Saving Our Schools?

Most of those who read the education blogosphere or follow the myriad of edu-tweeters know that this weekend is the “Save Our
Schools” rally
 in Washington, DC.  On Saturday, teachers, parents, and concerned citizens with gather on the Ellipse.  They are encouraged to “arrive early to enjoy performances, art, and more!” and they are slated to hear from Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, Jose Vilson, Deborah Meier, Monty Neill, and “other speakers, musicians, performance poets, and more.”  This collection “will encourage, educate, and support this movement.”

For weeks now, we’ve seen the media savvy folks in the Save Our Schools clique use their blogs and Twitter feeds to promote the rally.  Ravitch has been touting it since its inception.  Teacher Ken has written about it on multiple blog platforms.  And Nancy Flanagan has used her perch at Education Week to tout the event, its justification, and its potential significance.
As I’ve written about many times before, successful public engagement is about far more than simply “informing” people on an issue.  Sharing information, as the slated speakers intend to do, is the easiest component of public engagement.  The hard work is affecting outcomes.  How do you move from informing at a rally to building measurable commitment to a specific solution?  How do you mobilize around that specific solution?  And ultimately, how do you successful change both thinking and action related to the issue?
To that end, rather than rehash the points and counterpoints that have been going back and forth, Eduflack simply has a few questions to ask:
* What is the expected turnout for the event?  Noting the “RSVP” function, how many actual attendees will be considered a success?  And how many physical bodies would be considered a failure?
* Will Save Our Schools disclose its funders?
* What are the tangible outcomes coming from the principles?  Does equitable funding mean moving more dollars into failing schools, or can it mean a new formula where funding follows the student?  Where do the dollars for all of the “full funding” come from?  What specific “multiple and varied assessments” are “demanded?”  What exactly do you propose for curriculum development (recognizing the bullets under the principle of curriculum seem to have little do do with actual curriculum development)?
* How does a weekend of speeches, music, and art “draw sustained attention to the critical issues?”
* And why are you following the kiss of death for many recent education movements, opening a “Save Our Schools” store?
I’m all for people have a good, fun time during these hot and humid summer days in our nation’s capital.  But if one is serious about school improvement (setting aside whether SOS’ agenda can be considered “improvement”), you need to offer a little more than arts and crafts.  Set an agenda.  Publicly disclose intentions.  Establish clear, measurable goals and report back on progress.  Allow the same public you are appealing to now to hold you accountable a year from now.  Without that, it is just another fun day in the sun, with chants of “go schools!” between games of ultimate frisbee.  And that gets us no closer to improving student achievement and potential for success.
 

The ROI on $5B

Over at The Wall Street Journal this weekend, Jason L. Riley provides an interesting write-up of his interview with Bill Gates.  The lead question was whether the $5 billion spent to date by the Gates Foundation on education reform in the United States was worth it.

In the piece, Gates reflects on how little influence such donations can have on our education culture, while touting the Foundation’s commitment to innovation and to new looks at human capital (some of its current investments).  He spoke of the need to better engage teachers in the process and of the Common Core key to both excellence and equity in public education.
Yes, the piece provides a decent snapshot of the Foundation’s successes to date (as well as some of its missteps), but it still doesn’t answer that $5 billion question — was it worth it?
About three and a half years ago, Eduflack wrote a blog post on how we effectively fix the American high school.  Within that February 2008 musing, I asked if Gates might be better served by scrapping its plans to invest in this and that along the edges, and instead go all in in a few places, essentially building Gates school districts that could start from scratch, build a better mousetrap, and not be wedded to the issues that have dogged struggling districts for decades.  I wrote:

Instead of renovating our existing high schools, what if Gates were to build an entirely new model?  Over the past five years, Gates has learned a great deal about how, and how not, to run an effective high school.  They understand the curriculum and the need for multiple academic pathways.  They understand school structure.  They are starting to get into the HR game, focusing on the teachers that are needed to lead such classrooms.  They are quickly assembling all of the pieces.  Now we move to that bold and audacious act.

What if the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation were to take its money and build new high schools in our top 25 urban districts?  State-of-the-art buildings. Technology.  Rigorous and relevant curriculum.  Public-private partnerships.  Relevant professional development for the teachers.  Common educational standards measured across all Gates schools.  Open enrollment for all those seeking a better high school experience.  And the power of the Gates Foundation behind it.

And let’s get even bolder.  A system of public high schools managed by the Gates Foundation.  All in major cities across the nation.  All with high standards for its teachers.  All working from a common school design, a common curriculum, and common assessment that, over time, could be replicated in district after district across the nation.

So as Bill Gates, the Foundation, and the Wall Street Journal ponders the ROI to date and whether it is $5B well spent, I again raise the question.  What if the Gates Foundation were to build a system of public high schools, based on the principles Gates is trying to spread through its current giving?  What if instead of trying to renovate our existing struggling schools, we tore down and built new?  What if?

The points I made three years ago still hold true today.  And they are still questions and issues in demand of real answers.

Go to Pell!

Three years ago, President Obama boldly proclaimed that the United States would have the highest percentage of citizens with college degrees in the world by the year 2020.  To get there, we need to address a few things.  One, we need to reduce the college dropout rate (with more than one in three failing to graduate college within six years of entering).  Second, we need to get more kids in the pipeline, increasing those entering and thus increasing those successfully completely.  And third, we need to make sure that students have the funding to actually seek and complete a college degree, a challenge proving more difficult in our struggling economy.
The federal Pell grant program was established to provide “need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain postbaccalaureate students to promote access to postsecondary education.”  Currently, Pell grants are capped at $5,500 per student per year.
As part of the CR earlier this year, Congress acted to slash total Pell funding by nearly a third, while reducing that individual grant maximum by a sizable amount (as the cost of attending postsecondary education continues to rise).  And the current fight over the debt ceiling and future budgets signals that Pell may be facing even deeper cuts.
Second Act.  The education community rises to act.  Reformers and status quoers joining together to protect Pell funding, protect college access, and protect our national commitment that any one can and should pursue a postsecondary education.
Over at Education Trust, they are promoting their Save Pell Day, where next Monday advocates will take to Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms to defend the Pell grant program.  The Education Equality Project is encouraging friends to sign a save Pell petition.  Even groups like USPIRG are getting into the action, lending some voice in defense of Pell.
(Of course, for those who think the fight is already over, you can take a look at this letter some academic scholars prepared for the College Board, outlining how to move forward following a complete cutting of such an important program.)
With most education policy issues, we struggle to see how a specific decision affects individual people.  Will a family in Tonawanda, NY really feel the state’s Race to the Top grant?  Did that second grader in Jackson, MS really benefit from Reading First?  Will changes to the Title I formula really be felt by that specific elementary school in South Central LA?  In most cases, no.
But Pell is one of those rare issues where we can clearly see the specific people affected.  We can name the kids who may have to drop out of the local college because of a $2k cut to their Pell.  We know the specific student who isn’t applying to college because she head Pell grants are being reduced.  We can put a very real face on a very serious problem.
In communications, it is often said the most effective of communication strategies are storytelling and personalization.  In the Pell fight, it is both an engaging story and thoroughly personal.  Just take a look at the voices rallying to Save Pell before the U.S. House of Representatives’ first vote on the issue next week.
      

State Budget Surpluses?

For years now, we have been hearing how state and local budgets were struggling.  States were banking their stimulus dollars (particularly their K-12 education funds) in anticipation of a far rainier day.  Education budgets frozen.  Teachers jobs eliminated.  Purchases of textbooks or technology frozen.  All because of growing budget deficits and the looming absence of stimulus funds to prop up the states.

Eduflack even opined on it back in the summer of 2009, when then-new NCSL data showed massive budget gaps in those states originally teed up to be potential Race to the Top winners.
The “sky is falling” mentality has only grown more acute over the last year, as states and localities have been wringing their hands over two issues.  The first is the long-term cost of budget items, essentially the “pensionability” of actions such as giving teachers raises.  The second, and far more serious, concern is the overhaul coming to state Medicaid requirements, and the astronomical related costs coming to a state near you in 2014.
So we’ve become accustomed to the “end of days” rhetoric that has dogged state politics, and by extension state education policy, the past two or so years.  Then something comes along that causes us to re-center our thinking on the whole matter.
Under the headline, “Many states celebrate surpluses as Congress struggles with debt,” the Washington Times notes that “a dozen states ended fiscal 2011 with surpluses.”  Those states include Indiana (which just gave non-pensionable bonuses to state employees), Idaho, Maine, Iowa, Ohio, Arkansas, and South Carolina.
But as NCSL revealed in 2009, many of these states were already the “low-hanging fruit” when it came to states with reversible budget problems.  Even Ohio, which once faced an $8 billion deficit faced a gap less than 5 percent of the total fund.  In fact, when we look again at the states singled out by the Washington Times, and then look at what Eduflack wrote in July of 2009:
On the flip side, there are some interesting states that appear to be in the best financial shape, where their budget gaps are less than 5 percent of the general fund, meaning (in theory) that public education will face a scalpel, and not an axe.  So there may be opportunities in states like Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio to quickly put real reforms in place and document the impact it is having on student learning.

Without a crystal ball, we predicted that states like Arkansas, Indiana, and Ohio would have the opportunity to address those projected budget gaps in a way that would not cause grave physical harm to public education in those states.  In Indiana, for example, Gov. Mitch Daniels seems to have done that, enacting real school reforms (though the impact of changes to public employees in general obviously has real impact on the teachers leading our classrooms).  In Ohio, we still need to wait to see the long-term impact, as Gov. John Kasich has addressed the overall budget, but did so as Ohio schools were already suffering from cuts and freezes enacted by his predecessor.  Like it or not, that scalpel has led to real education reform policies, including those focused on teacher quality and LIFO. 
So it begs some important questions.  In these dozen states that have done the impossible, and turned budget gaps into surpluses, how does education spending today, at the end of FY2011, measure up to K-12 education spending in FY2008?  What changes, if any, have been made to ensure that school improvement efforts are adequately funded, and that reduced school spending isn’t simply going to fund that which isn’t working?  And perhaps most importantly, how are these surpluses being designated, particularly as we think about the miles to go on real school improvement in these states?

Injecting Tech Into Assessment

As we all well know, last year the U.S. Department of Education awarded $350 million to develop new assessments to go with our Common Core State Standards.  Those assessment consortia — the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) — have been working to start developing the tests that measure the achievement of the student performance against the new common standards.

Since the beginning of the consortia effort, questions have been raised.  Recently, many have asked about the progress of the consortia, wondering if they will be able to deliver test to states for implementation in 2014.  But queries about technology have existed before the feds even cut the checks, with initial hypotheses (since proven incorrect) saying that PARCC wasn’t even interested in the adoption of new technologies in its assessment model.
To help focus on the issues of technology and CCSS assessment, the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) recently released Technology Requirements for Large-Scale Computer-Based and Online Assessment: Current Status and Issues, a discussion draft report currently available on www.assess4ed.net, a new online community supported by the U.S. Department of Education to explore RttT assessment issues.  
Among the issues posed by SETDA in the discussion draft:
* Striking the right balance in specifying technology requirements, while recognizing the heterogeneity of the technology in use in schools today and tomorrow;
* The specifications for test administration – including especially the length of the testing window – may have the single greatest impact on school technology readiness for computer-based and online assessment;
* Coordinating technology requirements, management, and related costs for assessment with other educational technology investments;
* Employing IT industry best practices to extract cost-savings via the shift to computer-based and online assessment;
* Creating processes and plans to both take advantage of future technology innovations and to take out of service obsolete technology;
* Architecting a system that can accommodate the trend away from seat time requirements and toward increasing online and blended (part-online, part face-to-face settings) enrollments;
* Striking and maintaining the right balance between comparability and validity in implementing next generation assessment systems;
* Providing meaningful opportunities for students and teachers to become comfortable with the assessment technology prior to implementation; and
* Coordinating work with state and district technology leadership.
Without question, Eduflack applauds SETDA for asking the right questions and pointing to the right issues when it comes to technology and the next generation of student assessments.  And the report is particularly useful in providing a series of charts and graphs on both CCSS and the states themselves.
As this Technology Requirements was issued as a draft for review and comment, I just can’t miss the opportunity to provide two comments (additions really) for the authors to consider:
* In addition to providing meaningful opportunities for students and teachers to become comfortable with the assessment technology, there is a real opportunity to position the ed tech standards (NETS) established by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) as a key component for linking technology, assessment, instruction, and learning. 
* While online assessments are important, they really only get us half of the way to our destination.  If we are serious about deploying meaningful tests that will serve our states and districts for decades to come, we must look at exams that are both online and adaptive.  Adaptive testing technologies are advancing rapidly.  Some states, particularly those in SBAC are already using online adaptive technologies to build a better testing mousetrap.  We need to learn from those states, constructing for the future of testing, not for its past.
Now is the time to speak up folks.  SETDA has put a valuable and intriguing marker down on the the discussion of technology and assessment.  Contribute to the discussion, both through the draft report and through www.assess4ed.net.  These are important discussions.  Speak now or forever hold your peace.

The NEA Post-Mortem

Now that the the National Education Association has wrapped up its 90th Representative Assembly, there are some interesting head scratchers that come out of the NEA Convention.  In a meeting that is part union hall, part political convention, and part educator rally, the NEA moved forward a few ideas and notions that better help us see why it can be so difficult to figure out where public education is and should be headed in this country:

* NEA moved to condemn, but not call for the ouster of, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan (most notably for his support of teacher firings in Rhode Island and presumably for his defense of the tying student performance data to teachers in Los Angeles), yet then turned around and endorsed President Barack Obama for 2012.  If there was ever a cabinet secretary in tune with his president, it is Duncan.  So are we truly upset with Duncan or truly content with Obama’s leadership?  And if it is the latter, are we endorsing his work in issues like the economy and healthcare, and setting aside concerns with his Administration’s education policies?  And was endorsing Obama in 2011 an apology for waiting so long to endorse him in 2008?
* NEA officially placed Teach for America on its public enemies list.  For years, union leaders have tried to discount the role that TFA does or should play in public education.  In recent years, union cities like Boston have complained about TFA teachers taking away previously union jobs.  So now the NEA has a policy stance that matches its rhetoric regarding the TFA movement.  But what about those TFA teachers who are members of their local unions?  How do they show up at the next union ice cream social?
* NEA approved the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, with one important caveat.  Yes, the NEA said, student test scores should be one of the elements used to determine the effectiveness of a teacher.  The catch?  NEA says that there are no current student tests that meet the standard for the tests allowed under the new NEA policy.  Essentially, we will gladly be measured by student test scores assuming the test meets our criteria.  But since no current tests do (and we assume the new ones being developed through RttT Assessment grants won’t either), I guess you just can’t use test scores to evaluate teachers.  Take that LA and NYC!
* Interestingly, President Obama did not attend.  Instead, NEA had Vice President Joe Biden.  Always a good draw for a union event, Biden seemed to deliver as folks expected him to, positioning education as political issue (Democrats get it right, and Republicans get it wrong), throwing some red meat (GOP healthcare vouchers are no different than school vouchers),  Even more curious, Biden said that the education debate was one about “economic opportunity and concentration of wealth.”  Silly me, here I thought it was about providing all children, regardless of race, socioeconomic status or geography, with a top-notch public education.
Special thanks to Stephen Sawchuk for providing the play-by-play on the NEA for Education Week.  Sawchuk’s coverage over at Teacher Beat provided terrific insight into what was happening in Chicago.  It was almost as if I could hear the “Brother” this and “Sister” that right on the Assembly floor.  I can’t wait for AFT!

Cheatin’ on Peach Tree Street

The big edu-news of the week has to be the ever-evolving cheating scandal down in Atlanta.  The allegations had already brought down a superintendent of the year, one who was once rumored to be on the short list for U.S. Secretary of Education.  The report released by the Georgia governor notes cheating in 80 percent of the schools reviewed, with 178 teachers and 38 principals named in the scheme.  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has the full story here.

Critics are quick to use this scandal to condemn testing and accountability in general, stating that our high-stakes, AYP era made these educators act the way they did.  They had no choice.  With high expectations, they had to use any means necessary to demonstrate student proficiency.  If that meant erasing a number of bubbles in the name of APS’ reputation, then so be it.
And it isn’t like this is the only incident of district-wide cheating we’ve heard of in recent years.  There is the current investigation in Baltimore.  And who can forget the huge expose that USA Today did on potential cheating in Washington, DC.  
There is a difference, though, beyond the scale of the allegations.  In DC and Baltimore, folks were quick to condemn the leadership for taking shortcuts.  And we were quick to remind people that those districts were headed by upstart “reformers” looking to change the way we teach.  So in their quest to demonstrate their model works, of course they would do whatever it took to post student gains, right?
But Atlanta paints a very different picture.  Superintendent Hall is the very model of a status quo superintendent.  Her tenure in Atlanta surpasses just about any current urban superintendent.  She’s part of the old guard, and was regularly put forward as an example that one doesn’t have to blow up the central office and preach reform to generate the sort of student achievement numbers most urban districts only dream about.  So if there is some malfeasance, it must be the devil’s work.  It must be the doing of that dear ol’ mephistopheles known as NCLB/AYP. 
There is never a good reason why a school or district should engage in systematic cheating on assessments.  Even with the best of intentions, such actions only serve to destroy the lives of educators and embarrass the students.  Such actions only undo the good changes and improvements that may be happening in a district.  And such actions only throw more fuel on the fire regarding public perceptions of failing schools and incapable educators.  Instead of everyone winning by some short-term student gains, everyone — particularly the students — loses when details and stories such as these go public.
Yes, we feel better when it is one isolated teacher or school that engages in such behavior, versus an entire district that uses rubber gloves to eliminate fingerprints and allegedly handed out cheat sheet transparencies to make changing answers that much easier.  We don’t want to believe that such actions can be systemic.  Now Atlanta has shown us otherwise.
What comes next?  We are already hearing of potential criminal charges and calls for the denial of pensions and benefits down in Atlanta.  But such does little to help those students who were positioned as part of the Atlanta “miracle” only to find they aren’t quite as proficient as they once believed.  The students are the real victims here, and punishing individual teachers does little to make them whole or to fix the underlying issue.  In what will clearly be “I was just following orders” defense, a few administrators will take the fall, with the rest left to pick up the pieces.
But it begs an important question — what if all of that time and effort was put into actually teaching the students?  What if instead of the “changing parties” educators used the time for additional tutoring or instruction for the students?  
Then again, Atlanta could have always done what so many other states and districts did during the NCLB era — just lower its standards.  It is much easier to just lower the bar, year after year, rather than look for way to enhance performance through answer-changing methods.  I guess lowering the bar is just so 2005.