Competitiveness Through High Schools

High school dropout rates are at epidemic proportions.  The recent NAEP data demonstrates that we haven’t moved a hair on the achievement gap among high school students in decades.  Yet we all seem to recognize that a high school diploma and some form of postsecondary education is a non-negotiable when it comes to personal success and economic strength.  So how do we bridge the disconnect?

The topic is particularly interesting in light of a guest post on today’s Politics K-12 blog, which indicates there is some grumbling with regard to the Obama Administration’s financial commitment to meaningful high school improvement.

Looking for more info?  This afternoon, House Education Committee Chairman George Miller (CA) hosted a full committee hearing on “America’s Competitiveness and through High School Reform.”  Important topic, one for which we have more questions than answers.  Panelists included Vicki Phillips of the Gates Foundation and Bob Wise of the Alliance for Excellent Education.  All the info is here, including a webcast and the testimony of all participants.  Worth taking a look.

A New Era for PreK?

A few short years ago, universal preK was all the rage.  States large and small were jumping on the bandwagon, candidates for state office were running a platform that called for early childhood education, and we honestly believed that preK was moving from glorified babysitting to true, honest-to-goodness instruction for our youngest learners.  The federal investment in Early Reading First helped the cause, but in general we saw that one couldn’t truly improve elementary school academic proficiency without establishing some core building blocks in those years before kindergarten.

Then along came the economy.  Before the bottom fell out last fall, states had already been feeling the pinch on their budgets and their good intentions for universal preK.  Some plans were scaled back, some scrapped altogether.  We all knew it was an issue that warranted our education attention, it just wasn’t necessarily one that would get our top billing.  And in the current economic environment, only the top billing got our dollars and focus.
The good folks over at PreK Now (now part of the Pew Center on the States) have released a new study looking at the governors’ preK proposals for the coming fiscal year.  Leadership Matters: Governors’ PreK Proposals Fiscal Year 2010 provides some interesting information on the future of early childhood education.  Among PreK Now’s highlights, looking at gov proposals:
* 14 governors are proposing to increase investment in early education
* 13 govs are proposing to level fund early education programs, preserving current investment levels
* The governors of Alaska, North Dakota, and Rhode Island are proposing preK efforts where there are currently none
* Total proposed investment in FY2010 ECE is 4 percent greater than last year’s actual spending
On the negative, we have to hope that state legislatures will fully fund these efforts.  And on the truly negative, the governors of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, and South Carolina are all proposing cuts to their current preK investments.  Penny wise and pound foolish, particularly in this day and age.
So there is room for hope, but room for concern. At our highest levels of state leadership, we are seeing the value of ECE.  And in many states, we are converting that realization into real policies and real dollars.  Unfortunately, in some states — including those like Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and North Carolina that are known, fairly or no, for a high-quality education — cuts are coming.  And we all know that once cuts come, it gets harder and harder to restore them.  There, we have to hope that the legislatures will intervene and at least continue existing funding.
For those states that are looking to create new ECE programs, increase current funding levels, or even stay the course, there becomes one very important question: How do we deliver return on investment on early childhood education?  How do we make sure we have moved beyond glorified babysitting and are really focusing on instruction and academic and social preparation?  How do we ensure that quality preK is measured and assessed for having true quality?
Last week, Sara Mead and the folks over at New America Foundation worked to answer that question, providing some guidance, some data, and some color commentary on the issue of quality preK.  At a forum held last Thursday, New America took a closer look at the lessons that can be learned from data-driven early interventions for our youngest learners.  The forum can be watched on the Web, courtesy of New America, here.  
The playback on the forum is worth checking out, and not just because it features the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation (a group Eduflack current advises) and its work with the DC Partnership for Early Literacy.  As our governors look at continuing their bets on early childhood education, it is valuable to see how evidence-based, early childhood literacy instruction can be effective, particularly with low-income three- and four-year olds.  The DC Partnership for Literacy is working with some of our most at-risk students.  If it can demonstrate true ROI when it comes to preK, it is offering something that every governor — particularly those in Alaska, North Dakota, and Rhode Island who are starting up early childhood efforts — may be able to really learn from.  When it comes to the future of preK, we all need to focus on quality, ROI, and its contributions to closing the achievement gap.  We need these investments to count for something.

Reading First 2.0

What is the future of the federal investment in reading instruction?  It is a question that many folks are still waiting to answer.  By now, we all realize that Reading First is dead as a doornail.  After billions of dollars of dollars spent, a significant number of research studies demonstrating its effectiveness at the state level, and even a US Department of Education (OPEPD) study highlighting that the program has worked, the fat lady has indeed sung.  The implementation problems, the IG investigation, the Bush-era RF tag, and a recent, yet flawed, IES study have all assured that.

But the federal government has been investing in reading instruction for decades.  RF was just the latest iteration of the effort (and probably the most significant).  But the end of RF doesn’t mean the end of federal reading, does it?  If one looks at the President’s budget, released last week, the answer is a clear “no.”  Buried in the thick volume is approximately $300 million for reading investment, comparable to the last year of RF (though the term Reading First is no where to be found, don’t mistake me).
So I’ll ask again, what is the future of the federal investment in reading instruction?  Eduflack opined on this back in January.  The current buzz around town, four months later, is pretty simple.  Critics of RF believe to this day that it was all about phonics.  It was a drill-and-kill bill designed to prop up programs like Direct Instruction or Open Court, teaching reading in an automaton sort of way.  We forget that the legislation — and the instruction to come from it — was supposed to focus on five key, research-based principles.  It was all about phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, with each component building on the one that came before it.
RF wasn’t a phonics bill, it was a scientifically based reading research bill.  That’s why we saw the “scientifically based” terminology i the NCLB legislation more than 100 times.  Its writers recognized that we have spent billions of dollars in this country trying to get our youngest learners reading.  And despite all of the money and the best of intentions, nearly 40 percent of fourth-graders were still falling below the proficiency mark.  RF was intended to refocus our dollars on what was proven effective.  it was about spending on what works.  It sought to abandon the notion that our classrooms are laboratories to test out the latest and greatest silver bullets, and instead should be centers of excellence where we apply instruction and teacher training that is proven most effective in getting kids to read.
Until I am provided a better name, Eduflack will refer to RF 2.0 as Yes, I Can Read.  So what does Yes, I Can Read look like in 2009?  We know from the buzz that Yes is going to place a stronger emphasis on both vocabulary and reading comprehension, two key components of SBRR.  For well more than a decade now, we have heard about the vocabulary gaps between high-income and low-income students.  Low-income students often enter school having heard thousands fewer words than their counterparts.  One can’t be truly proficient in reading if you don’t know the words.  So yes, vocabulary should be a key component of Yes.
As should comprehension.  All of the work at the beginning of the learning process — that focus on phonics, phonemic awareness, and fluency — is meaningless if a student ultimately doesn’t understand what he or she is reading.  We use the fourth grade measure because that is when students need to start using their reading skills to learn other subjects, like science and social studies.  At the end of the day, comprehension is king.  Without it, all of the previous work was for naught.  So you get Eduflack’s ringing endorsement on that as well.
Third, we have the teacher component.  Although RF provided for up to 25 percent of the dollars to be spent on professional development, it is often a provision that is overlooked.  And that’s a cryin’ shame.  We cannot expect our kids to learn to read if we are not properly supporting and training our teachers to lead the instruction.  It is hard, hard work to teach a child to read.  It’s not just a matter of finding the right button to push or handing out the right workbook.  Teachers need to understand the five core building blocks of reading instruction.  They need to be able to identify where a student’s roadblock may be, using whatever is necessary to increase the application of that principle.  They need to use RtI when appropriate to get students over the hump.  They need to stick the research, but do so in an engaging way with literature that is both relevant and interesting to a student.  They need to become reading wizards, doing the impossible with more than a third of our students — engaging, educating, and inspiring.  They need to do it all.
So obviously, we need to invest more heavily in both the pre-service and in-service teacher training and support for reading instruction. And this isn’t just for ELA teachers, this is for all teachers.  Every educator has a vested interest in a child reading at grade level.  Every teacher pays the price if the child is not.  It is only natural, then, after more so many dollars have been spent in the past six years to get SBRR materials in the classroom, that Yes focuses on equipping teachers with the skills and knowledge to maximize the learning tools they currently have.
The final piece to this equation is recognizing that reading instruction is not simply a K-4 game.  As the Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday, a new NCES study found that 14 percent of Americans over the age of 16 struggle with basic reading and writing.  That’s 30 million adults and young adults!  What does that say?  For Yes, it means that our reading efforts can’t be limited to the elementary grades.  We need to focus on middle and high school reading instruction as well, particularly for our most struggling readers.  We need to take what we know works with younger students, mix in the limited research about middle and secondary school reading, and build an instructional program and the teacher supports that work with these students.  The Alliance for Excellent Education’s Reading Next report gives us a start.  We now need to move those recommendations into practice.
NAEP’s recently released long-term data showed us a couple of things (and no, I’m not going to harp on the achievement gap … this time).  First, it demonstrated that we are on the right track with SBRR.  Reading scores for our elementary grades are on the rise. They are on the rise for white, African-American, and Hispanic students.  And they are on the rise for both rich and poor students.  What this means is the investment in SBRR, and the development of SBRR materials, is working.  All kids are improving reading proficiency, whether they are in a RF school or not.  This is not an indictment of RF, rather it is a vindication of SBRR.  Textbook publishers are not selling one set of texts to RF schools, and another to non-RF schools.  All texts are now aligned with SBRR. Teacher training programs are not offering one set of reading pedagogy to those teachers about to enter RF schools and another to those going into non-RF schools.  All teachers are getting the same basics in the tenets of SBRR (if they are getting any reading at all).  The NAEP data shows it is working, and shows we need to keep at it and redouble it, not change course and try something new … again.
The NAEP data also demonstrates the impact of greater accountability measures.  The implementation of SBRR has come at the same time we were holding our sch
ools to a greater level of accountability through AYP.  Such accountability measures have ensured that all students were served, and we were making no exceptions for such standards.  Yes, it was seen as harsh by some, particularly those who wanted to use their own lenses or sought greater proportionality in how AYP was measured.  Accountability is harsh because it needs to be.  At the end of the day, the rise in NAEP scores over the last decade better aligns with the accountability movement than it does with NCLB.  As some states started to put firm accountability measures into place in late 1990s, we started to see the uptick.  As NCLB nationalized it, the results on NAEP speak for themselves.  When we hold our schools and state accountable, truly accountable, they can rise to the occasion.
Why is this important?  It gets back to the learning needs of our older students.  We don’t have such accountability measures in place for secondary schools, and we really don’t have them in place for our middle schools.  If Yes, I Can Read is going to have real teeth and leave a lasting impact, we need to hold our schools, particularly our secondary schools, accountable for its effective implementation. We need to collect all the data, measure all the students, grades K-12, and report who is doing the job and who isn’t.  Those who are should serve as beacons and exemplars for the nation.  Those who aren’t should be put on notice and should have to take the corrective action to get those students reading.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that there is a correlation between drop-out rates and literacy levels.  Nor does it take a brain surgeon to know that the root of the achievement gap is our reading proficiency gap.
So as we build Yes, I Can Read, we need to make sure we are investing in all five of the core components of SBRR, particularly vocabulary and comprehension.  We need to invest in our teachers, ensuring they have the data, knowledge, and skills to be effective literacy instructors to all students, regardless of age or current reading level.  And we need to hold our K-12 schools accountable for reading proficiency.  
Reading is not mastered at the fourth grade.  Those who are proficient at that stage still have a lot of work to do.  Those who are not need extra work, extra attention, and extra intervention.  SBRR has a lifetime of application.  It has been proven effective.  And as far as I know, no one has offered up a better roadmap to getting virtually all children reading.  Hopefully, just maybe, it will remain the core of Yes, I Can Read.    

These NCLB Colors Don’t Run!

Today, The Washington Post finally opines on the NAEP Long-Term Data released almost two weeks ago.  The official stance of DC’s paper of record should come as surprise to few.  In fact, WaPo seems to be channeling dear ol’ Eduflack on this, agreeing with my general points from a week ago that the NAEP improvements are significant (particularly with regard to students in the elementary grades), our high school performance is still a national embarrassment, and the persistent achievement gap is something that we all should be concerned with.

And like Eduflack, WaPo used the data to demonstrate that the past seven years of No Child Left Behind have been effective in their core purpose — to improve reading and math performance in elementary school.  In fact, the gains across the board — for white, African-American, and Hispanic students, show that we are on to something when it comes to effective practice that generates real results.
What caught my attention was the close of the editorial, best summarized by the piece’s subhead, “This is no time for retreat on No Child Left Behind.”  Couldn’t agree more.  Recent years has demonstrated what works in elementary instruction, at least for reading and math.  It works for all disaggregated groups.  Seems to me we’ve figured out what to teach.  Now we need to redouble or retriple our efforts to deliver it to the students most in need, train teachers in its effective delivery, and better collect data so we continue to monitor and improve.
And, of course, Eduflack is thrilled with WaPo calling for the adoption of national standards.
No, what surprises me is the notion that we, as a nation, are looking to retreat on NCLB.  Nothing coming out of the Obama Administration, the U.S. Department of Education, or even Capitol Hill has signaled any serious attempt to turn back NCLB.  Yes, we talk about increasing available funding, better focusing on teachers and instruction, and taking a closer look at how we measure success.  But every action and every word to date screams “stay the course.”  No one seems to be dismantling NCLB, particularly with the Administration’s continued focus on both student achievement and innovation.
This continued worry about taking a chainsaw to the tent poles of NCLB seems to boil down to a few key issues.  Will we remain as focused on student achievement?  Will we continue to place such emphasis on accountability?  And what is the future of instruction and training proven most effective over the past decade?
Again, ED is talking the talk with regard to achievement and accountability.  Even previous discussions about multiple measures for student achievement seem to be a thing of the past.  EdSec Duncan’s rhetoric is screaming achievement and accountability.  And we’re all waiting to see if the economic stimulus bill and the new budget put some real teeth behind this new rhetoric.
So why the continued worry about the future of NCLB?  There is room for improvement with regard to the current federal law.  We do little to focus on the needs of secondary instruction, as evidenced by the NAEP scores.  HQT provisions do little to ensure our classrooms — particularly those in hard-to-staff areas — are served by effective teachers with the content knowledge and pedagogy necessary to lead real improvement in those schools that need it most.  And we’ll set aside for another day how one can both focus on student achievement for all, while doing something about our dastardly achievement gap. 
If we turn our attention to just those issues, then yes, NCLB will change … for the better.  (And I mean more than just a new name and tagline.)  NCLB has taught us a lot over the past seven years, and we should be using that to build a stronger Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  No, we shouldn’t tear down and build new every time the opportunity presents itself.  That’s just stupid.  We’ve taken major steps forward with NCLB.  We need to continue that forward progress, and we need to build on the lessons it has taught us.  We need to fix what we got wrong.  And we need to up the investment in that which is truly effective.  Seems common sense, even for government work.
At the end of the day, we are suffering from an information gap.  ED is not talking NCLB because it is an unpopular brand.  We know the law has been up for reauthorization for two years now, with many worried that a new Administration would undo all the previous did.  But we need to move beyond the book cover and take a look at the pages inside.  The Administration’s book seems to be one of NCLB continuation and improvement.  ED and Duncan seem to be preparing to write NCLB, Volume 2.  
We should not be looking to retreat on a national commitment to ensure that every child is proficient in reading, math, and science by the middle grades.  We should not be looking to retreat on our commitment to qualified and effective teachers.  We should not be looking to retreat on our attention to achievement and accountability.  And we certainly should not be looking to retreat on our pledge to provide an effective, high-quality education to all students, regardless of race, income, or zip code.  If it take WaPo and others to remind us of that from time to time, all the better.

Education Equality and Opportunity Now!

Last week, Eduflack had a Commentary piece on Education News on education equity.  Unfortunately, the link to the piece seems to have disappeared into the online ether.  But I wanted to share the piece, nonetheless.  So without further ado …

Aside from those who are polishing up their
“Status Quoer of the Year” trophies, most within the education sector recognize
that the future of public education has never been as intertwined with the
future of our economy as it is today. 
The school improvements sought by the American Recovery and Reinvestment
Act (ARRA) and those long funded by groups such as the Bill & Melinda Gates
Foundation are not simply change for change sake.  They are specific actions designed to make our P-12 systems
more relevant to life after school, ensuring that more students see the career
options before them and possess the knowledgebase and skills necessary to
achieve in a 21st century workforce.


Education, or at least effective education, does
not happen in a vacuum. 
Improvement efforts must be tied to outcomes and to real-life
expectations.  That’s why we no
longer teach our children Sanskrit. 
It’s why typing has given way to keyboarding.  And it is why language instruction in Latin and Italian has
given way to greater emphasis on the teaching of Spanish, Chinese, and even
Hmong.  We do not, cannot, and
should not reform simply for reforms’ sake.  We need to ensure that changes are relevant to future
educational and career paths.


Yet even today, there are those who fail to see
the connections.  In recent years,
I’ve held focus groups and discussion sessions with teacher educators and
classroom teachers and school board members and policymakers, and some of the
comments were frightening.  Many
believe the quality of education in the United States is stronger today than it
has ever been.  Instruction has
never been more effective.  And
some believe achievement gaps and drop-out rates are simply urban legends, designed
to spur changes that are unnecessary and undermine the great work being done by
the system, overlooking that “the system” has nearly half of minority students
are dropping out of high school and where only a third of today’s ninth graders
will go on to postsecondary education.


For these doubting Thomases and the defenders of
the status quo, the recent data released by McKinsey & Company crosswalking
the achievement gap in our schools with the financial shortfalls of our economy
is downright startling.  McKinsey’s
April 2009 report, The Economic Impact of
the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools
, paints a bleak picture of the
very real impact of the performance failures in our schools on the future of
our nation.  The student
achievement gap costs our nation $3 billion to $5 billion a day.  The achievement gap between black and
Hispanic students and white students costs us more than half a trillion dollars
a year, or 4 percent of our GFP. 
And the gap between low-income students and the rest can cost us upwards
of $670 billion a year, or 5 percent of GDP. 


Recognizing there are obvious overlaps between
those two disaggregated groups, we know that achievement gap costs us a bare
minimum of $500 billion a year. 
For those clamoring for additional dollars for our public schools,
believing that funding has been the only obstacle to student success, imagine
the impact half a trillion dollars could have on P-12?


Moreover, McKinsey’s data spotlighted the social
impacts of a struggling school system. 
The consulting company boldly proclaimed that data clearly demonstrates
that, as early as the fourth grade, achievement gap indicators demonstrate: 1)
lower rates of high school and college graduation; 2) lower lifetime earnings;
3) poorer health; and 4) higher rates of incarceration.


This data needs to end, once and for all, the
debate on how important student achievement is as an evaluation measure.  In today’s day and age, performance is
king.  Data is the driver.  And quantitative information needs to
rule the roost. 


Like it or not, that means student achievement is
determined by performance on state assessments and on Adequate Yearly Progress
measures.  Until we have national
education standards and national assessments, the state test is our tool.  It is the single measure that helps us
determine student proficiency and allows teachers and families to understand
where their children stand in comparison with others in the class, the school,
and the state.


Now is the not the time for debate about multiple
measures or looking for creative ways to evaluate students on qualitative
factors that cannot be captured on “high-stakes tests.”  The McKinsey data, coupled with the
warning calls and alerts issued for the past 25 years since the issuance of A Nation at Risk make one thing
clear.  The achievement gap is
Public Enemy Number One when it comes to the success of our schools.


Elementary school learning gaps are driven, in
large part, between the reading proficiency differences between low-income and
higher-income students.  Our
national high school crisis is further exacerbated by the irrefutable realities
than half of black and Hispanic students drop out rather than earn a high
school diploma.  And even for those
who enter postsecondary education, high levels of remediation, particularly in
English and math, only further emphasize the differences between the haves and
have nots.


The Education Equality Project has seized on the
McKinsey data, using the most-recent numbers as a beacon to draw attention to
EEP’s overall goal to eliminate the racial and ethnic achievement gap in public
education by working to create and effective school for every child.  Last week, EEP used the opportunity to
address the issue of teacher quality, and the irrefutable linkages between the
effectiveness of teachers and the performance of students.  This is particularly true of students
from historically disadvantaged populations, who are often saddled with
teachers who are unqualified, unprepared, or simply incapable of leading
struggling classrooms and providing the instruction necessary to overcome the
learning gaps identified by McKinsey and others.


The achievement gap is a national disgrace.  There is no question about it.  For the past decade, we have talked ad
naseum about student achievement and the need to reach AYP.  Noble goals, yes.  But in the process, we have neglected
the gaps and let far too many children fall through the cracks.  As a result, the NCLB era is one where
the differences between the haves and have nots continues to grow.  Race is more of an indicator of student
struggles than per capita spending. 
And those students who benefit the most from a meaningful public
education are often the last to actually receive it.


But it begs a larger question.  Can we truly close the achievement gap
before we have addressed the issues of equity and opportunity?  Can historically disadvantaged students
narrow the learning gap if they are not provided equal access to high-quality
learning opportunities?  Can we
improve the quality and impact of our public education system by simply
defining resources and equity by dollar signs, without factoring in quality and


The answer to all of the above questions is
obviously no.  The achievement gap
cannot be closed simply through rhetoric and pleasant dreams of lollipops and
rainbows.  It requires serious
investment in real solutions.  It
requires rocking the boat, doing things differently, and holding our states,
our schools, and our teachers to high expectations with high consequences.  It requires refusing to buy into the
status quo, and accept that the paths of the past have gotten us into the
crisis of the present.


So where do we go?  We need qualified, effective teachers in the classroom, and
we need to quantify their effectiveness. 
We need to demand equitable instructional resources for our schools,
ensuring that equity is measured at the highest points of the scale, and not by
dropping to the lowest common denominator.  We need greater accountability in the schools, both for
instruction and for how we utilize our education resources (particularly new
ARRA dollars) and ensure that such money is reaching those students most in
need.  We need to involve parents,
families, and the community in the school improvement process.  We need to ensure that those students
on the failing end of the achievement gap are given new access to the very best
instruction, from early childhood education to college prep curricula.  We need to collectively demand more
from our schools, and settle for no less. 
And we need to keep up the fight until both the opportunity and the
achievement gaps are things of the past, joining the phoenix and the unicorn as
mythical beasts of the past, never to be seen again.


We must also recognize we have no choice in the
matter.  As McKinsey has made
crystal clear, the stakes are simply too high for us to be content with the way
things are.  The achievement gap is
downright destroying the quality of our public schools, the impact of public
instruction, and the future of our economy.  To borrow from a mentor of mine, failure to act, knowing
what we know, is committing educational malpractice.  If education is indeed our next great civil right, now is
the time for our great march on Washington and now is the time for us to truly
act on our dream.


Next month, we celebrate the 55th
anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board decision, integrating our public
schools and offering the promise of equity and opportunity all U.S.
Students.  More than a half century
later, we still have many, many miles to go before the intent of that decision
becomes a reality in our inner-city and low-income schools.  What exactly are we waiting for?

A Farewell to Niffle?

This morning, the Obama Administration released its plans for the FY2010 budget.  Most in the education community have been taken by some of the big items found on the education side of the ledger.  Cuts to Title I.  Significant investments in early childhood education.  Reductions in education technology.  But it was a $6 million line item that caught the eye of Eduflack.

When we’re talking about billions of education dollars, it is hard to get worked up over a couple of million bucks.  In the grand scheme of things, few are going to truly weep over the potential elimination of the National Institute for Literacy.  Other than a small, but loyal, following in the adult literacy community, there are few that even keep track of what NIFL is up to these days.  But the zeroing out of the NIFL budget in the president’s plans speak loudly and clearly.
For years now, NIFL was struggling to figure out what it wanted to be when it grew up.  Originally, NIFL was developed to focus on adult literacy issues.  According to its own materials:
The National Institute for Literacy was established in 1991 by the National Literacy Act (NLA) and reauthorized by the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) in 1998. In creating the Institute, the U.S. Congress recognized that building a competitive workforce required a concerted effort to improve adults’ basic skills. Congress tasked the Institute with initiating a coordinated, interagency effort to strengthen and expand adult literacy services. Both laws positioned the Institute as a national leader on adult literacy, a central source of knowledge about research, practice, and policy, and a catalyst for innovation.
A bold mission statement, yes, but some can and do question whether NIFL has actually acted as this rhetoric describes.  After 17 years of operation, how many seriously view it as a central source of knowledge about research or as a catalyst for innovation?  I’m not seeing many hands raised.
In 2002, NIFL took a turn from its core mission to focus on scientifically based reading research and the reading priorities found in No Child Left Behind and Reading First.  The organization focused on research projects, reports, technical assistance, professional development, and even advocacy for K-12 reading instruction.  Eduflack was fortunate enough to lead a communications effort for NIFL’s Partnership for Reading, a collaborative across multiple government agencies to emphasize the importance of scientifically based reading to policymakers, teachers, and families.
At the time, many of NIFL’s early fans and friends thought the NCLB work took away from the Institute’s core mission and unique value proposition.  They thought it distracted NIFL from the business of dealing with literacy issues for those who have left school, including new immigrants and those who were incarcerated.  They thought it was the U.S. Department of Education hijacking a needed lever for helping those adults and non-students who had fallen through the literacy cracks.
Others, Eduflack included, saw reading instruction in the early grades as a necessary, non-negotiable mission for NIFL.  While it may not have been a focus in the early years, one could not dispute that focusing on reading skills with our youngest learners has real and strong impact on our adolescent and adult learners.  The Reading Excellence Act (during the Clinton Administration) opened the door to this focus on the elementary grades.  NCLB merely brightened the spotlight and raised the stakes.
Personally, I like NIFL.  I have respect for the people who have worked there, those who have advised it, and those who have and still do sit on its board.  But the future of NIFL has long been a struggle.  Many felt that adult literacy issues are better served by ED’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education.  And when it came to K-12, there was far more power and effort being exerted by the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education and even the Reading First office. 
How much impact can $6 million have, particularly when $3 million of it was being spent on the operational costs of the Institute itself?  We’ve heard for years that NIFL was launching a National Reading Panel, Part 2, but it has never come to fruition.  We’ve had multi-year NIFL research panels undertake work, only to have their final reports blocked by the Institute of Education Studies from final publication.  We had listserves taken down because they were far too critical.  And we had non-governmental groups like the National Center for Family Literacy do a more effective job in actually promoting change and improvement in the literacy community.
Am I sad to see the “Going Out of Business” sign potentially hung on NIFL’s doors?  No, not particularly.  The same issues can be better handled by others.  What I am sad about is the great potential NIFL has had, particularly over the last decade, and its inability to capitalize on that potential.  The organization was almost afraid to take a leadership position in a field where it had every right and responsibility to lead.  It favored inaction over action. It feared rocking the boat or drawing attention.  It wanted to go about its business, without truly integrating and interacting with those government offices and individuals who could help take the $6 million investment in NIFL and exponentially increase the impact of the investment.  No wonder the Obama Administration failed to see the value.
Years ago, Congress debated whether to reauthorize NIFL or not, questioning whether the Institute was a necessary cog in our education improvement efforts.  It was written into NCLB to prove its necessity.  Now, seven years later, we see that NIFL is expendable.  Our focus should not be on saving the Institute, that exercise was undertaken years ago.  Instead, we must now look to how the valuable activities and programs managed by NIFL are continued by others.  What do OVAE and OESE take over?  What moves over to IES?  What goes to NCFL and other non-profits?  
We still have much work to do if we are to improve literacy rates and reading proficiency in this country, from our youngest learners to our most experienced workers.  If not NIFL, someone must step in and lead on this issue.  The stakes are too high not to.

Where Does the Student Optimism Go?

By now, we’ve all heard the gory details.  One third of all students will drop out of high school.  Nearly half of all students in our inner-city schools will drop out.  Minority and low-income students have half the opportunity to learn as white, non-Latino students.  Ninety percent of newly created jobs will require postsecondary education, but only a third of today’s ninth graders will secure a postsecondary degree.  

These are the statistics that the adults managing our education system provide us.  Today, Gallup, along with the America’s Promise Alliance and AASA, provide us a close look at what students in the United States are thinking.  Surveying more than 70,000 students in grades five through 12 in 18 states and the District of Columbia, on topics such as dropout prevention and college readiness.  The results may surprise you:
* More than a third of students are “struggling or suffering”
* Half of students are “not hopeful”
* A third of students feel “stuck”
* 94 percent of students say they will graduate from high school
* 86 percent of students believe there is a good job waiting for them after high school
Eduflack finds the dichotomy between the views on the present and the future to be the most interesting.  Living in the current, students are focused on the negative, feeling stuck, not hopeful, and generally cynical about their current experiences.  Just half of students say there were treated with respect on the day surveyed.  When it comes to the qualitative of now, students are just as negative and cynical as the rest of us.
But in looking ahead, in looking at life after high school, these same students seem transform into bluebirds of happiness and optimism.  They all see high school diplomas in their future, despite the statistics that one in three will drop out.  And nearly as many believe there is a good job waiting for them after high school, at a time when even graduates from our top colleges and graduate schools can’t find gainful employment.
Why the difference?  Over the years, Eduflack has spent a lot of time conducting interviews and focus groups with high school students about their futures.  In general, today’s students do not enjoy their high school experience.  They are bored by the classes, feel disrespected by many teachers, and generally worry about what opportunities may come next.  But they follow through because they want to believe there is a positive at the end of the path.  They persevere because they believe there is a payout at the end of the game.
What’s likely missing from this survey sample are those youth for whom reality has set in — those who have already dropped out of high school.  The survey is likely heavy on middle schoolers, and light on high schoolers.  Thus the optimism about the future and the hopes for a high school diploma and a good job.  The current struggles are indicative of today’s middle schoolers, many of whom are starting to think about dropping out as a viable alternative to continuing their education.
So the big question is how we bridge the hope to the reality?  If 94 percent of students believe they will graduate, how do we get to the nearly 30 percent that will change their minds before earning that diploma?  For those 86 percent who believe they have a good job waiting for them, how do we get nearly half of them to realize that a good job requires postsecondary education?  How do we transform the optimism for the future into achievement today?  How do we get all students to feel a sense of hope and a right to opportunity?  How do we do better?
Call me mister negativity, but Gallup’s data points should be a wake-up call to all of those who think we have righted the ship.  We have fathoms to travel before we reach our destination.  It is good that students are hopeful, even if they are facing harsh realities today.  But at some point, we need to transform that hope into real action.  We need to fulfill the promise we have made to every student, that if they work hard and stay in school, success is in their grasp.  Otherwise, those struggling, stuck, and hopeless students become similarly distraught adults.  And we all know the effect that has on our economy, society, and nation.