Some Resolutions for 2011

Another year about to go down in the history books.  Are we any closer to truly improving our public schools?  For every likely step forward we may have taken in 2010, it seems to be met with a similar step back.  For every rhetorical push ahead, we had a very real headwind blocking progress. 

So as we head into 2011, your friendly neighborhood Eduflack offers up a few “resolutions” for all on the education reform boat to consider as we start a new year.  We need to come to accept the following:
1.  True reform does not happen at the federal level.  The federal government is an important lever in the school improvement process, offering some necessary financial resources and some bully pulpit language to inspire reform.  But true improvement happens at the state and local levels.  It is about what our SEAs and LEAs do with those resources and whether they embrace the call from the bully pulpit.  Just as all politics is local, so too is all education reform.  Why do you think groups like DFER are so keen on launching new statewide efforts, like the new one in California?
2.  ESEA reauthorization really doesn’t matter.  As much as we want to fret about when ESEA is going to be reauthorized and what will and won’t be included, it doesn’t have much impact on the game at hand.  At the end of the day, EdSec Duncan could work from the current NCLB, make a few tweaks, and be just fine for the next few years.  Those thinking a major sea change is coming with reauth will be sadly mistaken.  If we see reauth this year (put at about 60 percent), expect it to simply be a kinder, gentler NCLB.  Nothing more.
3. Education technology matters.  For years now, we’ve placed ed tech in the perifery when it comes to school improvement, trying to define it as simply the adoption of a particular piece of hardware.  Ed tech needs to be at the center of 21st century school improvement.  It is important to instruction and student achievement, teacher quality, and all-around turnaround efforts.  If we are to realize its impact, we need to ensure it is a non-negotiable in the process.
4. We cannot forget about reading instruction.  Nine years ago, Reading First was born, emphasizing the importance of literacy instruction in the elementary grades.  We cannot boost student test scores and we cannot ensure that all kids are college and career ready if everyone isn’t reading at grade level.  RF taught us a great deal on how to teach reading (and how not to advocate it politically).  Building on those lessons, we need to redouble our efforts to get each and every child reading proficient.  And that now includes focusing on middle and high schools, where too many students have fallen between the cracks.
5. Superintendents matter.  Many of our largest and most influential school districts will experience change at the top this coming year.  These new leaders can’t forget that the role of instructional leader is essential to their success.  Shaking things up is good.  Sweeping out the old is fine.  Doing things differently is great.  But at the end of the day, being a superintendent is all about teaching and learning and measurement.  Magazine covers are nice, but rising test scores are far more rewarding.
6. We still need to figure out what teacher quality is.  Is it just student test scores?  Does it include preservice education requirements beyond HQT provisions?  Are their qualitative factors?  Can we accept a “we’ll know it when we see it” definition?  With increased focus continuing to be placed on the topic of teacher quality, we need a true defition and a true measurement to really launch a meaningful discussion.  We’ve spent too much time talking about what it isn’t or what it shouldn’t be.  It is time to determine what it is.
7. Research remains king.  In 2010, we spent a great deal of money on school reforms and improvement ideas.  Most of these dollars were an investment in hope.  Now it is time to verify.  We need to determine what is working and what is not.  We need to know not just that the money is being spent (as ED typically sees evaluation) but instead need to know what it is being spent on and what is showing promise of success.  We need to redouble our investments in evaluation.  Other sectors have made real advances because of investments in R&D.  It is about time for education to do the same.
8. We need to learn how to use social media in education.  It is quite disheartening to see that states like Virginia are exploring banning teachers from using tools like Facebook with their students.  It is also a little frustrating to see that media like Twitter are still being used for one-way communications.  We need to see more engagement and dialogue through our social media.  An example?  How about more Twitter debates like those between @DianeRavitch and @MichaelPetrilli ?
And as we look forward to the new year, some predictions on what is hot and what is not for 2011.
HOT — Accountability (and its flexibility).  Assessments.  International benchmarking.  Rural education.  Alternative certification.  Special education.  Competitive grants.  Local control.  School improvement.  Local elected school boards.  Online education.
NOT —  Charter schools.  Early childhood education.  21st century skills.  STEM.  ELL.  Education schools.  RttT/i3.  Education reform (yeah, you heard me).  Teachers unions.  Mayoral control.  AYP.  Early colleges.  Edujobs.
Happy new year!  

Yes Virginia, Texting is Bad?

I’ll admit it.  Eduflack is not a big fan of texting.  I am pretty wired to both my iPhone and my iPad that I get emails just as fast as I get texts.  And any reader of this blog knows I tend to be a little wordy.  So other than those Tweets at @Eduflack, my writing — emails and texts — run a little long.  At this point, my texting is pretty limited to my wife (who doesn’t monitor her email as I do); my younger, hipper sister; and a few friends who drop a text occasionally.

Don’t get me wrong, though, I definitely see the value of it.  Texts provide us instant information, allowing for a real-time electronic conversation.  It provides a written record of these electronic conversations (a fact I can state with certainty, as my wife quotes from texts I sent her two years ago).  And it offers a quick way to reach a lot of people.  When my local school district had to close schools early for a recent snow, it was able to text the news to all families who signed up for text updates. 
While I would never want to see texting (and texting shorthand) replace the ancient art of actually writing in complete sentences and with words spelled out in the Queen’s English, I do see the value of texting.  And part of that value is potential interactions between students and teachers.  Questions about assignments from students.  Updates on class schedule from teacher.  Texting can be a useful classroom information management tool when used correctly.
Unfortunately, not all seem to see it that way.  On January 13, the Virginia State Board of Education is expected to restrict or outright ban teachers texting with students.  Apparently, some believe that a teacher texting a student can result sexual misconduct.  The State Board in the Old Dominion cites 120 actions in the past decade where action was taken regarding misconduct involving minors (though no mention of what role texting may have played in those 120 cases).
Additionally, the Virginia State Board is looking to prohibit teachers from interacting with students at all through online social networking (such as Facebook and Twitter).
I’m all for protecting our students.  And I’m all for eliminating inappropriate conversations between teachers and students, while providing guidelines for both parties on the proper use of electronic communications.  But this is truly a case of throwing out the baby with the electronic bathwater.
Teachers should be bound by codes of conduct, whether it be in person or virtually.  Violators should be addressed, directly and swiftly.  Just as their teachers, students should be educated on the appropriate uses of electronic media.  This should be about responsible use, not prohibition.
Yes, I realize that Virginia is proposing guidelines for restriction.  But we all realize how this slippery slope works.  Restriction offers up too much room for misinterpretation and potential problem.  Elimination is much easier to understand and enforce.
We already have too many instances of de-connecting our students in the classroom.  We have too many examples of students being unplugged from their 21st century lives so they can be taught exclusively through a 19th century medium.  Shouldn’t we be exploring how to better integrate one of the most common methods of communications for 21st century students — the text — into the current learning environment?  
Used correctly, texting (and to a lesser degree, social media) can be a powerful instructional tool.  We should be looking at ways to maximize the resources available and better engage students in their preferable mediums.  Virginia, there has to be another way to protect teachers and students, share information, and offer a more transparent communication than shutting down that which is new.  

Mad Men Comes to K-12 Education?

Years ago, when Eduflack was working in the proprietary university space, he had a boss who could market just about anything.  He was the sort of salesman who could get you to slay dragons with a butter knife, believing that the right brochure, an effective website, and the right messaging platform could sell just about anything.  And with him leading the pitch, he usually could sell anything to anyone.

Of course, he did so by under-promising and over-delivering.  He identified the one issue that kept a state education official or a superintendent up at night, keyed right in on it, demonstrated empathy, and offered to help.  It almost didn’t matter WHAT he was selling, other than he was selling understanding and the promise of a solution to all that ailed a given educational leader.  Educators bought peace of mind.  He closed a deal.
And so goes the circle of life in education sales.  We expect to have companies and entrepreneurs approach school districts with the latest or best shiny object.  We expect sales to happen.  And we expect those pitches to be more savvy and sophisticated than they have ever been.
But when, exactly, did we expect to see the school district transform into the salesman?  Over the weekend, The Washington Post ran a piece on how the school district in Alexandria, Virginia had tapped the services of a marketing guru/adman to help promote the schools and better position them for private and philanthropic support.
Mad Men has officially hit our local school districts.  Instead of peddling Pan Am Airlines or the latest cigarette, we are now selling the emotional connection with our local school district.
Alexandria’s motives are noble.  It’s nationally known high school — T.C. Williams — is on the persistently lowest achieving list.  The large districts surrounding it — notably Fairfax County and Arlington County — are some of the best school districts in the nation.  And with so much money floating around school improvement these days, who wouldn’t ask how to draw more attention to Alexandria to gain some of those non-governmental dollars?
But while the motives are noble, the execution is disappointing.  Don’t get me wrong.  No one is more of an advocate for effective communications in K-12 education than Eduflack.  I have many good friends who manage communications for school districts or who work with states, LEAs, and schools on how to effectively position them.  And I myself have worked with many and SEA and LEA on communications and outreach.
But such efforts are usually focused on outcomes and results.  That old entrepreneur of a boss taught me that you always under-promise and over-deliver, particularly in education.  You don’t talk about what you can do or what you might do, you focus on what you’ve done.  It may take a little longer, but the time is well worth the effort.  Focus on student test scores or recent gains.  Target the quality of your teachers and the number of NBCTs on staff.  Key in on ratios or spending levels.  Find the data that demonstrates your excellence, and use that as your lead to show that the schools are headed in the right direction.
Unfortunately, at least the way WaPo tells the story, Alexandria seems to think that a good slogan is going to fix all that ails their suburban school district.  They brought in the “Where’s the Beef?” guy from Wendy’s to help with their marketing efforts.  And while he isn’t promising they will necessarily get a new slogan or tagline as a result of his work, he is already market testing two slogans for the LEA.  The first, “Try us, you’ll like us.”  The second, “ACPS — it’s Alexandria’s best kept secret.”  
Really?  That’s the best we have?  One slogan that can be applied to the latest widget, snack cake, or diet drink and another that’s been recycled by virtually every tourism campaign for a third-rate attraction?  
Perhaps I am overreacting here, but this seems to be an exercise of re-arranging the deck chairs.  Put the money into additional supports for teachers or additional tutoring for students.  A slogan isn’t going to get T.C. Williams off the persistently lowest achieving list.  Good teaching, good learning, and good data collection will.  So rather than channeling its inner Don Draper, perhaps Alexandria needs a little more Mr. Holland.

I Wanna Be An Edu-Pundit, The Video

A few months ago, one of Eduflack’s college buddies, David Kazzie, hit the viral big time when he launched an online video entitled So You Want to Go to Law School.  Kazzie was one of the hardest-working sports writers I knew at The Cavalier Daily, and although he turned to the dark side by getting a law degree, it was terrific to see those writing skills finally put to use with an incredibly funny series of videos on all that is wrong with the law profession.

So it all got me thinking.  It seems the education space could use a few videos that poke fun at our own industry.  And while I am hardly the dialogue writer that Kazzie is, I decided to pick up my electronic pen and write, I Wanna Be an Edu-Pundit.  I Wanna Be offers a tongue-in-cheek look at some of those “experts” in the education space, and what happens when someone wakes up one morning thinking they should opine on education policy and practice.
The full video can be found here on YouTube.
Depending on the response I get from folks, I’m hoping to make this a semi-regular activity for the first few months in 2011.  There are just some things that can best be said through the computerized voices of animated talking heads.
So consider this my little holiday gift to you.  Please watch, and please get other people to watch.  Together, we can at least get more people to watch this video than watch a typical U.S. Department of Education YouTube post!

We’re Twitter-ific!

It is the holiday season, and the gifts just keep finding their way under Eduflack’s tree.  This week, the good folks over at unveiled their Top 20 Education Influencers You Need to Follow on Twitter in 2011 … and Why.  

It is a great list of organizations and individuals that “do an amazing job at creating tweets that focus on every aspect of education.”   And the dear ol’ @Eduflack Twitter feed is honored to be Number 16 on the Top 20 list.  (Joining notables such as Dwight “Doc” Gooden, Joe Montana, and Pat LaFontaine, among others who wore 16 proudly.)
The folks at Distance Education honored @Eduflack, noting:
“Brought to you by the author of Eduflack, a blog that focuses on improving education through effective communication, @edulfack offers its followers an amazing flow of information that keeps them on top of the latest happenings in the field of education. @Eduflack really leaves no educational stone un-turned – from science and teacher prep to education reform – he covers it all.”    

Eduflack greatly appreciates the early Christmas present, and I hope to love up to the expectations in 2011.  Looks like we can’t quit on Twitter after all … (just kidding)

Looking for Online Learning Exemplars

Without question, K-12 virtual education opportunities are gaining more and more attention as late.  Earlier this month, the Digital Learning Council — under the leadership of former governors Jeb Bush and Bob Wise — released its Digital Learning Now! report.  In it, the new group offered up its 10 elements of high-quality digital education.

The 10 elements are core to learning success, whether it be digital or otherwise.  By focusing on issues such as student eligibility, student access, personalized learning, advancement, content, instruction, providers, assessment and accountability, funding, and delivery, the DLC makes clear that digital learning is central to the 21st century learning environment.  Online learning is no longer a topic left to the periphery.  It is core to modern-day instruction.
But the DLC’s outline of how begs a very important question — who?  This week, Eduflack was talking with a school district that is quite interested in expanding its digital learning offerings and take a major step forward in offering e-instruction and online offerings to its students.  Anticipating the time and expense involved in such forward progress, school officials were looking to do some site visits with other school districts in state.  The list of “success stories” was relatively short, but a few districts kept popping up.
After some exploration, though, a big problem arose.  The districts that were identified as best practice for online learning in the state were districts that failed to meet AYP this year.  Knowing that, can one look to model instructional practice from a district that can’t make adequate yearly progress?  It might not be fair, but AYP is the most important measure a school district faces today.  Any step one takes to improve or enhance instruction should result in improved student achievement.
It would be terrific if every state were a state like Florida, with a strong and successful online learning network that can be modeled and borrowed and stolen from.  But in this day and age, we first look to our own backyards to see what is done, particularly as we emphasize the need to demonstrate proficiency on state assessment exams.  So while we’d all love to replicate what the Florida Virtual School may be doing, we’re first going to look at what the neighboring county or the district with similar demographics on the other side of the state is up to.
It is no secret that K-12 education believes in modeling.  Few want to be first to market; everyone wants to do what a fellow successful state, district, school, or teacher is doing.  This is particularly true for digital learning, where so few truly understand it and so few are actually doing it well.  So how do we know who is an appropriate model?  Where is it happening in a district, a school, and with kids like mine?  And how do we determine if a district is indeed worth modeling?
Eduflack is all ears for those who want to identify examples of school districts who have been particularly successful in developing online learning programs, particularly those LEAs who can demonstrate return on their investment, both in usage and in student achievement.  Who wants in?  Where are our exemplars for district-based online learning programs?

They Love Us, They Really Love Us

This week, the good folks over at DIY Learning released their list of “The Top 50 Education Pundits Worth a Follow on Twitter.”  Believe it or not, deal ol’ Eduflack is actually on the list, identified as one of 14 education policy Twitter feeds to follow, joined by folks like the US Department of Education, the Education Equality Project, AEI, and the Center for American Progress.

Other categories include News (Chronicle of Higher Ed, HuffPo, and Teacher Beat, to name a few), Educators (including Alexander Russo, Jenna Schuette, Michelle Rhee, and John Merrow), and Library (including the Library of Congress).
Currently, @Eduflack has more than 5,000 followers Twitter, not bad for just a fat man with a laptop.  And we are grateful for each and every one of those followers, just hoping we are giving them what they are looking for.
For those not following @Eduflack over on Twitter, give it a look.  Unlike this blog, the @Eduflack Twitter feed is light on opinion and all about relaying the latest news, research studies, and other happenings in the education policy world. 
And don’t let this week fool ya.  Ye olde Twitter feed is dark so I can spend much of the week with the eduwife and edukiddos down at the Happiest Place on Earth.  I’ll be back full force next week.
Keep it coming, DIY Learning.  I just love making your top 50 lists.