School Leadership in Big D

Where exactly is the intersection between effective school district management (particularly on the financial side) and student improvement?  It’s a question that many have been asking for quite some time, particularly in this era of mayoral and state takeovers of school districts.  Usually, these takeovers happen when both the financial and the academic are failing, when community leaders see no choice but to step in and protect both taxpayer dollars and the students are public schools are intended to serve.
And then you have places like Dallas, Texas.  Over the weekend, Dallas’ mayor, Tom Leppert, indicated he is considering a mayoral takeover of Dallas ISD.  Anyone who has watched the financial “challenges” in the district, knows that something different must happen in the Big D.  And those who have watched cities such as New York and Washington, DC cede control of the schools to the mayor can point to the benefit a new outlook, new attention, and, most often, new leadership, can have on a struggling school district.
The full story of the mayor’s intentions can be found in this past Sunday’s Dallas Morning News — <a href="http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/022209dnmetmayordisd.3ebacba.html.
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What makes this exploratory takeover so interesting, or at least newsworthy outside of Texas?  Nothing, until the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution released its latest report yesterday.  Lots of great information in the report (particularly the issue of PISA being used as an international benchmark, but I digress), but two important nuggets for us to consider.
First, Dallas ISD ranked second among nearly 40 large-city school districts when it comes to academic gains.  While Dallas still has significant work to do, particularly compared to suburban and rural districts across the state, it is making progress.  To say that Dallas’ improvement efforts are outperforming districts like Miami, New York, and Chicago is saying something.  (Of course, critics would say Dallas was so far behind these other districts to start that they had no option but to outperform other districts, at least in terms of growth.)
Equally important, the Brown Center looked at mayoral takeovers and found the data “inconclusive” when it came mayoral control’s impact on school improvement.  Yes, there are significant benefits to mayoral takeover, including higher per-pupil expenditures, more focused leadership, and a broader “community” helping to lead the schools.  But for every NYC success story, we have the potential of Detroit, where mayoral control didn’t work, and they are now returning to the old model.    
The full story on DISD and the Brown Center is in this morning’s Dallas Morning News — <a href="http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/022509dneduurbanschools.f1d859.html
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So what do we take from all of this?  First and foremost, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to fixing struggling schools.  Mayoral control can be a benefit, or it can be a burden for city leadership.  It all depends on the personalities involved, the commitment from the city, and the buy-in from teachers and administrators across the district.
Second, it demonstrates how difficult it can be to measure school effectiveness with one ruler.  The Brown Center data shows real gains, though they started from a tough spot.  The state assessment — TAKS — shows a district in need of much help.  The Newsweek rankings of the top high schools put the top secondary school (or one of them) squarely in DISD.  Layer on top of that financial mismanagement and leadership chasms, and you can see why there is a growing drumbeat for a new approach to school leadership.
It’s funny.  When Eduflack was living in Dallas (2005 and 2006), there was a citywide plan for DISD to win the Broad Prize in the coming years.  It was a bold and ambitious plan, bringing the schools and the community together to improve instruction, support teachers, and raise student achievement.  Guess the wheels fell off that bus once I left town.
Regardless, the Dallas education community is facing a serious discussion on the future of their public schools.  Mayoral control may be the answer, but it works better in cities with a strong mayor.  That’s not the Dallas model.  The improvements documented by the Brown Center are good, but they must be sustained and demonstrated over the long term.
As Robert Frost would say, Dallas has many miles to go before it can sleep.  The community is definitely aware of the need for improvement and the challenges before it.  But it takes a strong leader to move that awareness into action.  Is Superintendent Michael Hinojosa up to the challenge?  Is Mayor Leppert?  Only time will tell.  The winner will be whomever can win over the hearts and minds of the teachers, parents, and business community in Big D.  Effective change can only occur when stakeholders are buying into the plan, and so far, neither Hinojosa nor Leppert seem to have fully “sold” their vision to the audiences they need to see it through.  But change is coming …

Recovering and Reinvesting in RF

By now, educators must have be living under rocks to have not heard about the enormous sums of money soon coming to school districts.  In the next month and a half, the first installment of nearly 80 billion dollars intended to prevent pending cuts to local K-12 education and allow for real school improvement is expected to flow.  How Title I and IDEA expenditures will be spent is pretty clear cut, following existing distribution formulae and providing a booster shot to those schools already receiving such funds.  The big ticket item — the State Stabilization Fund — is still working through the details.  

For those looking for regular updates on the policy and the language behind it, one of the best sources is EdWeek’s Michele McNeil and Alyson Klein’s Politics K-12 blog — blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/.  
But we know the intent of the Stabilization Fund.  Many, if not most, school districts have been planning budget cuts in these difficult financial times.  Teachers are on the chopping block.  PD is being sacrificed.  Textbook adoptions on hold.  Instructional material purchases put off for a later day.  The Stabilization Fund is intended to stop such drastic action, providing immediate funds so that NO school district faces budget cuts.  School districts are to look at their spending for FY2008 and FY2009 (the previous and current academic year), determine spending levels from those years, and then use the Stabilization Fund to prevent any reduction in spending.  Those programs that have been in the school for the past few years are to be protected, providing educators the opportunity to continue efforts that are working and having a real impact on student achievement, economics be damned.  The Fund is meant to alleviate worry and ensure investment in our classroom continues and that effective programs do not face irrational cuts.
At the same time, the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday moved the current fiscal year’s budget forward, a spending bill that was to be passed last September, but never quite broke through.  Many educators have long feared that Reading First would be zeroed out in that budget bill, denying school districts around the country needed funding to invest in the research-proven instructional materials, professional development, and technical assistance needed to get our kids reading at grade level.  That fear was realized, as the $300 million or so that was spent on RF last year was missing from the House version of the budget.
Eduflack has come to grips with the fact that Reading First is dead.  The program itself was long plagued with significant implementation problems and a poor public perception.  But its core tenets remain both true and essential.  We can get virtually every child reading at grade level by using proven-effective instruction.  The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (OPEPD) released data late last year demonstrating the effectiveness of our investment in research-proven reading, showing real impact on RF and non-RF schools alike.  And Eduflack has reported on a wide range of data demonstrating the programs effectiveness in states across the country, the most recent being the terrific results shown in California (http://blog.eduflack.com/2009/02/10/golden-reading-results-in-the-golden-state.aspx).  
School districts are rightfully worried about the future of their reading instruction efforts.  RF funds have been a boon to struggling schools, providing then direct funding do what is necessary to improve student reading achievement.  It has resulted in sea change when it comes to the instructional materials and PD available to our schools, whether they are RFs or not.  And it has refocused technical assistance on research-based approaches aligned with classroom instruction and embedded in real practice.  And have we ever mentioned that it just plain works?
The elimination of the Reading First program was an inevitability, but that does not mean our school districts should stop their effective use of proven-effective reading instruction.  They should still invest in the instructional materials and PD that are most effective in getting students to read at grade level.  They should still invest in classroom-based strategies for equipping students with the instruction and skills they need to achieve.  And they should still invest in teacher empowerment, ensuring educators receive the reading PD and data understanding necessary to impact student achievement.
So a simple question?  Why isn’t every state and every RF school across the country looking to use newly available State Stabilization Fund and Title I dollars to continue their literacy efforts?  The Stabilization Fund is designed to ensure that no schools are forced to cut their budgets.  Such reading investments have been part of recent budgets.  They are now facing the ax.  It just seems natural that the Fund is used to continue a school district’s investment in proven-effective reading instruction and professional development.  After all, the law is intended to prevent cuts and continue those efforts that are boosting student achievement.  In those states and districts where RF has been proven effective, it seems continuing the investment (in materials, assessment, and PD) should move forward, even if the original funding stream is gone.  The Fund was meant to replace disappearing funds.  And it becomes a slam dunk when we see that such investments are already proven effective in improving student reading skills and academic achievement?
And why can’t new Title I funds be used to expand the investment, getting it into more classrooms and more students?  If a school district has identified and successfully implemented an approach to get students reading at grade level, that approach should continue, particularly with struggling students in Title I schools.  New Title I funds available under ARRA is intended to expand good work.  Seems there are a great number of Title I schools that could benefit from increased investment in effective reading instruction, particularly if we are looking to boost student achievement and offer every student a pathway to success, as intended by the President.
Heck, there will even be chances to invest in RF concepts through IDEA funds and highly popular Response to Intervention (RtI) approaches.  And we won’t even start talking about the vast opportunities available through the soon-to-be-detailed Innovation Fund.
RF is dead, absolutely.  But that doesn’t mean we give up on teaching our kids to read or offering the research-proven approaches and interventions that are necessary to raising student literacy levels and getting all students reading at grade level.  Our states and districts know what is now working when it comes to reading instruction.  We have administrators, technical assistance providers, coaches, and teachers in place to deliver effective instruction.  After some unfortunate stops and starts, we now know the materials and curriculum that are most effective in reaching our goals.  And we have clear understanding of the professional development and ongoing support our teachers need to turn every child into a reader.  Now is the time to double down on reading, not walk away from the table.
Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Education is now providing school districts the chips to place that needed bet on student reading ability.  Reading programs in school districts across the nation are facing significant cuts.  The feds are now providing upwards of $80 billion to ensure our K-12 schools don’t face any budget cuts and, in fact, can increase instructional spending (particularly on those items that will improve student achievement).  It seems that the American
Recovery and Reinvestment Act was custom written to ensure that our federal reading investment (currently through Reading First, previously through the Reading Excellence Act) continues and that no school cut its reading programs or its reading investment, particularly those struggling schools previously identified as RF schools.
I have no doubt that ED will be developing a new federal reading initiative, one based on the most positive attributes of Reading First and enhanced through a broader interpretation of the research and a greater commitment to professional development and teacher supports.  It is a program that is needed by our schools and it is a commitment our federal government must make if we want to make good on our intent of strengthening public education and giving every child a chance at success.  Until such a program is in place, though, every RF school should be working with their district and their state to ensure that these new funds are being use to protect the instructional investments in the classroom.  And few investments are as worthy as the reading instruction programs that are boosting reading achievement for millions of kids across the nation.
Yes, school districts should be using this stimulus money to ensure that teachers stay on the job and no instructional positions are eliminated.  We can’t teach our kids without educators in front of reasonably sized classrooms.  But we must also provide those teachers with the resources, materials, TA, and PD they need to get the job done.  That investment starts with reading, particularly proven-effective reading instruction.  That is the full intent of the stimulus package.
The RF grant program may be long gone, but that doesn’t mean we stop investing in reading instruction that we know works.  The economic stimulus law gives us both the funds and the direction to keep instructional efforts moving forward.  Reading can, should, and must be at the top of that list.

Presidential Rhetoric, Education-Style

The education game is on.  During last evening’s Presidential Address to Congress, President Obama dedicated significant time in his hour-long speech to the issue of education.  Such a commitment is typically unheard of in typical State of the Union addresses.  Often, a president will throw in a few sentences about education, one about the importance of teachers, one about the value of a college education, and then he will move onto to other issues more adept at capturing the hearts and minds of the American people.

Yes, Obama had a lot to say last night.  The economy, home ownership, energy, national security, healthcare.  All got their due.  And education was right in there as an A-list issue.  Clearly, the President sees the clear connect between an improved K-16 education system and an improved economy, how a strong education leads to good jobs and meaningful contribution.  He sees the next generation of the American workforce will require new levels of knowledge and skills that the generations before them never envisioned.  If anything, he made a clear and compassionate case for 21st century skills.
The full transcript from last night’s speech can be found here, though it is a much more impressive watch than it is a read: <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/documents/obama_address_022409.html?hpid=topnews
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Of course, a significant potion of last night’s education segment was dedicated to higher education.  That should surprise no one.  For the past two years, Obama has spoken of postsecondary education as a primary pathway to life success.  He has pledged to get more kids to go to college, help them pay for it, and then use their talents in the community well after they earned that degree.  And in times of economic trouble, nothing hits the heart better than improving one’s lot in life through learning.  Challenging every American to seek at least one more year of education, whether it be in college or a vocational program, was a bold statement.  Stating that dropping out is never an option is always a crowd-pleaser.  And setting a goal of repositioning the United States as the nation with the highest percentage of postsecondary degree holders by 2020 is an interesting idea (though I’m curious to see how we are defining degrees and how we are equating simply earning the degree with effectively putting it to use).
A few points — some policy, some rhetoric — truly grabbed Eduflack’s attention.
On the policy front, the President made strong commitments to both charter schools and performance pay for teachers.  The latter should be no surprise.  Obama has long advocated for incentive pay, even during a tough primary knowing it may have cost him the support of teachers (or at least the teachers’ unions).  He hasn’t forgotten how important it can be to incentivize educators, particularly those in hard-to-staff communities facing real academic challenges.  By boosting funding for the Teacher Incentive Fund in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he has signaled that performance pay (and possibly differentiated pay scales) are on the horizon.  Perhaps he may even lean to newly minted U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado for some ideas on how to take Denver’s ProComp model to national scale.
On charters, the President put charter schools firmly in the center of his education improvement agenda.  Although he provided no specific details, just by singling them out he built a bridge to an important education community and showed his design for change, innovation, and improvement in our public schools.  It is almost hard to believe that a president or two ago, a Democrat couldn’t even utter the word charter without getting the ire of the education establishment.  For Eduflack, the question for the future is whether the Administration — particularly through the Office of Innovation and Improvement and the newly created Innovation Fund — will broadly define charter schools or whether they will take the new world view pushed by Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, limiting our commitment to charters to those that are run by not-for-profit organizations.
The final policy piece?  A renewed commitment to early childhood education.  The President made clear that student learning starts “from the day they are born to the day they begin a career,” and we need to redouble our efforts to deliver real instruction and real learning to children well before they hit kindergarten.  That got applause from Eduflack, but we probably need to retool the statement to address the reality that education continues well beyond the start of a career.  Just ask all of those most recently in the workforce who we are asking to retool, or those teachers for whom we are rightfully investing in improved, content-based professional development.  Learning should be a lifelong pursuit.
And the rhetoric?  As many pundits have already proclaimed, President Obama is clearly a master of the television medium.  He knows how to deliver a speech, and knows how to do it well with real impact.  In the education portion of our program, that was most clear in his articulation of the role of parents.  Again, this has been a key component of his stump speech, and a topic touched on during the Democratic Convention last summer.  He made crystal the job of educating our students is not just left to teachers, and that parents play an equally important role by being involved, taking an interest, and leading by example.  I still believe there is a real need for an Office of Family Involvement over at the U.S. Department of Education, an infrastructure that can harness the power of a wide range of communities and focus on how the home can supplement what is happening in the classroom.  If not an assistant secretary office someone at OESE, OPEPD, or OII needs to take it on as a priority cause.
In his remarks, it is also clear that Obama (and his speechwriters) are clear in their vision and passion for how one talks about higher education and its impact on the individual and the community.  What was interesting, though, is that the speechwriters still seem to be seeking and searching for that same confident voice on K-12 education.  Yes, there were applause line for things like charter schools and dropping out is never an option, but the passion and connectivity was lacking, at least compared with other sections of the speech.Obama didn’t sell the K-12 ideas as well as he did higher education or energy.  Maybe he wanted to stay away from NCLB, maybe he wants to give EdSec Arne Duncan a full latitude in establishing the agenda, or maybe he is still waiting to find that balance between the tried-and-true and innovation (or the status quoers and the reformers, as some prefer).  Over time, we have to hope that the K-12 section, particularly with regard to elementary grades and instructional building blocks becomes clear and a true rallying cry for school improvement.  To truly sell the vision, he needs to speak with confidence and authority on some of the details, particularly as it relates to instructional innovation.
What was missing?  In his discussion of how we can effectively use our educational infrastructure to improve our economy, I wish there was clear, specific mention of STEM education. When done well, STEM education is about well more than just 21st century skills.  It is exactly about equipping all students with the math, science, and technology knowledgebase they need to contribute to the economy and fill the very jobs Obama is looking to create.
I had also hoped to hear a call for national standards.  In talking about global economic competition, we not only need clear national academic standards, but we probably need to tie those to intern
ational benchmarks (as NGA, CCSSO, and Achieve have recently called for).  The Administration has been dipping its toe into the national standards pool, and the financial commitment to improve state data systems is a good step forward.  But the rhetorical nod to a single expectation for student achievement in the United States would have been a powerful, defining statement.
What fell flat?  The attempt to brand this new approach to P-16 as a “complete and competitive education.”  While I appreciate the attempt, I don’t think the concept holds the rhetorical power we both seek and need.  The Administration is looking for a way to improve on No Child Left Behind, both as a policy and as a rhetorical statement.  It may be a punchline to jokes now, but the phrase “no child left behind” wielded enormous power in the early days of the law. It meant something, particularly when combined with lines about the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Lines like “dropping out of high school is no longer an option” are good initial steps.  But we still need to capture an umbrella brand and a bumper sticker phrase to define what this new era of innovative public education really stands for.  Complete and competitive are nice attributes, but they aren’t the headline.  It may just be window dressing to some, but how we talk about federal policy and the labels we ascribe to it can be just as important — even more so — than what’s under the hood.  Obama captured much of the nation with his rhetoric of “Yes, we can.”  Now we need to move that into a “yes, we can educate all” mentality.

Flagship University Vs. Local College

Across the nation, states have established flagship public universities to attract the nation’s best and brightest.  These institutions bring in the top faculty, establish academic centers of excellence, secure significant federal dollars in R&D, and recruit the top students in the nation.  All of this is done to ensure they can effectively compete with both the top public and private institutions, demonstrating a statewide commitment to education, innovation, and results.

These flagship institutions usually work in partnership with a network of public universities to ensure that the academic needs of the state are effectively met.  Regional demands, areas of specialty, and the downright luck of the draw ultimately determine which students end up where.  These variations allow institutions to build diverse student populations, diverse in terms of race, socioeconomic status, geography, interests, and backgrounds.
No university can serve every student.  There is a reason why the admission process is competitive, particularly for these flagship publics.  That’s what make them so desirable.  That’s what puts them at the top of the college rankings.  That’s what ensures the success of their graduates.  That’s what makes them truly competitive, impactful institutions.
And then legislators have to step in and try to screw it up.  Case in point — Virginia legislators and their most recent assault on Eduflack’s alma mater, the University of Virginia.  U.Va. is one of those flagship public universities, regularly rated the top public university in the nation.  Currently, 33 percent of U.Va.’s students come from out of state (a number not out of line with other leading public universities).  These out-of-state students often turn down offers from top private institutions — including the Ivies — to attend Mr. Jefferson’s University.  And they pay handsomely for it, with tuition far exceeding the cost of actually educating them (some estimating that they pay double the actual cost of the education received, to help subsidize the cost of educating in-state students).
Apparently, some believe the enrollment of out-of-staters is unfair to Virginia residents who do not get into U.Va., and must instead settle for Virginia Tech, James Madison, George Mason, and other Virginia state universities.  So much so that legislators are now seeking to halve the number of out-of-state students at institutions like U.Va. to make more spots available to in-state students.  Fellow U.Va./Cavalier Daily alum and WaPo reporter Anita Kumar has the full story this morning — www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/23/AR2009022302641.html?hpid=topnews  
I can understand the frustration students have not getting into their first choice college.  You work hard (or mostly hard) for four years of high school.  You get stellar grades.  You do well on the SAT or ACT.  You believe the world should be your oyster.  You believe you are entitled to go to the college of your choice, particularly if it is an in-state school.
And it is logical for an uninformed state legislator to see the reasoning in that logic, and call for the state to slash the number of out-of-state students and offer more slots to in-state student.  Logical, that is, until you really get in under the hood of how institutions like U.Va. operate.  
Currently, the University of Virginia receives less than eight percent of its operating expenses from the state.  That means those legislators are providing fewer than eight cents on the education dollar to provide a University of Virginia education.  The rest of the funds are provided through tuition (a disproportionate amount coming from those “despised” out-of-state students), donations from alumni (a great number of whom were once those out-of-state students), and other funding sources.  
I’ll admit it, I was one of those dreaded out-of-state students at Mr. Jefferson’s University.  As a graduate of the public schools in West Virginia, i found U.Va. to be the ideal college for me the first moment I set foot on grounds, offering opportunities I simply couldn’t find in my home state.  I ultimately chose it over Princeton University, buying into everything about the academical village.  I watched as costs rose from 113% of my actual education my first year to well over 150% by fourth year.  These were during the harshest of SCHEV battles, and it made me appreciate what I was getting even more.  So this is personal for Eduflack.
If legislators want to deny out-of-state students, that is definitely their prerogative.  But they need to be prepared for the impact.  Slashing out-of-state students means a significant cut in operating costs, particularly if it is not offset by real increases in in-state tuition (and yes, if you want to keep academic standards and faculty, and the state can’t increase its support, the only choice is tuition increases.  Gone will be the times where you can just jack up out-of-state rates to make up the difference).  Alums like me will likely choose to reduce their contributions to the College Fund and other operating funds, believing that students like them are no longer being served by the institution.  And yes, U.Va. will quickly drop in the national rankings, due to lower SAT scores, lower budgets, and lower recognition from peer institutions.  Don’t believe me?  Just take a look at how the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill fell in the rankings after it capped out-of-state enrollments.
Personally, I would love to see U.Va. President John Casteen counter with an offer to refuse the 7-plus percent of funding coming in from the state, ridding the institution of many of the oversight and red tape that comes from the Commonwealth.  Of course, U.Va. would still remain a public flagship, but it would also exert its independence and leadership in higher education.  It would definitely be a Jeffersonian thing to do.
But I am also concerned with the larger implications of targeting U.Va.  The University is an easy target, based on its elitist perceptions, it prominent image, and its sizable budgets.  But it is far from being the largest public university in Virginia.  It may be flagship, but it relatively modest when it comes to institutional size, both by in-state and out-of-state comparisons.  Yes, it had a clear target on its back during those SCHEV years and its battles with Governor Wilder, and it remains a target today, particularly as it is in the middle of a highly ambitious $3 billion capital campaign.
These legislative “considerations” create the impression that public education at Virginia Tech or George Mason or William & Mary or VCU is somehow lacking by comparison.  Stating that a student couldn’t get in to U.Va. and had to “settle” for another public university is a slap at the number of fine public institutions in Virginia.  We should be recognizing the uniqueness of our institutions and identifying regional centers of excellence that allow each of our major universities to shine.  Not every Virginian needs to spend four years in C-Ville to succeed.  And in many cases, better educations and better opportunities can be found across the network of Virginia higher education.
More importantly, though, such legislative interventions put us down a dangerously slippery slope.  With U.Va., the issue is that some students in Northern Virginia  — home to some of the nation’s top high schools and competitive students —  don’t gain admission into the University.  Parents and kids alike believe that is unfair, and blame lack of admittance on those out-of-state students.  Even if those out-of-state students have higher grades, higher test s
cores, and stronger resumes, they are taking slots from over-achievers in NoVa.
What happens when U.Va. reduces its out-of-state pool, and we turn our attention to the disproportionate number of in-state students coming from Northern Virginia.  Do we need special intercessions to increase enrollment of students from Southwest Virginia or Norfolk or Richmond?  Will NoVa students simply become the next generation of those dreaded out-of-state students?  It isn’t as silly as it may sound.
But I greatly digress.  The greatness of public flagship universities is the diversity of its students.  Such diversity prepares students for life after college, challenging them to work harder and do better.  And that diversity includes students from other states and other nations.  If we are to sustain truly excellent higher education in Virginia, we should be raising standards and asking more of our students.  The question shouldn’t be how to reduce the out-of-state student pool, it should be how do we raise in-state student achievement and performance so our residents are outperforming those kids from New Jersey and Pennsylvania that  we seem so fearful of.  We should be doing better, not changing the game to make our standards look better than those next to us.

A Responsible “No, Thanks?”

For quite some time, we have heard how the federal economic stimulus package was essential to stabilizing our nation’s economy… and our nation’s schools.  Nearly $800 billion in new funding, with almost 10 percent of that designated for K-12 and higher education needs, is now being readied for implementation.  In our K-12 schools in particular, we’ve heard how such funds are absolutely necessary.  Without federal assistance, and without it fast, we run the real risk of teacher layoffs, school closings, and academic years put in jeopardy.

Eduflack has already opined on the need to get the proper systems in place to ensure that these federal economic stimulants are being dispersed efficiently and are spent wisely.  blog.eduflack.com/2009/02/20/how-do-we-disperse-ed-stimulus-dollars.aspx  But recent days have posed a question that few anticipated when the House and Senate were negotiating priorities and spending levels.  What happens if a governor says no to his or her share of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act?
Who would say no to such a sizable check, particularly one that doesn’t have ponderous new regulations and oversights attached to it?  Well, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has been publicly discussing saying “no, thanks” to the feds.  Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is apparently considering the same thing.  And there are likely a handful of others (presumably all Republican governors) who will offer the same thinking, saying it is irresponsible for them to participate in what they view as an excessive, irresponsible federal funding program.
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard such debate.  Several governors originally decided to opt out of Goals 2000 money, resisting federal involvement in what they believed should be local decisionmaking in public education. Similar discussions surfaced at the start of the NCLB era, with states resisting what they perceived as increased federal oversight and significant unfunded mandates.  Such threats were empty, though, as states eventually all lined up to receive their earned share of what was previously the largest federal investment in K-12 education.  The largest, that is, until now.
Do Louisiana’s public schools — particularly those in the Recovery District — not benefit from increased Title I and special education funding?  Does Minnesota not gain from increased funding for teacher incentive programs and added dollars for colleges and universities?  Does either state (or any of the remaining 48, for that matter) not gain from ARRA funding, securing the dollars (for education and beyond) needed to fill the gaps caused by shrinking property values and depleted state coffers?
If Governor Jindal refuses ARRA money in Louisiana, it won’t save the taxpayers in the Pelican State a dime.  Their federal income taxes will not be reduced a penny because they are not participating in ARRA.  Their legislature can’t simply turn to alternative funding sources with a different sense of priorities or reduced accountability to fill the funding gaps.  We’ve passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act because we had nowhere else to turn.  This was our last, best chance to stabilize our social structures, particularly our public schools.
At this stage of the economic game, it is irresponsible for some governors to flippantly say “I’ll pass” when it comes to their state’s share of the stimulus package, particularly with regard to K-12 education.  Their schools need it.  They need dollars to fund teachers, keeping quality educators in the classroom and providing them the ongoing PD and support they need to do their jobs effectively.  They need money for instructional materials and technology to keep students on task as they acquire the skills they need to achieve.  They need funding for data systems and accountability measures, so we can improve instruction and monitor student progress.  They need coin to improve their school buildings and increase access to the Internet.  And they need the checks to meet our obligations when it comes to Title I, special education, and innovations necessary to continue to improve both access and quality of public education.
I recognize that individuals are already using stimulus funding to position themselves for upcoming elections, whether it be re-election in two or four years or a step up the ladder (yes, even for president) in 2012.  But sometimes responsible governance requires doing the responsible thing, and not necessarily the popular thing.  And sometimes it means setting aside partisanship to do what is best for the populace.  That doesn’t mean turning one’s back on stimulus money, it means ensuring that the money you receive is being spent wisely, aligned with both state needs and state priorities.  it means proving the critics wrong and showing such funding can be used responsibly and with focus on real impact and return on investment.
A smart governor can, will, and must use these stimulus dollars to improve public education in their communities.  Smart governors don’t say no when they are offered a strong helping hand (and a large check) at a time of real need.  And a really smart governor steps up an offers to take Louisiana or Minnesota’s share if they take a pass.  Our schools are hurting.  The money’s been approved.  If some states don’t want their share, there have to be others that are willing to “sacrifice” and put additional funds to use.  I’m sure Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour wouldn’t mind Louisiana’s share.  Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm would clearly benefit from Minnesota’s share.  And California’s Governator would gladly take both states’ cuts to apply to the Golden State’s budget.
   

How Do We Disperse Ed Stimulus Dollars?

By now, we’ve all hear the numbers.  Under the state stabilization fund, $53.4 billion for our governors.  For Title I, $10 billion.  Special education gets $12.2 billion.  The School Improvement Fund, $3 billion.  Head Start comes in a cool billion dollars.  With $250 million for state data systems and $200 million more for the Teacher Incentive Fund.  And then there are the subcategories.

There is no getting around it.  This is a massive injection of new cash into our nation’s public education system.  With a sweep of the pen this week, President Obama has more than doubled federal investment in K-12 education, providing our nation’s governors and their chief state school officers with enormous power as to how these new piggy banks will be broken into and what new local buckets will receive the shiny gold coins.
But it begs an enormously important question.  How will the funds be dispersed?  The buzz around the education community is that money will be distributed quickly, with initial chunks going out to the states before the end of the summer.  At the same time, we know that the U.S. Department of Education has yet to staff up, at least in terms of an undersecretary, deputy secretary, and virtually all of its assistant secretaries.
Some of this money will simply be spent using existing funding formulae.  The federal government and the states already have clear systems for dispersing and allocating Title I and special education (IDEA) funds.  Those systems will hold when it comes to getting the $12.2 billion in sped money and $10 billion in additional Title I funds out to the districts it is meant to stimulate.
But what of the state stabilization fund?  Does it require a new structure and a new relationship between the federal government and the states?  Does it require specific rubrics for tracking how funds are spent, ensuring they are not supplanting existing federal dollars and are delivering return on investment when it comes to both stabilizing the financial situation of our schools and boosting student achievement?  Do we even have a mechanism for the feds to cut these stabilization fund checks to the states in quick order?
One assumes that each governor will need to appoint an individual (or an office) in the state to serve as the point person for negotiation with the U.S. Department of Education on the stabilization fund.  Most think this point person will be the chief state school officer.  But in some states, we know that is likely not going to be the case.  Such a point person could reside in the governor’s office, the state board of education, or even the economic development office.  It could even be an outside consultant or group.  There is no one-size-fits-all implementation model here, at least not one evident in the new federal funding structure.  So how does it happen, and how does it happen so quickly?
In recent years, the closest model we have to implementing such an effort was the establishment of the Reading First funding program, as the previous Administration looked to quickly disperse $1 billion a year in new reading dollars.  Moving at lightening speed, it still took nearly a year to establish those state relationships, gain documents from the states on how the funds would be spent, and then write the checks and get them out there.  That was a billion dollars, and the funding was staggered as states tried to get their plans in order (some took well more than a year to get approved work plans in there, some moved more quickly).
And we saw how successful the implementation of that program was.  Moving too quickly, we opened the system up to abuse and the perception of mis-spending and mis-directed priorities.  Originally, ED promised swat teams prepared to go into those school districts receiving RF money, ready to evaluate if the money was being spent as intended and prepared to pull the funding if it was not.  Maybe we’ll follow through on the promise with state stabilization funding squads.
Now we are talking about a scope more than 50 times in size, on an implementation far faster than RF ever envisioned.  Maybe the RF model — and its means for dispersing funds to the states — is they system on which to build this new effort.  What is clear is there is a lot of work ahead for both ED and the states to make sure this economic stimulus money.  Everyone is waiting see the guidelines for new federal spending and how the money flow will be managed and monitored.  We need to move quickly, yes.  But we also need to move smartly.  
The stimulus package makes a major statement with regard to future investment in K-12 education and public school improvement.  It restructures the role of localities, the states, and the federal government in the process.  And it sets clear priorities for the pathways we must take if we are to make lasting improvement and invest this money as intended.  
Eduflack is a results guy, no question about it.  Process always takes a backseat for me, particularly when we have outcomes in the driver’s seat.  But this stimulus package — and the state stabilization fund — cry out for a clear, comprehensive, closely monitored process that ensures swift action, efficient spending, and documentable return on investment.  How do we make sure money is getting to the schools and students who need it the most?  How do we make sure we are using money to supplement existing programs, and not merely replacing existing state funding commitments?  How do we make sure we are having a true impact, beyond the dollar tally?
As more and more details on federal stimulus funding become available, we need to ensure we are getting such details on the process.  Now is not the time to follow a “trust us” philosophy.  We’ve all seen where that has gotten us before.

The Measure of a Successful Graduate

This has been an interesting week for national education standards and firm performance measures.  We celebrated President’s Day on Monday with AFT President Randi Weingarten making the case for national standards on the opinion pages of The Washington Post — www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/15/AR2009021501257.html.  She makes a compelling case, a case that Eduflack and other have been making for quite some time.

It also flows nicely from the report issued by NGA, CCSSO, and Achieve at the end of 2008, focusing on the need for the United States to pay closer attention to international benchmarking, a push to effectively capture the right data so we know how our students are performing when compared to their academic colleagues in other industrialized nations.
Yesterday, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland raised the ante a bit more, calling for an overhaul of the state’s Ohio Graduation Test, citing concerns that nearly one in 10 Ohio high school seniors fail to pass the OGT (after multiple attempts at success).  The full story can be found from Denise Smith Amos at the Cincinnati Enquirer — news.cincinnati.com/article/20090217/NEWS0102/902170316/1055/NEWS.  
It should be no surprise that some in Ohio are already wondering if changes to the OGT mean increasing standards and expecting more from our students (as is Strickland’s stated objective).  Typically when we talk about improving student assessment measures, it means one of two things.  The first is the fear we will ask for more from our students (as is happening in Ohio).  The all-to-often reality is it usually means a weakening of the standards, dropping expectations to ensure that more students are hitting the magic number and schools are reaching their AYP benchmarks.
But the Ohio experience raises a very interesting question.  Can our states provide an effective “graduation test,” one that is expected to measure the full value of a high school education, in the 10th grade?  Obviously, we aren’t testing students on the math and science concepts that are traditional in 11th and 12th grade classes (including Algebra II, Trig, Chemistry II, Physics, or even advanced life sciences).  In some locales, it means not measuring world or U.S. history.  In each and every school, a 10th grade “graduation test” only serves as half of an effective measure.
Yes, Eduflack understands the need to provide students a second chance to pass this important test.  Yes, I realize the stakes are high, particularly when you say a student can’t earn a diploma without demonstrating sufficient performance on a single test.  But can a test taken in the middle of one’s 10th grade year effectively measure the comprehensive learning acquired during the secondary school experience?  Can a graduation test taken two years early truly help postsecondary institutions and employers know the full skills and abilities of the students exiting our K-12 systems?
The answer is clearly no and no.  We tell every student that they need a high school diploma.  We tell them that dropping out is never a viable option.  More states are even shifting to an 18-year-old age requirement for students to drop out.  But how do we expect students to take their full high school experience seriously if we tell them in the spring of their 10th grade year (not even the mid-way point of the high school experience) whether they have passed or failed high school?  History tells us that “failure” tag is not one that inspires students to buckle down and do what it takes to pass on the second or third try.  Quite the opposite, it provides students an excuse to give up, whether then remain in the classroom or not.
Critics will obviously say that there is no effective way to administer a comprehensive exam and effectively evaluate students at the end of 12th grade; we simply don’t have the time to do it right.  It won’t be fair to students that they be denied their diploma because they failed an exam a week or a month prior to graduation, they say.  Students won’t have multiple opportunities to take the exam, working to fix what may have gone wrong.  Teachers won’t have the opportunity to provide the necessary interventions to fill the gaps.
That’s where concepts such as national standards come in.  Yes, we should know what every 10th grader (as well as other students) should know and be capable of doing at the end of an academic year.  Those standards are core to a successful K-12 learning experience.  If students are meeting standards at the end of 8th grade and 10th grade, they should be prepared to meet the challenges of a true graduation exam in 12th grade.  If they are off the mark come 10th grade, educators have two years to intervene and empower students with those educational building blocks they need to succeed.
Yes, Governor Strickland, the OGT is not rigorous enough.  Kudos for trying to do something about it.  Part of the problem is the nature of standardized testing.  Part of that is the reality that we cannot effectively measure high school performance less than halfway through the experience.  A truly rigorous graduation test requires measuring courses and content gathered in 11th and 12th grade.  A true exit exam, offered near the conclusion of 12th grade, may seem as the highest of the high-stakes test.  But it is the only way to truly measure whether our graduates have the skills and abilities holders of a high school diploma should have.  It is the only way to demonstrate to our postsecondary institutions and our local businesses and industries that K-12 graduates are capable of doing what we expect of each and every graduate.
National standards give us the regular, ongoing benchmarks to ensure we are hitting the academic marks we need to hit throughout the K-12 process.  Effective data systems — such as those being built in some states and those advocated for by the Obama administration through the economic stimulus process — provide us the information and the research necessary to ensure our kids are hitting those marks, while providing teachers the guidance on necessary interventions and needed steps to bring all students up to proficiency.  And meaningful, rigorous graduation exams, administered at the close of the high school experience, are the final measure to ensure the impact and effectiveness of that K-12 education.
This is not an either-or-maybe scenario.  We need the national standards, the data systems, the exit exams — and the policymakers, administrators, and teachers who know what to do with it all — if we are to regain our competitive edge and restore real value to a high school diploma.
If we are to deliver real return on investment for our school improvement efforts, we must take assessment and data seriously.  We can’t wait this out and assume it will get better on its own.  We need to get serious now about teaching, measuring, and evaluating the effectiveness of public education.