Filling the Gaps on Innovation

For much of the summer, we’ve been handicapping the future of Race to the Top and which states are going to be the beneficiaries of the $4.35 billion honeypot.  As of this morning, more than 1,500 comments and suggestions have officially be submitted with regard to the draft regs.  To date, the media highlight has been the statement issued by the National Education Association, making clear that effective teaching needs to focus on good, well-supported teachers.  As noted last week, Eduflack was most taken by the remarks jointly submitted by EdTrust, DFER, CAP, and EEP, which provided a broad-brush approach to many of the issues keeping us up at night.

As those comments have been diligently filed on (with many parties submitting three, four, or even five position papers apiece), the handicappers in the Vegas-version of education reform have been putting the odds on those states that will win, place, or show when it comes to RttT.  Florida and Louisiana are looking strong.  Tennessee and Arizona are mounting strong darkhorse candidacies.  States like Texas, California, and Pennsylvania are quickly seeing the roadblocks that will get in their way.  And of those not getting a special boost from the Gates Foundation, places like Rhode Island, Virginia, and Colorado offer some potential.
We all know that not every state will become an RttT state.  In fact, no one seems to expect that half of the states will receive the designation.  That leaves a lot of states on the outside looking in, particularly for those seeking to make some real change but currently lacking some of the intangibles.  So what happens to those who won’t make the short list?
Along comes a little program called the Investing in Innovation (or i3) program.  in our zeal to embrace RttT, many have forgotten all about i3 and its $650 million.  And while we are still waiting for the draft regs around i3 to be released, the rhetoric surrounding the program is starting to give us a roadmap for where we are headed, making it clear that i3 is designed to help fill some of the innovation gaps created by RttT.
To date, EdSec Duncan has spoken about i3 and its real investments in proven-effective innovations.  We’ve talked about working with non-profits and other third parties that are able to drive real change and improvement in the schools.  We’ve discussed how K12 and higher ed need to work together, and how we can leverage current pilot projects into future success stories.  
Clearly, i3 is going to reward those states that don’t benefit from RttT (or from the upcoming Gates Deep Dive grants, I’d suspect).  So think Chicago and i3 for its TAP teacher quality program.  A little love for NYC and its continued efforts to boost student achievement.  Some continued support for a few Texas cities that have shown some real high school improvements (since Eduflack is all but certain Texas will not win RttT, despite Gates’ best attempts).  We may even see some reward for Robert Bobb and Detroit if the Motor City can find some “successes” on which to build, as that seems to be the name of the i3 game.
Without seeing the draft protocols for Investing in Innovation (we wait with baited breath), the safe money seems to be on those communities that will not be covered through RttT.  Instead of further leveraging investments, we will likely see RttT going one direction and i3 going in another. Current stimulus dollars will be spread to hit as many regions as possible.  (The lone exception may be Tennessee, which looks good for RttT and where Memphis is a current Teacher Incentive Fund site, is a likely Gates Deep Dive site, and could truly double down with some i3 money.)  
The race will be on to see whether state-based or district-based reforms are the quickest paths to success.  RttT will let us try something new.  i3 allows us to take promising practice and innovation up to scale.  How fast we move down each path will likely determine the direction and emphasis of ESEA reauthorization over the next 12 to 18 months.  Through our federal lens of education reform, does success come through state leadership or district implementation?  

Speaking Collaboratively on RttT

For months now, Eduflack has been asked the same question from a growing group of education policy observers and a great many of those who are looking to get out of the stands and into the game.  The question focuses on why a number of groups have been relatively silent on issues like the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, Race to the Top, and other new funding streams coming out of the U.S. Department of Education.

Typically, the query focuses on two groups — Education Trust and Democrats for Education Reform.  Is EdTrust just planning on transferring its status as NCLB cheerleader and chief over to RttT (somehow those folks seemed to miss the strong critique coming out of EdTrust during the stimulus debate)?  Or is EdTrust speaking no evil because Russlynn Ali is now over at ED?  Is DFER simply basking in the glow of having so many of its disciples named to ED posts?  Or is DFER simply measuring itself for NCLB 2.0 cheerleader skirts?
All of those questions were put to rest last night with a quick look over to the public comment postings for the draft RttT language.  In a strong, powerful statement, EdTrust and DFER, along with the Center for American Progress and the Education Equality Project, offered a detailed, thoughtful, and tough critique of RttT (and SFSF), making quite clear that we have far to go before we have “perfect” education reform and improvement policy.  The full statement can be found here.
The reform collaborative reminds us that, with all of the talk about reform and improvement, we can’t lose sight of those schools most in need, those “serving large numbers of low-income students, English-language learners, and students of color.”  And at a time when we are talking about using SFSF monies to backfill budgetary losses, the organizations are quick to point out that “the temptation to use State Fiscal Stabilization Fund and Race to the Top funds to get things back to normal must absolutely be resisted.”  In other words, using funds to get us back to the status quo is the wrong path to take.  Funding systems that result is only 40 percent student proficiency and a growing number of drop-out factories is simply not the way to improve and innovate.
The groups make several thought-provoking points:
* In our zeal to use data to determine and reward teacher quality immediately, we fail to acknowledge that we don’t have the information systems needed to deliver on the promise.  Such data systems are years and years away, yet the law could be using bad data or incomplete information to identify and reward “effective” teachers.  This is particularly true in schools and districts that serve historically disadvantaged students.  We just don’t have the data or the systems to collect the data to truly measure teacher effectiveness.
* Struggling schools are not stuck because they don’t know what to do.  We need to move off the notion of focusing on “the metrics only on the interventions made,” and instead be sure to require reporting of subsequent student achievement results.  In simpler terms, like its predecessors before it, RttT runs the risk of evaluating inputs and processes, and not outcomes and results.  And while the group acknowledges that ED is working toward fixing the problems of measuring high schools, the current proposal is still not adequate.
* While applauding the core standards movement, the collective notes that “better standards and better tests aren’t enough.”  Teachers need better curriculum, students need better instruction, and we all need better expectations.
* In addition to ED’s current focus on standards and assessments, real reform needs greater emphasis on college and career readiness.
As one would expect from EdTrust, DFER, and the like, the education thought leaders offer three specific recommendations for improving RttT language:
* Assure a stronger focus on equity by (a) asking states not just about the amount of funding in education, but also about the fairness of its distribution to high- and low-poverty and high- and low-minority districts and schools, and (b) asking states to document their efforts (required under federal law) to address gaps in teacher quality between high- and low-poverty and high- and low-minority schools.
* Ensure that higher education does its part by including a sign-off from the state’s chief higher education officer (or CEO of the public university system) on the RttT application.
* Bolster the evidence of progress in raising achievement and closing gaps requested of states.
When one takes a look at the more than 106 pages of RttT online comments (representing well more than 1,000 pieces of “input” provided from all sorts of groups with specific interests and self-interests in mind), it is easy to see many groups and individuals looking to defend their “turf.”  What makes this collaborative statement so interesting is that it isn’t about the four organizations who have lent their signatures to the final draft.  It is about improving teaching and learning for those students who need improvement the most.  While these reccs may not influence the final RttT guidance, they certainly should serve as a guide for how we can improve standards, assessment, data, and teachers as part of ESEA reauthorization and the future of education policy.
Kudos to DFER, EdTrust, CAP, and EEP for putting forward this draft and focusing on the bigger picture.  Rather than getting hung up in the weeds, they are offering a clearer, alternative path for improvement and innovation.  And these groups know of which they speak.

Godspeed to a Legislative Legend

The news broke overnight.  U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy passed away last night, after a courageous battle against brain cancer.  A fighter to the very end, the senior senator from Massachusetts spent his final week focused on the people of the Bay State and of the entire United States, lobbying to ensure that Massachusetts would have two votes in the U.S. Senate after his passing, fighting for the governor to have the right to appoint a temporary replacement for the Senate seat until a special election could be held.  Most appropriately, the story of Kennedy’s passing can be found in the Boston Globe here.

As Eduflack has written before, Senator Kennedy was one of my earliest political heroes.  As a young boy, I was fortunate to go to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library (which my father helped establish when he was at the University of Massachusetts at Boston).  As a kiddo, I was so moved by everything I saw that I insisted on writing to Kennedy immediately.  Within weeks, I received a letter from the Senator, thanking me for my kind words and my picture.  It even included a handwritten postscript noting that I shared a name with his son.  That letter was, and is, a treasured possession, one that was framed and has hung on many a wall since the late 1970s.
When I started off on Capitol Hill for U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd, I immediately heard the Byrd/Kennedy stories, including their showdown for Senate Majority Leader more than a decade earlier.  But I found offices of great congeniality and partnership, with the Senate Appropriations and Health/Education Committees working together for a better future.  Just this morning, I learned from legendary Byrd staffer Michael Willard that Kennedy had actually approached Byrd in 1978 to be his running mate in the 1980 presidential election.  Now that would have been a Democratic ticket for the ages.
When I was a Hill staffer working for U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, we were pushing hard in a newly Republican Congress to ban the practice of drive-through deliveries, where mothers and their newborns were kicked out of the hospital less than 24 hours after giving birth because of demands from the insurance companies.  In pushing that bill with then U.S. Senator Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, we received much support and encouragement from Senator Kennedy, all in his effort to help improve the quality and access of healthcare available to all Americans.  We were able to outlaw the practice, despite the huge odds against us.
Years later, I was fortunate enough to be part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2001 and 2002, better known as No Child Left Behind.  While many questioned why Kennedy pushed so hard to move George W. Bush’s education bill through, it was clear to those who knew Kennedy and followed his career.  He believed that a good public education was the true equalizer in the United States.  He knew that for far too many Americans, particularly those of color or from low-income households, the playing field would never be level.  He fought for NCLB to ensure that all children had the same right to a high-quality education as his children.  He believed every student should have an effective teacher, regardless of zip code.  And he believed that every student could succeed, and that no child should be given up on or destined to attendance at a drop-out factory or a sub-par public school.  He believed in the potential in all of us, and the need to invest in and nurture that potential, regardless of the odds.
In the coming days and weeks, much will be written about Senator Kennedy and his impact on our nation, our policies, and our government.  As we wage a bitter fight over healthcare reform and brace for a potential battle over education reforms, we must not forget the lessons offered by Senator Ted Kennedy.  Nothing took priority over country and an unwavering commitment to improve the quality of life for every American.  No challenge was too large, whether it be healthcare, fair wages, or education.  Success came from building bridges, working with individuals of all persuasions, political parties, and points of view.  But true leaders also stand by their convictions, never wavering from their commitment and their own beliefs.  It is important to hear others, but it is just as important to stand, unwavering, for what we believe in.
My heart goes out to the entire Kennedy clan.  Here is hoping that his commitment to the people of Massachusetts and the United States is repaid in future efforts to improve the health, education, and welfare of every American.

School Enrollment Math in DC

According to The Washington Post, 37,000 students are expected to start in DC Public Schools today.  That number is down 17 percent from those who ended the year back in June, and it falls about 17 percent short of the 44,681 DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee has been targeting for the 2009-2010 academic year (and the number on which this year’s budget is based).  The full story can be found here. 

Despite the advertising campaigns, the door-knocking, and the community marketing designed to boost public interest in DCPS — “Go public and get a great free education!” — families are still not looking to send their kids to DC public schools.  DC-CAS scores may be up, but enrollment is down.  Rhee is focusing on teacher quality and new standards for teachers, but enrollment is down.  Theoretically, we’ve closed some of DC’s lowest-performing schools, thus giving more students access to a decent public school, yet enrollment is still down.
To be expected, DCPS has its reasons.  First, school leaders say that DC parents traditionally don’t complete their paperwork on time, so that number will increase over the course of the school year (we’ll forget for a second that not every kid currently enrolled today will stay at DCPS or even stay in school before all is said and done, thus making the whole thing a wash).  We’ll hold our tongues on how those students who are late to enroll are probably the ones that need that free education from day one in the first place.  
Of course, we also hear that the charter schools are threatening the growth of DCPS.  Despite the hype about improved DC Public Schools, boosts in student achievement, and an overall change in attitude, DC families are still looking to send their kids to charters before they go to traditional public schools.  Currently, nearly a third of DC school children are enrolled in charters, and charters are posting a 10 percent increase in enrollees, up to about 28,000.  Guess charter families don’t have the same challenges getting their paperwork in by the first day of the school year.
On top of it all, we also need to factor in the demise of the DC Voucher program.  This year, there are no new kids getting vouchers under DC Choice.  Clearly, those students are looking to attend school somewhere.  But they must be choosing between charters and private schools, based on the numbers.  Where are the 216 denied their choice enrolling once the protests are over?
Eduflack doesn’t mean to beat DCPS while it is down, but the numbers do raise an interesting question.  Right now, enrollment at DCPS is down about 7,500 students from last year and from where it was projected for this year.  Enrollment at DC charter schools is up by about 2,600 students.  So where are those nearly 5,000 students?  Are they finishing up a late beach week, and will join DCPS as school officials believe?  Have they moved on to the private schools, looking for a better pathway?  Have their families moved out of the District, bringing them to schools in PG or Montgomery Counties in Maryland, Arlington or Fairfax Counties in Virginia, or other communities throughout the United States?  Or are these students just not present and unaccounted for?
We all want to see a real renaissance at DCPS, with teacher quality improving, student achievement rising, and all DC children having access to a high-quality high school that can get them into a postsecondary program.  But even if we assume that each and every new student in the charter schools is one lost by DCPS, we still have more than 11 percent of the projected 2009-2010 DC student body undocumented.  For a district of DCPS’ size, that’s an awful lot of students to misplace or fail to document. 
I want to believe DCPS that those students are merely stragglers, and their paperwork will soon be in and they will be enrolled at their neighborhood public schools  I don’t like the fact that they will have missed the start to the school year, but I’d like to believe they are just running a little late.  But how do we know for sure?  And what happens if those 5,000 or 6,000 students aren’t on the DCPS rolls by September or October?  Are those just more kids that are written off in the ongoing saga of urban public education?

Diving Off the Gates High Board

In our zeal to find out which states have the inside track with regard to Race to the Top (and the good folks over at EdWeek’s Politics K-12 blog have given us the list of the 15 states getting a quarter million from Gates to “help” with their applications, providing the most inside of inside tracks) we seem to have lost sight of the Gates Foundation’s big plans for a “deep dive” into school district-based professional development and teacher support.

For those who have forgotten, earlier this year Gates announced its intention to award four school districts a grand total of $500 million to invest in real, meaningful teacher development activities.  That works out to $125 million per district, real money that can speak directly to teacher quality issues in those specific districts while providing a model for what can work in other urban LEAs looking for ways to boost teacher achievement and success.
Back in the spring, the initial list of “finalist” sites for this grant was leaked, with many quickly handicapping the race.  At the time, Gates has requested proposals and planned site visits at 10 locales — Atlanta, Denver, Hillsborough County (FL), Memphis, Omaha, Palm Beach County (FL), Pittsburgh, Prince George’s County (MD), Tulsa, and a group of Los Angeles charter schools.
When that original list went public, the chattering class immediately began handicapping the field.  We assumed PG County was a slam dunk, since its superstar superintendent John Deasy had just moved over to the Gates Foundation to help oversee this project.  Because of her longevity, track record of success, and ability to deliver results, we bet that Beverly Hall and Atlanta would make the final cut.  Many thought that the merit pay successes of Denver’s ProComp program would give the edge to the Mile High City, even though its superintendent had moved on to the U.S. Senate.  And we all know that that group of unnamed charter schools in the greater Los Angeles area has to be none other than Green Dot, a favorite child of the Gates Foundation and the Duncan regime.
So those were our supposed final four.  Some would put one of the Florida districts in as a dark horse (not distinguishing which one), recognizing that the Sunshine State has been a terrific site for school reform efforts.  Other cities had their pluses and minuses, but we assumed the die were cast and checks were being cut in Seattle for our frontrunner districts.
It seems a funny thing has happened on the way to determining the ultimate Deep Dive winners.  The New York Times is reporting that the list of final finalists has narrowed, and most of those slam dunks are now on the outside looking in.  According to the Times, the pool of 10 has now been narrowed to five — Florida’s Hillsborough County, Memphis, Omaha, Pittsburgh, and the Los Angeles charters.  No Prince Georges.  No Atlanta.  No Denver.  No frontrunners, save for Green Dot.  The full story can be found here. 
So what do the finalists tell us?  Three of the five (Hillsborough, Memphis, and Pittsburgh) are in states where Gates is trying to help secure RttT grants.  And Green Dot is a huge hat tip to Duncan’s emphasis on the role of charter schools in urban turnarounds (the fourth pillar of RttT).  Omaha is a surprising diverse school district, chock full of magnet schools and other programs designed to offer choice and alternatives, so it is a darkhorse that makes a lot of sense.
So which of the five will be the one district left without a chair when Gates’ music stops?  Historically, the teachers union in Memphis has been resistant to these “latest and greatest” efforts, most recently pushing back in both contract negotiations and the adoption of a Teacher Incentive Fund effort in the city.  Pittsburgh has done some interesting ed reform efforts, but always struggles with the view it is a “second city” to Philadelphia.  Hillsborough (essentially Tampa) is already a big Gates grantee and is heavily invested in teacher programs from National Board Certification to merit pay, meaning it may be far enough along with the additional help.  And Green Dot needs little extra fanfare.
Most surprising?  The truly large urban districts are noticeably absent from the finalists.  Gates has clearly made the decision to focus on more manageable LEAs where the money can be wisely invested, progress tracked, and best practice defined, captured, and modeled.  By focusing on the second ring of urban school districts, Gates is targeting some of the lower-hanging fruit, hoping that past Gates investment coupled with a district-wide culture of self-improvement and a focus on teacher quality will help win the day.
This will only be further enhanced if Gates’ RttT efforts are successful.  Deep Dive money in Tampa, Memphis, and Pittsburgh can be leveraged with teacher quality commitments under RttT to provide “super investments” in teacher development in these communities.  And we can assume that Gates is readying similar applications for the anticipated Innovation Fund, teeing up each of its finalist Deep Dive districts for a piece of the $650 million in innovation dollars expected to be released shortly by the Office of Innovation and Improvement.
Regardless of who makes it through the final filter, all eyes are going to be on “what” this money will be spent on.  Looking at the big picture, $125 million per district, spent over five years, isn’t the hugest of huge dollars.  But $25 million a year can go a long way in those districts that are currently being targeted by Gates.  If the funds really go to determining what qualities make the best teachers, how we measure those qualities in the classroom, and how we replicate and teach those qualities to all teachers in the district and throughout the nation, then we may really be onto something.  But that is the real key.  Many will tell you we already know what goes into good teaching.  Our struggle has always been applying what we know.  If Gates can’t figure it out, then few others can.

Teacher Pay in Gotham City

Over the weekend, Eduflack was fortunate enough to break from the mugginess of our nation’s capital to enjoy the mugginess of the capital of the world — New York City.  After a busy and tough summer, I was fortunate enough to take in my fourth Mets game at Citi Field, this time preceded by the opportunity to be down on that perfect brown dirt and beautiful green grass, with my Fred Flintstone feet touching the same hallowed ground as my beloved New York Mets (before they all took to the DL this year).  I even got to meet David Wright, a great treat (though odd since he is a few years younger than my youngest sister).

These trips to NYC also give me a chance to get a better sense for what is happening in NYC’s public schools.  From time to time, I will wade into discussions on the great Joel Klein experiment, and will usually have my head handed to me by a group of irate New Yorkers.  Why?  I believe that Chancellor Klein has made some real gains in the City That Never Sleeps.  Student achievement on the state standardized tests is up.  The achievement gap appears to be narrowing.  Graduation rates are up.  Progress is being made.  We may quibble on whether progress has gone far enough and deep enough, but when you are steering a ship of that size and shape, any positive progress should be acknowledged.  He’s got that Broad Prize on his mantel for a reason.
For most of the summer, attention in NYC has been centered on the issue of mayoral control.  Thanks to the NY State Senate, we actually had a period of a few weeks when Mayor Mike Bloomberg was not actually in control of the schools.  Some used that opportunity to call for Klein’s head, trying to use the absence of the King as an excuse for a palace coup in DOE headquarters in Brooklyn.  Saner heads prevailed, the Klein team stayed intact, and the good Mayor is back captaining an educational renaissance in New York.
Along the way, we lost sight of the fact that the contract between the NYC Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers is set to expire.  The brouhaha over mayoral control forced us to forget that NYC’s public school teachers may soon be working without a contract.  And in an urban district like NYC, that is HUGE news.  Yet somehow it isn’t getting the HUGE media attention we would expect from similar issues in similar cities.
What was even more surprising, though, was the state of negotiations with the UFT.  For the record, Eduflack is not a New York Times reader.  When I am in NYC, my newspaper of choice is the New York Post.  First and foremost, better Mets coverage.  But it also provides a more “diverse” view of what is happening in the cities and the myriad of issues the boroughs are truly grappling with.  So I was quite taken by a splashy story on Mayor Bloomberg’s negotiating position with UFT.  These are numbers that I honestly can say rarely surface when we talk about the love/hate relationship between management and teachers in NYC.
According to the NY Post, Bloomberg is starting by placing an 8 percent pay increase on the table for all teachers.  At a time when police and firefighters are at risk for furloughs and the city is looking to tax the purchase of junk food and the mere appearance of folks from New Jersey to keep the lights on, he is starting by offering a fair raise to teachers in a tough economy.  Just by looking at the cards he has been dealt, well before we reveal the flop, Bloomberg is seeking to boost starting salaries in NYC schools to almost $50K a year, with veteran teachers gaining the possibility to max out at $108K by 2011.  The full story can be found here
And then we look a little deeper at the Bloomberg/UFT relationship over the years.  Since Bloomberg started hopping the subway down to Gracie Mansion, he will have boosted NYC teacher pay by almost 50 percent if this base 8 percent raise takes place.  There are few careers — particularly those in the public sector — that can boost those sorts of increases over the same period.
Of course, the cynics claim that Bloomberg’s starting offer is just the “pro quo” for UFT agreeing to the extension of mayoral control.  But even Eduflack isn’t quite that pessimistic.  Was the other 40 percent just a downpayment leading to this summer’s showdown in Albany?  Or maybe, just maybe, Mayor Bloomberg and his team recognize the important role NYC’s public school teachers play in academic achievement.  Better to dance with the ones who brought you national attention and the Broad Prize than to try and start over believing that the “system” and not the “teachers” are the drivers for that classroom performance.
At the end of the day, UFT may end up with more than the 8 percent that Bloomberg is anteing with.  A new union president may be looking to make a statement.  UFT could end up with a 10 or 11 percent boost when all is said and done.  They may even be able to extract some protections from Klein’s continued push to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom, at least protecting the checks and benefits for those educators that don’t fit with the chancellor’s long-term plan.  And they may even manage to leave their lasting mark on any Race to the Top or Innovation Fund application that would include NYCDOE.
Nearly two decades ago, then WV Gov. Gaston Caperton became known as the “education governor” because he withstood a two-week, statewide strike of his public school teachers, ultimately giving them raises that took them from the bottom of the rankings to the low middles of state teacher pay.  So what does that make Bloomberg?  If he is serious about essentially boosting NYC teacher pay 50 percent in a 10-year period, “education mayor” does seem to quite do him justice, particularly if the Klein team keeps student achievement on the rise while retaining overall student numbers and getting more of them to earn that high school diploma.  The term czar is now vastly overused.  Maybe it is time to resurrect that terrific moniker “Little Magician” in NY again.  I’m sure Martin Van Buren won’t mind.

Tear Down that (Fire)Wall!

In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of attention with regard to firewalls and the linkages between the evaluation of teachers and the achievement of students.  The current draft criteria for Race to the Top proclaims that states must be able to use student performance data from their respective state assessments, crosswalking it back to the classroom to determine which teachers have been effective (and which have not).  In a new era of teacher incentives and merit pay, the trickledown of federal law will soon demand that good teachers “show” their effectiveness, and that there is no stronger measure for it than how well their students achieve.

As soon as those draft criteria were written, we started hearing of the legal obstacles policymakers in California, New York, Nevada, and Wisconsin would need to overcome (as all four states currently prohibit linking individual teachers to student achievement data).  California claims that while it is prohibited at the state level, exemplar school districts like Long Beach Unified are already pursuing such policies.  New Yorkers immediately go on the defensive, and claim that the federal interpretation of laws in the Empire State is incorrect.  Wisconsin’s soon-to-be former governor is quickly working with the state legislature to reverse their firewall issue.  And what happens in Vegas is clearly staying there, as we’ve heard nary a peep from Nevada on their plans to address a potential stumbling block to RttT funds.
At the heart of the firewall issue is one incredibly important philosophy.  If we are to improve the quality of K-12 education in the United States, we need to ensure effective, high-quality teaching is happening in classrooms throughout the nation.  To ensure that, we need hard, strong, irrefutable quantitative measures for determining effective teaching.  And the surest path to determining effective teaching is by measuring the outputs.  Good teaching results in effective learning.  Effective learning shows itself on student assessments.  Strong student assessments mean quality teaching in the classroom.  Rinse and repeat.
Is it as simple as that?  In an era where most of our student assessments are focused on measuring reading and math proficiency in grades three through eight, do we really have a full quantitative picture to separate the good teachers from the bad?  Do we really have the data to determine effective teaching from that which is getting in the way of achievement?  And do we know enough about student performance data that we are able to make very clear cause/effect determinations of teacher quality based on student test scores, without needing to factor in the other variables, factors, and resources that ultimately impact a student’s ability to learn?
Don’t get me wrong, Eduflack is all for focusing on teacher quality.  We have schools of education who are turning out teachers that lack the pedagogy or content knowledge to succeed (with most of them ending up in the schools and communities that need teachers the best).  In fact, Harvard University Dean Merseth recently said that only 100 education schools are doing “a competent job,” while the other 1,200 could be shut down tomorrow.  
At the same time, prevalent thinking has grown more and more in line with the belief that pedagogy and clinical training simply do not matter.  New teachers can get by on four weeks of classroom prep, not four years.  Low-quality teacher training programs and questionable alternative certification pathways are all about throwing teachers into the deep end, without ensuring that they are able to swim first.  And we’ve built a system where the classrooms and communities in the most need are rarely serving as home to our strongest and most capable teachers.  Struggling schools are made to feel lucky they have a teacher at all, and are more than happy to just settle for a “warm body.”
The convergence of these beliefs and these realities paint a dangerous picture when it comes to rewarding teacher quality and measuring it by student performance on state assessments.  Why?
Teaching is more than just reading and math.  Yes, those two subjects represent the very foundations of learning.  Without reading and math skills, students will struggle performing in other subjects.  But if state assessments are our rubric, are we saying that some subject matter teachers are less equal than others?  We all know that science will soon be brought on line, but what about other academic subjects.  Social studies and history.  Art and music.  Foreign languages.  Even ELL and special education.  Do those teachers not fit into our bell curve of effective teaching if we do not have state assessments for the subjects they teach?  Are they not effective teachers because we are not measuring student achievement in their chosen academic fields?  
What about the notion of the teacher team?  If I am a middle school student, my performance on the state reading exam is impacted by more than just what is happening in my ELA class.  Hopefully, my social studies teacher is introducing new vocabulary words and forcing me to apply critical thinking and comprehension skills to what I am reading.  My first or second year of a foreign language is getting me to reflect more closely on sentence structure and the roots and meanings of key words or word parts.  Even my math and science classes are contributing to my overall literacy skills.  So if I gain on the state reading exam, is that just a win for my reading teacher (as the current proposals would call for) or is that a win for the entire faculty?  Should teacher success be based on the success of the school, with a rising instructional tide lifting all boats, or can it really be winnowed down to a one-to-one formula, where a boost in an individual student’s reading score is solely credited to the teacher who happened to have them in the ELA class for 45 minutes a day?
What about longitudinal gains?  In Washington, DC, this year we witnessed how targeted test skill development can influence performance on the state exam.  So are we asking teachers to do test prep or to teach? Are they to facilitate or to educate?  Seems that the ultimate measure of a teacher is not just the short term gain on the state assessment, but also how well the student retains that knowledge and applies it in future grades and in future studies.  But how, exactly, do we capture that in a quick and dirty way?  In an era where we still look for the immediate payoff, no one wants to wait and see the longitudinal academic gains of students, ensuring that there are no drop-offs from fourth grade until eighth grade?
Are all gains equal?  If I am a math teacher in an upper class suburban public school, and my students post five point gains on the state assessment, taking them from 92 percent to 97 percent, is that equal to a math teacher in a failing urban middle school who boosts student math performance from 45 percent to 50 percent?  Is a gain a gain, or are some gains more equal than others?  Do teachers get extra points for impacting the achievement gap?  Is there a weighted system for demonstrating gains in dropout factories or historically low-performing schools?  Is demonstrating real movement in the bottom quintile worth more than moving a few points in the uppermost quintile?  
And then we have all of the intangibles that should be factored into the mix.  Class size.  Native languages.  Pre-service education.  In-service professional development.  Quality and quantity of instructional materials.  Accessibility to mentor teachers. &nbsp
;Parental involvement.  Principal and administrator support.  All play a role in driving student achievement and ultimately closing the achievement gap.  How do all get factored into the formula that student achievement plus teacher incentives equals effective educators?
We should be doing everything we can to strengthen the teaching profession and ensure that classrooms in need are getting the most effective teachers possible.  We should acknowledge that not everyone is cut out for teaching, and that getting that first teaching job and a union card should not be the only tools required to assure lifetime employment.  And we should look to quantifiably measure teacher effectiveness, recognizing that the ultimate ROI for education is whether students are learning or not (and that they are able to retain it).  We should be incentivizing superstar teachers, particularly those who teach hard-to-staff subjects or in hard-to-staff schools.
But before we tear down the remaining firewalls and decide that teacher evaluations are based solely on a student’s singular performance on a bubble sheet exam, we need to make sure we aren’t moving a bad solution forward without truly diagnosing the problem.  Virtually all states are struggling to implement good data systems that track students longitudinally.  Before such data tracking is in place, can we really use the numbers to evaluate teacher performance?  Current standards are a hodgepodge of the good, bad, and ugly when it comes to what we are teaching students and what we expect them to learn.  Can we evaluate teachers on student performance when we have no national agreement on what student proficiency in fourth or eighth grade truly looks like, regardless of zip code or state lines?  And can we truly use assessments to evaluate teachers when the vast majority of educators teach subjects or grades that simply aren’t assessed in the first place?
Seems we need to focus on the development and implementation of our standards, our assessments, and our data collection before we can move to step 106 and begin applying that data to determine the salaries, longevity, and very existence of the teachers we are linking it to.  In our zeal to fix the problem, we could be creating a slew of additional ones.  And at the end of the day, none of them get at the heart of the matter — improving the quality of instruction while boosting student learning and closing the gaps between the haves and have nots.

Hittin’ the Road with Rev. Al and Newt

Politics, and education reform, do indeed make strange bedfellows.  When the Education Equality Project launched last year, many were left scratching their heads with regard to the Rev. Al Sharpton and NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein teaming up to improve the quality and results of our nation’s public schools.  Since then, their list of signatories reads like a who’s who in both Democratic politics and education reform circles, including many leading urban mayors and superintendents.

Earlier this year, they made a little extra room in the EEP bed for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has joined with them.  Gingrich has become a leading voice for EEP these days, focusing on the need to improve and the perils of the current mediocrity of American education and the dangers of an achievement gap that just doesn’t seem to want to budge.  It is quite ironic when one remembers that back in the mid-1990s GIngrich was the architect that called for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education, demanding that K-12 decisions should be made by localities.  Now he is rallying reform through a national microphone with a federalist approach.
When EEP was first established last year, the then CEO of Chicago Public Schools was also a signatory.  Showing he was open to all good approaches to school improvement, Arne Duncan also signed onto the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education Initiative.  While EEP and BBA couldn’t be more different (in desired outcomes, measurements to track those outcomes, and general philosophical approaches to education and education reform), Duncan joined a deep list of practitioners and policymakers that decided to hedge their bets and sign onto both, simply saying we need to improve, and they will support whatever gets us there.
With today’s announcement out of the U.S. Department of Education, it looks like we can see where EdSec Duncan’s true heart lies.  This afternoon, Duncan will be a guest on the Al Sharpton Show radio show.  He will be joined by the brains behind the 1994 Republican Revolution, Gingrich.  The three will be speaking to their plans to take a joint road trip, visiting schools in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans to talk school reform.  ED is also planning at least one similar stop in a rural community for the same purpose. 
The tour should come as a shock to no one.  EEP has been an active voice promoting the Administration’s education policies, with their most recent white paper on teacher accountability reading like a cover tribute to the Race to the Top provisions.  EEP also has the added benefit of being the current Gates Foundation advocacy banner holder, having assumed Ed in 08/Stronger American Schools’ infrastructure and support.
Eduflack finds the stops along the Strange Bedfellows tour to be curious choices.  Baltimore shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, with the EdSec having just been up in Charm City praising school district leadership for turning around the district and helping it shed the state takeover label.  But that’s just it.  ED just made a big deal of Baltimore, so much so that the superintendent is now stating that they are the national model for urban school transformation.  We have to go back to the oldies but goodies already?  There are no other good urban “success stories” to promote?  
Then we move onto the City of Brotherly Love.  We have not heard Philly mentioned as a “reform” city since Paul Vallas left there years ago.  Current superintendent Arlene Ackerman is an EEP signatory, but her activities in DC and San Francisco speak far more to a BBAer.  Setting aside the city’s relatively stagnant test scores, Philadelphia is also a strong union city, with union members likely not to thrilled with the idea of merit pay and linking their assessment with the academic achievement of their students.  Things could get interesting in a city that once pelted snowballs at Santa.
And speaking of Vallas, we move to the Big Easy.  New Orleans makes the most sense, as it is an incubator for any and all reform that comes around (much as Chicago was during Duncan’s tenure).  They love them some charters down in New Orleans, and have embraced alternative certification, TFA, and New Leaders for New Schools.  And now that Vallas is setting aside his Illinois political dreams, Louisiana has a strong superintendent with a track record of innovations and student improvement.  But its test scores are far from catching up to its promise.
It helps that both Pennsylvania and Louisiana are on the short list of RttT states, standing as two of the 15 receiving technical assistance and $250,000 checks from the Gates Foundation to help with their RttT application preparation.   If anything, Gates understands the value of working across platforms, and linking their grantmaking with EEP rhetoric and RttT only strengthens their hand in the long term.
But the choices do leave me scratching my head a little.  No room to share a little love for Michelle’s work down in DC or for the progress made in Boston over the past decade?  No hat tip to the great work Beverly Hall and the work she has done down in Atlanta?  No show of confidence for the bold reforms that Robert Bobb is trying to put into place up in Detroit?  No continued love for Broad Prize winners Long Beach Unified in California or Brownsville (TX) Public Schools?  What about Houston, the birthplace of KIPP?  Not even a rolling stop in New York City?  Nothing for aspiring cities like Indianapolis, Charlotte-Mecklenberg, Clark County (NV), Cleveland, Austin, or Portland?  
Yes, all questions that are rattling around in my noggin.  But they are pushed aside by a bigger question.  Day after day, we witness the escalation in rhetorical sparring happening around the country over proposed healthcare reforms.  We see staunch advocates for both sides offering their sweat and tears (with many looking to draw some blood as well).  Will these whistlestops serve as a kumbaya moment for all involved, with conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, reformers and the status quoers joining together to fight the good fight for the “sake of the children?”  Or will that loyal opposition we know is out there start organizing and have their voices heard?  Will we see teachers fighting to protect their tenure?  Will we hear from those local controllers who want to return all accountability and assessment to a citizen school board and keep the feds out of their classrooms?  Will we witness concerned parents and community activists stand up for the “whole child” and profess there is more to education that just reading and math, and we need a host of qualitative measures and a greater emphasis on the arts and the social development of the child?  Will the home schoolers demand that school choice include more than just charter schools?
Or will we simply have more of the same, with everyone just hoping that they will have a chair when the music stops playing?  Since Eduflack’s rant in search of the “loyal opposition” earlier this week, I’ve heard from some that they are quietly organizing or silently twisting arms behind close doors to try and influence which tune we’ll be playing as we start walking the ESEA reauthorization circle.  Is that true, or are those who are quietly grumbling into their pillows at night simply hoping beyond hope that Holding Out for a Hero is going to start blasting through those ed reform speakers?
Am I trying to instigate an education reform fight?  Maybe.  But maybe I also think that these proposed reforms can only improve and get stronger if we force them to withstand public scrutiny.
 I too want to see these proposals succeed, but I also know that if support is merely on the surface, real change will never take hold once good ideas are moved into status quo implementation and decisions are made that leave many states and districts in the cold when it comes to new innovation money.  Are we playing for the love of the game, or will pay to play take effect, with SEAs and LEAs quickly losing interest when there isn’t a U.S. Treasury check there to reward their “loyalty?”

Where Is the “Loyal Opposition” in Ed Reform?

The drumbeat toward reform continues.  Wisconsin’s Democratic governor is now calling for changes to the state law to tear down the firewall preventing the tie between teachers and student achievement.  Indiana continues its push to “reform” teacher certification, with the state superintendent looking to more fully embrace the alternative certification pathways advocated by the U.S. Department of Education and its Race to the Top guidance.  Even states like New York and California are looking for ways to show they are “reformers” and not the status quoers they have long been known as.

Earlier this week, Politico ran a much-anticipated profile of EdSec Arne Duncan and his push to reform and improve public education in the United States.  The full article can be found here.  As is typical with these sorts of pieces, Politico sought to get some opposing viewpoints on the Duncan agenda.  The end result?  Critique from the usual critic Jack Jennings, concerns about federal control of education from the top Republican on the House Education Committee, and frustrations from a parent advocacy group in Chicago that clearly didn’t get its way when Duncan was CEO of the Windy City’s public school system.
For the past six-plus months, Duncan and his team have moved forward with a bold, ambitious agenda for reforming education.  Through State Fiscal Stabilization Funds, RttT, the anticipated Innovation Fund, and regular prioritization of the pending budget, they have made their plan for improvement clear and unquestioned.  Student achievement is the name of the game.  Charter schools, alternative certification, teacher incentives, and other such tactics are the drivers.  STEM and core standards are foundations.  And ED is going to great lengths to avoid the phrase, Adequate Yearly Progress is still very much the name of the game.  Those states and districts that want to feed at the federal innovation and improvement trough will need to demonstrate that they are making continued, sustained gains in student achievement.  Those who can narrow the achievement gap along the way will get extra gold stars (and possibly extra zeros at the end of their checks).
In response to this agenda, most of the education community is falling over itself to demonstrate that it is already marching in lockstep with ED (or is willing to do whatever it takes to pick up the beat as quickly as possible).  There is little, if any, chatter coming from states about potential changes to RttT.  Instead, states are trying to figure out how they will change to meet RttT.  Instead of questioning one of many of the 19 criteria established in RttT, we are asking if each will hold equal weight.  We want to know if getting union sign off is as important as removing the charter school cap or agreeing to sign on to core standards before they are written and analyzed.
It all begs one very important question.  Where is the loyal opposition to these proposed education reforms?  Why are we not hearing voices speaking out against the proposed policies, the proposed measurements, and the proposed outcomes that will result from this agenda?  Have we truly found a reform agenda that we all agree to, or are concerned voices too worried about retribution or being tagged as roadblocks if they speak out against current plans?
All told, the United States spends more than $500 billion a year on K-12 education.  So RttT represents less than 1 percent of what we spend in a given year.  When you factor in the realization that less than half of states are likely to be dubbed with the RttT honor, the impact is even smaller.  So it can’t just be worry that criticism today means rejection tomorrow, can it?  Do we believe that if a state raises concerns about some of the criteria now that the “expert panel” of reviewers will hold that against them when their RrrT applications (those expected to take states upwards of 700 man hours to complete) will be dinged by such rhetoric?
Don’t get me wrong, Eduflack is a strong supporter of most of reforms moved forward by Duncan and crew.  I believe we need to expand school choice, particularly for those students in chronically low-performing schools.  We should be incentivizing effective teachers, particularly those who are teaching in at-risk communities.  All states should not only adopt core standards, but there should be strong national standards with equally strong assessments to go with them.  We need to provide both the financial carrot and stick to drive reforms, and we need to focus on key states and districts as incubators for real change and improvement, using them to model what is possible for the rest.
But I also believe that good ideas become great policy when they are debated, dissected, and forced to withstand the scrutiny of critics and defenders of the status quo.  Call it being a contrarian or an agitator, but I just can’t believe we get it “right” the first time around.  We let our friends offer improvement, and we listen to our enemies to shore up the plans and make sure we are taking those steps which we believe in, can stand behind, and can demonstrate real return on.  No, we don’t look to build consensus policy.  Consensus is usually the kiss of death, the best friend of the status quo.  But you have to show you can withstand the best shots of the competition, demonstrating the strength of your foundations.
When NCLB was signed into law six and a half years ago, it was an equally bold reform agenda with arguably greater discretionary spending coming from the federal government.  From day one and a half, we had critics and attack dogs going after the policy, the personalities, and the goals.  States threatened to refuse federal money to keep local control.  Teachers unions and advocates sued in court.  Membership organizations spoke out against the law’s narrow focus and perceived unfunded mandates?
Where is similar outrage and organization today?  Are critics building their case against these policies, keeping their powder dry until the RttT guidelines are final and the “law of the land?”  Are groups waiting for a third-party voice to step up and draw the heavy fire from DFER, EEP, TFA, and other such organizations viewed as aligned with the Duncan agenda?  Or are we simply accepting these as a fait accompli? 
I can’t imagine that Jennings is the only voice in the education community that believes there is too much emphasis on charter schools.  I can’t believe that U.S. Rep. John Kline (MN) is the only person concerned we are spending without a comprehensive strategic plan and specific measurements and benchmarks.  So why is that loyal opposition so quiet?
Nothing from traditional voices who have long questioned the role of charter schools in the traditional public school system.  Relatively nothing from teachers and their representatives on teacher incentives and effectiveness being measured by student performance on state assessments.  Virtually nothing on the focus on alternative certification, all but eliminating discussion of improving teacher colleges and traditional pathways.  Quiet on issues like the continual measure of student achievement based on reading and math scores only.  Some minor sparring on the abandonment of the voucher system in DC.  Not a word about teachers unions and their expected approvals of state reform agendas.  Relative silence on the adoption of core standards as a requirement.
Where are our backbenchers and rabble rousers?  Where are our whol
e child advocates and proponents for local control?  Where are our defenders of the status quo and of the whole child?  Where are our critics of “high-stakes” tests and federal mandates?  Where are our doubting Thomases and cynical Samanthas?  
A great deal can happen between the finalization of RttT next month and its implementation at the state and local level.  Now is the time for voices to get on the record, both those echoing the call from ED and those questioning the priorities and the expected outcomes.  Ultimately, those who don’t speak now will have little ground to stand on if they want to play “I told you so” a year or two from now.  Vigorous and educated debate only improves the final outcome.  Speak now or forever hold your peace.

Is Ed Reform “Un-American?”

In recent weeks, we’ve seen some start to reflect on the impact healthcare reform could have on education reforms, at least at the national level.  If healthcare stalls, will they bring ESEA forward?  If healthcare fails, will the Obama Administration have the support to push more education reforms?  If we should reform the healthcare system this fall, does it provide momentum for major sea change in other domestic policies, including education?
In this morning’s USA Today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer offer up an opinion piece attacking those who are attacking the proposed reforms to our nation’s healthcare system.  The full piece can be found here, but the most interesting statement (and that receiving the most attention) is that “drowning out opposing views is simply un-American?”
So it got ole Eduflack thinking.  Can the same be said about education and education reform?  Is drowning out opposing view on education reform un-American?
If a teachers union shows up in force at a local school board meeting to oppose a merit pay proposal, is that un-American?
If parents in the District of Columbia rise up and hold a sit-in to protest the shutdown of the voucher program, is that un-American?
If Minnesotans drown out Rep, Kline at one of his town halls, demanding that he make education a civil right guaranteed by the U.S. government, is that un-American?
If New Yorkers yell and scream until the State Senate restores mayoral control to NYC schools, is that un-American?
If concerned citizens gathered together and demanded that charter schools be held to the same standards, expectations, and outcomes as their traditional public school brethren, is that un-American?
Of course not.  The history of education reform has been one rooted in dissent and warring sides.  Phonics versus whole language.  Old math versus new math.  Federalization versus local control.  Reformers versus the status quo.  Our differences (and the strenuous defense of both sides of the debate) are what makes for better policy.  The more vigorous the debate, the better our policy can actually become, assuming we don’t water it down to appease everyone.
A decade ago, did anyone really think we’d embrace charter schools as a core part the K-12 system and be talking about their unionization?  Did we expect the largest expansion the role of the federal government in public education to come from a Republican president?  Did we think merit pay for teachers, tied to student assessment data, would be an idea pushed by a Democratic president?  Did we think that alternative certification paths and programs like Teach for America would grow so strong in unionized urban school districts?  Did we ever think national standards could become the norm, and could be developed in less than a year’s time?  (OK, maybe we’re still not sure on that one, but time will tell.)
All of those are possible because education reformers refused to be silenced.  The calls for change and improvement to our K-12 system became so loud that reformers ultimately drown out those who defended the status quo.  It is far easier to stay the course than to change directions.  Change comes from public outpourings, a louder and louder drumbeat, and advocates for change breaking through the white noise.  
We often talk about how education can learn from the business community or from the successes of those in other industry sectors.  Maybe it is time for successful education reformers to teach a thing or two to those seeking reform in other sectors.  It seems to me that the only way we bring real change and improvement to public education is when good ideas finally do drown out the defenders of the status quo.  Those so-called reforms that are easily overtaken by the voices defending the “way it is” usually aren’t true improvements.  They are merely nibbles along the edges, designed to placate some but have no lasting impact.  Am I wrong?