A Hand in the ARRA Till?

By now, we have all heard (many of us dozens of times) about the intent of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, particularly as it relates to public education.  The goal of the economic stimulus bill was to make our schools whole, financially.  For those districts that were forced to cut budgets, eliminate programs, or delay the adoption of new textbooks or technology over the past two years, their woes are now supposed to be over.  Federal money (and I’m talking the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund dollars) was intended to make up for those cuts.  School budget levels are to be restored to the highest of the past two years courtesy of the red-white-and-blue taxpayers.

That’s what is written in the law.  And that’s why the money is to go directly to the school districts.  The states serve merely as a pass-through for the dollars, a distribution checkpoint through which the feds can more effectively disseminate the dollars.  Money is not intended to go to state programs, nor are the states supposed to add any strings as to how it is funded.  SFSF is a lifeline to the school districts, and is designed to make up for their shortfalls (usually the result of previous state budget cuts).  Additional dollars, such as Title I, IDEA, and such also flow back directly into the districts, so we are supplementing and improving instruction on the ground, impacting the students we are trying to improve, rather than funding additional process and bureaucracy.
But something seems to have gotten lost along the way.  The Washington Post has a great story this AM about how the states are essentially looking to skim off the top of the SFSF, complete with a Mafia-laced quote about stimulus money “falling off the truck.”  The thinking here is relatively simple.  Yes, states are providing the LEAs the SFSF and related school improvement money as dictated under the stimulus bill.  But some are only doing so after schools give back some dollars to the county or to the state.  After all, while should the school district remain flush while other government agencies are suffering?  Why should the county pay its fair share into the schools (one of its primary obligations and the reason, in Virginia for instance, it collects property taxes) when the feds are issuing a blank check?
(As an aside, I must just say that WaPo has really raised its game when it comes to education policy reporting.  In recent months, the WaPo team has done some great work when it comes to capturing the world view and the local impact of ed policy, looking at key issues through both its federal/national lens and its local one.  And it only gets better when the WaPo editorial board and many of its columnists — I mean you Colby King — are covering these issues with great thought and regularity.)
Eduflack hopes that the examples laid out in WaPo this morning are exceptions to the rule, and not what we see happening around the country.  But I am enough of  a realist to know that this could very well become standard operating procedure.  Everybody wants a piece of the largest spending bill in town.  Everyone is hurting from the economic downturn.  So it shouldn’t surprise us that everyone wants a “taste” of what is intended for the school districts and for our students.
But officials who are acting on those wants should be ashamed of themselves.  Already, we are hearing stories of state legislatures that are looking to make deep, specific cuts to education spending because they know that the stimulus will make up the difference.  Already, we are hearing about states that are looking for “waivers” as to how they can spend their stimulus money, so they can redirect it to their preferred targets, rather than the students it was intended for.  And already we are now listening to tales of counties and localities looking to skim a little off the top so they can get a taste.  Reprehensible.
Education stimulus dollars are intended for education.  If we have heard anything that EdSec Arne Duncan has said or read anything ED has released in the guidance or related documents, it is that this is a one-time influx of cash.  Why is that important?  If a school district, county, or state makes a cut in anticipation of the ARRA money, they need to make up that cut next year or the following.  ARRA is not an open spigot of continuously flowing education dollars.  It is a one-time, stopgap funding act.  It is not intended to cover teacher salaries or offset core operating expenses or generally pay for the long-term operating expenses of a school district.  It is designed to fill the unexpected and unintended cuts our schools have faced in the past two years because of the economy, under the assumption that the localities and states will restore that funding soon, once the economy stabilizes and the state budget is in better shape.
That’s why so many are resistant to using ARRA to pay for teacher salaries and other such long-term obligations.  Once we get on that train, it is hard to get off and start walking on our own.  Stimulus money for teacher salaries becomes a long-term engagement, not a quick injection of funds.
At the end of the day, these stimulus dollars are intended to make sure that schools are spending on what they need in order to continue the learning process and move the needle on student achievement.  It is meant to end the logjam and the worry that has forced a district to delay a textbook adoption.  It is meant to loosen the pursestrings so that those hardware and software purchases that have been planned for years can be completed.  It is meant to place those supplemental learning materials in our low-performing classrooms, using this economic injection to provide an academic booster shot to students in need.
One of the greatest fears in town is that the stimulus money is not going to end up where it is intended.  That we are investing billions upon billions of dollars in our public schools, but won’t have anything to show for it.  That dollars are going to be thrown after process, rather than outcome.  That we will be investing in operations, rather than results.  Articles like these add fuel to that fire, and demonstrate the real need for strict federal oversight on how these funds are spent.  Simply offering technical assistance isn’t enough.  Perhaps it is time to revisit those intended NCLB SWAT teams, who will descend on school districts and make sure the money is spent as intended.  Those that do, continue to move forward.  Those that don’t, lose their dollars.  And those states or counties who try to undermine or circumvent the process face repercussions.
Education Trust has launched its Education Watch 2009 to keep a close eye on how the states are spending their money. (UPDATE: They are doing so by focusing on the results and outcomes.)  Perhaps we need similar watchdogs to oversee the LEAs, ensuring that money is spent as designated and that the layers of government that will touch ARRA will not be skimming dollars off the top before it reaches our students.
I recognize that ARRA represents an obscene amount of money when it comes to public school improvement.  I also know that, before the stimulus dollars, the feds were paying less than eight cents on every education dollar going into our public schools.  That means the vast majority of obligation for our schools rests with the states and localities.  That means the vast cost of our schools rests with the states and localities.  And that means the responsibility for results in our schools rests with states and localities.  The feds can provide ongoing booster shots of money and innovative grant pro
grams and a host of new ideas, but the heavy lifting, the real execution, and the improved results come from the states, localities, and schools themselves.  No matter whose name may be printed on the money or whose signatures may be on those initial checks. 

Guaranteeing a High School Diploma

Many will say that a high school diploma simply isn’t worth what it was a half-century ago, or even a decade ago.  That may be true, but in this day and age, shouldn’t we offer some sort of guarantee as to what a high school diploma really stands for?  Shouldn’t an employer be assured that a high school graduate possesses a finite skill set and is holds competencies in core subjects?  Shouldn’t an institution of higher education trust that a high school graduate doesn’t require massive amounts of remediation?

If you answered yes to any of these (or a strong no, for that matter), check out my latest column over at Education News.  This morning, I discuss how we need to begin guaranteeing the value of a high school diploma if we are to retain their value in our education system and our economy.

STEM, CCs, and Opportunity

The power of STEM, science-tech-engineering-math, instruction is virtually limitless.  In our 21st century workforce, we know that all employees need both a common knowledgebase and key skills.  What may have sufficed a few decades ago, or even a few years ago, just does not cut it these days.  If one is to contribute to the economy, one needs an understanding of technology and abilities in critical thinking, teamwork, and problem-solving.  Virtually every new job being created these days requires some form of postsecondary education, those career certificate programs or college degrees that ensure successful students are proficient in core subjects such as math and science.  If one is looking for the entrance to a successful and productive career, these days it is starting with that STEM entrance sign.

Unfortunately, there are often a lot of misperceptions about STEM and its intended audience.  We first think that STEM is only for those seeking to be rocket scientists and brain surgeons.  Untrue.  Good STEM programs are for every student, as all learners benefit from being STEM literate.  We think that STEM is a high school issue.  Untrue.  There are some really successful K-8 STEM efforts (just look at some of the work being done in states like Minnesota).  There are some incredibly successful STEM efforts being undertaken at our institutions of higher education, both for those seeking careers in the STEM fields and those just looking for a leg up in their own individual pursuits.
Perhaps one of the greatest STEM urban legends is the notion that STEM skills and STEM literacy are only concerns for our current students.  As evidenced by today’s USA Today article on laid-off workers heading back to school, nothing could be further from the truth.  Those who have been adversely affected by the economy (which at this point is just about everyone) are now looking to retool and reskill, pursuing new educational opportunities so they can get into new career fields with current job opportunities and significant long-term potential.
Historically, we see this sort of behavior during many of our nation’s economic downturns.  The economy goes south, unemployment rates edge up, and more and more people turn to IHEs — usually our community colleges — to fill the gaps and improve their chances of success.  Sometimes it means acquiring some new skills to complement existing degrees, certificates, and work experience.  Sometimes it means a complete change, with former airline mechanics becoming nurses or bricklayers becoming graphic designers.
Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, our nation’s giant piggybank for economic stimulus, $1.7 billion is available for adult employment services and training programs.  As USA Today reports, recently displaced workers are looking to tap this aid to take advantage of community college and vocational programs to give them the 21st century skills necessary to secure and succeed in 21st century jobs.
To some, investment in these sorts of vocational education programs is like throwing money down a black hole.  Once and future workers pursue certificates and degrees in a wide range of topics and interests, with little regard for local community economic needs or a true understanding of the employment landscape over the next decade.  We use such funds to pursue personal interests and passions, rather than to truly retool and gain the skills necessary to take a step forward and add a layer of knowledgebase and security to their future.
is it an unfair assumption?  Absolutely.  Over the past few decades our community colleges have done yeoman’s work in providing the sort of retraining programs our workforce needed to remain skilled, knowledgeable, and effective.  As the technology changed, the CCs were there to offer courses in everything from basic computing to complex machinery and technologies.  Some of our best environmental programs are found in CCs.  And we could keep going.
So what does this mean for us now, in 2009?  Put simply, our community colleges are the front lines for effective STEM education.  Those heading back to school are looking for practical skills that will get them back into the workforce and back into jobs with a future.  STEM is the answer.  Those heading back to community colleges are looking for skills that are attractive to employers and needed by their local industries.  STEM is the answer.  And those looking to reskill and retool want to invest their time in courses and programs that represent future opportunities, not the lessons of the past.  STEM is the answer.  As we look at community colleges’ role in the P-20 education continuum, particularly as it related to those re-entering the education gateway, STEM is the answer.
Moving forward, it is essential that we effectively link STEM education, our community colleges, and the students and potential students they are seeking to serve.  How do we do it?  First, we need to strengthen linkages between K-12 and higher education, allowing more current students to see the value and impact of a community college education.  The CCs are not simply for remedial postsecondary courses or as cheaper gateways to a four-year institution.  They offer their own value and their own impact.  These linkages are already being established across the nation, as high schools and community colleges are working together on early colleges and other dual-degree programs, allowing more young people to see the strength, value, and opportunity found on their local community college campuses.  And these linkages often focus on STEM-focused courses.
Second, we need to better link our community colleges with local industry.  We need to do the gap analyses to understand the current employment pipeline and where we may be lacking in skilled employees to fill those new jobs.  What can community college do to help prepare future workers for those future jobs?  We need to better understand our assets.  What programs do our CCs currently offer?  How do they align with employer needs?  How do we build the linkages between the two?  How do we build partnerships so employers use their local CCs for worker training programs, retraining efforts, and as impactful pipelines of skilled future employers?
Most importantly, though, we must continue to strengthen the STEM offerings in our institutions of higher education.  There is simply no getting around it.  STEM literacy is an essential component to gainful employment in the 21st century.  Today’s — and tomorrow’s — workers must think differently, work smartly, and adapt to the ever-changing environment around them.  That requires a core understanding of the math, science, and technology that does into even the most unlikely of STEM jobs.  That requires the 21CS that often accompany an effective STEM education.  Even those looking to work alongside their fathers and grandfathers on the assembly line or at the construction site require a STEM literacy that was never required of generations past.  A union card is no longer enough for some jobs.  STEM proficiency needs to accompany that union bug if our workers are going to compete, innovate, and outperform industry competitors around the globe.
Kudos to those who have already recognized that, those employees or the recently laid off who are already turning to schools and vocational programs to better equip them for the opportunities of the future.  Kudos to community colleges and other IHEs who are meeting the challenge and providing relevant, effective programs that align with industry needs and expectations.  And kudos to those who see that STEM is at the heart of the future of both.
Eduflack doesn’t seek to evangelize for S
TEM (at least not all of the time), but sometimes we need to sing loudly from the STEM hymnal.  Today’s students need STEM as part of their educational pathway, providing the knowledge and skills they need both in school and in career.  Today’s employees need STEM to stay relevant and adaptable to a changing economy.  And today’s employers need STEM to ensure they current and future workforce possess the skills to contribute to a thriving, growth-focused economy.  STEM education is at the heart of all of it.  We just need to ensure that community colleges and industry keep the blood pumping.

Gaming Civics Class

When Eduflack talks about 21st century skills, I usually focus on a very basic concept.  At the heart and soul of the 21CS movement is using new media to teach core subjects.  How do we ensure that students remain plugged in while in the classroom?  How do we tap into student interests (particularly as they relate to technology) to ensure they are getting the reading, math, and social science skills required of an effective K-12 education?  How do we keep the tried-and-true, core subjects fresh through new approaches, new formats, and new information distribution channels?

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor seems to have one answer for our classrooms.  The Associated Press reports that the first woman to serve on the High Court has helped develop a series of video games designed to engage students on the core elements of civics and social studies.  With games such as “Do I Have a Right” and “Supreme Decision,” the jurist is promoting these technology-based lessons and intended for the classroom and developed for middle schoolers.  Largely private funded, the effort is also backed by Georgetown University and Arizona State University.  The best part?  The games are free.
O’Connor is the first to admit she isn’t the most tech-savvy of our current educational entrepreneurs.  According to the AP, she’s not on Facebook, she doesn’t Tweet, and she doesn’t event text much.  But she recognizes that our children’s social studies skills are lacking.  She knows our students understanding of civics, social studies, and history are not at acceptable levels.  So she is helping bring the content to the student.  If that means teaching constitutional rights through a video game platform, then so be it.
That, quite frankly, is what 21CS are all about.  O’Connor and her colleagues are applying a new teaching and learning medium to teach core materials to students in need.  By tying student interests and student skills with fundamental instructional lessons, O’Connor is offering just the sort of new thinking our classrooms need to improve student proficiency.  it doesn’t take a unanimous decision from the High Court to see the value of this idea.

Vouching for DC Students

By now, the funeral procession for the DC school voucher program has been winding its was through the city streets.  Long a target of the status quo, the DC Scholarship Opportunity Program has been criticized for many things, chief among them for taking money from well-deserving DC public schools and handing it over to local private schools.  As of late, it has faced fire over its effectiveness, with opponents alleging that student achievement had not improved as a result of a change in environment and the empowerment of choice.

When it was introduced at the start of the NCLB era, the model was pretty simple.  DC public schools were failing a significant number of the very students it was designed to serve, to help, and to provide with the knowledge they needed to succeed.  Despite the rich network of public charter schools across the District, federal officials decided to introduce the voucher model, allowing families of children in truly failing schools to send their children to private schools in the area.  Private schools would agree to accept the “vouchers” in exchange for school tuition.  The plan was modeled after successful efforts in places like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida.
Competition for the voucher program was fierce from the very start.  Families lined up 10-deep for the access to these vouchers, all looking to provide their kids a better choice and better options.  Interestingly, vouchers provided no more than $7,500 a year in tuition, fees, and expenses for private schools, less than 50 percent of what DCPS spends to educate its students in the public schools, even in the worst of its failing schools.
Critics have been chipping away at the program from the start.  When initial data showing promising results was released by researchers a few years, ago, we attacked it for being incomplete or not providing a full picture of the situation.  We’ve painted a picture that there has been a mass exodus from DCPS into Gonzaga, Sidwell Friends, and Georgetown Prep, where wealthy schools are getting wealthier off the backs of DCPS and DC taxpayers.  (Let’s forget that most voucher students were not going to these “blue chip” privates and all privates were taking a significant cut in their tuition to admit voucher students.)  Most recently, the dealt the death blow to the voucher effort in DC, getting funding stripped from the federal appropriations bill last month.  For all practical purposes, DC Vouchers is now dead as a doornail, even with more than 1,700 DC students taking advantage of the program.
What’s interesting, then, is the report that came out of the U.S. Department of Education yesterday afternoon.  Despite all of the chatter about the failure of the DC Scholarship Opportunity Program, an ED study determined that voucher students outperformed their public school counterparts on reading proficiency.  The full story can be found here at The Washington Post.
House of Representatives Republican Educator-in-Chief Buck McKeon has used the IES research to demonstrate that the voucher program works and demands it be continued.  Senator Joe Lieberman, who oversees the District in our senior legislative body, is talking about holding further hearings on the issue.  It begs the question, is the great DC voucher experiment as dead as it appeared just a week ago?
This has long been an issue of federal voices deciding what is best for the residents of Washington, DC.  The program was initiated by a zealous Bush Administration and Republicans in Congress who wanted to prove that vouchers were the solution to failing public schools.  The program has faced relentless attack from equally zealous Democrats in Congress (along with the national teachers’ unions) who believed it was robbing the public schools of needed financial resources and was undermining the very foundations of public education.
What about the residents of DC?  What about the very families who have been impacted (or who have chosen not to be) by the DC Voucher program?  One can look at the demand for the limited slots and say there is local public desire for the program. One can look at the qualitative surveys over the years, showing support for the program and satisfaction with its outcomes.  One can even look at recent efforts by the Washington Archdiocese to convert many of its Catholic schools (those where so many DC residents were attending through their vouchers) into public charter schools to ensure that those kids currently in the pipeline were not kicked out of their learning environments when the voucher program came to an end later this year.
WaPo’s Colbert King takes the issue even further this AM, calling on District leaders to make the ultimate decision on the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program’s fate.  What a novel concept.  Instead of seeking the permission and dollars of federal officials, Mayor Fenty, the DC Council, and other local leaders should talk to the community and determine if DC Vouchers are in the best interests of the city.  Imagine that.  Local officials making local education decisions, policies, and funding choices that affect local residents.  It’s almost as if one could build a governmental structure around such a silly idea.
But back to the key issue, the research.  IES has determined that DC voucher students are outperforming the public school peers when it comes reading scores.  Overall, the study found that voucher students were nearly four months ahead of non-voucher students when it came to reading skill.  Those students moving from the lowest-performing public schools did not show that level of reading gain.  And there appeared to be no difference in math proficiency.
Seems that such data requires more than a Friday afternoon media release, with the hopes that few notice it in our rush to celebrate the Palm Sunday weekend (or Eduflack’s birthday, whichever holiday you prefer).  Fridays are notorious for dumping information and data you hope will get short shrift from the media or will get overlooked entirely.  One has to ask if this data was available a few weeks ago when Congress was inflicting its death blow on DC vouchers.  If so, why wasn’t it discussed then?  And now that we do have it, how closely will we look at it?  Does the research model stand up to scrutiny, or does it have its failings like so many recent IES studies?  Do we have some real information here that needs to factor into education policy in our nation’s capital and throughout the country?
At the end of the day, what are we left with?  Is there public demand for vouchers in DC?  Absolutely.  Has the program been implemented effectively?  It appears so.  Is the program working?  It seems so.  Is the program a political atomic bomb?  Absolutely.
It seems, in this era of innovation and demands for improved student achievement, we need every opportunity and every good idea we can find.  If vouchers are showing promise in DC, shouldn’t we let the District decide if they continue the program, allowing us to see if that promise transforms into best practice?  And at some point, shouldn’t those decisions be made by the citizens the program is designed to affect, instead of by representatives who will never receive a single vote from a single resident of the District of Columbia?
Let’s take EdSec Arne Duncan at his word and that he does not want to end the voucher program for any student that is currently participating in it.  Even if we don’t add new students to the program, it seems there is a lot we can learn by supporting those already in the syst
em.  And we haven’t even touched on the positive impact we could have on those kids whose lives have been changed by providing them the opportunity to leave failing schools.  The choice itself has given them hope, a chance at opportunity, and a worldview that education can impact their lives.  That’s a return on investment we all should seek.

Throwin’ Down on Teachers and School Models

Two interesting news items this morning, showing that what was once old may be new again.  The first the debate over traditional versus alternative teachers, the second on the role of small schools.

Issue One: Up in Boston, the Boston Teachers Union has firmly planted its flag in the sand, hoping to block an influx of new Teach for America educators this fall.  Citing planned cutbacks in the Boston Public Schools and a “surplus” of existing “good” teachers, the BTU is taking its fight to the streets, hoping to keep 20 new TFAers from arriving in Beantown this fall.  The full story is here, in the Boston Globe.
What’s interesting is that TFA seems to be taking the position that it is a public service organization, much along the lines of the Peace Corps or Americorps (something that Bostonians know a thing or two about).  Eduflack doesn’t doubt that many TFAers enroll in the program because they believe they are giving back to the community and performing a public service by going to into urban or rural schools that are having a dickens of a time staffing their classrooms.  But the BTU has a point here.  Is it really public service and volunteerism at its best when a TFA teacher in Boston is making the same starting salary as a beginning teacher in the district (about $46K)?  If Boston were paying TFAers the hourly wage that Americorps members are getting, we are having a different rhetorical fight.  But we are putting each pool of educators on equal footing, at least financially.
Seems to me that if Boston does indeed have this surplus of hundreds of good teachers without current jobs (not something I would be bragging about, but that’s just me) the focus then should be on quality and effectiveness.  Why bring in a TFAer for two years when you can tap the best of the current surplus pool, teachers who may already have a track record of delivering student achievement results in Boston and teachers who are prepared to make a commitment for more than two years?  Do we want surplus teachers or do we want proven-effective teachers who are prepared to make a long-term commitment to closing the achievement gap and boosting student performance?  When caged that way, the answer seems simple (particularly since we are waging this rhetorical war over 20 TFAers).  Part of TFA’s mission is staffing those hard-to-serve schools.  If we have qualified teachers lined up around Fenway Park to serve from Southie to the North End, seems they warrant an equal chance for those 20 available slots.
Issue Two: Back in America’s heartland, Chad Wick, the CEO of KnowledgeWorks Foundation, makes a strong case for the notion that small schools work.  His commentary can be found here at Education News.  This is a bold statement to make, particularly since so many people believe that the Gates Foundation disowned the notion of small schools this past fall.  But if you look at what Bill Gates said back in November, and you look at what Wick says today, they are marching in lockstep.  Those who think we are going to improve the schools simply by changing the structure and implementing a small school model are fooling themselves.  But changing the structure is an important first step to school improvement, particularly if you use the new model to create new learning opportunities for students, offer better supports and PD for teachers, and generally refuse to toe the status quo line.
Having worked with Wick and the good folks at KnowledgeWorks, they seem to know what they are talking about.  They can point to their efforts with the Ohio High School Transformation Initiative and Early College High Schools as examples where the small school structure opened the door to improvement.  They used the new structure to close the achievement gap and improve high school graduation rates.  Seems a model example of using the process (school structure) to actually generate some measurable results.  Isn’t that a novel concept, particularly in this era of innovation.

Reform Without Teachers

In keeping with Eduflack’s ongoing discussion of what is needed to improve our schools (and remember, Eduflack doesn’t believe in using the term reform, because it lacks outcome, I’m focused on improvements), following is a guest post from Doug Little.  No one can say Eduflack’s not open to opposing viewpoints.
Writing from a Canadian perspective, the American education ‘Reform’ movement seems to be attempting education reform without listening to teachers, particularly organized teachers in NEA-AFT. This means reform is doomed. The literature is clear. Education reform without significant teacher buy in never works. Periodically people get frustrated and attempt to blame teachers for example, for the achievement gap. The achievement gap has nothing to do with teachers, it is based in the deep inequality that is tolerated in the USA to date that is not tolerated in any other democracy.

Jurisdictions periodically get the idea that they are going to get tough on teachers as Duncan, Obama, etc are doing now. You can predict the results as the night follows the day, an exacerbated teacher shortage.New Zealand made a serious attempt at education reform without listening to the teachers and instituting policies they opposed. The result was an overnight serious teacher shortage. OK we’ll deal with that by having non-teachers teach, once again failure. Things get worse. You have a serious legacy problem with black, hispanic, poor white and AmerIndian achievement because you have never historically made efforts to educate these groups and now you want to close the gap overnight. It won’t happen. You already have a serious teacher problem in schools teachers consider undesirable to work in. Merit pay and Teach for America kids will not solve this problem. The job must be made desirable with pay raises for all teachers, and radically improved working conditions in safe schools. It seems to all the other democracies where social-democratic reforms are popular, that Americans are just not willing to pay the price for this in taxes. There always seems to be an American sense that there is a silver bullet to education improvement. There is not, it is very expensive and very hard work.

To quote Stanford education professor Larry Cuban “It is very difficult for the schools to make students equal within a society that is otherwise dedicated to making them unequal.”

What need to do:

1) Massively invest in early childhood education free for every child from toilet training to kindergarten if parents make below $40 000, $5-10/day for all other children.

2) Abandon standardized tests. Finland, the world’s best education system doesn’t use them.

3) Dramatically reduce class sizes in all poor schools to 15 and all others to 20 students. (STAR project Tennessee)

4) Dramatically improve all teacher pay. Add bonuses for Master’s degrees. 

5) Dismantle charter and voucher schools, they are part of the problem not part of the solution.

6) Dramatically improve teacher education but also only allow university students with straight A’s to apply to be teachers.

7) Don’t make any reforms not approved of by NEA-AFT.

8) Offer free MA to math and science teachers if they teach for ten years after degree.

We think along these lines in Canada but we are not satisfied. We have only the world’s second best system after Finland.

(This post was contributed by Doug Little of The Little Education Report.  It represents Doug’s opinions only.)  

A New Learning Day?

Does the traditional 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day fit the bill when we talk about our needs to innovate, close the achievement gap, and boost student achievement?  Is the current model of compartmentalized learning — one that clearly has not achieved its intended goals for these many generations — getting the job done in our 21st century environment?

Last week, EdSec Arne Duncan emphasized that extended learning opportunities were are important component of how economic stimulus dollars should be spent.  One has to believe that a portion of the Innovation Fund and a potential non-negotiable for the Race to the Top may be how school districts integrate outside-of-school-time (OST) activities into the day-to-day learning experience, providing students extensions to the learning day, further opportunities to learn, and the one-to-one interventions they need to overcome some of the gaps in the daily classroom experience.
About a year ago, at an event sponsored by Ed in 08, Chris Gabrieli — the chairman of the National Center on Time & Learning — spoke of recent Center efforts to supplement the learning experience and provide a leg up to many of those students that are tagged as the reason for our achievement gap.  Some of these stories are documented in Gabrieli’s book, Time to Learn: How a New School Schedule is Making Smarter Kids, Happier Parents, and Safer Neighborhoods.  Are Gabrieli’s ideas interesting?  Yes.  Are some of them audacious?  Absolutely.  But in forcing us to think about the learning process and the learning structure a little differently, it gets us to approach the job of teaching differently.  And those different approaches are the key to the innovation that is going to drive the day.
Such innovation may be just what is needed to shake up a system that has clearly grown stagnant.  Last week, Eduflack opined on the notion of extending the school year, while taking a closer look at what can be done to extend the learning day.  From a wealth of research, we know that the learning that happens outside of the 8-3 classroom is just as important as that happening within it.  That’s why we push parents to continue the learning process at home, both during the school year and during the summers.  That’s why we explore year-round schooling.  And that’s why we are recognizing the academic value of OST programs.  The era where OST was defined as midnight basketball is over.  Those programs that are truly effective are those that invest in the social and academic development of the student, enhancing the learning processes and building blocks that are established during the traditional school day.
But how do we move such efforts forward?  After all, it is nice for the EdSec to offer up rhetoric on the value of afterschool efforts, but how does such rhetoric transform into effective policy?  At a time when education dollars are at a premium and we aren’t sure how we are going to fund the core academic day, how do we ensure we are making the necessary investments in the afterschool programs that supplement and enhance the day, programs that give us a real opportunity to break the cycle of mediocrity that has long dominated our public education system?
The first step is likely happening down in New Orleans later this week.  The National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National AfterSchool Association are slated to launch a new initiative — Leading a Learning Day for All Children.  Leading a Learning Day’s goals seem simple, yet essential.  Organizers seek to establish a “seamless learning day where children are engaged, challenged and celebrated,” and where there is “more time for learning and helping children grow and develop with hands-on, active, and project-based learning.”  
Coming out of the Big Easy, NAESP and NAA hope to refocus OST efforts on five key principles:
* Redefinition of student success — Refining what student success means beyond the acquisition of basic skills and including assessments for attributes such as teamwork, civic engagement, and analytical thinking.
* Use of knowledge about how students learn best — Using our research-based knowledge about how children learn and become inquisitive and analytical thinkers to frame their cognitive and developmental experiences throughout the day, early to late and year round.
* Integration of proven strategies to acquire and reinforce knowledge — Recognizing the arts, technology, and service learning are examples of tools to heighten core academic learning, not merely nice things to do to fill children’s time.
* Intentional collaboration across local, state, and national sectors — Building new collaborative structures across sectors in communities and up and down government hierarchies that focus all resources on supporting academic and developmental goals for children.
* New leadership and professional development opportunities — Knowing that while most leadership programs and certification are school-based, the importance of training and compensating educators to build community partnership is growing.
So what, exactly, does all this mean for school improvement?  First off, we need to redefine the learning day to mean far more than the time required by law behind the schoolhouse doors.  We must recognize that if we are to close the achievement gap and make demonstrable improvements in student achievement, we must extend learning opportunities to after school, the weekends, the summers, and other “non-school day” times.
Second, we must recognize that OST is not glorified babysitting.  Afterschool is no longer a holding pen for kids without adult supervision nor is it merely arts and crafts and sports.  High-quality programs are designed to enhance student learning, providing additional opportunities to build core knowledge, develop core skills, and delve deeper into the subjects and concepts that both interest students and are important to their long-term success.
Third, this new dawn of afterschool is completely doable, even with the limited resources of our 2009 economic realities.  It starts with the visions and the examples laid out by organizations such as the National Center on Time & Learning, NAA, and Leading a Learning Day, groups that can all point to promising practices, places where new ideas are working, and students who have been positively impacted by new thinking and even newer actions.  And it is continued by linking the school day with the afterschool day, pursuing core activities like sharing curriculum maps, including afterschool staff in professional development, sharing evaluation data, and jointly reaching out to parents and communities.
Finally, it means recognizing the true value of changing the definition of the learning day.  We need to value all of those who contribute to a student’s academic progress, maximizing the skills and experiences each time and space can best provide for children.  We need to identify more learning opportunities for those students who are falling behind, dropping the misguided belief that students can catch up simply by doing the same (or usually, less) work during the traditional academic day.  And it means recognizing that these investments have a long-term impact on student learning, student health, community safety, and community empowerment.
Words and actions out of Washington, our state capitols, and our school districts all point to a need for new perspectives, new approaches, and
a new view on effective learning.  Is OST the silver bullet for solving all that ails are schools?  Hardly.  But it is an important piece of the puzzle.  For years now, groups like the Mott Foundation and the Wallace Foundation have invested in OST infrastructures in states and cities across the nation.  Success now comes when those investments in inputs are translated into real, outcome-based results.  The principles coming out of New Orleans this week are a strong step forward.  The next step is moving effectively to communicate these ideas with those stakeholders who can put them into practice, getting audiences to change the way they think about afterschool and change what they do with those afterschool hours.  The possibility is there.  Now we just need to seize it.   

Head Coach for National Education Standards?

Is it wishful thinking or a sign of things to come?  Do we really have a head coach for the national education standards movement bunking down at the seventh floor on Maryland Avenue?  Eduflack may be reading what he wants to in a recent Washington Post interview, but it sure looks like EdSec Arne Duncan is wrapping a big ol’ bear hug around national standards.

In this morning’s WaPo, former gossip columnist Lois Romano offers up a short interview with the EdSec.  (There’s even a video of the interview, for those who don’t want to be bothered by the written word.)  This is clearly part of Duncan’s ongoing charm offensive tour, and offers a broad brush on Duncan’s goals as the nation’s top educator.  Who knew, for instance, that the primary charge from President Obama was to drive up college graduation rates?  Seems to me we have a great deal of work to do in early education and K-12 before we can even address the issue of college-going and college graduation rates.  But it is a popular topic, particularly in our current economy.
What really struck Eduflack, though, was Duncan’s response to why the education community had turned on No Child Left Behind:
“What didn’t work was this idea of 50 states . . . setting their own standards. . . . What they did is they were very loose on the goals, on the benchmarks, but very, very tight in how you get there. I think we need to reverse that. We need to have a tight, clear bar that we are all shooting for . . . but provide much more flexibility and the ability to innovate and be looser in how folks get there.”
Don’t know about you, but that looks a pretty definitive endorsement of national standards.  The failure of NCLB was that each state set their own mile markers to measure against a single federal yardstick — NCLB.  The fix, the “tight, clear bar” that Duncan is talking about?  It can only mean national standards, a common measure that every student in the nation is held to.  
After so many years of watching EdSecs fighting against the notion of national standards, it is refreshing to see Duncan so clearly embrace the notion without apologizing for his opinions or stating it is just a personal belief and not a policy plan.  And with Duncan’s strong relationships with national standards advocates like NGA and CCSSO, this could actually move from rhetoric to real action.  Whuda thunk?