Opportunity First, Then Achievement

How do we close the achievement gap?  The long-term NAEP data released earlier this week clearly demonstrate that we, as a nation, have been unable to make any real inroads at reducing the achievement gaps between minority students and white students.  Despite all our efforts and the best of intentions, the gaps between African-American and white students are as large as they were two decades ago.  The gaps between Hispanic and white students are as large as they were two decades ago.  And one can assume the gaps between low-income and high-income students are as large (or even larger) than they were two decades ago.

Some have looked at the NAEP scores, viewing them as a mantra from heaven.  Forget the gaps, they say, we need to focus on a rising tide that has lifted all boats.  Eduflack is the first to acknowledge that, as a nation, we made improvements, particularly in reading instruction.  And we did see upticks for all disaggregated groups.  A definite plus, particularly in an era where so many have questioned our focus on student achievement and evidence-based standards.
But there is no shaking the fact that the achievement gap is very, very real.  It is public enemy number one for our public schools.  If white students are outperforming minority students by 20, 30, or 50 points on standardized math or reading exams, that is a real problem.  All of the interventions, policies, and standards in the world mean very little if we can’t get all students up to a common level.  We cannot guarantee all students equal pathways to success as long as we are posting significant gaps in student learning and achievement.
Over the last few months, the education community has been focused on the notions of improvement and innovation.  In many ways, such concepts are step three in the education continuum.  Step two, leading to such innovation, is student achievement.  To get there, our first step must be one of opportunity, ensuring every student has access to the learning opportunities and resources that are necessary to moving down the pathways of success.
This AM, the Schott Foundation for Public Education released national data for its Opportunity to Learn Resource Index (OTLRI), a data-based tool designed to evaluate students’ access to such educational resources and opportunities.  Schott will be releasing state-by-state educational opportunity numbers next month, but the national numbers are just as frightening as the recent NAEP data:
Specifically, Schott found:
* Black students only have a 47 percent “opportunity to learn,” and Latino and low-income students only have a 53 percent “opportunity to learn,” compared to white, non-Latino students
* Only 15 percent of Black students are currently in well-resourced, high-performing schools, while 42 percent are in poorly resourced, low-performing schools
* Latino, American Indian, and low-income students attend poorly resourced, low-performing schools at similar percentages as Black students
* The average White, non-Latino student is twice as likely to be in a well-resourced, high-performing school
Why are these numbers so important?  We simply cannot close the achievement gap if we aren’t adequately resourcing those students on the losing end of the gap.  We can’t expect African-American and Hispanic students to pull themselves closer to their white counterparts if they are being asked to do more and more in poorly resourced, low-performing schools.  We can’t provide all students the promise of equal paths of success when white students are twice as likely to attend a well-equipped school than minority students.  
Full disclosure, Eduflack has been working with the Schott Foundation on early strategic efforts for its Opportunity to Learn Initiative, of which OTLRI is a centerpiece.  But I am involved in such issues because it becomes very personal for me.  Loyal readers know that, at the end of the day, it all comes back to family for me.  My views on education improvement are rooted in my experiences growing up in an education household, son of a college president and a high school English teacher.  It is rooted in the realization that my maternal grandfather was a high school dropout, who never saw the value of formal education, but who worked his tail off for nearly 40 years to raise a family of five children.  And it is rooted in knowing where my own children come from, and the paths that were almost taken for them.
Two days ago, my son celebrated his third birthday.  Miggy was born in Guatemala to a single mother with no formal education and an absence of basic literacy skills.  She put Miggy up for adoption a day after he was born, hoping for a better life for him, one where he could access a full spectrum of opportunities and could fulfill his true potential.  Last fall, Miggy’s full birth sister joined our family.  Now 19 months old, Anna Patricia entered this country just like her brother.  Both were immigrants in search of a better life.  And although Miggy came to the United States at seven months old and Anna at 13 months old, both are ESL children. 
Their story is not unlike a growing number of 21st century Americans.  As their father, I know I can provide them the educational (and other) opportunities that they may not have received otherwise.  They’ll get the formal early childhood education programs necessary to be fully prepared for the K-12 experience.  They will attend public schools in one of the finest school districts in the nation, gaining access to highly qualified and effective teachers and classrooms that are properly supported and resourced.  They will participate in a rigorous college prep curriculum (our district uses I, and they will have access to high-quality postsecondary options.  Miggy and my princesa will be provided every opportunity to learn, and if they don’t I will raise holy hell to ensure that any barriers are removed.
But I look at the Schott numbers and know my two children are the exception, not the rule.  Their fellow Hispanic students will have half the chance to access true learning opportunities than they do.  Hopefully, they will be at the top of the curve on the achievement gap, posting achievement numbers that can help close the Hispanic-white achievement gap.  They will demonstrate academic proficiency early on, and will never look back.  They will avoid the drop-out factories, and will never see dropping out of high school as a viable option (as my grandfather did).  They will be provided every opportunity to learn.
Our national goal is every student achieving and every student succeeding.  We want every student reading and math proficient by fourth grade, every student graduating from high school, and every child pursuing some form of postsecondary education.  It doesn’t matter their race, family education level, or family income level.  That is our goal for each and every child.  That is why we are growing closer and closer to the notion of a high-quality education being a right, and not a merely wish.
But we can’t achieve that goal until every child is provided an equal opportunity to learn.  And that opportunity cannot be the lowest common denominator.  Every student needs access to real, demonstrable educational resources.  Every student needs access to effective, well-trained teachers.  Every student needs pathways to the future.  Every child needs the sort of opportunities that Miggy and Anna will now have.
Until we can get to that stage, we can never close the achievement gap, and we can never eliminate the battle between the haves and have nots in public education.  Half a chance is not a chance.
 Fifty percent opportunity is not an opportunity.  And true achievement and innovation cannot occur without equal access to real, measurable resources and opportunities.  I know that is true for my two children, and I know it is fact for each and every child attending public schools in the United States, particularly for those for whom a strong education is their only chance at real success and real choice.

The Good, Bad, and NAEP

Whether we like it or not, the name of the game in public education in the United States is student achievement.  It is the one mean by which we measure or successes, determine our progress, and decide whether we are doing an effective job in our public schools or not.  Usually, that manifests itself in performance on state assessments or how schools stack up when it comes to AYP.  But on those few special days each year, we also have National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, scores.  The Nation’s Report Card provides us the best national snapshot on student academic achievement we can find … until we finally get our act together and adopt and enforce national academic standards.

The NAEP Long-Term Trend Results are out, and this year’s numbers are both good and bad.  The Associated Press has a good piece on the topic here.
As Eduflack is the poster child for pessimism, let’s start out with that which should cause educational improvers and agitators the most heartburn and the largest reason for concern.  And special thanks to the folks over at Education Trust for breaking down the numbers and adding to those things that keep Eduflack up at night.  Chief among out NAEP concerns,  are two simple words — achievement gap.  The data breakdown from our EdTrust friends:
* In reading, African-American nine-year-olds scored 44 points lower than their white peers.  At 13, the gap was 39 points.  At 17, the gap was 53 points.
* In math, Hispanic nine-year-olds scored 23 points lower than their white peers.  At 12, the gap was 35 points.  At 17, the gap was 33 points.
* The reading gap between African-American and white 13 year-olds was 21 points in 1990.  It is 21 points in 2008.
* The reading gap between Hispanic and white 13-year-olds was 24 points in 1990.  Today, it is 26 points.
* The math gap between African-American and white 13-year-olds was 27 points in 1990.  It is 28 points today.
* The math gap between Hispanic and white 13-year-olds was 22 points in 1990.  Today, it is 23 points.
It is not all doom and gloom, however.  According to the latest NAEP numbers, we are making real progress in reading instruction.  Since 2004, student reading achievement has increased in all three age brackets.  This is particularly true in the elementary grades, where performance among all groups of students (African-American, Hispanic, and low-income included) increased significantly.  
Why the difference in elementary school reading, the sort of difference that could put a smile on even the most curmudgeonly of education reformers?  We might not want to say it out loud, but some may actually want to consider that Reading First and our emphasis on scientifically based reading instruction has actually worked.  For those nine-year-olds tested under NAEP, SBRR is the only form of reading instruction they have ever known.  Their instruction and their teachers’ professional development has been evidence based and rooted in our strongest scientific principles.  We have applied what works in their classrooms, and used scientific measures to determine instruction, PD, and resource acquisition.  We’ve let the research chart the path, and now we’re arriving at the destination.  Reading scores are up, and they are up in a way far more significant than we have seen in past years.  The only significant change to the process or variable in the formula between 2004 and now is the successful implementation of SBRR.
The only logical conclusion from this is that SBRR, and Reading First, actually work.  We focused our dollars and our efforts on teaching children in the elementary grades to read with scientifically based reading instruction.  We’ve hemmed and hawed and questioned and doubted for years now about the effects.  But if one looks at the Long-Term NAEP trends, the only logical conclusion one can make, at least looking at the recent gains on elementary reading scores, is that SBRR works.  And the drop-offs in reading achievement gains in the later grades only speak to a greater need to expand the reach of SBRR and fund and implement scientifically based reading programs in our middle and secondary grades as well.
But these positive outcomes for elementary school reading (and don’t let anyone fool you, they are indeed positive outcomes) still can’t mask the far greater concerns raised by these NAEP scores.  The achievement gap is still staggering, and we seem to have made no effort in closing such gaps over the last two decades.  If we look at our middle schoolers, white students are scoring nearly 25 percent higher on math and reading tests than their African-American and Hispanic friends.  For African-American and Hispanic students, the achievement gap seems to grow over the years, and is at its worst in high school.
What is particularly frightening about the achievement gap among 17-year-olds is what it doesn’t include.  For instance, among 17-year-old African American students, the reading achievement gap is 53 points.  That’s among those students who are still in high school at age 17.  What about those who have dropped out between ninth and 11th grades?  Are we to honestly believe that those students who choose dropping out as an option do so as reading and math proficient learners?  In our urban centers, where drop-out rates reach near 50 percent, what does it tell us that the learning gap is 50 points JUST FOR THOSE REMAINING IN SCHOOL?  We can’t possibly believe that the achievement gap is getting better.  This should be a huge warning sign that, despite the best of intentions, our achievement gap is only getting worse.
The headlines touting American students are making gains in reading math are reason to smile, particularly when we look at those elementary school reading performance numbers.  But the stark, disturbing data regarding the achievement gap makes crystal clear that the achievement gap is not a temporary problem nor is it an issue that simply mandates a band-aid solution or will heal itself.  We’ve been talking about the gap for more than a quarter century, but we’ve made little progress in identifying a real solution.
When it comes to public education in the United States, the achievement gap is public enemy number one.  It denies a real chance to far too many students.  It strengthens a culture of educational have and have nots.  It puts huge cracks and gaps in our pipelines to both postsecondary education and economic success.  And it demonstrates that true equality in education and opportunity remains little more than an urban legend for far, far too many children across the United States.
We need to do better, and we must do better.  We are still competing in a great race to mediocracy, not to the top.  Hopefully, we can use these numbers to make specific improvements to how we teach and how we learn.  Hopefully, we can use these numbers to see that SBRR works, and we need to extend it into the middle and secondary grades to improve reading achievement scores, particularly with African-American and Hispanic students.  And hopefully we will realize the status quo simply cannot stand, and we must take real, strong, and measurable actions to improve the quality and impact of instruction, particularly with historically disadvantaged student populations.
Yes, we are making progress.  But we still have a long way to go before we can truly celebrate student achievement on the NAEP.  Accepting the achievement gap as a way of life is accepting that a quarter of our young people don’t have access to the pathways of success.  That’s a future that none of us should be willing to
accept.  These numbers should be a clarion call to our states and districts about the need to ensure every dime of available education dollars is going to reach those students most in need.  We need to stop talking about delivering the minimum, as required under the law, and focus on providing the best, particularly for the minority and low-income students who are the victims of the achievement gap.  We need to break the cycle, and remove skin color and wallet size as factors in learning and student success.   

Robbing from Schools to Pay Prisons in Maryland

When the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was signed into law last month, it provided a sigh of relief for a great many school districts that were fearing dangerously severe budget cuts.  Without doubt, the economy was taking its toll.  Real estate taxes are down, and school district budgets would pay the price.  Then ARRA swoops in to save the day, offering State Fiscal Stabilization Fund dollars to ensure that school budgets avoid the ax.  The pledge was to assure level school budget funding for the higher of the past two budget years.

Along the way, folks have remained fearful.  We’ve heard of state legislatures looking to slash public school funding believing that ARRA dollars could simply fill the gaps.  We’ve heard of schools looking to use stimulus dollars to fund long-term obligations, forgetting that such money is a one-time-only spend that is not promised for future years.  But we haven’t been that worried about school districts following through with cuts after all, believing that the tens of billions of dollars designated to our public schools under ARRA would do its job.
But in this morning’s Washington Post, we read that we can’t take such assumptions for granted.  In a piece by Nelson Hernandez, we learn that Prince Georges County, Maryland is asking for wavers to gut more than $23 million from its public schools budget, even with the large ARRA honey pot close enough to taste.  
The reason?  The county executive claims that the schools have been well-funded in the past, and he needs the dollars to take care of issues such as public safety.  Imagine that.  In an urban district that has long struggled and has just started to make progress (just the sort of district the Obama administration is targeting with many of its education improvement policies), we seek to slash the budget because they’ve done alright in years past.
To be fair, County Executive Jack Johnson isn’t looking at ARRA funds.  He’s asking the State of Maryland for a waiver from his legislative mandate regarding the minimum that must be spent on local public education.  At a time when the value of an education has never been more important, at a time when we see the intersection between the strength of our schools and the strength of our economy, at a time when the federal government is providing new dollars to support our public schools, in a school district that can best be labeled a home to historically disadvantaged students, we are purposely seeking to spend less money.  We are seeking to provide less than the minimum required by law.  We are seeking to strip well-deserving schools of the opportunities and resources they need — and the taxpayers are supporting.
Jack Johnson should be embarrassed he made such a request, and he should be ashamed that he used such a specious argument to try and strip needed funds from schools in need.  Hopefully, Maryland State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick can step in and ensure that Prince Georges County Public Schools continues to at least receive the bare minimum resources required under the law.  And hopefully, all of PG County will rally behind Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. to advocate for the needs of PG schools.
Eduflack doesn’t doubt that PG County has financial needs when it comes to public safety and other community issues.  But you don’t rob from the schools to pay for the prisons.  If anything, we need to do the reverse.  We all know the data about educational opportunity and student success.  And we know the research on lost opportunities and a life of failures and struggles.
We are looking to communities like PG County to continue their school turnaround, improve student achievement, and expand opportunities to learn.  That’s why we are giving them the additional resources to do so, ensuring that schools are spared cuts in the short term.  How do we expect our students — particularly those in historically underserved communities — to achieve if we are now seeking special dispensation to deny them the bare minimum when it comes to school dollars and resources?
If PG County is the latest test case, let’s hope we can figure out how to pass the test.  In this age of growing demands for student achievement and expanding student achievement gaps, we should be raising our financial minimums when it comes to school funding, not seeking ways to lower them.  True leaders, Mr. Johnson, find a way to inspire and offer opportunities to their constituents.  They don’t say we’ve done well enough in the past, so its time for you to feel the pain now.  It is now way to lead, and it is no way to educate.

Presidential STEM

For those who thought STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) education was going to get swept away in the educational tsunamis of economic stimulus, core curriculum debates, student performance concerns, and a new national emphasis on achievement and innovation, guess again.  Speaking before the National Academy of Sciences this morning, President Barack Obama spoke of the future of science and innovation the United States.  And a good portion of it focused on education … STEM education.

I’ll let the President speak for himself here.  Lots of interesting information, particularly the shout-out to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  As I’ve noted previously, I’ve been working with the Pennsylvania STEM Initiative and the public/private partnership in the Keystone State that is driving the terrific STEM progress Gov. Ed Rendell and company is leading.  So this is a nice hat tip for the PA STEM Initiative and for other NGA STEM states that are investing in statewide, systemic STEM efforts.
So humming “Hail to the Chief,” here is a segment of the President’s STEM remarks this morning:

Fifth, since we know that the progress and prosperity of future generations will depend on what we do now to educate the next generation, today I am announcing a renewed commitment to education in mathematics and science.  

Through this commitment, American students will move from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math over the next decade. For we know that the nation that out-educates us today – will out-compete us tomorrow.

We cannot start soon enough. We know that the quality of math and science teachers is the most influential single factor in determining whether or a student will succeed or fail in these subjects. Yet, in high school, more than twenty percent of students in math and more than sixty percent of students in chemistry and physics are taught by teachers without expertise in these fields. And this problem is only going to get worse; there is a projected shortfall of more than 280,000 math and science teachers across the country by 2015.

That is why I am announcing today that states making strong commitments and progress in math and science education will be eligible to compete later this fall for additional funds under the Secretary of Education’s $5 billion Race to the Top program.

I am challenging states to dramatically improve achievement in math and science by raising standards, modernizing science labs, upgrading curriculum, and forging partnerships to improve the use of science and technology in our classrooms.  And I am challenging states to enhance teacher preparation and training, and to attract new and qualified math and science teachers to better engage students and reinvigorate these subjects in our schools.

In this endeavor, and others, we will work to support inventive approaches.  Let’s create systems that retain and reward effective teachers, and let’s create new pathways for experienced professionals to enter the classroom.  There are, right now, chemists who could teach chemistry; physicists who could teach physics; statisticians who could teach mathematics.  But we need to create a way to bring the expertise and the enthusiasm of these folks – folks like you – into the classroom.

There are states, for example, doing innovative work. I am pleased to announce that Governor Ed Rendell will lead an effort with the National Governors Association to increase the number of states that are making science, technology, engineering and mathematics education a top priority.  Six states are currently participating in the initiative, including Pennsylvania, which has launched an effective program to ensure that his state has the skilled workforce in place to draw the jobs of the 21st century. I’d want every state participate.

But our work does not end with a high school diploma.  For decades, we led the world in educational attainment, and as a consequence we led the world in economic growth. The G.I. Bill, for example, helped send a generation to college. But in this new economy, we’ve come to trail other nations in graduation rates, in educational achievement, and in the production of scientists and engineers.

That’s why my administration has set a goal that will greatly enhance our ability to compete for the high-wage, high-tech jobs of the 21st century – and to foster the next generation of scientists and engineers. In the next decade – by 2020 – America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. And we’ve provided tax credits and grants to make a college education more affordable.

My budget also triples the number of National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships. This program was created as part of the Space Race five decades ago. In the decades since, it’s remained largely the same size – even as the numbers of students who seek these fellowships has skyrocketed. We ought to be supporting these young people who are pursuing scientific careers, not putting obstacles in their path.

This is how we will lead the world in new discoveries in this new century. But it will take far more than the work of government. It will take all of us. It will take all of you.

And so today I want to challenge you to use your love and knowledge of science to spark the same sense of wonder and excitement in a new generation.

America’s young people will rise to the challenge if given the opportunity – if called upon to join a cause larger than themselves. And we’ve got evidence. The average age in NASA’s mission control during the Apollo 17 mission was just 26. I know that young people today are ready to tackle the grand challenges of this century

So I want to persuade you to spend time in the classroom, talking – and showing –young people what it is that your work can mean, and what it means to you. Encourage your university to participate in pr
ograms to allow students to get a degree in scientific fields and a teaching certificate at the same time. Think about new and creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering, like science festivals, robotics competitions, and fairs that encourage young people to create, build, and invent – to be makers of things.

And I want you to know that I’m going to be working along side you. I’m going to participate in a public awareness and outreach campaign to encourage students to consider careers in science, mathematics, and engineering – because our future depends on it.

And the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation will be launching a joint initiative to inspire tens of thousands of American students to pursue careers in science, engineering and entrepreneurship related to clean energy.

It will support an educational campaign to capture the imagination of young people who can help us meet the energy challenge. It will create research opportunities for undergraduates and educational opportunities for women and minorities who too often have been underrepresented in scientific and technological fields – but are no less capable of inventing the solutions that will help us grow our economy and save our planet. And it will support fellowships, interdisciplinary graduate programs, and partnerships between academic institutions and innovative companies to prepare a generation of Americans to meet this generational challenge.”

Couldn’t have written it any better myself, Mr. President.  Hopefully, policymakers, educators, and industry leaders will all take note, lending their endorsement and intellectual and financial support to moving STEM efforts forward.  STEM is the perfect intersection of educational and economic opportunities.  And I may be biased, but the work being done by Gov. Rendell and the Pennsylvania STEM Initiative is the perfect model of promising practice for states and communities to embrace, bringing the public and private sector together for a common goal and a common dream.

Gaps, Equality, and Student Achievement

For nearly a decade now, the buzzword in education reform has been student achievement.  Thanks to NCLB and AYP, we were all about the test scores and whether learners were able to show year-on-year gains, demonstrating that their skills and abilities were improving academic year after academic year.

Often overlooked in our push for improved student achievement has been the student achievement gap.  While we were tracking how students were doing longitudinally, we were missing the boat on the growing performance problems between the haves and the have nots.  How were African-American students measuring up compared to white students?  Hispanic students versus white students?  Native-American students versus white students?  Low-income students versus rich students?
Since the release of A National at Risk two and a half decades ago, we have realized the achievement gap should be a top concern, one that we need to address and, more importantly, one that we need to solve.  Despite improvements in student achievement, performance gaps are still there, still large, and still very much a destructive force in our nation’s public schools.  Yesterday, McKinsey & Company released a new study on the achievement gap, offering up some pretty startling statistics.  According to McKinsey, achievement gap data can predict, as early as the fourth grade, that the achievement gap can result in:
* Lower rates of high school and college graduation;
* Lower lifetime earnings;
* Poorer health; and
* Higher rates of incarceration.
Why is this so important?  First, student achievement is about more than just student test scores.  It has a wholesale and long-term impact on students, families, and the community at large.  McKinsey estimates that the achievement gap between students of color and white students cost the nation upwards of $525 billion in 2008, or 4 percent of our GDP.  For the gap between rich and poor, the cost was upwards of $670 billion, or 5 percent of our GDP.
Such numbers should be unacceptable to a nation that prides itself of the quality of its public education system and the often misguided notion that every child has access to equal opportunities and high-quality chances when it comes to their education and their future.  What is clear is we are not providing all students equal access to meaningful learning opportunities.  Poor students do not have the same learning opportunities and the same resources as rich students.  Black and Hispanic students do not have the same learning opportunities as white students.  Fifty-five years after Brown v. Board, we believe in equal education, but we aren’t delivering on it, particularly when it comes to students in our lowest performing schools and our struggling economic communities.
The McKinsey research was released in conjunction with the Education Equality Project, an effort joining the unlikely bedfellows of NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and the Rev. Al Sharpton.  EEP is looking at a series of issues on how to bring real, measurable equity to our nation’s public schools.  Issue one for EEP is teacher quality.  Their first briefing paper can be found here.  The highlights are not groundbreaking, but remind us of some key issues that school districts — particularly those serving historically disadvantaged populations — must consider when they look at how to improve the quality and outcomes of instruction:
1) Recruit the best possible candidates for teaching jobs;
2) Give aspiring and veteran teachers the right incentives and targeted training to perform well in the classroom;
3) Evaluating teacher performance fairly but rigorously;
4) Dismissing incompetent instructors after they have had an opportunity to improve their performance; and
5) Placing the best teachers where they are needed most.
Off the bat, we should be able to agree to 80 percent of the above recommendations.  Idea number four is likely to cause heartburn and major concern for the teachers unions and many who don’t want to rock the boat too much.  Such ideas, though, force us to look comprehensively at the ways we can address the issues and close the gaps.  They start debates that need to be had.  Will EEP win the day on removing teachers from their duties?  Unlikely.  But raising the subject forces superintendents and policymakers to take a much keener look at how we measure the effectiveness of the teachers entrusted with closing our learning and achievement gaps.
Currently, there are a number of groups and collaborations focusing on issues of access and equity in public education.  Some like to think that groups like EEP and Bigger, Bolder are competing interests.  But can’t we all agree that the achievement gap problem is one that needs lots of great thinkers and lots of new ideas and new approaches?  As long as organizations are out there putting forward ideas, offering new thoughts and new recommendations about how to better spend our current education dollars, how to better measure our effectiveness in the classroom, how to better teach our students, and how to ensure more (and hopefully) all students have access to the same high-quality learning opportunities, aren’t we better off for it?  Doesn’t such civil discourse force us to shake the status quo and start thinking about real solutions that rattle the system yet offer real chances to improve educational opportunities?
EEP will continue to issue recommendations on a series of classroom-based issues for addressing the achievement gap.  They need to.  For those who agree, they need to amplify the voice and move these ideas into action.  For those who disagree, they need to get on their soapboxes and offer better ideas to capture the hearts and minds of the community.  But there is no room for staying silent.  The education, economic, and societal impacts of the achievement gap are simply too great for us to say nothing, do nothing, and expect nothing.  The status quo is no longer an option.  Too many students have dropped out, lost out, and missed out because we have done nothing.  If we are to fulfill our national promise to provide every child with equal, high-quality learning opportunities, we need to act.  And we need to act now.

From the Eduflack Bookshelf

For someone who writes so much about reading, I don’t seem to do enough of it.  Chalk it up to a consulting business busting at the seams, two toddlers at home, and a personal choice of writing over reading.  For my birthday, the edu-wife gave me the Kindle II, bringing together my loves of technology and books.  And I have excitedly downloaded a number of tomes on my new handheld (unfortunately, most of them are business related).

So before I head off on my latest business trip, I wanted to clear off the ole Eduflack bookshelf and reflect a little on three books (two new) that are worth a close read as we continue our discussions, debates, and activities on education improvement.
The first is Jay Mathews’ Work Hard.  Be Nice.If you haven’t heard of this book yet, you must be living under a rock.  This is Mathews’ telling of the creation of the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP.  This is a must-read, particularly in this day and age.  Anyone who doubts the value of well-run charter schools has to read this book.  Anyone who doubts the role hard work (both of teacher and student) can have on achievement has to read this book.  And anyone who thinks that some kids just aren’t cut out for success has to read this book.  Whether you believe in the KIPP model or not, whether you trust the data on KIPP or not, you have to appreciate the passion and belief structure that goes into the schools and is so clearly articulated in Work Hard.  As for Eduflack, I’ve got the work hard part down pretty well.  Be nice has always been a challenge.
Second off the shelf is Chalkbored: What’s Wrong with School & How to Fix It.  I’ll admit it, I was simply intrigued by the title.  Jeremy Schneider does a great job at laying out the problems, or perceived problems, facing our public schools.  More importantly, Schneider focuses on two key issues to move us from obstacle to opportunity.  The first is that we all must take responsibility for change.  it isn’t just up to the teacher or the principal to improve the learning process.  There is a role for all involved in the development of the child.  The second is that technology is a key component to meaningful solutions.  This is particularly important in today’s economic age, as we ask our schools to do more and more with less and less.  Chalkbored begins to even lay the groundwork for the impact open educational resources (or OER) can have on the school improvement movement.
My final read may surprise some folks.  Eduflack has been spending a great deal of time focusing on educational equity and access issues.  So a friend passed along a great title to help inspire me and guide some of my thinking.  Black Genius: African American Solutions to African American Problems is a collection of essays from some great leaders in the African-American community.  Edited by Eduflack fave Walter Mosley, Black Genius provides a range of intriguing thoughts on a range of topics such as effective communications, the media, and democracy.  The book is both thought-provoking and inspiring, and again reminds us that improvement requires the work of all.  We can’t blame anyone for our problems, nor can we expect others to help if we won’t step up ourselves.
Each of these books deserves a post on their own merits.  Collectively, they help provide a better understanding of the lens through which Eduflack views our education improvement activities, how we can truly improve, and who and how needs to be involved if we are to make such changes stick and have a real difference.

Reflecting on Columbine

Ten years ago today, two gunmen killed 13, 12 students and one teacher,  (and themselves) at Columbine High School in Colorado.  The tragedy was one of those moments that truly caught a community, a state, and a nation off guard.  We never expect such actions to happen in our public schools, particularly in the suburbs of Denver, and when they do it results in a range of thoughts, rhetoric, and actions.

Since the shootings (and subsequent tragedies on campuses like Virginia Tech) we talk about a lot, including the impact of bullying, the need for improved guidance departments, and even the arming of classroom teachers.  But today is not a day to debate such issues.  Today is really just a day to remember those 13 students, the 24 others who were injured in the mindless attacks, and the families of Columbine who are still affected, even a decade later.
USA Today, and reporters Greg Toppo and Marilyn Elias, offered a good story last week on the lessons learned from Columbine.  This AM, USA Today highlights, on its editorial pages, what schools have done to avoid such inexplainable actions in the future.  The piece is worth a close read from any policymaker, superintendent, school administrator, teacher, or community leader who is dealing today’s students in today’s complex society.  The four primary observations coming out of Columbine, according to our national newspaper of record. the need for:
* Better partnerships between law enforcement and schools
* Encouraging students to report suspicions
* Watching for red flags
* Better reaction plans
Today, and this topic, is not a time for clever Eduflack quips and rhetorical cadences designed to promote (or tear down) a policy agenda.  For educators, today should be a day of remembrance, and a day to ensure that tragedies like Columbine never happen again.  We can’t expect our kids to develop, academically and socially, if they don’t feel safe once they step through those schoolhouse doors.  There’s no simpler way to state such a serious issue.

A Middle-ing Approach to School Improvement

In the current era of school improvement, student achievement, and innovation, the points of conversation often jump from what we do in the elementary school grades to what is happening in our high schools.  The reasons for this are fairly obvious.  We believe that all children are entering the elementary grades on relatively equal footing (an urban legend, I’ll give you, but many actually believe it).  That’s why we start the student assessment process in the early grades.  As for high schools, that’s where the money and the attention rests.  Gates is funneling billions of dollars into high schools, and graduation rates, drop-out factories, and the like have become a common yardstick for measuring the outcomes of our K-12 experience.

Often lost is the discussion is the middle grades.  That’s no surprise.  There is no national start and stop to a middle school.  Middle school can begin anywhere between fourth and seventh grade.  It can end anywhere from seventh through ninth grade.  With such overlaps into both elementary and secondary schools, middle schools are often left as the monkey in the middle, a necessary, but often overlooked, connector in the P-12 education continuum.
Unfortunately, much of what ails our public education system is rooted in what is happening during our middle grades.  AYP and the growing achievement gaps are usually being documented once students hit middle school, when we first see the failures of effective math and reading instruction in the early grades.  Students begin falling behind in subjects like science and social studies because they lack the core skills they should enter middle school with in the first place.  Those beloved student scores on state assessments start taking hold in the middle grades, when it is often too late to reverse the downward trend.
We also forget that the middle grades determine the success or failure of the high school experience.  Tenth graders are not sitting their agonizing whether they will complete school or drop out.  The vast majority of high school drop-out decisions are made by middle schoolers, determined between that eight and ninth grade year.  And that decision is based, largely, on how one performs, how one engages, and how one experiences educational relevance during those middle grades.  The middle years are about academic achievement, but they are also about motivation, about character development, and about showing every student — particularly those students from traditionally disadvantaged groups that have been given up on well before they enter high school.
What does all this tell us?  MIddle school isn’t just the passthrough of the continuum.  In many ways, it is an essential linchpin.  It is the road marker measuring the success of our elementary school experiences.  And it is the road map that determines secondary and postsecondary opportunities, particularly for those students who may not see the value of their educational experience.
Which is why the recent developments in Alexandria, Virginia are so interesting.  For those outside the DC area, Alexandria is one of many suburbs to our nation’s capital.  Alexandria often gets lost in the regional education discussions.  DCPS is the focal point.  Fairfax (VA) is the big boy.  Arlington (VA) is diversity.  Montgomery County (MD) is the innovator.  And Prince Georges County (MD) is the problem child.  Districts like Alexandria often get overlooked in the mix, as they lack the size or the depth of problems of some of their neighbors.
This week, Alexandria Schools Superintendent Morton Sherman announced his plans to revamp the middle grades.  The proclamation received minor mention in The Washington Post, but hasn’t yet gotten the attention or the discussion it probably requires.  Alexandria’s middle schools have failed to hit federal benchmarks, not too uncommon of urban or suburban middle schools around the country.  Alexandria’s drop-out rate is among the highest in the DC region (though not the highest to garner screamer headlines in the Post).  So Sherman has put two and two together and actually gotten four, realizing that addressing his middle school performance problems will have a direct impact on issues in the latter grades.
What is Alexandria looking to do?  It wants to break its middle schools up into smaller schools with greater autonomy and opportunities.  It wants to extend some elementary schools from K-6 to K-8.  And it wants to introduce International Baccalaureate offerings across the district.
In laying out this plan, Sherman is addressing the granddaddies of school improvement issues — school leadership, school structure, academic options, and improved rigor.  At face value, this isn’t about re-arranging some of the deck chairs in Alexandria Public Schools.  This is about putting middle schoolers on a completely different boat.
Will it work?  Eduflack readers know that intentions aren’t even worth the recycled paper they are printed on.  The name of the game is results.  What specifically will be done?  Will teachers and principals and parents buy into the reforms?  Will we hold educators accountable, both with carrot and stick?  And most importantly, how will we define success?
But Alexandria and Sherman are on the right track.  Middle schools are the often unmentioned problem in our public education family.  High school drop-out problems can be attributed to the middle grades.  Achievement gap issues can be attributed to the middle grades.  Even issues of equity and opportunity start in the middle grades (since we like to believe all little first graders are equal in both access and opportunity).   
It also provides us something to think about when we start building Innovation Fund and Race to the Top grant applications.  How are our struggling school districts addressing the middle school crisis?  Are they offering potential solutions, as Alexandria attempts, or will they gloss over the issue, making the jump from elementary building blocks to secondary school pathways and graduation numbers?  Innovations in middle grades education should be a non-negotiable for our future school improvement efforts.  Without it, we lose many of the benefits of elementary school improvements, while denying far too many the full opportunities of an improved secondary school experience.

Arts Education and Quantification

For nearly a decade now, we have talked about quantifying the impact of education.  How do we effectively measure student progress?  How do we measure effective teaching?  How do we make sure our policymakers, school districts, administrators, and educators are doing their jobs when it comes to impactful and results-based instruction?

For many, AYP and achievement on the state assessments usually suffices.  Under federal law, we are now measuring core competency in reading, math, and science, using those scores as a benchmark for evaluating student achievement.  Like it or not, decisionmaking and funding is usually based on that triad of academic subjects, with reading and math winning the day (as science is the late comer to this little education data dance.)
But what about other subjects?  More importantly, what about the arts?  How many people are truly aware that this year’s NAEP results are going to include data on our nation’s proficiency in the arts?  How many know that the arts are included in the federal law as a core part of the K-12 curriculum?  How many know that there are some states looking at how to measure effective art instruction and determine student knowledge and ability in the field?  And more importantly, how many realize that effective arts education can be used as an early predictor of student reading ability and a general predictor of a student’s postsecondary pursuits and opportunities?
A few years ago, while working with new Leaders for New Schools on its EPIC teacher incentive program, I learned of a music teacher in the District of Columbia who was doing phenomenal work with her kindergarten music students.  To an outside observer, you would think you were watching a math class.  But she was using the power of music to teacher her students.  She was integrating the arts into the other subjects her kids were taking.  And she was doing so with incredible results.
In recent years, the arts have faced some trying times.  They are usually the first on the budgetary chopping block, seen as a nice value-add but not part of the core curriculum it actually is.  This tends to be driven by a great public misperception about the arts’ role in K-12 and our general inability to quantify the impact of its teaching.  Thing about it.  For what other academic subject do we sacrifice certified, effective teachers, substituting in well-meaning but untrained professionals-in-residence?  And in what other subjects do we fail to see the negative impact such a move can have?  We don’t have to talk about the need for a certified reading, math, science, social studies, foreign language, or even physical education or drivers ed teacher in every school, but we have to have that fight over a certified arts teacher far too often.
We are starting to see some of the data pointing to the value and impact of arts education.  As chair of the Education Commission of the States, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee placed a spotlight on the need for arts education.  We’re seeing quantifiable data out of the University of California, Los Angeles and the College Board on the outcomes.  The research is coming, and it is telling us a lot.
When I teach effective communication, I often focus on the power of telling an effect story.  Data points are nice, but we really resonate with the personal story.  We like to hear about the real people and the real communities that are affected by real policies and real ideas.  We like to hear about the protagonist, the struggle, and the ultimate victory.  We want the fairy tale, even for issues such as education policy, education research, and school improvement and innovation.
So this evening, I want to pass along a little story on that has appeared in two parts recently on Huffington Post, written by one of the most passionate advocates for arts education Eduflack has ever come across.  Lucia Brawley.  Part one can be found here, with part two recently published here.  Brawley tells a fascinating story, highlighting both the “art” and the “science” behind arts education.  For those who question the true value of the visual arts, drama, and music in the classroom, it is a most read.
As we start contemplating reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and what are the non-negotiables for new programs such as the Innovation Fund and the Race to the Top, we need to consider these data points and these stories as we build a better K-12 educational system.  Effective learning and skill development can come from many places, particularly if we have the data to prove it.  Not every child is going to become the next Jackson Pollack, Wynton Marsalis, or Meryl Streep.  They may not even be particularly talented in any of the arts.  But they can benefit from effective visual arts, music, and theater programs.  And we are gathering the research to prove it.

Talkin’ Baseball & School Equity

Those who know Eduflack know that I have but a few true passions.  First and foremost is my family.  Nothing is more important to me than my wife and my two perfect little tots.  Then we have two things tied for a close second — education improvement and baseball.  Those who read these pages realize the first, and they may surmise the second based on the regular baseball references and analogies.  Such continue this morning.

Last night, I had the good fortune of attending the first official New York Mets baseball game to be held at Citi Field.  (Yes, the name is unfortunate, but it seems the grassroots effort to rename it “Taxpayer Field” quickly sputtered out.)  It is an absolutely beautiful ballpark — far, far better than the dump that was previously known as Shea Stadium.  It is also a new ballpark that is rich in baseball history, particularly that of the Brooklyn Dodgers and of Jackie Robinson (a little too much Dodger for this die-hard Mets fan, particularly when you think of all of the Mets history — particularly 1969, 1973, and 1986 that could be there in its stead.)
The focus on Jackie Robinson and the majestic blue “42” (see below) as you initially pass through the Citi turnstiles can’t help but have you think of Robinson and his ability to break the color barrier and bring a sense of equity to America’s pastime.  As we get ready to celebrate the anniversary of that important day later this week, it serves as yet another example of how separate is never equal.  Two leagues — one for whites and one for blacks — would never be the same as simply having the best players competing on the same field.  Success only comes when we have access to the same resources, are held to the same standards, and are measured by the same record books and the same tape measures.
Which gets us to the issues of school improvement.  How do we expect to say we improving our schools when we operate so many dropout factories in our urban centers?  How can we say everyone has access to a high-quality public education when 50 percent of African-American and Hispanic students are dropping out of high school?  How do we talk about equity of opportunity when there are clearly haves and have-nots in public education, those with access to the best teachers, the latest technology, the newest books, and the best data systems, and those who are just left to muddle through the best they can with what we are willing to give them?
When Jackie Robinson stepped onto the field in that Dodger jersey for the first time, he landed a significant body blow to all of those who believed that separate could be equal, that facilities and leagues for blacks were “good enough,” or that the standards and records by which we measured ballplayers of color were different than those by which we measured white players.  We talk of the greatness of pitchers like Cy Young and Walter Johnson, yet we truly don’t know how they would stack up to greats like Satchel Paige and Smokey Joe Williams.  We speak of baseball hitting legends like Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, but have no idea if they could even take practice swings in Josh Gibson’s shadow.  For 60 years, major league baseball refused admittance to equity, and the game and the nation paid the price.
As we stand on the precipice of a new day in public education — a day when all schools are in the same Race to the Top and a day when all schools are held to the same AYP standards and, hopefully, all students are held to the same academic standards — we need to think about tearing down those remaining barriers that prevent our public school systems from truly offering equal access to resources, education, and opportunity.  “Good enough for …” should be eliminated from our educational vocabularies.  Dropout factories should be urban legends.  And lowered expectations for certain subsets of disaggregated student populations should be retired along with so many baseball jersey numbers.  If we expect all of our students — regardless of skin color or socioeconomic status — to compete on the common field of academic and career success, we need to make sure they have the skills and the equipment to do so.  
Yes, education is a great American civil right.  Yes, far too many of our citizens are denied complete access to it.    Yes, every child can succeed, with the proper support and motivation.  Yes, there are specific action steps we can take to do something about it.
Getting additional financial resources to schools in need through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and through a host of third-party foundations and corporations is a good first step.  But we need to make sure those resources are being used effectively.  We need to make all students are being held to the same standard.  We need to make sure the dollars that represent our inputs are results in true return on investment when it comes to student performance.  Otherwise, we will continue to have some students who are playing in the big show when it comes to their futures, and some that are still just playing Whiffle ball in the backyard.  
It is now April 2009 in the United States.  Is it really too much to ask that every school, regardless of demographics, has equal access to well-trained, effective teachers?  Is it too much to ask that every student have access to the latest textbooks, technology, and instructional materials?  Is it too much to hold every state, district, school, and student to the same measurable academic standards?  Is it too much to believe that every child can succeed — both in school and in life — if provide equal access to an education of equal quality?
Tomorrow, we celebrate the 62nd anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and stepping onto the brilliant green grass in crisp Brooklyn Dodger white.  Next month, we celebrate the 55th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court case that declared, once and for all, that separate was not equal when it came to public education. As we reflect on these landmark moments, we can see how far we have come in bringing equity of both resource and opportunity to our schools and communities … and how far we still need to go.  
Can we really see school success and 21st century competitiveness without addressing the dire problems in our urban schools and those serving historically underserved student populations?  Can we truly see an America that can compete on both international benchmarks and in the 21st century global economy if we are writing off so many students and so many schools so early in the game?
Believe it or not, these were some of the thoughts going through the head of the occupant of Section 114, Row 30, Seat 1 last evening at Citi.