SOTU Disappointment

My name is Eduflack, and I am a captain of negativism.  I often like to tease that I’m not a glass half full or half empty sorta guy, I just want to know who took my damned water.  So last evening was a fascinating exercise for me.  As luck would have it, I had a three-and-a-half hour school board meeting last night, meaning I missed the State of the Union live.  But from all of the updates on Facebook and on Twitter, it seemed like President Obama had delivered a truly rousing state of the education union speech, fulfilling all of the hopes and dreams that ed reformers and status quoers alike have for education in the United States.  All those negative feelings I have, year in and year out, about how education gets short shrift in the SOTU would be replaced by an unnatural and unfamiliar sense of joy and happiness in dear ol’ Eduflack.

So I was excited to go and watch the tape of the SOTU.  I, too, wanted to feel that bliss.  Unfortunately, I’m just the same old grumpy Eduflack.
I know it isn’t popular, but I’ll say it.  I was disappointed by last night’s SOTU, particularly how it addressed education.  And I say this knowing that teachers loved his embrace of the teaching profession.  Reformers heard lots about the need for reform.  Local controllers heard what they needed.  The higher ed community heard its shout out.  And even the tough-lovers had the parental responsibility lines to hang their hat on.
So why am I disappointed in the speech?
* It was very inside baseball.  One of my greatest frustrations in education policy is we talk about the work to a broad audience as we do to a group of 12 folks who know how to talk the talk.  We all love teacher quality in a general sense, but it has a very specific meaning to an ed reformer, and very broad meaning to a regular parent.  Despite what those of us in the field think, most Americans don’t actually know what Race to the Top or No Child Left Behind actually is.  We say RttT is the greatest ed reform in a generation (which I wholeheartedly disagree with, as, like it or not, NCLB had a much greater impact, both good and bad) or that NCLB needs fixing, and folks will nod their heads in agreement because it is the President and he should know.  But head out to Main Street USA, ask them how RttT is reforming their classrooms, and you’ll get a blank stare.  Inside baseball.
* It was very much just a laundry list.  I realize that we were trying to group everything under the umbrella of competitiveness and economic improvement, but this just didn’t seem strategic.  Essentially, the speech is summarized as follows:  We all need college degrees.  Parents need to get involved.  Schools need to do a better job.  RttT and federal leadership are great.  So is local control.  We need to respect our teachers and be more like South Korea.  Need a job, become a teacher.  Raise expectations.  It is never too late for education.  Education is a gateway to talking about our immigration challenges.  This isn’t a strategic vision for P-20 education (forgetting that ECE was ignored), this is simply a Chinese menu of education issues.
* It was missing a call to action.  In identifying that laundry list of educational priorities, we were missing a true call to action.  The President spoke, very eloquently, about honoring teachers and encouraging kids and getting to (and graduating from) college.  But what was the big ask, reforming NCLB?  We needed more of an education vision so that the average parent, the average teacher, the average mayor, and the average taxpayer understands what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we get there.  What action do I, as a parent and local school board member, take to get us to to this grand vision?  Listening to the speech, it seems my responsibility is to turn off the TV, respect teachers, applaud the science fair (which as a former International Science and Engineering Fair award winner I already do), and believe in the feds to push the right policies.  But I still don’t know how this boosts student achievement or learning.  And I still don’t know how we are measuring these reforms and how we can one day have that “Mission Accomplished” moment.
I don’t mean to be so negative about this, but it is my way.  Last year, when the U.S. Department of Education released its ESEA Blueprint, that provided me the details and the call to action that I’m looking for.  And nearly a decade ago, we certainly saw it in the adoption of NCLB, as we told teachers and parents and business leaders and policymakers what they needed to do to enact the law with fidelity and improve student achievement.  
It is great that President Obama devoted nearly nine and a half minutes to education in this year’s SOTU, more than doubling the air time given to education last year.  But with all of the build up leading into tonight, the promise that education is a key pillar to improving our nation, and the excitement those in the know demonstrated last night, I just wanted more.  I want the rhetoric to connect to real policies.  I want to know how we measure success.  I want education discussed in a way that we can fill football stadiums, and not just cocktail parties, with supporters.  Is that really too much to ask for?
  
    

Your U.S. Education Dashboard

Sometimes (and rarely) I see the need to use Eduflack to pass along some interesting information.  No opinion.  No soapbox (OK, almost no soapbox).  No critique.  No snark.  This is one of those times.

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education officially unveiled its United States Education Dashboard.  While such a tool is never going to grab the headlines, it is an important announcement and an even more important resource.
According to ED, the Dashboard seeks to present “indicators in … areas that are critical to improving educational results and achieving the President’s 2020 college attainment goal.”  These areas include: Early Learning through High School, Postsecondary Education and Training, Teachers and Leaders, and An Excellent Education for All.
For Early Learning through High School, for instance, the Dashboard offers the latest data on metrics such as preschool enrollment, fourth and eighth grade NAEP scores, four-year high school graduation rate numbers, and public high school grads who took at least one AP test.
Sure, all of this data can be found by searching through numerous websites or trying to divine how best to read the NAGB site.  But for those looking for outcomes and a collection of data on the status of our public schools, the U.S. Education Dashboard can serve as a strong one-stop shop for educators, policymakers, and pundits alike.  
Here’s hoping ED keeps the site fresh, updated, focused, and informative.
  

State of the Education Union?

As is typical for this time of year, most of Washington is eagerly awaiting tomorrow evening’s State of the Union address, delivered by President Barack Obama.  (Of course, Eduflack will be in a school board meeting, discussing local school budgets, but I’ll be listening to the SOTU in spirit).  And just about every year, the education community eagerly awaits to see how big a role education policy will play in the SOTU.

Last year, we expected big things, but just about all of the ed discussion was focused on higher ed and student loans, not on P-12 issues.  In the lead-up to Tuesday, the White House has made clear that this year’s speech will focus on the five pillars to turn around our nation’s economy (not to be confused with EdSec Arne Duncan’s four pillars for turning around K-12 public education).  And go figure, education is expected to be one of those five pillars.
But in the Washington Post, in a graphic that accompanies today’s story on the SOTU, expects that the education focus will be on protecting funding for existing programs.  So if WaPo is right (and it hasn’t necessarily been lately), part of the great road to economic improvement is maintaining the status quo in K-12 education.
Yes, I realize that means continuing funding for new programs such as Race to the Top, with Duncan just last week calling for a third RttT round focused on school districts.  I’ll say it here and I’ll say it loudly.  If tomorrow’s education focus is simply about staying the course, the education sector will have missed a major opportunity.
Across the nation, we are asking states, districts, schools, and teachers to do more and more with less and less.  As those budgets have shrunk, some have even said it is a golden opportunity for schools and school improvement, as we can no longer the maintain that which we’ve had, and instead need to focus on that with the greatest impact or the highest return on investment.  We’re calling for virtually all schools to “reform” or “improve,” making clear that the way we used to do things isn’t going to cut it in the future.
So if President Obama comes out tomorrow and says we need to keep on keeping on, it will be a major step backward.  If we merely try to save the U.S. Department of Education from budget cuts, while protecting recent gains for Title I, RttT, teacher quality efforts, and student loans, we will have squandered a real chance at real improvement.  And if the goal is a true economic renaissance for the United States, status quo at a time when our international standing is slipping, our achievement gap is offensive, and our resources and lacking just isn’t going to cut it.
I recognize that tomorrow evening’s speech is likely already loaded into the teleprompter, but there are a few key items I’d like to see make the cut:
* Early childhood education — We need to honor the promises made with regard to ECE and begin to fund what the research tells us is needed.  Achievement gaps start before kids ever hit kindergarten.  We address that by confronting the problem from the start.  And that means real, academic-focused ECE efforts.  Babysitters and social adaptation programs need not apply.
* Teacher quality — First, we need to agree on the qualitative and quantitative measures of what makes an effective teacher.  Then we need to see what goes into the pre-service and in-service education of a teacher to get there.  Only then can we effective use teacher incentive programs to improve the schools.  We need real research that gets at the heart of the teacher quality issue.
* STEM — And I use this as a collective discussion.  We need to increase on investment in effective math and science education.  We need to put real resources behind the goals of America Competes.  It is the only way we start to move the needle when it comes to international competitiveness.
* Ed tech — We need to convert our 19th century classrooms into 21st century learning environments.  That means focusing on both how we teach and what we teach with.  Ed tech needs to be both at the heart of our ESEA discussions and of our school funding realities.
* Achievement gap — Let’s stop dancing around the issue.  If we are talking about righting our economy, we need to address the achievement gap.  Until black, Hispanic, and low-income students start gaining ground against white, wealthy students, our schools will always struggle.  With the gaps as astounding as they currently are now, it isn’t enough to applaud all groups for incremental gains.
* College prep — We need more opportunities to prepare students for postsecondary education.  More dual enrollment.  More opps to study at local community colleges.  More career-focused, relevant courses.  More exposure to the academic world beyond the high school.  A high school diploma isn’t going to cut it as we head deeper into the 21st century.  
* Parental engagement — We need a concerted, supported effort to better engage parents and families in the learning process.  The responsibility for student success does not rest solely with the classroom teacher.  Parents need to know what their role is, how to play it, and how to ask the questions to ensure their kids are getting the education they both need and deserve.  
* R&D — As we keep asking folks to do more with less, we need to ensure that what we are doing is proven effective and has a strong evidence base behind it.  For too long, educators have done what they thought worked or what they believed worked or what they hoped worked.  It is now time to invest in what we can prove works.  That starts with a robust R&D effort focused on the classroom.  And the “&D” is very important, particularly as we look translating good research into real practice.  
What I want to see if fairly simple.  I want the circle of educational life.  What are the conditions we need to start effective learning (teacher quality, parental engagement, ECE)?  What should all children know and be able to do (STEM, ed tech, college prep)?  What obstacles must be overcome (achievement gap, ed tech)?  And what is our intended destination (increased grad rates, increased college-going rates, and the economic success that we’ll hear about for more than an hour tomorrow)?
And I would NOT talk about ESEA.  How we get to these above points isn’t nearly as important as actually doing it.  ESEA is merely a process.  But it isn’t a required path for 2011.  And I’d stay away from issues like common core, charters, and AYP.  All those buzz words do is stoke the fires of the loyal opposition (whichever side on which they may be).
What am I missing?  What is necessary to tell the true state of our education union?
 
 

Buckeye-Style E-Learning

At its heart, is e-learning about improving educational opportunity or lowering instructional costs?  Last week, Eduflack was talking with a school district in West Virginia.  Following a growing wave, school districts in the Mountain State are prohibiting new textbook purchases in a tough budget environment.  As an alternative, districts are being directed to use e-learning to replace textbook adoptions and ensure students have up-to-date learning materials.

But in a district that doesn’t have the technology to deliver optimum e-learning, is such digital instruction really a cost saver?  Do we get around that $100 textbook, which is usually good for seven or nine years, by purchasing a low-cost laptop (which have to be replaced often due to loss, breakage, or general wear-and-tear) and then purchasing the curriculum and other instructional needs?  Are there enough high-quality open educational resources (OER) to secure the free digital instructional materials to effectively replace a textbook and its supplementary materials?  And does making the shift from paper to electronic actually boost student achievement and school effectiveness?
These are some of the questions that many are working to find answers to.  Late last year, the Foundation for Excellence in Education released its Digital Learning Now! report as part of the coming out of its Digital Learning Council.  The report offers up 10 reccs for high-quality digital learning.  Written specifically for governors and state-level policy makers, the Foundation makes clear that real action on e-learning is going to happen in state capitals, and not necessarily in our nation’s capital.
Next week, it looks like the discussion is going to drill down even further.  Some of the true leaders in e-learning will gather in Columbus, Ohio to talk about how digital learning can have a positive impact on education in Ohio and in the United States.  Those in politics know that as goes Ohio (or maybe Missouri), so goes the nation.  We also know that the Buckeye State now has a new, cost-conscious governor and a state budget in need of significant reductions.
So on Tuesday, leaders from Ohio’s business and education sectors, as well as the community at large, will hear from folks like Bob Wise, former West Virginia governor and current President of the Alliance for Excellent Education: Andy Ross, the GM of Global Services for Florida Virtual School; and Tom Vander Ark, partner at Vander Ark/Radcliff and e-learning connector extraordinaire.  They’ll also hear the Ohio perspective from KnowledgeWorks CEO Chad Wick and Ohio Education Matters ED Andy Benson.
Why is this summit important?  For one, it signals that a state like Ohio is serious about re-imagining the K-12 experience and exploring what a 21st century education really looks like.  More importantly, though, it is looking to do so through a practical lens, where the hopes and aspirations of e-learning will be explored through the very-real view of the very-scary Ohio budget.
We also know that if the intellectual firepower speaking from the rostrum in Columbus on the 25th can’t figure out how to make this work in Ohio, no one can.  Florida Virtual School is the gold standard when it comes to online learning in the K-12 environment.  Vander Ark/Radcliff has led the primary drumbeat for successful digital learning leadership, particularly at the state level.  And KnowledgeWorks has successfully led change in Ohio’s high schools through its Ohio High Schools Transformation Initiative and its NewTech Network.  So it looks like the e-learning A team will be in the house, ready to “dot the i.”
Hopefully, we will see a real action plan coming out of this Learning Unbound summit.  A plan that Ohio Gov. John Kasich can adopt as part of his leaner, ROI-focused budget and a plan on which other states can model their own e-learning opportunities.  That isn’t too much to ask for, is it, A focused plan of action coming out of a positive day of rhetoric?
   

Can We Innovate to Improvement?

Is there real, honest-to-goodness innovation entering the K-12 education space?  We seem to use the term “innovation” a great deal, but few seem to know what it really means.  The dictionary definition is “something new or different introduced.”  When the U.S. Department of Education issued its Investing in Innovation (i3) program last year, innovation was driven by what was research proven and evidence based.

Without question, i3 inspired a significant number of school districts, non-profit organizations, and thought leaders to give real thought to innovation in education.  Nearly 1,700 entities submitted applications for i3 funding.  Forty nine applicants became i3 winners.  But hundreds and hundreds of other projects, particularly some at the school district level, received high scores, indicating the opportunity and potential these education innovations could have.
This week, the Aspen Institute is hosting its Education Innovation Forum and Expo.  With a goal of leveraging the interest in i3 to “drive an innovation culture” in education, Aspen and its partners offer up a series of objectives for this meeting and the partnerships and relationships that should come from the gathering, including:
* Create a national stage to feature investment ready non-profit and for profit educational innovations
* Foster an education policy environment that is more innovation and investment friendly
* Showcase high-scoring i3 projects
* Attract more private equity investment to promising education innovations
* Provide an enduring platform for connecting innovators with venture capitalists, social innovation investors, educators, and policymakers
* Engage thought leaders from other sectors in creating a robust education innovation and R&D infrastructure
For those who have been slogging in the ed reform trenches for years, many of these objectives are discussions and actions that we simply have not engaged in to date.  Despite interest in additional dollars, the education community, on the whole, has been slow to embrace the role of for-profit interests — particularly as a partner — in public education.  We are a sector that still can’t agree on what innovation is.  And despite popular opinion, we simply have never invested in a true R&D infrastructure, at least not the way other policy sectors do.
So kudos go to Aspen, the U.S. Department of Education (an “in cooperation” partner of the event), and the partners and sponsors who are jumpstarting the discussion.  When everyone from Arne Duncan to Alan Greenspan, Mark Ecko to Joel Klein, and Paul Pastorek to Mike Johnston takes the time to spur this discussion toward a real, innovative, R&D focus, it merits some attention.
In listening to the conversations and formal discussions across the Washington Convention Center, it also raises a few observations:
* Private-sector, and even philanthropic, support for school improvement is meant to be a catalyst.  Such funding is not intended to supplant current funding from the state or local community.  Private investment is also not intended to be an unending stream of dollars for as long as a new program remains in favor.  Such dollars are a way to jumpstart the system, allowing true reformers to move change in an environment often loathe for such.
* Reductions in traditional funding streams, coupled with the possibility of new streams from the private sector, should force us to move away from the status quo.  When we are being asked to do more with less, we can’t keep funding what we have done because it is what we have done.  New dollars need to be focused on the future and on return on investment.  Innovation is an investment in promising practice, not a way to prop up what hasn’t worked in the past.
* We still do not know if we can bring innovation to scale.  Currently, we have approximately 15,000 school districts across the United States.  In the past decade, Teach for America has been deemed by many the most successful ed reform/innovation effort in public education.  According to the TFA website, the organization is working in 39 placement regions, including many of the larger, urban school districts.  If TFA increased its regions by 400 percent next year, it would be up to 1 percent of our total districts.  This is no knock on TFA, but it is a realization that we still don’t have a working model to bring innovation and reforms to scale in the United States.
Hopefully, the Aspen forum will help drive some thinking toward answering these questions.  How do we fund a true R&D research agenda?  How do we decide what is worthy of funding?  How do we make sure funding is used as intended and drives ROI?  And how do we define scalable reform in an industry so tied to the status quo?
As is typical for education, lots of questions.  If today is indication, we have real people with real influence committed to answering the questions.  We have real checkbooks to back up some of the rhetoric.  Now we just need the real ideas and real measures to move the discussion to true action.
  

Real 21st Century Ed Tech?

As a nation, we tend to give a great deal of lip service to the idea of a 21st century education.  Such a notion is particularly popular when international achievement rankings come out, when we see how the United States stacks up to other industrialized nations, and we all seem to preach on the need to provide a 21st century education to lead to 21st century jobs and a 21st century economy.

Can we really provide a 21st century education without focusing on the role of technology in the process?  While technology remains at the center of many an American life, our schools are still constructed around a 19th century instructional model.  Rows of desks.  A single teacher lecturing.  And technology turned off and put away.  We literally unplug many of our students as they step through the schoolhouse doors.
Yes, the White House paid note to the value of education technology last year, as it pledged to better integrate ed tech throughout the federal ESEA process.  And U.S. Department of Education officials such as Karen Cator have long been advocating for the National Education Technology Plan released late last year.  But how do such commitments translate into action items that are felt in classrooms across the country?
Yesterday, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) released An Ed Tech Trio for 2011: ISTE’s U.S. Education Technology Priorities.  Following up on its popular Top 10 list of ed tech issues last year, ISTE’s Ed Tech Trio keys in on specific, actionable items that Congress can take on to demonstrate a true commitment to ed tech.  The trifecta includes:
* Providing dedicated federal funding for ed tech programs such as Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) and Preparing Teachers for Digital Age Learners Act (PTDAL)
* Demanding that federal school turnaround efforts, including Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation, include an ed tech component
* Ensuring broadband for all students, both in the classroom and outside of classroom hours
It is no secret that well-conceived ed tech can serve an important role in addressing all four of the education pillars moved forward by EdSec Arne Duncan and the ESEA blueprint last year.  From standards to data systems, teacher quality to turnaround schools, ed tech can and does play an essential role.  For instance, programs like EETT (which has never been adequately funded by Congress) provide invaluable professional development and support in ed tech for classroom teachers. 
At the end of the day, funding is king in the world of education priorities.  If Congress is serious about ed tech, it’ll again find a way to fund efforts such as EETT.  It’ll find the funding to match the promise in the recently signed American COMPETES Act, which moves our STEM commitment forward.  And it will even direct specific dollars to ensure that NETP is acted on in classrooms across the country.
It’s time to plug our classrooms back in and provide all students the true 21st century education we just love to talk about.  After all, do we really think we can move toward an instructional world filled with e-learning and virtual schools and OER if we don’t have teachers trained on technology and broadband in all schools?
(Full disclosure, Eduflack has advised ISTE and other ed tech groups over the years.)

Dr. King’s Dream

Today, the nation honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the central leaders of the civil rights movement.  While much can be written and much can be said about Dr. King, his actions, his impact on our community, and even its modern-day applications for issues like education reform and school equity, none of it can really match MLK’s words themselves.

On August 28, 1963, King led the March on Washington, issuing one of the greatest, and perhaps most well-known, civil rights speeches of history.  While most have heard bits and pieces of the “I Have a Dream” speech, it is worth listening to the entire sermon in its entirety.  Powerful, powerful stuff.
Perhaps even more insightful is his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  
These lessons may be a half-century old, but the premise, insights, and inspiration still hold in 2011.