Chiefs, Change, Cheers?

Nearly a decade ago, a new organization of chief state school officers was charting new ground.  The Education Leaders Council (ELC) was THE hip group to belong to.  NCLB was the freshly minted law of the land.  Chiefs, influencers, and vendors wanted to be part of the ELC posse, seeing the group as the drivers of NCLB in key states.  And many were believing ELC would overtake the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) as the state supe organization of choice, becoming the state ed policy voice in the country.  Five short years later, ELC was no longer.

Late last year, five up-and-coming, reform-minded chief state school officers announced the launch of “Chiefs for Change,” a group designed to push state-level policy issues from the state supe level.  The founding members were Florida’s Eric Smith, Indiana’s Tony Bennett, Louisiana’s Paul Pastorek, Rhode Island’s Deborah Gist, and Virginia’s Gerard Robinson.  Since establishing the group, Smith has announced he is stepping down from his post as Florida’s top education voice.
Last week, five new members were named to the state ed policy reform cabal.  The new five are Maine’s Stephen Bowen, New Jersey’s Chris Cerf, New Mexico’s Hanna Skandera, Oklahoma’s Janet Barresi, and Tennessee’s Kevin Huffman.
Chiefs for Change is promising to be very much a policy-driving organization, far more so than CCSSO.  Its nine and a half members (including Smith) are committed to finding a common voice on issues like teacher evaluation and testing.  They clearly will offer some rhetorical hand grenades when it comes to ESEA reauthorization.  So where will they come down on the issues?
While many are quick to say the group is non-partisan (or at least bi-partisan), take a look at the roster.  Of the 10 members, nine represent states helmed by Republican governors, and one (RI) now represents an independent governor.  One can also find deep roots to both the Jeb Bush family tree of ed reformers, as well as to the formal “Education Reform” community.  And there are a number of states represented who now have ties to Michelle Rhee and her relatively new “StudentsFirst” organization.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  It is still too early to tell.  Twenty percent of the nation’s chief state school officers have decided to join together to offer a louder, more coordinated voice on education policy.  Those chiefs sing from the same hymnal on many of the key policy issues of the day.  Some states (Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, Indiana) are now seen as major ed reform states.  Others (Virginia, New Jersey, Maine) can best be called defenders of the status quo, at least historically.  All (except for Indiana and Louisiana) are working with governors in the first halves of their terms, meaning they may have real time to bring real change. 
What’s left to be seen is HOW Chiefs for Change plans to operate.  In deconstructing ELC, one of its challenges is it tried to out-CCSSO CCSSO, building a similar model, similar management structure, and similar expectations.  Instead of being a nimble rump group focused on change, it almost tried to build CCSSO 2.0.  And we clearly didn’t need a newer version of the established organization.
So the question before Chiefs is how it functions.  If it throws aside process in favor of results, it has potential.  If it is designed to serve as an advocacy soapbox for reform-minded supes, it brings promise.  And if it is willing to take provocative stances on complex and controversial policy issues, it could signal progress.
At this point, Chiefs for Change doesn’t need to look to recruit new members or scope out locations for its 2012 annual conference.  It has critical mass, and it has some forward-looking chiefs who know how to use 21st century communications tools to replace those by-gone days of three-day conferences.  Instead, Chiefs for Change needs its nail its version of 95 Theses to the schoolhouse door.  And it needs to do so now, before ESEA is rewritten.  
We all recognize that the states are where ed policy action is happening.  The feds have played their hand, and are now looking for some additional dollars to buy back into the game.  Statehouses now have the power, and state chiefs are holding all the cards.  If we are going to see real movement in the area of school improvement, we need a real call to action at the state level.  Chiefs for Change could be that vehicle, if it learns from the past and engages for the future.

A Product of Public Schools

Earlier this week, the New York Times’ Michael Winerip offered a piece looking at the nation’s leading education reformers and where they themselves went to school.  It should come as no surprise to those in the education space that many of the names closely associated with either the ed reform community or politicians with a keen eye toward education are products of a non-public school education.  In a suspenseful follow-up, we may also learn that many ed reformers — particularly those in urban settings — are sending their kids to private schools.

So Eduflack wants to set the record straight.  I am not, nor have I ever been, a student at a private institution of learning.  In fact, I attended six public schools in four different states during my K-12 run, including: Cottage Street Elementary School (Sharon, MA); Linden Avenue School (Glen Ridge, NJ); Ridgewood Avenue School (Glen Ridge, NJ); Capshaw Junior High (Santa Fe, NM); Santa Fe HIgh School (Santa Fe, NM); and Jefferson High School (Shenandoah Junction, WV). 
For good measure, I even slummed it at a little public university called the University of Virginia.
And yes, my kids will be attending public schools, with the edu-son starting kindergarten in September.  I even went old school, choosing my current residence because of the quality of the public schools.  Go figure.
So what does this mean?  I have no idea, just as I have no idea what to take from the NYT piece.  Am I more or less qualified to talk ed reform because I went to several mediocre public schools?  Does that diploma from a consolidated county high school in West Virginia give me some added gravitas?  Or should we just be looking at the substance of ideas to the school improvement debate?  Anyone?    

The CR Ain’t All Bad …

Last week, Eduflack detailed the long and distinguished list of “losers” in the FY2011 Continuing Resolution and the ongoing budget fight between the White House and Congress.  All those billions that both sides had to cut needed to come from somewhere and, unfortunately, education was unable to avoid the knife.

Fortunately, President Obama made it easy for those looking to nip and tuck from the ED budget.  In the previous two budget cycles, Obama offered up lists of programs to either be eliminated or consolidated in the ED budget.  Those programs eliminated were often cited for a lack of efficacy.  Those consolidated into a potential competitive grant program were victims of a new world order when competition is king, and the dollars for a competitive process needed to come from somewhere.  So if the President wasn’t going to protect specific education programs in his own budget, it made them easy pickin’s for an opposition Congress.
But it seems there was a bit of good edu-news in the CR after all.  Yes, we saw increased in Race to the Top ($700 million), Investing in Innovation ($150 million), and Promise Neighborhoods ($20 million more).  But there was also some interesting policy language inserted into the CR.
While campaigning in 2008, Obama often spoke of the importance of early childhood education.  Good ECE and good parenting were the cornerstone to his child development plans.  But that rhetoric never seemed to translate into real policies.  Parental engagement continues to lag, despite both authority and funding under NCLB.  And although ECE offered real promise in 2008, the realities of state budget cuts have stymied expansion plans, with ED and HHS relatively unsure of who should actually take control of moving strong, evidence-based ECE into practice.  At least until last week, say the experts.
Buried in the wording regarding the additional $700 million for RttT is language that adds a new priority to ED’s prized RttT.  ED, along with early childhood education advocates, are touting the addition of “Improving Early Childhood Care and Education” as a RttT priority and something Race dollars can now fund.  (Always the skeptic, Eduflack must admit that I’m still not completely sure how this differs from the original Priority 3: Invitational Priority — Innovations for Improving Early Learning Outcomes, but I must just be hung up on the language of the language.)
This is potentially a major step forward for ECE in two ways.  First, it opens up new funding streams.  While it doesn’t provide specific, dedicated ED funds for ECE, it does confirm that RttT dollars can be spent on early childhood education.  ECE can now be a fundable component of those grants seeking a piece of the $700 million in extra pie.  And one could even make the case of adding ECE efforts to the current RttT winners’ effort.
More importantly, though, the language addition signals a general commitment — from both the Administration and the Congress — that early childhood education is a key component of the educational continuum.  We turn around low-performing schools, in part, by better preparing kids for school in the first place.  We address the dropout and remediation problems by ensuring that kindergartners are not starting the formal learning process a year or two behind some of their classmates.  We make a difference by providing instructional building blocks early and often, finally declaring that ECE, if done correctly, is more than just babysitting on the cream and the clear.
While there is still much work to be done to build up our national commitment to high-quality early childhood education, the new RttT language is definitely a start.  Add some significant dedicated funding, and we might really have something here.
  
UPDATE: So sometimes a priority just isn’t a priority.  Per my confusion about Priority 3: Invitational Priority versus this new priority in the CR.  As it has been explained to me, the Priority 3 is the “absolute, competitive and invitational priorities” in the original RttT applications.  The new priority, on improving early childhood care and education, added a new priority to the RttT authorization statute.  So early childhood now joins 1) maintenance of effort; 2) achieving equity in teacher distribution; 3) improving collection and use of data; 4) standards and assessment; and 5) supporting struggling schools.    

Finding Heart in School Budgets

OK, I’ll admit it.  Eduflack has always been a data guy.  I like to see the proof.  I want to measure effectiveness based on outcomes.  I make jokes about those who emphasize (or solely focus on) the inputs that go into our educational systems.

As many readers know, one of the hats I wear away from this blog is that of local school board member.  Like most communities, this year we are grappling with larger student populations, higher costs, and shrinking municipal budgets.  For some, it is easy to make this a green eyeshade exercise, basing budgetary decisions solely on the dollars and cents.  But for a school system, doing so jeopardizes the very operation.  That “numbers only” approach forgets that schools are only as good as the educators who staff them.
What do I mean?  Check out a recent commentary I penned for one of my local media outlets.  Somewhere in the budget process — particularly for schools — we need to identify, and support, the heart and soul of our schools and our community.  Yes, we need to develop and pass responsible budgets.  But we can’t lose sight of the mission as we are looking at those columns of dollar figures.  

$4B vs. $4B

It appears that not all pots of $4 billion are created equal, at least not according to EdSec Arne Duncan.  Out at the Education Writers Association conference last week, Duncan was scratching his head regarding an interesting paradox.  We talk, ad nauseam, about the $4 billion the federal government has committed to the 12 states that won Race to the Top (RttT).  But why do we say virtually nothing about the $4 billion available through the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program that is serving the lowest 5 percent of all schools in the county?

Between the lines of his question, Duncan seemed to be saying that SIG, at its heart, could ultimately have more of an impact on student achievement across the nation than our deal ol’ RttT.  After all, every state can get a piece of SIG.  SIG is targeted specifically at boosting student achievement (as opposed to Race’s multiple goals and objectives).  And ED even has specific expectations and measures to determine SIG effectiveness out of the gate.
So why is SIG not getting the love from the media or from school improvement folks that RttT is?  First and foremost, Race is sexy.  Huge dollars for a small group of states to think big thoughts and do interesting things.  A competitive process that made all states equals, where a state like Delaware can best a state like California.  The political intrigue of what states won, what states lost, and why.  A public scoring process similar to the Miss America pageant.  And repeated mentions of the promise of RttT in presidential speeches, State of the Unions, and now multiple budgets.  Obama loves Race, but seems ambivalent about SIG.
Despite all of its upside and potential as a real change agent, SIG remains a bastard stepchild in the process.  We want to talk about those states that are “winning,” not those schools that are our lowest performing.  We want to focus on best of class.  And those individual SIG grants ultimately pale in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars one particular state won in RttT competition.
It really is a shame, though.  Duncan is right; $4 billion isn’t necessarily created equal.  While Race may be a nice showhorse in the great education reform parade, SIG has is the real workhorse.  When we look at the numbers and see the challenges before our schools — particularly those serving historically disadvantaged populations — it is SIG that is going to make the real difference. 
At a time when we are lamenting education programs that have had their $20 or $25 million appropriation eliminated by the President or Congress (depending on your perspective), don’t we need a little more attention on the $4 billion that is being committed to help our truly struggling schools?  Talking about the fun a dozen states may have spending their RttT largesse is fun, but the truly interesting stories are likely what those SIG schools are actually doing to change the fates and futures of the kids who walk through their doors.
  

Education and the FY2011 Budget

Details are starting to trickle in on how the U.S. Department of Education will be affected by the budget deal cut late Friday by President Obama and congressional leaders.  And how does our little education space shake out?

The Winners
* Additional $700 million for Race to the Top (though still likely for states, not districts)
* Additional $150 million for Investing in innovation
* Additional $20 million for Promise Neighborhoods (added to original $10 million)
The Losers
* Every ED program (a 0.2%, across-the-board cut for all programs)
* Striving Readers eliminated ($250 million)
* Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) grants eliminated ($100 million)
* $97 million cut to Safe and Drug-Free Schools
* Smaller Learning Communities eliminated ($88 million)
* $73 million cut for Teaching of Traditional History
* Even Start eliminated ($66.5 million)
* LEAP eliminated ($63.9 million)
* Robert C. Byrd Scholarships eliminated ($42 million)
* Arts in Education eliminated ($40 million)
* National Writing Project eliminated ($25.6 million)
* $25 million cut for TRIO
* Reading is Fundamental eliminated ($24.8 million)
* $20 million cut for state assessments
* $20 million cut for GEAR UP
* Literacy Through School Libraries eliminated ($19.1 million)
* Teach for America eliminated ($18 million)
* $15 million cut for English Language Acquisition State Grants
* $13 million cut for Regional Education Labs
* $13 million cut for Recordings for the Blind
* Grants to Gulf Coast States eliminated ($12 million)
* National Board for Professional Teaching Standards eliminated ($10.6 million)
* $10 million cut for School Improvement Grants (SIG)
* Special Olympics eliminated ($8.1 million)
* Javitz Gifted and Talented program eliminated ($7.5 million)
* $5 million cut for Comprehensive Centers
* $5 million cut for Teacher Quality State Grants
* Thurgood Marshall Legal Scholarships eliminated ($3 million)
* STEM foreign language teacher training eliminated ($2.2 million)
* Underground Railroad program eliminated ($1.9 million)
* Close Up Fellowships eliminated ($1.9 million)
* $1 million cut for ESEA evaluation
And, perhaps most devastating, the Historic Whaling and Trading Partners program was eliminated, at a tune of $8.8 million.
As a parting gift, it looks like Congress will set us a new 1 percent competitive grant program, about $29.4 million, in the Teacher Quality State Grants program.  This will allow some eliminated efforts — like TFA, NBPTS, and the Writing Project, to compete for some additional funding.
Of course, none of this should come as any surprise.  For the past two presidential budgets, the White House has offered up all of the above programs for either elimination or consolidation.  So when Congress is looking to make cuts, the logical place to go is after those programs that President Obama himself has signaled as non-essential (even if he intended to allow them to compete for consolidated money through a competitive grant program).

The Perfect and the Good

For much of the last week, Eduflack has been down in New Orleans, living the edu-life.  First stop was the Education Writers Association (EWA), followed by a multi-day play at the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

(As an aside, EWA has to be my favorite conference of the year.  I have to attend A LOT of education events each year, and I thoroughly enjoy EWA.  It is a fantastic opportunity for me to get to know a lot of the reporters and bloggers I know virtually, and I always get a kick when some of the associates consider me a “journalist” because of this little blog.)
At any rate, there was clearly a catch phrase at EWA this year from the policymakers and talking heads trying to influence reporter-think.  “Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”  While I would argue that none of us in attendance are exactly a 21st century Voltaire, it was an interesting observation heard over multiple days.
EdSec Arne Duncan used it in reference to ESEA reauthorization.  Again stating his belief that we will have reauth done before the start of the school year (and more importantly, noting that we NEED to have it done be by the end of the summer), Duncan made clear that ESEA won’t be perfect (he didn’t quite make Margaret Spellings’ 99.94% pure remarks).  But real improvements must be made to the current law.  We know what those improvements are.  We have some agreement on those improvements.  So let’s move forward now down the good path, knowing ESEA will never be perfect for all comers.
The battle between the perfect and the good was also made with regard to teachers and value-added evaluation.  In discussing the great siege on Los Angeles teachers in 2010 (the LA Times is releasing version two of its teacher database in the next week or two) and similar pending efforts in NYC, the general sense was that revealing such data is a “good thing,” albeit an imperfect thing. 
And similar remarks made testing and assessment blush, particularly on issues like common standards and adequately and fairly measuring student achievement across the nation and around the world.
It is all a subtle shift in rhetoric, but an important one for the school improvement debate.  For about a decade now, we were certain in what we needed to do.  NCLB was perfect (or 99.94% so).  RF was perfect.  SBR was perfect.  AYP was perfect.  And even now, CCSSI is perfect.  But with all of this perfection, we’ve seen little growth in student achievement and little agreement on the paths we should head, the speed we should take, and the ultimate destination we should seek.
So now we are focusing on common sense progress.  What incremental steps can we take?  What promising practices can we follow?  What gets us half of the way forward?  Instead of throwing that Hail Mary we’ve all sought in education for decades, we have made the decided shift to a “three yards and a cloud of dust” approach lately.  (Sorry, Mr. Duncan, they can’t all be basketball metaphors.)
Such a rhetorical adjustment has both its pluses and its negatives.  It is harder for the opposition to remain strong when they aren’t fighting an “all or nothing” approach.  It is more difficult to stand against forward progress, even if it is slow.  But it is also more difficult rally strong support.  For supporters, who wants to go slow or compromise or wait patiently?
Will the education community’s embrace of Voltaire win the day?  The challenge EdSec Duncan and his supporters in the ed space have is a matter of priority.  Championing the good is a fine strategy if we can identity primary and secondary needs at this point.  But with ESEA, a range of funding issues from RttT to SIG, common core standards, revisions to AYP, teacher performance and incentive issues, and a host of other topics, something has to give.  In the pursuit of the good, we have to recognize that even good can be subjective.  We’ll never be perfect, but we still need to determine those one or two issues on which we can be really good this year.