Looking Ahead to 2009 Priorities

The holiday season and the end of a year usually triggers one of two behaviors in people.  The first is to be reflective on the last year, taking the time to evaluate our successes and failures.  Over at the Curriculum Matters blog (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/), Kathleen Manzo points out that is exactly what the U.S. Department of Education is doing, with EdSec Spellings and company offering up a swan song of NCLB highlights.  And while I share Manzo’s few that many will quibble with NCLB raising student achievement scores and closing the achievement gap, it is an important list to take a look at.

The second approach, though, is the one taken today by USA Today in its dueling editorials.  Focusing today’s debate on education, the nation’s newspaper offers four “low-cost ways to fix the schools.”  It is a great read, particularly since it is likely RIchard Whitmire’s swan song over at USA Today.  blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2008/12/our-view-on-edu.html#more  
For more than a month now, Eduflack has been pointing out that the new Obama-Duncan education team is not going to have buckets of new education dollars to play with.  They are going to need to re-allocate existing funds, restructure current programs, and ensure that today’s dollars are delivering real return on investment.  Along those lines, what does USA Today propose?
* Renew No Child Left Behind
* Target preschool money toward quality improvements
* Boost high-performing charter schools
* Extend accountability to higher education
It is an interesting wish list.  Senator Kennedy has called for NCLB reauthorization, and incoming EdSec Arne Duncan is on record as a fan of the law.  So it is safe to assume that reauthorization is coming, with some improvements to the existing law.  The reauthorization is likely to be revenue neutral, but it will redeclare our priorities for the coming years.  It is the strongest stick in Duncan’s upcoming rhetorical arsenal.
Preschool builds on a strong tenet of the Obama campaign, with his ongoing call to invest $10 billion in early childhood education.  Yes, the focus should be on quality.  And those quality improvements should be about academic enhancements and instructional building blocks.  If we really want to be bold, the first step should be moving Head Start (and its budget) from HHS over to ED.  Many states have started the universal preK push.  With state budgets now facing devastating cuts, the feds are going to need to fortify the dams on early childhood ed, ensuring that recent gains aren’t erased because of short-term cash crunches.  The long-term effects are just too important.  
And of course higher education needs greater accountability.  Not only should it be accountable to the government (federal and state) and regulatory bodies, but it should be truly accountable to its customers — the students — ensuring they have clear data on both how their tuition dollars are spent and the return on investment for them in the classroom and beyond.
The charter school piece is an interesting one.  We know charters are working in Chicago, and we know there are promising models — such as KIPP and Green Dot.  But if a Republican president and a Republican Congress weren’t able to redouble federal support for charters, do we expect it from a Democratic Congress?  Ideas such as Andy Rotherham’s reconstitution of OII may help move this idea forward incrementally, but charters are going to become a very “interesting” issue in the coming years, replacing vouchers as the line in the sand between reformers and status quoers.  And it is all going to come down to research and which side is the more effective advocate.
I would recommend a few other “low-cost ideas,” particularly those streams of thought that just ensure we are spending current money wisely.  The first is Title II.  This incoming Administration has declared 2009 as the unofficial year of the teacher.  We need to make sure that Title II dollars are going to effective professional development, that it is ongoing and job-embedded.  That PD is tied to classroom instruction and demonstrable student improvement.  That our teachers are getting the tools and knowledgebase they need to both meet growing expectations and truly succeed.  We need to make sure that teacher dollars are getting to actual teachers, and aren’t being used to fund bureaucracies or ineffective programs.
The second is research.  Lost in the last six months is the fate of the Institute for Education Sciences and where the U.S. Department of Education’s R&D arm is headed.  IES has a healthy budget.  It is invested in major projects like WWC that have promise, but need a lot of help.  If anything, IES needs a re-tooling.  It needs to better focus on the end user (decisionmakers and educators) and not worry so much about the research community.  It needs to translate the data so it is put into practice into the classroom.  It needs to inform instruction, and successfully communicate its findings and its recommendations to every public school and every classroom in the United States.  And that can be done under existing structure and existing resources.
Once he arrives at Maryland Avenue, Duncan is going to have to lay out a clear vision of where this EdSec is heading on a host of issues.  NCLB, early childhood education, and charter schools will be chief among them.  Many will look at how this K-12 educator will address issues of postsecondary education.  What will be interesting is what ELSE he focuses on.  What does he make a priority that isn’t on the radar?  Will it be research?  Will it be ELL?  Will it be non-IHE training programs?  Will it be family engagement?  Will it be STEM?  I’m hoping the answer is yes to all those questions, and those answers come with an integrated plan showing how they all tie together and how ED is going to build public and stakeholder support for each now, with a financial ask coming a year from now.  I can dream, can’t I?  It is Christmas time, after all.    

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