Community Investment in Education

For years now, those in the education community have noted that education R&D just doesn’t get the love that R&D in other industries — particularly healthcare — receive.  Yes, we throw a few pennies (in the global sense) at the issue through the Institute of Education Sciences and a few private sector interests, but investment in true education R&D is a pittance.  It should come as no surprise, though, as attention to real, measurable, scientific education research is a relatively new issue (and we still haven’t figured out how to adequately focus on the D side of education R&D).

All of the talk and action around healthcare reform has Eduflack thinking.  The Obama Administration is looking to offer a major shift in how we deliver healthcare in this nation, seeking to improve quality and access in one shift action.  Like it or hate it, healthcare is moving.  Stakeholders are seeing the need for change.  We’ve outlined the action steps for improvement and, supposedly, innovation.  And we are moving toward it.  To help such a monumental effort continue to move forward, the Administration has gained the rhetorical support from major entities such as the pharmaceutical industry and the nation’s hospitals.  More importantly, they’ve gotten these stakeholders to ante in, with the pharmaceutical industry offering $80 billion and hospitals throwing in $155 billion toward the effort.  The thought is real reform cannot happen by government fiat alone. 
Why doesn’t such thinking carry over into public education?  When we look at national reforms in education — changes designed to boost student achievement, access, and quality — we look solely to the federal government for the dollars.  Look to implement core standards in the 50 states, our SEAs will turn to the feds for the money to follow through.  Call for an injection of innovation in the classroom, recognizing that following the status quo path all these many decades hasn’t gotten us very far, we provide an address where the federal government can send the check.  Demand change, reform, improvement, or any of the above, and we look to the U.S. Treasury to make it all happen.
Yes, the US Department of Education is seeking a $5 billion commitment from the philanthropic community to match the $5 billion the feds are willing to invest in education innovation.  Yes, groups like the Gates Foundation are now looking to throw in $500 million to dive deep into teacher quality in a select group of school districts.  But in the grand scheme of things, are these significant investments to education improvement — on par with those PhRMA and the hospitals are providing to healthcare reform — or are they simply nibbles around the edges of the major issues at hand.
Ultimately, it falls on folks like the EdSec and other to utilize the bully pulpit to draw attention and commitment to the issue of education improvement.  In recent years, we’ve done a damned fine job informing virtually every stakeholder audience of the problems in K-12 (or even P-16) education.  We’ve even started building commitment for some of the changes that are needed to improve the quality and impact of education delivery in the United States.  But we are still struggling to mobilize those audiences around those specific changes.
Why?  We are still struggling to show those audiences what specifically they can do to deliver on those changes.  What action steps can I take to improve the system?  What do I prioritize?  What do I do?  What do I fund?  To what do I hold my members accountable?
After much trial and error, we’ve learned these issues in healthcare, which is why we are now getting rhetorical and checkbook buy-in from the pharmaceutical industry and the hospital industry to move reform.  But we still haven’t learned this in education.  We are still looking for the ultimate Sugar Daddy — the federal government — to let us know what to do, how to do it, and then provide the dollars for it.
If we expect plans to improve public education to truly take hold and have the impact we all seek, we need to call on all stakeholders to play a specific role in the development, implementation, and funding of it.  If the past eight years has taught us anything, it is that the feds can’t do it alone.  We need the help of teachers, administrations, higher education, business leaders, community organizations, families, and students.  We need their support.  We need their advocacy.  And we need their financial support.  Each stakeholder may not play a starring role, but they play a role in improving our public schools.  Now’s the time for all to step up and make that role their own.  
It doesn’t matter if they’ve received a golden-gilded invitation to the game or if they are crashing the gates.  You can’t complain about the final outcome if you aren’t ready to step up to the plate.  The feds can get the ball rolling, but it is going to fall to all of those stakeholder audiences to sustain, build on, and cultivate additional improvements.  

Some Main Street USA Reality

Sometimes, our national education policy debates become very “Beltway-centric.”  They are discussions among federal policy leaders and national education voices, between influencers and devil’s advocates, between those who have power and those who seek it once again.  Too often, we focus on in the inputs and who is seated around the table, often forgetting those we are affecting and those who will be asked to carry out the very policies being put into place in Washington.

Eduflack was reminded of that last evening.  I had the privilege of sitting down with members of a town council and a local school board up in New England.  Like far too many communities, they are struggling with both the economic and the educational challenges of 2009.  A town with a rich history, they’ve seen home values dramatically decline (by more than a third in two years), they’ve struggled to meet AYP (particularly in math), and they are finding it hard to communicate their community value to those who are looking for new communities to live in, despite their proximity to a major city and their strong quality of life.  They want to make sure there are real job opportunities for their kids in the future, but they aren’t sure how to ensure it.
It is a diverse community, growing more diverse by the year.  As a result, the schools are forced to deal with growing demands of ELLs, both as students and as parents.  The school district has implemented an ambitious school improvement plan, seeking to address struggles in math and ELA proficiency with lower student-teacher ratios, full community involvement in the schools, and a community-wide commitment to improvement and innovation.  They have a clear vision of where they want to do; they now just need the roadmap to get there.
Their challenge is this great nexus between economic and educational factors.  Too often, we believe education operates in a vacuum.  We do things because they make sense on paper (or worse, because others tell us it looks good on paper) without realizing how it fits into the larger picture.  In communities like this, we see the ongoing continuum generated by the economy/schools intersection.  School improvement requires additional dollars, money beyond the stimulus and Title I dollars offered by the federal government.  That money comes from local government, which relies on property taxes to get there.  Housing values decline.  Housing sales slide.  And the community has fewer dollars to do all of the things it does — police, fire, transportation, social services, and yes, education.  So in a downturn, we are looking to reinvest in the schools, making them stronger so new families want to relocate in the community because it is a district on the rise, yet we struggle to find the dollars to execute.
Fortunately, in many towns like the one I visited yesterday, they have a real story to tell, offering a rich history with a clear plan of where they want to go.  They have a loyal local business community, dedicated municipality officials, and schools committed to doing what it takes to improve.  Are they happy with their AYP or their standing on state exams?  No.  Are they throwing up their hands, saying that a community with their challenges is a lost cause?  Of course not.  They are acting.  They are looking to innovate, within the confines of their human and fiscal realities.  They realize the status quo won’t cut it, and are looking for new ways to teach, new ways to learn, and new ways to share their story with those in the community and those who may join the community.  They see this as a joint effort, with school and town working with local business, local churches, and local families and community leaders to move forward.
A few months ago, there were some guffaws around EdSec Duncan’s planned “listening tour.”  They grew a little louder when we learned that the EdSec was actually doing the listening on these visits.  He wasn’t going into communities to tell them what he was doing or to explain what they needed to do to fit his goals.  He was listening to their experiences.  He listened to stories of the fiscal troubles in communities like Detroit, where the schools are now facing bankruptcy.  He was, supposedly, greatly impacted hearing the tales of learning and school improvement in our Native American community.  Hopefully, he is hearing stories like those I heard last evening, understanding how federal action is but a small part of actual turnaround and improvement.  He is realizing the collective responsibility, from the feds down to the localities, we all have in real innovation.  And he is appreciating that his goal of turning around the 1,000 lowest performing schools starts with those actual schools, and does not come with a trickle-down of federal policy, dollars, and well wishes.  It comes through empowerment, support, and investment beyond the annual checks.
I walked away last evening feeling better about the possibilities.  In recent weeks, the details about federal education “improvement and innovation” had me feeling that there was little truly new and innovative happening.  Aside from a renewed interest in charter schools, we were dealing with retreads of ideas of the past, talking about issues like mayoral control and inputs-based changes, hopin’, wishin’, and prayin’ that those inputs would result in improved outcomes.  History tells us they rarely do.
So it was refreshing to hear directly from a local community that was taking the future into their own hands, committed to a turnaround plan built specifically for their community, supported by those in the locality, and addressing their real needs (and not the needs of a program officer in Washington).  They understand the stakes have never been higher, and they are prepared to ante into the game and do what is necessary to improve education — and the lives — of the students of both today and tomorrow.
No, what I heard is not unique to this community.  It is a tale that can be told of communities across the nation, where education improvement and innovation is underway, and has been before the influx of stimulus dollars was made available.  It is told of those cities and towns that realize the schools are the heart and soul of the community, and require real attention and commitment.  And hopefully, it is a tale that the EdSec and his staff are hearing as part of their listening tour, helping them see how they can help encourage and enhance current efforts, and not get in the way of real innovation.

Sunshine on Core Standards

In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of discussion about the core standards movement and how “public” the development of these national standards will truly be.  Those who see such standards as a needed pathway to lead us to real, tangible improvement and focus on quality believe the process is just underway.  Those who see monsters under the bed and hear things that go bump in the night are certain that the deck is already stacked, the standards are already written, and we’re merely going through the motions.  

If core standards are like most education “movements” in Washington, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Yesterday, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers announced a new website for information on all things related to core standards —  The new site provides a few pieces of interesting information, including a tentative development schedule and those involved with its development.
Currently, the Common Core Standards Initiative (as dubbed by NGA and CCSSO) is sticking by its story that college- and career-ready standards will be completed by the end of the month, by July 2009.  Such an aggressive timeline may lend a little credibility to the notion that these standards are already in the can, pulled mainly from work already done by Achieve, College Board, ACT, and others.  More interestingly, the Initiative is also promising grade-by-grade standards work will be completed by the end of the calendar year, or by December 2009.
In looking at the members of both the Work Groups and the Feedback Groups, one thing is clear.  Grade-by-grade standards will be limited to English-Language Arts and mathematics.  By the end of the year, we will not have grade-by-grade standards for science, social studies, foreign languages, arts, or any of the other subjects that our K-12 students are currently engaging in.  How do we know?  Both the Work Groups and the Feedback Groups are divided into two camps — mathematics and ELA.  Eduflack can’t imagine that the math groups will be working on science standards, or the ELA groups will be working on social studies expectations.  So for now, our core standards are designed to model our current AYP efforts.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Moving AYP beyond grades three through eight into a full K-12 education continuum is an important thing.  But if we are going to truly get buy-in for the core standards (and more importantly, get states to adopt them and the common assessments that will need to be developed with them), we need to hit all of the key subject areas.  In Eduflack’s home state of Virginia, for instance, we can’t have core standards for math and reading, but then offer the state’s SOL for social studies.  It just doesn’t make sense for the long term.  The minds behind the Core Standards Initiative understand that, but we are still waiting for the explanations and the timetables that will align with all of the other academic subjects our students learn.
It seems most of the heavy lifting will be done by the Work Groups.  So who is on these groups?  A run-through of the rosters (available on the website) shows teams consisting primarily of staff from Achieve, College Board, and ACT.  Student Achievement Partners made the cut, and America’s Choice has a few slots in there (which may also speak to why outgoing Arkansas Schools Chief Ken James is headed to America’s Choice), and there is an academic or two added to each for good measure.
The feedback groups represent a strong list of academics and researchers who know the literature and the research base behind the subject matter.  The ELA Feedback Group, for instance, has two members of the National Reading Panel, as well as the chair of NRC’s reading research effort. 
Folks are going to read into this announcement what they want to.  Some will continue to question the sunshine put on the process and whether the “education blob,” particularly the content-area organizations, will have a real role in the development of the proposed standards.  Others will question whether their is a particular political slant to the approach.  And still others will beat the drum that classroom educators, the ones who will ultimately need to teach to these standards, are not represented at all.
Regardless, it is a first step.  The second step is seeing the work product that will be released at the end of the month.  But soon, we’ll be expecting to hear how the Initiative is going to address subject areas beyond math and reading.  Soon, we’ll want to hear how these standards will be incorporated into current and future curriculum.  And real soon, we’ll need to start discussing how one assesses student proficiency of these standards.  A long to-do list, particularly in light of potential ESEA reauthorization this fall.  Time will tell ….