Digging Deeper into Deep Dive

While it has taken a back seat to Race to the Top talk (and is shouldn’t since it is worth far more to the winning school districts than any RttT or i3 innovation), folks are still waiting to see who the Gates Foundation will award their Deep Dive teacher improvement grants to.  Earlier this fall, the pool was narrowed down to five — Pittsburgh, Memphis, Hillsborough County (FL), Oklahoma City, and a consortium of charter schools in Los Angeles.  The talk has long been the four winners will split the $500 million Gates is committing to the project.

On several occasions, Eduflack has asked why we continue to refer to an unnamed consortium of charter schools in the City of Angels, and just come out and say Green Dot.  Seems the logical choice, based on Gates’ ongoing support for Green Dot, current plans to expand the charter network on the East Coast, and the favor with which Green Dot is held by Duncan and his crew at ED.
But an Eduflack reader has recently pointed out that Green Dot is but part of the teacher quality petri dish that Gates is looking for in Los Angeles.  They are using the consortium of charter schools language to describe plans to invest in a group of charter school organizations out on the left coast.  Should LA win, the likely recipients of Deep Dive dollars would include LA-area schools led by the Alliance for College Ready Public Schools, Aspire, the Inner City Education Foundation, Partnership to Uplift Communities, and, yes, Green Dot.
And how much will these trailblazing charters have to spend on the identification, cultivation, instruction, and incentivization of effective teaching?  That still seems to be up in the air.  Since the Deep Dive plan was first discussed earlier this year, we’ve been hearing four districts, $500 million.  Dear ole Eduflack did fairly well on the math portion of his SATs way back when, and my abacus tells me that works out to about $125 million per Deep Dive district.
In yesterday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, there is an interesting story about how Pittsburgh is working to provide a new contract for whiz superintendent Mark Roosevelt, whose contract is set to expire in a year and a half.  The full piece can be found here, but the article cites that Pittsburgh is being fast-tracked for Gates Deep Dive money, and has requested $50 million for its teacher efforts.
So it begs the question.  If the finalists are requesting a specific amount of dollars for their plan, instead of working under the assumption of an equal allocation of the pot, what will happen to the excess money in the fund?  Will the four winners go back for additional rounds of funding?  Will Gates open up a phase two to other districts who try to model what the first cohort is doing?  Will some districts, like Pittsburgh seek $50 million while others look for $150 or $200 million for their ideas? 
Regardless, this is A LOT of money going into a few districts to focus on teacher quality.  And it is far, far more than even the best district can hope to gain through RttT or other federal programs.  Significant eyes will be on the winners and their plans, with many a reformer (and a status quoer) expecting to see immediate results.  Unfair?  Yes.  But in our rush for broad and immediate school improvement, we don’t have time for programs to mature and develop.  We need our results now.  Pittsburgh, Green Dot, and others are going to have high expectations to reach with those oversized Gates checks.

NCLB 2: This Time We Mean It

With all of the focus and gossip on Races to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and state education budget shortfalls, we’ve almost forgotten that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is past due for renewal.  Currently operating under the brand of No Child Left Behind, ESEA has governed K-12 federal education policy for a half century now.  And every five to 10 years, we actually refresh the law and make changes (as was done in the 2002 with the current iteration).  

No one has quite figured out when the clock starts on the current reauthorization efforts.  Some thought it would be an immediate priority of the Obama Administration, with Arne Duncan moving this year to change the law.  But the language coming out of Maryland Avenue has been fairly supportive of NCLB since the start of the year.  While ED officials don’t use the terms NCLB or AYP anymore, they have indicated general support for the standards, accountability, and priorities placed in NCLB, albeit with additional dollars and a crisper focus on the priorities identified in the four policy pillars offered up by Duncan and company.
Today, Duncan addressed the education blob, officially sounding the starting gun on reauthorization.  Talking about Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letters from Birmingham Jail and the continued need to provide all students a high-quality education, particularly those we were failing more than 50 years ago at the time of the Brown v. Board decision.  He continued to call for a strong, yet focused, federal role.  Greater flexibility for states and school districts.  Continued need to use data effectively.  All of the accountability and standards of the original, with more respect and reflection from those who are left to implement the law.
The remarks are well worth the read, and follow here.  For those who thought that reauthorization wouldn’t move until 2011, Eduflack thinks they may be sorely mistaken.  Duncan’s charge to the education community makes me think this is moving in the spring of 2010, at the earliest.  Just in time to provide a stronger infrastructure for those anticipated RttT and i3 grants.
And without further ado, the EdSec’s remarks from this morning:

“Good morning and thank you so much for coming today.

As you know, this is the first of a series of public conversations our department is holding here in DC on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

This is the next phase of our Listening and Learning tour that has taken me to about 30 states and scores of schools. I have spoken with students, parents and educators all across America.

I heard their voices—their expectations, hopes and dreams for themselves and their kids. They were candid about their fears and frustrations. They did not always understand why some schools struggle while others thrive. They understood profoundly that great teaching and school leadership is the key to a great education for their kids.

Whether it’s in rural Alaska or inner-city Detroit, everyone everywhere shares a common belief that education is America’s economic salvation.

They see education as the one true path out of poverty—the great equalizer that overcomes differences in background, culture and privilege. It’s the only way to secure our common future in a competitive global economy.

Everyone wants the best for their children and they are willing to take greater responsibility. Nobody questions our purpose.

But when it comes to defining the federal role in an education system that has evolved over a century-and-a-half—from isolated one-room schoolhouses to urban mega districts—there’s a lot of confusion, uncertainty, and division.

People want support from Washington but not interference. They want accountability but not oversight. They want national leadership but not at the expense of local control.

As a former superintendent, I can tell you that I rarely looked forward to calls from Washington.

And now that I’m here I’m even more convinced that the best solutions begin with parents and teachers working together in the home and the classroom.

Our role in Washington is to support reform by encouraging high standards, bold approaches to helping struggling schools, closing the achievement gap, strengthening the field of education, reducing the dropout rate and boosting college access. All of this must lead to more students completing college.

ESEA dates back to 1965 and it has undergone a lot of changes over the years, though none as dramatic as the 2002 version known as No Child Left Behind.

Few laws have generated more debate. Few subjects divide educators so intensely.

Many teachers complain bitterly about NCLB’s emphasis on testing. Principals hate being labeled as failures. Superintendents say it wasn’t adequately funded.

And many parents just view it as a toxic brand that isn’t helping children learn.

Some people accuse NCLB of over-reaching while others say that it doesn’t go far enough in holding people accountable for results.

I will always give NCLB credit for exposing achievement gaps, and for requiring that we measure our efforts to improve education by looking at outcomes, rather than inputs.

NCLB helped expand the standards and accountability movement. Today, we expect districts, principals and teachers to take responsibility for the academic performance of their schools and students. We can never let up on holding everyone accountable for student success. That is what we are all striving for.

Until states develop better assessments—which we will support and fund through Race to the Top—we must rely on standardized tests to monitor progress—but th
is is an important area for reform and an important conversation to have.

I also agree with some NCLB critics: it unfairly labeled many schools as failures even when they were making real progress—it places too much emphasis on absolute test scores rather than student growth—and it is overly prescriptive in some ways while it is too blunt an instrument of reform in others.

But the biggest problem with NCLB is that it doesn’t encourage high learning standards. In fact, it inadvertently encourages states to lower them. The net effect is that we are lying to children and parents by telling kids they are succeeding when, in fact, they are not.

We have to tell the truth, and we have to raise the bar. Our failure to do that is one reason our schools produce millions of young people who aren’t completing college. They are simply not ready for college-level work when they leave high school.

Low standards also contribute to the nation’s staggeringly high dropout rate. When kids aren’t challenged they are bored—and when they are bored they quit. Students everywhere echo what 9th grader Teton Magpie told me on a reservation in Montana—adults simply don’t expect enough of him and his peers.

In my view, we should be tight on the goals—with clear standards set by states that truly prepare young people for college and careers—but we should be loose on the means for meeting those goals.

We must be flexible and accommodating as states and districts—working with parents, non-profits and other external partners—develop educational solutions. We should be open to new ideas, encourage innovation, and build on what we know works.

We don’t believe that local educators need a prescription for success. But they do need a common definition of success—focused on student achievement, high school graduation and success and attainment in college.

We need to agree on what’s important and how to measure it or we will continue to have the same old adult arguments—while ignoring children.

So there’s a lot about NCLB and American education, more broadly,that needs to change.

Over the coming months the administration will be developing its proposal for reauthorization. Before we do, however, we want to hear from you. We want your input.

Many of you represent key stakeholders. Many of you have expertise. And I know that you all have opinions. Now’s the time to voice them.

You also share our commitment to children and to ensuring that when they grow up they are able to compete in the global economy of the future.

As I’ve travelled, there’s a real and growing concern I’ve heard from parents that their children will be worse off than they are. The only way to address their concern is by improving education. We must educate our way to a better economy.

A few statistics tell the story:

  • 27% of America’s young people drop out of high school. That means 1.2 million teenagers are leaving our schools for the streets.
  • Recent international tests in math and science show our students trail their peers in other countries. For 15-year-olds in math, the United States ranks 31st.
  • 17-year olds today are performing at the exact same levels in math and reading as they were in the early 1970’s on the NAEP test.
  • And just 40% of young people earn a two-year or four-year college degree.
  • The US now ranks 10th in the world in the rate of college completion for 25- to 34-year-olds. A generation ago, we were first in the world but we’re falling behind. The global achievement gap is growing.

We don’t need another study. We must stop simply admiring the problem. We need action.

The president has challenged us to boost our college completion rate to 60% by the end of the next decade.

We want to be first in the world again and to get there we cannot waste a minute. Every year counts. Every class counts. Every child counts.

And so the work of reauthorizing ESEA begins in states and districts across America—among educators and policy makers, parents and community leaders. This work is as urgent as it is important.

Our task is to unite education stakeholders behind a national school reform movement that reaches into every town and city—and we need your help to do it.

In the coming weeks, two people who are developing our proposal will convene these conversations—Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development Carmel Martin—and Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Thelma Melendez. I will attend as often as possible as will other members of our team.

To begin to frame the conversation, I want to take you back to two years before the original ESEA was passed in 1965.

I want to take you back to 1963—to a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama where a courageous young Black preacher fighting to end segregation was illegally confined for three days after being arrested for leading non-violent protests in the city.

He had nothing to pass the time except for local newspapers—one of which ran an open letter from several White clergymen urging patience and faith and encouraging Blacks to take their fight for integration out of the streets and into the courts.

That preacher wrote a response to those White clergymen in the margins of that newspaper. It was Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail—one of t
he most powerful and moving pieces of writing I have ever read.

It ran almost 7000 words and eloquently made the case for non-violent civil disobedience—precisely because state and local governments continued to drag their feet in integrating schools and communities and the judicial path would take too long.

This was nine years after the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools violated the constitution, but most minorities were still isolated in their own classrooms. Many still are today and we must work together to change that.

The Birmingham letter explained why Blacks could not wait for judges across America to hear their cases and issues their rulings.

Blacks had been waiting for centuries and—with Dr. King’s leadership—they would wait no longer.

Even many of King’s allies in the civil rights movement—like Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall who would later serve on the Supreme Court—were urging the legal route—in part to avoid confrontations for fear that they would lead to violence—as they eventually did in Birmingham.

King had to convince them as well, that they could not wait. As he told them, justice too long delayed is justice denied. Opportunity too long delayed is opportunity denied. Quality education too long delayed is education denied.

Now I mention this because we are now in our fifth decade of ESEA—nearly half a century of education reform and direct federal involvement in this state and local issue.

We’ve had five decades of reforms, countless studies, watershed reports like A Nation At Risk, and repeated affirmations and commitments from the body politic to finally make education a national priority.

And yet we are still waiting for the day when every child in America has a high quality education that prepares him or her for the future.

We’re still waiting to get a critical mass of great teachers and principals into underperforming schools located in underserved communities, where our failure to educate has in fact perpetuated cycles of poverty and social failure.

We’re still waiting for a testing and accountability system that accurately and fairly measures student growth and uses data to drive instruction and teacher evaluation.

We’re still waiting for America to replace an agrarian 19th century school calendar with an information age calendar that increases learning time on a par with other countries.

We’re still waiting and we cannot wait any longer.

Despite some measurable progress in narrowing achievement gaps, boosting college enrollment and developing innovative learning models, we are still waiting for the day when we can take success to scale in poor as well as wealthy communities—in rural, urban and suburban communities.

For too many of our children—the promise of an excellent education has never materialized. We remain complacent about education reform—distracted by tired arguments and divided by the politics of the moment.

We can’t let that happen. In this new century and in this global economy, it is not only unacceptable to delay and defer needed reforms—it’s self-destructive. We can’t allow so much as one more day to go by without advancing our education agenda.

Our shared goals are clear: higher quality schools; improved student achievement; more students going to college; closing the achievement gap; and more opportunities for children to learn and succeed.

We need to bring a greater sense of urgency to this task—built around our collective understanding that there is no more important work in society than educating children and nothing should stand in our way—not adult dysfunction, not politics, and not fear of change. We must have the courage to do the right thing.

And to those who say that we can’t do this right now—we need more time to prepare and study the problem—or the timing and the politics isn’t right—I say that our kids can’t wait and our future won’t wait.

When the ministers in Birmingham told King his protests were untimely King responded: “I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well-timed.'”

This is our responsibility and our opportunity and we can’t let it slip away. We have to get this done and we have to get it right.

The President has talked a lot about responsibility. He’s challenged parents and students to step up and do more. He’s challenged teachers and principals to step up and do more.

He’s called on business and community leaders and elected officials at every level of government to step up and do more.

Education is everyone’s responsibility—and you who represent millions of people across this country with a direct stake in the outcome of reauthorization—have a responsibility as well—to step up and do more.

It’s not enough to define the problem. We’ve had that for 50 years. We need to find solutions—based on the very best evidence and the very best ideas.

So today I am calling on all of you to join with us to build a transformative education law that offers every child the education they want and need—a law that recognizes and reinforces the proper role of the federal government to support and drive reform at the state and local level.

Let’s build a law that respects the honored, noble status of educators—who should be valued as skilled professionals rather than mere practitioners and compensated accordingly.

Let us end the culture of blame, self-interest and disrespect that has demeaned the field of education. Instead, let’s encourage, recognize, and reward excellence in teaching and be honest with each other when it is absent.

Let us build a law that demands real accountability tied to growth and gain both in the individual classroom and in the entire school—rather than utopian goals—a law that encourages educators to work with children at every level, the gifted and the struggling—and not just the tiny percent near the middle who can be lifted over mediocre bar of proficiency with minimal effort. That’s not education. That’s game-playing tied to bad tests with the wrong goals.

Let us build a law that discourages a narrowing of curriculum and promotes a well-rounded education that draws children into sciences and history, languages and the arts in order to build a society distinguished by both intellectual and economic prowess. Our children must be allowed to develop their unique skills, interests, and talents. Let’s give them that opportunity.

Let us build a law that brings equity and opportunity to those who are economically disadvantaged, or challenged by disabilities or background—a law that finally responds to King’s inspiring call for equality and justice from the Birmingham jail and the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Let us build an education law that is worthy of a great nation—a law that our children and their children will point to as a decisive moment in America’s history—a law that inspires a new generation of young people to go into teaching—and inspires all America to shoulder responsibility for building a new foundation of growth and possibility.

I ask all of us here today—and in school buildings and communities across America—to roll up our sleeves and work together and get beyond differences of party, politics and philosophy.

Let us finally and fully devote ourselves to meeting the promises embedded in our founding documents—of equality, opportunity, liberty—and above all—the pursuit of happiness.

More than any other issue, education is the civil rights issue of our generation and it can’t wait—because tomorrow won’t wait—the world won’t wait—and our children won’t wait.

Thank you.”

Changes to the “Race” Track?

Are there changes underfoot for the Race to the Top?  When the $4.35 billion grant program was first conceived, some senior personnel at the U.S. Department of Education hypothesized that awards may only go to a handful of states, maybe only four or five.  Since then, those “in the know” have come around to expect that 10-15 states would ultimately be named “Race” states, a belief only further strengthened by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s recent support of 15 states in their RttT applications.

Those looking to handicap the RttT field have committed the 15 Gates “favorite children” to memory.  Currently, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas are benefiting from the full and unfettered support of the Gates Foundation, including $250,000 grants to fund Gates-approved consultants to put in the nearly 900 manhours expected from a successful Race application.  In addition to the funding, these top 15 also receive the unofficial endorsement of Gates, seen by many as the quickest path to RttT success (except for the Lone Star State, which few expect to make the final cut).
But a funny thing happened on the way to finalizing the RttT RFP.  Over at EdWeek’s Politics K-12 blog, Michele McNeil has a significantly important development in the Race to the Top.  The Cliff Notes version — Gates is now looking to extend some form of RttT technical assistance to any and all states that can answer eight ed reform questions correctly.  Pass the filter on topics such as core standards, alternative certification, and the firewall, and you too can benefit from the benefits of Gates.  The full story is here.
Why is this development significant?  Two important reasons.  According to McNeil, this expansion of Gates assistance is due, in large part, to the urgings of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.  Since the start of the Duncan regime at ED, NGA and CCSSO have been two of the leading forces in education improvement.  The two groups are credited with helping secure the cornucopia of new funding made available through the economic stimulus bill, including RttT and the upcoming Investing in Innovation program.  More important, NGA and CCSSO are the drivers behind the core standards effort, a top priority for the Administration (at least in terms of education) and a non-negotiable for RttT applicants.
NGA and CCSSO were clearly advocating for the other 35 members of their organizations (the remaining states), and that advocacy was heard loud and clear by Gates.  So for those who questions the position of strength both state-focused organizations are operating under, it doesn’t get much stronger than having ED and Gates both adjust their strategies based on your requests and concerns.
And the second?  For weeks now, Eduflack has been hearing that there is a growing drumbeat for RttT scope expansion.  While there may not be additional dollars, more and more voices are clamoring for a greater sense of “sharing the wealth.”  For those 35 states perceived as on the outside looking in, they’d rather have a half-share of RttT than a full share of nothing.  And as ED tries to make wholesale improvements to our nation’s education system, it is far easier to do so with a RttT lever in 35 states than it is in 12.  So the gossip is likely true, and the intended number of RttT states is going to at least double before all is said and done this time next year, when Phase Two RttT awards are determined.
What does it all mean?  When all is said and done, we’re likely looking at 35-40 RttT states, not 10-15.  And we may even be seeing some exceptions or waivers made for high-profile states that don’t meet requirements around firewalls and charter caps.  Smaller checks for everyone, I’m afraid, but a larger cohort to actually deliver results and move the ball forward on ED’s priorities.
But it makes the entire RttT review process all the more curious.  Most states are scurrying to get their apps in as part of Phase One, figuring it increases the chances of winning an award.  After all, no one wants to be left without a chair when the music stops.  But what if we’re working like college admissions, where early decision applicants (Phase One) who don’t make the first cut get put into the general apps pool with the regular decision applicants (Phase Two)?  While there obviously won’t be time for Phase One applicants to revise and resubmit their applications for Phase Two, do circumstances change when ED is trying to fill out that final list of 40?  Do expectations and standards drop in Phase Two, after the truly Gates-supported states have had the first bite of the apple?  Only time will tell.

Data Use in Our Nation’s Capital

Last evening, Eduflack had the honor of testifying before the District of Columbia State Board of Education on DC’s student assessment scores and how they can be used in state-level policy development.  For those unawares, DC is an interesting case study in education system structure.  DC is both a State Education Agency (SEA) and a Local Education Agency (LEA).  The DC State Board serves as a state board in Massachusetts, Texas, or California would, and the SEA is headed by former U.S. Department of Education official Dr. Kerri Briggs.  The SEA is responsible not only for DC Public Schools, but also for the growing number of charter schools in our nation’s capital (with nearly a third of the District’s students attending charters, it is quite some job for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE)).

I was the closing act for a three-part hearing.  The panel first heard from Mike Casserly, the chief of the Council of Great City Schools, who spoke to what other urban school districts are doing with their assessments and their data.  Then they heard a detailed presentation from State Superintendent Briggs and her staff, providing far greater detail on the DC-CAS numbers than was originally provided by the Mayor and Chancellor Rhee back in July.  Yours truly followed up the rear.
For readers who recall, I was harsh on DCPS back in July when they released the initial numbers.  I was concerned that student achievement, on the whole, ticked up, but there was a drop in AYP.  I was worried by Rhee’s comments about picking the low-hanging fruit to achieve those gains, knowing such fruit is now gone for later year replication.  And I was worried about declaring victory based on one or two years of data, when four or five years of real, substantive data is really necessary to see the true impact of reforms.
I was impressed with the probing questions the DCSBOE asked of OSSE and of the data, particularly its persistence in asking for greater disaggregation and a better understanding of what they do with what they have.  So what, exactly, did little ole Eduflack recommend to the District’s education leaders?  I can break it down into five key points.
1. The District should be reassured by the numbers presented by OSSE.  After further reflection and additional breakdowns, we can see that specific schools in DC are indeed trending up (though there are still some worry spots).  More importantly, DC is breaking the national cycle and is really making some progress in closing the achievement gap.  Both black and Hispanic achievement numbers were on the rise, while white student achievement remained relatively flat (noting, though, that only 5 percent of DC schoolchildren are white).
2. The most important data sets for DCSBOE to be concerned with should not be DC-CAS, but rather NAEP and NAEP-TUDA.  These data sets are the most accurate yardstick for determining how DC’s students are doing.  The District needs to better use the NAEP data, better slicing and dicing it to really understand what the data means and how it can be applied. DC also needs to avoid falling victim to the typical NAEP horserace games.  This is not about trying to catch Massachusetts in eighth grade reading NAEP or trying to outdo Atlanta in NAEP-TUDA.  DC needs to look at the data, look at the gaps, and set clear goals based on where DC is, and where they want it to head.  
3. As important as assessments are, Superintendent Briggs is correct.  It makes little sense to rework DC’s tests before core standards are complete and we know what new skills and benchmarks we are supposed to be measuring.  But rather than focusing on the assessment tool itself, DC needs to start taking a far closer look at its overall data system and how that system is better put to use.  This shouldn’t be about collecting more data, it is about better using the existing data.  How do they further disaggregate the numbers so DC families have a better sense for how individual schools and classrooms are doing?  How do they look at the data longitudinally, so they are not just measuring this year’s fourth graders against next year’s fourth graders, but are seeing how this years fourth graders are doing, performance wise, in fifth, sixth, and even eighth grades. 
DC not only needs to determine that it is improving, but it needs to know why.  The system has been layering reform after reform in the schools over the past several years.  It is near impossible to decide what is responsible for the gains and what is the chafe that should probably be cut away so the effective interventions can do their jobs.  In monitoring the schools and classes that are showing the most progress, DC needs to track the efforts that are resulting in those gains, looking at the clusters of specific interventions, and try to diagnose the best and promising practices that are happening in DC classrooms.
4. With that information, DC needs to do a better job of applying what it learns.  Principals and teachers need to be better trained in how to use the data, both before they enter the teaching profession and once they are there.  Best practices needs to be shared and modeled across the district.  Effective teachers need to serve as mentors for new teachers so they can teach good behaviors (hopefully before one has to unteach bad behaviors.)  And we need to give time for new interventions and reforms to take place.  While four or five years may seem like an eternity in education reform, changing horses after just a year or two of data, even if it is promising, is not necessarily in the best interests of DC’s students in the long run.
Many members of the board were focused on the back end, asking what could be done with regard to high school dropouts and college-going rates.  I urged them to look at the front end as well, and make sure that OSSE’s focus on investment in high-quality early childhood education is successfully translated into real ECE opportunities in DCPS.  One only needs to look at the impact of the Abbott decisions in New Jersey, and see how good early childhood education has now impacted student achievement and the achievement gap in some of the Garden State’s historically worst-performing school districts, to see that the gateway to long-term student achievement happens before kindergarten, and not in middle and high school.
5. Finally, this is a team game, and not a one-man sport.  Chancellor Rhee cannot do this by herself, nor can the DCSBOE take the responsibility entirely on its shoulders.  Lasting school improvement requires real buy in from parents and families, teachers, students, and the community at large.  With families in particular, they don’t necessarily understand the arcane definitions of AYP (particularly now that the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t even want to use the term), nor should they have to.  They want assurances that their kids are going to good schools, and if they aren’t good, they want assurances that everything is being done to improve them.  At the end of the day, families want to believe their neighborhood schools are good, particularly because they usually have affection for the principal and the teachers.  If all are invested in school turnaround, and all understand how we are doing it and how we are measuring it, we will come further faster.
Ultimately, it comes down to one key issue — how do we use the data we have?  In most cities and most SEAs, we have a wealth of data points, probably far more than most know are even there.  What we do with it is what is most important.  How do we use it to shape both teaching and learning?  How do teachers use data to implement specific in
terventions for struggling students?  How do we ID promising practice so it can be shared?  How do we find the most effective teachers and learn why they are effective?  How do we support what is working, while cutting away what may be tried, but is having no real impact?  How do we invest in the student, and not just the system?
A lot of questions, yes.  But just the sort of thinking many state boards are pondering as they enter into this new world order of assessments, data systems, achievement, innovation, and the like.
 

“A Time to Act”

This morning, the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy releases its much-anticipated “Time to Act: An Agenda for Advancing Adolescent Literacy for College and Career Success.”  For those who have been playing in the literacy game for the past decade or two, we know it has been a game played primarily on the elementary school playgrounds.  Get a student reading proficient by fourth grade, and we have success.  If they don’t make the cut, we hope they will catch up in the later grades, when there are more demands on their literacy skills and less time spent specifically focusing on reading proficiency (particularly reading comprehension, the Holy Grail of reading instruction).  The full report can be found here.

We like talking about teaching young children to read.  But we find it incredibly difficult to wrap our hands around once they hit those ‘tween years.  Other than the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Reading Next report, few have focused on the issue of adolescent literacy.  And even fewer have done it with the passion and pointedness that Carnegie has now done.
Back in the winter, President Obama pledged that the United States would have the highest percentage of college graduates by the year 2020.  We’ve sold virtually every student on the promise that a postsecondary degree equals career success.  School districts across the nation have enacted reform plans to improve high school graduation rates, moving more and more kids to college.  But it is all meaningless if those high school grads don’t possess the learning skills necessary to succeed.  Those students who struggle for reading proficiency in fourth grade rarely find that magic elixir in middle or high school.  They don’t catch up, literacy wise, they fall further and further behind.  And then we wonder why half of those going on to college have to take remedial reading or math courses just to keep up in college-level courses.
Nationally, the statistics haven’t been pretty.  According to NAEP scores, 8th and 12th grade reading proficiency has remained relatively stagnant for decades now.  And they are stagnated on numbers that aren’t very pretty, particularly for historically disadvantaged students.  Clearly, the status quo won’t hold if we are to live up to the promises of college graduation, innovation, races to the top, and opportunity for all.
In Time to Act, Carnegie lays out clear action steps for educators and school leaders to take if they are to improve adolescent literacy and ensure that their students are indeed prepared for college-level work.  But in this era of education reform and intervention, perhaps the most interesting recommendations are the challenges that Carnegie puts forward for federal and state policymakers.
For federal policymakers, the first order of business is to get their hands dirty and get involved in adolescent literacy instruction.  To help them prioritize, Carnegie offers the following reccs: 1) increase Title I support for middle and high schools; 2) adopt the common standards we’ve all be talking about; 3) look at linking NAEP to international literacy tests like PISA and PIRLS; 4) develop middle and high school literacy demonstration sites in high-poverty areas; 5) support states in the development of P-12 literacy plans; 6) develop early warning systems for middle school students; 7) increase funding for the National Writing Project and Struggling Readers program; and 8) increase funding for adolescent literacy research.
Those at the state level aren’t spared any responsibility.  The charge to state leaders includes: 1) aligning state reading standards to other national and international benchmarks, including NAEP; 2) revise teacher certification and professional development standards; 3) define and provide the means for districts to identify and intervene when they see struggling readers; 4) require credit-bearing reading intervention classes for students who are two or more years behind grade level; 5) build the right statewide data systems that will collect comprehensive P-12 literacy data; 6) track RTI efforts; and 7) institutionalize those adolescent reading efforts that have been piloted in recent years.
For some, these federal and state recommendations may seem common sense.  But sometimes (or most of the time) we have to remind ourselves of what we know and why we know it.  Carnegie has done just that, synthesizing the data and providing a clear path to stakeholders as to how we can improve reading proficiency among middle and high school students.  This isn’t just an effort to take what we know about K-4 literacy and applying those lessons to middle and secondary schools.  Carnegie offers a real look at the adolescent literacy field.  And they do so at just the right time.
In all of our zeal and concern over Race to the Top, the soon-to-be-revealed Investing in Innovation Fund, and core standards, we seem to have forgotten that there is a new reading instruction bill circulating around Capitol Hill.  Building off the successes of Reading First, this new bill (Yes, We Can Read, if you will) is being developed to place a far greater emphasis on both adolescent literacy and teacher training and PD in reading instruction.  Couple that with current ED activities around standards and data systems, and we can see how close we can get to Carnegie’s vision for advancing adolescent literacy.  This think piece has a real chance of becoming an actual action statement.  
That would be a real accomplishment, particularly in this environment.  If Carnegie and its advocates can find a way to keep the Time to Act drum beating well beyond today’s report release, we could actually see this research transformed into policy.  It offers a strong enhancement to the current draft of the reading bill, while offering specific action steps that are both realistic and cost-manageable.  Now all they need is a drummer … or an entire corps.

Additional Thoughts for Rethink Learning Now

Yesterday, Eduflack opined on the launch of the Rethinking Learning Now initiative, a new campaign from the Forum for Education and Democracy (among others) that focuses on the need change the direction of education reform from a focus on testing toward a focus on learning.  My post can be found here.  I’ll say again for the record that the campaign is off to a great start, with strong messaging and strong visuals.  And I am proud that Eduflack’s learning story is one of the many stories that are included as part of the effort.

But some have thought I was a little too harsh on Rethink Learning Now, particularly on its first day.  I wanted to know the intended final destination before the first step was actually taken.  Fortunately, the Forum’s national director, Sam Chaltain, is not one of those voices.  For those who haven’t heard of Sam, don’t worry, you soon will.  In my repeated calls for a unifying voice for the loyal opposition, Chaltain is the real deal, one of the few I can see stepping up and leading a movement that doesn’t accept the current path as the only path.
So with no further ado, I am turning over the rest of this post to Sam Chaltain himself.  Rather than place his views as a comment on the side of the Eduflack blog, I though the following deserves its own entry.  The following is direct from the pen of Sam Chaltain, the National Director of the Forum for Education and Democracy. 

“Thanks for your thoughtful coverage of our campaign. Your question is the right one – and if our ultimate plan was simply to gather stories and assume that by their sheer weight and beauty mountains would move, we’d be doing everyone a disservice.

In fact, the Rethink Learning Now campaign is following two strategic paths simultaneously – one grassroots, one grasstops – and intending for them to converge as Congress turns its attention to ESEA.

For the next several months, while people around the country reflect on their personal learning experiences and describe their most effective teachers, we’ll be meeting with key offices on the Hill, gathering information, testing policy proposals, and establishing the campaign as a resource. We’ll also sponsor three Hill briefings this fall – one for each of the campaign’s core pillars – at which we’ll apply the growing clarity from the grassroots side of the campaign towards the creation of some specific policy proposals. Under “learning”, for example, it’s clear that someone needs to do more than say standardized tests are insufficient; they need to offer a better, more nuanced alternative that is innovative and actionable. Our grassroots campaign’s aggregate list of core attributes for powerful learning will be one piece of the puzzle in coming up with a balanced scorecard for student assessment. Under “teaching,” we’ll provide recommendations to Congress, based on the input we receive from people across the country, and outline a strategy for identifying, recruiting, supporting and retaining a true profession (instead of a ‘force’) of highly effective teachers. And for ‘fairness’, we’ll explore ways for the feds and state governments to work more closely to monitor, and ensure, an equitable distribution of resources so all kids have the same opportunity to learn.

Additionally, our partners at the Advancement Project are organizing 14 different regional meetings across the country, at which education advocates and civil rights leaders can spend time together examining their local strengths and weaknesses, connecting to the grassroots components of the national campaign, and providing input to shape any future federal policy recommendations. We’ll also explore a national convening of all of the campaign’s participants sometime next year.

In that sense, the Rethink Learning Now campaign is best understood as a coordinated one-two punch: first, establish clarity around the core objectives: powerful learning, highly-effective teaching, and a system that is committed to ensuring fairness; and second, take that coordinated energy and apply it toward specific proposals that result in a better, more attuned ESEA that empowers educators to create healthy, high-functioning learning environments.

I hope you will continue to cover the campaign, hold us accountable to offering thoughtful solutions, and join us in thinking aloud about how best to rethink learning, NOW.”
Mr. Chaltain, we appreciate the comments.  And we’ll gladly turn over the rostrum to you in the future when you want to expound further as these paths start coming together.

Second Leg of the Race

It can be almost a full-time job to follow the musings and presumptions regarding Race to the Top.  During the summer, most believes that the public comment period was pro forma, and we would see a final RttT RFP (bearing remarkable resemblance to the draft) would be released as quickly as possible this month (meaning September).

Seems most didn’t expect the 1,500 or so missives on the draft guidance.  And while many of the public comments can be written off as blatant self interest, there are some important issues that need to be addressed, including the timetable for the adoption of core standards, how traditional teacher certification fits with the focus on alternative certification, the firewall issue, and how ED can effectively review existing reform efforts in the states.  There also seems to be some wavering as to whether this goes to the originally intended 10-15 states, or if most states have a legitimate chance of winning a portion or the RttT pot.
So now, Eduflack is hearing the final RFP won’t likely be released to the states until November 2009.  That aligns with the recent call for RttT reviewers, which has Phase I apps reviewed January through March 2010.  RttT RFP released in November.  Phase I apps due first week of January for immediate review.  Phase I awards expected before the end of the school year.  If I were a betting man, that’s the schedule that I would parlay on.
In talking with several states, though, there seems to be some uncertainty as to what happens next.  Most states have been working under the assumption that the draft RttT language would be near identical to the final.  So many an application will likely have to be revised once the final language comes out.  (And I’d take a look at the comments from NEA, EdTrust, DFER, NGA, and CCSSO for the best guidance on what might be changed.)  So flexibility is quickly becoming the name of the game.
But the other issue out there is what happens in the second leg of RttT.  A state is awarded its RttT grant, and then what?  Eduflack has been operating under the assumption that each state would then hold a competitive grant process, letting LEAs build their specific plans aligned to the state goals and promises.  The emphasis would obviously be on how the school districts would be able to turn around the bottom 5 percent of the state’s schools.  But the process would be similar to Reading First, where the state wins the grant, and then the LEAs would have to apply and demonstrate that they bought into the state’s strategy.
But I’ve also heard some states suggest that there will be no competitive process.  As part of the state’s application, they will need to get endorsement letters from local LEAs.  The assumption is that that action is sufficient, and when the federal money rolls in, the state will simply pass on funds to those LEAs.  It gets the money into the field quickly, but it does so without a real plan of operation or any true accountability.
I sure hope that’s not the case.  Much of the state’s RttT application deals with state issues, such as standards and data collection.  The LEAs need to focus on the other two pillars — teacher quality and school turnaround.  Seems that the districts need very specific plans (including the partners and vendors they will use) to deliver on the state’s promises for those two pillars.  That doesn’t come from a letter of endorsement.  That comes from a competitive process that makes clear that each district needs to fight to show they are worthy of RttT and will be using it effectively.
If the White House and the U.S. Department of Education are working hard at improving RttT (and I have every reason to believe they are), they can hopefully clarify this issue as well.  The stakes are too high for this not to be a truly competitive process.  Without requiring a clear plan for school districts, we’re just throwing good money after bad.  Someone needs to make clear what happens once a state wins.  How exactly will the 50 percent or so of RttT funds that the state doesn’t keep get dispersed?