Cutting Off Our Thumbs …

We all recognize that state departments of education are hurting.  Even once they receive a significant financial booster shot from the federal stimulus to help pay for core instructional needs, states are still looking for places to trim, cut, or generally push back on.  Usually, we think that such cuts should first be directed at those areas considered expendable, the sort of luxuries our schools want, but just can’t afford during these belt-tightening times.

Who ever would have thought that such expendable programs would be English Language Learning efforts in the state of Arizona.  Unbelievable, but true.  Over in the Grand Canyon State, the state superintendent has recommended that the Arizona Legislature remove $30 million in ELL funding from the state budget, a nearly three-quarters cut in what was intended.
The full story can be found in the Arizona Republic — <a href="
Eduflack is not going to quibble with State Supe Tom Horne that Arizona is making great strides in ELL instruction.  I want to believe that Arizona school districts are doubling fluency rates under current efforts, and more and more students are becoming English language proficient.  I even want to believe Horne when Arizona will see “a dramatic increase in the percentage of students becoming proficient in English quickly.”
But our actions often speak far louder than our rhetoric.  Last year, Arizona provided its K-12 schools $40 million to implement new ELL provisions, state standards that many say require at least $275 million to staff and equip with fidelity.  So as the districts start to demonstrate improvement, even very early in the process, our response is to cut funding because clearly the program has already demonstrated effectiveness and accomplished its intended goals?  Foolishness.
Like it or not, the ESL population in states like Arizona will continue to grow.  School districts will continue to face increased needs to deal with non-English speakers, integrate them into the schools quickly, and ensure they are gaining core instruction in math, science, and even literacy in their native language as they are trying to learn English.  This is not a luxury or a value add.  This is a non-negotiable, particularly in states like Arizona, Texas, and others in the Southwest.
Instead, Arizona is now looking at establishing new ways to determine English language proficiency of its students.  This is akin to states that have dramatically lowered their state academic standards in math and reading to meet AYP requirements.  Changing the standard doesn’t get more kids proficient, it just gets them to pass a test.  And those kids who aren’t proficient are the ones that will struggle in school, may ultimately drop out, and will be unable to attain and retain good jobs that will pay the rent and support a family.
Let’s hope the Arizona Legislature takes a close look at its citizens, and its taxpayers, and realizes that Superintendent Horne’s request is a lose-lose-lose position.  It is a loser for the schools, who will be forced to deal with a growing problem with fewer dollars.  It is a loser for the students, many of whom have come to the United States for that better education and opportunity in the first place.  And it is a loser for the state, as they sacrifice a significant portion of the next generation of taxpayer and worker, the very engines that will drive the Arizona economy in the decades to come.

Advocating for Meaningful STEM Education

Earlier this week, ran a Commentary from Eduflack on how to advocate for meaningful STEM education, particularly at the state level.  The article was originally found here —  Thanks also to Fritz Edelstein and the Fritzwire for spotlighting the piece.

I’ve received a lot of response from folks on the piece, so I thought I would repost the original EdNews piece here, crediting EdNews as the publisher.

Advocating STEM Education As a Gateway To Economic Opportunity

By Patrick R. Riccards

Effectively integrating Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics (STEM) education and its impact on the economic opportunity into the culture is more important today than anyone ever anticipated.Our nation’s recent economic struggles, coupled with concerns about career readiness and 21st century jobs, have refocused our attention on infrastructure – both physical and human.At the heart of rebuilding our nation’s intellectual infrastructure is a STEM-literate society, and students equipped with the STEM skills needed to succeed both in school and career.

But implementing a STEM education effort isn’t as easy as it seems.To some, STEM is a retread of education programs offered decades ago or a recast of vocational education.To others, it is something for the future rocket scientists and brain surgeons, not for every student.To overcome these obstacles, states and school districts are forced to move into a mode of advocacy and social marketing, effectively linking K-12 education and economy and demonstrating the urgency for improvement to both.

Education improvement no longer happens in a vacuum.Call it communications, advocacy, PR, or social marketing, it all comes down to effective public engagement.For education reform efforts across the nation, ultimate success is more than just educating key constituencies about their cause and goals.True success requires specific action – implementing improvements in partnership with educators and other stakeholders to boost student success, close the achievement gap, and ultimately prepare every student for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century workforce. Such actions require us to move from informing the public to building commitment for a solution, and, finally to mobilizing around specific actions.

Making stakeholders aware of a concern like the need for STEM education is one thing.It is quite another to move the public to the more sophisticated level of informed opinion necessary to reach consensus and generate a sense of urgency that ultimately leads to the action of investing in a K-12 STEM agenda.But this is how great education reforms move from simply good ideas to great successes.

Before we can get audiences to adopt STEM education efforts and embrace the portfolio of research and recommendations available to them, we must first make them aware of the issues at hand.The informing stage makes people aware of the issue, developing a true sense of urgency for change.

While many decisionmakers recognize that there are problems in meeting the coming workforce demands, many do not agree on what those problems may be or what actions might successfully address them.Unfortunately, too many people believe that there is nothing that can be done to fix these problems. Those states that are poised to become leaders in STEM education must convince K-12 and postsecondary education leaders, current and potential employers, state and local policymakers, and the public at large that there are solutions that will work, and solutions their communities can get behind and support.

Ultimately, we do this by showing the enormous need for reforms in “schools like mine, in classes like mine, with kids like mine.” By focusing on past successes and proven-effective methods, educators can demonstrate the critical role STEM plays in our schools, economy, and community, helping make key decisionmaking constituencies understand the serious risks they face simply accepting the status quo. Thanks to groups like the National Governors Association (and a number of forward-thinking states) and the National Math and Science Initiative, such efforts are well underway.

Next, we shift into phase two — building commitment.Once parents, educators, and policymakers recognize the problem, they are ready to commit to a meaningful solution.Transforming a general need for improvement into a public call to arms for STEM education requires understanding that these solutions are the right ones to improve efficiency and success.

Inevitably, some people will reject proposed reforms. Some will be reluctant to face and accept the trade-offs that come from choosing a specific plan of action. Opponents will try to poke holes in specific reforms. The best way to avoid this resistance is to ensure that everyone is involved in the process and that all of their concerns have been heard.

After moving beyond initial resistance, stakeholders begin to weigh their choices rationally and look to a variety of options for moving recommendations into practice.Decisionmakers need to feel that they have a range of choices and a reason to make them.Successful advocacy clarifies the pros and cons of each decision and allow time and opportunity for deliberation.In Colorado, for instance, STEM leaders are working with business leaders and the P-20 Council to explore opportunities and make specific choices to meet the state’s educational and economic needs.

With that, we are finally ready to move to phase three — mobilizing for action.Changing attitudes and informing the debate is not enough. STEM education succeeds when policymakers and community leaders are actively supporting its solutions.Once our target audiences are engaged because they believe in the merits of our position, they will need to know what we want them to do to help accomplish these goals.So it is important that our communications and organizing efforts include specific actions – ideally actions that are easy and feasible – that supporters can take to help reach overall goals.

If history tells us anything, we know the public may agree that reform efforts are valid and will produce desired results, but may not be willing to change their behavior or adopt specific recommendations.This is
temporary, though.Given time, incentives, and opportunities to consider their core values in light of challenges and needs, stakeholders can reach the final stage of full intellectual and emotional acceptance of the importance of improving education opportunity for all.Now is the best time to make sure that there is a role for everyone to play in education improvement, giving stakeholders the tools and information needed to move themselves and others from awareness to action.

Education is an industry as driven by emotion as it is by fact.As a result, too often, stakeholders decide that inaction is the best action, out of fear of taking a wrong step or alienating a specific group. That is why too many groups, causes, and reforms struggle to develop true public engagement efforts that affect real outcomes.That’s where the Inform-Build Commitment-Mobilize Action model comes into play, offering education leaders one of the most effective methods to implement meaningful education solutions. Applying this model to STEM efforts is critical and will offer long-term impacts on strengthening our schools, our community, and our economy.

(Patrick R. Riccards is CEO of Exemplar Strategic Communications, an education consultancy, and author of Eduflack, an education reform blog.)

Published February 9, 2009

“Pink Friday”

With all of the talk about the federal economic stimulus package and its specific education provisions, there seems to be a common belief that education funds (particularly those block grants and discretionary moneys going directly to the state) have little impact on employment (or unemployment) across the nation.  For those not involved in K-12 education on a day-to-day basis, we just can’t see that school districts would look to lay off teachers in the middle of an academic year.  After all, who has the vision of a classroom full of students, lacking a certified educator at the front of the room?

Unfortunately, it is an all-to-real reality.  As states and districts face massive budget crises, personnel cuts are often the first thing to consider.  After all, human resources make up more than 80 percent of our school operating costs.  Between salaries, health benefits, and retirement costs, keeping a teacher in the classroom costs far more than the meager wages many of them take home every week.  So cutting a teacher here or trimming another educator there can mean real savings for a school district in a financial pinch.
Case in point, California.  By now, we’ve all heard about California’s dire financial situation.  Virtually every program is faces the budgetary guillotine.  State workers are being told to take unpaid leave.  The state legislature even recently considered a California-wide ban on the purchase of all instructional materials (textbooks, software, etc.) for two years in the hopes of saving upwards of half a billion dollars a year (the ban was defeated at the end of the legislative session in November, but is likely to be revisited with the new legislature this year).
Last year, during better economic times, California’s public schools issued initial pink slips to 10,000 public school teachers, with nearly 5,000 of them ultimately losing their jobs.  This year, with financial realities in the Golden State far worse than they were in the previous (the latest is an $11 billion shortfall for K-16 education), we have to expect the number of notifications and the number of layoffs  to rise dramatically.
Fortunately, some are looking to throw a spotlight on this issue, reminding California residents that the fate of their school teachers is at risk.  Using the power of the Internet, Stand Up for Our Schools has launched Pink Friday 2009, a collection of online tools, blogs, and discussion forums focused on March 13 — the deadline for California school districts to issue preliminary pink slips to educators.  Check them out at  
Even if you aren’t a California resident, Pink Friday is an endeavor worth a quick look.  It reminds us that the economic stimulus package is about more than tax cuts, school construction, and even $300 million in “green” golf carts.  It’s also about ensuring that our school districts have the funds to provide a high-quality education to all students.  And that starts with teachers.  We may not want to believe that educators will get caught in the middle of these budget fights, and that teacher layoffs could become a reality in far too many states and districts, but it is a grim truth.  Shrinking state coffers mean layoffs of public sector employees, and that includes teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals (even those in our beloved neighborhood schools).  
By this afternoon, we should know the full details of the economic stimulus package, including how much money is available to support teachers in the classroom and to provide school districts the needed financial resources to maintain their budgets and ensure that high-quality education and good teaching continues (particularly in those communities with the most at risk), even during such economic times.  Without such an investment in teachers, do we really think the next generation of students will be up to the rigors and challenges of the next economic crisis?  
This is not just an issue for current teachers working in today’s classrooms.  This is a topic that everyone — every state and local policymaker, every business leader, every parent, and every taxpayer — should pay close attention to.  When it comes to investing in our schools, priority number one has to be the teacher.  Without effective instruction, state-of-the-art buildings, the latest technology, and the greatest of instructional strategies will have minimal impact.

Running Schools as Businesses?

We often hear “if only we ran our schools like businesses …”  Over at USA Today this morning, they ran a snapshot of data collected as part of Deloitte’s 2008 Education in Business survey of 300 business executives and 300 educators.  The results should be surprising.  Among business executives, 82 percent say the U.S. education system would become more efficient and effective if it ran like a business. Among educators, that number drops to 56 percent (though still a solid majority).

Eduflack has done more than his fair share of focus groups and polling of American industry and knows all too well that corporate executives do not believe that today’s high school graduates are adequately prepared for the jobs that are to become available.  There has long been a disconnect between K-12 and our economic engines, and that shows in surveys like this.
But what exactly does it mean to run our schools like businesses?  Will our school districts be more effective if they are run like the banking, mortgage, or auto manufacturing industries?  Are we looking for a business model like Nordstrom’s, Macy’s, or Target?  Are we offering lessons from Ruth’s Chris or McDonald’s?  Are we learning from all the businesses chronicled in “Good to Great” or just those that haven’t enacted massive layoffs or declared bankruptcy?
The simply answer is that we simply cannot run our public schools like businesses.  Our public schools cannot refuse service to customers (students) they don’t wish to serve.  Our schools don’t invest in the research and development that most industries require.  We can’t choose not to locate our schools in certain communities because of low incomes or low return on investment.  We can’t hire and fire employees at will, nor can we reward those for a job well done or penalize those for one poorly done.  We can’t tap financial reserves or lines of credit when our budgets dry up (unless we are talking about bonds for construction or capital projects).  We can’t compete for customers, with local schools doing whatever it takes to win over parents and students for their business.  We can’t match supply with demand, requiring us to bus some kids great distances to their schools.  And we can’t even ensure return on investment, as schools are focused on inputs and processes, over outcomes and results.
Running schools as businesses is one of those great “straw men” issues that we often through out there as a substitute for talking about reforms or targeted improvement.  There are well run businesses and poorly run businesses.  Same goes for schools.  There are good CEOs and good superintendents.  There are union and non-union workforces in both.  There are competitors (for the schools, they would include charters and private education alternatives).  
At the same time, though, there are few businesses that are committed, let alone required, to serve each and every customer in the region (even those who may be difficult to serve).  There are few businesses that have their products and services closely regulated by the local, state, and federal levels.  There are few businesses that put their resources where they are least needed (like high-performing schools), while keeping their best employees away from the areas that need good help most (like our urban centers).
Can our schools learn from business best practices?  Absolutely.  We can invest more meaningful R&D.  We can provide teachers the ongoing training and professional development needed to adjust to the changes in the profession.  We can adjust our product (instruction) to meet the changes in our community and in our marketplace.  We can focus on ROI, measuring that all students are getting the education products they are promises.  And we can even offer satisfaction guarantees, where students or future employers can seek additional education or training if we find our graduates lack the skills one associates with the degree earned.
At the end of the day, there is no magic bullet for running American businesses and there certainly is no such solution for running our public schools.  Education can learn a lot from business, both good and bad.  But more efficient and effective?  We still don’t have universal agreement on what efficient and effective means in public education.  We can’t agree on how we measure student achievement or whether such performance is the measure of a school or a teacher.  And if our economy is any indication, our confidence in the efficiency and effectiveness of American business seems to be at an all-time low.
School improvement shouldn’t be about adopting a new “business” model or acting more business-like.  Like good businesses, our schools need to solve the problem.  Successful schools understand their customers, have a handle on their resources, know what their problems are, and identify and implement targeted, proven reforms to solve the problem.  Instead of stockholders, they answer to families and the local community.  Instead of stock prices, they measure themselves based on student learning and achievement.  And like any forward-looking profitable business, they are never satisfied with the status quo.

Golden Reading Results in the Golden State

For the past few weeks, Eduflack has been heartened to hear that the Obama Administration and EdSec Duncan are behind a continued federal commitment to reading instruction.  Yes, we all know that there were severe implementation problems with Reading First, and that such problems have led many a RF critic to demand the defunding of the program and the dismantling of our promise to do what works when it comes to reading, empowering every child with the gift of literacy.

Anyone who has read this blog for more than a week or two knows about my commitment to scientifically based reading.  A few weeks ago, I laid out a basic plan for how the Obama Administration can use the best of Reading First, while learning from its failures, to build a better federal reading effort.  You can see the full thought here —  
I’ve spent much of the past three years or so talking about the need to save RF.  Many times, I’m asked why.  Look at the IG investigation, I’m told.  Look at the IES study.  Look at the fights scientifically based reading research has caused.  Why would we want to save this?  For one simple reason.  It works.  And our kids are too important not to invest in what is proven effective and not to ensure that our teachers are using the very best instructional methods and have access to the most effective PD (rather than the hot flavor of the month or what a salesman is selling on that particular day).
Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education released a study that showed the effectiveness of Reading First.  Contrary to the IES study, this Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (OPEPD) study demonstrated real results of evidence-based reading in RF and non-RF classrooms alike.  We’ve talked about the data in Idaho and Ohio and other states that have benefited from an influx of federal reading money and a commitment to proven-effective instruction and professional development.  Now we have even more to talk about.
For those doubting Thomases out there, take a look at the latest research out of the great state of California.  Released more than a month ago, the California Reading First Year 6 Evaluation Report hasn’t gotten much attention (particularly here in our nation’s capital).  But it is worthy of the spotlight.
This is not just a water droplet in the great pool that is education improvement.  This study looks at data involving 157,951 students; 16,442 teachers, coaches, and administrators, 850 schools, and 110 school districts across California.  What did the good researchers out on the West Coast find?  Among the conclusions:  
1) Reading First has had a significant impact on student achievement in California.
2) The Reading First effect is meaningful.
3) Reading growth remains significant.
4) The Reading First effect generalizes across student performance levels.
5) Reading First significantly impacts grades 4 and 5 performance.
6) The Reading First effect generalizes to English learners.
7) Implementation of Reading First principles remains adequate but could be higher.
8) Principal participation and teacher program evaluations are strong predictors of achievement.
9) The Reading First program has led to the development of a sustainable, well-integrated structure and process of providing reading/language arts instruction in California.
10) Most special education teachers use their district’s adopted reading/language arts curriculum.
11) Schools have not yet begun to implement Response-to-Intervention (RtI)
The full report can be found here:       


So why is this important, other than the obvious that with so much RF money spent in California that it is good to see it has been put to good use and has provided?  It provides us with some valuable lessons as we consider how to build the next generation of federal reading instruction efforts.
First, evidence-based instruction works.  It has had an impact across California on virtually all student demographics, including special education and ELLs.  And despite the findings of IES, it is effective with the later elementary grades (as evidenced by its impact on California fourth and fifth graders).
Second, we have clear room for implementation improvement.  California achieved these results while acknowledging that fidelity to the principles could be better.  One can only imagine the true, measured impact if every one of those 850 schools had adopted RF completely and with absolute fidelity.
Third, educators are the key to effectiveness.  Principal and teacher involvement is a predictor of achievement.  There was a reason that up to 25 percent of RF money was intended for professional development.  It was to ensure those involved teachers put the full power of the research to use in their classrooms.  When they do, the results follow.
Fourth, RtI — seen by many an education profiteer as the next great profit center — still has not taken hold in California.  And if it hasn’t taken hold in Cali, it will be slow to truly go to scale across the nation.
Finally, we need federally supported reading instruction based on the core principles of proven research and effective, content-based professional development.  OPEPD showed us that the heart of RF was having a lasting, positive impact on our schools, whether they receive RF money or not.  Data from states like Ohio and now California show the power that evidence-based reading can have on student achievement.  Now is the time to build on those successes, documenting best practice, continuing to train teachers, and getting our classrooms the instructional materials and resources they need to teach reading effectively.
Yes, Reading First is dead (and deservedly so because of its implementation problems, perceptions of programmatic favoritism, and the opportunity for profiteers to sell snake oil under the guise of research).  But now is the time to open up that last will and testament, see what the law has left for policymakers (federal and state), teachers, and students, and use that inheritance to build a better, stronger, more effective program for our nation’s classrooms.  Our work is not done until every child is reading at grade level.  And we still have a long way to go before we get there.  Thankfully, California and others are leaving us the trail markers to help us get to our ultimate destination.

Getting to the Heart of DCPS, Part II

A friend and colleague raises a very interesting, cogent, and all-around dead-on point regarding DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s op-ed in this morning’s Washington Post (written about previously today).  How can a commentary piece like this be successful if there isn’t an “ask” involved?  There was no sale, there was no request for one’s vote, so wasn’t it a wasted opportunity?

In the general sense, I would agree with her every day of the week and twice on Sunday.  So it really has me thinking that I’ve let Rhee off easy this morning (in part because I think I see the larger end-game than is reflected in her 700 words).  Successful communications — whether it be a meeting, a speech, a commentary, or a conversation — requires maximizing opportunity.  When you are given access to the opinion pages of one of the top daily newspapers in the country, you need to take advantage of that.  Given the forum, if you fail to ask for something, it is a missed opportunity, no?  Isn’t that Sales 101?
Not necessarily.  That’s why I raise the question of intended audience.  We can only truly gage the effectiveness of a commentary like Rhee’s if we understand who she is trying to reach, first and foremost.  From the tone, the content, and the context, it is fair to say Rhee was not speaking to DCPS teachers, the parents of DCPS students, or even the regular reader of The Washington Post.  She wasn’t looking for votes for her alternative pay structure, nor was she looking for PTAs to rally behind her efforts in the name of DC’s students.  No, I would argue that her intent was much more primal than we would think.
Rhee had two goals here.  One, she remind key decisionmakers of her relevance and of the innovation behind her proposed teacher pay plan.  Thus, her only intent was to inform.  She wasn’t looking to sell or get buy-in.  She already has that buy-in from federal lawmakers, DC officials, and leaders at key education organizations.  She just needed to goose them a little to remind them of what she was doing and demonstrate that it fits with the new world order that took over federal education January 20.  She needed to show that in a golden federal education age that will spotlight Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, KIPP, ProComp, and others, she was still at the top of the reform class.
Second, she needed to reassure her potential funders.  It is no secret that Rhee has lined up significant corporate and philanthropic support for her plans at DCPS.  These donors are ready, willing, and able to support the sort of innovation she is advocating for and has been talking about since her arrival in DC almost two years ago.  This audience would be her soft spot today.  She needs to keep these donors on the line, even though this transformation is taking far longer than originally intended.  Today’s piece — and its intended crosswalk with upcoming federal education policy — was likely intended to remind those funders that this plan will work, DC will be at the forefront, and this is a model that others will follow (and one that will ultimately be embodied in national priorities coming out of a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act, along with a realignment of Title II).
If you look at it that way, the only ask or the only sale that Rhee is seeking is one of patience.  She needs her supporters to continue to trust her while she goes to the mattresses with Randi Weingarten and the AFT.  Today’s piece tried to position DC’s reforms on the side of angels, fighting the union to do what is best for teachers.  But if we were expecting Rhee to ask for help or support from rank-and-file teachers, principals, parents, CBOs, or the community at large, we were looking in the wrong place.
This was a strategically placed commentary designed to serve a specific purpose.  That purpose was not to amplify the drumbeat for public support nor was it drive new stakeholders to specific actions to help reform DC’s ailing public schools.  And that’s the cryin’ shame here.  
We all know Rhee isn’t in the business to make friends or to build consensus.  I appreciate (and applaud that).  But she needs a broader tent and a larger group of allies if she is going to succeed, particularly when it comes to implementing what is a complex and controversial idea (assuming she gets it passed the AFT).  While her piece in today’s WaPo serves a very specific purpose, it uses a water cannon to deliver what required a delicate pin prick.  And unless the Post is going to give her a weekly column, that does constitute a wasted opportunity of sorts.  Too many people will read today’s commentary not knowing its intended audience or purpose, triggering far more questions and concerns from those audiences on the periphery.

Advocating STEM Education as a Gateway to Economic Opportunity

Over at, Eduflack has a new commentary piece on how STEM education efforts — particularly those led at the state level — can have a real, lasting impact on strengthening our economy.  I’ve said it often and I’ve said it loudly, STEM education is an enormously powerful tool to our P-16 infrastructure.  We unlock that power by understanding the issues, knowing the audiences involved, their pressing concerns, and how STEM can help erase those issues and empower decisionmakers to use our educational levers to make instruction more relevant for all students while building a workforce pipeline ready and willing for the challenges of the 21st century economy.

This commentary piece focuses on how we effectively market STEM to the teachers, business leaders, elected officials, and families who are all a part of the solution.  And it walks you through the steps we must take from informing those audiences about STEM to driving them to specific actions that improve our schools and strengthen our economy and community.
Happy reading!