Standing and Delivering

Yesterday, the education community received some sad news out of Los Angeles.  Jaime Escalante, the famed calculus teacher depicted in the 1988 movie “Stand and Deliver,” passed away. 

Eduflack assumes that just about everyone in education policy has seen this movie, and knows the story of what “Kimo” was able to do for the students of Garfield High School.  The tale is actually quite remarkable, and is incredibly told in WaPo’s Jay Mathews book, “Escalante: The Best Teacher in America.”

Escalante’s story is about more than just getting a group of students, previously given up on by just about every corner of public education, to succeed on one of the hardest tests (AP Calculus) that high school student can take.  In many ways, Escalante embodies many of the issues we face today.  He was a mid-career transition teacher, giving up a corporate career to follow his passion for teaching.  He demonstrated that it is possible to close the achievement gap, and it is possible by pushing students harder and accepting no excuses.  The cinematic version of his tale forced many to better understand the issues of cheating on standardized exams and what sends up red flags.  And Escalante was a textbook example of what is possible with an effective, passionate, and skilled teacher leading a classroom.

The Los Angeles Times has the full story here

For more than two decades, many have said we need more Jaime Escalantes in our classrooms.  Eduflack couldn’t agree more.

And the Winners Are …

The rubrics have been analyzed, the numbers have been tallied, and it looks like we finally have our Phase One Race to the Top winners.  While the announcement goes official later this afternoon, the early reports this morning seem to confirm that Delaware and Tennessee are the only states that will walk away with Phase One RttT checks.  Michele McNeil over at Politics K-12 has some of the initial breakdown here

For the record, both Delaware and Tennessee had good applications.  But these selections are going to surprise a lot of people, particularly as we wait for the wonks to truly dissect the 500-point scorecards for each state.  Eduflack has long thought that Tennessee had one of the best applications in the pool, but I thought it was just a notch behind Florida and Louisiana (in fairness, I actually thought Illinois had the best app I read, but knew that couldn’t win for a host of reasons), and it would be tough to award three grants to three states in the same region.  So I long believed Tennessee would be a slam dunk for Phase Two.

As for Delaware, it had a lot of positives going for it, perhaps the greatest of which was it was a small state that we expect can move quickly to enact wholesale school reform across the entire state.  It is important to note, however, that Delaware was one of only two of the 16 finalists NOT to have financial support from the Gates Foundation.  So message sent.

So what does it all mean?  First and foremost, the U.S. Department of Education is sending a clear message — “game on!”  Of the $4 billion available in RttT, there is still now $3.725 billion remaining in the pot.  That’s a lot of money for Phase Two, and will require a great deal of scrambling from states over the next two months.  Those who failed to make the cut have been working for the last month on their new apps.  Now the remaining 14 finalists have to ramp back up their proposal teams to get back on the horse. 

ED also selected two states that will be difficult for other states to replicate.  There are few, if any, states that have the political climate, education changes, and philanthropic dollars coming in as Tennessee does.  And when you look at states in the Volunteer State’s price range, almost none can take the Tennessee application, run a search and replace, and submit it as their own.

The same is true in Delaware, where the size and demographics make it unique.  Couple in charter schools being run through the state office and other factors, and few will copy.  After all, it is not like Rhode Island is going to now crib from Delaware.

This afternoon, I expect officials from ED to send us some clear messages.  “We have always told you this would be highly competitive.”  “Only the best of the best applications will win.”  “No one should expect they are entitled.”  “Politics played no official role here.”  “We have now set the bar higher for every Phase Two applicant.”  And so on and so on.

And what about the other front runners?  Eduflack still expected both Florida and Louisiana to win a RttT grant.  If I was a betting man (and clearly I should stay away from the racetracks these days), I would say Florida didn’t win because of the weak support from the state’s teachers’ unions.  And the cynic in me says some may not have wanted Florida to win $700 million before the Republican U.S. Senate primary is completed.  In Louisiana, the opposition from state school boards likely hurt, as did the fact the state has so much happening, but is still trying to assemble the proof points to demonstrate what is working.

The big question now is whether ED will spend the full $4 billion by September 30 or not.  Even if you award every other Phase One winner a grant in Phase Two, there will still be money remaining in the pot.  So will it all go out, or will it be reconstituted before the end of the budget year?

Regardless, congrats to both Delaware and Tennessee.  You put together strong applications and have taken some real steps toward education improvement.  Now all eyes will be on you.  And, fair or not, we all expect to see results within a year. 

UPDATE — ED has now made it official, before noon EDT.  One important note in the official announcement.  ED states that Delaware will win $100 million, and Tennessee walks away with $500 million.  That means that the award ranges, released by ED back in November, may now be removed.  Delaware was supposed to only receive up to $75 million, so it gets a 33 percent bump.  And Tennessee doubling its $250 million supposed cap.  Does that mean we may see a $1 billion winner in Phase Two?

Heading into Race’s Phase One Homestretch

According to the good folks over at Politics K-12, the U.S. Department of Education intends to announce its Race to the Top Phase One winners on Monday afternoon.  If you will recall, 16 states — Colorado, Delaware, DC, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Tennessee — made the cut as finalists.  All were asked to show their wares before the RttT reviewer panel in DC last week.  

No one has indicated how many states will win in Phase One, but EdSec Arne Duncan and many others have indicated that very few will be winning this time around.  Personally, Eduflack has long expected to see three win in Phase One, meaning 13 of the remaining candidates go away disappointed, hoping they have enough time to amend their applications before the Phase Two deadline in June.
So who will win?  That becomes the four-billion-dollar question.  After reviewing the state RttT applications and consuming much of the analysis of the same, dear ole Eduflack does have a few thoughts:
* Most in Need — If we are awarding based on need, New York and Ohio would walk away the big winners, demonstrating the most tangible need for these funds just to keep their public schools afloat
* The Darlings of Reformers — If the ed reform community had its way, we’d likely see grants headed to DC, Louisiana, and Rhode Island, with Colorado and Tennessee fighting for a possible fourth slot
* The Unions’ Choice — If NEA and AFT had their way, we’d see wins for Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania
* Gates’ Choice — If the Gates Foundation has its say, it should be happy with most winning, although it is important to note that Gates did NOT provide support to either Delaware or South Carolina.  
* Based on a Strict Read — Based solely on the content of one’s RttT application, Eduflack would chalk up wins for Florida, Illinois, and Rhode Island.  But we all know that there is more to this than what was written on those hundreds of pages of paper each state submitted.  And while I loved their app, I don’t think Illinois can win round one for political reasons.
So where does that leave us?  Come Monday, Eduflack expects to see Florida and Louisiana in the winners’ circle. And that may be it.  I like Tennessee, but don’t think three states from the southern region can practically win.  So if I am looking to make that duo a trio, I’d add Rhode Island (based on massive actions to date and the probability of significant movement in a small state) or Massachusetts (because we need to acknowledge the hard work some states do with regard to standards, assessments, and data systems).
Florida, Louisiana, and either Rhode Island or Massachusetts.  That’s where Eduflack is for RttT Phase One prognostication.

A College Degree for Every Child?

By now, most in national education policy circles realize we are transitioning from the era of AYP to the era of college/career ready.  Instead of using middle school reading and math proficiency as our yardstick, we will soon be using the college- and career-ready common core standards to determine if states, districts, and schools are truly making progress toward student achievement.

Over at National Journal’s Education Experts Blog, they’ve been spending the week discussing EdSec Arne Duncan’s Blueprint for ESEA Reauthorization.  Lots of interesting opinion here, from Sandy Kress’ significant disappointment to Michael Lomax’ support to real concerns about the “5 percent rule” to a general feeling that lack of details is a good thing in planning legislative policy.

But this morning, your NJ ring leader Eliza Kligman broke a bit from protocol and posted an anonymous comment from a reader in South Carolina.  (For those who don’t realize the participant list for the Education Experts Blog is a virtual who’s who.  There are MANY in the chattering class who desperately want to be added to the list, but haven’t yet.  And to focus on these experts, National Journal doesn’t allow readers to post comments to the blog.  A general concept that usually means the kiss of death for a blog, but seems to work for National Journal.)

But I digress.  This reader raised an important question with regard to the next generation of ESEA and our intent of getting every child in the United States “college ready.”  In fact, the comment is a little more pointed, with the reader stating, “if everyone is highly technically trained or college educated who is going to check out my groceries, cut down the dead tree in my back yard, tow my car when it breaks down, or take my money when I buy gas at the convenience store?  If you think the illegal alien problem is bad now, just wait until all of us middle class soon-to-be-elderly are told we have to pay highly skilled wages tot he guy who cuts our grass.”

While SC is mixing and matching a wide range of policy issues that shouldn’t be joined together (such as who is worthy of earning highly skilled wages and the immigration issue), he does start to touch on an interesting point.  But Eduflack would ask a more important question — does being college ready mean that every student should actually attend college?

In today’s global economy, just about everyone who holds a full-time job likely needs the sort of knowledge and skills that would be deemed “college- and career-ready.”  That guy fixing his car is most likely ASE certified and needs to be well versed in computers, math, and other subjects to successfully repair what are now four-wheeled computers with AC and a killer sound system.  The guy cutting the tree now needs to know ecology and life sciences and hopefully some math to generate accurate invoices.  And regardless of the job, we want everyone to be literate with some level of social skill.  So the fear expressed by SC and many, many others is a bit of a straw man.

It opens the larger question, though.  As a nation, though, we have set a national goal to have the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by the year 2020.  Why?  Is it more important for someone to hold a diploma or a good-paying job?  What is the measure of a successful nation?  A strong economy?  A robust workforce?  Or the total worth of outstanding student loans?

I don’t mean to be negative here, but Eduflack has long believed we are selling students a bill of goods by telling them everyone should go to college.  First off, when we say college, most mean four-year degrees (and that’s even how that national goal is being measured).  But what about the knowledge and skills that are earned through community college programs and career and technical education programs?   What about military service, where four years of Army training may be far more beneficial than a BA in the liberal arts?  What about those whose passion is pursuing a trade, or the true entrepreneurs who are itching to open a business and pursue their passion?  Are all of those pursuits worth less because they don’t come attached to a four-year degree?

When Eduflack got into this discussion a few years ago, it generated an ongoing offline debate with a liberal arts professor from a college in the Pacific Northwest.  He regularly called me a complete idiot, saying I completely missed the point.  The role of college, he would say, is not to prepare kids for career, it was to broaden their minds and open them up to new experiences.

The ESEA Blueprint is correct is seeking to ensure that all those who graduate from U.S. high schools are ready for either college or career.  But we need to have a much deeper discussion of who should go to college, why they should pursue postsecondary education, and what the expected return on investment is for such a pursuit.  In an era where an aspiring college student can drop more than $200,000 to earn a BA from a private liberal arts institution, ROI becomes an important topic — for lenders, potential employers, and the students themselves.

Firing Teachers … or Improving Teaching?

In Rhode Island, they fired an entire high school of teachers because of poor student test scores and a perceived unwillingness to change.  In Florida, the legislature is now moving forward with plans to eliminate job security for teachers, essentially putting them on year-to-year contracts.  Center for American Progress researchers are writing about the need to fire bad teachers if we are to improve public education.  And officials at The New Teacher Project and Education Trust are calling for an end to last hired, first fired and an collective wave bu-bye to poor teachers in California. 

And earlier this year, riding the wave of Race to the Top and the U.S. Department of Education’s four education improvement pillars, even the American Federation of Teachers got into the discussion, advocating for greater adoption of teacher performance measures (albeit at a much less high-stakes way than CAP, TNTP, or EdTrust may call for).

Teacher quality is quickly become issue (and public enemy) number one in education reform debates.  For decades now, we have said that teachers are the most important component to school success.  You couldn’t work around the teachers if you wanted to bring about real change.  One needs the buy-in from educators to adopt real reforms.  All the curriculum, technology, and turnaround plans in the world will do no good if the teachers don’t embrace them and implement them with fidelity.

So as we continue to look at stagnant test scores (at least, according to yet another round of NAEP results), it is no surprise that those looking to make real changes to how K-12 education operates — and the results it generates — are focusing on teachers as either the catalyst or the roadblock to our potential success.  Schools that improve point to teachers (both traditional veterans and the ever-popular TFAers) as a major reason for their success.  Those who continue to struggle, those who fail to meet AYP now and will fail to meet AYP’s successor tomorrow often blame it on the status quo, with a capital S and a capital Q boldly displayed on the chest of a status quo teacher.

Eduflack often says that teaching is one of the most difficult jobs out there.  It is a job I don’t believe I am capable of doing well.  And there are a number of people leading our classrooms that likely should not, whether it be for lack of knowledge or pedagogy, a failure to relate to the kids, or a missing passion or educate.

But should we really be looking to fire all of the teachers who can’t get test scores up on one, three, or even five years?  Do we terminate the contracts of all teachers whose classes can’t make AYP for two years in a row?  And what about those years when educators are simply teaching a class full of rocks in a given year, do they only go on double secret probation then?  

I agree with CAP, TNTP, EdTrust, and many others that we need to do a much better job of those teachers who are struggling in the classroom.  We need to gather data on why they are struggling, determining if it is a failure of the system, the school, or the teacher.  We need to better understand the conditions and supports necessary for effective teaching, particularly with historically disadvantaged populations.  And we need to put all of that data and observation to use for us NOW.

But rather than looking to swiftly dismiss “bad” teachers, shouldn’t we first try to improve teaching?  Use the data to partner leader and laggard teachers to improve practice across the board.  Provide improved PD and supports to struggling teachers.  Put our best teachers in the schools and classes with the most need.  Give all teachers the chance to demonstrate they have the skills, the relatability, and the passion necessary to succeed in the classroom.  And then, when those teachers have been given all of the necessary pieces and still fail to clear the bar, do we look to clear the classroom and start new.

In professional sports, we often see the negative impact a succession of new coaches can have on a team and even on star players.  It is tough to learn a new system and a new teacher again, again, and again.  Those athletes who do the best usually come from systems that have stability and longevity.  Why wouldn’t the same be true of students?  Is it better to introduce a new cast of school characters year after year, signaling that students simply aren’t making the cut, or is better do invest in the team on the field, and improve the quality of play on the field?


Bracketology, through an Academic Performance Lens

This week marks the second greatest annual sporting experience — March Madness (Eduflack is still a purist and believes nothing can hold a candle to baseball’s Opening Day).  Later this week, 65 of the supposed best Division One men’s basketball teams will square off to see which is the best (or the luckiest) basketball team of the year.  And then, on my birthday this year, we will crown a national champion.

The top four seeds are the top teams we typically expect to see — Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, and Syracuse, with Kansas designated the number one number one.  As in most years, we see lots of teams from the major conferences, and a good mix of mid-major programs that have done their institutions proud on the hardwoods.

The annual brackets often lead some to begin discussing athletics versus academics at Division One colleges and universities.  Those who follow men’s college basketball (it is very different for women’s college basketball) are no fools.  We realize that the majority of players, particularly those who start, will never earn that sheepskin from the IHE providing them with a free, four-year ride to a top college.  Many play a year or two, then seek their fortunes in either the NBA.  Those who can’t make the NBA cut will often head to overseas leagues, hoping it will provide them a pathway back to the NBA.  And many will fail to take advantage of the opportunities that scholarship can provide, particularly in the face of the realities of how few college ballers actually make it to play professionally with LeBron, Kobe, and company.

For the fifth year in a row, the good folks over at Inside Higher Education offer up their “Academic Performance Tournament,” a similarly bracketed tourney that looks at how those teams playing for that “one shining moment” on April 5 would fair if they were judged based on the NCAA’s Academic Performance Rate (that looks at academic standing and simply staying enrolled in school) instead of just the number of points one can put up during a game.  And the results are always fun to look at.

Sometimes, we do see the actual winner match up with the academic winner.  It happened last year when the University of North Carolina won.  But this year’s Academic Dance offers up some great upsets.  Ohio U over Georgetown.  Vermont over Syracuse (which has actually happened in the Tourney before).  North Texas over Kansas State.  Cornell over Temple.  Montana over New Mexico.  Siena over Purdue.

IHE offers its Final Four as Kansas, Duke, Texas, and BYU, with Kansas winning it all on April 5.  Syracuse loses its first game.  Number one seed Kentucky doesn’t make it into the round of 16.  But IHE still sides with chalk, choosing the number one number one seed to win it all, a real possibility both academically and athletically.

The folks at IHE use the NCAA Graduation Success Rate to break ties.  Eduflack wonders what the brackets would look like if we picked winners based solely on their ability to graduate the players they enroll as “student-athletes.”  The results would likely be shocking.

UPDATE: ESPN is also reporting a new report provided by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, which focuses on the graduation gap between white and black players on the 65 teams found in the bracket.  According to the Institute, 45 teams graduated 70 percent or more of their white players, but only 20 teams could hit the same mark for their black student-athletes.  The study used graduation success rates, looking at six-year grad rates for freshmen.


Swingin’ for the ESEA Fences

In yesterday’s initial analysis of the US Department of Education’s ESEA reauthorization blueprint, I noted I was “whelmed” by the plan as a whole.  (And for the record, I am a strong proponent of using the word whelmed.  If I can be overwhelmed and underwhelmed, I certainly can be whelmed.  It’s not like having to choose between North and South Dakota.)  Since then, I’ve received a number of questions as to why, particularly since so many people seem to see this as a strong step forward in improving No Child Left Behind.

My biggest issue with the blueprint is there is no big, stinkin’, knock-you-off your-seat big idea offered.  When we were introduced to the wonderful world of NCLB a little over nine years ago (can we all believe it has been that long?), we were immediately embraced by some huge ideas that almost immediately changed the education policy landscape.  Before the ink was even dry on the legislative drafts, we all knew what Annual Yearly Progress was (and the potential dangers it offered).  The term “scientifically based research” was quickly added to the vocabulary of wonk and practitioner alike.  And Reading First was a new program where the Administration was putting their proverbial money where their mouths were.  These were all but twinkles in Sandy’s, Margaret’s BethAnn’s, and Reid’s eyes before the reauthorization process began.

But this time around, we have no great new big idea YET.  Part of the problem is that the Duncan regime has been hard at work on ed policy for the past 14 or 15 months, moving ideas well before they moved this blueprint for ESEA reauthorization.  So what were once big ideas — Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, common core standards — are now ingrained as part of the ed reform status quo these days.  We are looking to codify that which we have debated for more than a year now.  We expected all of that in this blueprint, thus it is hardly something designed to knock us off our barstools.

The teacher quality component, which could have provided some real fodder for a sock-knocking idea, seems to be a finetuning and improving over NCLB’s Highly Qualified Teacher effort, former EdSec Margaret Spellings’ Teacher Incentive Fund, and the teacher requirements included in RttT.  Even in addressing the persistent problem with low-performing schools, this blueprint simply evolves from NCLB’s two-tiered evaluation with a new three-tiered system, as reported here by Greg Toppo.  And while that extra tier may really help at addressing those 5,000 lowest-performing schools, it hardly wins hearts and minds.

To be fair, Eduflack realizes you don’t always need some new shiny toy or a jaw-dropping new idea to move forward solid legislation.  In fact, in a perfect world, I would hope we’d never need such gimmicks.  But with short attention spans and even shorter understanding curves, one often needs that hook, that big idea, to help gain attention and start winning over the necessary converts.  When ESEA was reauthorized back in 2001 (and signed into law in early 2002), we not only gave it a new name (NCLB ), but we offered some new ideas and programs to show this was not your father’s version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Working from the existing blueprint, Eduflack sees a few potentials for both some smallball ideas as well as some bases-clearing longballs.  What am I thinking?

* Immediately include strong pieces of congressional legislation in the plan.  I’m thinking things like U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s (WA) LEARN Act focused on K-12 reading instruction, Chairman George Miller’s (CA) plan for high school improvement, or even the recent legislation offered by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (RI) and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (CO) establishing a federal definition for teacher professional development.

* Get personal on teacher quality.  Teacher quality is now clearly a central point of the debate, with even Obama calling out the teacher education sector for not living up to expectations.  So let’s get personal here.  As part of your data system work, ensure that we are able to track teachers (both leaders and laggards) back to their originating program, be it a college of education or an alt cert program.  Then be prepared to name names when it comes to those institutions that are not delivering the long-term results sought under the new law. 

* Invest in parents.  The day after Obama was elected, Eduflack opined that the EdSec should establish a family engagement office (at the assistant secretary level) so that the Administration could focus on the role of families in school improvement.  To date, the Administration has talked a good game.  But with the pending elimination of Parent Information Resource Center (PIRC) grants, there is a gaping hole for engaging families.  NCLB tried to do this, with mixed results.  Building off of the Obama campaign’s success in 2008 and recent activities around healthcare reform, one can build a strong, effective multi-touch effort to really involve parents and families in school turnaround and improvement efforts.

* Kill the bubble sheet.  Under ESEA reauthorization, this administration has the power to do away with the dreaded “bubble sheet test.”  Proudly proclaim that new assessments coming out of common core standards will be required to be smart computer-based exams.  Bring testing into the 21st century while allowing for a more-comprehensive assessment than can be captured by guessing which one of five bubbles may be the most correct.

* Require online learning.  I applaud the commitment to improving high schools and working to boost graduation rates.  Let’s add a little 21st century relevancy here.  Learning from states like Florida and Alabama, let’s require that, by 2020, every student in the United States must take at least one virtual course in order to graduate from high school.  Not only does it introduce more relevant coursework into the classroom, it clearly promotes that learning happens beyond what happens between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. behind the traditional schoolhouse doors.

Those are just five ideas to get the discussion started.  The legislative pieces could be endorsed by EdSec Duncan during Wednesday’s hearings.  Teacher quality could be done this summer when NCATE’s anticipated report is released.  A Family Engagement Office could be started immediately.  And killing the bubble sheet and folding virtual education into state requirements can be done now as stimulus money is used to invest in a range of ed reform ideas.  Regardless, we should be taking this opportunity to continue to move forward big, bold thoughts.  Real ed improvement can’t be limited by those ideas moved during year one.  Not to mix my sports metaphors, but this game goes at least four quarters.  We need to maximize all opportunities.