Reading Between the SOTU Lines

Earlier today, Eduflack was hopeful that P-12 education would garner three or four paragraphs in the State of the Union, just enough space to lay out a bold call to action and a focus on real, lasting change.  As the final speech was delivered this evening, P-12 got little more than a paragraph (while higher education and student loans got far greater attention).

Following is the full text of the SOTU P-12 focus:

“This year, we have broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools. The idea here is simple: instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform – reform that raises student achievement, inspires students to excel in math and science, and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to inner-cities. In the 21st century, one of the best anti-poverty programs is a world-class education. In this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than their potential.

When we renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we will work with Congress to expand these reforms to all fifty states. Still, in this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job. I urge the Senate to follow the House and pass a bill that will revitalize our community colleges, which are a career pathway to the children of so many working families.”

Personally, Eduflack really likes that first paragraph (and will note that I made some similar recommendations in my previous post.  But there isn’t a lot to analyze here.  No mention of early childhood education.  No mention of Race to the Top or i3 or common core standards.  And we don’t even know that reforms we are expanding to all 50 states under ESEA reauthorization.  And we didn’t even go as far as to say, when we renew ESEA this year.  All we know is that school is important, community colleges are equally important, and we need to take steps to make postsecondary education more affordable and manageable.  

So what does this mean for ESEA reauthorization in 2010?  Hopefully, no one is holding their breath or has big money wagered for a quick bill.  President Obama made clear that a jobs bill is priority number one.  Then we need to get healthcare finished.  And if we can get to education, it is focused on student loans and affordability.  We only have so many months and so many priorities, and tonight’s speech makes clear that reworking ESEA is not a top priority right now.

Eduflack supposes it makes sense.  EdSec Arne Duncan and company can focus on Race and i3, using some of his executive powers to tweak portions of NCLB to make it a little easier to work with.  But at the end of the day, I suppose we are generally happy with the current parameters of NCLB, or at least can live with it for now.  Sure, there is that $1 billion performance bonus for getting ESEA passed (akin to paying our kids for earning straight As I suppose), but it looks like the 2010 era of reform without an overhaul to our national K-12 law.  I could be wrong, but I suspect I’m not.

Some Ed Thoughts on the SOTU

Tonight is the State of the Union address.  Across the nation, folks are looking at this speech to either make or break President Obama’s Administration (no pressure there).  And while Eduflack continues to hear those in the education community expect that education reform will be front and center in tonight’s speech, I have my doubts.  With an hour-long time slot likely to be interrupted by applause (and hopefully no more “you lies”), there is a lot to talk about.  We have wars and national security.  Jobs and the economy.  Healthcare and Haiti.  At best, I suspect education will get a few paragraphs about two-thirds of the way through the address.

So what do we do with those few paragraphs?  We’ve already heard that Obama intends to freeze all discretionary non-security funding for the next three years.  And while many say there is wiggle room to exempt some of our new education funding streams, we need to be practical.  Any mention of education, no matter how small and large, is not likely to be about dollars.  It is going to be about vision, hope, and promise.  If past Administrations are any indication, staff is scurrying today to make final edits to the draft, ensuring that it reflects the latest news and the most promising ideas.
Eduflack can’t let such a time pass without offering a few of his own thoughts on the “education section” for tonight.  If I had my speechwriting shingle hanging in the West Wing these days, hears what deal ol’ Eduflack would be looking to get on the teleprompter for this evening:
“My fellow Americans, I know these are uncertain times wrought with worry and concern.  The value of our homes continues to slide.  For those fortunate enough to hold a job, wages are stagnant and benefits have likely been reduced.  For families who have weathered the economic rollercoaster of the past few years, many still wait for that steady climb back up, hoping beyond hope that the pains we, as a community, are struggling with now will not be felt by our children in years to come.
In times like this, it is often easy to overlook the most important asset Americans possess.  It is not real estate or 401Ks or any such material goods.  No, the greatest asset the United States offers is a strong public education.  It is a promise we make to all people, whether they be descendants of those who came over on the Mayflower or those just arriving on a boat from Haiti in the past weeks.  A strong education is with us for ever.  It continues to appreciate and gain value.  It is portable, and comes with us from job to job and residence to residence.  And it, more than anything else, is key to the opportunity and hope we promise each new generation.  Those with a strong educational foundation are on the path to success.  There is no question about it.
During the past year, my Administration has taken great steps to ensure that more students receive access to a truly strong public education.  States across the nation have improved their laws and enacted new policies to ensure more students gain access to an effective and equitable education.  Through Race to the Top, our nation is now focused on issues such as teacher quality and turning around low-performing schools.  The bold steps taken by state legislatures around the nation to address our educational priorities are to be applauded.  Ultimately, the success of Race to the Top is not be measured by the handful of states that win federal grants, but rather by the millions of American students who will now have better schools and more opportunities because of the commitments made by states and school districts over the past nine months.
With such a focus on Race to the Top and its grant program, let me make one thing abundantly clear.  Money alone does not improve our school systems.  More dollars do not guarantee that a student is taught by an effective teacher or does not have to attend a drop-out factory.  Even today, we see communities with some of the highest per-pupil expenditures with the lowest test scores, and towns with low expenditures turning out some of the most promising results.  Increased spending does not directly result in improved quality.  If we are truly committed to improving all of our public schools and giving all students, particularly those from historically disadvantaged groups, the chance to live the American dream, we must change our approach to and our expectations of public education.  I am not here today to announce new funding programs for education, no.  Instead, I am here to secure a national commitment to the issues that have a direct impact on whether our school systems can truly improve over the long term.  We need to invest our intellectual capital in school improvement, and not just our financial capital.
First, in the economically uncertain times, we must ensure that all students see the need for and the relevance of a strong education.  We must strengthen the linkages between school today and jobs tomorrow.  We must demonstrate how the classes taken today lead to the jobs of tomorrow.  And we must make clear that dropping out is never an option, no matter the situation.  In New York City, for instance, Chancellor Joel Klein has made real progress in improving the city’s high school graduation rates, and has done so while closing the graduation gaps between white and African-American and white and Hispanic students.  Those are the sorts of efforts all of our cities should be modeling.  Last year, we committed to having the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by the year 2020.  We cannot get there if one-third of our students continue to drop out of high school and never have that option of college.  We must make clear that a high school diploma is the first step to true citizenship.  And it falls to every parent, every local business, every community leader, and every house of worship to make sure our kids value their education and gain that necessary diploma.  
Second, we must redouble our efforts to provide both a high-quality and an equitable education to all students.  For decades now, we have talked about the achievement gap while pumping more money into failing school systems.  In that time, we have done little to close the chasm between the haves and have nots.  Access to AP classes or veteran teachers should not be determined by one’s zip code or the color of one’s skin.  We need to take immediate steps to get our best teachers in the classrooms that need them the most.  We need to ensure that Title I and other funds from state and local governments are going to ensure that historically disadvantaged students have up-to-date textbooks and the latest instructional materials.  And we need to invest in early childhood education, particularly in our urban centers, so all students are equipped with the foundational skills to maximize their public educations.
Third, we must be committed to both high-quality teachers and high-quality teaching.  There are few jobs as challenging as teaching, and there are few that have the impact of educating young people.  Neither our schools nor our children can succeed without a well trained, well supported, and effective teacher standing in front of their classroom.  We need to make sure that every teacher goes through a rigorous training program that includes both clinical training and the demonstration of content knowledge.  We need to make sure that every one of our teachers gets the ongoing support, training, and mentoring to succeed in their classrooms.  We need to reward effective teaching, while having our exemplary teachers assist and support those who are struggl
ing.  We need to give our educators all of the tools for success, knowing that not everyone is cut out to be a teacher.  But if we expect our teachers to be held accountable for student achievement in their classrooms, we need to equip them with the skills and knowledge to manage their classes and deal with the challenges that cannot be planned for in a workshop, an institute, or a textbook.  We need to empower and cultivate our teachers, much like the TAP program in my hometown of Chicago does.
And finally we have the issue of accountability.  Let there be no mistake, my Administration is committed to educational accountability.  Working with Secretary Arne Duncan, I have made clear that we expect all students to learn.  We expect that learning to be measured.  I know that many of you have had concerns with accountability measures in the past.  Those worries were well-founded, but they do not justify scrapping our commitment to assessment and measurement.  Ultimately, our problems are with unequal measures of accountability.  Today, I am happy to report that our states are hard at work identifying common core standards for all grades.  Soon, proficiency in eighth grade math will mean the same thing in Massachusetts, Alabama, Wisconsin, and California.  We can, will, and must hold our teachers, schools, states, and even the federal government accountable for the quality and effectiveness of public education.  The task before us now is to improve on our current accountability measures, so they more accurately measure the effectiveness of our systems.  We need to do a better job of testing students, a better job of measuring what they are learning, and a better job of applying those results to improve classroom practice.  But we need accountability.  On this issue I will not bend.”
God bless and good night.

The NYC HIgh School Improvement Experience

Whenever Eduflack writes about the “successes” of New York City’s school improvement efforts under Chancellor Joel Klein, I get publicly flogged by some audience or another.  Most take significant issue with my conclusions that NYC Department of Education has improved the quality of the public schools.  Others take issue with giving Klein (and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg) credit for such school improvement.  And even if I can get the opposition to acknowledge an uptick in student achievement in NYC, they will immediately retort that the gains are minimal, and not nearly enough to declare turnaround efforts in New York a success.

My responses to such criticism have been relatively simple.  The test scores, at least on New York’s state exams, do show gains in both reading and math in NYC.  If you don’t believe the final tallies coming from Albany, you should at least acknowledge that NYC has won the Broad Prize, and that Broad similarly crunched the numbers and found academic gains across the city.  And if the gains aren’t big enough for you yet, first, give it time.  Then remember how large the NYCDOE truly is.  Upticks in a system that size are worthy of praise.
Always a glutton for punishment, Eduflack is going to raise the NYC achievement flag again.  Today, we’re going to reflect on a forum hosted yesterday by the Alliance for Excellent Education.  Offering a multi-hour symposium yesterday under the banner of “Informing Federal Education Policy Through Lessons from New York City,” the Alliance also put a spotlight on a new report it has released, “New York City’s Strategy for Improving High Schools.”

So let’s take a look at the most recent set of numbers, namely four-year high school graduation rates.  The Alliance took a look at four different calculations of NYC graduation data from 2002 to the present.  By NYC’s own calculations, grad rates rose more than 29 percent from 2002 to 2008, from 51 percent to 66 percent.  According to the state calculation, rates increased nearly 52 percent, from 40 percent to 61 percent.  EdWeek has the number increasing 35 percent from 2002 to 2006 (37 percent to 50 percent).  And Jennifer Jennings and Leonie Haimson have the grad rates lifted nearly 18 percent from 2002 to 2007 (40 percent to 47 percent).

Let’s set aside, for a second, the fact that no one started with the same 2002 baseline.  (yes, we still have problems with data collection and such)  Even if we throw out the top score and the bottom score (in the Olympic tradition), we are still looking at a gain in NYC’s high school graduation rates of nearly 33 percent from where we started in 2002.  In an era of drop-out factories and rising dropout rates, such numbers in NYC are worth paying attention to.

Whether you like the rhetoric coming out of NYCDOE or not, you can’t deny that the Klein plan has had a real impact, and an impact for the good.  As other urban centers struggle to deal with graduation rate challenges, NYC has found real solutions.  And it has done so applying a four-year graduation rate formula (a calculation many fear because it offers a lower grad rate than many want to admit.) 

Moreover, NYC has been able to apply its high school reforms to help close the achievement gap.  According the Alliance, “since 2005, the black-white and Hispanic-white [graduation rate] gaps have narrowed by 16 percent and 14 percent respectively.”

New York City may still be a work in progress, but aren’t these the sorts of numbers we are working toward?  Klein and company offer a clear plan for how they are going to fix the problems (a plan so clear that it draws a with us/against us line).  They take the necessary steps to implement that plan, regardless of the “friends” it may create.  And then they have the data to demonstrate effectiveness, with both test scores and graduation rates rising.  Isn’t that our ultimate end game?  And if it isn’t shouldn’t it be?

My Daughter Is a Lone Star Marxist?

Who knew?  When I woke up this morning, I thought that edu-daughter was the all-American girl.  She’s fun, she’s chatty, she loves to laugh.  She a little precocious, a lot sassy, and quite a bit alpha dog.  She is also my princesa, a two-and-a-half year old who can do no wrong in the eyes of her daddy … until today.

Thanks to the Texas State Board of Education, I now learn that my daughter is also a Marxist.  I had no idea.  Now I know better.  Thanks to the information posted by Robert Pondiscio of the Core Knowledge Blog here, my daughter has been branded a Marxist.  Karl Marx.  Friedrich Engels.  And now Anna Riccards.
Why?  It seems that some of the Lone Star State’s state board of education decided that Bill Martin, Jr.’s works simply cannot be taught in a Texas public school.  And one can see how the work of noted Marxism scholar Bill Martin may be inappropriate fare for the average young student.  After all, who wants to find Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation on the bookshelves between One Fish, Two Fish and I Love You, Stinky Face.
The problem, of course, is that there may be more than one Bill Martin, Jr. in the history of these United States.  And there may actually be more than one Bill Martin who has actually penned a book.  In fact, we know there.  A Bill Martin, Jr. is also the author of beloved toddler book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
And it is that Bill Martin who was banned by the Republic of Texas.  Brown Bear was put on the “do not read” list because of the supposed political leanings of its author.  Texas thought they were banning the author of Ethical Marxism.  Instead, they put the scarlet letter on a popular children’s author.  And that’s a cryin’ shame. 
But maybe Texas sees something we don’t.  After all, the first thing the brown bear sees is a “red bird,” clearly an endorsement of communism.  Brown Bear doesn’t seem to distinguish between the classes, with all animals being equal in the grand “seeing” scheme.  And then, of course, we have the full menagerie of animals who are ultimately looking at the kids, clearly a bold attempt to issue the call for a proletarian revolution.  
It’s a shame that some narrow, poorly researched, and downright incorrect thinking has resulted in banning what is a terrific little book for a pre-reader.  But better safe than sorry, I suppose.  It is just a slippery slope from Brown Bear to Cat in the Hat to a biography of Che Guevara.  I could be ruining my daughter’s political future before she ever gets to run for first grade class president!  No more questionable children’s books for her.  From this point forward, we’re going to stick to Fox News and the Wall Street Journal.

Driving GDP Growth Through Our Classrooms

We are hearing more and more these days about international benchmarking.  Maybe it is because of the increased focus on assessment generated by the common core standards movement.  Maybe it is because we are finally starting to recognize that while our NAEP scores hold steady, our students’ standing on international tests such as TIMSS and PISA continues to slip.  Or maybe it is because of the economy, as we grow more and more mindful of both the globalization issue of the past five or eight years or the more recent worries about jobs just evaporating, particularly for those without 21st century skills.

Whatever the reason, international benchmarking is standing as a hot topic.  Not only are we aware of those tests where our kids compete against their peers in Singapore and Sweden, but we now seem to pay more attention to groups like Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, (even though the Obama Administration eliminated the U.S. Department of Education’s official liaison to OECD last year) and are perking up when we hear about test scores, teacher training, and seat hours in classrooms across either ocean.

Today, the Alliance for Excellent Education released a new report from OECD focused on the economic benefits of school improvement.  The full report, co-authored by Hoover Institution/Stanford University’s Rick Hanushek, can be found here.  In revealing the new study, All4Ed President Bob Wise said, “This report provides powerful evidence that educational improvements make an important and lasting impact not only in the lives of students, but in the livelihood of nations.”

Such is a comment that should be common sense to most, but if often overlooked by far too many.  Despite all of the talk and the pleadings, far too many still view education (and even education reform) as something that happens in a vacuum.  We make classroom changes and figure their impact are limited to the classroom.  When we make changes related to curriculum or instructional materials or technology or teacher training or funding in general, we don’t necessarily see the ripple effect.  We often fail to see how classroom changes impact what is happening in the home or in the local community.  And most certainly, we fail to appreciate the impact it has on our nation, our economy, or our sense of global competitiveness.

The OECD study offers three examples of how education improvement (here measured by how our kids do on PISA) can have a direct and positive impact on our GDP, including:
* Increasing average scores on PISA by 25 points over 20 years would result in an increase in the U.S. GDP of $40 trillion over the lifetime of the generation born in 2010.  (And the Alliance notes that Poland was able to achieve such gains in just six years.)
* Bringing the United States to Finland’s level on PISA (meaning a 50-point gain) would increase the GDP by $100 trillion over the lifetime of a child born in 2010.
* Bringing all U.S. students up to a minimum level would add $72 trillion to the GDP over the lifetime of a child born in 2010.  (Currently 19 percent of U.S. students before below the PISA minimum level.)

Every few months, it seems like we are presented with yet another study tying school improvements to economic success.  How many more of these studies do we need to see before it truly takes hold in our psyche?  How many of these studies do we need before state departments of education join forces with economic development and labor departments to develop a long-term education effort that reflects the learning and skills needed to meet our workforce pipeline demands?  How many more toplines do we have to read before we see that sociologists, psychometricians, and economists need to work together to develop the long-term improvements necessary?  How long before we all realize that true education improvement does not happen in a vacuum? 


This Year’s Top Ed Tech Issues?

Over the last week, Eduflack has been teasing out a few of the key issues the education technology community has identified as top priorities for 2010.  Interestingly, many of these topics are not limited to ed tech, but are applicable to the entire eduworld.  So I thought it was worthwhile to take a look at the full list from the folks over at ISTE (

1. Establish technology in education as the backbone of school improvement. To truly improve our schools for the long term and ensure that all students are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve in the 21st century, education technology must permeate every corner of the learning process. From years of research, we know that technology can serve as a primary driver for systemic school improvement, including school leadership, an improved learning culture and excellence in professional practice. We must ensure that technology is at the foundation of current education reform efforts, and is explicit and clear in its role, mission, and expected impact.

2. Leverage education technology as a gateway for college and career readiness. Last year, President Obama established a national goal of producing the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by the year 2020. To achieve this goal in the next 10 years, we must embrace new instructional approaches that both increase the college-going rates and the high school graduation rates. By effectively engaging learning through technology, teachers can demonstrate the relevance of 21st century education, keeping more children in the pipeline as they pursue a rigorous, interesting and pertinent PK-12 public education.

3. Ensure technology expertise is infused throughout our schools and classrooms. In addition to providing all teachers with digital tools and content we must ensure technology experts are integrated throughout all schools, particularly as we increase focus and priority on STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) instruction and expand distance and online learning opportunities for students. Just as we prioritize reading and math experts, so too must we place a premium on technology experts who can help the entire school maximize its resources and opportunities. To support these experts, as well as all educators who integrate technology into the overall curriculum, we must substantially increase our support for the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program.  EETT provides critical support for on-going professional development, implementation of data-driven decision-making, personalized learning opportunities, and increased parental involvement. EETT should be increased to $500 million in FY2011.

4. Continuously upgrade educators’ classroom technology skills as a pre-requisite of “highly effective” teaching. As part of our nation’s continued push to ensure every classroom is led by a qualified, highly effective teacher, we must commit that all P-12 educators have the skills to use modern information tools and digital content to support student learning in content areas and for student assessment. Effective teachers in the 21st Century should be, by definition, technologically savvy teachers.

5. Invest in pre-service education technology. Teacher preparation is one of the most important aspects of a world-class 21st Century system of education and learning.  A federal investment in a new, technology-savvy generation of teachers is critical. To ensure their success in the classroom, pre-service teachers must be prepared to use technology and integrate it into the curricula before their first day as a teacher of record. By fully funding programs such as Preparing Teachers for Digital Age Learners (PTDAL), we can ensure that the United States produces the most technologically savvy educator workforce in the world.

6. Leverage technology to scale improvement. Through federal initiatives such as i3 grants, school districts across the nation are being asked to scale up current school improvement efforts to maximize reach and impact. School districts that have successfully led school turnaround and improvement efforts recognize that education technology is one of the best ways to accelerate reform, providing the immediate tools to ensure that all teachers and students have access to the latest innovative instructional pathways. If we are serious about school improvement, we must be serious about education technology.

7. Provide high speed broadband for all. The connectivity divide may be the most critical aspect of both our digital divide and our learning divide over the next decade. We must continue our national commitment to ensuring broadband access for all students through initiatives such as the E-Rate program.  Today’s classroom applications require significant bandwidth that many schools lack. Students who don’t have Internet access at home face a significant hurdle to participate in school assignments and produce high quality schoolwork—and their parents are hindered in school-to-home communications. We must provide high-speed bandwidth to our nation’s classrooms and focus on the school-to-home connection so that all students can succeed.

8. Boost student learning through data and assessment efforts. In schools across the nation, teachers, principals, and district administrators are increasingly discovering the benefits of real-time instructional and curriculum management systems. To maximize these efforts, we must provide educators with the systems, knowledge, and support they need to effectively tailor their teaching strategies and better meet the individual needs of each learner. Teachers’ capabilities to use data to improve instruction are equally important to contemporary data and assessment systems.

9. Invest in ongoing research and development. With the current push for both innovation and school improvement, it is essential that we, as a nation, invest in the research and development necessary to identify what is driving increased student achievement and why. Increased investment in education R&D, particularly with regard to innovation in teaching and learning, ensures that we remain a global leader in education. By stimulating meaningful, broad-based research and the dissemination of such research, we can ensure that the quality of teaching and learning in our classrooms keeps up with the goals and expectations we set for our students.

10. Promote global digital citizenship. In recent years, we have seen the walls that divide nations and economies come down and, of necessity, we’ve become focused on an increasingly competitive and flat world. Education technology is the great equalizer in this environment, breaking down artificial barriers to effective teaching and learning, and providing new reasons and opportunities for collaboration. Our children are held to greater scrutiny when it comes to learning and achievement compared to their fellow students overseas. We in turn must ensure that all students have access to the best learning technologies.

So we are seeing the full rodeo here.  We have school improvement issues, including boosting high school graduation rates.  We have relevant instruction.  We have teacher quality and support, both preservice and inservice.  We have data systems and improvement.  We have global competitiveness.  And we touch on issues related to ESEA reauthorization, RttT, i3, and most points in between.

In years past, it seemed like ed tech was an island unto itself.  But if this list is an indication, it looks like ISTE is working to position its members as a core part of the school improvement infrastructure.  This is a necessary move if we are to truly maximize the resources and opportunities available to both our teachers and our students.  But the big unanswered question is a relatively simple one.  Is the traditional K-12 infrastructure prepared to accept ed tech as a non-negotiable in the school improvement/student achievement movement?

Assessing Assessment

Over at ISTE Connects, they are continuing the countdown on the Top 10 education technology issues facing the eduworld in 2010.  In the latest installment, ISTE’s Hilary Goldmann focuses on the issue of assessment, noting that “we’re looking for better, richer, and more diverse assessment measures. Assessments that provide early feedback in the learning process, not just high-stakes bubble tests in a few content areas that don’t really evaluate the skills students will need. We can do better than this, and we must.”

If one puts an ear to the eduground, one hears multiple discussions on the topic of assessments.  Many states are waiting to develop new tools until after the common core standards have been finalized and adopted.  Others are working at improving their current measures, with the true leaders adopting new online or computer assisted assessments to provide educators and policymakers alike with a broader and more comprehensive set of data points.  And then there are a few voices in the wilderness advocating for the elimination of assessment entirely, believing it is unfair to measure students or teachers on the results of an exam or a collection of tests.

Of course, we are assessing all of our students now.  Under NCLB, every state in the union (even you Texas) is working to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP.  Each state sets their own learning standards and each year we evaluate how many students are proficient (according to those standards) compared to the previous year.  Those states that show year-on-year gains quickly become our case studies.  Those that flatline on proficiency or, heaven forbid, slip, are put on our lists.

In the pursuit of making the AYP success list, many states have been accused of lowering standards in order to show continued gains on the assessments.  And some started at a low threshold for proficiency to begin with just so they could have high marks right out of the box a few years ago.  As a result, we have a mis-mash of state learning standards. 

Don’t believe it?  Take a look at some of data released by Gary Phillips of the American Institutes for Research last week at the Quality Counts event.  Phillips took a look at state test scores, state academic standards, and comparable international benchmarks.  We shouldn’t be surprised to see that those states with the highest AYP scores are those with some of the lowest standards.  And those states with the highest standards (and some of the lower proficiency numbers) are the states mostly closely aligned with the international learning standards set forth by TIMSS, PISA, and PIRLS.  (And just as interesting, how a state does on eighth grade NAEP seems to align pretty well with how it does in international comparisons.)

So which becomes more important when it comes to student proficiency?  Is the emphasis on how many students score high enough on the scale or is it making sure that students are working on a scale that ensures they are academically competitive with their peers, regardless of country?

Common core standards is intended to fix some of this, supposedly giving all 50 states (and DC) one common standard to work toward and, presumably, one common assessment to measure it.  But it begs two important issues, one of which Goldmann highlights, the other illuminated by Phillips and others.

First, can one single exam adequately assess the teaching and learning in a classroom, or do we need multi-variable assessments that look at both formative and summative assessment?  It it a single state-administered exam, or is it a state exam influenced and shaped by ongoing tests and temperature-taking in the classroom at all points along the learning process?

And second, and perhaps most importantly, how do those assessments stack up outside of our fine union?  How do they match up to PISA and PIRLS?  Are the offering multiple-choice, constructed-response, extended tasks and project queries?  Are they offering on-demand and curriculum embedded tests and tasks?  Do they assess both knowledge (recall and analysis) and assessments of performance (demonstration of ability to apply knowledge in practice)?  Do they effectively measure whether all students have both the skills and knowledge to succeed outside of a classroom environment?

Ultimately, we are putting an awful lot on the shoulders of “assessment” when we talk about school improvement, student achievement, and the narrowing of the achievement gap.  But if we don’t have the right yardstick, we’ll never know exactly how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go.  By taking a hard look at the data, as scientists like Phillips have, and building better mousetraps, both in terms of content and the shift away from those bubble sheets, are essential steps forward.

Turning This Race Into a Relay

A year ago, many words and many more column inches were committed to ensure that any and all realized that education funding coming through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was a one-time deal.  States were originally discouraged from using State Fiscal Stabilization Fund dollars to pay teachers’ salaries, out of fear that that account will disappear as quickly as it appeared, thus leaving states looking for new funding to pay for essential educational services in two short years.

We may forget it now, but new competitive grant programs — Race to the Top and i3 chief among them — were part of the original ARRA funding.  We allocated $650 million to fund efforts to invest through innovation in our local school districts.  And we originally set aside $4.35 billion (now down to $4 billion, as $350 million has been pulled out specifically for data systems) to provide a select group of states big dollars to fund big changes in standards, teacher quality, school turnaround, and charters.

Today, the terms and conditions associated with RttT appeared to change.  This morning, President Obama announced his intention to seek an additional $1.35 billion in funding for the next generation of Race to the Top.  The preview story can be found in The Washington Post here, and Michele McNeil has the after-announcement reporting over at EdWeek here.   

Both pre- and post-coverage leaves us with some sketchy details.  Apparently, the intent is to provide additional Race funding for states, while also making dollars available to some school districts.  The LEA component makes sense, particularly if states like California and New York are unable to put forward a truly competitive RttT application.  This way, districts like Long Beach Unified and NYC can be rewarded for both their past efforts and future plans (fulfilling the RttT mission), while providing a path for future school districts to follow.

The state dollars become more interesting.  Is the intent to expand programs in worthy states, answering the call from states like Colorado who believe their alloted range of available dollars is too small to manage their ambitious plans?  Or is the intent to add another three or four states to the Race, expanding the total number of states and giving some the chance to revise their laws and their applications after the first two batches are released?  Eduflack has to believe the intent is the latter.  In fact, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the terms of a Phase 3 Race grant reduced the need to demonstrate “past achievement” and instead provided smaller total grants to those states who have made real changes to be Race compliant and forward thinking.

We’ve heard a lot about Race being the single-largest discretionary program in the history of the U.S. Department of Education.  Now, the President will request this additional $1.35 billion in his February budget.  And with that request, we should expect to soon see an annual budget line item for Race, with dollars either adding states or expanding programs along the way.  Next year, Race will likely be added to ESEA reauthorization (as Reading First was to NCLB , making the policy (and the dollars) part of the federal code for the next five to eight years.  And then we’ve gone from a one-time booster shot for innovation toward an annual vaccination against the status quo and the fear of change.

Don’t believe Eduflack?  Just take a look at the words of House Education Chairman George Miller, who told EdWeek, “By continuing Race to the Top, the federal government shows it can be a partner in reform and work to uphold the integrity of the program so that these resources are used as intended and help leverage change.”  This isn’t an in-and-out engagement as originally believed.  We are launching educational nation-building.

And while we anticipate the details and the specifics of this extension (along with waiting with baited breath to see the 30 or so RttT apps that will arrive at Maryland Avenue today, and the 10-12 states that will win this first Race by September), one thing remains certain.  As the lifespan of RttT is extended, there will be a far greater emphasis on demonstrating success and tracking return on investment.  The mission will not be accomplished just because the money was distributed and we all feel better about ourselves as a result.  SEAs and LEAs will need to demonstrate, by preponderance of the evidence, that RttT boosted learning, increased student achievement, closed the achievement gap, and improved the quality and effectiveness of teaching, particularly in historically disadvantaged communities.

By many calculations, Reading First (the previously largest discretionary program in ED history) failed at truly documenting the cause/effect of RF dollars and student test scores.  We now need to learn from what worked and didn’t with regard to RF assessment and accountability and build a better mousetrap for Race.  Four years from now, we don’t want to be left having spent $6 billion on RttT reforms, but no irrefutable way to measure the true effectiveness of the program. Ultimately, when it comes to RttT assessment, it must be trust … but verify.

The Weingarten Doctrine

For those who remember the early days, Eduflack was founded nearly three years ago to comment on how successfully (or unsuccessfully) we were communicating education and education reform ideas.  At the time, NCLB was a hot topic in many circles, Ed in 08 was committed to raise the profile of education issues in national campaigns, and changes in organizational leadership and new constructs of advocacy groups threatened to move education back onto the front pages.

But as a recent Brookings study has demonstrated, education stories simply aren’t capturing the hearts and minds of the media, let alone the residents of Main Street USA.  So Eduflack evolved with the times.  Rather than critique the scraps of media, I spend most of my time talking about the issues that merit discussion.  But we long for the good old days and our original mission.
This is particularly true of speeches.  As a former speechwriter (for members of Congress, members of presidential Administrations, and executives at Fortune 500 companies and leading non-profits), I greatly appreciate the written word.  I particularly appreciate capturing a speaker’s voice, gaining an audience’s attention, and delivering a real ask that results in a change of thinking or a change in behavior.  Unfortunately, such speeches are few and far between in education.  Yes, we occasionally get the Gingrich/Sharpton engagements brought by our friends over at the Education Equality Project, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.  EdSec Arne Duncan delivers a good speech, but pretty much sticks to the stump speech these days (with the true exception being the speech at the NEA last June).  President Obama can deliver a powerful ed reform speech, as he did at the National Academies of Science last spring on the topic of STEM, but those are rarities.  And if we spend time at many of the forums and discussions in DC and around the country, those “discussions” could be scripted and blocked out weeks ahead of time, with transcripts (including questions and answers) released before they are delivered.  For the most part, education rhetoric has grown stale, with us saying the same things to the same audiences with limited impact.  After all, what truly unique discussion can we have on topics like ARRA spending guidelines or RttT guidance.
But last week was one of those true exceptions.  Last Tuesday, before a packed house at the National Press Club, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten unveiled “a serious and comprehensive reform plan to ensure great teaching, taking on systems that have been ingrained in public education for more than a century.”  The full speech can be viewed here.
Over the last week, the field has seen some terrific analysis and critique of Weingarten’s remarks.  Eduflack is not going to add to the chorus.  Instead, we want to take a look at the “Weingarten Doctrine” as a communications vehicle, effective or not.
MESSENGER: From her days leading the UFT, Weingarten has cultivated a reputation as a reformer, one not set on defending the status quo.  While she may not be the most eloquent of public speakers, she is passionate about her issues and a true believer.  Since arriving in DC a year ago to take over the national union, she has laid relatively low.  She hasn’t made headlines and she hasn’t truly rocked the boat.  That changed on Tuesday.  Channeling both the late AFTer Al Shanker and the Randi of her early UFT days, Weingarten was a truly effective messenger on a topic (teacher quality and effectiveness) that has been longing for a strong voice from one of the two teachers’ unions.
MESSAGE: When we wait long enough for a strong voice on an important issue, our expectations get higher and higher.  Even with those sky-high expectations, Weingarten was able to deliver.  She didn’t seek an expected middle ground on the issue.  She didn’t try to defend the way things have always been.  She didn’t run interference for the status quo.  At a time when many think that teachers’ unions are the biggest obstacle to meaningful school improvement, Weingarten made clear that AFT is prepared to lead on the issue.
AUDIENCE: The AFT speech was delivered to a collection of the education blob, as membership organizations, advocacy groups, and those who influence (or pretend they influence) education decisionmakers.  By delivering this speech to this audience, Weingarten sought to reposition the AFT in the current ed improvement debate.  Most in attendance remember the days when the AFT fought the status quo.  This speech informed those stakeholders that the AFT of old is re-entering the game.
VENUE: To reach those stakeholders, AFT hosted the speech at the National Press Club.  This was probably the least visionary of AFT’s decisions.  This speech was to gain media attention, regardless of where it was held.  And while the NPC is a convenient venue for the DC chattering class, it provides a generic setting for a groundbreaking speech.  With school reform, we often forget the true customer — the student.  The backdrop of this speech would have been far more effective at a public school in the DC area.  And extra points could have been awarded for going out on a limb and talking about the new AFT at a charter school (a market that AFT covets for future membership).  Yes, you run the risk of using kids as props, but it is a powerful visual nonetheless.
POSITIONING: AFT was able to position the speech well with the media and key stakeholders alike.  The day before, AFT provided embargoed copies of the speech to select reporters, providing strong media coverage the morning of the speech.  Those pieces drove additional coverage that day, particularly within the ed blogger community.  So in a media environment that can be difficult to wrangle, AFT did a strong job of maximizing a speech, and a vision speech at that (since there was no news or results to really talk about).  Moreover, the AFT strategy seemed to box NEA out of the story, with the nation’s largest teachers’ union offering a “no comment” in the advance stories, assuring limited focus in the day-of coverage.
POLICY IMPACT: Without question, Weingarten’s speech made clear to the Obama Administration (and Duncan specifically) that Weingarten is ready, willing, and able to be part of the solution.  She all but endorsed the EdSec’s four pillars of ed reform, expanding his tent and grading the road ahead just a little bit.  It should be no surprise that the speech was delivered as the AFT (and the NEA) officially communicated to their states and localities that the unions were supporting Race to the Top in general, allowing the local unions to sign onto RttT application MOUs and have an impact on state ed improvement efforts in the coming years.
PRACTICAL IMPACT: Here we begin to see the unexpected consequences of rhetoric.  Immediately following the speech, the new superintendent of Houston ISD in Texas sought to use Weingarten’s words to alter the dynamic of his negotiations with the local union on measuring teacher effectiveness.  And Eduflack would be shocked if Michelle Rhee isn’t plotting the same thing in DC, using the speech to end her long stalemate with the Washington Teachers Union and seeking to do away with teacher tenure in our nation’s capital by moving Weingarten’s words into quick practice.  Those carefully crafted words could come b
ack to haunt some in the teachers’ unions.
THE LONG TERM: Ultimately, speeches are rhetorical devices. They are not hard-and-fast policy, nor are they promises we are often held to.  Weingarten’s remarks, in particular, lay out a vision for where we as a nation can go with regard to teacher quality and school effectiveness.  Addressing issues such as professional teaching standards, standards for assessing teacher practice, implementation benchmarks, and classroom supports, Weingarten has offered a blueprint for how teachers and teaching fit in the current school improvement environment.  But moving those words into the “Weingarten Doctrine” requires buy-in from federal, state, and local policymakers, from school leaders and practitioners, from business and community leaders, and from parents and teachers.  This is no small feat.  Delivering the speech is easy.  Moving the rhetoric to practice is hard.  Weingarten has planted the flag, now she needs to protect it and have others rally around it.  
UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: And that leaves us with the “what nexts?”  How with NEA respond?  Will ED and the policy community see this as a starting point for negotiation or simply meet AFT as is and adopt these reccs as their own policies?  How will the rank-and-file teachers react to this shift in policy?  How will school districts beyond Houston seek to use this to negotiate new collective bargaining agreements and contracts?  Does this end the debate on linking student achievement to teacher evaluation, or does it simply turn up the volume?  Is this the prelude or the climax to the teacher quality discussion?  
Regardless, Weingarten (and her speechwriters) deserve kudos for a well-executed “event.”  The remarks moved AFT to the front of the discussion.  It positioned the union as part of the solution, as an organization committed to school improvement.  And it captured the attention of the chattering class, if even for only a news cycle or two.  Will it change the future of ed reform, no.  But it gives us some hope regarding the rhetoric, news, and ideas that may be possible in the near future.

Putting the R&D Back in Education

Without question, educators and policymakers alike are using the term “innovation” more today than they ever have.  If we look at the dictionary definition of the word, we are asking for “something new or different introduced.”  If we look at programs such as the Investing in Innovation, or i3, program, we are expecting “something new or different” that is proven effective, offering some sort of research base behind it, some sort of data to support it.

Throughout such discussions, conversations on education innovation are likely to focus on the use of education technology in the classroom.  It is an obvious avenue to pursue.  Most of us equate technology with innovation. From flat-screen TVs to iPhones to interactive whiteboards to search engines like Google, we see technology as innovation.  And for educators, moving that technology into the classroom is a likely extension of the innovation debate.
Over at ISTE Connects (, the good folks at the International Society for Technology in Education are rolling out their Top Ten in ’10, a list of the most pressing education technology issues facing U.S. classrooms today.  In one of the most recent postings, they raise the issue of education R&D.  In calling for increased investment in ongoing research and development, ISTE notes that “solid investment in education R&D, particularly if focused on innovation in teaching and learning, ensures that we remain a global leader.”
Loyal readers of Eduflack know that this issue of education R&D has long been near and dear to my flickerin’ little heart.  When you compare education to other industries, particularly healthcare, our investment in research and development is but a microfraction.  We look to teachers and schools to innovate, but we don’t necessarily have the resources to do the all-out research to determine what innovations are the most effective, with what audiences do they work, and what are the most effective uses.  And unlike healthcare, we surely don’t have researchers out there developing instructional interventions for one issue, only to find that it works for something completely different.  So our R&D process becomes more like faith healing than Mayo Clinic.
Groups like the Knowledge Alliance (formerly NEKIA) have long fought to increase federal spending on education R&D.  And since the establishment of the Institute of Education Sciences six-plus years ago, we’ve seen greater attention focused on the research side of the R&D house.  In the last decade, we’ve made incredible progress in increasing the visibility of and the need for education R&D.  But we still have miles and miles to go before we can sleep.
Over the years, Eduflack has seen some truly incredible education R&D work, including the effective use of MRI scans to track a student’s literacy abilities.  For those who say that education is more art than science, all you need to do is check out an MRI as part of reading skills acquisition.  You can actually see brain activity change as students learn and gain proficiency.  It is absolutely incredible.
I recognize that reading instruction may be a little passé these days, so let’s look at topics such as teacher quality.  We have a wealth of research on the necessary components for effective teacher education programs.  It doesn’t matter if they are traditional or alternative routes, we know the skills, knowledge, and support that aspiring teachers need to be effective in the classroom.  So how do we take that research, continue to extend it, and apply it to current efforts to boost teacher quality and incentivize good teaching?  How do we ensure that research, a familiar topic in education, is actually connected with development, be it policy or instruction?
And equally important, how do we use the R&D process to ensure that those latest and greatest technologies are being effectively used in the classroom?  As I wrote earlier this week, EdWeek’s Kathleen Kennedy Manzo had an interesting piece on the use of interactive whiteboards in the classroom, and whether they actually improve learning.  So what does it take to move the research on how such technologies can improve both teaching and learning into the hands of those teachers and educators who receive the technology?  How do we use the R&D process to ensure that ed tech comes with the “manuals” necessary so that the end users can be most effective?
As part of its Top 10, ISTE (a group Eduflack has been fortunate to work with) is soliciting feedback from its members and other interested parties on how closely the ISTE list crosswalks with the concerns and needs of the field.  R&D has always been a tough sell to education practitioners.  They can see it as taking funds away from instruction or turning their classrooms into Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.  But at a time when we are asking more and more of our schools, when resources are at a premium, when it is demanded we innovate, and when the teaching and learning opportunities offered by new technologies have never been greater, education R&D has quickly become a non-negotiable.