Tale of the Tape: Ending 2008 With a Huge Smile

As many of you know, Eduflack and Eduwife spent more than 13 months working to get our daughter Anna home from Guatemala.  After a great deal of red tape, frustration, bureaucratic snafus, and downright thoughtless actions by decisionmakers down south of the border, my little “Princesa” joined the family in Virginia in late October (about five months after we had hoped and planned).  Life hasn’t been the same since, and Anna couldn’t be more perfect.  The future governor and senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia, Anna Patricia Riccards is one of the most inquisitive, thoughtful, intelligent little girls on the planet.  She will truly be one of the great leaders and innovators of her time.

That was confirmed late yesterday, when she had her 15-month wellness visit with the pediatrician.  The numbers are in, and she is already outperforming her big brother.  Her weight (and she is a 21st century gal not afraid to talk about such things), 21 pounds and 8 ounces, putting her in the 30th percentile nationwide.  Her height, 31 inches, in the 60th percentile (whoda thunk Eduflack would have a tall child), and her head circumference is 17 3/4 inches, 25th percentile (meaning she has a future of fitting in every one-size-fits-all baseball cap (particularly those Mets caps), unlike her large-noggin’ daddy.
Everything is great.  Fantastic receptive speech in both English and Spanish.  Starting to use her words.  Walking up a storm, with nothing that can stop her.  She’s an independent woman, one who isn’t afraid to stand up for herself (even if her big brother may be playing a little too rough).  She’s everything we could ask for in a daughter, and we are fortunate beyond fortunate that our trek to get her home is over and we are now one big happy family.  Happy New Year, my Princesa!  Happy New Year Miggy!

Looking for a Chicago Education Miracle?

Eight years ago, the education community was all abuzz about the “Houston Miracle” and how then EdSec Rod Paige was going to take the magic that transformed the Houston Independent School District into a Broad Prize winner, federalize it into No Child Left Behind, and leave a path of school improvement and student achievement in its wake.

Nearly a decade later, we’re still waiting for some of that magic.  Chalk it up to poor implementation, increased criticism, a lack of faith, or even programs that didn’t work.  But those Texas improvements, carried out in theory with even more zeal by EdSec Margaret Spellings, are still a work in progress.  We still haven’t bottled what made HISD the success story it was in 2000-2001, and we likely never will.
Interestingly, we are not hearing the same claims about Chicago Public Schools and the real impact EdSec in-waiting Arne Duncan can have on our nation’s schools — until now.  Maria Glod’s piece in today’s Washington Post paints a picture of an urban school district of reform, innovation, and improvement.  Test scores up, achievement gaps closing, performance pay awarded.  The full story can be found here — www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/29/AR2008122902672.html?hpid=topnews  
Eduwonkette (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/eduwonkette/) has been telling a different story on Chicago and its data.  So have others on the blogsphere who look at the third-largest school district in the nation and wonder if it has come far enough and if it has accomplished enough to be sold as a success story.
Leading an urban school district is hard work.  The life expectancy for a schools superintendent is about three years.  Duncan has been there more than twice as long.  He’s worked with a strong union (the AFT affiliate in Chicago) and he’s managed to expand charter schools and implement a performance pay plan that seems to be working, at least according to WaPo.  And he’s mostly done it without drawing headlines for himself.
This past fall, Eduflack learned how strongly folks feel about NYC Public Schools and the alleged turnaround led by Chancellor Joel Klein.  I’ve remarked that the NYCDOE has demonstrated improvement.  Test scores are up.  Achievement gap is closing.  NYC kids are doing better against students upstate than they used to.  Such remarks brought a hail storm of attacks from those on the front lines in New York, those who believed that such statements were merely the PR work of a zealous schools chancellor.  Folks just didn’t want to believe that NYC schools and NYC schoolteachers had begun to turn the corner on student achievement.
The same could be said about Chicago.  Demonstrating eye-popping results in a school district of 400,000 is near impossible.  Incremental gains are the proof.  The case studies and stories offered by Glod and WaPo give us insight into the sorts of improvements Duncan and his team have brought to Chicago.  We know there is a lot more we need to learn about Duncan and Chicago.  But the data demonstrates an uptick.  And we all know that upward movement is better than downward.
But there is a larger issue here, one not raised during the Paige era and one that should be raised during the Duncan era.  The EdSec is not intended to be a superintendent in chief, the top supe in a nation of chief school officers.  He is meant to lead federal investment, policymaking, and thought leadership on education.  Yes, being a supe brings a unique perspective to that job, allowing very real experiences in boosting student achievement, closing the achievement gap, and negotiating collective bargaining agreements with teachers to educate and color one’s world view on education policy.  It demonstrates one understands the challenges facing today’s educators and today’s school leaders.  And it shows appreciation for practice and impact, and not just theory.
It is silly to think that Duncan is going to transform the nation into one larger version of Chicago Pubic Schools.  The CPS experience is helpful in showing us what Duncan thinks of issues like charter schools and performance pay.  It is useful in showing how well the incoming EdSec works with teachers, how much respect he shows them, and how much power he grants them in school improvement efforts.  And it helps determine whether he is an improver or a status quoer, whether he will go along with what has always been done or whether he will bring about real change for a real goal.
We shouldn’t be looking at Chicago test scores and ask how we replicate the experience nationwide.  Instead, we need to look at the innovations implemented by Duncan, the team he’s built, and the relationships he’s established with Chicago teachers, families, and community and business leaders and use all that information as a map for what is possible and where ED may head.  We look at the Chicago experience to measure Duncan’s character and set our expectations for the next four years.  

Hiding High School Graduation Standards?

In case you missed it (and you likely did, based on timing), the U.S. Department of Education finally released its non-regulatory guidance regarding a uniform national high school graduation rate.  Readers may recall that EdSec Spellings announced the federal government’s intent to adopt the four-year graduation rate established years ago by the National Governors Association, agreed to by all 50 states soon after, and adopted by many states already.  Well, on Christmas Eve’s Eve, ED decided to offer some of the specifics around the new grad rate.

The highlights, according to ED itself:
* Defines the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate, the extended-year adjusted cohort graduation rate, and the transitional graduation rates that are allowable until States must implement the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate
* Guides States in setting a single graduation rate goal and annual graduation rate targets
* Outlines requirements for reporting graduation rates
* Answers questions about how States include the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate and any extended-year adjusted cohort graduation rate in AYP determinations, including the use of disaggregated rates for student subgroups
* Explains how a State must revise its Consolidated State Application Accountability Workbook to include certain information and submit its revisions to the Department for technical assistance and peer review
* Clarifies the timeline for implementing the new graduation rate provisions, as well as the process for how a State that cannot meet the deadlines outlined in the final regulations may request, from the Secretary, an extension of time to meet the requirements.
Thanks to the FritzWire for drawing attention to the announcement.  The full non-regs can be found at: www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/guid/hsgrguidance.pdf
Don’t get Eduflack wrong.  I’m thrilled ED has gone and endorsed the NGA formula.  They should have done so years ago.  I also recognize that ED is using an awful lot of words and “non-regulatory” language to describe what should be a simple concept.  At the end of the day, the federal government is saying a high school graduation rate is measured based on how many ninth graders complete their secondary school education four years later.  Obvious exceptions are made for transfers and deaths and such, but high school is a four-year experience, and the measurement is a four-year yardstick.
No, what troubles me is the timing.  At no time in our nation’s history is a secondary (and some form of postsecondary) education as important and necessary as it is today.  Under virtually no circumstances should we say it is acceptable for any student to drop out of high school.  Dropping out simply is not a viable option.  This new formula is a big deal, with major implications for the states and for the nation.  We need an accurate count of how many kids are graduating high school on time (and then we need to determine why the rest are not).  So why dump it during a holiday week when no one is paying attention?
Years ago, Eduflack was doing crisis communications work for a manufacturing company.  We had a big story coming out, a story we didn’t want to see in print.  We couldn’t control the story, but we did have some control over the timing.  Through some creative issue management, the article ran in a major daily newspaper the Sunday following Thanksgiving.  Few read the story.  The issue was forgotten before the post-holiday work week had ramped up.  It died a quick death in the natural news cycle.  The lesson here — there are good times to release important news, and good times to bury news of concern.  Thirty-six hours before Christmas simply isn’t the time to garner the attention of the populace, or even just the education policy chattering class.
And that’s a cryin’ shame.  The move to establish a common high school graduation rate is an important step forward in the discussion of national standards and student equity.  It puts all high school schools on a level playing field, letting parents, policymakers, and decisionmakers truly see what schools are doing their jobs, where the true dropout factories are, and who is hiding behind a mound of disaggregated data.
I’ve been hard on the EdSec for sitting out much of 2008, shying away from the controversial issues and losing grasp of what could have been a positive legacy of education improvement for this Administration.  Her announcement earlier this year to embrace a universal high school graduation rate was a moment of strength and of power.  Unfortunately, the potential has again been squandered, lost amid a pile of Christmas wrappings and end-of-the-year lists of who’s hot and who’s not.  If this guidance couldn’t be released in early December, it should have been held for the new year.  It should have been released when education reporters were in the office, ed bloggers were updating their postings, and policy websites were getting their usual traffic.
A Christmas Eve’s Eve dump does a disservice to those states who have already adopted the universal grad rate, and paid the price because it dropped their numbers virtually overnight.  It does a disservice to those who have been fighting for high school improvement and for national performance standards.  And it does a disservice to ED and the EdSec, who again score well on intent but struggle with the execution.
Is it too much to ask for ED to maximize the bully pulpit it possesses?  Is it too much to think major policy issues and efforts to improve our schools deserve the spotlight, and not simply a midnight release as the last person turns out the lights over at Maryland Avenue?        

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From Under the Eduflack Tree

I admit it, Eduflack is a sucker for Christmas.  As a kid, I used to stay up all night, just waiting for Christmas morning to come.  Now, there is nothing I like more than giving gifts to the Edu-family.  Each year, I tend to go a little overboard, receiving more than my share of reprimands from Eduwife for my “generosity.”  This season is sure to be no different.

The good thing about the blogsphere is that words are (virtually) free.  So I can’t help but offer up a few virtual gifts or best wishes for the holidays for those who were good little boys and girls this past year.
To EdSec in-waiting Arne Duncan and the incoming U.S. Department of Education, an Office of Communications and Outreach that is proactive and engaging.  Now is the time to seize the bully pulpit, engage key stakeholders, and promote the need for school improvement and the avenues by which we achieve it.  That doesn’t get done through press conferences and reports.  Duncan and ED need to get innovative, using new communication vehicles, new communication channels, and new ideas to build an army of support for real, meaningful school improvement.
To the Institute of Education Sciences, a new director with a sharper mission about engaging practitioners and policymakers on research.  IES is meant to be the R&D arm of the U.S. Department of Education.  We don’t need more discussion between researchers, debating which ivory tower is more effective on which research issue.  IES should build a national dialogue on education research, committing itself to providing data (and how to use it) to the practitioners in the field.  Don’t settle for anything less than becoming the Consumer Reports or the Good Housekeeping seal for education research.
To DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, a velvet glove.  I appreciate her take-no-prisoners approach to improving education in our nation’s capital, and I applaud her willingness to buck the status quo and do whatever she sees necessary.  But she can’t neglect what she’ll be left with when the dust settles.  It is fine to demand more from your teachers.  But you need to treat them with general respect, rather than tagging them all as the lowest common denominator.  Win over the teachers (and the teachers union), and you’ll have the hearts and minds of the schools and the city itself.
To Randi Weingarten and the AFT, an unprecedented opportunity.  The Obama Administration has made clear that teachers — particularly their training, recruitment, and retention — is at the top of the education improvement wish list.  If that’s to happen, teachers need a clear, powerful voice to break through the white noise and effectively advocate for good teachers and good teaching.  AFT is nimble enough, reform-minded enough, and innovative enough to be that voice.  The coming year provides a unique opportunity to remind all stakeholders that there is no more important investment than that of effective classroom instruction.  And it all starts with the teacher.  Someone needs to give those teachers a voice during such a debate, and that someone is the AFT.  Seize the opportunity.
To the National Governors Association’s Dane Linn and his Education Division, the spotlight.  In many ways, NGA is the workhorse of education improvement organizations.  They are in the mix on most major issues.  They give and receive grants.  And they provide great intellectual leadership on key issues, including high school reform, STEM, literacy, national standards, and the like.  But they often get the backseat when it comes to media attention and recognition beyond those in the know.  Eduflack always favors the workhorse over the showhorse, but NGA has earned its ring of roses these days.
To the next education governor, a bold plan.  Virtually every governor declares him or herself as the next education governor.  Behind this rhetoric is often little follow through.  By now, we should realize that the truly great education improvements are not going to happen at the federal level.  They are going to occur at the state level, led by governors who see how improved P-20 education leads to improved economic opportunity.  Those governors who effectively connect educational pathways to economic prosperity will be the ones who persevere the current economic situation and leave a lasting mark on their schools.
To Kati Haycock and Education Trust, a continued drumbeat.  Many believe that EdTrust hitched its star onto No Child Left Behind, and that such a move would ultimately come with a price.  As we prepare to move into NCLB 2.0, reauthorization, and a new Administration, EdTrust is in the catbird seat when it comes to advocating for student achievement and school improvement.  Haycock and company have long focused on the end game of the students.  NCLB was a means for that.  It wasn’t an end to it.  Continue to keep an eye on the end result, and EdTrust will continue to drive this debate.
To the U.S. Congress, a reauthorized NCLB.  There is no need to put off what needs to be done now.  NCLB needs improvement.  Senator Kennedy, Congressman Miller, Congressman McKeon, and others have put forward ideas for improving the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  EdSec Designate Duncan wants a federal law of his own, one that reflects his goals and the priorities of the Obama Administration.  Let’s reauthorize the law now, proudly proclaiming a national commitment to improved student achievement, improved teaching, improved data collection, and the supports needed to deliver all of the above.
To STEM advocates, a moment in the spotlight.  Those who read Eduflack know I am a strong advocate for science-technology-engineering-math education efforts.  STEM is a complex topic with the potential for real impact on our schools and our economy.  It isn’t just for rocket scientists and brain surgeons.  As more and more states ramp up STEM efforts and more non-profits support STEM initiatives, I wish them the headlines and communication channels to ensure their good work gets the good attention it deserves.  Without the right advocacy and the right communications, the STEM star may soon burn out, before it has fulfilled its true potential.
To the education advocacy community, a better appreciation for effective communication.  For far too many, effective communication is a one-way activity, where we share information with others and hope they put it to use.  You’ve heard it hear before, but information-sharing is merely the first step to effective communication.  Our goal should not be to simply inform.  Our goal is to change thinking and change public behavior.  That means communications efforts that focus on stakeholder engagement and real measures of success. A clip packet is not a measure of effective communication.
To the education blog community, some ideas to go along with our rocks.  It is very easy to shout against the wind or to throw rocks against that which we don’t like.  Eduflack has been blogging for almost two years now, and I’m constantly amazed by the number of people who look to the education blogs for information and how ideas quickly circulate through education’s online community.  We need to use that power for good.  Yes, it is important to be a watchdog and to keep those in power in check.  But we also need to use these forums for good — for sharing information, offering up solutions, and spotlighting best practices and the good in school improvement.  I can promise you it’ll be one of my New Year’s resolutions.  I hope others will join me.
My scroll of gifts is curling over.  I hope stockings are filled for the advocates of scientifically based reading and early childhood education and ELL and national standards and real school innovations.  I hope the agitators and the improvers and t
he innovators receive the best of holiday tidings.  And I hope the status quoers see a guiding light this holiday season, recognizing that our schools need real improvement, and that we should stop at nothing until every fourth grader is reading at grade level, every student is graduating high school and is graduating college ready, and every teacher has the training and ongoing support necessary to deliver the high-quality education every student needs and deserves.  ‘Tis the season, after all.

Bringing International Standards to America’s Heartland

Almost a year ago, Eduflack’s New Year’s Resolutions included greater advocacy for national education standards.  Yes, I’m well aware of what the critics think of national standards.  I’m also quite sure of how difficult a task it is to push the standards rock up the status quo hill, particularly in a day and age when we are wary of testing in general and many are waiting to see what will become of the accountability standards in NCLB as wishes move to reauthorization, multiple measures, and a new look on federal education policy.

On Friday, though, the National Governors Association — along with CCSSO and Achieve — released an exciting new study, called the Common State Standards Initiative.  Michelle McNeil has the full story over at Education Week — www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/12/18/16nga.h28.html?r=581273233.  The report can be found over at NGA — <a href="http://www.nga.org/Files/pdf/0812BENCHMARKING.PDF.
What”>www.nga.org/Files/pdf/0812BENCHMARKING.PDF.
What do NGA, CCSSO, and Achieve call for?  Put simply, they want NAEP to be enhanced so we can see how students stack up both state to state and state to international standards.  Imagine that.  A common measure to see how U.S. students compare (both internally and externally) when it comes to reading, math, and science.  It’s like Christmas come early.
Those in Washington education policy circles recognize that such reports, though, are a dollar a dozen.  We seem to have weekly releases of studies, findings, and the like that we are certain will change public thinking, change public policy, and improve the world.  The majority of them — actually, virtually all of them — fail to live up to their promise.  They end up gathering dust on bookshelves or get filed electronically on a website, never to be read or heard from again.  Promise unfulfilled.
NGA and company have put forward a terrific idea, an idea worthy of discussion and a plan worthy of real action.  Recent TIMSS data, combined with relatively flat NAEP scores and report after report of states lowering their individual standards in order to show progress, all speak to the need for a core set of national standards our states and our nation can be held to.  NGA offers the blueprint to get us there, through the Common States Standards Initiative.  The challenge now is what is done with this report.
Often, common thinking is the work is done when the report is issued, the press conference is conducted, and the EdWeeks of the world release their coverage of the announcement.  In reality, the work for NGA and its cohort is now just beginning.  The challenge is taking this report and moving it to action.  Friday’s announcement is step one, the beginning of the information phase.  Now we move into the harder phases, the more interesting communications and advocacy work ahead.
Assuming key stakeholders and influencers were listening on Friday and are taking the time to peruse the benchmarking study, NGA must now move from the informing stage (which has really just begun, with Friday’s release) to building commitment for the solutions its laid out.  That construction has already begun, with CCSSO and Achieve flanking NGA on this issue.  Now NGA must enlist the endorsement of their governors.  Key superintendents must sign on as well.  And the incoming Administration must lend their voice to the idea of a common academic standard.
From there, NGA must move to mobilization.  If we seek to strengthen the NAEP, how do we do it?  What standards do we set?  How do we hold states accountable?  Who leads the changes to the exam?  What action steps to we take to ensure we measure up?  How do we ensure improvements to the standards, and not more “common denominator” approaches?  These are all questions we must ask.  The answers then drive us to action.  They show us the specific steps that the federal government, governors, superintendents, teachers, and national education policy organizations can take to trigger real change and real improvement.  They show us how to mobilize the stakeholders necessary to take action.  They offer us the blueprint to make real change and real improvement.  They move us from merely informing key parties on the need for international benchmarks to defined actions and activities to get us to our goals.
NGA has planted the flag in the ground.  It now falls to them, CCSSO, Achieve, and others to do what is necessary to move this report into action.  Information is a good thing, but action is necessary.  Let’s use the benchmarking report as a launching pad for the very real work necessary to improving academic standards and ensuring U.S. students measure up against their peers and against their international competitors.

Seeking Measurable School Improvement in the Buckeye State

We like to believe that the federal level is where all the action is when it comes to education improvement.  It’s easier to wrap our hands around, with one national policy to keep an eye on.  And it is cleaner when it comes to funding, as we just watch federal funding streams and an annual appropriations bill that has stayed relatively level-funded for much of the past few years.  In reality (as EdSec designee Arne Duncan will soon realize), the feds only account for about eight cents of every dollar spent in the classrooms.  The federal level may be the rhetorical brass ring, but the real action (especially these days) is happening at the state level.

Don’t believe Eduflack?  We all know we’re asking our schools to do more and more these days.  Close the achievement gap.  Make AYP.  Boost the grad rate.  Hire and retain effective teachers.  Collect and use meaningful data.  All is in a day’s work for our schools.  Our current economy is putting a major wrinkle in our plans to do more and achieve more.  According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 27 states have cut education because of the economic recession.  We’ve read about the 9 percent cut offered in Alabama.  We were disappointed by the hundreds of millions of K-12 cuts proposed in our home state of Virginia.  We’re also seeing significant K-12 cuts either implemented or proposed in states such as California, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio, and New York.  These cuts are real, and our students will be feeling them.
These past few weeks, Eduflack has been paying particular attention to the state economic realities, particularly in Ohio.  The Buckeye State has a new state superintendent — Deborah Delisle, the former superintendent of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district.  Delisle doesn’t seem to be deterred by these budget issues, as least according to a new piece from Cathy Candisky and the Columbus Dispatch.  www.dispatchpolitics.com/live/content/local_news/stories/2008/12/19/copy/delisle.ART_ART_12-19-08_B9_93C9GRJ.html?adsec=politics&sid=101  Candisky depicts a real school improver in her piece, despite a possible $2 billion cut to public education in Ohio’s upcoming two-year budget.
What is Delisle focusing on?  Teacher quality, drop-out rates, and achievement gaps.  She’s looking at replacing the Ohio Graduation Test with a college entrance exam, recognizing that graduation is one thing, but having kids prepared for college is something completely different.  She wants mentoring programs and a highly-qualified teacher in every classroom.  She wants to boost student quantitative measures while maintaining (and we presume increasing) students’ general love for learning.  And she recognizes her battle lines are being drawn in her urban districts, the low-income, low-family-education centers just like those she just arrived from.
Why is this important?  What Ohio and Delisle face is really a microcosm for what we collectively must address.  Her agenda is remarkably similar to what EdSec in-waiting Duncan will likely announce and what the Obama campaign had laid out.  Her challenges are near identical to what other states — like Pennsylvania, Florida, New York, Georgia, Arizona, California, and others — must face.  And she is doing so in a budget scenario that would be considered doomsday by far too many chief state school officers.  Yet she is rising to the challenge and not backing down.  Delisle is spotlighting the need for communications and better sharing of information, and isn’t claiming that the absence of increased budgets will keep her from achieving her goals.  She really is looking to build a “world-class education system” in Ohio, and she’s offering no excuses to get there.  And as we know from our politics, as goes Ohio, so goes the nation.
Fortunately, Delisle is not doing it alone, and she’s got some real successes to build on.  Yesterday, KnowledgeWorks Foundation released data on its high school improvement efforts in Ohio, embodied in its Ohio High School Transformation Initiative (OHSTI) and Early College High School (ECHS) efforts.  Over the last six years, KnowledgeWorks (along with the Gates Foundation and others) has worked with some of Ohio’s most struggling high schools.  Working with more than 25,000 students and 2,000 teachers, KnowledgeWorks has some pretty impressive data to talk about.  The graduation rates in OHSTI high schools is up 31%.  The graduation gap in OHSTI schools, compared to all of Ohio high schools, closed by 77%.  89% of OHSTI sites reported an increase on math and reading pass rates on the OGT.  ECHS students earned more than 10,000 college credits, with ECHS 10th graders outperforming the state average on the OGT’s reading, writing, math, social studies, and science portions.  The full announcement can be found here — www.edworkspartners.org/pr121908.aspx  (Full disclosure, Eduflack has been working with KnowledgeWorks on this important initiative,)  
These are real results in schools that many would have given up on years ago.  These aren’t cherry-picked high schools or those with the resources to supplement and enhance at will.  These are urban schools in communities that have gotten poorer and have watched family education levels drop over the last five years.  So if it can happen in KnowledgeWorks schools, it can happen just about anywhere.  The OHSTI and ECHS effort gives Delisle and other state superintendents a clear blueprint on the multiple pathways available to improve our high schools, and how those improvements can both improve grad rates and provide postsecondary options to those who never envisioned it.  More importantly, it gives Delisle clear data that proves her state mission is achievable, assuming school districts follow the right path to improvement.  And she should know, her former district was part of the OHSTI network.  Who knows better?