Happy Anniversary, Me!

We pause from our regular missives on education agitation to take a moment to celebrate Eduflack’s anniversary.  It is hard for me to believe that we launched this blog three years ago.  At the time, I anticipated readership in the zero mark (not even my mother or my wife were regular readers in the early days).  I started Eduflack because I found the writing cathartic.  As originally envisioned, this blog was going to focus on how well we are communicating on key education issues.  As these pages have grown, we’ve also spent a lot of time talking about the policy and the research itself, trying to mix things up, pick fights, and spur some different thinking on the ideas on which we are so focused these days.

In that time, we’ve written close to 1,000 entries.  And, unfortunately for Eduflack readers, my posts are far longer than your average bear blog posts.  I’ll admit, I can be a little verbose, but I continue to try to provide content that is relevant to readers.  I’ve learned over the years that I really do have readers.  Sure, the blog statistics show me who is visiting and how that is increasing, but I am particularly surprised when I hear from real people that they read this site.  I know how much content is out there on the Web, so I take it very seriously when people say they read this stuff.  It puts the pressure on to continue to write, to continue to be relevant, and to continue to be of some sort of value.  You’ve definitely raised the stakes for me, and push me to do better.
That’s one of the reasons why we added the @Eduflack Twitter feed.  During a good week, I can turn out four or five essays on the education news of the day.  But there is much, much more that I wish I could write about.  So each day, I offer up 10-15 Tweets relaying those articles and studies that are catching my eye.  And the good think about the @Eduflack Twitter feed is it is relatively opinion free.  Just lots and lots of links to the issues and topics of importance to me and, hopefully, Eduflack readers.
As I reflect on the last three years, I have to both start and end with huge thanks to those readers and supporters out there.  Everyone who reads it.  Everyone who cites Eduflack or links back to it.  Those who comment on posts.  Those who send me story ideas or take issue with the story ideas I select.  This blog has value because of the ongoing input I receive.  Without such input I really am truly just writing for myself, and that does no one any good at this point.
But there are also a few important notes I would like to point out, based on some recent feedback, items that I believe are worth highlighting:
* Eduflack is not a journalist, and I sure hope I don’t try to portray myself as one.  I have a great deal of respect for journalists and for the ethics that govern their profession.  Real journalists are out there gathering the full story, interviewing parties on both side, and providing a balanced approach to a topic.  That isn’t my job.  At best, I am a commentator.  If you are looking for the news, there a number of sites I can and have directed people to for the best in education information.  I will link to many of those stories in my posts.  But Eduflack is not a journalist, despite the number of media releases that end up in my inbox each day.  I write opinion.  The point of this blog is to provide my critique and my analysis of the education issues of the day.
* That also means that I have a day job.  For the past dozen years, ever since I left Capitol Hill, I have spent most of my time as a consultant, working with a great number of organizations and individuals.  As a general rule, I have always tried NOT to write about my clients.  When I have, I have disclosed those relationships.  But obviously, what I write about is what I am focused on during the day.  The focus on RF came out of all the years I spent shepherding the National Reading Panel.  A recent focus on high school graduation rates and the achievement gap sprung from my work with the National Governors Association and its Honor States initiative.  So while I have always tried to disclose when I have a direct business interest in a post, it is safe to say I have an intellectual interest in everything I write.
* I am an amateur when it comes to research.  Over the past 10-plus years, I have been fortunate to work with a great number of education researchers, particularly those who fall into the non-squishy variety.  I have learned a great deal from them, and, from time to time, feel these wise individuals have provided me an informal graduate education in such research issues.  But whether it be my analysis or virtually anyone else’s analysis of the data, it is always best to trust, but verify.
* I don’t shy away from criticism.  I’m always surprised when folks want to engage in a lengthy debate on a topic with me, but take such debates and critiques offline and private.  I enjoy the public debate.  And I am more than willing to open up these pages to others who may want to take issue with a particular post or may have a different perspective.  If you want to take dear ole Eduflack on, just drop me a line and we can make it happen.
I look forward to another interesting and thought provoking Eduflack year.  We have RttT, common core standards, and i3 coming down the pike.  ESEA reauthorization is waiting.  And, perhaps more importantly, we are starting to move into a closer look at how these new federal actions are affecting our states and localities (particularly on the implementation side).  Lots to write about, lots to commentate on, lots to stir up the pot with.
Thanks, all, for making the past three years so much fun!  Here’s to another year (and hopefully more) of offering an intersection for education policy, research, and communications.

Taking the Pole Position on Race

Those Phase One Race to the Top finalists have now been announced.  As we all know by now, the 16 jurisdictions that will now vie for the honor of being the first three or four states to win a RttT grant include: Colorado, Delaware, Washington DC, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

For Eduflack, the only real surprise here is Washington, DC (which is a pleasant surprise).  The remaining 15 are all states that have been on most lists for some time.  While a few may be surprised by Illinois, those doubters should read the proposal.  It was one of the strongest in the pool.  And while some may question South Carolina, the state has been touting it has the best application in the pool.  So no major surprised there.

Now let’s take a look at some of the interesting facts.  Back in the summer, the Gates Foundation provided $250,000 grants to 15 states to help with the development of their Race grants.  Fourteen of those states submitted for Phase One (Texas was the holdout), and 10 of those 14 made the cut — Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.  And of the remaining six finalists, four of them received later assistance from Gates, after NGA and CCSSO urgings.  Only Delaware and South Carolina did the heavy lifting themselves.

The four Gates-funded states who didn’t make the cut?  Arkansas, Arizona, Minnesota, and New Mexico.  (Along with the Republic of Texas, of course.)

Only one of the 16 states — Colorado — is west of Mississippi.  That seems a bit surprising, but the scoring rubric didn’t take geography into account.  The South is particularly well represented, which some could see as a sign of the region’s willingness to embrace education reforms and others may see as the value of right to work states and weaker teachers’ unions/organizations.

And for you history buffs, eight of the original 13 colonies made the cut!  Condolences to New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia.

According to the US Department of Education, each of these states scored at least 80 percent — or 400 points — on the reviewer scores.  States will be coming to DC in a week and a half (without their consultants and outside proposal preparers) to orally defend their proposals.  And states will either gain or lose points based on the interview and swimsuit competitions.

If academic achievement is the name of the game, it is a surprising mix of states.  Looking at eighth grade NAEP reading performance (one of the best measures of actual student academic success), of the 16 finalists, only Massachusetts is in the Top 10 for eighth grade NAEP reading scores.  And only four of the states — Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Colorado — rank in the top 20.  Five of the finalists (Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Louisiana, and DC) are in the bottom quartile. 

While Eduflack has read his share of RttT applications, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on the nuance and the details (though I will continue to pretend to be to amaze people at forums and cocktail parties).  The finalists appear to be a strong mix of states with a good track record, states with a strong plan for the future, states that have made major legislative changes to qualify for RttT, and some states that really need the dollars.  But don’t take my word for it.  Check out what others are saying.

The US Department of Education’s formal announcement and supporting materials can be found here.  Politics K-12 has great analysis here, while Eduwonk weighs in here, Andy Smarick here, with Tom Vander Ark here.  Who else wants on the carousel of RttT fun?

Democratic Learning, With a Little D

As the battle lines continue to be drawn with regard to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), some continue to remind us that the discussion is more complex than it seems.  K-12 isn’t just about student achievement on math and reading exams, they contend, and true education improvement is about more than just accountability.

One such voice is Sam Chaltain, the national director of the Forum for Education and Democracy.  Reflecting on his past experiences as both a classroom educator and the founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, Chaltain recently released a new book offering a bit of a different framework for classroom instruction.  American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community serves as that call to arms.

Often, we see these sorts of books chock full of ideas, but with little practice or real life to back it up.  In American Schools, Chaltain offers up both the theory behind his reccs and specific practice where those ideas have already taken hold.  The theory is based on five basics organizational points — reflect, connect, create, equip, and let come.  He then offers some real classroom experiences in California, South Carolina, and New Hampshire where those common theoretical words are put to practice.

Over the weekend, The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss looked at American Schools vis-a-vis survey data on the Pledge of Allegiance and how well we are preparing our students to be productive citizens.  Such a discussion line becomes particularly interesting when we reflect on some of the proposed education budget “consolidations” being proposed this year, including specific programs focusing on civics and U.S. history. 

At a time when closing the achievement gap and boosting student achievement across the board is the name of the game, is there room in the debate for a more holistic look at K-12 education and an emphasis on the qualitative measures of classroom education?  Time will tell.  As budgets continued to get stretched and we continue to demand more and more of our classroom educators and our school leaders, it becomes harder and harder to add teaching democracy skills to the list of performance measures we expect to see coming out of our public schools.  But as we begin focusing on what it means to be “college and career ready,” perhaps it is a line of discussion we should be having as we talk about the knowledge and skills all students should possess to contribute to their community.

Regardless, some of the case studies, rubrics, and examples that Chaltain offers up in American Schools are worth a read (and may be worth showing to folks like U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Robert Byrd to remind then of the role civics and history can play in ESEA reauthorization). 

And for those in Washington, DC looking to engage Chaltain on the concept, he’ll be over at Busboys and Poets at 14th and V Streets NW in the District tonight at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the democratic learning premise.  Eduflack is sure Sam would be up for a good ole debate on the topic.

Mark Your Ed Reform Calendars

To paraphrase from edu-son’s favorite band, Black Eyed Peas, this week’s gonna be a good week … at least for those in the education reform community.  We have core standards, and RttT, and ESEA, oh my!

According to Education Daily, National Governors Association officials are now saying that the much-anticipated draft K-12 common core standards (reading and math) will be released next week.  Assuming protocols hold, we’ll all then have 30 days to respond, react, and critique under the public comment period.  It seems NGA and the Council of Chief State School Officers is still working toward finalization of the K-12 and college/career ready standards by June, so that states can adopt them by July (as called for under Race to the Top).

And speaking of the great Race, EdWeek’s Michele McNeil is reporting at the Politics K-12 blog that Phase One RttT finalists will be announced Thursday, March 4 (that’s tomorrow, folks) at 11:30 a.m.  The list of nominees will be announced online by ED’s communications office.  Those finalists will then be coming to DC to put on a nice little Ides of March show for the judges, with initial awards slated to come before we’ve played a full month of baseball.

Of course, this AM EdSec Arne Duncan is slated to testify before U.S. Rep. George Miller’s House Education and the Workforce Committee.  The session will focus on the President’s budget and ESEA, with some believing today’s hearing may not be the love-fest that the EdSec has enjoyed on the Hill to date.  The House Ed Committee is always great about getting testimony and webcast of the hearing up quick, so if you aren’t in DC, be sure to check it out later here

For those keeping score, it looks like U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin and the Senate HELP Committee are starting to get in the mix on ESEA reauthorization as well.  Harkin has slated the Senate’s first hearing on reauthorization for next Tuesday, March 9, at 2 p.m.  No word on who will testify or the specific topics yet.  Regardless, it sounds like we are going to be getting a lot of ed reform talk to start churning through again!

Race Prognostications

Even those who pay modest attention to national education reform issues realize that, this week, the U.S. Department of Education is slated to reveal it list of finalists for Phase One Race to the Top recipients.  Once the double-secret, blue ribbon, expert RttT review panel names the states on its list, each jurisdiction will be scheduling flights to the nation’s capital to defend their Race “dissertations” and make clear to judges and ED officials why they are best positioned to earn the title of Race to the Top state.

In recent days, we’ve had some top-notch analyses of which states may make the final cut.  Tom Carroll has a terrific analysis over here at City Journal, where he awards the top three slots to Florida, Louisiana, and Tennessee (naming them very competitive).  He then has four states — Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, and Michigan — as competitive.  Give or take another mid-sized or two small states, that would serve as Carroll’s handicapping of how the $4 billion in initial RttT moneys will be spent.

Over at EdWeek’s Politics K-12, Michele McNeil and Lesli Maxwell have teamed up here to provide a March Madness-style bracket of the RttT competition.  They winnow it down to five winners — Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Tennessee.  Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Minnesota, and Rhode Island just miss McNeil and Maxwell’s bracketology victory. 

Most seem to agree that Florida, Louisiana, and Tennessee are locks for RttT, most likely in Phase One this spring but in Phase Two for sure.  But we can’t just give RttT grants to states in the Southeast (and these frontrunners could make life difficult for states like Georgia and North Carolina).  So how does the rest of the field play out?

Eduflack was pleasantly surprised to see Politics K-12 give Illinois the nod.  Personally, I thought the Land of Lincoln wrote an incredibly impressive proposal, more thoughtful than most expected.  While they could get caught up in the politics of the grant (it wasn’t so long ago that Florida was denied an initial Reading First grant because we couldn’t possibly give the first RF check to the President’s brother), one would like to believe that 100 percent of the RttT decisionmaking is being made on merit and strength of plan, not on such political considerations.

And as I’ve raised with Carroll, I agree that Michigan has put forward a strong plan for what it will do in the future should it win a grant.  But we can’t forget that 52 percent of a RttT proposal score is supposed to be based on past performance.  So states like Michigan (along with Delaware and Rhode Island to lesser degrees) may get dinged on their success to date scores. 

On the flip side, it seems that more than a handful of those who should be in the know believe that Colorado’s proposal wasn’t as strong as the rhetoric surrounding it.  Personally, I thought it was a strong proposal, but doesn’t knock any socks off.

If Eduflack were headed out to Vegas this week to put my money on the RttT field, my “can’t miss, take this to the bank” locks, as of March 1, would be Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and Tennessee.  Depending on the states that make it to the swimsuit competitions in DC, I could see Pennsylvania taking Ohio’s place.  Colorado is a likely Phase Two.  I also expect another Tier One state (either California or New York) taking home the prize.  Then I could see Delaware, Michigan, or Rhode Island (with my money on Deborah Gist and RI getting the nod if they can overcome the union implications of firing an entire high school) winning for the best of intentions.

Barring any real surprises in the interview stage, I’m going with California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee, and Rhode Island.  How does that fare against the $4 billion pool?  Cali and Florida will account for $1.4 billion.  Ohio picks up $400 million.  Indiana and Tennessee get $200 million apiece.  Colorado and Louisiana split $300 million.  Rhode Island gets $50 million.  That’s $2.55 billion on the first eight states.

For months now, I’ve been saying that there are likely only six to eight states that will cut the muster and earn RttT designation.  But we aren’t going to leave $1.45 billion on the table, particularly when the U.S. Department of Education is asking for Phase Three RttT dollars in the FY2011 federal budget.  So I’d disperse the remainder as follows: New York ($500 million), Illinois ($200 million), Georgia ($200 million), Arizona ($150 million), Kentucky ($100 million), Minnesota ($75 million).  That leaves us with $200 million in the wallet to be split between Delaware, New Mexico, West Virginia, and possibly DC.

We’ll see how the first cut comes this week.  Our finalists will be the most likely winners.  The remaining states will take the time to regroup to put forward a stronger application for Phase Two.  McNeil and Maxwell are right.  Who needs NCAA March Madness when we have RttT?  Too bad they won’t be televising the finalists’ interviews.