to stand up to a strong schools leader and a strong mayor.  As a result, he learns about such reforms from the Washington Post, instead of from the district, and he looks uninformed and without real power.  Rhee knows that and is trying to take advantage of that.  Would she try such tactics if this is NYC and Randi Weingarten was still running the local?  Of course not.  Strong leadership is strong leadership, regardless of which side of the negotiating table one is sitting on.  Strong district leaders need strong union leaders to keep them honest. 
Don’t get me wrong.  Eduflack recognizes the value charter schools play in improving many an urban school district.  I am an advocate for merit pay, particularly if we can identify those principals, teachers, and school leaders who are responsible for leading school turnaround and boosting student achievement.  I know there are teachers in the classroom — particularly in our urban centers — who shouldn’t be teachers (and I think those teachers realize it, and just don’t have a better alternative or a workable exit strategy).  And I believe a superintendent (or a schools chancellor) needs the authority and the ability to make real changes if he or she is going to make real improvements.
The way to do that is not through state of emergencies or “work arounds” when it comes to the teachers.  It comes from building strong relationships that result in trust, support, and action across the school district.  For the sort of reforms Rhee is calling for, she needs every teacher in the district to serve as a passionate advocate for reform.  She needs the commitment to improvement from all of those in the classroom, knowing that sustained improvement will result in meaningful reward.  And she needs this to be a team effort, with the chancellor, the central office, the principals, the teachers, the parents, and the business community working TOGETHER to bring the sort of improvement that will revolutionize the district, and not just make minor changes resulting in short-term gains and long-term headaches.
At the end of the day, once Rhee has gotten all of the change and reform she’s seeking, she actually has to work with those left standing to deliver on her promise to boost student achievement and close the achievement gap.  That means parents and families.  It means teachers and principals.  And it certainly means the Washington Teachers Union.  Rhee’s ultimate success will be determined by the effectiveness of the teachers and the union that supports them.  And there is no working around that, no matter how hard you try.

The Long View for Superintendents

What is important to an urban superintendent?  What keeps him or her up at night?  Years ago, Eduflack remembers getting into a discussion with a former boss on such issues.  At the time, I was told superintendents simply don’t care about college-going rates or what happens after the merriment of commencement commences.  Life after isn’t their concern, this boss lectured me, superintendents simply care about keeping the bodies in their schools and seeing them through the 12 years.  Then the work is done.

At the time, I fought the notion.  It seemed awfully cynical (even for a cynic like me) and lacked the sophistication of school district leaders seeking where they fit along the P-20 continuum.  It meant superintendents were focused on the process, and not on the outcomes or the product of their work.  I refused to believe that.
When my father was president of a public institution of higher education in New England, one of his top concerns was making sure his kids graduated ready for the workforce.  He actually issued a guarantee to the local business community, offering to take back any graduate who was found to lack the soft skills a college graduate with a certain major should have.  It seemed novel at the time, and took many a stakeholder aback.  But it was a bold statement.  It said the local college cared about the product of its work, and measured it success, in part, on what happens long after student had taken their final course or paid their final bill.
After today’s Education Trust conference, Eduflack feels validated.  I can see that many a superintendent shares the view of my father (and not that former boss), and are deeply concerned about the success of their graduates AFTER graduation.  District leaders such as Chicago’s Arne Duncan, San Jose Unified’s Don Iglesias, and Montebello’s Janet Tomcello, along with the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals’ Jim Ballard, all spoke to the need for preparing ALL kids for college and careers.   
It obviously helps that this is also a priority shared by a thick checkbook such as the Gates Foundation.  But it was reassuring to hear these leaders talk about college and career preparation in a meaningful way, recognizing the need for improved rigor and relevance in the classroom, knowing that education is not completed at the end of the 12th grade, and embracing the notion that today’s jobs require a more comprehensive education reflective of the more complex work and life environments we’re all facing.
We ask a great deal of our superintendents.  We want them to get all students proficient as soon as possible.  We ask them to show AYP. We want them to close achievement gaps.  We want problem schools turned around quickly.  And we want 100% high school graduation rates to boot.  Now we expect those diplomas to stand for something, both in terms of college readiness and workforce preparedness.
We’ve all heard the data on college remediation and how more than half of today’s college freshmen (two- and four-year institutions) have to take either remedial English or remedial math.  I’ve done survey after survey and focus group after focus group with business leaders who share the sentiment that today’s high school graduates lack the skill sets to excel in today’s workforce.  Clearly, we are facing a gap here, a gap between our aspirations and our realities.
If leaders like Duncan and Iglesias are serious, maybe it is a time for our major urban districts to offer their own guarantee.  If a Chicago Public Schools graduate lacks the reading or math skills to do college-level learning, CPS will take them back and get them up to speed.  If a recent graduate from San Jose lacks the literacy or problem-solving skills to work in the local factory, San Jose Unified will step in and further equip their grads.  These supes will stand behind their diplomas, and make good on all of them.
Such guarantees may seem gimmicky, but they work.  We see a guarantee, and we assume it is a stronger product.  We believe those who sell it believe in its quality.  Imagine the power of a high school guarantee.  We say the superintendent and his principals all stand behind the value of the education the provided.  Talk about a confidence builder for those looking for college and career preparedness.

Improving Schools By Improving Leadership

Amid all of the Washington talk on who is going to move into what ED job and whether the reformers or the status quoers were going to be in a position of authority over on Maryland Avenue (I’m assuming the little red school houses will come down, regardless), there are actually some discussions of substance and purpose.  Case in point — the Education Trust conference happening this week across the river from our nation’s capital.

One of the more interesting strands of discussion was that of educational leadership.  More importantly, it was about leadership at the school and the district level.  At a session sponsored by the Wallace Foundation and facilitated by Wallace President Christine DeVita, nearly 1,000 activists and practitioners from around the country heard about the need for leadership development in our principal ranks and a glimpse at what has been working to transform the principal from building manager to instructional leader.
Coming off a Wallace Foundation study on the subject, Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond offered some of the more interesting tidbits of the afternoon.  Why are current school leadership programs failing?  Because they focus on the wrong things.  According to Darling-Hammond, too many educational leadership programs take whoever wants to enroll (versus identifying and recruiting future leaders), offer courses focused on school administration (teaching only about schools as they are, instead of schools as they could be), and prepare future leaders for generic schools (instead of prepping them for the real challenges of both urban and poor rural schools in need of real leadership).  
What should these programs be doing?  First, they need to recognize they are educating the next generation of teachers and leaders.  Second, the need to focus on core issues such as instructional leadership, organizational development, and change processes.  They need to position their lessons around real school reforms in real districts.  And they need to focus the next generation of leaders to commit to moving schools to the next level.  
For Darling-Hammond, that means principals and school leaders developing instruction, and not just administering it.  It means holding all kids to high standards.  It means helping teachers develop the skills needed to achieve school goals.  It means recognizing we have to change, and knowing the constituencies we need to work with (and how to work with them) to get that change to happen.
When we talk about professional development, we usually think of it in terms of the classroom teacher.  Few really focus on PD for the leadership.  We assume that you give a teacher a graduate degree, offer five or seven years of instructional PD as part of the in-service program, and BOOM, they are qualified to lead the building as a principal.  We assume that good teachers make good principals.  We assume great teachers can make great principals.  And in doing so, we often pull the best teachers out of the classroom.
From today’s Ed Trust presentations to research study after research study to missives such as NAESP’s Leading Learning Communities, we know that good principals are those that are both effective building managers and strong instructional leaders.  Those skills comes from a focused and sustained effort in leadership development.  It comes from recognizing that we need to change principal training to to reflect the changing challenges of the job.
What does all this mean?  First and foremost, we need to think of the job of school principal differently.  Second, we need to better understand the connections between school leadership and student achievement.  And third, PD is for all those in the education continuum, not just for those newbie teachers in search of a better understanding of pedagogy.
Leave it to Ed Trust to open up conversations that too few are engaging in.  Maybe as a new Congress and a new Administration begin to look at the issue of PD under Title II, they will look at it for the teacher, the principal, and the superintendent.  Now if only we could find a way to offer educational PD for the parent, then we’d have the perfect storm for school improvement.