Under the Eduflack Tree 2010

It is that time of the year again.  Most of the year, Eduflack can be critical, cynical, and downright combustible about what is happening in the education community.  We spend a great deal of time talking, but little time delivering.  We get caught up on the 20 percent or so of improvements we don’t agree on, thus neglecting the 80 percent that could make real change now.  And we regularly fall into a cult of personality, rather than focusing on the substance of both character and ideas.

But Christmas is a special time of year, that time when we all get a blank slate and we all look forward to a new year with a renewed sense of purpose and commitment.  As for Eduflack, I don’t believe in naughty lists (personally, I’m worried about what all of my general agitation would mean for such databases).  And with two little kiddos at home who are the absolute loves of my life and motivations for getting up each morning, I’m all for being generous and giving gifts for both a great 2009 and the hopes of an even better 2010.  So without further ado, let’s check out what’s under the ol’ Eduflack tree this holiday season.
To NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, a return to the spotlight.  In 2008, Chancellor Klein was the king of the ed reform kingdom.  Scores were up in NYC.  The city was coming off the Broad Prize, and Klein was on the short list for U.S. Secretary of Education.  But a funny thing happened in 2009.  The good chancellor seemed to take a public back seat, dealing with collective bargaining agreements, a city council that was trying to take away mayoral control, and other such operational issues.  He even seemed to take a back seat with the Education Equality Project, letting Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich play center stage for much of 2009.  But 2010 is Klein’s year again.  With states and districts desperate to demonstrate sustained student gains on assessments and a closing of the achievement gap, there is no better model than the revolution that has happened in NYC over the last decade.  And the NYC experience is one that can serve as a research-based model for many urbans looking to secure i3 grants in the coming year.  Klein has always been a force, but with all of the elements coming together, 2010 can very well be the year of Klein.
To Detroit’s de facto public schools chief Robert Bobb, a wide berth.  By now, most of us have written off Detroit Public Schools, believing there is no hope for America’s most struggling urban district, whether it declares bankruptcy or not.  But for those not paying attention, Bobb is really trying to do God’s work up in the Motor City.  With a new mayor and a renewed sense of purpose, Bobb and his team and rebuilding the DPS infrastructure while taking on instructional reforms designed to improving student learning and close the dreaded achievement gap.  Bobb has thrown a lot against the wall in the past year.  Here’s hoping the city (and the nation) the time to see what sticks and build on what works.  Improvement is possible in Detroit, with the right time and support.
To EdSec Arne Duncan, a continued bounce in his step.  Without question, the past 12 months have been the year of Arne.  He started off strong, and quickly built a cult of personality around the nation.  (Some may even call it idol worship.)  He’s won friends where previous secretaries could only find enemies.  He’s talked, passionately, about issues that were taboo to previous federal education bosses.  And he has emerged as one of the leading voices for the administration, even on issues like economic stimulus and other issues not previously in the EdSec’s purview.  For the coming year, Duncan needs to keep pushing through, talking the tough talk, while walking the tough walk.  Many expect to see real results when it comes to Race to the Top and i3, so he has to be ready to talk about where we are (with details) and where we are going.  More importantly, though, he needs to keep that bounce and forward motion even after we discover that ESEA reauthorization is a gift most likely received in 2011.  Just keep driving to the basket, Mr. Secretary.
To House Education Chairman George Miller (CA), incremental success.  For a good portion of 2009, we assumed that Chairman Miller would successfully lead ESEA reauthorization in the first half of 2010.  Now, we know such thoughts are only for the most optimistic of optimists.  Eduflack realizes that healthcare reform has taken a lot out of your committee, but now is the time for you to move forward and make crystal clear to all involved that you are the educational top dog on Capitol Hill. Through the House Education and Labor Committee, let’s get your Graduation for All Act of 2010 passed into law as quickly as possible.  And while we’re at it, let’s make sure that Congress (both your House and the Senate) make Senator Patty Murray’s LEARN Act (focusing on reading) the law of the land before school’s out for summer.  Instead of looking for that four-bagger to win the game with one swing right now, let’s play a little small ball and move some very real education improvements now, improvements that can help many, many kids right now.
To Senator Mike Enzi (WY), ranking member of the Senate HELP Committee, an itch to fight for the home team.  In 2009, we spent a lot of time focusing on education reform issues that seemed custom tailored for urban areas.  RttT has turned into a focus on turning around low performing urban districts.  Despite the extra points for rural districts, most also see i3 as a reward for the Council of Great City Schools sect.  And even the most recent NAEP TUDA puts our gaze on what’s happening in the cities.  It falls to Senator Enzi (and to a lesser degree Rep. John Kline of Minnesota) to make sure that the voice of rural districts and the needs or rural students are heard in these school improvement discussions.  There are too many students attending small districts and rural schools for us to neglect them.  If we are going to improve achievement for all American students, we need to give rural schools the same attention we give urbans.  And we can’t forget that closing the achievement gap is about closing the gaps between white and black and closing the gaps between rich and poor.
Fortunately, Eduflack is feeling generous this season.  There are also gifts under the Eduflack tree for those who have done good work in 2009, those good little boys and girls like EdTrust’s Kati Haycock, EEP’s Ellen Winn, AFT’s Randi Weingarten, Rethink Learning Now’s Sam Chaltain, Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond, and the Alliance’s Bob Wise.  And special stockings for the EdWeek bloggers who keep us fed on a daily basis.  Keep it up! 
We also have those policy gifts that all get to enjoy for the coming year, those issues that can truly lift all boats.  We have STEM education, one of the few topics that can help all states and localities maximize the opportunities under Race to the Top and effectively link education reform to economic recovery.  Chicago’s Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), which may likely be the posterchild for effective i3 spending and the model for how we can really get an effective teacher quality and incentive program.  For scientifically based education, which is back with a vengeance as ED talks over and over again about evidence and innovation.  Effective teacher professional development, with more and more people realizing that improved student achievement and test scores requires a better equipped, better supported teacher force.  The rediscovery of data, both the continued exploration of good data versus bad and, more importantly, how we can effectively use data to improve our schools.  And
, of course, common core standards, which is hoping to work through a rough past few months to deliver every U.S. school child, regardless of zip code, one common yardstick to determine if we are prepared for the challenges and opportunities of the future … or not.
And with that, I’ll put my edufinger to the nose attached to my broad face and little round belly, and wish a Happy Eduholidays to all!

That Sort of December

Just a quick word of apology from Eduflack.  December has been that sort of month, and as a result, Eduflack posts have been few and far between.  Between a busy speaking and writing schedule, family obligations, and what has been a relatively boring ed policy month (just how much can we write about Race to the Top), I just have not been posting with the frequency that I want or intend to.

So never fear.  Eduflack will be back in January with a vengeance.  Our goal will again be to post at least three times a week.  And some of them may actually be interesting, informative, and provocative.  So please bear with us in 2010.
Happy holidays!

Jockeying for Race’s Post Position

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education released the list of all states that have indicated that they will file Phase One applications under Race to the Top.  Each of these states hopes to submit a comprehensive application that highlights both their successes to date and their plans for the future on areas such as academic standards, assessments, data systems, teacher and principal quality, school turnaround, charter schools, and STEM, to name the highlights.  And they each hope to be awarded a “big cash prize” before we get too deep into the spring of 2010 and before the merriment of commencement commences.

What states are planning on having their state departments of education work around the holiday clock to complete these RttT applications?  ED has received letters of Phase One intent from the following:
Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Of the 15 states receiving significant help from the Gates Foundation to prepare their applications, 13 are planning on Phase One apps.  Not surprisingly, Texas is not on the early intent list (as the Republic of Texas is likely trying to figure out how to make up points for the big dings it will take over its resistance to common core standards.  Surprisingly, North Carolina has NOT indicated its intent to submit in Phase One, despite the Tar Heel State’s reputation for being a true leader in education reforms over the past three decades.
Other surprises?  Eduflack finds it interesting that both New Jersey and Virginia are intending to file for Phase One, meaning that both states will submit their apps before their new governors of different political parties than the currents take office in January.  It is particularly surprising since Eduflack heard that the Garden State had originally issued an RFP to hire consultants to assist with its application, and then returned all proposals, unopened, after the November gubernatorial election.  That likely means that Jon Corzine’s team is putting together a comprehensive plan that Chris Christie’s team (which will bring a SLIGHTLY different perspective to education reform) may have to live with.
While the official RttT scoring makes clear that past accomplishments are worth more points than plans for the future, we see a number of states that have made major changes in recent months (firewalls, charter caps, etc.) just to be compliant with Race requirements.  States like California, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, and Wisconsin will have to demonstrate — in just a few short weeks — that recent legislative action is the culmination of a commitment to school improvement, and not simply fast action to win some quick money.
And who is missing from the list, besides North Carolina?  Rhode Island is not there, probably indicating that State Supe Deborah Gist is working to do it right (with regard to detailing her aggressive reform agenda in a few hundred pages of prose).  But otherwise, the early app list reads like a list of those most likely to win and those most hopeful to win a major prize.
In recent interviews RttT Czar Joanne Weiss has indicated that a number of states will be rejected in Phase One.  What is yet to be told is if those states will be given a second bite of the apple in Phase Two.  The numbers don’t lie.  Most states will be requesting the max, except for those states like Colorado which will be asking for more than their assigned category allows for.  That means that we are likely looking at a dozen state winners, max, assuming that only half of the Group A states (California, Florida, New York, Texas) win an award (and we all know that Florida has already all but locked up one of those spots).  
For those states looking to jump in first, is it a strategic decision, as they hope to get at the money before much has been doled out?  It is a tactical decision to just get the app off their plates before the new budget season starts up?  Or is it an act of desperation, with states needing the money to keep their forward progress?  Time will tell.  Clearly, there are likely to be more disappointed faces in this early applicant pool than there will be excited winners.  And just think of the added stress to those states waiting to submit in the spring.
UPDATE — Late Wednesday evening, Eduflack heard from Glenn Kleiman, the Executive Director of the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation and Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at North Carolina State University’s College of Education.  Professor Kleiman said “NC has planned to submit all along and we have the proposal well underway.  The USED letters of intent were optional, and don’t tell anyone whether or not a state will actually apply.”  For the record, Eduflack never doubted that North Carolina would apply, the issue is whether the state would apply in Phase One.  Professor Kleiman hasn’t answered that directly, but I suspect that such a response suggests that Phase One is indeed in the cards for Carolina.  So where is the harm of North Carolina filing a two-paragraph letter announcing its intent (particularly when everyone knows they are applying)?

Don’t Know Much About History …

As Eduflack has written before, I am the son of an historian.  My father is actually an expert on the American presidency (the office itself, and the evolution of presidential leadership over the past two centuries in particular) and is the author of countless books and articles on the subject.  Add to that four years at Mr. Jefferson’s University, and it would be hard for me not to be fascinated with history, particularly American history.  That’s why I am always fascinated with the latest numbers on how little the American people know about our country.  We struggle to name the VP.  We can’t recall how many members are on the U.S. Supreme Court.  We struggle to ID our own elected officials.  And forget it if we’re asked to recall the facts, figures, and dates for the truly significant moments in our nation’s history.  (And we only have 200-plus years of it, imagine if we were Chinese, Greek, or British.)

So I was, of course, taken by a survey shared with me today from the American Revolution Center.  Eduflack was shocked — shocked, I tell you — to learn that 83 percent of adults failed a basic test on the American Revolution (and this is after 89 percent of those surveyed believed they could pass such an exam with no trouble).  Among some of the highlights from ARC’s survey:
* 90 percent of Americans think it is important for U.S. citizens to know the history and principles of the American Revolution
* Half of those surveyed believe we have a direct democracy, despite having pledged to “the republic for which it stands” every morning as a school kid
* More than half of those surveyed attribute a famous quote from Karl Marx’s “The Communist Manifesto” to George Washington, Thomas Paine, or Barack Obama
* No surprise, but more people can ID Michael Jackson as the singer of “Beat It” than know the Bill of Rights is part of the Constitution
* Half of those surveyed believe the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, or War of 1812 occurred before the American Revolution
* One-third of Americans do not know the right to a jury trial is covered in the U.S. Constitution, while 40 percent think a right to vote is covered (when it is not)
For more of these interesting factoids, give a gander over at the report on ARC’s website — <a href="http://www.AmericanRevolutionCenter.org.
Every congressional session, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (TN) and U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (WV) offer legislation to refocus on the instruction of American history (particularly around our nation’s founding).  And Eduflack’s former boss, the esteemed Senator Byrd, still carries around a copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket, as a reminder of the very reasons why he has committed his life to our nation’s government.  Legislation focusing on the importance of history of civics in a K-12 classroom may not be sexy, but can we really question whether it is seriously needed?  While we may not be developing common core standards on U.S. history, shouldn’t every high school graduate know the basics about their country, its history, their rights, and other such noble pursuits?
Each year, thousands upon thousands of immigrants study up on U.S. history in order to pass our citizenship test.  They learn more about the nation they hope will soon adopt them than those who are born and raised in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  It’s a shame we don’t all have to pass a citizenship test to be an adult citizen.  Just as we register with Selective Service, if you want a driver’s license or a student loan or the right to vote, why not require passage of a basic skills test.  I’m just sayin’ ….

Cart Awaiting a Horse

A little more this week from Eduflack guest blogger, Dr. John Jensen …
Several decades ago when differences between right and left brain thinking were first explored, a story was told to illustrate.

During World War II, many harbors in Hawaii were blocked by sunken warships, one important channel in particular. After the war, engineers puzzled over how to move them out of way. As they found themselves stumped, someone said, “I know a captain who has a reputation as a good problem solver.  Let’s invite him in.”     

They brought the captain to an overlook where, standing among the important brass, he could see the masts of vessels protruding from the water. As he stared at them, someone nearby heard him muttering, “Mother… Mother… the garden.”  The image that came to him was of his mother breaking large clumps of sod into smaller ones, which suggested his solution: Don’’t try to move the ships. Break them into pieces and leave them there–a solution that worked.

Which is to say that if we find ourselves stumped over education, could we consider a different viewpoint? 

The title above hints at a shift. Recently I happened across two reports, one on the ongoing work on national standards, and the other on the international education conference in Helsinki earlier this fall. The reports presented exactly opposite views on how to get quality education. The Finns hosting the conference, as is widely acknowledged, get the best educational results in the world. Two features of their system stood out for me. They 1) insist that teachers know their subject matter, and 2) they allow them great latitude in designing what they personally will teach. 

How unusual!  Find someone who knows and ask him to do what he knows.  What an innovative model!  One wonders what would happen to the entire American economy if such an insight were widely accepted instead of having the state micro-manage everything from the top down.  The US model in contrast 1) presumes that teachers don’t know their subject matter.  Once accepting that as inevitable, the second step follows: 2) spoon-feed them every detail they must teach.  

It’s clear that the Finn model works and, as best we can tell, the US model doesn’’t. The conclusion is obvious. Do the US model more intensively!  Bring into education more people who know even less about teaching, and specify in even more detail what they must teach. Exert more control of the process with less confidence in and freedom for teachers to teach what they know.

I sympathize with policy-makers who don‘t know what to do with their big hammer, the billions they’’re anxious to spend. They don‘’t know what, among their myriad of options, to spend it on that will make the most difference.  A possible corner is at least to define what students need to know in the subjects most commonly taught.            

Sensible as it may sound, even this has its holdouts. Alaska and Texas want no part of it.  Texas, I assume, is independent  enough to believe that their own people know better what their children should learn, but Alaska (my home state) is a different matter.  The knowledge useful for living in many of its remote communities and even larger cities can diverge greatly from what one needs to know in the continental US; climate, weather, geology, environment, wildlife, fish, transportation, Native heritage, and energy, for instance.  The concerns of a Boston or St. Louis are far off the mark, hinting further that a varied and changing world could soon make the current knowledge disseminated today
 in any city moot even there.

But let’’s say the macro-plan has its way and we could standardize what students need to know, what then?

To me this is the cart waiting for a horse, a cart we wouldn’’t need if we just had a horse.  What curriculum do you want to tow along?  Ask the Finns, who say that the curriculum is what a teacher who knows the subject is ready to teach. But even settling that, we still need the horse:How do we get students to learn what is either in the teacher’s mind or, lacking confidence in their mind, in the national standards?

How?  That we even have to ask the question is my concern. If we have any doubt about how to do this, then it’s premature to define standards nationally or require particular knowledge in teachers. The “horse” is what moves everything else–to know that you can teach students whatever you want to teach them each, always, and every time. Do this with a lot of learning (a good start is “whatever the teacher wants to teach.”). After much of that, look around and inquire, “Is there anything essential we haven’’t covered?” Let teachers teach what they want to for eleven and a half years and spend the last semester on lacunae.  These are likely to appear much less significant once you already have a child saturated with usable knowledge, but if something is both missing and important, cover it then.

First, though, do the big chunks, the stuff good teachers already know.  Stay out of the way while they do it and don’t micro-manage.


(John Jensen is a licensed clinical 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 send free as an e-book to anyone requesting it. He can be reached at jjensen@gci.net.  This post represents the opinions of Dr. Jensen only.)