A Necessary ARRA Watchdog

Typically in federal education policy, we hear a great deal about inputs, but not much about outcomes.  We talk about how many dollars are going to go into a program, how many students or teachers might be affected, and how many stakeholders were involved in the process.  It is almost as if we are secure in the notion that how a decision was made is far more important than the impact of the decision itself.

It’s why, for instance, the good folks over at Education Week are unable to get specific information on how $5 billion in Reading First dollars were actually spent.  Sure, we know how the states and the LEAs intended to spend them.  But after requests, cajoling, and such, Kathleen Manzo and the EdWeek team still can’t get specific answers on what those dollars were actually spent on.  And don’t even get Eduflack started on how effectively we are measuring the impact and results of that federal expenditure.
So when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act offers up tens of billions of new education dollars with virtually no strings attached, it is easy to see why some people get worried.  Yes, each state will submit a plan for how they spend their new windfall, with such plans due to the U.S. Department of Education this week.  Checks will be cut two weeks from now, after a pro forma review of those state plans.  We should expect a few states to have their initial plans rejected, if for no other reason than ED can “demonstrate” that they are reviewing the plans and have protocols in place for how the money should be spent.  If South Carolina comes in requesting dollars to retire their school bonds, that will be rejected.  If California comes in expecting to spend its ARRA buckets on teacher salaries, I suspect that will get the “NO” stamp as well.  But on the whole, states will be approved, and then we will leave it up to the LEAs to actually spend to the state guidelines and deliver the results that ED is expecting from this stimulus.
I so want to believe EdSec Duncan and his team when they state that stimulus dollars (and we assume future ED fiscal obligations) should be primarily focused on boosting student achievement.  Innovations need to align with student performance.  The Race to the Top is all about closing the achievement gap and boosting high school graduation rates.  And it is all tied together by new data systems that ensure we are effectively capturing, tracking, and utilizing student achievement data to improve instruction, performance, and quality.  Makes perfect sense.  After all, what is the role of our public schools if not to teach our kids and get them performing at proficient levels at the very least?
But the devil is always in the details.  For many, relying on ED to measure the effectiveness of their own policies and their own spending is much like letting the fox guard the hen house.  After a year or two, after more than $50 billion in new money sent out to the districts, do we expect ED to come back and say the money was misappropriated?  Do we expect OPEPD reports demonstrating that funds did align with intended goals or that we have no demonstrable return on investment?  Of course not.  We expect all to declare “mission accomplished.”  ED provided protocols for how the money would be spent, the states assured the feds they would spend the funds per those guidelines, and LEAs were given their new dollars after promising the states they wouldn’t blow it all on video games and bubblegum.  We’re all happy, even if there is no uptick in student achievement and there is little movement in innovation because we have met our process goals.  We’ve achieved the desired inputs, outcomes be damned.
That’s why I am so excited by the announcement coming out of Education Trust today.  Through their Education Watch, Kati Haycock and company will offer an unbiased, third-party analysis of “how effectively states are using the infusion of federal support.”  They do so believing that “the public will need accurate, reliable data” if we are to truly measure the success of ARRA on school improvement.
EdTrust’s full announcement of the initiative can be found here.  The series of Education Watch indicators, broken down by state, can be found here.  Most interesting is the “starting line” Ed Trust provides, a detailed chart tracking state achievement gains and achievement gap closings over the past decade.  Building on their past successes the ARRA Education Watch is modeled after EdTrust’s similar efforts in 2003, 2004, and 2006.  
I realize that EdTrust didn’t set out to be the ARRA watchdog, but someone has to do it, and there are few as qualified and capable as EdTrust.  Does Education Watch abdicate ED’s responsibility to do the same?  Of course not.  Does it prevent other groups, including NGA, CCSSO, and even the teachers unions from acting in the same manner?  Golly, I hope not.  But someone had to be the first to step up to the plate, and better EdTrust that a status quo voice just trying to protect what is theirs.
Over the last few years, EdTrust has gotten a bit of a bad rap.  Many in the chattering class have seen the organization, and Kati Haycock in particular, as being the cheerleader-in-chief for No Child Left Behind.  It is an unfair criticism.  EdTrust has always been about pushing for higher student achievement for all students, particularly those who had been the forgotten cause of our rising achievement gaps.  When NCLB became the law of the land, it only made sense that EdTrust would fight to make sure the law lived up to its promise.  They pushed hard on achievement and assessment, believing that data would guide us out of the land of mediocrity and show us the path to equity and achievement, particularly for low-income students and students of color.  After all, one is far more effective using the tools (and the funding streams) available to exact change and improvement than they are shouting into the wind and simply wishing upon a star for things to be different.
As we got caught up in the politics of NCLB and deciding who was with us or against us, we seemed to lose track of the true mission of groups like EdTrust.  For the Education Trust, the mission is simple.  “The Education Trust works for the high academic achievement of all students at all levels, pre-kindergarten through college, and forever closing the achievement gaps that separate low-income students and students of color from other youth.  Our basic tenet is this — All children will learn at high levels when they are taught to high levels.”
So who, exactly, wants to stand against that goal?  If anything, the U.S. Department of Education adopt that mission as their own, applying the lens of high academic achievement and the elimination of the achievement gap to every policy and spending decision it puts forward.  If that isn’t the goal for public education in the United States, what is?
I know the folks over at EdTrust have thick skins, and they are prepared for any of the slings and arrows the status quoers will throw at them, either now or in an expected post-NCLB era.  I also know that the team shies away from no fight, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to move us closer to the overall goal of student success for all.  If that means being the ARRA watchdog, so be it.  Regardless, Education Watch should provide some valuable insights, data, and recommendations as we move forward.  (And if this makes me a cheerleader for EdTrust, so be it.  I’ll gladly pick up the pom-poms and the megaphone if it means narrowing the achievement gap as quickly as possible.)  
Who knows, it may actually help ensure that all of these federal dollars are actually spent on efforts that boost student achievement … and we are able to actually see such a boost.  Wouldn’t that be something different and innovative.

Redefining Education Innovation

Without doubt, the hot buzzword in the current era of education improvement is “innovation.”  We hear it on almost a daily basis for the EdSec and from every state, school district, advocacy organization, and corporation looking to take full advantage of the opportunities made available through new economic stimulus funding.

Check out Eduflack’s latest commentary on Education News about innovation and how we should define it in this new post-NCLB era.  The full article can be found here.  Lots to think about as we try to ride the “innovation” wave while making a demonstrable difference when it coms to school improvement and student achievement.

School Improvement, the Gates Way

Over at the Washington Post this AM, Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt asks the multi-billion-dollar question, How would Bill Gates repair our schools?  Reflecting on a recent interview Gates had with WaPo, Hiatt opines that Gates is an advocate for the sort of reforms that EdSec Arne Duncan and DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee evangelize.  He points to the status quo — collective bargaining agreements, tenure, resistance to charter schools, and opposition to pay for performance — as some of the great roadblocks that Duncan, Rhee, and even Gates face in their quest to improve public education.

Eduflack agrees that, for the most part, Duncan and Rhee must play within the system.  For all of this talk about innovation, Duncan must still balance the concerns voiced by traditional groups such as AASA, NSBA, the teachers unions, and others.  As for Rhee, all but the good chancellor have recognized that the American Federation of Teachers is not simply a work-around, and is a reality that must be talked to, dealt with, and respected.  In both cases, innovation and improvement can only come with, to a great degree, buy-in and support from those considered a part of the education “status quo,” the very component so many of us point to as the roadblock to real, significant change.
But Bill Gates, and the Gates Foundation, are a completely different story.  In recent years, the Gates Foundation has invested billions of dollars into our public schools.  It has experimented in small schools and has staked its claim in high school reform.  It has supported dual enrollment and early college programs and invested in libraries and other resources.  Now, it embarks on a path of human capital, seeking to invest in the teachers and administrators that are a necessary component to school turnarounds and school improvements.
So who says Gates has to play by the rules and the confines of the current system?  After all, this is a man who released a box full of mosquitoes as an international conference so all could feel the possible threat of malaria.  This is a man who built a global corporate giant out of his garage by refusing to abide by mores and by never hearing the word no.  This is a man who is investing significant wealth into American public education, despite so many people telling him it was a lost cause and he was throwing his money into a pit that will never yield a return.
To date, the Gates Foundation is thinking about the right issues.  School structure.  Teacher training and support.  Rigor and relevance of instruction.  Connections between K-12 and the workforce.  Pay structures that reward success.  Student assessments and standards.  Return on educational investment.  The Foundation has tried to implement these issues in a number of ways, trying pilot projects across the nation, looking for promising practice, and hoping to find real solutions that can be adopted at scale across the United States.
The latter is the most important point for reformers.  How do we adopt proven solutions at scale?  To date, we are tinkering around the edges.  We can point to achievement gap solutions in Ohio, early college successes in the JFF network, and virtual options in Texas, for instance.  These issues have come, in large part, from working within the system, as Gates seeks to supplement existing efforts and provide the funding to do more within the current system, essentially layering potential solutions on top of systems that may well be broken at their core.
More than a year ago, Eduflack reflected on this same issue.  How can Gates get more bang for its buck?  How can it move from tinkering to dropping a brand-new engine into our public schools?  How does it move from supplementing what is broken to supplanting?  How does it use its power, vision, and checkbook to literally build that better mousetrap.
In recent months, Bill Gates has laid out his vision for what our schools need to improve.  That vision is reflected in Hiatt’s piece this morning.  Flexibility in structure, evidenced by a greater need for charter schools.  Flexibility in human capital, evidenced by new formulas for training, hiring, and rewarding teachers.  Strong standards by which all students are measured, ensuring all students are embracing both the relevance and rigor of 21st century education.  And an unwavering commitment to success, whereby dropout factories are a thing of the past and dropping out is viable option for no student and no family.
So it has me back to my original thinking.  Forget about supporting existing school districts and trying to layer new programs on top of old, failed efforts.  Now is the time for Gates to be bold and different.  Now is the time for the Gates Foundation to chart a different course.  Now is the time for Gates to reject the status quo, and chart a completely new path for K-12 education in the United States.
It is a simple one.  Gates needs to get in the business of empire building.  Instead of investing in urban school districts and trying to overcome decades of problems that have become ingrained on the schools’ DNA, Gates needs to begin building alternative school districts.  That’s right.  Forget charter schools, we need charter districts.  If the current model is broken, as Gates claims, the answer is not to fix.  The true answer is to create a better one.  Move into an urban center and set up a K-12 charter district.  Determine the most effective, research-proven curriculum.  Train, hire, and support the best teachers.  Reward those teachers properly.  Apply strong standards to every student, accepting no excuses and demanding proficiency and success from all.  Better align our elementary, middle, and secondary school programs.  Engage students early on, so they see the relevance of their academic pursuits.  Offer internships and externships so all students see the career opportunities before them.  Build the buildings, implement the learning structures, acquire the technology and learning materials, and do what is necessary to get us to success.  No boundaries to prevent us from doing what is necessary.  No excuses to fall back on.  
These new school districts can build on the successes of Gates programs to date.  They can take the best of Early College High Schools, of the Ohio High School Transformation Initiative, and of Green Dot Schools.  They can also build on the efforts of KIPP and Teach for America and even from school districts like NYC that are truly thinking outside the box.  They can borrow and steal from the very best in school reform, community engagement, corporate innovation, and some of the news ways of thinking coming from small, nimble not-for-profits.
Then take this new system and provide families the choice.  Those who wish to remain in the traditional school district that has served their family for generations can do so.  Those who are seeking new options, those who are seeking new opportunities, those seeking more choice can opt for the Gates route.  It is about providing options and choice.  If implemented properly, such choices not only offer a strong Gates model, but the competition forces traditional school districts to act differently, improve, and meet the demands of their current customers — the families.  If done well, the rising Gates tide would lift all schools — traditional publics, charters, and privates alike.
I know what many are thinking — what an absolutely ridiculous idea.  Funders don’t do such a thing.  They provide resources to support the current infrastructure. They fund new projects and new ideas.
 They supplement, they don’t compete.  Yes, that may have been the way we have traditionally worked, but does it need to be that way?  Do philanthropies need to simply serve as advisors, consultants, and checkbooks, or can they get more active?
When Bill Gates built Microsoft, his mature business model was not to simply advise IBM on the operating software they needed.  He determined the status quo — both in terms of hardware and software — weren’t cutting it.  He tried working as part of that system, and it just didn’t work.  So he turned the industry on its head, positioning software as the driver in the technology industry.  Microsoft became Microsoft because he offered consumers a choice, and he offered them a better one.  After a while, it was no choice at all.  If one wanted to succeed in business, one had to use Microsoft products.
So why can’t we do the same in education?  Why can’t Gates use its investment to build a better school district?  Take all of those great minds that have been assembled at the foundation, and do it differently and do it better.  From the top down and the bottom up, build a school structure that is both student and teacher focused, geared toward real results, and not beholden to the status quo or the ways we used to do it simply because that is how we used to do it.
Could this path be a complete failure?  Absolutely.  The Foundation could get into the middle of it and find that curriculum selection, teacher training, and CBAs are far more difficult than they ever envisioned.  They could discover that managing buildings or dealing with operational issues is not what they want to do.  They could realize that human capital management is simply too difficult a nut to crack, particularly if they are not in charge of the pre-service education that delivers the teachers to their door.  They could even find that the first or second generation of this experiment is a failure, and they have to keep changing and adapting on the fly to meet goals and deliver on their promises to the community.  And, shudder, they could even find themselves lapsing into models and behaviors far too similar to the school districts they are trying to change and offer an alternative to.
Or it could just work.  Gates could pick a four or five cities, invest significantly in those cities and demonstrate how district-wide change can happen at the city, school, classroom, and student level.  They could identify those best practices that can indeed be replicated at scale in districts throughout the nation.  They can find a way to build better pathways and make real opportunities available to more students in need.  They can truly build a better learning environment, particularly for those who have been dealt a bad hand for far too long.
Let’s face it.  If anyone can do it, Gates can do it.  And at this point of the game, not trying is far worse than the risk of failure.  If the EdSec is going to stake a number of school districts with the funds to Race to the Top, why can’t Gates do the same?  We let ED fund internal improvements designed to improve current districts.  Gates funds the construction of new school districts focused on 21st century needs and expectations.  And we see who provides a better education, and a better ROI.  Let the best model win.
Now that’s a race any reformer would watch, from pole to pole.

Actually Getting Kids to College, or Just Talking About It?

By now, Eduflack readers know two evident truths about successful communications.  The first is we must raise awareness about the problem and what people know about it.  The second is we must drive audiences to action, getting them to change their behaviors to fix said problem.  It is modern-day advocacy.  Being informed is no longer enough.  If we aren’t taking the action steps to improve student achievement, then any “PR effort” isn’t worth its salt.

For years now, we’ve screamed from the rooftops that each and every child in the United States required a college degree.  The U.S. Department of Education said that 90 percent of new jobs demanded some form of postsecondary education.  We’ve talked about the problems of dropout factories and business’ need for a college-educated workforce.  We’ve discussed 21st century skills and the learning needs one acquires after high school.
Earlier this week, the KnowHow2Go campaign released new public survey information on its efforts to boost public awareness of its efforts to inform eighth to 10th graders on the need for college.  The results include:
* More than one-third (35 percent) of students say they are regularly taking steps to prepare for college (up from 26 percent in 2007)
* Nine in 10 students (91 percent) have spoken to an adult about college prep, up from 80 percent
* Six in 10 students (63 percent) have seen or heard of KnowHow2Go and its advertising campaign
* Eight in 10 students (81 percent) said they were familiar with the courses needed for college, up from 70 percent two years ago
The data points are interesting, don’t get me wrong, but what do they really tell us?  As we are improving our ability to inform students, are we actually changing student behaviors?  Unfortunately, we just don’t know.  This data seems to raise just as many questions as it provides answers.
One-third of students are taking steps to prepare to college.  Interestingly, one-third of high school students will go on to college.  And one-third have gone on to college for decades.  What does that mean?  In 2007, those students who were likely going on to college didn’t know they were taking the steps necessary to get there.  So now those same students know they are asking the right questions and getting the right information.  But what are we doing for the two-thirds of ninth graders who will never go on to college?  What questions are they asking?  What steps are they taking?  And why aren’t they doing what it takes to prepare for postsecondary education?
Ninety percent of students have spoken to an adult about college.  What about that remaining 10 percent?  What are they talking about?  Who are they talking to?  And how are we defining an adult?  Based on my previous research with high school students on whether or not they go on to college, the vast majority of students say they trust their parents first and foremost when it comes to college decisions..  Guidance counselors usually rank near the bottom of adults when it comes to those voices they value.  So are these students talking to parents and trusted adults, those they may actually listen to, or are they talking to the guidance counselors and such that they will immediately discount?
Eight in 10 students are now familiar with the courses needed for college.  But are they taking them?  Again, information is great, but are students acting on the information?  Are they enrolling in higher level science and math classes?  Are they taking dual-credit opportunities?  Are they taking the ACT or SAT test?  Are they passing their state proficiency exams? It is one thing to say we know what we need to do.  It is something completely different to actually do it.
What do we know?  We know that only a third of today’s ninth graders will go on to postsecondary education.  We know that of those who enter college, more than half are unprepared for college-level work, evidenced by the high numbers of students requiring remedial math and ELA courses.  We know that a third of students are still dropping out of high school, and those numbers reach almost 50 percent in our African-American and Hispanic populations.  We know that drop-out factories are still far-too-prominent in too many of our urban centers.
I give KnowHow2Go credit for boosting awareness of the issue.  Based on their data, their message is getting out there and students are more aware of the issues (at least those students who are participating in the survey).  But how is that awareness being used to actually change public behavior?  How do we use that awareness to boost high school graduation rates?  How do we use it to close the achievement gap?  How do we use it to actually boost the college-going rate, particularly among minority and low-income students?  How do we get more students to pursue the multiple pathways of postsecondary education?  How do we move this newly acquired information into real action that is improving student achievement and preparedness for the opportunities in the 21st century workforce.
Growing up, GI Joe taught Eduflack (and many others) that knowing was half the battle.  He was right.  KnowHow2Go has done a good job of informing students of the questions they need to ask and the issues they need to think about.  But what are they doing with that information?  Success only comes when we can show more students are actually going to college.  Success only comes when we demonstrate that students are actually taking the courses they need to go on to college.  Success only comes when we have tangible results to show for it, real results tied to grad rates, college preparedness, and the number of students gaining postsecondary degrees.  Success only comes when we fight that other half of the battle.  And far too many of us still need to gear up for that fight. 

The Ol’ Eduflack Education DNA

It may surprise you, but on more than one occasion, Eduflack has been asked where he gets off opining and advising on education policy and reform efforts.  After all, I started my career in politics, not academia.  And while I have been in education consulting for well over a decade now — helping government agencies, not-for-profits, advocacy groups, and corporations develop the strategic plans, messages, organizational positioning, and policies they need to improve public education — I’ve been trained on the proverbial ed policy streets.

I usually laugh off such questions, explaining that education improvement is not just a passion, it is embedded in my DNA.  Some folks don’t quite get that.  Over at This Week in Education, Alexander Russo unravels some of that education DNA.  I appreciate the recognition as a edu-family, so figure I’ll provide some additional details.
In my Eduflack postings, I often make reference to my educator parents.  I usually stay away from talking about the edu-wife.  But now you get the whole story.
My father, Dr. Michael Riccards, spent his entire career in higher education.  I grew up a higher education brat, following dear ol’ dad around the country as he served as dean of arts and sciences at University of Massachusetts at Boston, provost at Hunter College in NYC, president of St. John’s College in New Mexico, president of Shepherd University in West Virginia, and president of Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts.  He also helped establish the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston and built the Robert C. Byrd Presidential Library in West Virginia.  A presidential historian by trade, pappy is the author of more than a dozen books, including A Republic If You Can Keep It (a history of the foundations of the U.S. presidency) and The Ferocious Engine of Democracy, a two-volume history of the office of the presidency (which President Clinton claims to have read on Christmas break during one of his final years in the White House).
My mother, Barbara Riccards, is a career educator.  A 10th grade English teacher, ma did her student teaching at St. Catherine’s Indian School in New Mexico and taught as an NEA teacher in New Mexico, West Virginia, and Massachusetts.  While in the Mountain State, she was one of those teachers walking the picket lines in 1990, part of the statewide strike that led to boosts in teacher pay and improved instruction across the state.  She later went on to teach in Washington, DC, leading 10th grade classrooms at Marriott Hospitality Charter High School and McKinley Tech High School.  Luckily, she was never my English teacher.  She had a reputation for being the toughest teacher in school.  No excuses.
And edu-wife?  Dr. Jennifer Riccards works in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (OPEPD), running ED’s Doing What Works website (a terrific resource of best practices for educators and technical assistance providers).  With an undergraduate and master’s degree from Stanford University and a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Pennsylvania, Jen has worked for the White House, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and local education non-profits.  We can see who has the real education brains in the family.
And where did Dr. Jennifer get her focus?  Her father is a retired superintendent in Massachusetts, having run multiple K-8 school districts simultaneously (meaning he had to answer to multiple school boards and town councils on a daily basis).  He’s also a former special education teacher.  And her grandfather was a former assistant superintendent for the Philadelphia Public Schools, helping lead the desegregation of the Philly schools.
So when I talk about education being in Eduflack’s DNA, I mean business.  My views on higher education are shaped, in part, by my father’s life experiences.  My thoughts on teachers, professional development, and incentive pay are influenced by the experiences and views of my mother.  And my opinions on most education issues are filtered through my wife’s education and life experiences (though she’ll be the first to admit I appreciate her insights, but don’t often follow them).
After college, I was planning on going to grad school, hoping to follow the academic path my father had followed.  I wanted to do for congressional history what he did for presidential history.  He counseled me against it, advising that my personality would drive me onto the higher education administration track (like dear ol’ dad).  So I set off for Capitol Hill instead.  Who would have thought I’d end up where I’ve ended up all these years later.
Does that mean the edu-kids are destined for their own careers in education?  Only if they really want to.  Personally, I hope they pursue other paths.  I hope Miggy’s current dream comes true, and my three-year-old grows up to become Batman (without the tragic loss of his parents, of course).  And for my 18-month-old princesa, Anna?  It’s too soon to tell, but I’m putting my chips on her becoming the first Latina governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.  No pressure, though.  She has a few more years to figure it out.
  

Counting on Technology?

It seems like we have talked about technology in the classroom since the dawn of time.  We’ve waded our way through the era of one-to-one computing, down the path of virtual K-12 education, and now into the stream of 21st century skills.  We have focused on ensuring kids had access to computers in the classroom, in the community, and at home.  We’ve watched as the cost of technology plummeted, school district access to bandwidth dramatically increased, and students gained a tech savviness that one never quite expected.  But these seem to be spurts of discussion, not the sort of sustained dialogue that lead real change and real improvement.

Earlier this year, the economic stimulus package focused, in part, on delivering hundreds of millions of dollars for technology investments in our K-12 classrooms and for data systems for those who are keeping watch over our kids.  So with all of the money spent, all of the programs launched, and all of the technology talk, what do we actually know?  How is our continuing investment in technology affecting student learning, student achievement, and student opportunity?
Sadly, we aren’t close to having the answers to such essential questions.  But we are getting closer.  As a nation, we are now taking a closer look of our schools’ technology capacity, use, and effective integration.  And this week we have two interesting data sets to help move the discussion forward.
First up is Education Week’s Technology Counts.  To be expected, the good folks at EdWeek offer a close look at how our states stack up with regard to capacity and use of educational technology.  This year’s report card looks at four key issues: state standards for students include technology, state tests students on technology, state has established a virtual school, and state offers computer-based assessments.  How do our states do?
On the whole, we are scoring a B when it comes to technology use.  We’re weakest when it comes to state tests students on technology, with only 13 states making the grade.  We’re strongest when it comes to state standards, with 50 states hitting the mark (only DC failed to earn the checkmark in that column).
What’s disturbing, though, is the list of states that seem to be struggling when it comes to integrating technology into their instruction and assessment.  The laggards on EdWeek’s list include California, New York, Ohio, Colorado, and Nevada.  Based on their economies, Eduflack would have expected better.  These are bellweather states that we look to as leaders.  They are homes to some of our largest urban districts, those communities we specifically reference when we talk about the need to innovate and close the achievement gap.
It is even more startling when you see those states that scored perfect As, states like Louisiana and West Virginia that few would put at the top of any educational leaders list.  but to their credit, these states are doing the right things and taking the right steps to better use technology.
While EdWeek looks at how our states and school districts are (or aren’t) using technology, Project Tomorrow released its annual Speak Up data on students and their use of technology.  Project Tomorrow seems to paint a far less optimistic picture.  Our schools may be providing capacity, but are students seeing its effective application?  Only 39 percent of high schools surveyed said they were doing a good job preparing students for the future, with only 32 percent of parents sharing that view.  And one-third of students say the inability to use their own technology — laptops, cell phones, MP3 players — at school is hampering their learning process.  
Think about that for a second.  One in three students sees the problem in being unplugged when they pass through the schoolhouse doors.  One-third of students feeling they are being deskilled in school, with classroom technology offerings not coming close to the gadgets and devices they are using at home, on the school bus, and in virtually any other non-educational setting.
So what do we make of the best-of-times/worst-of-times data offered by EdWeek and Project Tomorrow?  For Eduflack, there are a few key conclusions:
* We are doing a better job of integrating technology in the learning process, as evidenced by the EdWeek numbers.  But we still have a long way to go.  With 40 percent or more of states failing to make the grade on three of the four Technology Counts categories, there are miles to go before we should be satisfied.
* As we pump hundreds of millions of dollars into new ed tech, we still are struggling to identify best practices.  Only nine states truly make the EdWeek grade.  But do they offer up models that the laggards can follow?
* Our students are more tuned in to the learning and application gaps than we realize.  They know they are being shortchanged when they are asked to check personal technology at the classroom door.  And now their parents are even recognizing that tuning out may cost their kids in the long run.
* Ed tech is still not getting the attention or focus it deserves.  The Project Tomorrow announcement has gotten zero press coverage to date.  Technology Counts has not gotten the recognition it deserves.  And there seems to be little pressing demand for the details on how ARRA spending on education technology will be directed.
But it isn’t all bad.  The growth of virtual schools is an interesting surprise.  Twenty nine states are now offering virtual education.  Florida is mandating it in every one of their school districts.  Alabama is requiring virtual education for graduation.  The fact that so many states — including many that would be described as status quoers in public education — recognize that virtual education can supplement the learning and achievement process is a positive development to say the least.
As is typical, I want to know more.  I want to know how online social networks are being used to support student learning.  I want to know how technology is being used to develop and deliver meaningful professional development for teachers, breaking down geographic barriers so educators can share best practice.  I want to know how we integrate technology in the classroom to technology in testing to technology in data collection and interpretation.  I want to know not only how we keep from deskilling our students, but how do we keep from deskilling our new teachers who were brought up on the same technologies and learning platforms are students seem to hunger for.  And I want to know how we dispel, once and for all, the silly beliefs that low-income and minority students don’t have access to such technologies.
The true measure of all of this, though, is what we do with the information we have.  What will middle-of-the-pack or laggard states do to catch up to West Virginia, South Carolina, and Arizona when it comes to education technology?  How do we ensure that technology is integrated into the core curriculum, used to provide new learning opportunities and new skills in traditional subjects like history, science, and foreign languages?  How do we use technology to better assess student ability and better identify and deliver the interventions students need to improve?  How do we build useful data systems?  How do we use technology to keep kids engaged and interested in what is happening in the classroom?  How do we use ed tech to up-skill our students, and not de-skill them?  How do we help schools, parents, and students feel that they are gaining the tech skills necessary to succeed a
fter the school years are completed?  
And from a practical perspective, how do we ensure that technology and its proper acquisition and application is included as part of any Race to the Top grant or school improvement and innovation effort?  How do we take what we know to improve, rather than just maintain?
A lot of questions, I’ll grant you.  But all necessary.  This week’s data helps guide the inquiry process.  But it can’t be a once-a-year discussion any more.  Effective use of technology in the classroom needs to be a daily point of discussion with policymakers, administrators, educators, and families.  If we expect to boost student achievement, close the achievement gap, and compete on those international benchmarks, it is a non-negotiable.  Technology allows us to innovate, do things differently, and engage students on core subjects in new and exciting ways.  if the name of the game is improvement through innovation, how can we neglect the role of technology in any solution?

Finding a School Year Model that Works

We all know how the system is supposed to work.  You start your school year right after Labor Day.  You attend school Monday through Friday, usually from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., for the next 10 months or so, with breaks for Christmas and the spring and most of the major holidays.  You wrap up in early June, with students planning three months of fun and working parents looking for three months of childcare coverage.  Despite popular belief, many teachers use their summer months to take seasonal jobs to supplement their incomes.  Rinse and repeat.

Over time, folks have pushed back against the model.  We’ve had those who believe the school day should start later in the morning, particularly for secondary school students (the premise being their minds aren’t as sharp first thing in the morning and it would help better manage transportation issues).  We’ve had those who say the system is built on an agrarian notion that children needed to be home during the summer months to help work the fields and harvest the crops (a task few of our students are doing these days).  And we’ve even have those who believe that extended summer break is a detriment to student learning, offering too large a gap in instruction and forcing a new re-ramp up process each fall that sets many students behind in the learning process.
So from time to time, we hear the calls for year-round schooling, where the school year will be 12 months long (for today’s debate, let’s set aside the collective bargaining agreements virtually every teacher operates under and believe such a move to be possible).  Typically, the arguments against year-round schooling have little to do with the students or with instruction.  We fret over how to deal with child care (if managing summer break weren’t hard enough, now we need to manage a series of long breaks across the year?!), what it means for schools with no air conditioning, and what it means for transportation and food service costs.
We also talk about the need to innovate, the need to do something different to spur student learning and boost student achievement.  Is there learning skill and content loss as a result of a three-month vacation?  Yes, if parents aren’t keeping their kids reading and engaged during that summer break.  Could a year-round schedule provide students a true learning scaffolding that lets us build on knowledge acquisition without having to rebuild annually?  Yes, assuming we are providing the proper supports and professional development for the teachers we would be asking more of.  Is it even feasible?  We may soon know, thanks to the good educators over in Milwaukee.
About a week and a half ago, Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent William Andrekopoulos floated the idea of taking the entire district year round.  The idea has yet to be embraced, and a recent study of Milwaukee’s pilot efforts show mixed results.  But he is soldiering on.  (The most recent article can be found in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here).  I must admit, I’m not sure what to make of the research study.  To me, it doesn’t seem like they have enough year-on-year data to make any hard decision yet.  And the fact that many kids in the year-round classrooms didn’t realize the new school year started August 1, and didn’t roll in until September, raises all sort of issues.  But you have to give Andrekopoulos credit for trying to think outside the box.  He has his eye on the goal line, and isn’t letting recent criticism or current budget problems hold him back.  
But I would push the good superintendent even further.  MPS has never been afraid to try new things in the quest for student improvement.  Just look at their experiments with both vouchers and charter schools.  You will be offering year-round school in about 10 percent of your buildings this coming fall.  At best, this is still a pilot.  But you are piloting it under the notion that school year is still just 175 academic days.  Why not expand that?  If you are worried about student learning retention, why not push it to 200 academic days.  That’s less than a 15 percent increase in academic time.  WIll it boost student achievement scores 15 percent?  Maybe.  We don’t know what impact it will have, but one has to assume that additional classroom time, time that is focused on academic subjects, can only help student achievement on the state exam.
What about just extending the school day itself?  If we can’t boost the number of academic days, what about adding an extra hour of instruction to those 175 days we have?  Traditionally scheduled schools can add an extra class.  Block-scheduled schools can explore topics in further detail.  Again, we expand the amount of academic-focused time in the school year, it logically follows we will expand student achievement, no?
The timing of Milwaukee’s call for year-round schooling is an interesting one.  Just yesterday, USA Today reported that, in face of current budget realities, more and more schools are looking at shifting to four-day instructional weeks, shortening the school year, and such.  They cite an Arizona district looking to cancel Friday classes for the next two years to save a half-million dollars in HVAC and transportation costs.  A California district that is dropping block scheduling so it can save a million bucks in reduced teacher need.  And even a Kansas district that changed the end of the school year from May 22 to May 1 to reap a whopping $32,000 in annual savings.
Don’t get Eduflack wrong.  I recognize the grim realities the current budget crisis is having on our schools.  We are asking school districts to do more and more with less and less.  But at a time when our top educational concern should be boosting student achievement and equipping all students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in even the toughest of economic storms, is the answer really cutting back school days and reducing the amount of time students are spending in a structured learning environment?  For struggling students or those in poor communities, is less instruction, reduced access to teachers and role models, and even fewer days with a hot breakfast and lunch provided the path to closing the achievement gap and providing opportunity to all?  Hardly.  And let’s face it.  When we talk about scaling back the school day or cutting instructional time, it is low-income and minority kids that are hit first and hit hardest.  How in the world do we close the achievement gap while denying them classroom time?
In our current pursuit of innovation and our race to the top, it seems we should be looking for ways to do more with what we have, not to do less.  If we want our kids to achieve, to hold their own on international benchmarks, and just to be able to read and write a grade level, we need to expand learning opportunities, not shrink them.  We need to call for more mandatory learning time, not move courses and pathways into the optional category.  We need to expand the learning day, expand outside-of-school-time academic efforts, and restructure our efforts so we maximize resources and provide more to our students.
In business, tough economic times often lead to two paths of thinking.  The first is to hunker down, make deep cuts, do with the bare minimum, and hope we can ride out the worst of it.  That seems to be what so many of our schools are preparing to do today. The second path, the path that many an industry leader and innovator chooses to take, is to use these times of uncertainty and worry to expand.  To grow.  To make acquisitions.  To do different things.  To redefine oneself to new markets and new customers, taking advantage of uncertainty by
demonstrating your own strength, certainty, and ability.
We need to find more of the latter in our K-12 infrastructure.  The EdSec and his team are promising billions in resources to schools that seek to innovate and improve.  Let’s just hope those dollars are going to school districts that are pushing to do more and try new, and not to those that are hoping to hoard for the next rainy day or tough budget choice.