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!

In Search of 21st Century Joe Clarks

When I’m flipping through the cable stations late at night, unable to sleep because something or another has my mind going a thousand miles an hour, there are a number of movies for which I will always stop and watch.  Braveheart, Thank You For Smoking, the original All the King’s Men, Bull Durham, Tin Cup, Roadhouse, 10 Things I Hate About You, and She’s All That tops among them.

The remote also cools down when I stumble across Lean on Me, which I happened to catch again late last night.  We all know the movie I’m talking about, the 1989 film starred Morgan Freeman and told the story of Joe Clark and his transformation of Eastside High School in Paterson, NJ.  The story has become urban legend by now.  About 30 percent of Eastside’s students were passing the state proficiency exam.  New Jersey had just passed a law stating that any school with less than a 75 percent passage rate faced state takeover.  So in a move of desperation, Paterson turned over its most troubled school to “Crazy” Joe Clark, giving him seven months to more than double the passage rate and avoid state control.
In the biopic, Clark is dogged, even possessed, in enacting his version of school improvement.  Focusing on discipline, accountability, self-respect, and responsibility, he quickly brings a new culture to the school.  That culture brings about a change in attitudes and actions from the students.  (He actually appeared on the cover of Time magazine with a baseball bat, not unlike DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her broom.)  In the 11th hour, facing possible jail time and certain termination because of personality clashes and violation of the fire codes, the movie Joe Clark reveals that the school surpassed the 75 percent proficiency mark.  Takeover averted.  Possibly the state’s worst public school transformed in a matter of months into a performer.  From dropout factory to postsecondary pipeline.
If only it were that simple.  But why, you may ask, is Eduflack writing about a movie from the late 1980s that has almost been forgotten in recent years?  President Obama and EdSec Duncan’s visit to Wisconsin on Wednesday has really got me thinking.  By now, we’ve all heard the chattering that the visit is being used to advocate for mayoral takeover of urban school districts in crisis, calling for changes at the top of the systemic education pyramid to bring about real change at the foundations.  In recent months, we’ve heard the detailing of successful takeovers in Chicago, New York, and Boston, along with promising takeovers in cities like Washington, DC.  With the success of charter schools in Milwaukee (and to a lesser degree, of vouchers), it only makes sense that the city will be the next test for mayoral takeover.
Yes, we can point to mayors who have been tremendously successful in using their bully pulpit to bring about a new world of thinking in the public schools.  But the story of Joe Clark and Eastside High should make us remember that there is only so much that can be done at the top of the foodchain.  A mayor’s support for a superintendent only goes so far in school transformation.  It ultimately takes the support and efforts of the teachers and the principals to bring about the sort of lasting change sought by Duncan and funded through RttT, i3, and other new programs.  And we are rarely talking about principals and building leaders these days.
So it begs the question, where are the next generation Joe Clarks?  What school districts are empowering their principals to “take no prisoners” and do whatever it takes to fix a broken school, restore order, and deliver improved student achievement?  Where are the breeding grounds for such school leaders, where they develop the instructional leadership, the vision, the executive management, and the passion to take on the schools that need it the most?  How do we embolden incoming cadres of principals, ensuring they see their jobs as more than building managers and more than the middle ground between the superintendent and the teachers?  And how do we give the right people the authority to shake things up and truly toss out what wasn’t working, even when facing strong defenders of the failed status quo?
Year after year, we hear about the modern-day Eastside High Schools, the dropout factories, the persistent contributors to the achievement gap, the schools where too many students are written off before they even arrive for their first day of school.  As we focus on how to move forward with lasting school improvement, it seems we need a whole mess of Joe Clarks to implement a new way of thinking, a new way of teaching, a new way of motivating, and new way of achieving.  Without it, all the fresh paint and duct tape in the free world can’t truly heal the schools that need help the most.

“Disrupting” High School Failure

Can you legislate graduation rates?  Today, the Washington Post editorial board called on the state of Maryland to raise the compulsory age for school attendance, essentially using state law to require students to stay in Maryland high schools until the age of 18 (it is 16 now).  The move, following on the heels of a similar policy adopted by the Montgomery County Board of Education is in direct response to the latest data showing a growing dropout rate in Maryland.  The full editorial can be found here.

Eduflack is all for any measure designed to improve high school graduation rates, but can you really legislate the problem away?  And if so, why just raise the dropout age to 18?  Why not require by law that every student stay in school until they earn a high school diploma or reach the age of 21?  Why not mandate a high school diploma in order to secure a driver’s license or buy a beer?
We don’t take such steps because such a “stick” approach to high school reform simply doesn’t work.  Despite the best of intentions, requiring an intended dropout to stay in school for two extra years rarely results in that “a-ha” moment when he finds his calling in high school, puts himself on the illuminated path, earns his diploma, and leads a successful life.  It leads to two more years of resentment, coupled with two years of wasted resources at the school and district level.
Talk to anyone who has succeeded in high school improvement efforts, and you will hear that the secret to true high school transformation is not about maintaining the current course.  To boost high school graduation rates, we need to make classroom learning more relevant to at-risk students.  We need to personalize courses, connecting directly with students.  We need to bring real-life into classroom learning, through internships, speakers, and any other means that link high school with life.
As part of its efforts to invest in meaningful high school reform models, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has regularly touted the successes of the high school reform model offered by Big Picture Learning.  While the Gates model for high schools has shifted over the years, its praise for Big Picture has been unwavering.  But the Big Picture model has been one of those “best kept secrets” in education policy.  Those intimate with the details are true believers, but many are unawares of what the Rhode Island-based organization is truly doing in schools across the world.  (Full disclaimer, Eduflack worked with Big Picture’s founders on their October policy event.)
Last month, Big Picture held its coming out in Washington, DC, educating the policy community on how the Big Picture model fits with the current call for school improvement and innovation.  Touting the need for “disruptive innovation” in school improvement, Big Picture leaders focused on the importance of a student-centered curriculum, a close relationship with teachers, and real world internships to best serve those students at greatest risk of dropping out.  And working in more than 130 schools, Big Picture knows of what it speaks.  More than eight in 10 BPL schools receive Title I funding, while 66 percent of their students are eligible for free and reduced lunch.  Such measures are usually the early markers of dropout factories and graduation problems.  But at Big Picture schools, more than 92 percent of students earn their high school diplomas (compared with 52 percent nationally).  And 95 percent of their students are accepted into college, the first step toward achieving the President’s college-educated Americans goal by 2020.
The true measure of Big Picture’s effectiveness, though, may best be found in what others were saying about them in DC a few weeks ago.  According to Congressman George Miller, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, “Big Picture is engaging students in discovering the level of context they understand, and how they apply it, and how they appreciate it, and how they can connect it to the next task in education, life, and experience.”  
And Harvard Business School Prof. Clay Christensen, the author of Disrupting Class and the godfather of the concept of “disruptive innovation” said: “I think that the Big Picture schools are about as great an example of integrating opportunities to feel success with the delivery of curriculum as exists in America.  By knitting together the delivery of the content they need to learn, with projects that allow them to use that they learn and feel successful, they’ve just done a wonderful thing; and I think it is a beacon for all of us.”
High praise from two who know a little bit about the topics of school improvement and comprehensive reforms.  So how does it translate back into what our states and school districts are looking to do through Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation to improve our schools and reform those so-called dropout factories?  Big Picture co-founder Elliot Washor summed it up best as part of their October event: “In our quest to improve public education, we often overlook the importance of the student perspective.  Based on our experiences, students thrive in high school when they see the relevance to their current interests and future plans.  Every student can earn a high school diploma with the right classroom and practical instruction.”
The data is there, and folks like Bill Gates and George Miller have recognized the benefits and impact.  Perhaps there really is more to high school improvement than increasing the compulsory age for school attendance.  Relevance and an increased focus on the students surely can’t hurt.