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.  

Shovel-Ready or Funding-Worthy?

Is it too early in the year to already assemble a list of overused words?  How about words we misuse in order to get attention?  I don’t know about you, but Eduflack is already sick-to-death of the term “shovel-ready.”  Across the nation, companies, organizations, elected officials, and individuals are seeking to take full advantage of the pending economic stimulus package.  “Shovel-ready” has become the term de jour.  The thinking is simple.  If there is a trillion dollars to be spent on infrastructure projects, we want to make sure “our project” is ready to go from the start, able to take the money now and make an immediate impact.  Our projects are shovel ready.  Heck, we may even offer a couple of jobs to hold those shovels.  We can break ground right now and start spending the federal dollars today.

When the dust settles on the economic stimulus package this month or the next (probably next), public education is likely to get its share of funding.  School construction will come first.  Technology and Internet access will be there too.  Instructional materials will get their due, and specific special education efforts may get their portion of the education pie as well.
Just check out today’s USA Today, where Greg Toppo looks at school districts looking to get their piece of federal stimulus relief —  
But as we look at an infusion of addition federal spending on K-12 education — whether it be on bricks-and-mortar infrastructure (school construction), instructional infrastructure (books and materials), or human infrastructure (teachers and teacher development) — should we be prioritizing programs that are simply shovel-ready?  Should we look to fund those initiatives that are ready to accept our checks today, like a bad infomercial, or should we make sure that those potentially hundreds of billions of dollars are spent on efforts that are worthy of such funding?
As we all line up to tap the overflowing funding keg that is the federal economic stimulus package, we should set some clear measures for funding.  How many students will be affected?  What is the expected impact?  What is the return on investment?  What is the research base to demonstrate funding-worthiness?
Yes, we will be spending significant dollars on school construction.  In doing so, we should make sure the dollars are getting into the communities that need the funding the most.  Are we building new schools in our crumbling inner cities or in those districts with the best lobbyists or the most federal juice?  But school construction is what it is.
The bigger issue is how we spend the rest of the available funds.  Investments in instructional and human K-12 infrastructure must focus on ROI.  That means we won’t necessarily see the economic impact this month or this year.  But we need to look for long-term ROI.  How do we increase student achievement and graduation numbers?  How do we ensure that all students have the knowledge and skills to succeed in the 21st century workforce?  How do we provide teachers the pre-service and in-service instruction they need to deliver the high-impact instruction we expect of all our classrooms?
Take STEM education, for instance.  There are real, tangible, on-the-ground STEM efforts out there that are both shovel-ready and funding-worthy.  There are STEM schools that can be constructed in cities and districts immediately.  There are K-12 programs, particularly in the secondary grades, that need the books, technology, and learning tools today to maximize opportunities  And there are teachers who need both the PD and the financial incentive (such as differential pay) to stand as effective instructors in STEM classrooms.  STEM efforts are shovel-ready.  But they are also funding-worthy.  We know that STEM programs have direct impact on the economy.  They prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow.  They prep teachers for the teaching opportunities of today.  And they serve as the strongest linkages we have between effective K-12 education and stronger, more robust economic opportunities.
There’s nothing wrong with those looking to take advantage of the economic stimulus package, even those who are preparing to make the pending federal legislation their personal post-Christmas Christmas trees, hanging their individual funding needs upon its branches.  That is the American way.  
And our schools are truly suffering.  The majority of states have cut or will soon cut K-12 budgets.  Some states are asking teachers to take pay cuts or benefit reductions.  And just last week, schools in Detroit were asking for public donations of toilet paper and other basics just to keep their doors open.  Times are tough, and the stimulus package is likely to give a needed financial boost to K-12 systems throughout the nation.  Again, look at Toppo’s piece.  School districts are doing whatever it takes to keep funding for public education as level as possible, even if that means lining up behind the banks and the auto companies.
We just need to remember that the stimulus is not intended as a bailout.  It is meant to serve as an investment in our nation.  It is meant to create jobs and strengthen economic opportunity, both now and in the future.  For our school systems, that means it shouldn’t go to the first program in line or the first idea that offers to create a job or make us feel better about ourselves.  We need to focus on the investment side of the equation, ensuring that these new federal dollars are going into efforts that will make a difference — both in the short and long term — and can demonstrate real ROI.  If K-12 dollars are in short supply, shouldn’t we make sure that new dollars are being spent on worthy efforts?  Let’s eliminate shovel-ready from our vocabulary (at least of K-12 vocabulary).  It’s time to practice saying “funding worthy.”

What’s Got Educommunicators Thinking

Wonder what the marketing communications professionals in the education sector are thinking about?  Their concerns?  Their hopes?  Their desires?  If so, check out the latest survey from Educommunicators, a new online community established just for those marcomm pros.

For those who don’t know, I started Educommunicators last fall because I saw a gap in the field.  The number of PR pros, marketers, public affairs agents, PIOs, freelancers, and reporters covering the education industry continues to grow.  But none of the traditional PR and communications groups (PRSA and IABC) seem to acknowledge the sector as a major player, particularly in this economy.  Some groups (NSPRA and EWA in particular) do a great job serving a segment of the educommunicator community, but few were looking at the sector as a whole.  Thus, Educommunicators.
In late fall, we officially launched this little social experiment, utilizing a Facebook Group, a LinkedIn Group, a website (, and a blog (  In December, we announced the organization’s first Board of Advisors (see for the list), a great group of dedicated communicators representing multiple sectors of the field.  Today, we are announcing the results of our 2008 survey.  This data is going to be used to help shape the Educommunicators community in 2009, ensuring this nascent group brings value and holds the interest of its growing list of members.
Eduflack is most taken by one particular statistic — the hunger for best practices.  Doesn’t matter if we are a school administrator, a governor, a teacher, or an eduflack, we all want to know what works.  We all want to see what is working in environments like ours, with stakeholders like ours.  We want to learn from those like us, modeling promising practice (and avoiding that which does not work).
The full data can be found on the Educommunicators blog.  Expected action items will follow on the blog and the Educommunicator groups later this week.

Learnin’ the Language

Imagine entering your educational pipeline, not understanding a single word uttered by the teacher in front of the classroom.  Listening to classmates having conversations that you can’t participate in.  Attending a school district where dozens of languages can be heard in the hallways of a particular school.  In a growing number of school districts across the nation, these imaginary situations are all too real.

English Language Learners (ELL) and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs have never been more important than they are today.  Our student populations is rapidly shifting, and those students entering the schools speaking only Spanish or Hmong or Chinese are increasing.  According to Education Week, our public schools are now looking at educating 5.1 million English-language learners.  How do we ensure that those 5.1 million individuals, along with every other student, are getting the high-quality education we expect?
EdWeek takes a look at that question in this year’s Quality Counts.  The 2009 focus — ELL.  In addition to its regular state-by-state look at education achievement, the staff at EdWeek takes a look at a range of issues facing the ELL community, including “current research, specialized teacher preparation, screening and assessment of English-learners, and ways in which state funding resources and priorities affect programs for English-learners.”
The full Quality Counts report can be found here —  What are the highlights?
* There is a significant math achievement gap between ELLs and all public school students.  On NAEP, for instance, 34.8 percent of 4th and 8th graders scores proficient or higher, while only 9.6 percent of ELLs hit the magic number. 
* The achievement gap is just as significant in reading, where those scoring proficient or better on reading was 30.4 percent nationally, but just 5.6 percent among ELLs.
* There is no national standard for dealing with ELLs.  According to EdWeek, only 1.4 percent of ELLs in Connecticut failed to make progress toward English-language proficiency.  In Maine, that number was nearly 45 percent.
* Thirty-three states set standards for ELL teachers.  But only three of them — Arizona, Florida, and New York — require prospective teachers to demonstrate competency on those standards.
What does all of this mean?
* We have a long way to go, as a nation, on ELL.  In New York City alone, the number of ELL students is expected to increase by more than 20 percent this year.  We need strong policies tied to real outcomes to deal with the increases in the ELL population.
* We need better data and research on English-language learning.  The breadth and depth of research related to ELLs, including how they transition literacy skills in their primary language to English, is lacking.  if the population is increasing, and our spending on the population is increasing (presumably), we need a better sense for what we do, how we do it, and how we ensure return on investment.
* And while we’re on the subject of data, we need more bilingual researchers involved in the mix.  If we are going to study ELLs with Spanish as a first language, we should have researchers who are fluent in Spanish and English involved in the process.  And it doesn’t hurt to have researchers who understand the social and cultural parameters that are facing today’s ELL communities.
* Like everything else, effective ELL instruction begins with effective teachers.  We should be looking at those states that have standards for ELL teachers, particularly those where teachers must demonstrate competency in those standards, and use that to model effective ELL teaching. 
* Whether we want to believe it or not, virtually every teacher is now becoming an ELL teacher.  Regardless of the subject or grade taught, if you have ELL students in the class, you are an ELL teacher.  It doesn’t matter if you are a designated ELL or ELA teacher.  Every educator must learn how to bridge the learning gaps for ELLs and ensure that student proficiency in math, science, and even the arts continues to move forward and English-language skills are developed.
* The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition is in desperate need of the spotlight.  OELA has long been a red-headed stepchild over at ED, failing to get the full attention it deserves in the K-12 debate.  Now that early childhood education is likely to get greater focus at ED and K-12 will continue to be priority number one, we need to do a better job to integrate OELA into both and ensure that ELLs are a factor in policy and funding for both preK and K-12.
Nationally, we talk about closing the achievement gap, boosting high school graduation rates, and getting increasing the number of first-generation college goers.  ELLs are a common instructional link to all three.  We can’t deny the population is growing.  So we must look for real, practical solutions to improving ELL instruction.  It’s time to talk the talk, in multiple languages.

Giving Voice to Those Who Cannot Yet Read?

After more than six years of work, the National Early Literacy Panel has finally released its findings.  Commissioned by the National Institute for Literacy and the National Center for Family Literacy, NELP was originally charged “to conduct a synthesis of the scientific research on the development of early literacy skills in children ages zero to five.”

The thought here was that NELP would build on the work of the National Reading Panel, which focused on kids in elementary school (those in kindergarten through fourth grade).  At the time it was launched, NELP was a hot topic.  Everyone was eager to jump on the Early Reading First bandwagon.  NRP’s findings were the law of the land.  The world would build a continuum on literacy skills connecting the early years of NELP to the latter years of adolescent literacy (as put forward by the Alliance for Excellent Education a few years go) with the good work of the NRP.
Six and a half or seven years is a long time to wait for the findings, particularly for what is a meta-analysis of existing third-party research.  So what did NELP find?
* The best early predictors of literacy include alphabet knowledge, phonemic awareness, rapid naming skills, writing, and short-term memory for words said aloud
* Instruction on the best predictors may be especially helpful for children at risk for developing reading difficulties
* To a lesser degree, students also benefit from concepts about print, print knowledge, reading readiness, oral language, and visual processing
* More complex oral language skills “also appear to be important”
Nothing groundbreaking here, I’m afraid.
Like the NRP, NELP also highlighted the limitations the Panel faced and provided direction for future research efforts.  Unlike its big brother, though, NELP is not likely to cause much of a ripple in the education improvement pool.  (And I know it doesn’t need to be disclosed yet again, but Eduflack served as a senior advisor to NRP, helping guide the Panel through its entire life and afterlife.)
Why is NELP different from NRP?  First, NRP took a hard stand on key issues.  The Panel purposely avoided publishing another “consensus” document along the lines of the National Research Council study that came out when NRP began its work.  The result?  A lot of attention — both good and bad — for its findings.  We knew exactly where NRP stood on issues, and loved them or hated them for it.  
Second, NRP took complex issues and related them back to the end user.  There was a reason we pushed so hard for a video report to accompany the telephone book-thick Report of the Subgroups.  Teachers, TA providers, and practitioners needed to see the Panel’s findings in real practice.  Seeing the reccs at use in classes like theirs and with kids like theirs made the NRP real and practical.
Third, NRP was audacious in its findings.  Teaching Children to Read essentially told the education community that reading instruction in the United States was broken, but we knew how to fix it.  The Panel (or at least all but one of them) boldly went out with real solutions to fix the teaching of reading, keeping the report viable long enough for policy and funding, in the name of Reading First, to catch up with the recommendations.  
I want to see those three characteristics in NELP and its Developing Early Literacy report, but it just isn’t there for me.  As I read it, the report is a consensus document, proven by the nearly seven years it took to produce the end product (for the record, the NRP study was conducted and released in on a two-year calendar).  The study, its executive summary, and even its press release seem to be written by researchers, for researchers, with little link back to the educators and caregivers needed to implement the findings.  And finally, the report is beige at best, blending in with dozens upon dozens of other education studies hoping to catch the attention of a well-meaning policy crowd.  The report is nice, but it isn’t the end all-be all, nor is it the solution so many of us are looking for.  it is a report that contributes to the discussion, providing some fresh perspective on what early childhood educators have known for some time.  It is nothing more, nothing less.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t hope for NELP (and similar reports) and the impact it can have on early learners.  Just yesterday, NIEER released its report on its recommendations to the Obama Administration on early childhood education.  PreK Now has been calling for an early childhood ed czar in the White House, with the group serving as the most consistent drumbeat for improving early childhood education.  So we have both means and opportunity.
Means and opportunity for what, you may ask?  The opportunity to move early childhood education toward the top of the list when it comes to education improvement initiatives.  How?  Through five easy steps:
* Step One: Identify clear policy initiatives.  PreK Now and NIEER have already gotten the ball rolling on this.  Obama campaigned on dramatically increasing funding for early childhood education.  The policy initiatives are coming.  Those leading this fight need to streamline our thinking, focusing on the top three issues (TBD) and keeping the collective focus on those issues only.
* Step Two: Identify a leader.  Libby Doggett is right.  We need an early childhood education czar.  We need someone in the White House who can harness the power of what is happening in ED, HHS, Labor, and everywhere else in the Administration to ensure that preK dollars are wisely spent and all programs are pointed toward core goals and real ROI.
* Step Three: Build a coalition.  PreK Now and NIEER are ready for this.  NCFL is probably game as well.  Bring aboard the teachers (through both AFT and NEA), the content leaders (IRA), and the policy hounds (NGA, NCSL, CCSSO, and National Head Start Association), and you have a real network to identify the national clarion call for early childhood ed reform.
* Step Four: Focus on the research and the results that come from it.  NELP provides some core research findings to get us started, as does some other work offered by the research community at large.  But at the end of the day, we need to know how to effectively measure any improvements that are put forward.  That means core academic standards for our preK programs which means a greater emphasis on instructional matters in early childhood programs, including Head Start.
* Step Five: A bold idea to stir the pot.  Call for Head Start to be moved from HHS over to ED.  Early childhood education is the gateway to K-12 success.  If every student is reading at grade level by the end of fourth grade (a task that nearly 40% are unable to master today), we must start instruction earlier than we are now.  NELP provides some of the necessary instructional building blocks for literacy.  Let’s take it even further, ensuring that preK is about both the social and academic preparations all students need to achieve.
Five easy steps doesn’t mean the work itself is easy.  But if early childhood education is going to get its due (and if the NELP findings are going to get any legs and be put to practical use) this is the roadmap we should be unfolding.  Now is the time for those leaders and that coalition to come together, embrace a select group of policy initiatives focused on ROI, and then push, push, push to get buy-in and adoption with fidelity, and then we may be onto something here.
At its best, NELP is one of many tools that show us what is possible and what intellectual resources we have to work with.  Now is th
e time to take that potential and move it into real actions and real improvements.  That isn’t going to come from a meta-analysis.  It comes from real policy, real advocacy, and real leadership.