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.

An International Achievement Gap

The new PISA scores are here, the new PISA scores are here!  As we all know by now, the latest edition of PISA is now out, and it isn’t the prettiest of pictures.  Much of the day of/day after debate seems to be focused on the performance of China, which entered this year’s countdown at the top of the charts.  While some may want to fault the sample size (of Shanghai) or look for other reasons to discount China’s positioning, there is no getting around the truth.  The students in China who took the test did better than the students in other countries who took the test.  Blame cherrypicking of students, overprepping for the tests, or a host of other excuses, but Chinese test takers still did better than everyone else.

And what about the dear ol’ U.S. of A?  Again, we get to settle for middle of the pack, with an undistinguished placement for all categories.  Be it reading, math, or science, we are consistently average (unless you look at math, where we are now below average).
Thankfully, the US Department of Education did not try to sugar coat this or claim victories for an incredibly modest gain in science.  Instead, EdSec Duncan declared the PISA results a “wake-up call” and a “hard truth” that we are being passed by.
Hopefully, Duncan and company are successful in using such test scores to push for more substantive, results-based school improvement efforts.  But these numbers — and the numbers of recent years previous — paint a very grim picture.  We are caught in an international achievement gap.  Each year, we take great pride in the fact that we have “held our own” or managed to gain a point or two in a given subject.  At the same time, our international counterparts are making significant gains of their own, increasing the space between their students and ours.  China taking the top spot its first year in the competition merely magnifies our mediocrity and this very real achievement gap.
As a nation, we continue to focus on how our students do against students in other states.  We play games with our state standards and the resultant tests (a practice hopefully ending by most with the adoption of common core) to show increasing numbers of proficient students.  But in the process, it doesn’t matter that a 10th grader today is proficient if he can do the work of a 7th grader of 25 years ago.  We just want that proficient label, declaring victory once we can apply it to our schools and our students, standards and actual knowledge be damned.
International benchmarks such as PISA and TIMSS force us to compete on a level, fair, and painfully honest playing field.  We can’t adjust the standards and rubrics to meet our regional needs.  In many ways, these scores are far more accurate indicators of our actual student achievement than anything one sees on a state exam.
And that is why these results are so discouraging.  We are fighting to tread water (despite state numbers showing strong gains for most in recent years) as our competitors are building 21st century speedboats.  As other nations do it better and more effectively, we run a real risk of being left behind, with nothing but excuses and substandard state exams to keep us warm at night.
At the end of the day, this isn’t an issue that China (or Finland or Korea or Singapore or Canada or New Zealand or Estonia or countless others) is doing better than the United States.  The issue is that we are failing our students.  The international achievement gap is not a measure of student failures.  It is a measure of the failures of the U.S. public school system.  Unless we fight for real, systemic change, all we are doing is teaching our students a new stroke by which to tread water.  

Putting Students First

Today, Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of DC Public Schools, officially unveiled Rhee 2.0.  A cover story for Newsweek (no broom this time) and an Oprah segment was the perfect intro for Students First, a new 501(c)(4) led by Rhee to “to build a national movement to defend the interests of children in public education and pursue transformative reform, so that America has the best education system in the world.”

The new org breaks down its target audiences to Educators, Parents, Students, and “Everyone Else.”  It’s committed to “great teachers,” “great schools,” and “effective use of public dollars.”  

The latest embodiment of the Rhee brand also offers up four core beliefs (apparently her PR people never explained you offer things in series’ of three or five, never four).  The four beliefs:

* Great teachers can make a tremendous difference for students of every background; all children deserve outstanding teachers.

* Attending a great school should be a matter of fact, not luck; every family should be able to choose an excellent school.

* Public dollars belong where they make the biggest difference—on effective instructional programs; we must fight ineffective practices and bureaucracy.

* Parent and family involvement is key to increased student achievement, but the entire community must be engaged in the effort to improve our schools.

Most interesting in all of this, though, is the underlying structure.  Right now, the org is an advocacy group of one — Rhee.  It sets an audacious goal of raising $1 billion to create “a movement to transform public education.”  The goal seems to be to work with states and school districts across the nation on real reform efforts.  But the group seeks to garner its funding through a combination of corporate and philanthropic support, small donors, membership dues, and merchandise sales (someone needs to tell Rhee how successful the retail sales effort worked for the Stand Up effort back in 2005).

There are many unanswered questions here.  In launching such an effort, Rhee clearly has some significant seed money to launch this effort.  You don’t announce such a fundraising drive unless you already have significant commitment to back up the promise.  So Eduflack suspects there has to be tens of millions of dollars already committed to the effort.

So who will join with Rhee, staff wise?  What organizations will Students First officially partner with?  What SEAs and LEAs will be first on the client list?  Besides the $1 billion what are the measures of success?  Where will the group be located?  Will it have local chapters (like the successful DFER?)  What groups will she take on (besides the unions)?  How soon before she goes after federal funding (any subcontracting opps in RttT, i3, TIF, or SIG, anyone)?

Eduflack is always heartened by efforts that try to amplify the voice of parents and students in the school improvement process.  Too often, we exclude these key stakeholders, leaving them to simply accept what those who “know better” decide needs to be done. As a result, we have a self-fulfilling circle of status quo, where little changes and those end users — the families and students — are left to just deal with the fact the more things change, the more they stay the same … at least with student achievement numbers and a persistent achievement gap.

It is a little surprising that Rhee doesn’t want to get into the ESEA reauthorization mix, but it is a good thing.  Even if she threw the full weight of her group into reauth, she would never get the full credit for the changes she could ultimately be responsible for.  So now is the time for an agenda.  How will we measure the success of Students First in six months?  In a year?  What are the key policy issues she will focus on?  And how will they translate those policy issues into real advocacy felt at the state or local level?

As Eduflack has noted many times, PR is easy.  The cover of Newsweek just gets the ball bouncing.  Now comes the hard work for Rhee, and an opportunity to demonstrate she understands the true power of advocacy and meaningful public engagement.  First, help better diagnose the problems in public education in a way that all stakeholder audiences understand.  Then make clear there are real, workable solutions to those problems.  And wrap up by showing that Students First and its network are the holders
of the best, most actionable solutions to those problems.  

Rhee does that, and this new group of hers can launch a national movement.  Without it, we may have yet another in a long range of non-profits with noble goals, respected ambitions, and nothing left to show for it but a depleted checkbook and a lot of unfulfilled buzz.  There is already too much of that in ed reform, we don’t need any more.


Are We Still Waiting for Superman?

Back at the start of the fall, the ed reform community was all atwitter about the movie documentary, Waiting for Superman.  Throughout the spring and summer, we had special previews of the movie for reform-minded audiences.  The national release of the movie in September brought effusive articles in national publications on the movie, its message, and the impact it would have on public education throughout the United States.  It seemed everyone was waiting for Superman.

But now that we are a few months from the theatrical release, where exactly are we?  Reviewers on IMdB gave the movie a 7.4 out of 10.  Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 4.1 out of 5, with 86 percent of those who saw it liking it.  But so far it has taken in just over $6 million in ticket sales, making it the 147th most popular movie of 2010.  And it is 20th on the all-time documentary list, currently earning about one-quarter of what An Inconvenient Truth earned at the box office.  At its widest release, it was showing at 330 movie theaters around the country.
We know it was popular in East Coast anchors (and reform cities) like New York and Washington, DC.  But is the movie having the sort of rhetorical and advocacy impact so many expected just three months ago?
Recent media coverage on Superman focuses on whether it is gaining Oscar buzz, not whether it is impacting our public schools.  The “status quoers” who were aghast when Superman first came out are now trying to direct educator attention to movies such as Race to Nowhere.  And while the movie’s producers continue to try drive advocacy through its website, the biggest recent news seems to be the $15 gift card you can get for your school if you buy the Waiting for Superman book at Border’s Books.
It all begs the question, are we still Waiting for Superman?  Is a movie with so much promise or hype (depending on your perspective) having the sort of impact promised during those advance screenings and the sophisticated social media campaigns to drive folks to the theaters?
Back in September, Eduflack questioned whether Superman could deliver on the promise, and move us from a state of awareness (which Superman does a great job of) to one of action.  It isn’t enough to visit a website or to click on a web box to read how important it is to write elected officials.  Change needs goals.  Change needs specific assignments and tactics.  Change needs tick lists to measure progress.  And change needs clear asks that voices from across the country are asking for in pitch-perfect unison.  That’s the only way you reform a system that is so invested in maintaining the status quo.
Perhaps it was too much for us to expect a movie to do all of that.  But there is still the opportunity for someone to harness the interest in Superman and put it to use in a real, honest-to-goodness, social advocacy campaign.  The problems identified in Superman remain.  They won’t be fixed overnight.