What Are We “Waiting” For?

This is one of those weeks that will just be abuzz with talk of education and school improvement.  The much-anticipated documentary, Waiting for Superman, is finally out in theaters, drawing good reviews and real attention from a wide range of stakeholders.  And yesterday, NBC kicked off its Education Nation effort, as it tries to leverage all of its television properties and sponsorships to provide a week of education-apalooza.

Both of these are interesting events, but they raise even more interesting questions.  Will Waiting for Superman play in Middle America?  Will Superman’s buzz continue after the reviews are done with?  Will NBC continue to focus on education issues after the week-long fest is completed?  And most importantly, what comes next?

Don’t get me wrong, both Superman and Education Nation play important roles in raising public awareness of education reform issues.  The buzz around the movie will undoubtedly draw in more than just the typical Kool-Aid drinkers.  And NBC’s commitment of airtime will be hard to avoid (though not entirely impossible).  But then what?  What happens once these two “events” are completed?  

One of the biggest challenges in education communications is moving from awareness to action.  It is (relatively) easy to share information and disseminate the latest news.  It is far more difficult to take that information sharing and transform it into a sense of urgency that generates specific activities and measureable outcomes.  

Superman’s producers are encouraging viewers to “take action” and “join the debate.”  But once you’ve submitted your contact information or sent a form letter to a policymaker, what comes next?  If we buy the movie’s premise and agree that our public schools are a scourge on this nation, what specifically can we do fix the problem?  It is easy to cast blame, but much harder to move solutions forward.  We need questions to ask teachers, principals, and politicians.  We need specific asks, be they operational or instructional, that we should demand in our schools.  And we the yardsticks to measure progress in our schools.

What comes next is an even more difficult question for NBC.  Right now, Education Nation is focused on the current week.  It’s about the Summit and the Teacher Town Hall and building on yesterday’s Meet the Press segment.  But after

Brookings declared that only 1.4 percent of national news is focused on education, is NBC committed to up its game?  Once the week has wrapped up and the Learning Plaza has been shuttered, will NBC provide an education news story on every NBC Nightly News?  Will we see a weekly segment?  Or will we simply move on to the next “big” idea?

I don’t mean to rain on the edu-parade, but we have seen far too many times efforts that stir up the hornets’ nests and point out the problems and failures of our public schools.  Unfortunately, we don’t get much talk of solutions and work plans coming out of that finger pointing.  As a result, the problems we talk about today are the same problems we talked about a decade ago and we talked about three decades ago. 

Waiting for Superman and Education Nation serve as two potentially valuable levers for school improvement.  The challenge before us is how we take advantage of the opportunity and take some real forward steps as a result of it. Otherwise, it is just another opportunity squandered as student achievement remains stagnant and the achievement gap remains a major concern.
   

Wither DCPS?

It doesn’t get more definitive than this.  After calling Vincent Gray’s DC mayoral win on Tuesday “devastating for the schoolchildren of Washington, DC,” DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has all but announced she will resign as head of our nation’s capital’s public schools (and likely be gone well before the end of the this academic year).  

So what comes next for a school district that seems to change superintendents as frequently as some kids change their underwear?  Yet another schools chief is likely to roll into town (and it could be a retread of someone who has already been in DC), offering yet another approach to school improvement, spending the next few years rearranging the deck chairs.

In a front page story in today’s Washington Post, Bill Turque offers up four possible successors to Rhee.  Two would offer us our Back to the Future moment, with the possibility of either current Detroit education czar Robert Bobb or outgoing Newark (NJ) superintendent Cliff Janey returning to DC.  Also on Turque’s short list, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the current academic chief in Detroit, or Deborah Gist, current Rhode Island education commissioner and former DC state supe.

For the record, Eduflack loves Gist.  What she has done in Rhode Island this past year is nothing short of remarkable.  She’s completely overhauled the way the state approaches public education — from instruction to teacher quality to data and all points in between.  Gist guided the state to a big Race to the Top win a few weeks ago.  Yes, she is facing a new governor come January (and possibly one who has not endorsed the RttT plan), but if she decides to leave Providence, I’m hoping it is to bring her vision to another state in need of forward movement and real improvement. 

Janey may be a good man and a fine superintendent, but bringing him back to DC sends the wrong message on the direction of DCPS.  Make no mistake, Janey deserves some of the credit for the student test score gains enjoyed under Rhee.  And yes, he has a lot of friends here (including the incoming mayor and the teachers’ union).  But for those looking closely at DC’s next K-12 move, Janey reflects, rhetorically, a step backward, not a step forward.  It may be an unfair characterization, but how can we say DC schools are better off going where they were five years ago?

That leaves us with the two candidates from the Motor City left on Turque’s short list.  First things first, Detroit needs to name one of these two its superintendent … and fast.  Bobb has done remarkable things in Detroit under very difficult circumstances.  And in a desire to bring improvement, he has been open to just about any good idea in the city.  He needs to be given time to see those ideas through, and he needs to be given the full authority over both finances and instruction a real superintendent deserves.  So it Detroit is forced to pick, and either Bobb or Byrd-Bennett would be strong choices, does DC really want to settle for the candidate Detroit didn’t want?

So where does that leave us?  Over the last few days, the future of DCPS has focused on the traditional.  Eduflack has heard names like Rudy Crew (formerly of NYC and Miami-Dade), Arlene Ackerman (currently of Philly and formerly of San Fran and DC), and others who seem to take the tour of the great urban schools circuit.  But is that what DC needs?  Is DC simply looking for a steady hand who understands the job of superintendent, or does it need someone who will think differently and not know what isn’t allowed?

After the Rhee experiment, Tuesday’s victorious parties are not going to be in any mood to find another outside-the-box candidate.  As much as a district like DC would benefit from a leader like Rhee or NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, that just isn’t in the cards.  We are likely looking for candidates who are all too familiar with the urban supe musical chairs game.  It makes for an easy decision for Gray and company, but it may not be the best thing for DC’s school children.

So who will it be?  Janey?  Crew?  Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall?  Out west, the biggest supe search is currently Clark County, NV, or the Las Vegas Schools.  Yesterday, they named their three finalists — Colorado Education Commissioner Dwight Jones, Dallas ISD Superintenden Michael Hinojosa, and Lee County (FL) Supe James Browder.  Do we get one of the two that fail to hit it big in Sin City?  Only time will tell …

Student Achievement, Data, and ROI

I generally try to separate my professional life (as often reflected on the musings and postings of Eduflack) from my civic life (namely my service as Vice Chair of my local school board).  But sometimes, it is impossible for the two sides not to meet in the middle and buy the other a beer.

Today marks one of the chance encounters.  In today’s Falls Church News-Press (the newspaper of record for the City of Falls Church, my hometown), I have a commentary detailing our school division’s commitment to world-class schools, student achievement, data collection, and measurement

As you’d expect from dear ol’ Eduflack, I emphasize the importance of research, particularly in showing local government and voters that they are getting return on their education investment.  But just as we hold our students and teachers accountable, I’m hoping that folks will hold the school board accountable for what we are promising to deliver.

Eliminate the US Department of Education?

Do we need the US Department of Education?  This seems to be a question that comes up every decade or so, ever since President Jimmy Carter made ED its own free-standing cabinet agency. 

Many in the Reagan Administration considered tearing down their own Ed Department, somehow believing it violated the basic tenets of conservatism and local control.  In the mid-1990s, after the Contract with America and Newt Gingrich’s brilliant 1994 mid-term election campaign, Republican congressional leaders made it a rallying cry during the government shutdowns of 1995 and the elections of 1996.

Personally, I thought the issue was over following the passage of No Child Left Behind.  Prior to 2001, education was a decidedly Democratic issue.  Dems were pro-education (as shown by their strong support from the unions), Republicans were anti-education.  President George W. Bush took that away, almost de-politicizing the issue.  Despite what we want to believe now, NCLB was bi-partisan.  We showed that Republicans could care about education issues, and could be equally pro-education and pro-child.  And we demonstrated that Republicans and Democrats could agree (in general) on core issues such as school improvement.

Now, the question is back.  By now, we are all aware of the impact the Tea Party is having on American politics.  We have seen many a “sure thing” Republican fall in this year’s primary elections, with the most recent being U.S. Rep. Mike Castle in his bid to be the next U.S. Senator from Delaware.  Most attribute the Tea Party with simply being anti-Obama.  Against the stimulus spending.  Against healthcare reform.  Against big government.  Against career politicians.  Against business as usual.  (And for some, against common sense.)

But while there is no official “platform” for Tea Party candidates (they are all Republicans, after all), talk of eliminating the U.S. Department of Education has been trickling in to the campaign rhetoric.  Christine O’Donnell, Delaware’s Republican Senate nominee, is the latest to be tagged with the “torpedo ED” language.  True or no, the label has been attached.

So it has got Eduflack thinking.  Who, exactly, is coming up with the idea that the key to winning a U.S. House or Senate seat is calling for the dismantlement of the LBJ Building on Maryland Avenue?  Are there that many folks who are riled up about the Office of Civil Rights and its commitment to an equitable education?  Lines of people opposed to a national commitment to elementary and secondary education?  Torches and pitchforks coming for Title I funding or the administration of student loans?

Year after year, we see that education does NOT serve as a voting issue for national elections.  So why target ED?  Surely there are other cabinet agencies that are better targets for campaign tales of “waste” or “federalism?”  Why don’t we hear a call to eleminate the US Department of Agriculture or Commerce?  

Make no mistake, the US Department of Education is going nowhere.  Every single congressional district in the nation depends on ED for financial support, guidance, and general partnership.  Federal education dollars head into every single city and town in the country.  

But it is time for ED to stop being a whipping boy and an easy target.  We are already hearing about Republicans looking to shut down the government if they take control of Congress.  And the US Department of Education is usually the first to shut its doors and the last to open them after such shutdowns.

As EdSec Arne Duncan and his team continue to develop their plans for ESEA reauthorization, perhaps they need to take on a new branding task.  WIth Race to the Top checks cut, i3 grants awarded, and ESEA coming down the pike, the time is now to remind Main Street USA of the role and responsibilities of the federal government in public education.  Help the average parent see how the feds are partners in the education process.  Help communities better understand where the feds fit in the local-state-federal continuum beyond the one-time injections of the stimulus.  And generally show us that education improvement is a shared job.

Otherwise, these fights will continue, with ED getting back in the crosshairs every decade or so.  Petty and pointless discussions such as eliminating the US Department of Education serve no purpose … other than making for good blog fodder and campaign bullet points.
 

Teacher Incentives and Australia-Bound Felons

Can 18th century British boat captains teach us anything about the effectiveness of teacher incentives?

Early this morning, NPR featured an economist talking about English maritime history an economist talking about English maritime history.  As many know, at one point Australia served as  a prison colony for Great Britain.  The British would send their criminals on a lovely sea voyage, eventually dumping their troublemakers on what was seen as the other side of the world.
The trouble was, by the time the trip from England to Australia was completed, nearly one third of the prisoners on the ship were dead, lost mid-voyage because of lack of care or concern from the boat captain and his crew.  You see, those manning the British crafts were paid by the journey.  Complete the trip to the Land Down Under and back, and collect your paycheck.
So at the end of the 18th century (1793, I believe) some British leaders took great issue with the fatality rates on these prison ships.  How could Great Britain move these criminals from the British Isles to Australia successfully, where they could serve out their sentences as intended?
Ultimately, the British came up with an intriguing idea.  Instead of paying ship captains by the trip, they changed their contracts and paid them based on the number of prisoners that were ultimately delivered to Australia.  By shifting pay determination from process (the trip) to outcomes (the number of living bodies delivered), a funny thing happened.  Nearly 99 percent of those destined for Australia made it there alive, up from the previous 65 percent survival rate.  Ship captains were paid well, and they were recognized for successfully completing the job at hand.
Perhaps I am a little punchy this AM, or perhaps I am just trying to be a little provocative, but what if we took the same approach to teaching?  What if, instead of being paid for standing in front of a classroom for an academic year, teachers were paid based on the number of students who score proficient or better on assessment measures?  Would we see a change in outcomes?
When we talk teacher incentives, isn’t the 18th century nautical analogy apropos?  Ultimately, our teachers are the captains of their classrooms, in charge of charting the course and making sure all those on board make it to the final destination.  Today, most of those teachers are rewarded for simply manning the ship, surviving the trip from September through June.  I’ll give you that we shouldn’t look at our students as 18th century criminals, but the survival of today’s students depends on their ability to demonstrate proficiency on academic measures.  So why not expect that student performance would increase if teacher pay is tied to that ultimate outcome?
The NPR economist was singing the praises of the British approach, acknowledging that the shift in pay structure all but eliminated the “failure” rate on these ships, with virtually all passengers surviving the trip.  What would these economists say about applying these lessons to the 21st century classroom?

Around the Edu-Horn, September 8, 2010

N.J. pushes ahead with school reforms despite failed grant bid http://sbne.ws/r/5BP6 (from ASCD)

Japan fattens textbooks to reverse sliding rank: http://wapo.st/90Lteb

How D.C. schools might be affected if Rhee decides to move on: http://wapo.st/ccsqxy

Using FB can lower student achievement? http://bit.ly/9MG9XF

Robert J. Samuelson – School reform’s meager results: http://wapo.st/djTCVm

In D.C. schools, Rhee and Fenty learn that tough reforms bring tougher politics: http://wapo.st/c5jg4c

Exercising Twitter Caution

Every few months, we seem to hear about the potential damage that social networking sites like Facebook can bring down on our schools, particularly teachers who share too much information about their personal lives with students (or even former students).  Each school year brings new rules and new oversight for how educators and students engage over the Internet (with many a decisionmaker hoping we could go back to the good ol’ days before our schools had electricity).

At the same time, we are exploring ways to broaden the reach of other social networking tools like Twitter.  At the start of the new academic year, my own school district is now using Twitter (as well as text messages) to share school information with the local community.  Instantaneous news and information for those who happen to be watching their Tweet feeds.
But what happens when Twitter gets out of control?  Last week, The Washington Post suspended one of its sports columnists because of an “experiment” he decided to run on Twitter.  In an effort to show that Twitter doesn’t meet the same journalistic standards as other media, Mike Wise posted a “rumor” to his Twitter account, with an attribution that simply said “I’ve heard” without naming a source.  The “story” was picked up and repeated by numerous respected media outlets (none of which contacted Wise).  The next day, the Post suspended Wise for a month, and its ombudsman offered up this analysis of the entire situation.
So it begs the question — does the same thing happen in education policy-focused Tweets?  We’ve all seen how items are retweeted with bad links.  We are a relatively small community (by Twitter standards) that feeds off itself.  We trust individuals who post something, without determining its legitimacy.  If it is a piece of information that helps our cause or aligns with our thinking or interest, we move it forward.  And there is no check, no verification, utterly no responsibility to it at all.  It is the beauty of citizen journalism.  Through our blogs and our tweets, we can say anything.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad thing.  More information coming from more resources is a good thing.  But we cannot forget the need to verify what we are hearing.  Over the years, we’ve learned that Wikipedia is not infallible.  Those names on Twitter we like are still capable of being incorrect, or believing in a source that might need a second look.  In the words of Ronald Reagan, when we use Twitter for education information, we need to trust, but verify.
When Mike Wise tweeted what he tweeted, it made sense to those who followed him.  So why would education be different?  As we all started to see names of Race to the Top winning states coming across Twitter hours before the US Department of Education was to release the winning names, we believed what came across.  We retweeted and crossposted so that the 10 winners were known more than an hour before ED released them.  That day, Twitter was a powerful tool, yes.  But what stops some (particularly those less well known) from tossing out other names?  And what prevents others from pushing those names out?
Personally, I’d love to try what Mike Wise did, and see what makes its way across the eduspace.  Who wouldn’t want to read and retweet some of the following:
* Arne Duncan retiring at the end of the year, to be replaced by TN’s Phil Bredesen, I hear
* After her wedding, Rhee is headed west to work for Gates Foundation, I hear
* ED officials are putting off ESEA reauth until 2012, I hear
* $100M in remaining RttT $ to be distributed to 10 districts, I hear
* NAESP, NASSP, NMSA merge to create mega-association, I hear
* Gates putting $500M into early childhood ed, I hear
Not a lick of truth to any of these (that I know of), but if I posted any of those to my @Eduflack Twitter account, they would likely get attention.  And they would likely be retweeted.  Believe it or not, some trust my Twitter feed.  And adding the “I hear” gives me a little deniability when it never comes true.  But that doesn’t mean the damage wouldn’t be done.  The chum would still be in the water.  
Twitter is now reporting 145 million registered users.  Many of those are well meaning, well informed individuals.  But some …
It is up to those of us who play in this sandbox to tell the difference.  Trust, but verify.