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.

Getting Bitten by the Big Apple on Education

Well, Eduflack really stepped into it yesterday.  Writing about the future of NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein in an Obama Department of Education, I remarked that NYC has seen improved student achievement during the Klein era, an observation gathered through personal experience, conversation, news coverage, and other third party sources.

Eduwonkette quickly pointed out that the numbers under the Klein regime have not improved, and, in fact, the achievement gap has either frozen or widened during the Klein era.  And I’ll be the first to admit, there are few, Diane Ravitch comes to mind, that know the NYC data like Eduwonkette does.
As I’ve stated, the legend is that NYC is a district on the upswing.  Test scores up.  Achievement gap closing.  Improved engagement.  One reader suggested it is all just good PR, and the results aren’t there.  So I decided to get up in the wee hours this morning, and check out some of the NYC data itself.
My first stop was the NYCDOE itself, and the data it makes available on its website — data that every school district is supposed to make available to the concerned public.  I hate to admit it, but I found very little of use.  What I did find was fairly positive.  For the current year, the four-year graduation rate is at an all-time high — 55.8%.  And the graduation gap has narrowed for both black and Hispanic audiences.
In 2007, NYC’s ELA scores, grades 3-8, rose from 53.2% proficient to 56% proficient or better.  This represented gains in every grade but third grade.  And the percentage of students with serious academic problems significantly declined.
Unfortunately, the math data was a little more troubling for me.  There are bold headlines declaring “Grades 3-8 Math Progress,” but the link has been disabled.  So if there is real math progress, it is being undermined by a technology deficiency.
I recognize some would say a 55.8% grad rate and 56% reading proficiency are hardly data points to trumpet and be proud of.  But improvement is improvement.  If you boost your grade rate from 45% to 55%, that is a start.  You just have to figure out what to do for those remaining 45%.  Gains are gains, even under our current AYP structure.
Unsatisfied with the NYC-provided data, I decided to check in with our California friends out at the Broad Foundation. After all, NYC won the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2007.  It was touted as the top urban district in the nation.  So what data did Broad use to make that determination?  Using 2006 data, Broad found:
* NYC outperformed other schools in the state serving students with similar income levels in reading and math achievement, at all grade levels — elementary, middle, and high school.
* NYC’s African-American and Hispanic students outperformed and showed greater improvement than their peers in other NY schools
* NYC narrowed the African-American and Hispanic achievement gaps in both reading and math for both elementary and high school students
* NYC increased the number of African-American and Hispanic students performing at the most advanced levels
All positive points.  All validated through Broad’s independent research and independent review process.  
So what’s the verdict out there?  Is NYC an education success story?  Is it a complicated game of smoke and mirrors?  Do we simply trust the data made available to the public, or is there more important data we aren’t seeing?  Eduflack may be a native New Yorker, but I’ll yield to those up in the field to set the record straight.  And yes, Eduwonkette, I’ll even provide you the full rostrum here.  No need for just commenting.

What’s a Superintendent to Do in the New ED?

As the Obama teams plans a new organization and new staffing for the U.S. Department of Education, one primary thought from the field is the role of real educators — and real administrators — in the new ED.  Eight years ago, Rod Paige became the first schools superintendent (he, of Houston) to take the helm as the nation’s chief schools officer.  Since then, some have questioned whether the job is the right job for a superintendent, what with its political, policy, administrative, and organizational requirements.

Earlier in the week, Eduflack advocated for the need to put a governor at the top of the Education structure.  Yes, I recognize that likely means appointing an individual who has not been a classroom teacher or who has personally worked in instruction or in education policy.  But a governor provides the leadership, the management, and the command of the bully pulpit that is in such demand at ED.  Personally, my short list would include NC’s Mike Easley, Arizona’s Janet Napolitano (though she is being mentioned for AG and Homeland Security), and Tennessee’s Phil Bredensen.

So what is the role of the superintendent in the new ED?  Currently, the top practitioner is Ray Simon, the former state schools chief and superintendent from Arkansas.  And if the local media reports are any indication, that seems to be the model Obama is pursuing as well.  On this morning’s NYC news, the expectation is that NYC Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein will move to ED, possibly to take over the number two position.  This would name Klein the de facto COO of the Department.  And if the Ray Simon mold holds, he would also retain a significant policy role, particularly as it applies to K-12 policy, including NCLB, IDEA, and the offices that govern them (OESE, OII, OSERS, OELA).

Similarly, a rumor has started brewing that Peter McWalters, the outgoing education commissioner in Rhode Island, is the frontrunner to head the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.  The commissioner is one of the longest serving chief state school officers in the nation, and has a long and distinguished career as a practitioner and school and district leader.  Personally, I think he would be great at OESE, just the leader the office has needed for quite some time.

Over the last decade, we have seen a shift in public thinking about public schools.  Issues like accountability and achievement gaps are now dominating the landscape, for good or bad.  We hear it from the business community, we hear it from appropriators and authorizers at the policy level, we hear it from parents, and we even hear it from the educators themselves.  So it only makes sense that someone who has “walked the walk” is involved in developing and enforcing the policies designed to improve our public schools and boost student achievement.

The bigger question is, if you are Joel Klein, do you leave NYC for anything less than the top job at ED?  In NY, Klein has led a revolution in public instruction.  Test scores are up.  The achievement gap is smaller.  The district has won the Broad Prize.  And teachers, kids, and parents are more interested and more involved in the process of improving our schools.  There is a greater commitment to school quality in NYC than we have seen in quite some time.

If Klein can replicate that model at the national level, and help districts across the nation do what his team did in NYC, then this is the logical choice.  But if the number two job yields much of its policy-shaping responsibility to the Under Secretary, as was the model in the Clinton/Riley Department of Education, isn’t Klein better off continuing improvement in NYC and finishing what he started?  Aren’t we better off as a nation, allowing him to demonstrate the long-term, longitudinal effects of his reforms in the world’s greatest city? 

We need great thinkers and great leaders at ED.  Klein and McWalters both fit in both categories.  But if they are tapped, they need to be tapped for the right position.  The worst thing we can do is bring in the right people, then put them in the wrong job, denying them the opportunity to do what they do best and stripping our nation of their ability to make a true, long-term difference.

UPDATE — WCBS in NYC asked Klein directly about his interest in the EdSec position itself, and he provided the standard “I am very happy in my current position” response.  

Re-Prioritizing the U.S. Department of Education

As President-Elect Obama and his Administration-in-waiting begin working through the transition, they have a terrific opportunity to shape the direction of future policy and future successes.  With each new administration, particularly with a change in party leadership, there is the opportunity to reorganize Cabinet departments, the chance to emphasize new priorities and to turn back the efforts of previous administrations.  While Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution cautions against overhauls and reorganizations at the start of an Administration, now is definitely the time to look at a new organization for the U.S. Department of Education.

In the coming weeks, the Obama transition team will begin reading through the ED transition notebooks, interview staff (particularly the career staff), and quickly making staffing decisions, from EdSec down to a slew of congressionally-approved assistant secretaries.  This is a lot of work, and it will be happening simultaneously in all agencies.  But the amount of work should not keep us from thinking about education — and education improvement — a little differently.
For the most part, the Bush Administration took on the structure that Clinton EdSec Richard Riley left behind.  But if recent years and new thinking are any indication, an Obama Administration may need a very different framework to focus on the issues emphasized on the stump, in policy platforms, and by its strongest advocates.
So how do we do it?  Never shy about such things, Eduflack has a few ideas for the new Obama Administration:
The New Approaches
* Office of Early Childhood Education — Obama has really driven home the importance of early childhood education and its ability to prepare all students — particularly those from at risk families — for the instructional, social, and emotional challenges of elementary school.  The creation of this office systematizes that commitment.  And if you really want to be bold, move Head Start over from HHS and put it under ED, and this new office’s, purview.  While early childhood has long been the official territory of HHS, ED has always had a chip in the game, and Obama’s priorities could settle the issue once and for all whether early childhood ed is just Head Start or a broader academic preparedness scope.
* Office of Elementary Education — For quite some time, we have had an Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.  It is time to separate the two.  The Office of Elementary Education would focus on the foundations of education success, particularly reading and math.  With a K-8 focus, this office would emphasize the early building blocks of successful learning (reflecting much of the research we now know), while providing some new-found emphasis on the middle grades.  We at least need someone who will continue to promote the National Math Panel findings, particularly if we expect STEM to drive secondary ed policy.
* Office of Secondary Education and 21st Century Skills — Nationally, we have made a major investment in improving high schools, making them more rigorous, and providing all students the pathways to educational and life successes.  This office would focus on high school improvement, early colleges, and the transition from secondary to postsecondary.  Bolder still would be a deputy assistant secretary for STEM education, to ensure science-tech-engineering-math instruction is embedded in all our secondary school improvements.
* Office of Teacher Advancement — Obama has made a major commitment to recruiting, retaining, and rewarding teachers.  We should focus an office on the teacher, including teacher training and pre-service education, in-service professional development, teacher incentives, alternative routes for teachers, and overall educator quality.
* Office of Assessment and Accountability — Yes, I know we have an Institute of Education Sciences.  We’ll address that later.  ED needs an office that works directly with SEAs and LEAs on assessment issues, how we measure student achievement, how we address the issue of multiple measures, and how we ensure our schools and our government are accountable and focusing on the instruction and the supports that make a true difference.  And I wouldn’t mind if this office took a close look at the notion of national education standards.
* Office of School Options — During Obama’s time in Chicago, he was involved in the charter school movement.  He has also acknowledged charters as a piece of the education improvement puzzle.  This office would seek to de-politicize the issue, focusing on effective infrastructure, supports, and accountability in school options, particularly charter schools and virtual schools.  Within this office, ED should also include after-school, or out-of-school-time, programs, as such OST efforts are now a bastion for academic supports, social supports, the arts and other opportunities designed to fill the current learning gaps.
* Office of Family and Community Engagement — As I detailed in my open letter to the President-Elect earlier this week, there is a need and a hunger for an office focused on better involving parents and families in the education improvement process.  We need to better inform families, better encourage families to pursue options, and better prepare families to be a part of the solution. (
* Office of Educational Entrepreneurship and Innovation — I’ll admit it, I’ll buy into Andy Rotherham’s vision for converting OII into an incubator for new ideas and new opportunities.  Call it entrepreneurship, call it venture capitalism, even call it pubic/private partnerships if it feels easier, but it is a needed component to education improvement in the 21st century.
Not all of these may be (or should be) assistant secretary-level offices, but they should merit consideration somewhere in the grid.
The Conversions  
In addition to these new approaches, there are also a number of current offices that could use some assistance and  fresh outlook on the education landscape:
* Office of Communication and Outreach — This is obviously an office near and dear to Eduflack’s heart.  For too long, OCO has been viewed as a reactive office, one that regularly issues press releases, fields FOIA requests, and decides which media calls will be returned by whom.  Moving forward, the office needs to jump on the latter part of its name, and transform into an office of public engagement.  Utilize the vast social network built by the Obama campaign.  Broaden the reach to stakeholders.  Be proactive in pushing policy issues and promoting successes.  Set the terms and drive the story.  Doesn’t get more simple than that.
* Institute of Education Sciences — IES was created to be our nation’s home for education R&D.  Unfortunately,
there is still a great deal of work that needs to be done to meet that goal.  IES needs to broaden its mission beyond the WWC and become a true clearinghouse for quality research and a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for what works.  More importantly, it needs to expand the dialogue beyond the researchers and effectively communicate the education sciences to practitioners, advocates, and others in the field.
* Office of English Language Acquisition — OELA, and its previous personalities, has almost been a red-headed stepchild in ED for quite some time.  But as our nation’s demographics continue to shift, ELL and ESL issues become more and more important to closing the achievement gap and providing opportunity to all students.  Focusing on inclusiveness, partnership development, stakeholder engagement, and integration with other offices (particularly elementary ed), OELA can be the lever for improvement many want it to be.
* Office of Federal Student Aid — I’ll admit, I am a little out of my element here.  But with the economic issues we are facing as a nation, ED is going to have to spend more time and intellectual capital on helping students and their families better understand the funding options for postsecondary education.  Simplifying the FASA, ensuring students understand accreditation, articulation of credits between institutions (and between high schools and colleges), and other issues that factor into our ability to pay for college.
I can go on, but I will leave it at that.  Obviously, many core offices will likely remain in place — General Counsel, Inspector General, Civil Rights, Leg Affairs, etc.  Some will say the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development — could be folded into the core responsibilities of a top three ED official.  And offices like Vocational and Adult Education may be past rescuing and just need to be left alone.  Regardless, there are clearly a lot of options for those thinking the big thoughts in the transition.
Yes, the Obama campaign was based on hope and change.  When it comes to the U.S. Department of Education, it may also be a time for similar hope and change.  Clearly, our educational priorities and needs have shifted over the last decade, as we focus on teacher development, 21st century skills, STEM, and the P-20 education continuum.  A new approach, with new foci, serves as a strong rhetorical tool to make clear what the Obama Administration will hold dear.  And such rhetoric is all the more important when current economic concerns make it difficult to fund new policy ideas straight out of the gate.  

An Open Letter to President-Elect Barack Obama

Dear President-Elect Obama,

Congratulations on your impressive victory last evening.  For the past two years, you have spoken to the nation about the need for hope, the need to dream, and the need to do things differently.  Your message of change is not only one that should take hold of government itself, but it is also one that should serve as the cornerstone of your education policy.  You now have a mandate for real change, with the Congress and the national will to support it.
Throughout the campaign, you focused on five key education issues: 1) early childhood education; 2) general K-12, 3) teacher recruitment and training; 4) affordability of higher education; and 5) parental involvement. These issues now serve as the tent posts of your federal education policy.  And they play an equally important role in shaping your U.S. Department of Education.
Now is not the time to retreat to the educational status quo of a Democratic president.  Now is not the time to put power in the hands of those seeking to protect and conserve what was, or those who are troubled by the notion of innovation or new approaches.  And now is certainly not the time to refight the NCLB fight, throwing punches that should have been thrown six years ago.
Instead, now is the time to be bold and audacious, as you have called for so many times before.  Now is the time to be innovative and offer new ideas for the problems that have ailed our public schools for decades now. Now is the time to build a non-partisan approach based on what is needed, what is sought, and what works.  Now is indeed a time for change, and you need to use education to drive that change.  The status quoers or the defenders of policies part don’t fit with your message.  This is time for powerful rhetoric, deep thinking, and meaningful change and innovation.
I will leave it to you and your transition team to determine who the next EdSec will be.  If recent history is any indication, the Clinton model works well.  Find a strong administrator — a governor type — who understands the issues and knows how to effectively use knowledgeable staff.  The Mike Easleys or the Janet Napolitanos or even the Phil Bredensens of the world deserve a close look.  Sure, your selection will be based in part on who is selected for other Cabinet posts, as you seek the right racial, gender, and geographic balance of the Cabinet.  But these sorts of governors have the political experience, management background, and general understanding needed to move the issue forward.
Those jobs further down the line in the Department of Education are the jobs that are essential.  Who will be driving policy?  Who will implement the policy?  Who will collect the data?  Who will analyze it?  Who will market and sell all of it to the stakeholders that are needed to move change?  The assistant secretaries you appoint will be the linchpins of your education policy success. Don’t make these patronage jobs.  Don’t use these to reward friends or organizational friends of the campaign.  Get out into the field and find the best people for the jobs.  Of particular importance, at least in Eduflack’s eyes, is finding the right people to head the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Office of Innovation and Improvement, the Office of English Language Acquisition (particularly since the Hispanic community was such an important demographic in your victory), and the Institute of Education Sciences.  Find the true leaders, the true innovators, and the true thinkers to head these offices and drive policy.
Now that we’ve gotten the administrative piece out of the way, let’s focus for a second on actual policies.  In your policy platforms, you’ve identified a number of issues and areas that you want to focus on, both in terms of rhetorical and financial muscle. Many of these are specific programs, whether they be the continuation of the old or the creation of the new.  These are good ideas — some great, but as your education transition team moves forward, I ask that you make sure a number of issues get their fair shake:
* STEM — We all know that science-tech-engineering-math is a hot topic these days.  But it is also a substantive topic.  Education doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  STEM provides you a tangible program to effectively link instruction to our future economic needs.  It tells kids they are career ready.  It tells employers we have a viable pipeline in the workforce.  And it tells the nation we are doing what it takes to align education with the economy.  STEM is your low-hanging fruit, and you can make some immediate gains by focusing on this policy priority, using education as an economic driver in all states.
* Reading — I have reluctantly accepted that Reading First is dead.  But for decades, the federal government has funded programs to boost reading achievement, particularly among minority and low-income populations.  We need to continue that commitment, and Title I doesn’t get the job done.  For all of its flaws, RF has left a legacy of evidence-based instruction and ensuring we are doing what is proven effective.  Let’s use that to build a new, better reading approach.  Scientifically based reading is in place in every Title I district across the country.  Now is not the time to change horses.  Now is the time to build on successes, showing all families — from those in our urban centers to those in our most rural of communities — that we are committed to making sure every child is reading proficient and reading successful.
* Education Research — Staying on the topic, we need to continue federal efforts to support high-quality K-12 research.  We need to do a better job of collecting long-term measurements of student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and the like.  And we need to do a better job of analyzing the data we collect. Now is the time to use IES to further shape education R&D in the United States.  That shaping requires a true innovator at the helm, with a good sense of research and a better sense of innovation and experimenting on what is new and possible.  Few see it, but the IES appointment will speak volumes as to the possibility of new ideas and new educational exploration for the next four years.
* Teachers — Supporting teachers is more than just supporting the teachers unions.  You’ve demonstrated that understanding in your support to merit pay.  Continue to display that independence.  Merit pay, for instance, is a terrific tool to implementing best practice in the schools, sharing best practices among educators, and incentivizing closing the achievement gap and boosting student achievement without the strict use of the ED stick.  If you need help with this, just give a ring over to your advisor Jon Schnur and ask him about New Leaders for New Schools’ lessons learned through the EPIC program.
* Innovation — All of the great education ideas have not been thought of yet.  You need to find ways to invest in experimentation and invest in what is possible and what is promising.  That is why OII was originally conceived. Take a look at advisor Andy Rotherham’s (and Sara Mead’s) study for Brookings on the future of education innovation, and start exploring the ways to use OII as a venture capital fund for new ideas and as an incubator for promising practices.  We should even elevate OII to full assistant secretary status.
* Accountability — Some think you will throw accountability out the window when you take office.  Eduflack knows better.  From your work in Chicago, you understand the importance of measuring the effectiveness of our reforms.  You know we need to see real results if we are to continue real work.  We not only need to keep measuring student achievement, but we need to do a better job of applying the data to policy dec
isions, spending decisions, and instructional decisions.  More importantly, we just need to plain know that what we are doing works, and it works in schools like mine, in classes like mine, with kids like mine.  There is nothing wrong with accountability if it is a shared responsibility, shared by government, schools, teachers, parents, and the students themselves.
* Choice — Forget about vouchers, the future of education choice is charters and virtual education.  There is a fine line between offering choices to families in need and stripping resources from the public schools.  You need to find it. Charter enrollment in our urban centers is at all time highs.  Find ways to further encourage it, while requiring higher quality and greater oversight.  Virtual education, such as that mandated by Florida, is the future, and needs to be further explored to expand learning opportunities, particularly in our urban and rural schools.  Options are key if we are to give every child a chance at opportunity.
* Parental Involvement — Now for my big idea.  I propose you actually establish an Office of Family and Community Engagement, an authorized body at the Assistant Secretary level that can get information into the hands of those who need it most.  The most recent regs from ED show that the current infrastructure isn’t getting it done.  If you’re serious about greater family involvement, turning off the TVs, and such, make the commitment to Family Engagement (and we do have to think beyond the traditional mother/father nuclear parent family structure). EdTrust has today’s student attaining education at lower rates than their parents. That is a travesty.  And the responsibility falls on the family.  Parents are our first, and most durable, of teachers.  Equip them with information, help them build the paths and help them paint the picture of the value and need for education.  Create this new office, have it collaborate with OESE, OCO, and others, and see the impact of effectively collaborating with families and the community at large on education improvement.
Throughout the campaign, you demonstrated a keen understanding for the intersection between policy and communication.   That understanding must be applied to your education work as well.  On the whole, your predecessor did a poor job when it came to communicating, even with regard to some good policies.  Their thinking seemed to be people will realize this is good policy, and if they don’t we’ll make them because we are the federal government. That won’t work for you.  You need to effectively sell your policies, and you need to sell them to a broad cross-section of audiences.  You need stakeholder buy-in from the beginning, and that buy-in comes from more than just the usual suspects.  Through a well-though-out, sustained public engagement plan, you can not only educate Americans on why education is important, you can actually change their thoughts and behaviors when it comes to the above issues and so many others.  And if you aren’t sure how, just give me a call.
I realize, from recent media interviews, that education is not going to be a top three issue for your Administration.  That is understandable.  I was heartened to see it comes into the top five.  That just means there is more heavy lifting for your Department of Education and for those inside it to do more and make more change with less of the presidential bully pulpit.  We share a common goal — a high quality education for all children.  Now we just need to build the team and execute the plan to move that goal into reality.  You have that chance.  Please take full advantage of it.  Yes, you — and we — can.
Patrick R. Riccards (aka Eduflack)

The Rigors of High School Rigor

For years now, we have been talking about the need to focus on improved rigor in secondary instruction.  Rigor has long been a core component of the Gates Foundation redesign philosophy, and many reformers have signed onto the notion that if secondary (and postsecondary) education is as important as it is in today’s economy and today’s society, and we are going to push more kids to acquire that education, we need to make a diploma or a degree as worthwhile as possible.

The urban legend is that kids drop out of high school because high school is too hard.  The data, though, finds that simply is not the case.  Students drop out because they don’t see the point.  They drop out because they don’t see how school aligns with their goals or their dreams.  And, yes, they drop out because they don’t feel stimulated or pushed during their secondary school experience.
So what can we do to make high school a little more relevant and a little more rigorous?  A new report from the National Governors Association (hat tip to Eduwonk, of course), offers a glimpse of some of the promising practice coming out of states like Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania.  The full policy brief can be found here —  
The great takeaway?  Three specific policy recommendations for boosting consistent rigor in our high schools:
1.  Align courses with challenging academic standards (while offering more consistent course expectations)
2.  Include end-of-course exams in a comprehensive assessment system
3.  Provide teachers extended professional development that integrates with both instruction and assessment
These sorts of policy briefs are important to forwarding the dialogue on education reform because they both point to promising practice while informing us on that with good intentions, yet limited impact.  Pilots such as the NGA’s demonstrate the need for strong research methodology, the demand for implementation fidelity, and the strength to admit when such efforts don’t work out as intended.  As a result, NGA shows us the need to get teachers more enthused for professional development opportunities and to better see the value of PD crosswalked with instructional improvements.  And it shows us the constant struggle of both data collection and the construction of effective assessment systems.
More than anything, though, it speaks to the growing need for the trifecta of stronger academic standards, effective assessment systems to measure students against those standards, and the knowledgebase to use those student assessments to improve instruction, achievement, and teacher development.
At the end of the day, the question is not what is in the Policy Brief or the outcomes in the three specific states.  The real question we must ask is what we do with this sort of data.  How do we take these lessons learned and apply them to similar reform efforts occurring in the remaining 47 states?  What are we doing to continue efforts in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania and to improve the fidelity of implementation?  What do we do to ultimately make all high schools — regardless of demographic, graduation rate, or college-going rate — more rigorous?

Accounting for the RF Dollars

Reading First has been the federal law of the land for more than six and a half years now.  To date, more than $5 billion has been provided to the states to implement scientifically based reading programs in their schools.  A huge bucket of dollars, these moneys were intended to provide evidence-based curricular materials, instructional programs, interventions, and professional development in those schools that needed the most help in getting every child reading proficient.

We’ve all heard about the problems with the implementation of the program.  Eduflack is clearly on the record believing RF is a terrifically intentioned program, with the right priorities, the right goals, and the right research.  But I’ve also been critical of the implementation of the program.  Oversight was sloppy.  Programs weren’t adopted with fidelity.  And we’ve done a poor job collecting and promoting the data that demonstrates overall effectiveness.
In recent months, the field has debated what the research really tells us.  We’ve had dueling studies, one from the U.S. Department of Education’s OPEPD came out with a study showing real results; IES came out with an interim study questioning impact.  OPEPD addressed the issues of non-RF schools making real gains because of changes in instructional approaches and materials (what the researchers call contamination); IES did not.
Through it all, we’ve assumed that that $5 billion has been spent as intended.  Sure, we know there are some companies that got rich off of RF, selling snake oil to anyone with an open wallet.  There are profiteers that saw an opening in the law, and squeezed every last nickel they could out of RF to line their pockets and enrich their companies.  There are those who claimed to be research-based, who clearly had no understanding what good research was nor any intention to achieve it.  And, yes, there were some really good programs that got into the schools to further show their ability, those that could serve as lighthouses or meaningful examples of promising or best practice.
But how has the money actually been spent?  Over at EdWeek’s Curriculum Matters blog, Kathleen Manzo raises a disturbing point.  In more than six years, it seems no one at the U.S. Department of Education has bothered to collect data on how the LEAs actually spent the billions in RF dollars that made its way down to the localities.  <div><br></div><div>Manzo”>


Manzo points to the just-released Notice of Proposed Information Collection issued by ED, asking questions about whether data collection on RF is necessary.  Yes, such notices are required by the Office of Management and Budget of any government agency looking to collect data from more than nine or so folks.  So Eduflack isn’t so worried about the release of the notice.  I’m just heartbroken and frustrated by its timing.
Shouldn’t ED have been collecting this data from the start, gathering information after year one about how RF dollars are spent?  Shouldn’t knowing how dollars are spent be part of the determination of whether the program is effective?  Shouldn’t it be a given that when you’re issuing billions of dollars in checks, you expect to get detailed spending reports in return?
I’d like to believe this is just standard operating procedure, a necessary notice that is sent out at the close of any federal program.  I’d like to believe that such data as been collected annually since 2002, thinking as each SEA gets a new check, they hand over old data.  I’d like to believe such data was collected, in part, as part of the research done by OPEPD and IES.  I’d like to believe, yes, but I also know better.  Through all of the attacks, all of the IG investigations, of the defunding threats, no one in an official position has talked in any detail about how RF money has been effectively spent.  And I know it is a question Manzo and EdWeek have been asking for years, without getting any answers of substance.
Any education group that has received philanthropic support knows they need to account for dollars to their donor.  Just ask any organization in town that’s received money from the Gates Foundation.  They document how the money is spent, making sure it aligns with the goals and promises of the original application.  And then they detail how the spending has led to real, measurable results that demonstrate effectiveness.
If this Notice of Proposed Information Collection is what it seems — the first attempt to gather information on RF spending — someone needs to step up and accept responsibility for a monumental failure.  NCLB was the largest federal investment in public education in the history of the republic.  With such an investment should come the largest measure of accountability as well. 
If accountability is to be the legacy of NCLB, and if we are to expect all of our schools to ratchet up their levels of personal accountability, we owe it to every teacher, every publisher, every legislator, every parent, and every teacher to demonstrate similar accountability.  Ultimately, we can’t declare RF a success or a failure until we’ve accounted for how the money has been spent.  At the end of the day, fidelity is more than just a buzzword to measure teachers by.  It is a measure of our action and our spending.  Unfortunately, ED seems to have missed that lesson in Accountability 101 class.