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.

Bringing Urgency to Early Childhood Ed

Throughout the education world, it seems virtually everyone is jockeying for position in terms of 2009 priorities.  We go through President-elect Obama’s education platform and policy speeches, looking for indications of priorities and preferences.  This week, many an organization waited with baited breath to see what would come out of the Gates Foundation convening, thinking and hoping for new issues or a new priority or two.  And no one is quite sure when (or even if) we’ll see reauthorization of ESEA in the next 12-18 months.

Six years ago, Eduflack was neck deep in scientifically based reading, believing at the time that Early Reading First and similar issues could be the next big thing.  For the past three and a half years, I’ve been focusing on high school reform efforts, seeing that STEM is the logical off-shoot and just the education improvement we need to effectively link education with the economy.  So much so that I am now advocating for the notion of a national public engagement campaign to ensure families and communities recognize that STEM is a necessity, not a luxury, and an approach needed for all students, not just the fortunate ones.
But I can’t shake the notion that I’ve been missing something from the equation, a piece missing from the great learning continuum.  For the past couple of months, my thinking on the “next big thing” has evolved.  Years ago, we saw a spike in interest in preK, as governors across the country proposed the notion of making it universal.  But current economic situations have many a state, most recently Massachusetts, questioning that commitment.  Early childhood education is stepping forward, and is stepping with a hard boot.
Yesterday, Pre-K Now released a new study looking at the ability of middle-class families to afford quality preK for their kids.  The highlight — more than half of the states that fund preK do so by using family income as a determining criteria.  The result — many a middle-class family, families who can feel the immediate benefits of quality preK, are quickly becoming unable to afford the programs their young kids need to maximize the K-12 experience.  Check out the full report here —  
This study becomes important to the overall debate.  So much of the discussion of preK is focused on low-income families. Too many equate preK with Head Start, or see it as glorified babysitting, or generally lack the vision to see that quality preK can serve as a foundational step for developing social and academic skills in all students, ensuring they are prepared for the rigors and opportunities of K-12 (yes, even those rigors of kindergarten).
In releasing its study, Pre-K Now offers three recommendations for the next generation of early childhood education:
* Expand preK, beginning with the most vulnerable children and moving to include those in the middle class
* Consider eligibility factors outside of include to include more children, including those from single-parent and military-connected families
* Offer full-day programs, rather than half-days, to better meet the needs of working families
It is clear we are still in a learning process here.  Is early childhood education education or sociology?  Is it for all kids, or just those at risk?  What does the data show in terms of linkages between preK and K-12 student achievement?  Is it part of the P-20 education continuum, or is it only for those who can afford it or those who qualify for assistance?  
Last week, Eduflack called for the establishment of an Office of Early Childhood Education at the U.S. Department of Education, building off of Obama’s recognition of the issue’s importance and his pledge to prioritize the issue.  Pre-K Now’s Libby Doggett has done me one better, calling for an “Early Education Czar” at the White House to ensure early childhood issues fit into the larger tapestry of education improvement.
Like so many of the great education reform issues, early childhood education is not a simple issue, easily boxed by the powers that be.  It involves education and healthcare and parental engagement and public/private partnerships and funding mixes and intermediaries and places of worship.  It requires levels of training and requirements and oversight and the determination of quality, both from an instructor and a delivery side.  And it requires deep collaboration, particularly in the tough economic times where early childhood ed can be seen by some as a “value add” and not a necessity.
Time will tell if preK fulfills it possibility as being “the” next issue, or if it simply moves back into place and becomes like so many good ideas with promise, but the inability to seize the public interest and the public sense of urgency.  We aren’t there yet.  With the right approach, the right stakeholders, and the call to action, Doggett and her advocates may yet get their wish.  Regardless, their study is a good step forward in reminding all of us that preK, particularly its funding, is a topic that hits all families, no matter where our economic markets may take us.

Charting a Path to National Standards

Many an education blogger is suffering through a sagging jaw this morning over yesterday’s Gates Foundation convening.  On the whole, the Gates meeting was a reiteration of the Foundation’s mission, pledging to strengthen high school and get more students college ready.  As Eduflack hoped for yesterday, the issue of teacher quality has been added to the agenda.  But for the most part, the Gates Foundation is standing pat.  See the full story at Education Week —  

What has those jaws dropping and the eyes bugging is the notion of national standards.  As part of yesterday’s discussion, the Gates Foundation said it was going to develop national education standards and, as part of it, develop national exams that aligned with those standards.
Some are frightened by the notion that Gates is now setting policy, rather than engaging in improving practice.  Personally, I see the announcement on national standards as a bold move that is long overdue.  Without question, we are a country in need of national standards.  Too many states adjust their levels of proficiency on a yearly basis to ensure they meet AYP provisions.  As a result, reading proficiency in Mississippi isn’t the same as reading proficiency in Massachusetts, and while the data tells us those fourth graders in Mississippi are far stronger readers than those in the Boston area, we know that not to be the case.  The result?  We are unable to truly point to gaps in learning across the states, leading to slipping performance on international measures such as TIMSS and PISA.
National learning standards are a primary issue for Eduflack.  Personally, I spent my childhood moving from state to state, the son in a higher education administration equivalent of a military family.  I saw duplication in learning moving from seventh grade in New Jersey to eighth grade in New Mexico.  And I saw a massive slippage in requirements going from a 10th grader in New Mexico to an 11th grader in West Virginia.  Every step of the way, I had to fight against the need to repeat courses because I took them during the “wrong” academic year.  And I’ve long wondered why my life science in Massachusetts didn’t meet my biology in New Jersey.  
For many, this is rarely an issue.  But as we grow into a more and more transient population, a patchwork of curricula, a mis-match of standards, and an overall lack of educational leadership simply won’t stand.  Algebra II proficiency should be Algebra II proficiency,regardless of the state in which you live.  Fourth grade reading proficiency is fourth grade reading proficiency, regardless of which state history you are studying in middle school.  And high school proficiency is high school proficiency, with no employers caring that Michigan has a different perception of standards that Georgia or New York.
For the past 18 months, the Gates Foundation has invested heavily into the Ed in 08 effort.  As part of his stumping, Ed in 08 Chair Roy Romer regularly spoke of the need for national standards.  His solution?  Gather together six of the strongest education governors, lock them in a room, and have them develop a standard all six of their states can stand by.  Put those standards into practice in those half-dozen states.  Show they work.  Then have the remainder of the governors do the same in their states once we see the success.  Boom — national standards.  Created from the bottom up, but one standard that stands firm for all, no matter where you receive your mail.
At this point, the U.S. Department of Education’s “brand” is at a relative low.  ED doesn’t have the strength or the buy-in to move national standards into practice.  It requires an outside agent of change to move the ball forward.  Action taken today by Gates makes it easier for other groups or even ED itself to take the ball in for the final touchdown down the field.  Consider it the ole “three yards and a cloud of dust” philosophy.  Gates is now willing to take the ball, and run it up the gut of the education establishment.  And there are few in a position to stop them at the line of scrimmage.
Yes, it means Gates is now wading into the elementary and middle grades, a playground with few Gates resources and few Gates flags in the ground.  Will some fear Gates will try to strong arm their grantees or potential grantees into accepting these standards?  Sure.  But even if they did, that doesn’t get us anywhere close to national standards.  Should we worry about a non-government entity drafting student exams?  Of course.  We would never let third parties, unaffiliated with state or federal government to develop, say, entrance exams to college, would we College Board and ACT?
If not Gates, then who?  We’ve been talking national standards for decades now, and no one has stepped up to put their ideas up on the chalk board and let them stand the scrutiny of the industry.  The Gates Foundation has made a bold promise here.  With such promises come real action.  The final solution may not look anything like what Gates is proposing, or it may be an offshoot of a great idea coming out Seattle.  Regardless, the Gates commitment means the attention of others.  It means the commitment of others.  And it means a greater level of interest and concern for the construct of a meaningful national education standard.  That is a win-win for all involved.
Me, I’m not worried about this notion that Bill Gates is trying to be the “U.S. Superintendent of Education,” as one blogger recently put it.  If the man can eradicate malaria in Africa, certainly he can assemble a team to build a meaningful, clear, valuable national education standard and an assessment by which to measure every student against it.  He does that, and it means far more than any high school reformed and any small school constructed.  

The Future of Education Philanthropy in the Pacific Northwest

Today, many an education reformer is waiting to hear word out of Seattle, Washington.  Why?  The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is supposedly making a major announcement regarding the future of its educational philanthropy.  Some, particularly current grantees, believe today’s discussion will be a reiteration of current priorities and a discussion of the successes of work such as small schools, high school reform, and early college high schools.  Others, though, are expecting a major paradigm shift, one that re-aligns Gates funding with the 2008 (or 2009) edition of our schools’ needs.

In all likelihood, it will be a combination of the two — a renewed commitment to Gates’ high school reform efforts and the launch of new pledges to broaden reach and improve the whole school environment.  More than a year ago, Vicki Phillips, head of the education portfolio, began discussing Gates’ need to get into the human capital (re: teacher development) game.  So that is a likely target.  Many a good high school improvement effort has evolved into a pursuit of STEM education, so STEM is a likely addition as well.  But what else?
At the beginning of the calendar year, Eduflack offered a novel concept for the Gates Foundation.  Recognizing the growing problem of drop-out factories in our nation, seeing continued challenges in getting students up to grade level, watching the difficulties of trying to do new things in dangerously old buildings, Gates should simply build the better mousetrap.  Invest some funding into building a shadow school district in one of our nation’s most challenging urban centers, construct the right learning facilities, find and train the right educators, implement the right instructional models, and mine the real successes.  Consider it charter schools on steroids.  A pipe dream, of course, but the opportunity to really improve rather than just reform. (  
But I digress.  Despite the recent downturn in the economic markets, the Gates Foundation will clearly reiterate its commitment to fund education improvement in the United States.  Such improvement, though, requires evolution and a continuing adjustment to the wants and needs of the field.  Ed in 08, for instance, was an interesting experience (and at the end of the day, not too costly, by comparison).  No, it didn’t move education to top of mind of politicians and voters across the country.  But it did begin a social network, allowing Gates, Broad, and others to begin to see how civic engagement could be used to move reforms in education and other policy issues.
Let me be clear, I have no advance copy of today’s Gates announcement.  But if I were part of the Gates team, I would focus on a new, unwavering commitment to the following five points:
* STEM education — Yes, science-technology-engineering-math instruction is the flavor of the month.  More importantly, though, it is the strongest link we have between K-12 education and an improved workforce and a stronger economy.  STEM is not just for rocket scientists and brain surgeons.  EVERY student benefits from the acquisition of STEM skills, and virtually every job opportunity over the next two decades will require some application of a STEM education, even if it is just teamwork or problem-solving.  We have STEM models out there on the verge of scalability.  A Gates institutional commitment to STEM moves the issue to the forefront in all states, not just the dozen or so that have been leaders in the field.
* Teacher development — As noted above, Phillips wants to be involved in human capital development.  The incoming Obama administration has made investing in the recruitment, retention, and support of teachers a priority of its education policy.  By opening new channels to recruit new teachers, focusing on research and practice that links quality PD with student achievement, and working with our schools to ensure we are getting the right people — and not just any people — to lead our classrooms, Gates can really leave its mark on our schools.  We are in the process of hiring an entirely new generation of teachers.  Gates can be at the forefront of that.
* Civic engagement — In Gates communities throughout the nation, we have seen that learning successes require more than just change at the schoolhouse level.  They require changes of thinking and behavior in the community at large, from businesses, community leaders, healthcare providers, members of the clergy, childcare providers, policymakers, and families.  Gates cannot do it alone.  To support their changes in the schools, they should be launching public engagement activities in the communities, ensuring activities, policies, and support beyond the schoolhouse walls are contributing to meeting the Gates goals within them.
* High school graduation — Gates has been steadfast in its commitment to improving rigor, relevance, and relationships in our high schools.  We have witnessed real success stories throughout the nation, and we have seen some great ideas that simply don’t work or don’t work at scale.  Now is the time to refocus high school efforts.  Our first priority should be attending to the high school graduation rate.  It is a national shame that we have many high schools where half of all students drop out.  Dropping out should never be an option, particularly in a 21st century economy that requires practical 21st century skills.  Gates should issue a national challenge to increase the high school graduation rate.  And it should work with its advocacy team to encourage a national high school graduation exam to ensure each of those graduates is leaving with the skills and “rigorous” instruction that Gates is known for.  It shouldn’t matter where a high school is or what courses were taken, a high school diploma is currency, and it should have the same value in all 50 states.
* Early childhood education — Now, it is time for Eduflack’s moonshot.  Yes, I recognize Gates has been carefully focused on the notion of secondary and postsecondary education and that this could be seen as a distraction or a misalignment of Gates priorities.  But it would actually build nationally on the work Gates is engaging in in Washington State.  It speaks to strengthening the community at large, prioritizing education at the earliest of ages and for all families.  It ensures ultimate value of a K-12 education.  Across the nation, states have made major investments in preK, with many of those investments facing threat of extinction with current budget issues.  PreK focused on instruction and academic preparation is enormously valuable.  It ensures students at risk have the skills and foundations necessary to maximize the K-12 opportunities before them.  It ensures that parents become involved in the learning process from the start.  And it effectively trains the next generation of students that will benefit from the full portfolio of Gates improvements.  So take a little of that money and launch some pilot projects in some low-hanging states.  Unite your education and your libraries work and find a way to bring your three R strategy to our youngest of learners.  It will ultimately ensure that that generation is ready for the challenges and opportunities you will offer them when they hit their high school years.  Consider it an experiment in linkages, a try at civic engagement, and an opportunity to build true family and community commitment from the start.
There are obviously a number of other paths Gates could take — increasing investment in virtual education options, strengthening quality and access to school choice (particularly with its Green Dot ties), or postsecondary affordabi
lity options (including its ECHS models).  All are likely to be part of the framework.
We shall all see where today’s announcement truly takes us.  Regardless of the content, one of the most important commitments the Gates Foundation can make is to renew its demand for strong research and even stronger evaluation and accountability.  To date, Gates has done what the feds have been unable to — enact a workable accountability system that tracks how additional education funding is spent and measures that spending against student achievement and instructional improvement.  Gates has intentionally built an ROI model for education reform.  And it is a model many a school district, state, or even U.S. Department of Education would be wise to model, build on, or outright adopt, whether they receive Gates funding or not.

Seeking ROI on Undergraduate Education

It is common to hear that college is about more than classes.  At the end of four (or five, or six) years, successful students will have built relationships with a network that will support them for decades, gained valuable skills in areas like problem-solving and teamwork, figured out the notion of multitasking, and generally had to take responsibility for their own day and the hours within it.

Don’t get me wrong, college classes are important.  But they aren’t the end all-be all of the postsecondary experience.  Personally, I spent four years at the University of Virginia, the top public university in the nation.  I took a lot of interesting and engaging courses, particularly in the fields of government and communications.  But my real college experience came from my internships on Capitol Hill and my tenure at The Cavalier Daily, U.Va.’s independent student newspaper.  As managing editor of The Cavalier Daily, I worked 60-80 hours per week (for no college credit and no pay), managed a staff of nearly 150 volunteers, and put out a daily newspaper (usually 16 pages a day) that boasted an operating budget of nearly $500,000 generated exclusively from advertising revenue.  That was the real education, and The CD provided me writing, management, thinking, and leadership skills that simply could not have been captured elsewhere, at least not for the average 21-year-old.
Today’s USA Today commits an entire page to the National Survey of Student Engagement (  and the role it places in improving the quality of higher education.  According to our nation’s paper of record, USA Today and NSSE “aim to provide new tools and information to help college-bound students and their families assess the quality of undergraduate experience at the schools they’re considering.”  Nearly 400 four-year colleges and universities are participating in the experiment.
How are they doing it?  Schools are looking at how they deal with helping students transition into postsecondary education, how they connect with students, and how they provide alternative learning experiences such as community service, study abroad, and internships.
Eduflack’s not sure what USA Today’s long-term goals are with NSSE, but personally, I wish all 4,000 of our postsecondary institutions would sign on and become part of the process.  A 10% sample is a good start, particularly if it is the right 10%.  But the issues and questions posed by NSSE are important for educated and interested families to consider when making postsecondary choices.
For decades now, students have pored over the US News & World Report rankings and books such as the Fiske Guide to Colleges to help make informed choices about college. Princeton Review and others have done a good job of breaking colleges down into interesting subsets, at least showing students the top institutions in key categories.  Parents have kept a watchful eye on things like the top party schools, hoping to steer their kids away from the best places to “enjoy themselves.”  But it is useful to know how all colleges compare, not just the creme of the crop.
When Eduflack was making the college decision, it was between U.Va. and Princeton.  Both schools were equidistant from my high school in West Virginia, so mileage from home wasn’t a factor.  At the end of the day, U.Va. felt right.  There was just something about standing on the Grounds, the history of Thomas Jefferson, and the general feel of Charlottesville that spoke to me.  I got far less of that feeling from the ivy in central New Jersey.
And that was before I knew about the college newspaper and the opportunities it would provide.  That would be before an American Government term paper on healthcare reform led me to an internship on Capitol Hill. That was before I knew the true value and impact of an education from Mr. Jefferson’s University.  That was before I knew much of what a tool like NSSE could have told me. 
If NSSE, in partnership with USA Today, can give today’s high school students just part of that glimpse of college life — that look beyond student-teacher ratios, majors, and percentage of kids who go on to law/grad school — then it can make a significant contribution to guiding the next generation into postsecondary education.  Making a decision about college is hard.  The more information you have, the more educated a decision you can make.  If we want college to be a pathway to life success, we need to equip our student decisionmakers with the full picture of the college experience.  From the cheap seats, NSSE moves us just a little closer to that reality.