The Future of Education is in Transit?

When Eduflack first saw that the incoming CEO of the Chicago Public Schools is the current CTA president, I had two thoughts.  First, I wondered why I had the local Chicago teachers’ union name wrong, thinking they must have changed it to the Chicago Teachers Association.  And second, I thought how refreshing it would be, in this age of innovation, to tap a teacher leader as the new superintendent.

Then, of course, I actually read beyond the headline, seeing that Mayor Daley had selected the head of the Chicago Transit Authority to lead Chicago Public Schools.  How wrong I was on both counts.  The full story can be found here —,huberman-appointed-cps-chief-012709.article  
Now I’m not quite sure what to think.  In recent years, we’ve seen city leaders get creative in selecting superintendents.  The Broad Foundation is training a new generation of urban supes from the ranks of business and not-for-profits.  New York City tapped a lawyer and former U.S. Department of Justice official to head the NYC Department of Education.  Denver picked a former business leader and mayoral chief of staff for its top job (who has now moved on to become Colorado’s junior U.S. senator).  And Washington, DC selected a not-for-profit leader (albeit an education non-profit involved in teacher recruitment) to serve as its schools chancellor.  Such sea changes seemed to have worked for NYC and Denver, and we’ll know for sure in DC in another year or two.  In an age of school improvement, we’re all trying to think outside the box to find the best individuals to lead school transformation and improvement.  Sometimes, those individuals are found outside of the traditional K-12 environment.
We’ll all have to wait and see what Chicago’s Ron Huberman lays out as his platform and his agenda at CPS.  And we’ll need to see how much authority and input he truly provides Barbara Eason-Watkins, CPS’ chief education officer (and Duncan’s presumed successor, until the Huberman appointment).  But if the news reports are true, and Huberman’s priority number one is school security and safety procedures for team sports, it really raises an important issue of the role of urban superintendent and the priorities that come with the job.  And it shows just how important it is for non-educators to focus on the core academics when they take the top job.  NYC’s Klein and DC’s Rhee immediately focused on student achievement and taking whatever steps were necessary to boost student gains.  Denver’s Bennet went to work on teacher incentive pay.  Jumping into the educational deep end like Klein, Rhee, and Bennet did defines a superintendency and sets the tone for the school district moving forward.
Yes, it is important for a mayor to trust his superintendent.  Yes, school safety is a concern for just about every school district.  But can we really bring about school improvement and sustain progress on issues such as charter schools and alternative paths for principals and school closings and the like without the support and trust of the classroom teacher?  Will teachers line up behind a superintendent whose last experience in the public schools was likely when he graduated from high school?  Doesn’t a district like Chicago deserve a national search to bring in the best leader — from education or other ranks — available in the United States, whether they bear a Chicago zip code or not?  
As for the future of CPS’  school improvements, only time will tell.  The successes in NYC, Denver, and DC are likely the exceptions to the rule, and not the new norm for urban education.  I’m all for breaking the mold, but sometimes we have a mold because it is the best way to deliver the necessary product.  Yes, we have seen some cities choose non-traditional superintendents and thrive as a result.  No, one doesn’t have to have taught in a classroom to be a strong instructional leader.  Yes, we need to break the cycle of recycling the same school district leaders who seem to move from one city to the next, leaving little student achievement impact to show for it.  
But running an urban district is a complex challenge with little available learning curve.  We’ve heard so much lately about the academic progress being made in Chicago, and the instructional improvements being made across the city.  It just seems, when selecting a leader, that someone with familiarity with school funding, school choice, teacher professional development, instructional programs, student assessment, and such is more of a non-negotiable than merely a value-add.
I guess, at least, we can count on the CPS school buses running on schedule.

What’s Next for Federal Reading?

For decades now, the federal government has made teaching children to read a national priority.  Reading First is just the latest iteration of this commitment.  The Reading Excellence Act came before it, with other federal efforts before REA.  That’s why Eduflack is always surprised when he hears from reading advocates who are gravely concerned that federal investment in reading instruction will grind to a halt this year when RF ends.

Let’s be perfectly clear.  Reading First is dead.  There is no political will to continue this program, particularly with the baggage it carries.  RF has been tarred, feathered, and paraded through the town square as an example of poor government implementation and of questionable outcomes at best.  But that doesn’t mean the program, at least as it was originally envisioned in 2001, does not offer some strong instructional components upon which a better, stronger, more effective reading effort can be constructed.
To get us started, we need to drop Reading First from our vocabulary.  Call it “Yes We Can Read,” “And Reading For All,” “Literacy for America,” or anything else that will capture the hearts and minds of countless schools and families looking for literacy skills to improve their lots in life and close the achievement gaps in their schools.  (And while we are on the topic, no one in the Administration should utter the words No Child Left Behind or NCLB from this point forward.  That was the old regime.  As we focus on reauthorization and improving the law, let’s stick to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, until we come up with a stronger brand for our overall federal education policy.)
So how do we do it?  What are the core components of “Yes We Can Read” that redouble our national commitment to ensuring every student is equipped with the literacy skills to read at grade level, particularly by fourth grade?  How do we ensure that every child –regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or neighborhood — becomes a skilled, able reader?
Working from the strongest and best of RF — those components that have reading teachers, state RF directors, and a host of other stakeholders excited about reading instruction and certain that they are making the reading gains originally intended — we can build that better reading program by focusing on five key components:
1) Continue the commitment to scientifically based reading.  RF turned a new page on education research, how it is defined, and how it is applied.  It is important that any new education programs continue to rely on science as part of its policy.  We need to make sure we are doing what is proven effective.  If we expect to demonstrate return on investment, we must ensure our federal dollars are being spent on efforts that work.  That means demonstrating a strong scientific base.  We cannot lose sight of that.  But we must also broaden our view of that proven research base.  To date, we’ve been governing under rule of the National Reading Panel report.  That is a strong start.  But there is more to SBRR than just the NRP.  The National Research Council’s Reading Difficulties report, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Reading Next study, the AFT’s Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, and even the recent National Early Literacy Panel findings all contribute to the scientifically based reading base we must build upon.  If it is good, replicable research, we must include it into the equation.
2) We need to broaden our spectrum.  RF was built as an elementary school reading program, believing we could catch all kids and get them reading proficient by fourth grade.  Today, more than a third of our fourth graders are still reading below grade level.  We have millions of kids in danger of falling through the cracks.  Our federal reading program must be a P-12 reading initiative.  We need to start with the best of what was found in Early Reading First, ensuring our early childhood education efforts are empowering our students with early literacy skills.  We continue that through the elementary grades.  And then we move it through the middle grades and our secondary schools.  If reading is a lifelong pursuit, our federal reading efforts must continue across the educational continuum.  This is particularly true as we look to international benchmarks and state exit and graduation exams as the marks of success.
3) Federal dollars need to be focused on two key components — instructional materials and professional development.  We’ve wasted the past six years fighting over commercial products and which one of those is on a so-called golden list.  This is supposed to be about getting what is proven effective into the hands of good teachers.  The name on the box doesn’t matter.  We need to find a better way to make sure that good research is getting into the classroom.  Too many people took advantage of the intent of SBRR, selling research vapor and serving as 21st century RF profiteers.  Moving forward, it should be about content and proof, not branding.
We forget that 25 percent of the more than $1 billion spent on RF was intended for teacher professional development.   We also forget that effective instruction begins and ends with effective teaching.  Our teachers need to be empowered to improve literacy instruction in our schools.  They need to better understand the research and put it to use in their classrooms, using that knowledge to provide the specific interventions necessary to get all children reading.  We must recognize that such professional development should reach more than just the traditional ELA teacher in our elementary grades.  Every teacher across the continuum is, in essence, a reading teacher.  How do we help math and science and social studies teachers reinforce our reading priorities in their classrooms?  In many ways, research-based pre-service and in-service professional development is the single most important component to any future reading instruction effort.  We need to train, equip, and support our teachers in both the broader and the finer points of literacy.
4) We need to factor ELL and ESL into the equation.  At the end of the day, reading skills are reading skills, whether they are acquired in English or in your native Spanish, Hmong, or other language.  We teach all children to read, and then we convert those skills into English as needed.  With a growing immigrant population and school districts that are now home to 100+ native languages spoken in their hallways, we need to instill literacy skills in all students and then look for ways to transfer those skills to the English language.  Reading is reading.  Phonemic awareness and fluency and comprehension are universal, regardless of the language you may be starting in or what is spoken or read at home.
5) We need to better measure the impact of our efforts.  RF has been bottlenecked the past year over measures of efficacy.  The recent Institute of Education Sciences study on Reading First is seen by many as a repudiation of the program.  Unfortunately, it is not a study of SBRR, it is a study on the effectiveness of program spending.  As we’ve written about many times before, IES failed to take into account the issue of contamination, meaning that the study was built on the notion that only those schools receiving RF funds were implementing RF programs and SBRR, so we compared RF schools with non-RF schools to see the difference.  We know that to be a false comparison.  Publishers changed their textbooks to meet RF standards, and those new books were sold to all schools, not just RF schools.  PD programs were redeveloped to address RF expectations, and that PD was offered to all teachers, not just those in RF districts.  RF permeated all schools in the nation, whether they received a federal check or not.
A programmatic study, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (OPEPD) took this contamination issue into account, and its fall 2008 evaluation report identified real success in our federal reading initiative.
Regardless of one’s loyalties to IES or OPEPD, the next generation of federal reading needs to include clear measurements and clear assessment tools to identify our progress and determine true ROI.  How do we measure our success?  What tools, beyond the state exams, should be considered?  How do we quantify good reading PD?  How do we demonstrate that the good works performed by teachers, teacher educators, reading specialists, families, and CBOs is not for naught?  Good programs must be measured.  Great programs must be assessed, reviewed, improved, and strengthened over time.  
These five components provide us the foundations for a federal reading initiative that addresses the real-world needs of our classrooms today.  They recognize the need for federal funds, particularly at a time when state and local budgets are strained beyond belief.  They recognize the central role of the teacher, as an educator, researcher, and student.  And they recognize the ultimate end game we all are playing — to get every student reading proficient, ensuring they have the skills and abilities necessary to achieve in school and in society.
Even when we talk about 21st century skills or STEM skills, literacy remains key.  Nothing is possible if our students can’t read.  They can’t do advanced math.  They can’t study the sciences. They can’t explore our civilizations or our history.  They can’t even fully participate in the school chorus.  Reading is the heart and soul of the American public education system.  Now is the time to come together, tap available resources, and redouble our national commitment to getting each and every child to read.  It is the only way we close the achievement gap, boost student achievement, and improve graduation rates.  It all begins with reading.  And effective reading begins now.

Moving From One-Way PR to Two-Way Dialogue

How do we move from one-way communication to two-way dialogue?  And more importantly, do we need such dialogue if we are to make lasting education improvements?  Those are the questions that Eduflack asked this afternoon to attendees of the National Governors Association’s STEM Policy Academy here in Washington.

The NGA STEM Policy Academy is a fascinating gathering of stakeholders and influencers in statewide STEM policy.  A year and a half ago, NGA provided six states (Colorado, Hawaii, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) with two-year, Gates Foundation-funded grants to implement long-term STEM solutions in their communities.  This week, each state brought approximately 10 of their STEM leaders — representing the governors office, state departments of education, state departments of economic or workforce development, the business community, higher education, and K-12 — to share their lessons learned to date and help encourage and invigorate the states as they near their two-year reporting deadline.  (For more on NGA’s STEM efforts, check out  
The energy among the group is fantastic, particularly since so many of them are focused on the long-term (think 10 years) versus just the two years in the grant.  Yes, folks are conducting sustainability discussions, even in this economy.
It was heartening that the NGA STEM states are asking the right communications questions.  How does the governor use the bully pulpit to advocate for STEM when he or she is equally passionate about pursuing additional education and workforce development issues?  What is the overarching message? Who do they need to communicate to?  Who does the communicating?  How much communication is needed to succeed?
As Eduflack has written here many times before, one of the great misperceptions about effective communications is that it is simply one-way public relations.  Send out a press release, issue a report, distribute a brochure, and declare mission accomplished.  In reality, the mission is just beginning.  Such one-way communications are simply tools for informing, ways to raise awareness of a specific issue.  The real communications effort comes after the informing phase, as we look to build networks to effectively engage the community and then to mobilize those networks to bring about real change.
For these STEM states, and countless other states seeking education improvements, effective communications becomes a game of multiples.  Multiple stakeholders reaching multiple audiences with multiple messages and multiple tactics achieving multiple objectives and reaching multiple goals.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution.  There is no silver bullet.  It requires real, ongoing, integrated work.
Why is this game of multiples so important?  For a number of reasons.
1) Education reforms no longer happen in vacuums.  There are multiple players involved in the process. For STEM to succeed, policymakers must join together with K-12 and higher education and the business community, among others.
2) Education improvement is rapidly becoming a state-level game.  Don’t let the increased federal investment in education, as reflected in the economic stimulus package, fool you.  Much of that money is being distributed through block grants.  It falls to the states (the governors and the state departments of education, in particular) to put those funds to good use.  That means collaboration at the state level, both in government and through public/private partnerships.
3) It also means collaboration at the local level.  The majority of NGA STEM states are pursuing regional networks to implement policy.  These regional networks are taking state goals and state objectives, and implementing them through the lens of local realities.  With STEM, in particular, how are we using changes at the K-12 and postsecondary levels to meet the specific needs of local employers?  That’s the million-dollar (or more) question.
4) Effective STEM communications requires simplifying the complex.  STEM is a complicated issue, culminating in the intersection of K-12, higher education, workforce development, and community engagement.  Despite popular belief, all students benefit from STEM education, not just the future rocket scientists and brain surgeons.  And STEM literacy has an effect on the economy, the justice system, healthcare, and the environment, to name just a few.  Taking all of that and putting it on a bumper sticker is no easy task.  We need to keep it simple if it is to touch the lives of all it can and should reach.
5) Successful communication requires multiple touches.  The brain is a funny thing.  We need to hear the same message seven or eight times before it registers in our memory banks.  That means hearing about the impact of STEM from our employer, our kids’ teacher, our church, our neighbors, and our volunteer groups.  it means hearing why it is important from the student, the teacher, and the workforce perspective.  And it means hearing it in person, in print, online, and through public events.  Once we are sick of hearing the STEM message, it means it is finally sinking in and success is within reach.
The STEM states are making real progress in developing the policies necessary to move STEM into the core of our education and our economy.  Minnesota’s STEM website, Colorado’s STEM-apolooza, and Pennsylvania’s upcoming podcasts are strong tactics to move us toward successful communication.  The challenge now is wrapping it all together with long-term strategic communications. 
STEM efforts, like other education improvements, are only true successes when others know what we’ve done, why we’ve done it, and the impact it has on the stakeholders involved.  We need to know our return on investment.  it may be a bit crass, but if we don’t effectively “sell” our education improvements, they will never achieve their full purpose nor will the maximize their true opportunities.
NGA has long made communications a non-negotiable as part of its grant programs.  Strategic communications should be a non-negotiable in any school improvement effort.  it’s the only way to share best practice and to build upon the promise of our forward progress.  The STEM states are learning that.  And there is likely much they can teach others in the long term.

25 Things

By now, most have probably heard about the “25 Random Things About Me” effort that is circulating around the Internet.  It is essentially a modern-day chain letter, but one designed to provide greater insight about the people we deal with on a day-to-day basis.  The concept is simple, once you’re tagged, you are to reveal 25 random things about yourself.  You are also expected to “tag” 25″ colleagues on the Web to do the same about themselves.  An interesting concept, particularly if one believes that information is key to forward movement.

Although I was tagged on Facebook (and will be tagging back through the social networking forum), I thought I would share my list, giving readers a better sense of the unique personality behind this blog.  So without further ado, here are 25 random things about Eduflack:
1) I am the son of educators, and am reminded of it each and every day.  My mother was a high school English teacher (10th grade) and my father is a presidential historian, author of more than a half dozen books, and retired college president.
2) As a child, I grew up in six states and one foreign country (NY, NJ twice, MA, NM, WV, and Japan) as my father moved up the higher education administration ladder.
3) In 1984, I canvassed door-to-door for then-Senator Al Gore.  Did the same for Bill Clinton in the 1992 primaries, Bill Bradley in 2000 and Obama in 2008.  Somewhere in between Gore and Clinton, I went through a “Republican phase,” thanks in large part to Family Ties and Alex P. Keaton.
4) In high school, I was an International Science Fair Winner and the 1991 West Virginia Science and Engineering Fair Grand Prize Winner for a social/behavioral sciences project on the effects of verbal conditioning.
5) At the age of 21, I had the honor of serving as Managing Editor of The Cavalier Daily, one of the top collegiate newspapers in the nation.  At the University of Virginia’s CD (an independent newspaper, mind you) I managed a staff of 150 and turned out 16 pages or so of well-written news each and every day.  That meant 80-hour work weeks for no pay and no college credit for an entire year.
6) At the age of 22, I was named press secretary for U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the senior senator from West Virginia and the once and future chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.  One cannot describe how much I learned about government, politics, and community from Senator Byrd.
7) As a senior press aide to U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, I helped manage Bill’s retirement announcement in 1995.  That meant calls from everyone from Meet the Press to SportsCenter to Saturday Night Live.  George Magazine’s JFK Jr. even called me himself and provided me his cell number for an upcoming piece.
8) My greatest professional highlight was shepherding the National Reading Panel from infancy into the cornerstone of federal education policy.
9) My second greatest professional moment was helping Senator Bradley pass the “drive-through” deliveries bill, ensuring newborns and their mothers received at least two days of hospital care before being discharged.
10) My third greatest professional moment was stopping the U.S. Department of Treasury from allowing foreign companies to print U.S. currency paper.  Our dollars have been, are, and always should be printed by Crane & Co. in western Massachusetts.
11) I have written speeches and opeds for cabinet secretaries, U.S. senators, congressmen,and Fortune 500 CEOs.  There is no greater challenge and no better high than findings an individual’s “voice” for an effective speech.  A life goal is to write, just once, for the President of the United States.
12) Despite a career in politics and public relations, I am a classic introvert.
13) My wife, Jennifer, is the only true love of my life.  And I knew after our first date that I would one day marry her.  It took me two and a half months to convince her of that fact.
14) I am the proud father of two children, Michael and Anna.  Both are adopted from Guatemala, and they are full birth siblings born 17 months apart.  They are now the center of my universe and what drives me in all corners of my life.
15) I am a bit of a clothes horse.  When it comes to everyday wear, it is Tommy Bahama and Nat Nast.  When its professional time, I’m all about Italian suits and Brooks Brothers shirts (I know it isn’t the ideal mix, but it works for me).
16) I subscribe to nearly 20 magazines and publications, and read each and every one of them.  I even get USA Today delivered to my home.  And if I am spending the day in the office, I gather information from nearly 100 websites and blogs daily.  I have a long favorites list and use each and every one of them to stay on top of things.
17) I have owned four Ford Mustangs in my life.  A 1981 Mustang that was my first car, a 1966 Mustang sold to buy post-wedding furniture for our home, a 1998 Mustang, and my current 2006 school bus yellow Mustang convertible.
18) I desperately want to own a motorcycle, as my Teamster grandfather once did.  But my mother and wife have conspired against me to block that dream.
19) I am an eBay addict.
20) I am a rabid New York Mets fan, due in large part because my die-hard Yankee fan of a father took me to Mets games as a kid because it was easier and safer to go to into Queens than it was to go into the Bronx.
21) To badly paraphrase from Bull Durham, I believe in scientifically based education research, national education standards, 21st century skills, and strong, legitimate efforts to close the achievement gap and improve our schools.
22) My life dream is to move to a small town and run its local newspaper.  I recognize print is dying, but with a good advertising director, I’m certain I can make it a success. 
23) I am the oldest of three siblings.  One sister is an investigative attorney for the City of New York.  The other sister is a professional jazz singer in the city that never sleeps.  Although we come from the same stock, the three of us couldn’t be more different.
24) There is nothing I enjoy more than a terrific, high-quality pen (green or blue ink) writing on good, heavy cardstock.  I’m still searching for the ideal pen ( a 20-year pursuit), but the note cards from Levenger meet my paper requirement.  And I take all my notes on index cards, no notebooks or legal pads for me.
25) I have written Eduflack for just about two years now, and it continues to provide me true joy and professional satisfaction.  There is nothing more cathartic than writing about issues you care passionately about.
Of course, it was pointed out to me that I did not reveal anything terribly embarrassing, so I will go ahead and add an unnecessary 26th thing.  As a child, I had a horrible stutter, and hated anyone to hear.  It was only made worse by having a wicked bad Boston/New Jersey-blended accent (the result of our moves).  Terribly amusing now that I spend much of my time speaking for a living.

Turning Economic Lemons Into STEM Lemonade

Many were greatly surprised yesterday when Microsoft announced it was laying off 5,000 employees across the United States.  Microsoft is one of those companies that we have long viewed as invulnerable.  It was a company on a relatively upward trajectory from the start, weathering the dot-com bomb of 2000, the resurgence of Apple and the Mac, legal issues both home and in the European Union, and even trivial issues like the public rejection of its latest operating system.

So when layoffs were announced yesterday, it was a big statement.  Those who thought the economy had turned the corner and was ready for recovery are now reconsidering their optimism.  While the Microsoft downsizing is likely to have a lasting impact on the technology sector, it provides a real opportunity for public education.  Among those employees soon to depart the software giant are individuals expert in math, science, technology, and engineering, just the sort of content background and training our public schools — particularly our high schools — are in desperate need of.
For decades now, we have bemoaned the national shortage of qualified science and math teachers, particularly in our urban areas and in our secondary schools.  The current emphasis on 21st century skills and STEM education only amplifies the shortage.  In recent years, we’ve even added the need for “real life” experience to the discussion, believing that boosting student interest in math and the sciences is assisted by educators who are both teachers and practitioners.
Late last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (yes, the same Bill Gates who founded Microsoft and turned it into the economic giant it became) announced that human capital and strengthening our teacher pool was a priority.  Rightfully so.  Real, lasting education improvement begins with talented, effective teachers.  Without strong math and science teachers in our classrooms — those who understand the content, the pedagogy, and the real-life context — reforms are half-hearted at best.
So why can’t we bring together the Gates Foundation’s vision (and financial commitment) to strengthening and supporting teachers with a new pipeline of knowledgeable STEM practitioners and find a way to get those displaced workers (as well as those from other tech sector companies) out of the boardroom and into the classroom?  Why can’t we use everything we know about pre-service teacher training, necessary pedagogy, and mid-career teacher transitions and build a comprehensive STEM teacher training program that trains tech workers and connects they with communities and school districts in dire need of effective STEM educators?
Such an effort wouldn’t be a first.  Back in 2005, IBM announced it was transitioning a portion of its workforce into K-12 education.  They established relationships with institutions of higher education in key IBM communities to develop mid-career teacher training programs.  They applied the IBM training model to teacher development.  They looked to break new ground in mid-career transition.
Now we have an opportunity for the Gates Foundation, the National Math and Science Initiative, or a host of other organizations to come together and build a better mid-career transition mousetrap.  Yes, we would need to make sure the right workers are entering the program (not everyone is up to the challenge of teaching, and not everyone – no matter how much content knowledge they possess – can teach it).  Yes, we would need to ensure that any training program is research-based and deeply rooted in the pedagogy.  We can’t do drive-by teacher training.  And yes, we know that this doesn’t solve the larger issue of effective math and science teachers in every classroom, particularly those in our at-risk communities.  But it is a start, and a good one.
In STEM programs across the nation, states and school districts are seeking to achieve a number of goals.  First is to boost student interest in the STEM subjects.  Second is to get more students to take STEM classes and pursue STEM degrees.  Third is often how to get those with STEM degrees back into the classroom to teach in those schools where they gained their STEM passions.  These goals take time.  But getting top engineers and video game designers and mathematicians  into the classroom to display their personal passions each and every school day is a good start to building student interest.  With the proper trainings and support, they could become effective STEM teachers equipping a generation of students with the skills and knowledgebase they need to navigate our future challenges and opportunities. 
Now is the time turn some of those economic lemons and turning them into some STEM instruction lemonade.  And the Gates Foundation can do it by first taking care of its own.  Talk about win-win.

Improving College Readiness and Results

In keeping with Eduflack’s ongoing discussions of college readiness, following is a guest post from Holly McCarthy.

Over the years, the importance of a college education has
become more and more recognized by young people of a wide variety of
socioeconomic backgrounds.  With
the current economic situation, the importance of having lasting and pertinent
skills is something that is on the minds of many as they begin to map out their
futures.  Knowing the importance of
a college education is the first step; these young people must be prepared for
college, however, before they go off to school. 

Many entering freshmen are completely unprepared for the
rigors of academic life beyond public schooling.  While the reasons for this can be quite complicated, the
fact of the matter is that college preparation needs to be taught in schools, especially
when students are encouraged to go to college to earn a degree.  Something is being lost along the
way—kids are being told to go, but they are not taught what to do once they

Study Skills

One of the biggest problems many students face once they set
foot on campus is a lack of good study skills.  This problem adversely affects many aspects of the college
experience and puts these students at a disadvantage.  In high school, teachers often spend a great deal of time
explaining what will be on tests, handing out review sheets, etc., but spend
little time explaining that this kind of thing won’t be given out by most
college professors.

A good idea for rectifying this situation would be for
students to be gradually weaned off of these study guides and unambiguous study
sessions.  Learning how to figure
out what is going to be important and how to take notes and personally develop
study skills is something that shouldn’t have to be learned by being thrown to
the wolves in college.  Rather, students
should be given opportunities to learn and develop these skills over time in an
environment with fewer consequences and more chances for remediation.

Time Management

Another area where public schools fall far behind is teaching
students how to manage their time wisely. 
We live in a world that values results and productivity very
highly.  Advances in technology
have made many jobs obsolete and the expectations for employees continue to
increase as a result.  Time
management in college is something that can make or break a student’s career if
they are not careful.

Teaching students to take responsibility for projects and
reinforcing the importance of timelines and setting up achievable goals would
truly help students to learn how to effectively manage their time.  In most cases, high school students are
actually taking more courses per semester than they ultimately will in
college.  Showing them how to
effectively manage tasks such as reading large amounts of material, studying on
a schedule, and preparing papers and projects so that they don’t end up being
done at the last minute could mean the difference between success and failure. 

(This post was contributed by Holly McCarthy, who writes on the subject of online schools. It represents Holly’s opinions only, and she invites your feedback at   

Coming Together for School Improvement

Over the last month or so, a great deal has been written (and far more has been spoken and gossiped) about the wars between “education camps” and who is going to take the lead in the Obama Administration.  At Sunday’s National Urban Alliance gathering, the crowd heard from NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, AASA Chief Dan Domenech, and Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University professor and top Obama education advisor, on the need for coming together.  The message was a simple one, and it is one that all those seeking improvement in our public schools should take into account, particularly today when we swear in a new president.

What is that message?  Put simply:
* We are all committed to improving our public schools.
* In this process, nothing is more important than our children, ensuring all have access to high-quality education and high-quality teachers.
* Real improvement requires the participation of all parties.  Now is not the time to sit on the sidelines.
* Those committed to improving our public schools have far more in common than they realize.  Those commonalities are what will drive the agenda for the next four years.
Feeding from the energy, commitment, and passion demonstrated by the overpacked room at the NUA event, I would add a few additional messages for consideration in our quest toward school improvement:
* Lasting improvement begins with the teacher.  That means training qualified and effective teachers, supporting their ongoing development once they are in the classroom, and ensuring they have the materials and supports necessary to lead and inspire in their classroom.
* True success requires building on the promising practices of the past.  What can we do to improve and strengthen NCLB?  How do we preserve the good of the past eight years in moving us to the great of the next eight?
* We are learning, and teaching, across a continuum.  Our focus should not be limited to fourth through eighth grades, as NCLB’s accountability measures focus.  Learning begins in preK, and extends through secondary school and beyond.  We must invest and attend to the full continuum, particularly those who may have fallen through the cracks in recent years, entering the middle or secondary grades without the core skills or abilities they need to succeed.
* We must continue to challenge one another to get lasting improvement.  There is no magic bullet or quick path here.  It takes hard work.  That means challenging conventional wisdom and engaging with a wide range of perspectives to get to the best, most effective path possible.
* The achievement gap should be priority number one.  Education is a civil right, as so many have articulated, it also is a non-negotiable.  If we are to give every student access to the American dream — regardless of the state of the economy — we must first make sure that access to quality education (and the equitability of such programs, whether they be offered in urban, suburban, or rural communities) is universal and adequately funded.
* In 2009, improvement comes from a velvet glove approach, not from the carrot-stick version we’ve experiences for years now.
* There is a hunger to see real, tangible improvements soon.  Step number one will be ensuring that the economic stimulus money designated for public education is getting into our schools.  We must effectively capture those real-life stories of how such funding is making a difference and impacting the lives of real teachers and real students immediately.  We must show that economic stimulus in education is having an immediate impact in schools like ours, with kids like ours.
Yesterday, in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day,  Democrats for Education Reform held an education equality rally in Washington, DC.  DFER Chair Kevin Chavous’ remarks reflect much of what was said at NUA and much of what we should consider as we hopefully join together to close the achievement gap and improve public schools in every city and town across the United States:

At this historic time, in this city of our nation’s founders,  on the day designated to honor Dr. Martin Luther King and his legacy, it is fitting that we all stand before you to challenge America. Although this challenge is made out of love and respect, it is a challenge nonetheless. 

Quite simply, it is time for our country to stand up for our children.  As great as we are, we still are failing our kids.  Failing them miserably.  When half of the children of color drop out of high school, we are failing our kids; when we offer fewer and fewer AP courses, we are failing our kids; when our world education rankings continue to slide, we are failing our kids; and when we remain committed to a one size fits all model of education service delivery, we are failing our kids.  Yes, there are some very good schools in America that provide some children with an excellent education.  But that is not good enough and we are still failing our kids.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Dr. King directly chastises white clergy for their unwillingness to confront the status quo on the issue of segregation and social justice.  Dr. King alludes to the interconnectedness of us all by saying that ‘we are caught on an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly’.  Indeed, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.  This is the inter-related structure of reality.

Like King, we need to be honest and forthright about what ails us in education.  If a child is failing in a school in southeast Washington, DC, it hurts the suburbanite living in Aurora, Colorado. And we all lose.  Until each and every American child receives equal access to a high quality education, our destiny will never be fulfilled, our promise never reached.  This is the last civil rights struggle in America and we need to employ the same sense of urgency and resolve that we did to end segregation during the time of King.

UPDATE — The MLK event where Kevin Chavous spoke was sponsored by Education Equality Project, not DFER.  But the power of the remarks remain the same.

Really Great? Hardly.

Five or so years ago, Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” was all the rage.  It was more than just a must-read business book.  Many a non-profit took to it as well.  Eduflack knows of many an education organization that tried to adopt it as their unofficial bible, assigning it as required reading for senior staff, including excerpts as part of staff meetings and retreats, and generally trying to model what were perceived as the best practices of long-time, established corporations in the education sector.

The application of good-to-great in non-profits was so significant that Collins’ wrote a follow-up monograph on how the corporate lessons could be applied to the social sectors — the non-profits that serve our schools, our communities, and our nation.  Eduflack commented on the back in the summer, believing it provided some interesting lessons for those looking to improve K-12 instruction —  
But yesterday’s announcement about Circuit City — its bankruptcy, the closing of all its stores, and the laying off of 34,000 employees — should make us all question how much credence to really put in these examples of corporate success and their application to public education (or the social sector in general).  The full story is in today’s Washington Post —  
Makes you wonder about those education non-profits that modeled strategic plans and marching orders on what they found in the pages of “Good to Great,” particularly the tale of unending success of Circuit City and its business model.  We should have known better when Circuit City announced last year it was laying off experienced workers to replace them with inexperienced novices, cutting overhead and thus cutting customer service and the chances of maintaining high levels of success and improvement.  Moreover, it should demonstrate that lessons learned in corporate America don’t necessarily have direct translation and application to public education.  Objectives are different.  Rubrics are different.  Human resources are different.  And latitude for setbacks and failure couldn’t be more different.
If educators are still picking up “Good to Great,” hopefully they are picking up the monograph on the social sector and not the case studies on the businesses.  Why?  As I noted in August, Collins captures the difference in the start of the monograph:
“We must reject the idea — well-intentioned but dead wrong — that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become ‘more like a business.’  Most businesses — like most of anything else in life — fall somewhere between mediocre and good.  Few are great.”

Our schools shouldn’t seek to become more like businesses.  Our schools, all our schools, should seek to become great.  And that greatness has both quantitative and qualitative measures.

Top 50 Education Policy Blogs

Over at Online University Lowdown, the offer a new blog posting on “the top 50 education policy blogs.”   They lead into their list (they don’t actually rank the 50, just list them, with the following:

“Education policy has been the single most consistent issue in the US political discourse for the last 30 years. Historically education policy reform proposals and information have been dictated by think tanks, political parties, and more traditional avenues. Increasingly, however, some of the most interesting and innovative education policy discussions are taking place on the blogosphere. These blogs range from topics on K-12 education up to international policies and higher learning.”
The full post, with the top 50, can be found here: <a href="
Eduflack is honored that this blog is included in their top 50 list.  Are “the most interesting and innovative education policy discussions” taking place on the blogosphere?  If recent debates about 21st century skills and national standards are any indication, I’d like to think the answer is yes.
At any rate, congrats to the other 49 on the list.  Let’s hope we can continue to live up to the perceived expectation that we are key cogs in the policy discussions that will continue to drive education improvement.

The Future of Urban School District Leaders

At yesterday’s EdSec confirmation hearings, senator after senator went out of their way to praise the selection of Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan and how terrific it will be to have a real urban educator at the helm of the U.S. Department of Education.  At the beginning of the year, many folks (Eduflack included) praised the selection of Denver Public Schools chief Michael Bennet for the open U.S. Senate seat from Colorado, again applauding the notion that a true-blue educator would be involved in authorizing and appropriating federal education dollars.

As a friend pointed out this afternoon, though, all this talk about our top urban superintendents moving up to new, more powerful political jobs raises one large unanswered (and often unasked) question.  What is the impact on our urban districts?  At a time when our school districts are facing greater demands on their resources, higher expectations on their performance, shrinking budgets from their cities and states, and a more demanding economy into which their most successful students are now entering, what happens to those districts that lose great leaders?
This isn’t just a federal issue, either.  our states are seeing massive turnover in the chief state school officer positions.  For each of those open state chiefs, there are likely superintendents in that state (as well as those from others) who pique the interests of politicians, policymakers, and educators.
But let’s get back to our urban districts.  Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver.  All are facing brand new superintendents at their most important moments.  Same is true for districts like Prince Georges County in Maryland.  Other districts — Boston, Philadelphia, Newark, and the like, have supes in their first years.  It’s getting to the point where DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, on the job for a year and a half now, is quickly become a grizzled veteran in world of urban superintendents.
Yes, ED is fortunate to soon have Duncan at the helm, where he can bring his Chicago experiences and insights to bear on the national scene.  We can look at the improvements and the innovations and the ideas that have percolated in Chicago (and other cities) and paint them with a larger brush and allow them to have larger impact.  But as ED begins to fill out its other positions, how many cities will lose their top school administrator for the greater good?  I assume that a supe or a chief state school officer will take over at the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, but what about the other openings in ED’s Duncan era?
It raises a lot of questions in Eduflack’s mind.  Does one have to run a major urban school district to lead school improvement at the national level?  What about our rural school districts?  Who speaks for the small communities or the K-8 school districts when the focus is on urban turnaround?  How important is it for a senior-level ED appointee to have real K-12 classroom instruction experience?  How much of such experience is enough?  What’s the necessary balance between pedagogy and innovation at ED?  Does K-12 or higher ed experience truly matter when it comes to the knock-around political world that is Washington? 
We all know heading one of the larger school districts in the nation is a difficult job.  The stakes are high.  Turnover is frequent.  Districts churn through leaders, with many top districts recycling many of the same leaders again and again.  So how does one protect the gains in such districts, while preventing the brain drain that comes with turnover and current upward mobility?  And more importantly, what are groups like the Council of Great City Schools and AASA doing to ensure that incoming superintendents — in both our most urban and most rural districts — have the professional development tools, support, and guidance necessary to keep improvements moving forward and bringing about the sort of change that so many communities are crying out for?
Maybe Duncan is already thinking of that, and is going to adopt a superintendent-in-residence program at ED to help ensure that school administrators have the access to best practice that we are constantly trying to deliver to both principals and teachers.  Or maybe we figure that urban districts always manage to figure it out, and between CGCS and the Broad Foundation, we’ll keep those top jobs staffed, so no need to worry.
And while we’re off the topic, allow me this little rant.  By now, many have seen the screaming Internet messages warning that all of the top jobs at ED are going to go to educational innovators and free thinkers, and not those with distinct classroom pedagogical training or instructional experience.  I don’t want to address such rumors here because I don’t think they are worth the electronic ink.  And anyway, Sherman Dorn does a far better job discussing the silly fears than I ever could —  But I do want to address the larger issue.   What ED needs now, what ED always needs, is a team that is committed to school improvement and is committed to the child.  That commitment takes many forms.  We see it in classroom and district educators.  We see it in education researchers who have committed themselves to spotlighting best practice.  And we see it in innovators, idea-makers, and policy minds who look for new ways to solve the problems that ail our schools.  Before we condemn picks for jobs at ED, we should let President-elect Obama and EdSec in-waiting Duncan actually make the picks.  There may just be a method to their madness.  And we may be surprised how the individuals, the personalities, and the backgrounds selected complement each other and form a wide net of experience and action designed to real school improvement.  At the end of the day, we have to believe that Obama and Duncan (and their surrogates) are seeking to improve public education through ED, and not harm it.  So let’s let them give it a try.
I’ll step down from the soapbox and relinquish the rostrum.  More questions than I have answers today, I’m afraid.  But sometimes such questions result in really interesting answers and insights down the road.