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.    

Calling All Education Communicators

As many know, back in the fall, I launched a new online social community to bring together marketing communications professionals in the education sector.  With hundreds of members from across the country, Educommunicators (www.educommunicators.com) is now getting its sea legs under it, preparing for some real activities in 2009.

To help us start framing the right issues, we’ve issued an initial survey to better understand the needs and interests of education communications professionals.  I urge any and all to take the survey, through the link below.  Results will be announced after the start of the new year.
Check out the survey here:

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.

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. 

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.

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?

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.

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.

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. 

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.