Finally, An EdSec Nominee

After more than six weeks of handicapping, assessment, critique, and other such parlor games, we can finally see the plume of white smoke emitting from the Chicago chimney.  President-elect Barack Obama has selected Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan as his nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education.

With the choice, Obama selected a candidate who was acceptable to both the reformers (particularly the charter community) and the establishment (particularly the teachers unions).  He picked an urban superintendent with longevity, someone who has put in the sort of years that allow us to really look at the Chicago data and see the impact his leadership has had on student achievement over the last six or so years.  And he has likely picked the first and last EdSec who played in the Australian Basketball League.
What does it all mean, other than two of our largest urban districts (Los Angeles and Chicago) are now beginning searches in earnest for new superintendents?  Quite a lot, if you take a moment to think about it.
* Picking a superintendent, Obama has decided the focus of federal education policy for the next four years will be instruction.  And he recognizes that the challenges of urban educators — delivering high-quality instruction to low-income students from low-educated families with a mix of veteran and newbie teachers with and without the chops to lead urban classrooms — is priority number one.
* NCLB is not a dead duck.  Duncan has been an ongoing supporter of the federal law, calling for improvements along the way.  But he has long believed in the frameworks and the premise of the controversial law.  We may be back to the Miller/McKeon NCLB reauthorization language after all.
* Since Obama has selected the candidate who was anointed by the media and education pundits November 5, much thought has likely been put into who his supporting team is going to be.  Duncan is used to being a CEO, leading the organization.  Who is going to be his COO?  Who is going to be his Chief Strategy (or Policy) Officer?  The number Under and Deputy Secretary positions now become all the more important and all the more interesting.
* Charter schools are feeling pretty darned good about themselves this morning.  Duncan has effectively used charters in Chicago, doing so in a manner that supplemented — instead of supplanting — traditional public schools.  How does the Chicago model go to scale nationally?
* Afterschool leaders should also feel pretty good about things.  Chicago has built an impressive Outside-of-School-Time (OST) network, with Chicago Public Schools near the center.  And its done so by shifting from Clinton-era midnight basketball to instructional supports and curricular enhancements.  OST could become a federal issue.
Most importantly, though, Duncan’s selection ensures that the nation’s chief education officer is one who understands the plight today’s school districts are facing, particularly when it comes to funding.  Groups such as AASA (of which Duncan is a member) have already spoken to the need for federal assistance for instructional materials in the coming year.  Duncan knows all too well how district budgets are stretched and how funding is greatly needed to ensure teachers have the books, technology, materials, and PD necessary to effectively lead their classroom.  Duncan is now in a position to give those school districts voice when it comes potential school funding in the upcoming stimulus package and the FY2010 Labor/HHS/Education appropriations bill.
Of course, I just wouldn’t be Eduflack if I didn’t have a few ideas for Secretary Designate Duncan to consider as he plans his goals and objectives for 2009.  Yes, he will be following many of the ideas laid out by Obama during the campaign.  And I hope he will look at the recommendations put forward by many (including me) on what issues and ideas he should focus on.  But I’ll limit my recommendations to a top five list:
* Bring life back to Reading First.  We need a federal reading program committed to bringing research-proven instructional materials to the classroom, getting all kids reading at grade level.  Build on RF’s goals and objectives to launch a new program that is equitable and that gets the materials and PD into the classrooms that need it the most.  Our Title I schools, and their struggling readers, need it.  Let’s learn from the implementation failures and do it right this time.  Don’t punish the kids and teachers for bureaucratic failures.
* Raise the profile of STEM education.  It provides you a real opportunity to link K-12 education improvements to our national economy and our workforce needs.  Let’s make sure the resources are getting into the classrooms to equip kids with the skills and knowledge they need to compete, both on exams and in the real world.
* Call for national education standards.  We have growing support for them, and states are now adopting a common standard to measure high school graduation rates.  We only bring true equity to the public schools when all kids are measured by the same yardstick and all schools have the same expectations, regardless of income or state boards.
* Improve your communications and outreach effort.  ED needs to get proactive, and it needs to get interactive.  Instead of just informing, let’s use communications to drive key stakeholders to action.  Let’s build relationships.  Let’s build ED 2.0.  Let’s use the tools that propelled the campaign to propel school improvement at the federal level.
* Seize the bully pulpit.  You need to spend the next year getting out around the country, talking with educators and parents, demonstrating that you understand their needs and concerns.  We won’t have a lot of new money to play with.  So now is the time to win over the hearts and minds of key stakeholders.  Get their support now, then you can go in for the funding increases in FY2011.  Now is about public engagement and demonstrating you will provide the education leadership we so desperately in search of.
Don’t worry about NCLB. That will happen, and it will be driven by Congressman Miller and Senator Kennedy.  Let them drive that train.  You need to focus on getting resources to our school districts and our states.  You need to focus on boosting student achievement and closing the achievement gap.  You need to focus on improvement.  That’s a lot, but it is all necessary.  Let’s just chalk it out like a basketball game.  We have four quarters here.  We stay competitive early on, find our shots, identify our hot shooters, and play until the buzzer.  Now you get to both coach and run point.

Reform Vs. Improvement, 2009 Edition

For the past few weeks, the crystal ball gazers waiting to see who is tapped for EdSec have been all a twitter about how the choice will serve as the white smoke as to whether the Obama Administration is the status quo or a reformer when it comes to education.  Will reformers (whether they be Democrats for Education Reform or advocates for new ideas such as Teach for America or New Leaders for New Schools) be given the keys to Maryland Avenue?  Or will the old guard (be it the teachers unions or old-school researchers and academics) be given the power to lead?

It is no secret that Eduflack is no fan of the status quo.  Those that are unable or unwilling to change bear ultimate responsibility for 40 percent of today’s fourth graders being unable to read at grade level, they bear responsibility for two thirds of today’s ninth graders failing to earn a college degree.  And they bear responsibility for too few effective teachers in far too many classrooms, particularly the urban and low-income classrooms that needs good teachers the most.
In recent years, though, we have used the term reform as a form a shorthand to describe a few key issues.  Reform is charter schools.  Reform is vouchers.  Reform is school choice.  Reform is alternative certification.  In essence, reform is a particular education intervention, designed to improve access, opportunity, reach, and quality of public education.  Reforms are important, yes.  And I haven’t been shy to advocate for key reforms, particularly charter schools, virtual education, and the like.  But at the end of the day, reform is but a process.  It is an input.  Important, yes, but not as important as the ultimate output.
Instead of talking about reforms and inputs, shouldn’t our focus be on improvement?  Shouldn’t the discussion about the next EdSec and the next list of marching orders for ED be a debate between the status quo and real school improvement?  Shouldn’t it be about whether we continue down to same path, or whether we identify and pursue a better path?
I realize this may be a matter of semantics, and that many of those who talk about education reform are meaning to talk about school improvement.  But from the discussions over the past few years, it is high time for us to drop the term “reform” from our educational vocabularies.  It is overused and has lost most meaning.  (That’s why many have already shifted from reform to innovation.)  We should be talking about improvements — improvements for the schools, improvements for the teachers, and improvements for the students.  Reform gives the impression we are acting for acting’s sake.  Improvement is about results and ROI.
So what does this all mean?  First and foremost, I would say we don’t need any additional reforms, we need real improvements.  When we look at the policy positions of the President-elect and the rhetoric coming out of the Senate HELP Committee Chairman’s office, we know that such improvement starts with the teacher.  We know that the best instructional ideas fall flat without an effective educator leading the classroom.  We have clear and uncontroverted evidence of what good teaching is and of effective pre-service and in-service teacher education.  You invest in the teacher — providing them the training, instructional materials and ongoing supports they need to do their job effectively — you see the results in terms of student achievement.
When we talk about current reform efforts — be it TFA, NLNS, KIPP, Green Dot, or others — they all hold similar characteristics.  They all start with the importance of caring educators and quality teaching.  They pledge a commitment to ongoing, job-embedded PD opportunities.  They provide educators the materials and technology they need to do the job.  They empower educators by giving them data and teaching them how to effectively use data to deliver needed interventions for kids.  And they are focused on more than just education reform, they are all committed to improvement, as measured by student achievement and school success.
A recent New Yorker article highlighted the research of Stanford/Hoover researcher Rick Hanushek on effective teaching.  The data is simple, yet illuminating.  Quality teaching trumps all.  Kids have a better chance of success with great teachers in lousy schools than they do with mediocre or bad teachers in great schools.  (Sorry for oversimplifying your research, Rick, but that’s this layman’s interpretation.)
From his work at Hoover and Koret, and his training as an economist, Hanushek is seen as a leading researcher for the “reform” side of the education debate.  But how different is his bottom line of the importance of high-quality, effective teachers than the decades of work developed by fellow Stanford-ite Linda Darling-Hammond?  They may come at it from different angles, they may define effective teaching differently, but they both recognize that school improvement begins and ends with highly qualified, effective, supported teachers.
Our schools need improvement, and improvement begins with the teacher.  The status quoers are those who say that today’s teachers are better than any generation of teachers before them.  The status quoers are those who say that schools of education and in-service PD is the best it can be.  The status quoers are those who say the current outputs of our K-12 teachers (whether it be measured by “high-stakes tests or other quantitative or qualitative measures) are sufficient, and don’t require improvement.  The status quoers are those who don’t see the need for President-elect Obama’s call for major investment in the recruitment, retention, and support of the 21st century teacher.
Yes, there are ideological differences on how we can build and support a better teacher, including the pedagogical needs of new and veteran teachers, the ongoing, embedded PD teachers needs throughout the year, and the better understanding and implementation of data in the classroom.   But improving teaching is improving education.  Clear and simple.
We should be talking about how we are going to improve teaching and improve education, not whether we will or not.  Perhaps the selection of an EdSec redirects the debate for the positive.  Regardless, we need to be focusing on improvements, and not on personalities and personal agendas.  Has it really been almost two years since the NCLB Commission called for a greater focus on “effective” teachers?  Has it really been a year since a bi-partisan group of U.S. Senators called for adding “effective” to the HQT provisions?  How much longer does it have to be before we really invest in quality, effective teaching, aligning federal policy and Title II with outcomes and ROI?  That should be the reformers’ dream come true.
    

Technology in Education — Does It Work?

In keeping with Eduflack’s ongoing discussion of technology in the classroom, following is a guest post from Kelly Kilpatrick.

Schools
and colleges have undergone a sea of change from the days when I was a regular
at both. And lest you think that I’m as old as Methuselah, let me stress that I
graduated just a couple of years ago, which means that there’s been a rapid
change in a short span of time. Technology and the way it’s being leveraged in
schools is a major debating point with both pundits and laymen alike – neither
is sure if it’s a boon or a bane in the classroom. 

Take
the controversy surrounding the introduction of laptops for every child in
school – some condemned this move arguing that it would distract children from
their lessons, that they would be immersed in the world of video games and the
Internet and forget what they were in school for; others claimed that by
denying children this opportunity to explore and learn for themselves, without relying
too much on teachers and facilitators, we are setting them back in their
academic pursuit.

The
thing with technology is that it works wonders as long as the child is
interested in learning and is not easily distracted by other pastimes. Some
argue that interest is born when technology is involved, that when there are
more interesting aspects to school than just books and teachers, kids show a
keenness for learning that was never there before. But is it interest in the
technology itself or an interest for the subject that the technology allows
access to? Can we make this distinction to the advantage of the child?

Another
question that crops up with relevance to education and technology is – Does
reliance on technology make us more stupid in the long run? With the advent of
calculators, we’ve forgotten how to do mental mathematics; with the
introduction of mobile phones and storage memories, we’ve forgotten how to
remember and recollect phone numbers; and with the advent of social networking,
we’re all hiding behind screen personas that we work so hard creating that
we’ve forgotten who we really are.

What
then, does this mean for the future of technology? Are we to eschew it
altogether simply because it makes our brains lazy and prevents us from
thinking for ourselves? Or should we say to hell with the consequences and let
the march of the machines continue unchecked into every aspect of our daily
lives? The truth is, we’re not forced to choose either extreme – there’s a
middle ground that’s totally acceptable with the way things are today.

Technology
must be used as an aid to education and nothing more – the trick lies in
knowing where to draw the line between using it as an application and as an
addiction. And when students are able to make this distinction for themselves,
only then will technology truly contribute to our learning experience. 




(This
post was contributed by Kelly Kilpatrick, who writes on the subject of an
online university. It represents Kelly’s opinions, and she invites
your feedback at kellykilpatrick24@gmail.com.)


NCLB Reauthorization — It’s Baaack!

To paraphrase the Godfather, just when we thought it was done, he goes and brings it back to life.  For the past year or so, just about anybody who is anybody had written off No Child Left Behind.  We assumed the law was dead, and we figured that ESEA reauthorization would occur in 2010 at the earliest.  But then U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy strikes.  According to today’s Politico, Kennedy has added NCLB reauthorization to his wish list (thanks to the FritzWire for spotlighting the news story.)

According to Politico, the senior senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts wants to use NCLB reauthorization to focus on three key issues:
* Closing the student-teacher achievement gap
* Encouraging parents to get involved in schools
* Amending the legislation’s one-size-fits-all approach to low-performance schools
This should be welcome news to education reformers and agitators throughout the nation.  Instead of pressing for the status quo and looking to roll back the calendars eight or so years, Kennedy is hoping to use his perch as chairman of the Senate HELP Committee to focus on key issues facing our schools.  How so?
First, he is directing our attention to the achievement gap, and not merely student achievement.  We talk about every child succeeding and every child succeeding.  But in state proficiency exam after exam, we see that minority and low-income students are still underperforming the state average.  In our push for overall student achievement, we believed a rising tide would raise all boats.  Today, we see that there is still much work to be done, particularly to get many students into the boats in the first place.  Greater attention to the achievement gap — both for students and for teachers — is a key component to meaningful school improvement.
More importantly, he is placing the spotlight on parents, just as President-elect Obama did during the campaign.  If Kennedy can accomplish just this task, he will make a major contribution to school improvement.  For too long, we left it to the schools and the teachers to fix the problem.  We neglected the fact that parents (or families) are the first and strongest teachers we have.  Learning happens at home just as frequently as it does at school.  And increased parental involvement in the classroom results in improved student success.  Last month, Eduflack called for the establishment of an Office of Family Engagement in the U.S. Department of Education.  Hopefully, Kennedy can help move that forward, helping ED systematize how we engage parents, how we empower them in the education process, and how we use them to help improve instructional quality and outcomes in all our schools.
As Kennedy looks at his NCLB priorities for 2009, I would ask him to consider two others as well:
* We need a Reading First 2.0.  We need a federal program that continues to invest in proven reading instruction, getting best practices into the hands of teachers and providing our students the reading interventions needed to succeed.  Literacy has long been a national education priority.  That should not stop, even if RF’s implementation was problematic.  Kennedy is just the leader to take the best from our Reading First experience and build a better program that delivers resources, technical assistance, and leadership to the schools that need it most.  It is key to closing that achievement gap he is so concerned with.
* We need an economic stimulus package for our schools.  Building bridges, erecting buildings, and even constructing schools are important to the future of our country and the current of our economy.  But new school buildings alone will not improve public education in the United States.  Too many districts, particularly those serving low-income students, are facing grim budget realities.  Budget freezes are passé.  We’re now moving into major budget cuts for K-12 at the state and local level.  The federal government must fill the gaps.  If we can step in to save the auto industry, we can also step in to save our schools.  That only happens when we dedicate specific resources to fund the books, the technology, and the professional development that now face the budgetary chopping blocks.  No superintendent should have to choose between textbooks and lights for his schools.  As our school-age population grows larger, and our expectations grow higher, we need to ensure our schools have the fiscal resources to provide ALL students the materials they need to learn, to achieve, and to succeed.
I don’t know about others, but I’m looking forward to an NCLB reauthorizations scuffle in 2009.  Movement is always better than inertia.  By keeping these issues at the front of the public debate, Kennedy ensures that education improvement efforts continue to move, taking a backseat to no domestic policy issue.

The Impact of Illinois Politics on Duncan’s Candidacy?

With yesterday’s arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich for an alleged “pay-to-play” scheme to fill President-elect Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat, one has to wonder about the larger implications on Obama’s remaining Cabinet appointments.  The history of ethics in Chicago politics is legendary.  Blagojevich’s alleged exploits are the latest chapter, perhaps a little more brazen and little more offensive than some of those that came before him.  But it reminds us of the Chicago of old, and makes us wonder what the Illinois governor and his chief of staff may have been up to in the past.

So what does all of this have to do with education?  This unfortunate media attention on the future of Obama’s Senate seat begs one simple question — wither Arnie Duncan?  Don’t get Eduflack wrong.  The Chicago Public Schools Superintendent isn’t within a country mile of any of this, nor has he faced any ethics issues in the past.  But he runs the real risk of guilt by association.  He, unfortunately, gets partially tagged by corrupt governors and a history of corrupt city officials and the Chicago machine.
Is it fair?  Of course not.  But one has to assume that a Chicago appointment to the presidential cabinet, at this stage of the game, will cause some to go looking for a invisible quid pro quo.  Completely unjustified and unfair, yes, but that’s politics.  At the end of the day, it may be easier to avoid the choice than to have confirmation or media questions about Duncan’s specific relationship with the governor, past discussions with his staff, and what may or may not have been asked for along the way.
Last week, The New York Times and The Washington Post both raised the ante on selecting an EdSec, and we continue to wait to see even the faintest of whiffs of white smoke regarding current thinking.  How will the Blagojevich situation affect Duncan’s chances?  Only time will tell.  Hopefully, Duncan’s candidacy will be determined based solely on the merits and on his ability to manage a large federal agency, instigate and lead school improvement efforts, and master the bully pulpit for school change.  
But the political practicalities open the field a little more widely for other candidates.  SC Education Commissioner Inez Tannenbaum’s stock seems to be on the rise.  The possibility of former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus is coming up strong on the outside.  Despite popular opinion, Eduflack would still like to believe that NC Gov. Mike Easley is the darkhorse (and the best candidate).  Eduflack has heard Penn State University President Graham Spanier is under serious consideration.  And we still have the list of expecteds (Joel Klein and Linda Darling-Hammond tops among them).  Regardless, now is the time for a selection for EdSec.  We need to know who is taking charge of those little red schoolhouses (or what remains of them) down on Maryland Avenue.
 

A TIMSS-tastrophe?

Eduflack has been a broken record when it comes to the need to equip all students with the knowledge and skills they need to achieve in the 21st century.  We know all kids will need higher-level math, science, and technology skills if they are to hold good jobs a year or a decade from now.  And we’ve put the impetus on our K-12 system to provide the instruction relevant to today’s economy and to tomorrow’s opportunities.

In many states across the nation, specific STEM (science-tech-engineering-math) programs are just getting off the ground.  Forward-minded states are laying the necessary frameworks to establish statewide STEM education strategies, building real, relevant instructional programs for our K-12 and higher education systems.  But from today’s data, we clearly aren’t moving fast enough.
Today, NCES released “Highlights from TIMSS: 2007,” revealing the data of U.S. student achievement in math and the sciences.  The lowlights:
* Only 10 percent of fourth graders and 6 percent of eighth graders scored at or above the advanced international benchmark for math.  Our fourth graders were outperformed by fourth graders in such educational leadership nations such as Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation.  Our eighth graders couldn’t measure up to heavyweights such as Russia and Hungary.
* The average science score for both fourth and eighth graders hasn’t increased since 1995.
* Of the 35 countries participating in TIMSS, our eighth graders were outperformed by seven countries in math and six in science.
What does it all mean?  When it comes to math and science performance, the United States is quickly becoming a textbook case for mediocrity.  There was a time when countries like Kazakhstan and Hungary aspired to just get closer to us, now they are outperforming us.  There was a time when we offered the gold standard in science and math education, now we are fortunate to be competing in the top 25 percent.
It is no surprise that NCES and the U.S. Department of Education are trying to put a positive face on this disappointing data.  At a time when we promised every student would be math and science proficient within the decade, we are heaping praise on statistically insignificant gains on math scores (against ourselves from 12 years previous) and merely holding our own on science.  We’re treading water, and we’re doing a damned fine job at it!
It’s nice to live in such a world, but the data just doesn’t live up to the real world our kids are facing.  We know we need dramatic increases in math and science achievement, but the numbers just don’t show it.  We know our kids need stronger math and science ability, but they just can’t demonstrate it.  We know STEM is the path to success, yet we are only slowly moving toward its reality.
How do we learn from the TIMSS data?  We need to focus on five key ideas:
* Ensuring that all schools, particularly those in at-risk communities, have qualified, effective math, science, and technology teachers … and those teachers have the instructional materials and professional development they need to succeed
* Rapidly ramp up statewide STEM initiatives that affect all students, in grades kindergarten through high school, looking at Minnesota, Colorado, and Pennsylvania as models
* Better connecting K-12 and higher education, tapping into quality instruction, quality course offerings, and long-term pathways of learning
* Exploring more ways to get mid-careers in the classroom, moving those from the science professions into science instruction (particularly in the middle and secondary grades)
* Providing all classrooms with the instructional materials, technology, and access they need to effectively learn, whether it be through textbooks, virtual instruction, internships, and real-life engagements.
The task before us is whether we take these TIMSS results, act on them, and build from them or whether we simply put this report on a shelf and move on to the next issue.  For the sake today’s students, we desperately need to focus on the former.  Unfortunately, we historically have spent too much time on the latter.  
These results should be a call to arms for the education community.  We shouldn’t be satisfied with the outcomes, and we shouldn’t settle for mediocrity.  We have a lot of work to do if we are to pass by those kids from Hungary and Kazakhstan and start competing with the likes of Hong Kong and Japan.  

Her Name is Rio …

In recent weeks, we’ve spent a great deal of time talking about economic stimuli, bailouts, and investing in the future.  We talk about what is necessary to compete in the 21st century workforce, what skills our kids need to acquire to compete, and how we as a nation stack up against other nations.  We look at our major industries, wondering which will thrive and which will still just exist a decade or two from now.

Lost in the urgent needs of addressing the very real economic crises of the past few months are the urgent needs of meeting the workforce demands of the next decade.  Are our schools preparing students for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century?  Are we offering the skills students need to compete, both locally and globally?  Do students and families even understand that the jobs of today may no longer be around next year, let alone come graduation day?
So in this discussion of stimulus and reconstruction, how do we ensure that our current K-12 systems are re-skilling to meet the needs of our economy?  How do we ensure that public education does not merely operate in a vacuum, and that it is relevant to the to the economic and community needs of our nation.
Over at The Washington Post, Joshua Partlow writes about specific steps taken to equip today’s students, the future workforce, with the skills and knowledgebase they need to succeed.  How business is stepping in to provide technical and career-focused instruction so students can capitalize on the opportunities of tomorrow.  The wrinkle — Partlow is writing about recent developments in Brazil, not in the United States.  The full story can be found at: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/08/AR2008120803747.html?hpid=topnews   It is a fascinating story, essentially positioning Brazil’s industry in the role of U.S. community college.
As we discuss what our nation is doing to bail out our businesses, shouldn’t we also be talking about what our businesses can do to better assist our K-12 systems?  We tell our kids that they cannot gain meaningful employment without a high school diploma and some form of public education.  Shouldn’t we better engage our local businesses to ensure that high school diploma is relevant and of value in the local economy?  Shouldn’t we better partner with industry to make courses more relevant and to show the pathways from K-12 education to interesting jobs and fascinating careers?  Should we see these public-private partnerships as real partnerships when it comes to goals and instruction, and not just partnerships related to scoreboards and yearbook ads?
For years, Eduflack has taken flack for the belief that our K-12 (and postsecondary) systems bear responsibility for preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s workforce.  The concern I regularly hear is that our schools are not trade schools, they are not training programs.  They are intended, critics say, to provide a broad-based education, a liberal arts education, to get kids thinking and considering.  Once they complete those basics, then students can begin pursuing career paths.  Unfortunately, by then, it is usually too late.  Students lack the foundational courses and knowledge they need to pursue careers.  They lose opportunities to use their high school years to study relevant courses.  And they close off pathways before they even get a few steps down the road.
Actions like those taken by “mining giant” Vale in Brazil demonstrate that others are building a better mousetrap.  We know where our skill gaps are today.  We know where our skill gaps are going to be tomorrow.  Shouldn’t we have business and education working hand-in-hand to fill those gaps now, so we aren’t scrambling at the point of maximum urgency?
One of the reasons I advocate so strongly for STEM (science-tech-engineering-math) education is because STEM begins to answer that question. When we look at states that are doing good work in STEM education — such as Minnesota, Colorado, and Pennsylvania — they succeed because of three key reasons.  First, it is an integrated education effort that includes K-12 and higher education.  Second, it embraces the notion that STEM education is required learning for more than just future rocket scientists and brain surgeons, and that every single student benefits from being STEM literate.  And third, it brings together education and industry, ensuring that the business community sees its role and responsibility in educating a better student and preparing a better workforce.
At the end of the day, economic stimulus is about more than physical infrastructure.  It is about more than the roads and bridges and buildings we’ve been talking about.  Economic stimulus is also about the human infrastructure that serves as the true catalyst and the true engine driving the American economy.  It’s about equipping today’s students with the skills and knowledge they need to win and keep real jobs.  It’s about giving them a reason to take those roads and bridges.  It’s about instruction, skill building, and workforce readiness.  That’s the real hope, that’s the real opportunity, and that’s the real stimulus, both know and for the long term.
  

This Test Brought To You By …

We have all heard the stories of how classroom teachers are forced to supplement instructional materials on their own dime.  Every fall, office supply stores offer discounts for teachers, knowing that supplies are being funded directly from the pockets of educators (and not just from the school districts themselves).  According to the National Education Association, the average teacher spends $430 of their own hard-earned dollars for books and supplies for the students in their classrooms.

When Edu-mom was teaching high school English, Eduflack knew this ritual all too well.  Yes, there were the annual visits to the office supply stores for the basics.  But there were also the add-ons — the videos, the classroom sets of novels, out-of-pocket cash for student lunches, and even dollars for class trips and events.  For her, it was all a part of being a classroom teacher.  If she didn’t provide it, her students wouldn’t receive it.  If her students didn’t receive it, they weren’t getting the full education they deserved.  Providing every student full academic opportunity was far more important than the number of bills in her wallet (and the same could be said for many of her colleagues, particularly those in the English departments of those schools in New Mexico, West Virginia, Massachusetts, and DC in which she taught).
So we definitely have to give California high school teacher Tom Farber an A for creativity when it comes to meeting classroom costs.  In a move to cut costs, Rancho Bernardo Schools cut their teachers’ photocopy budget by nearly a third, to a little more than $300 a year per teacher.  Over a 10-month school year, that means $30 a month, or roughly 1,000 pages a month.  Calculate it out over six classes, and that means about 150 pages a month for tests, quizzes and handouts (or by my calculation, about five pages per student per month, based on average class sizes).
Farber realized $300 wouldn’t cut it, particularly for the AP students he was working with.  His copy bill would be more than $500 a year for the basics.  But rather than dip into his own pocket (which I am sure he is already doing for other classroom supplies), he came up with a novel idea — selling advertising on his quizzes and exams.  The full story is on the front page of today’s USA Today, courtesy of Greg Toppo and Janet Kornblum — www.usatoday.com/news/education/2008-12-01-test-ads_N.htm?loc=interstitialskip  
According to USA Today, Farber has already sold more than $350 in ad space, much of it to parents and local businesses.  These aren’t big print ads with photos and visuals and custom-designed logos.  Think more along the lines of inspirational quotes and simple “Sponsored by Eduflack, the leading voice in education reform communications.”  Minor mentions running along the footer of the photocopied material in question.
Some are up in arms about this, crying about commercialism in the schools and the corporatization of instruction.  But this isn’t requiring every AP English student to only show up to school in Nikes or declaring Coke the official beverage of chemistry students at Jefferson High School.  At the end of the day, this isn’t much different than the words of wisdom and inspirational messages sold in virtually every high school yearbook in virtually every public school across the nation.
No, Farber should not be attacked for his actions, he should be praised.  He realized his school couldn’t (or wouldn’t) meet the needs he had for instructional materials and supplies for his classes.  Rather than offer the bare minimum and complaining about the situation, he came up with a novel solution.  Now, his students get the study aids and preparatory materials they need to achieve on AP exams.
Could he have paid for it himself?  Of course.  But what other white-collar professions do we know that require employees to fund their own supplies (particularly since those supplies are going to others)?  Could he have asked students to pony up?  Of course.  But that sorta gets away from the notion of a free public education for all students.  What Farber did is no different than the public-private partnerships that we encourage in the schools on a daily basis.
The cryin’ shame here, of course, is that we aren’t providing our teachers the resources they need to do their jobs effectively.  The demands on today’s teachers are rising by the day.  We want higher student performance, smaller achievement gaps, higher grad rates, and larger college-going rates.  And we want it all in classes that are getting larger while teacher salaries are barely keeping up with inflation.  
It is offensive we expect public school teachers to pay out of their own pocket to photocopy tests or buy novels or other instructional materials.  It is equally wrong that we don’t provide the instructional materials we know are most effective, having to choose between replacing lost textbooks or paying for gasoline for the buses or electricity for the florescent bulbs in the halls.  
We know what it takes to effectively teach a child and have them succeed, both in school and in life.  If we are to empower teachers to provide that instruction, we need to give them the materials they need to succeed.  And if we don’t, we need to give them the flexibility to pursue “alternative” funding sources to get the job done.  If advertising is required to deliver effective instruction (particularly learning materials) then so be it.
 

The True Costs of College

Years ago, Eduflack attended a Lumina Foundation for Education conference on the cost of college.  Lumina’s Making Opportunity Affordable effort helped throw a spotlight on many of the costs associated with higher education, with effort calling on the education community at large to offer real solutions that could help address the concerns associated with the rising costs of college.


At the time, I was struck by one presentation in particular.  The head of a major public university got up to discuss what he was doing to reduce the cost of college.  His list of ideas was long, but all of them related to how to cut the cost of operating his institution.  He was discussing how best to reduce his overhead expenses, not the sticker price for students.  It was there that it truly struck me.  There was a disconnect between what is and what we hope for when it comes to higher education.

And I say this having been raised as a higher education brat.  My childhood was marked by my father’s rise up the higher education administration ladder, from dean to provost to president at three institutions (one private and two public).  I remember tuition costs and accessibility being an top concern for my father every step of the way, and I assumed that was the case for all college presidents … until listening to that one leader at Lumina’s MOA conference.  Working in higher education myself at the time, I was thumped upside the head that our organization was focused on scalability and ways to lower our own operating costs.  Student costs were an also-ran.

I’m reminded of this this morning, as USA Today offers its dueling opeds on the cost of college.  (http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2008/12/how-to-curb-col.html#more)  USA Today’s editors note that college tuition and fees have increased 439 percent since 1982-84.  Over the same period, healthcare costs increased 251 percent, consumer costs increased 106 percent, and household incomes increased just 147 percent.

Consider that.  College costs are increasing at three times the rate of household incomes.  Regardless of the current economic situation, it is no wonder that families are now gravely concerned about how they can afford to send their kids to college. Before last year, many a family was banking on home equity loans to complete the deal.  Not anymore.  And that $10K tuition the parents of today’s college-age students paid is now running $44K. 

As to be expected, the American Council on Education defends the current situation, attempting to heap praise on institutions of higher learning for instituting hiring freezes, stopping major construction projects, and restricting staff travel.  And, to be expected, they focus much of their attention of efforts to reduce institutional operating expenses. Again, little on the student, more on the institution.  blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2008/12/opposing-view-w.html  

It is not cheap to run a college or university. In most communities, they represent the largest or second largest employer in the region.  Utility costs are rising, as are costs related to recruiting and retaining top faculty.  Those institutions wishing to be ranked by US News and others have to boost fundraising and spending in order to stay competitive among their peer institutions. And then you have some experts who believe the cost of college is not high enough yet.  The demand is still too great.  As long as you are turning away 60 percent of interested customers, the thought process goes, the price point is still too low.  A ridiculous concept, yes, but one many an “expert” hold in explaining the rising costs of college.

So what is an IHE to do?  How do we move the discussion from one of operational budgets to one of cost to consumers?  How do we shift to sticker prices and actual costs to families?  How do we ensure that every students capable of doing postsecondary work can gain access to a college AND afford to attend?

I’m no expert, but this also isn’t my first rodeo.  I know this isn’t about increasing the thresholds for available student loans or making more grants and aid accessible.  This is about reducing operating budgets and passing the savings on the consumer — the student.  This is about maximizing existing resources and doing things a little differently.  This is about operating costs, but it is also about what you do with the savings after the fact.  How?
* Increased competition — Higher education is one of the most regulated industries in the United States.  Between state boards and regional accreditors, it is nearly impossible for new competition to enter the marketplace, even if that new competition is looking to meet unmet needs or offer specific degrees today’s students need. We need to take a closer look to what EdSec Spellings’ higher ed commission recommended when it comes to the accreditation process.  More choices, as long as they are quality choices, are better for the consumer.
* Off-hours operation — Colleges are run on the notion that we still operate in an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. world.  That leaves many college buildings empty for more than half the day, with lights on and HVAC running.  More attention should be spent on off-hours classes, offering evening and weekend sessions for students, particularly those students working full-time jobs to afford their full-time education.
* Virtual education — Many traditional colleges and universities are now offering virtual education options, in many cases charging more for online programs than they do for bricks-and-mortar learning.  Why?  Virtual options can serve more students at a lower price point. If students are motivated to study virtually, they cost savings should be passed on to them for not accessing the libraries, th
e student health centers, and the athletic facilities.  Virtual ed should be seen as a path to get more kids into college, not purely as a profit center for the institution.
* Faculty — If a student takes four years of classes taught by fully tenured professors or four years of courses offered by TAs, they pay the same tuition. When I was a student, I purposely selected my courses so I was learning from the best professors at the University of Virginia. If you are getting taught by teachers in training (TAs), shouldn’t there be cost savings?  I don’t mean to complicate things by offering a sliding scale tuition based on who is teaching, but it seems like a no-brainer.
* Low-interest programs — Too many institutions offer too many programs with little enrollment. Why?  Tradition.  We’ve always had a classics department or we’ve always taught Sandscrit or we’ve always provided students courses in the early learning styles of Mesopotamian farm animals.  Each of these low-interest programs requires faculty, administrative staff, and overhead costs.  Instead, let’s deliver the programs the people want.
* Remediation — The statistic is often thrown around that more than half of all college freshmen need to take remedial math or English upon entering their postsecondary institution.  Students need to leave high school prepared for college-level work.  It is the responsibility of our K-12 system, and not higher ed, to provide those skills.  The work, and the cost, should be borne by K-12 (and no, we shouldn’t just push it all on the community colleges).

Yes, I realize that most of these are again operational issues.  But these are big operational issues that IHEs across the nation are dealing with (or choosing not to).  Once we address such issues (and many others that I know are out there), we then move to phase two — passing the savings on to the student.  If colleges are making additional money by renting their dorms out to cheerleading camps during the summer, that savings should be passed on to the students renting those rooms during the academic year.  Does it really cost $600 a credit hour to deliver higher education at a private institution, or are we saddling students with the costs of unprofitable athletic programs or unused new facilities?  How much is too much to charge an out-of-state student to attend a public institution — 150 percent of the cost to educate them, 200 percent of the cost?  

At what point do we say we can do better with the resources we have?  At what point do we say it is unreasonable to charge an 18-year-old nearly $50,000 a year for four (or five or six) years to earn a BA?  At what point do we say it is unforgivable to saddle a 22-year-old with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt?

As luck would have it, tomorrow, Education Sector is hosting a forum on how colleges are using technology to make college more affordable for students.  www.educationsector.org/events/events_show.htm?doc_id=717088  Perhaps they’ll provide the answers so many are looking for.
Operational costs are important.  But the true cost of college is what the consumer is paying.  If we really expect every student today to go to college, if we demand postsecondary education in order to get a good job and participate in the 21st century workplace, then we have to do something about costs.  And I mean real, out-of-my-wallet costs.  Reducing overall operating expenditures so tuition rates simply increase 5.5 percent this year simply won’t cut it.