Education: At Least We Aren’t the Oil Industry?

We regularly hear about what a noble profession education is.  We all can tell stories of those teachers who inspired us and those educators who placed us on the the paths of success.  We talk about how education is a top three policy issue, with voters making decisions based on education policy.

And then some new data comes out to throw that conventional thinking off kilter.  Two weeks ago, the latest Gallup/PDK Poll reported that only 17 percent of Americans give our public schools either an A or a B.  Yesterday, Gallup released its survey on how business sectors rate (either positive or negative).  And the results were a little startling.
The industry with the most positive view, according to the more than 1,000 surveyed, was the computer industry, followed by the restaurant industry.  The oil and gas industry had the largest negative opinion, beating out the federal government by just one percentage point (64% negative to 63% negative), though the feds had the largest gap between positive view and negative view (a 46-point spread).
And how did the education sector do?  Of the 25 sectors surveyed, education placed 19th, with Americans having a more negative opinion about education than they do about accountants, pharmaceuticals, the airlines, and even PR flacks.  Education posted a 35-percent positive/47-percent negative rating, placing it slightly above industries such as lawyers, bankers, and big oil. 
What’s more troubling, though, is the trend.  According to Gallup, in the last decade, education’s positive ranking have fell by 15 points.  In 2001, half of all Americans had a positive view of the education sector.  Today, it is down to a third.  Only three industries (banking, real estate, and the federal government) had larger declines in that period, and all three are seen as the major actors for our current economic problems.
Are our growing negative opinions of public schools, illustrated by both the PDK poll and Gallup industry survey, a result of declining test scores?  Of recent criticisms of teachers and the call for performance-based evaluations?  Of drum beats of dropout factories and sliding graduation rates?  Of ongoing stories of lowered state standards and rising numbers of schools failing to make AYP?  Of a head-in-the-sand mentality that our schools have never been better and resistance (or outright assault) on school improvement efforts is necessary? 
One thing is clear.  When only one-third of your potential customers have a positive view of your industry, you have a problem.  And when less than 20 percent of those you serve believe they are getting a good product (A or B level), you have a serious problem.  These trends are not a blip, nor are they something one can ride out.  
And let’s be clear about it.  This is not an NCLB problem, an AYP problem, a Race to the Top problem, or a teacher quality problem.  This is a public education problem.      

Advocating from the School Board Bench

In the era of No Child Left Behind, we’ve heard a great deal about how local school boards have no productive role in 21st century education.  Some see the power shifting toward the states and the federal government, with school boards simply left to rubber stamp what comes from on high.  Others, like the Fordham Institute’s Checker Finn, seem to think such boards are just a breeding ground for political wannabes or former district employees with an axe to grind.

But as someone who actually serves on one of those local school boards, Eduflack can say there is a real role for local school boards to play in advocating for policies that can improve opportunity and success for all students.  There is a place to champion effective instruction and learning.  And there is a way to help build a better mousetrap to to address those directives coming from the feds or the state.
Don’t believe me?  I’m ok with that.  But you should believe Fred Deutsch.  Mr. Deutsch is a member of the Watertown School Board in South Dakota.  We actually became friends over this blog years ago, as he would provide insights on how my national opining here was playing out on the ground in his community in South Dakota.  And as I’ve learned over the years, he really is dealing with the very best and the very worst in local public education, with the latest being plans to cut back to a four-day school week in South Dakota due to budget shortfalls.
Despite those challenges, Fred has been a passionate advocate for school board member advocacy.  His work has been featured nationally, and he has led presentations to help local school board members find their advocacy voice.  And since I posed a question to EdSec Arne Duncan for his Twitter town hall today on what the role of local school boards should be in our post-NCLB, waiver environment, I thought it appropriate to highlight some of the recommendations offered by Fred:
* At the heart of school board advocacy is the belief that people that know best are those closest to the child
* Part of the job of school board members is to represent the best interests of our children to those that make the laws
* We must share our stories.  Legislators must understand how the decisions they make impact our children at the local level
* The “Foundation of Effective Advocacy” is to develop one’s “relationships, facts, and passion”
* Invest yourself into development relationships with lawmakers — but not just during session.  To win the advocacy game, we need to develop and nurture relationships throughout the year
* Understand the data
Deutsch also focuses a great deal on passion.  Passion: It’s what drives us.  It is what stirs us to action.  It overcomes roadblocks.  It persists through failure.  And it persists through crap.
For those who would like to see Fred Deutsch’s full PowerPoint, it can be found here.  The deck is also full of many useful links for finding information, with a distinct South Dakota flavor.
As local school boards prepare for yet another unpleasant budget cycle, Deutsch’s points are important ones for us to consider.  He paints a picture of a school board that is informed, engaged, and involved.  It is a snapshot of a board with a mission and with clear goals.  And it is a diagram of a school board that serves the community, the schools, and, most importantly, the students.
Important lessons to digest and employ.  And kudos to Fred Deutsch, the Watertown School Board, and the many school boards like it that serve to have a real impact on the learning and achievement of all students.  

Empty Bookshelves?

As a student, I always loved the start of a new school year.  The weeks leading up to that first day meant new shoes (though I was never able to buy the expensive brand names, and <tear> never owned a pair of Air Jordans).  It meant new school clothes (for me, typically purchased from the husky department at Sears).  And it most definitely meant a visit to the stationery store, where I got to choose from a plethora of new pens, notebooks, and other “needed” supplies.

To this day, I am still a pen guy (though my tastes are much more expensive now).  And I was extremely excited to take my oldest school supply shopping a few weeks ago, as we prepare for the demands of the first day of kindergarten.
In reading the latest news, though, it seems the one thing I took for granted at the start of the school year was always expecting there would be new textbooks waiting for me in the new classroom.  The smell of fresh print.  The crack of a new spine.  The opportunity to be the first name in a textbook that would be circulated for the next six or eight years.  The issuance of textbooks was a central part of the start of the school year.
Unfortunately, many kids down in Texas won’t have that experience this week.  According to the San Antonio Express-News, many school districts could be waiting months before they have this year’s new textbooks.  The reason?  The state decided to change the textbook procurement laws, and, as a result, districts didn’t begin to place textbook orders until August 8 (when they typically make such orders in April).  A spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency told the Express-News that “publishers just couldn’t get them shipped to all the districts in the state in time for the opening day of school.”  And that’s a cryin’ shame.
But what about those classrooms that didn’t order for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt?  Do they patiently wait for books to arrive in time for Christmas?  Do they squeeze another year out of texts that should have been replaced several years ago?  Do they try and switch suppliers?  Or do they look for other options?
Those districts that have discretionary dollars have some options.  They can turn to supplemental suppliers, who can provide content not typically offered by the basals (and content that could then be used well after the textbooks arrive).  They can look to tap into open education resources and available online resources, assuming they have the technology and teachers necessary to maximize such offerings.  They can look to implement a stop-gap solution so learning doesn’t slow or stop because of lack of expected materials.  
Unfortunately, most districts don’t have such discretionary dollars these days.  Those districts are left to either make do with decade-old materials or hope they made the right choice in selection a textbook vendor that could accommodate needs for the entire academic year, despite changes in how textbooks would be ordered and funded.  And while that may work for the middle manager filling out POs, it certainly doesn’t work for the kids in need of textbooks or the teachers expected to actually instruct come the start of the school year.
I’ll let EdSec Arne Duncan and Texas Gov. Rick Perry slug it out on the quality of Texas schools and the student test scores resultant from them.  But can anyone truly start the school year without English, math, or ESOL textbooks?  And can anyone possibly say, with a straight face, that any child going a few months without a textbook isn’t going to be impacted in the long run?
If you can, I may have a book to sell you … if you can wait a few months.
(Full disclosure: Eduflack has advised Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and other publishers, basal and otherwise, over the years.)

PDK, We Have a Problem

It is that time of year again, time for the annual PDK/Gallup Poll on America’s thoughts about public education in our great nation.  And once again, the American people have demonstrated a clear schizophrenia when it comes to our classrooms.

When it comes to grading the schools attended by the surveyees’ oldest child, 79 percent of schools received a grade of A or B.  But for our nation as a whole, we only give 17 percent of our schools an A or B.
Seventy one percent of those surveyed have “trust and confidence in the men and women who are teaching children in the public schools,” yet less than one in five believe our schools are above average.  (So we trust the teachers, but don’t have any confidence in the outcomes, I suppose.)
Of those surveyed, 76 percent said we should actively recruit high-achieving students to consider teaching as a profession, but 70 percent of those surveyed said the ability to teach is a natural talent, with just 28 percent believing it can be developed in college.
The full PDK/Gallup survey can be found here, with USA Today’s write-up of the results here.  Among some of the other headscratchers:
* Fewer folks believe school districts have a harder time recruiting good teachers today (52%) than did in 2003 (61%)
* Nearly half of those surveyed (47%) believe unionization hurts the quality of public education, yet 52% side with the unions on collective bargaining issues
* People believe that “principal evaluations” are the most important criteria for determining if a teacher should keep his or her job (with student test scores coming a close second), but there is no explanation whatsoever of what a principal should be evaluating
* 74 percent of those surveyed want increased investment in school technology, but 59 percent oppose using technology to help kids learn at home (while reducing the number of hours needed in high school)
* Despite the emphasis on teacher quality, half of those surveyed would rather hire a less effective teacher than allow students to utilize online learning
Buried deep in the survey (and nowhere to be found in the PDK press release on the report), 74 percent favor public school choice, the highest level in more than two decades, and 70 percent support charter schools, the highest total ever in the PDK survey’s history.  
And the methodology?  Of the more than 1,000 surveyed, 62 percent of those surveyed did not have kids in school, while 29 percent were public school parents.  Sixty seven percent were over the age of 40.  Sixty two percent had a college education.
What do we learn from all of this?  On the whole, it seems folks are pretty happy with their local schools and their local teachers.  But they don’t know why.  They are frustrated with the quality of public education across the nation, but the give President Obama high marks for his education work.  We want technology, but we don’t want kids to use it outside of a 19th century classroom.  We like charters.  And we are basing all of this on a majority of surveyees that aren’t actually customers in this game.
At least one thing can make this local school board chairman feel good this morning.  According to PDK/Gallup, our opinion of school boards seems to be at an all-time low.

Thinking Big Ideas

What is the new normal in education?  What was the old normal?  What are the levers for improvement?  What is the role of the knowledge industry in such reforms?  Can we actually ask K-12 to do more with less?

For the past few days, these were the sorts of questions 150 or so of the nation’s leading education consulting groups, foundations, and issue organizations have been contemplating at the Knowledge Alliance’s Big Ideas Retreat 2011.  As one can suspect, particularly in the current policy environment, there were far more questions than answers.  But it was an interesting discussion of the major questions the space is facing nonetheless.

Over at Education Week, Big Ideas participant Sarah Sparks has some of her observations from the retreat.  And over at Twitter, you can check out live tweeting from the past few days, all with the #bigideas11 tag.
Rather than try to summarize the takeaways, Eduflack prefers to offer us some of my favorite ideas or quotes coming from the event’s panelists (a greatest hits list from my live tweeting over at @Eduflack).  They include:
  • How do we harness the power of technology while keeping focus on an equity agenda? (Mass. State Ed Chief Mitch Chester)
  • We are now at a point where we need to think about how we can do school differently.  And the answers come from the classroom. (DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson)
  • DCPS used to “lay down” and let charters “roll right over us.”  DCPS has now woken up (Henderson)
  • Teach for America “needs to have evidence of its efficacy.” (TFA’s Heather Harding)  
  • “Performance has now been defined in our sector.  It’s been defined by how students are doing.” (ED’s Jim Shelton)
  • With Race to the Top, “whether it will be money well spent or now, we will have to wait and see.” (Shelton)
  • We need to bring a scientific discipline to promoting local answers to education challenges. (IES Director John Easton)
  • We have to build a demand for change in education.  Supply isn’t the problem.  (Education Week’s Virginia Edwards)
  • Education research is only as good as how well we get it into the hands of educators to use it. (Edwards)
Despite how some of the comments may read, this was a group that was relatively optimistic about where public education was and could head.  While we tend to focus on the negative, plenty of folks wanted to focus on the positives.  While some may question whether real improvement can happen at scale, most acknowledged that real, lasting improvement was best left to the states and localities.  
There was also a great deal of talk about reinvesting in the notion of public engagement in public education.  How do we better involve parents?  How do we better involve practitioners?  How do we better involve students themselves?  How do we maximize social networking?  How do we change the rhetoric so it is more constructive?
What a refreshing line of thinking …

The ESEA Doomsday Scenario

After years of “will they/won’t they.” it appears the U.S. Department of Education is finally ready to move forward with its Plan B for reforming No Child Left Behind.  In a release sent out over the weekend for public consumption today, ED announced its intention to “fix” NCLB.  The announcement can be found here, courtesy of Politico.  Also note the Politico story on the matter.

Back in June, when EdSec Arne Duncan first raised the possibility of a regulatory Plan B for reauthorization, Eduflack was one of the few that actually saw it as a possibility/good idea.  Since then, little has changed.  Senate HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (IA) is still primarily focused on the higher ed side of the education coin.  House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (MN) is still looking to break ESEA into small chunks that can be consumed by members of his committee.  And the education space, as a whole, is still demanding real changes to components of the current law, most notably the accountability provisions (the dreaded AYP).
So with Duncan long promising reauthorization before the start of a new school year (and Eduflack still believes such reauthorization can happen, before the start of the 2013 school year), the EdSec had to act.  And he seems to be acting from the best script he could find, using terms like “flexibility, reform at state and local level, bridge.”  And for good measure, Duncan and White House DPC Director Melody Barnes are even tying these moves to “America’s future competitiveness.”
In the public statement, Barnes even makes not of accountability flexibility provisions coming down the pike, with each and every state in the union having the opportunity to “apply” and “succeed” for states seeking “flexibility” with regard to accountability.
Suffice it to say, this morning’s announcement will likely not go over well with Congress.  Many will see this as an end run around our legislative branch, essentially giving the executive branch the power to make law, at least with regard to ESEA.  But we’ve been waiting on congressional reauthorization of ESEA since 2007.  It is now 2011.  If Duncan and company are prepared to live with NCLB as it is mostly written, and make a few changes to address specific issues or concerns from states and localities, it is their prerogative to give it a go.  It will then be Congress’ job to either codify those changes or reverse them.
Duncan is one again declaring “game on,” trying to make education a central focus of the Obama Administration’s domestic policy agenda.  While few can think that weakening the accountability provisions is a sexy issue that will capture the hearts and minds of voters, it is a move that is responsive to a particular constituency, demonstrates a real change from the previous administration, and shows some leadership with regard to education policy.  Only time will tell if such an approach is effective, both in addressing the growing challenges in our schools and as a means of jumpstarting some real K-12 action in Congress.

Victory Is Its Own Reward

In the late 1800s, Otto von Bismarck is famously quoted as saying, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them made.”  While those in the policy world are quick to quote (or misquote) the former German politician, sometimes we just can’t resist letting folks know what happens behind closed doors or in those previously smoke-filled rooms.

The latest example?  An “unauthorized” PowerPoint deck prepared by the AFT (and bedecked with all of the necessary AFT branding and iconography) detailing how the Connecticut affiliate of the teachers’ union scuttled a push to bring a parent trigger to the Nutmeg State.  The presentation was originally offered at last month’s AFT TEACH 2011 Conference, as a learning tool for AFT members.  It was then posted on the AFT website, drawing quite the bit of attention from the edu-blogosphere (starting with a major typo on the title page).  Earlier this week the AFT took the PPT down, saying it didn’t represent the AFT.  RiShawn Biddle has the PDF of the original deck available on his Dropout Nation blog.  Alexander Russo has the AFT response over at This Week in Education.
Some of the choice highlights from the PPT deck?  Superintendents, administrators, board of education, municipalities, state department of education, and the Connecticut Education Association all decided not to get involved in the fight.  Connecticut AFT failed to kill the bill.  AFT calls out the House Education Co-Chair for “courting” members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.  AFT branded parent groups as “the opposition” in Connecticut.  AFT convinced the Legislature to adopt a solution that was “advisory,” giving those concerned parents no “true governing authority” for the solution they sought.
As part of the deck, AFT laid out what helped them in the process (including keeping charter and parents groups from the negotiating table), what hurt (including the CEA), and lessons learned (such as AFT now being the “go-to teachers’ union, despite our size.”)  It also relished a little “karma,” noting that some of the legislative leaders who did not agree with AFT were defeated in the November 2010 elections.
These AFT revelations, of course, follow on the heels of the Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman’s apology last month for the “arrogance” in his tone when he went into great detail, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, on how he successfully strong-armed the Illinois legislature to advance reform efforts in the Land of Lincoln.  
Don’t get me wrong, legislative victories, particularly on topics such as education policy, are something of which to be proud.  It is a long process with multiple players at multiple stages, requiring a delicate balance of mission, vision, budget priorities, and constituencies.  And real change often means taking from the existing to fund the improvement.
But once one figures out the secret sauce, it isn’t it far more productive to keep it under lock and key than to post the recipe on the Internet?  With so many competing interests trying to break through the white noise, why give a helping hand to a competing interest or even to the “opposition?”  Why not take satisfaction in the victory itself, knowing that you are better prepared to fight the next battle and advocate for the next reform?  Why put that target on your back, boldly declaring your superiority this year, knowing next year you’ll be the top target in a future year?  And in the case of AFT, why call out your supposed friends (like the CEA and other educator groups and the state department of education), while calling legislators’ motivations into question?  There is nothing to be gained, and everything to lose.
Perhaps we need a little more Otto con Bismarck discretion in talking about “how” education policy is developed, and a little less Jay-Z bravado.  After all, it takes a village to improve our K-12 system, doesn’t it?

Unleashing Ed Tech Potential?

It is no secret that Eduflack has been less than impressed with the federal government’s recent commitment (or lack there of) to education technology.  In recent years, federal dollars for ed tech have been a fraction of what they should be or of what other industries experience.  And this year, as part of the budget process, the White House and Congress agreed to put the EETT program out to pasture, killing a terrific program that directed needed dollars to supporting classroom educators on how best to incorporate technology into classroom instruction.

As the feds look to pare back its commitment to ed tech, it should come as no surprise that others are taking a closer look at how to direct more resource and better direct existing resource into the classroom.  Under the guide of determining how we provide a 21st century classroom and learning experience for all 21st century students, we are now seeing states, school districts, non-profits, and the private sector step in to fill a much-needed role.
The latest example of this is the Boston Consulting Group, which today released a new report entitled Unleashing the Potential of Technology in Education.  The report is best consumed in two chunks.  The first is a primer on the “closed loop instructional system,” a model that BCG researchers see as essential to maximizing technology investment in our K-12 education systems.
The second chunk is the always necessary list of recommendations for policymakers.  (And I’ll say it again, if a group issues a report without a specific call to action or clear recommendations, it may as well release a study with nothing more than blank pages.
Unleashing the Potential offers seven recommendations for decisionmakers:
* Embrace a holistic closed-loop strategy to meet clear educational goals
* Enable teachers to use and leverage technology in the classroom
* Create and engaging student experience
* Promote the development of high-quality digital assessments that enable continuous feedback
* Develop a critical mass of research that confirms – or refutes – technology’s benefits
* Enact policies that encourage and facilitate the proliferation of digital learning
* Build an information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure that enables the closed loop
Who can argue with that?  Clear goals.  Teacher empowering and student centric.  Assessments.  Research and evidence.  It sells in districts urban, suburban, and rural.  And it has something for the strongest of reformers and the most loyal of status quoers. 
Best of all, it provides some ideas for the education policy community to chew on, particularly the merits of a closed-loop instructional system.  At a time when dedicated ed tech dollars are being eliminated by the feds, supposedly replaced with ed tech being “embedded” in K-12 in general, such a system can be a win-win.
Yes, it is seriously disappointing to see in print that technology spending in the education space is just one third of what other sectors spend on IT (when you look at it in terms of total percentage of operating costs).  And yes, one realizes we aren’t going to be tripling ed tech spending in the near future.  But it is refreshing to see ed tech talked about in ways other than hardware.  And it is particularly refreshing to see some real potential for how to maximize the intersection of ed tech and human capital in our education system.
(Full disclosure: Eduflack has advised BCG and ed tech groups over the years.)

The A Word

Accountability (uh-koun-tuh-bil-i-tee) noun: The state of being subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable.

At its face, accountability doesn’t seem like such a bad term.  It is good to provide information or report.  Additional explanation is always valuable.  And who can really be opposed to the idea of being responsible or answerable.  Yet, somehow accountability has now become a dirty word in K-12 education.  For many, accountability is either a punchline to a joke or an accusation to be hurled at one’s worst enemies.  For others, it is something we have to apologize for or be forced to defend.
The time has come to remove the scarlet letter from the chest of K-12 education.  Accountability should be viewed as a good thing, whether one is the most ambitious of reformers or the most ardent of the status quoers.  At a time when education dollars are at a premium and education needs are reaching all time highs, a little accountability is a good thing.  It allows us to prioritize, while focusing on return on investment.
The federal government should be held accountable for how it spends its share (currently less than 10%) of the costs of education K-12 students in our public schools.  Explain how those dollars are spent and the impact of that spend.  The days of U.S. Department of Education program evaluations simply determining if they cut checks and the checks were received by the SEA.  Federal accountability needs to focus on impact, both in terms of the students impacted and the quantitative outcomes.
The states should be held accountable for its policies, funding priorities, and overall operations.  All students should have access to a high-quality school.  Data must be used to compare schools in an apples-to-apples way.  State funding formulas must align with community and student needs and expectations.  The “right” assessments should be identified and implemented to ensure effective measure of both student learning and achievement.  The SEA should be focused on ROI, both for the schools and the taxpayers.  
The districts and individual schools should be held accountable for both their inputs (instruction) and outcomes (performance).  Instructional efforts must be scientifically based  Teachers should be qualified, motivated, and successful, with the right teachers in the right jobs and right schools.  Students should demonstrate proficiency, regardless of the yardstick being used.  And all students, particularly the historically disadvantaged, should be given options if their current schools aren’t making the cut.
Teachers should be held accountable, again for both their inputs and outcomes.  All students should be learning, and that learning be measured in a quantifiable manner.  All students must gain the skills and knowledge they need to succeed  Instruction should be based on best practice.  District/SEA/federal instructional goals should be addressed on a daily basis, and not just on those days when someone from the central office may be observing.
Students should be held accountable, both for their own success and the success of their schools.  They need to arrive on time, ready to learn.  Students must respect their educators and maximize instructional time.  All kids should be demonstrating proficiency (by international/federal/state standards) or at least demonstrate they are working toward it, and that proficiency must be measured quantitatively.  And students should have (and execute) remedies if they aren’t getting the quality of instruction they need.
Families need to be held accountable.  They must be engaged in their students’ schools. They should elect state and local officials committed to school improvement.  They need to ensure teachers and administrators are using research-proven instructional practices.  They must know how their students are doing in class, both from a qualitative and quantitative perspective.  And they should take specific action steps if their kids aren’t performing at expected levels.
And, of course, all of the wonks, the talking heads, the influencers, the advisors, and the chattering class needs to be held accountable.  Are we focused on student achievement?  Are we focused on equity?  Are we focused on student skills and knowledge?  Do we help hold all stakeholders accountable, why doing the same to ourselves?  Do we engage with both our friends and those we don’t necessarily agree with?  Do we have clear, shared definitions of success?
Accountability should be a badge of honor.  Being responsible and answerable is essential, particularly when we are talking about improving public education for our kids.  While we may disagree on some of the specifics, can’t we all agree that all those who touch the lives of young learners should be held accountable, both for the inputs and the outcomes?