Calling All Researchers: How Do We Use Class Time?

In our continued effort to bring additional perspectives to Eduflack’s discussion of education reform, following is a guest blog post from John Jensen, Ph.D.  We’ll be seeing a few more posts from Dr. Jensen later this week …

There are at least two good reasons for doing research about educational methods. One is for adults to decide whether or not to employ a particular strategy or condition. The other is to motivate students directly to alter what they do. If, for instance, you tell a boy playing basketball “You completed 70% of your passes today. Let’s see how you do tomorrow,” he is likely to think for the entire game about passing accurately so he gets to 80%.

By stimulating this motive, we can engage students in many ways to take objective account of themselves, teaching them communication skills, concentration, and classroom cooperation by means of specific, countable behaviors. I note several in my book (cf. below). To help adults decide what to do with classroom time, however, I’d like to suggest a study that could be valuable to your district.

First you need an idea or hunch to test out that makes theoretical sense. Your selection depends on the limitations you accept in your thinking. For a while after I discovered that the ERIC files contained over a million references, I was overwhelmed at the prospect of research. Then I discovered that it seldom influenced anyone; that instead people usually had an idea about what they wanted to do and chose the research that supported it. I surmised, maybe incorrectly, that we might just cut to the chase and do what we want to in the first place.

But to encourage rationality, I’m moved to welcome research. The fact that education has not yet been transformed despite the million pieces in ERIC hints that the field still awaits a transforming idea.

What theory do we want to test out?

We want something completely under our power and control to alter, first of all. There’s no point in studying the height and weight of our students if there’s nothing we can do about what we find; or their parentage or race or a myriad of other characteristics of students, teachers, and the situation. We want something that we can vary due to the data we get, so we look carefully at our own options, our flexibility of response..

One thing we can vary is our use of classroom time. We can specify so many minutes for this and this, alter the numbers, and see what happens to our results. If more of this and less of that shows different results in learning, then we’d like to be able to tell that to our teachers because, come Monday, they might shift gears that way.

The study I’d like to propose first is about the amount of time students spend recalling what they learn. The outcome can lead directly to something controllable, a specific use of time, this over that. And the conduct of the study can be objective and fair, measured with minutes spent and tallied.

And the theory? Making it a good candidate for a study is a core understanding about skill development: practice makes perfect. And practicing knowledge essentially means calling it up and expressing it. I was impressed many years ago when undergoing training as an ROTC officer. One class concerned how to train recruits in skills they needed. Our instructor passed on to us a statistic developed by the military’s long experience. To train someone in any skill, he said, spend 5% of the time explaining, 10% demonstrating, and 85% practicing. Applying this to a classroom, one uses about five times as much time practicing what’s presented as time spent presenting it. This fit with a report I encountered back in the 1960s in which researchers investigated the uses of time in the classroom leading to the most permanent learning. Their finding was that the most effective means was the effort to recall used with between 40% and 80% of class time. .

Despite the long-established effect of practice (top performers in any field practice more), there appears to have been a decision made decades ago by the teaching profession to avoid it. Its role instead was to present knowledge and it was up to students–if they were so motivated–to practice and learn it through completing the homework assigned (an assumption that has not proven out). Teachers were led to believe that class time was so limited that they could not allocate any significant portion of it just to deepening students’ learning.

So how could you set up a study about practice during class time? A district with two or more of any kind of school could do it this way: Select one school for the study and another with matching characteristics as a control. Pair up classrooms with comparable results, teacher competence, and teaching methods by subject and grade.

Reading. Students in the study school spend half the allotted time explaining to a partner what they just read (a quarter of the total time for each partner), and connecting it to everything they read before. In the control school, all the time is just for reading.

Math. Students in the study school spend 1/3 of the time per hour listening to the teacher explain ideas or reading in order to input definitions, formulas, and explanations; and 2/3 of the time explaining to a partner what they gathered. In the control school, teachers use their customary methods.

Social studies: Students in the study school read or listen to lectures or media presentations and take notes on them in question and answer form for 1/3 of the available time. For 2/3 of the time they ask and answer the questions with each other. In the control school, teachers use their customary methods.

If teachers experience discipline problems and object that they cannot hold their students to specified times at anything, this simply stretches the spectrum of results. Provide all teachers with a kitchen timer and ask them to track to the second the key variable, the amount of time students do spend explaining their learning to a partner. My prediction is that a correlation will hold along the entire spectrum–the less practice time, the less learning.

The district staff may want to assess many outcomes, but the primary one should be the sheer retention of learning. A valid way to do this is, at the end of the study period, with no preparation nor forewarning, to make a single request of students about each subject–reading, math, and social studies: Write down all you can remember about the subject that you have learned since the beginning of the study.

What you will get is a direct report of the conscious, usable knowledge students possess (distinct from their passive knowledge dependent on someone else asking them a question or giving them hints). It can be quantified by (e.g.) their number of lines of writing, the time it takes them to write it, and (if you want to be more particular) the number of points of knowledge their writing contains. A point of knowledge here is a question answered at the level one would put it on a test, essentially one sentence of independent knowledge. The only caveat is to apply the same measure to both the control and study schools.

After such a study, the district should be able to tell its teachers “If you adopt the 1/3-2/3 method, you’ll increase student learning by 50%“ or some such figure. I’m optimistic here, since students retain almost no proactive knowledge without the practice and typically rely on forewarning so they can cram.

If you want to nudge your district in this direction, please let me know. We need more empirical thought in education, and the ERIC database is working on its second million.

(John Jensen is a licensed clini
cal .psychologist and author of The Silver Bullet Easy Learning System: How to Change Classrooms Fast and Energize Students for Success (Xlibris, 2008), which he will email without charge as an ebook to anyone requesting it. He invites comments sent directly to him at  The opinions are strictly Dr. Jensen’s.)

Beginning of End for ESEA Reauth?

If one talks to those on Maryland Avenue, there has been a relatively steadfast belief that the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) would be coming in the first half of 2010.  Staff have been busy at work on the planning pieces.  Most have been assuming that the framework developed for Race to the Top, particularly the four key pillars, would stand as the foundations of ESEA.  And they’ve even been talking about dropping legislation after the start of the new year, with a goal of completing reauthorization before the summer recess.

But then we ran into major public comment with RttT, delaying the release of the final RFP by a month or two.  We’re now facing a similar push on common core standards, with the full K-12 draft standards now expected by the end of 2009, and moving to the states for implementation by mid-2010.  Layer onto that i3 and other such pieces, and one has to ask if we have the stomach for ESEA reauthorization, with everything else, ed reform wise, that is happening.
Recent pieces of information seem to signal that the timetable for ESEA may now be pushed back.  Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (WA) introduced the LEARN Act, the logical successor to NCLB’s Reading First Initiative.  While LEARN could easily be folded into reauthorization, it is beginning the process as a stand-alone bill, and could become law well before NCLB is every replaced.
Today, U.S. Rep. George Miller (CA), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced the Graduation for All Act of 2009, an impressive piece of legislation that focuses on boosting high school graduation rates and improving the secondary school experience.  Some are even calling it the “S” component of ESEA.  The full description of the legislation can be found here.  While Graduation for All could be seen as the first component of ESEA to move forward, it is easily a signal that revamping NCLB may not be a major priority after all for the coming year, and the good chairman wants to move forward on one of the most pressing education concerns facing K-12, and an issue that is not directly addressed in RttT or i3.
But perhaps the most interesting news impacting ESEA is the headline delivered by Alexander Russo on his This Week in Education blog this morning.  According to Russo (and found here), Alice Cain is leaving the House Education and Labor Committee to join the Hope Street Group and lead its new teacher quality efforts.  While that is terrific news for Hope Street, it leaves a gaping hole on Chairman Miller’s committee staff.  Cain is the go-to staffer on all things K-12 and was seen by many as the quarterback for ESEA reauthorization.  Miller is clearly calling the shots on congressional reauth, and Cain was the person to run the plays for him.  It’ll be tough for Miller to fill her shoes, and quickly, as so many of the best congressional staffers have already moved to ED or the White House, and her departure may very well be a signal that reauthorization isn’t coming as quickly as many of us thought or hoped for.
Regardless, it is all still a guessing game.  But right now, that Magic 8 Ball is telling us “don’t count on it.”

Raising the Gates on Teacher Effectiveness

As most know by now, yesterday the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation officially named the four school districts that will share in the coveted “Deep DIve” prize.  Originally billed as a $500 million endeavor, we learned yesterday that the four winners are now sharing in $335 million grant money.  Hillsborough County Schools in Tampa, FL received $100 million; Memphis, TN secured $90 million, Pittsburgh took in $40 million; and five charter school systems in Los Angeles (including Aspire and Green Dot) picked up $60 million to fund teacher quality and effectiveness efforts.  A full article on the announcement can be found in this morning’s Washington Post here.  And Stephen Sawchuk has a particularly good writeup of the decision over at EdWeek here.

In addition to the district awards, Gates is committing another $45 million to determine how one actually measures teacher effectiveness, an important rubric as most states now scurry to meet the high-points expectations of the teacher quality section of the Race to the Top RFP.  Details to come, Eduflack guesses.
I’ll leave it to the experts to determine the efficacy of these four winning applications, how soon we should see results, and how we’re actually measuring such results in the first place.  These districts are wading into relatively unknown waters at this point, at a time when too many people are defining teacher effectiveness based solely on student test scores.  A lot of eyes will be on these districts, which represent a pretty good cross-section of the challenges facing public education across the nation.  All we needed was a good urban district, and we’d have our little model U.S. public school system.
But the announcement begs three questions.  For nearly a year now, we’ve been hearing how Gates was committing a half a billion dollars to this effort, with WaPo even stating that this investment is on par with the discretionary moneys that Duncan and company are spending over at ED.  So where is the remaining $125 million going?  Is that money that will be spent on this topic at a later date, either to replicate the promising practices found in the winning districts or to further engage in national explorations of measurement and tracking?  Or is this a scale back in overall investment, with Gates already looking to move some of this funding to new priorities and new areas of interest?
Second, why, exactly, did Omaha drop out of the running as it was approaching the final tape?  Did it read the handwriting on the wall and think it would be the only partygoer left without a seat come announcement day?  Did the school district have a change of heart?  Or was it as simple as the “financial constraints” argument they offered EdWeek, where they found that accepting the grant would mean all sorts of additional costs and investments they just weren’t prepared for (a realization that far too many aspiring RttT states still have yet to internalize)?  And if it was an issue of financial constraints, how much are each of the winning districts expected to bring to the table themselves in order to enjoy the dollars being showered by those well-meaning ed reformers from the Pacific Northwest?
And finally, how will this Gates money complement, intersect, or interfere with the $100 million that the Ford Foundation is investing to transforming secondary education.  A big chunk of that money is going to investigate similar issues of teacher quality, both in terms of preparedness and effectiveness.  The American Federation of Teachers is one of the early beneficiaries of this stream of Ford support.  Is there the possibility of collaboration in struggling urban districts like Memphis, or will this become a territorial thing.
It will be interesting to see some of the early returns coming in from the Gates Deep Dive, particularly in Memphis.  Somehow, this city has quickly become ground zero for education reform.  Memphis City Schools is one of the central components to New Leaders for New Schools’ EPIC program, funded through federal TIF dollars.  Tennessee is a clear frontrunner for RttT funding.  The state’s business community has recently moved a major education reform agenda forward.  And now they win a Deep Dive grant.  It’s a city with a strong union presence and many of the pitfalls of modern-day urban public education.  In short order, the glances of all ed reformers will soon be on Memphis, with expectations higher than ever before.

Just the Race Facts

For now, Eduflack is generally done opining about Race and what we should infer by the the final Race to the Top docs released by the U.S. Department of Education.  But there are some additional facts now out there that are worth consideration and thought.

First up, the final RttT docs are finally posted by ED (Interestingly, though ED seems to be using the RTT tag.  Good to know).  The final docs can be found here.
More importantly, though, we now know how much money each state can potentially receive.  Officials over at ED have divvied up our great 50 states (and DC and Puerto Rico) into five categories.  The $4 billion in Race money will be divided based on the following designations:
Category 1 — $350-$700 million
* California
* Florida
* New York
* Texas
Category 2 — $200-$400 million
* Georgia
* Illinois
* MIchigan
* New Jersey
* North Carolina
* Ohio
* Pennsylvania
Category 3 — $150-$250 million
* Arizona
* Indiana
* Maryland
* Massachusetts
* Missouri
* Tennessee
* Virginia
* Washington
* Wisconsin
Category 4 — $60-$175 million
* Alabama
* Arkansas
* Colorado
* Connecticut
* Iowa
* Kansas
* Kentucky
* Louisiana
* MInnesota
* Mississippi
* Nevada
* Oklahoma
* Oregon
* Puerto Rico
* South Carolina
* Utah
Category 5 — $20-$75 million
* Alaska
* Delaware
* District of Columbia
* Hawaii
* Idaho
* Maine
* Montana
* Nebraska
* New Hampshire
* New Mexico
* North Dakota
* Rhode Island
* South Dakota
* Vermont
* West Virginia
* Wyoming
Why are these categories important, when each state’s application will be judged on its own merits?  Do the math.  We have $4 billion total to distribute.  If we assume that half of states win (50 percent from each category) and each of those states received the mid-range of their category, we spend $1.05 billion on Category 1, $1.05 billion on Category 2 (awarding 3.5 states), $900 million on Category 3 (awarding 4.5 states), $940 million on Category 4, and $380 million on Category 5.  That’s $4.23 billion.  So for those good with numbers, less than half of all eligible states are going to win Race awards, and far less than half will win if states receive grants in the top half of their award range.  So again, we are back to planning on 15 or so states winning awards, unless we oversample Category 5 winners (who can demonstrate faster results with smaller grants).  
Now if only someone would tell us how many points, out of 500, it will take to win one of these prized grants …

The Race Officially Begins … Now

At 9 p.m. this evening, the starting gun for the Race to the Top officially started.  While many states are already laps into their applications (and many may even be running in the right direction), the U.S. Department of Education officially released the RFP, along with some interesting insights as to how applications will be scored moments ago.

So what are we looking at?  We’ve essentially whittled 80 pages of a draft RFP into an “easy-to-read” 14-page summary.  The four pillars of the Duncan regime remain the same (standards, assessments/data systems, teacher quality, and school turnaround).  To win, states must have no barriers to linking student achievement data to teachers and principals for the purpose of evaluation.  The timetable is as projected back in the early fall, with Phase One applications due in mid-January (to be awarded in April 2010) and Phase Two apps due June 1 (to be awarded September 2010).  But we’ve added two bidders’ conferences scheduled for next month in Denver and DC.  So there are some new factoids here.
In addition to the four pillars, RttT lays out six additional priorities:
* Comprehensive approach to education reform (an absolute priority)
* Emphasis on STEM (a comprehensive preference priority)
* Innovations for improving early learning outcomes
* Expansion and adaptation of statewide longitudinal data systems
* P-20 coordination, vertical and horizontal alignment
* School-level conditions for reform, innovation, and learning
Of these priorities, only STEM is worth extra points on the scoring, offering an all-or-nothing 15-point bonus to those states with both a clear record and clear plan for STEM education.  (That 15 points represents 3 percent of the total score.)  The others are general value-adds or reflected in other larger scoring buckets.  
So what does that overall scorecard look like?  What’s the rubric on which states will be evaluated?
States are working toward a max of 500 points (including STEM emphasis).  “State success factors” represent 125 points, or 25 percent of the total score.  These factors include how well the state’s reform agenda is articulated, whether the state has infrastructure to implement the agenda, and its ability to demonstrate success in raising student achievement and closing the achievement gap.  “Standards and assessment” is good for 70 points, or 14 percent, essentially measured by adopting common core standards and developing the assessments to measure against those standards.  “Data systems to support instruction” is worth 47 points (9 percent) and is focused on the longitudinal data systems all are talking about.  
“Great teachers and leaders” are worth 138 points, or a whopping 28 percent, and while it continues to focus on teacher quality and effectiveness, this time around it has a far greater emphasis on principal quality and effectiveness.  “Turning around the lowest-achieving schools” is worth only 50 points, or 10 percent of the total.   “General” collects the remaining 55 points (11 percent), with most points coming from ensuring conditions for high-performing charter schools “and other innovative schools.”  
As these 500 points are broken down, ED is giving slight emphasis to what states have already done (52 percent of the score), or their “Accomplishments” versus 48 percent of the score coming for “Plans” for the future.  So that’s an interesting wrinkle for those who are trying to build a new reform city on their old education hill.
In announcing the RFP, ED says it reviewed the nearly 1,200 responses (1,161, actually) that were submitted to the draft, and made changes reflecting the ideas put forward by those concerned citizens and groups.  But despite a 12-page document prepared by ED on the “major changes” that have been made to the RFP, the final looks remarkably similar to the original draft that sparked so much interested many months ago.  Yes, there are some changes, including the highlight that states should use multiple measures to evaluate teachers and principals.  School district buy-in also plays a larger role in the final than it did in the draft.  But while some of the definitions have changed, the overall goals, tenor, and vision remains whole.  It seems ED has clarified some of the gray areas from the first go-around, but hasn’t quite changed those issues that many found objectionable or fraught with potential problems.  Based on many of the comments Eduflack has read, there are going to be a significant number of disappointed organizations out there, even among the traditional ed reform circles.
So what do we make of all of this?  First off, it is clear that those with the dreaded teacher firewalls are going to have a hard time meeting the point threshold.  So California, Nevada, New York, and possibly Wisconsin may have some problems.  Signing on the dotted line for core standards is also a must, so Texas and South Carolina may be on the outside looking in as well.  But it seems ED has softened its overall approach to “my way or the highway,” making firewalls and common standards the only true non-negotiables for winning a grant.
Eduflack is most interested by the emphasis on accomplishments, though.  We’ve heard a great deal about what states are doing right now to better position themselves for Race.  The thought seems to be that a new coat of paint on the ole education system would provide more curb appeal and give the impression that a state is “reform minded.”  But with the final scoring, ED is making clear that Race states are those with both a strong track record on improvement and innovation and a desire to ratchet up current work to the next level.  This is not a start-up enterprise, with states needing to demonstrate a proven and ongoing investment in the four pillars prior to the RttT announcement.
And what does this mean for the total number of winning states?  We’ve heard everything from four or five total winners to upwards of 40 states getting a taste of the winner’s circle.  Based on the summary and documents circulating this evening, Eduflack suspects it will be somewhere in between.  In Phase One, we’re likely to see four or five winners, stacked mostly by those states in the Gates Foundation’s Top 15 list.  Phase Two will probably see another dozen or so, giving us 20 or so total winners.  Interestingly, there will be time for Phase Two applicants to see who wins Phase One and make some final changes to their apps before submitting in June.  (And we should also note that ED cites $4 billion available for RttT, with the remaining $350 million going to support the development of assessments aligned with core standards, funding that is being discussed at ED-sponsored public forums this month.)
Regardless, the 500-point scorecard is going to have many states (particularly those Gates-incentivized states that have been feverishly writing their apps believing the draft RFP would be final are going to be scurrying the next two months to revise and extend their remarks.  Teacher and principal quality is priority one, with strong explanation of state success factors a very close second.  The two represent more than half of the total score.  Standards, assessments, and data systems clock in for nearly another 25 percent.  School turnarounds are worth only 10 percent, with charter school conditions worth almost the same amount as overall commitment to turnaround efforts.  And those states that are already invested in STEM (like Colorado, Missouri, Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) need to take advantage of the 15 percent bump their track record provides.
How many points will it take to win the Race?  That’s to be determined.  We still don’t know what curve states will be scored on.  But at least
we are now clear on distance, terrain, and other Race conditions.  The gun has officially sounded …

Race-ing to Teacher Quality

Last week, Eduflack opined over at Education Week on the need to differentiate between incentivizing good teachers and incentivizing good teaching.  Essentially, we need to make sure that any incentives are not just given as a thank you to teachers, but are used to identify, catalog, and share the best practices that have made their teaching so effective.  The full piece can be found here.

In response, there was an interesting comment from Stephanie Hirsh, the executive director of the National Staff Development Council.  Hirsh wrote: “I suggest distinguishing between, individual, team, and school incentives, with a focus on the strategies that have the greatest impact on student learning and whole school success.  Let’s incentivize teachers from contributing to collaborative initiatives that lead to improvement both within and outside their classrooms: participating in school improvement decision making and processes; mentoring their less experienced colleagues; acquiring knowledge and skills that prepare them to be learning team facilitators and then serving in this position; and acquiring knowledge and skills that prepare to serve as instructional coaches and then serving the school in that role.”
These are interesting concepts, particularly as the latest State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF) education guidance continues to focus on the current federal definition of a highly qualified teacher, setting aside (for now) the opportunity to more accurately define what an effective teacher is and what high-quality teacher professional development may be (and more importantly what data points are needed to prove all of the above).  While we’d like to believe that plans are in the works to revisit HQT and the federal definition of effective teaching in the future, namely in ESEA reauthorization, it was clearly a missed opportunity to move the ball forward now.
But the ideas of how to best define effective teachers is not something everyone is waiting on.  Yesterday, Education Trust and the New Teacher Project released two new reports on how to increase teacher effectiveness efforts, particularly in state RttT applications.  EdTrust’s Fighting for Quality and Equity, Too and TNTP’s How Bold is “Bold”? provide some interesting food for thought on how to measure teacher effectiveness, as well as how to train, recruit, and retain those teachers that measure up against the rubric.
The EdTrust report, in particular, offers nine steps for states to consider as they pursue the Holy Grail of teacher effectiveness under expected RttT funds, including:
* Produce better information on teacher effectiveness
* Require clear teacher reports on teacher quality and equity
* Place information on teacher effectiveness in the hands of those who need it
* Require teacher evaluations to focus on effectiveness
* Write explicit policies that expect equitable access to effective teachers
* Eliminate state policies that sustain the status quo in local districts
* Produce incentives for effective teachers to work in high-needs schools
* Make certain that high-poverty districts and schools have what they need to attract and retain effective teachers
* Pump up the supply of talented teachers
Of course, the four-billion-dollar question is what, exactly, will states be asked to do with their Race applications?  Current chattering says that the final RttT RFP will be released by the U.S. Department of Education tomorrow.  When it comes out, there will be a robust discussion of what the final means for the ultimate awards.  If the RFP remains largely unchanged from the draft shared this summer, then we are back to the thinking that seven to 10 states are slated to win Race grants, putting more resources and higher expectations on those states.  If the RFP is significantly changed, as many believe it will be, then we are likely looking at a weaker RFP that will be targeted 30-35 grant winners, spreading the wealth around but limiting the federal resources going to a great number of priorities.
Assuming the latter for a second, will any state have the federal Race funds to actually adopt what EdTrust is calling for?  Let’s say 30 states win.  The average grant is $145 million.  Divide that by the expected four-year RttT period, and the average state gets $36.3 million a year.  Half of that goes to the LEAs for turnaround schools and teacher quality, meaning that approximately $9 million a year would be available to school districts in a Race state to invest in meaningful teacher quality efforts.  Is that anywhere close to enough to address the nine pillars that EdTrust offers up?  Is that enough to address just three?  And if it isn’t enough to deal with teacher quality in a meaningful, systemic, and long-term way, is it worth throwing the money at the issue in the first place?

Tale of the Tape — Anna, Fall 2009

A couple of times a year, I ask for Eduflack readers to provide me a personal indulgence as I report on the progress two of the greatest joys in my life — my son and daughter.  Many of you have read multiple reports on Miggy, my three and a half year-old son, but we’ve heard less about my two-year-old daughter Anna.

My princesa turned two about a month and a half ago.  Three weeks ago was the one-year anniversary of her arriving in the United States, when she became a U.S. citizen on October 17, 2008 as we touched down in Houston after a long 13-month process to bring her home from Guatemala.  For the last year, she has quickly adjusted to life in the edufamily, hearing English for the first time (for an extended period), getting used to her big brother (who is also her full biological brother), and learning how to wrap Eduflack around her prettiest of fingers.
This week, Anna went in for her two-year checkup.  She passed with flying colors.  So now for the tale of the tape.  Anna weighed in at 24 pounds, putting her in the 23rd percentile nationally.  She is 34 1/4 inches tall, putting her in the 65th percentile.  And she has a head circumference of 18 inches, again in the 23rd percentile.  (Personally, I am still wondering why we need to care about head circumference, but it seems to be a standard benchmark for child development.)
More importantly, her doctor said her speech is fabulous (without even considering she has only heard English for less than half of her life.)  And she was a brave girl, taking all her shots with “no cries.”
The eduwife and I also got to check in on Miggy and Anna’s preschool experience this week.  This fall, both kids enrolled in Temple Rodef Shalom Preschool, the best early childhood education program I could find in our neighborhood.  Miggy is enrolled in the five-morning-a-week program, and the early reports list him as imaginative, artistic, caring, and bright. He also give the “best hugs.”  Anna is enrolled two mornings a week and was tagged with being intelligent, independent, strong willed, and a leader.  I couldn’t be more proud of either of them (though I’ll reserve my thoughts on parent-teacher conferences for two-year-olds).   
When I look at both of my kids, reviewing their artwork from the school week, watching them “work” in my office alongside me, listening to my son tell terrific stories, and watching my daughter command a room, I see nothing but opportunity for both of them.  And I am reminded of why I became an education agitator in the first place, and why I continue to push in what ways I can to improve access to a high-quality education for all students.
And what better way to end a Friday afternoon than to see the smiling faces of my kiddos.

Reading Gaining Speed as Fed Priority?

With all of the talk about RttT, school turnarounds, and the like, we haven’t spent much time at all talking about core instructional issues.  As many schools continue to struggle reaching AYP and demonstrating the sort of student achievement we all expect (and that the federal law still demands), we just haven’t been focusing on the curricular foundations that help us get to our intended destination.  This is particularly true of reading instruction, which has been a red-headed stepchild in federal education policy for the past few years (ever since Congress defunded the Reading First program short of its intended completion date).

For the past year, those in DC who pay attention to reading instruction issues have been hearing grumblings about the next generations of Reading First, a new federal policy that would provide comprehensive reading instruction across grades kindergarten through 12.  We’ve seen working drafts circulated about town talking about a more “comprehensive” approach to reading, a greater emphasis on teaching techniques (and less so on instructional materials), and the possibility of a new definition of “scientifically based,” the one term that came to define RF, for good or bad.
But all has been quiet on the reading front for the past six months or so.  The closest we’ve gotten to talk about reading has been discussions of common core standards.  But after six years of making reading instruction in the elementary grades priority number one in school improvement, we’ve all but forgotten about reading.  (OK, most have forgotten.  Some of us have continued to tilt at windmills in search RF, the next generation.)
Now we finally have our answer.  Yesterday, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (WA) introduced the Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation Act, or LEARN.  The bill summary looks remarkably similar to the working drafts being circulated around town earlier this year by folks like the Alliance for Excellent Education, the International Reading Association and others.  Among LEARN’s highlights:
* $2.35 billion in total funding for K-12 literacy instruction, with at least 10 percent going to early childhood education, 40 percent going to K-5 (RF’s sweet spot), and at least 40 percent going to grades 6-12.
* A new rigorous national evaluation of the programs being funded through LEARN (with a particular note of “stringent conflict of interest restrictions for the program’s peer review process,” a direct response to IG investigation into RF)
* A focus on state-based literacy programs (again similar to RF), focusing on leadership teams, a state literacy plan, subgrants to LEAs, focus on struggling schools, and attention to pre-service literacy instruction.  Interestingly, LEARN also includes language to help fund those districts doing well in reading, so they can continue improvements.
The bill summary offered by Senator Murray’s office also sets forward four key goals.  LEARN is intended to “support the creation of local high-quality literacy programs in schools by:

a) providing high-quality professional development for instructional staff that is job-embedded, ongoing, and research-based, providing teachers with expertise in literacy instruction appropriate to specific grade levels, analyzing data to improve student learning, and effective implementation of literacy instruction strategies; 
b) providing students with explicit, systematic, and developmentally appropriate instruction in reading and writing, including but not limited to vocabulary development, phonemic awareness, 
reading comprehension, and the use of diverse texts; 
c) utilizing diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments to inform and improve instruction and student learning at all age levels; and 
d) supporting schoolwide literacy programs and additional literacy supports to address the specific learning needs of struggling readers and writers, including English language learners and students with disabilities.” 

A similar bill is expected to be offered in the U.S. House of Representatives.  RIght now, LEARN is slated to move forward as an independent piece of legislation, not attached as part of ESEA reauthorization or any other similar bill.  Of course, if ESEA reauth does move quickly early next year (a hope Eduflack is quickly losing confidence in) it could easily be rolled into the larger bill.
So what are we to make of all this?  There is much good here, and much still to be determined, including:
* LEARN re-declares a federal commitment to reading instruction, putting billions more into supporting the advances made by many states and school districts under RF;
* It extends our commitment to reading beyond the previous grades K-4 to K-12, ensuring that all of those children who benefited from RF investments in recent years are now seeing similar commitments in middle and high school;
* It recognizes that reading instruction in those middle and secondary grades is essential to our national goals around high school graduation and college-going, and emphasizes that literacy instruction must continue throughout one’s academic career;
LEARN continues to emphasize the importance of professional development, an often overlooked piece of RF (where the law called for up to 25 percent of RF’s $6 billion be directed to PD and teacher training);
* It actually doubles down on the importance of professional development by specifically focusing on the pre-service needs of preparing teachers to teach reading; and
* It continues our emphasis on explicit, systematic, and developmentally appropriate instruction in reading.
And what remains TBD here?
* First and foremost, the money.  RF focused $6 billion on the elementary grades, and many are still questioning the effectiveness of the program and its impact.  As we expand the program to include early childhood education (likely swallowing what was Early Reading First), elementary grades (the old Reading First), and middle and high school grades (currently funded by the meager Struggling Readers program), we are now doing for more in federal reading instruction with significantly less money.  Does the proposed funding get the job done, or does it merely set things in motion, leaving it to SEAs and LEAs to find new funds to enact the comprehensive reading efforts needed.  It is frightening to say, but $2.35 billion, particularly if distributed K-12 to all 50 states, likely won’t be enough.
* It talks about instruction beyond vocabulary and phonemic awareness, but doesn’t specify a specific definition.  Some will read this as a repudiation of RF.  Others can see it as a continuation of those priorities, where phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension were the intended foci.  Both sides in the reading wars will be fighting to “redefine” what LEARN’s instruction is intended to focus on.
* It calls for diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments at all age levels.  An essential piece to education reform in the current era, without doubt.  But do we have such tests?  RF was limited by state assessments in grades 3-8, yes.  But after spending the past decade in the so-called “high stakes testing” era, do we have research-based, accepted diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments that can be used immediately in grades k-12?  Or a better question, do we have such assessments that all parties will agree on and use correctly?
* While there is mention of “research-based,” how will that be defined?  Clearly, the previous SBRR definition is going to be rewritten.  So how do we capture “research-based,” and how do we do it so that it means something, and isn’t merely a consensus definition that is acceptable by all, but loved by none?
* While I understand the reasons behind it, can we successfully use LEARN money to both raise reading achievement in struggling schools while incentivizing high-performing schools to continue their investment in results-based reading instruction?
* Most importantly, what are the intended outcomes?  If all of the points identified in Murray’s summary of LEARN are followed and followed with fidelity, what should we expect to see at the end of three or four years?
These are all questions that Murray and other legislators will be able to answer in the coming months as LEARN moves through the process.  Regardless, LEARN is a good next step for our federal reading instruction efforts.  Will make RF advocates happy?  No.  Will it satisfy RF critics?  Based on the summary, absolutely not.  But it may just have the right combination to continue to improve the acquisition of reading skills among students in grades K-12, while continuing to equip all teachers with the literacy instruction skills they need to lead a successful classroom.  It continues to focus on doing what works in the classroom, pursuing paths that are supported by the research and demonstrate effectiveness.  And it recognizes that school and student success hinges on a child’s ability to read at grade level, regardless of what grade they are in.
In an era where nearly two-thirds of all of our nation’s eighth graders are unable to score proficient or better on the eighth grade reading NAEP, LEARN is clearly much needed legislation.  Here’s hoping it doesn’t get lost in the push for Racing, Innovation, and such.  This is too important an issue not to be at center stage for school improvement efforts.

Teacher or Teaching Quality?

Over at Education Week this week, dear ole Eduflack has a commentary on current teacher quality efforts, asking the question if teacher quality (as primarily reflected in teacher incentive efforts) or teaching quality (such as the current push for improving teacher education) is the strongest path toward real, lasting school improvement.



New Governors in the Race

Undoubtedly, much of the next few days will be spent dissecting yesterday’s off-year elections and their greater meaning for healthcare reform, the 2010 congressional races, and the 2012 presidential campaigns.  What does it mean for Republicans to take back the Virginia governor’s seat?  How painful will the Democrats’ gubernatorial loss in New Jersey be?  Why was the NYC mayor’s race closer than most expected?  These are all questions that will (and already have) been raised in the past 12 hours.

But Eduflack has a far more specific question to ask.  How do changes in executives in the Old Dominion and the Garden State impact Race to the Top?  It is no secret that both New Jersey and Virginia and busily working on their RttT applications, most likely planning on submitting their prose to the U.S. Department of Education as part of Phase I submissions in early January 2010.  Most likely, the respective state departments of education have already invested hundreds of staff hours to prepare their applications, even while we wait on the final RttT RFP to be released by ED later this month.  And they have carefully negotiated the support of the governor’s office, the chief state school officer, the state board of education, and the teachers’ unions to put as unified a plan forward as humanly possible.
So what happens when the governorship changes party, and thus shifts priority?  Clearly, Virginia Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell has a very different approach to school improvement than current Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, particularly with regard to charter schools.  New Jersey’s recent victor, Chris Christie, differs with NJ Gov. Jon Corzine in just about every policy way.  McDonnell and Christie will be bringing in new secretaries of education and will be working to get their own people on state boards and in other positions of authority.  And neither is going to have the NEA or the AFT on their call list over the next few months.
When it comes to RttT, does Corzine’s education team sit down with Christie’s transition team to make sure the new governor is on board when it comes to the state application? How about Kaine and McDonnell?  Both incoming Republican governors will be wholly responsible for implementing the Race plans (as they are four-year grants slated to begin soon after both men take office).  As such, will they be given any input into the grant’s final development, or will they be forced to live with whatever plan is put forward by their predecessors?
We’d like to believe that Kaine/McDonnell and Corzine/Christie can work together on formulating their Race applications, or at least agree on the broad strokes.  But the cynic in me knows that that will never happen, and that’s a cryin’ shame.  I’m guessing that Race isn’t high on the list of either outgoing governor’s to-do list, leaving it to the folks in his respective SEA.  And neither will be looking to do his successor any favors.  So both Virginia and New Jersey will move full steam ahead with their apps, doing what they intended and doing what aligns with the last four years of policy in their respective states, and not the next four years.  Of all the issues on the table, McDonnell and Christie likely won’t raise Race as a major transition issue (though they should, when one considers the financial implications of meeting grant requirements that move well beyond the dollars coming from ED).
That being the case, is ED already starting to think about how they will deal with proposed changes to Race priorities after applications have been submitted or even approved?  Beyond these two states, what happens if new governors have new ideas for how Race money can be spent after the 2010 elections?  What happens if state legislatures have major changes in demographics next year?   What happens if more governors win the right to appoint their own state boards of education? 
In my home state of Virginia, for instance, charter schools remain a puzzle wrapped in an enigma.  On paper, the Old Dominion has one of the best charter school laws in the nation, with no caps, no restrictions, and basically unfettered opportunity to create such alternatives across the state.  In practice, though, charter opponents just choose not to enforce the spirit of the law.  Only a handful of charters exist across the state, with state and local officials finding ways to stymie their growth and establishment.  
Race makes clear that charter schools are a key component to the federal plan for school improvement and turnaround.  ED officials expect significant dollars to go to the cultivation of a strong public charter school network.  And Virginia Gov.-elect McDonnell has made charters a centerpiece of his K-12 education agenda.  So if the Kaine team chooses to overlook charters in their Race app (other than emphasizing the openness of the current state law and how it meets RttT provisions), does McDonnell and his incoming team have the opportunity to make adjustments to throw a greater spotlight on charter development in Virginia?  Will the incoming governors have to honor the spirit of the state’s Race application or the letter? 
Based on the timetables, McDonnell and Christie will likely be given no opportunity to impact their state’s Race applications.  Those are in process now, and few have the heart (after tough elections in both states) to open things back up and start over, particularly with a team that has just put them out of a job.  But both incoming governors will be responsible for distributing Race money to school districts across the state, and both will be responsible for determining how the state spends their dollars on the standards, assessments, and accountability called for in the grant. 
Both New Jersey and Virginia made marked shifts in their executive leadership last evening, both overall and with regard to public education (particularly K-12).  What’s left to be seen is how the rhetoric of the last year will translate into the policies of 2010, and whether either wants to start one of their first fights on the topic of education and the spending of federal ed dollars.  If they do, charters are likely to be the first battlefield, with teacher incentives (and a showdown with the teachers’ unions who fought so hard to defeat them this fall) coming quickly on its heels.  Let the fireworks begin!