Healthy Foods, Successful Students

For those who believe we have survived the economic downturn of 2008 and have righted the ship, today’s New York Times offers a very different perspective.  Sam Dillon reports on the increase in the number of students now receiving free lunches from our public schools, noting a whopping 17-percent increase in the numbers over the last five years.  According to the NYT, thanks to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, 21 million kids received free school lunches last year through a program that was once seen as a safety net for the poorest of the poor.

What’s even more startling is that “Eleven states, including Florida, Nevada, New Jersey, and Tennessee had four-year increases of 25 percent or more, huge shifts in a vast program long characterized by incremental growth.”
This seems to be the part of public education that we often don’t talk about, or don’t talk about enough.  We acknowledge that poverty is a problem in achieving a high-quality education, but usually align such a discussion with per-pupil expenditures, the presence of white boards, and the general accumulation of “stuff” in our schools.  Schools with “stuff” succeed, those without it struggle.  But all the “stuff” doesn’t do you a lick of good if students are coming to school hungry and leaving even hungrier.
Fortunately, this is a topic that some are looking to bring front and center.  Earlier this month, the Virginia School Boards Association (of which Eduflack is a member) announced its Healthy Foods Initiative.  Led by new VSBA President Joan Wodiska, school districts across the state are beginning to work together to address the childhood hunger issue in the state.  Wodiska’s video announcing the new initiative can be found here.  VSBA is also in the process of creating a Healthy School Meals Database, highlighting some of the best practices that are being used to address the issue.  This includes the work that Eduflack’s own Falls Church City School Board undertook to tackle this problem (which earned the city’s schools the prestigious NSBA Magna Award for its school meal efforts).
While I realize that Virginia is not alone in addressing this issue, the push now coming from VSBA is an important step.  While we all recognize that student achievement is the ultimate goal, we must realize that many factors — effective teachers, research-based instructional materials, proper assessments, meaningful accountability, and, yes, healthy meals — all contribute to a student’s ability to succeed.  
The statistics reported by Dillon and The New York Times are important.  Of greater importance, though, is what we do with them.  Do we act, or do we make excuses?  Fortunately, places like the Old Dominion are choosing the former.

“My Bright Future”

Frequent readers of this blog know that Eduflack can best be described as a pessimist.  My pop icon hero is Eeyore.  And as I’ve often said, it isn’t even a glass half full/empty issue for me, I want to know who stole my damned water.

But sometimes even I can be moved by true positivity and commitment.  And today is just one of those sorts of moments.  This morning, I had the honor of attending the dedication of the new Amistad Academy facility in New Haven, Connecticut.  Founded in 1999, Amistad was the first charter school launched in the Nutmeg State.  And this new campus, just blocks from Yale University, was a project many, many years in the making.
As impressive as the facility is, it pales in comparison to the kids enrolled in the facility.  There is an enthusiasm, an embrace for learning, and a commitment to success at Amistad that is too often lacking in many other public schools – urban, suburban, and rural.  There is a sense of community and family in the building, from the administrators and teachers to the students and families to the community at large.
What is even more impressive, though, are the results.  Amistad is the cornerstone of non-profit Achievement First’s efforts in Connecticut.  At a time when Connecticut is suffering through the worst achievement gaps in the nation, Amistad and its fellow AF schools are demonstrating real results.  On the 2010 Connecticut Mastery Test of 4th grade reading, math and writing, AF students are passing at 75.2 percent rate.  That is a higher passage rate than the state as a whole, and it is a passage rate more than double that in the cities in which they operate.
We see the same for 8th grade performance on the 2010 Connecticut Mastery Exam.  AF posts a 79.5 percent passage rate, again higher than the overall Connecticut average and nearly double that of the cities in which they operate.
Those trends continue.  Looking at the 2011 state scores, 93 percent of AF 10th graders are proficient in all subjects tested by the state, 10 points higher than the state average and 36 percent higher than the proficiency levels in their host districts.
No, it isn’t all about the test scores.  It is also about every single kid at Amistad intending to go to college.  It is about schools like Amistad working with other public schools in the host district to improve instruction across the board.  And it is about demonstrating the cycles of failure and the absence of opportunity that have long dominated too many of our urban centers can be broken and populated.
Too often, we hear the criticism that charter schools somehow do damage to our public schools.  Such urban legend overlooks the fact that charter schools ARE public schools.  When we see the successes and the energy in schools like Amistad Academy, we are reminded of what is possible in public education.  We are reminded of the network that comprises effective K-12 public education — traditional public schools, charters, magnet schools, and technical/vo-tech institutions.  And we see how such institutions can work together to fulfill the social compact we have extended to offer all children — regardless of race or zip code — access to excellent public schools.
At today’s event, Paige Leigh Brown, a 7th grade scholar at Amistad, presented her poem, “My Bright Future.”  Her poignant words said it all:
You look before you and what do you see?
A bright scholar shining beautifully.
I see myself reflected.
My voice in society projected.
I see myself getting a degree
We should seek such insight and sentiment from every single student who passes through our public schoolhouse doors, whether they be traditional, charter, magnet, or otherwise.  All students should see a bright future.

Against the Grain

Yesterday, I was on the road, driving back from edu-Grandma’s 94th birthday party.  Such drives are usually the ideal time for Eduflack to reflect, plan, and think through those “big ideas.”  It also gives me the time listen to some of those personal theme songs that litter my iPod.

Every year or so, I like to repost the lyrics to my favorite — Garth Brooks’ “Against the Grain.”  The song is from Brooks’ 1991 album, Ropin’ the Wind.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t get nearly the attention it should.  But it seemed appropriate this day, this week, this year …

Folks call me a maverick 
Guess I ain’t too diplomatic 
I just never been the kind to go along 
Just avoidin’ confrontation 
For the sake of conformation 
And I’ll admit I tend to sing a different song 
But sometimes you just can’t be afraid 
To wear a different hat 
If Columbus had complied 
This old world might still be flat 
Nothin’ ventured, nothin’ gained 
Sometimes you’ve got to go against the grain 
Well, I have been accused 
Of makin’ my own rules 
There must be rebel blood 
Just a-runnin’ through my veins 
But I ain’t no hypocrite 
What you see is what you get 
And that’s the only way I know 
To play the game 
Old Noah took much ridicule 
For building his great ark 
But after forty days and forty nights 
He was lookin’ pretty smart 
Sometimes it’s best to brave the wind and rain 
By havin’ strength to go against the grain 
Well, there’s more folks than a few 
Who share my point of view 
But they’re worried 
If they’re gonna sink or swiim 
They’d like to buck the system 
But the deck is stacked against ’em 
And they’re a little scared 
To go out on a limb 
But if you’re gonna make a difference 
If you’re gonna leave your mark
You can’t follow like a bunch of sheep 
You got to listen to your heart 
Go bustin’ in like old John Wayne 
Sometimes you got to go against the grain 
Nothin’ ventured, nothin’ gained 

Sometimes you’ve got to go against the grain
Happy Monday!

“Then Raise Taxes!”

There is no question we are asking our states, school districts, and schools to do far more with fewer resources.  The boom years for public education are over, perhaps best emphasized by the end of the multi-billion-dollar Reading First program years ago.  The economic downturn of 2008 and 2009, now coupled with the end of ARRA money for the states means school districts are already pinching the skinniest of pennies.

Regardless of whether I am wearing my ed reformer hat, my school board chairman hat, my pundit hat, or my parent hat, I hate hearing the “do more with less mantra.”  At the end of the day, this is not an issue of doing more.  This is an issue of doing better, pure and simple.  Throughout public education, we must do better with the resources we have, ensuring that those precious dollars are being spent on kids, instruction, and results.  We must demonstrate real return on our education investment, shown through the success of our students.  No ifs, ands, or buts.
That’s why it is so disheartening to continue to see those who defend the status quo crow that it is all about the dollars, that our schools would do more if they only had increased funding.  That the answer, as Diane Ravitch recently put it during a visit to Hartford, CT, is “then raise taxes!”
There is no question that poverty and performance in our public schools are closely linked.  One only needs to look at the achievement gap between wealthy and low-income students to see that reality.  But we also know there is no data that proves increasing the per-pupil expenditure results in improved student learning, student test scores, and student success. 
If it were only a matter of dollars, then cities like Washington, DC would have public schools that were all the envy of the wealthiest of suburbs.  If it were only a matter of funding, New Jersey’s Abbott Schools in Newark, Trenton, and Camden would be our nation’s top performers.  If it were all about the benjamins, the recent influx of NCLB dollars would have turned student test scores on its head, with our previously lowest-performing schools outperforming the world.
Don’t get me wrong, money helps.  It helps a great deal.  But it isn’t just about gross dollars, it is about how those gold coins are spent.  It is also about what one is teaching.  It is about who is teaching.  It is about how families are engaged in the learning process.  It is about empowering students and parents.  Yes, it is as much about how we spend the money as the money itself.
Organizations like Education Trust can provide detailed lists of schools in low-income communities, with low per-pupil expenditures who are succeeding against the odds.  In cities across the nation, we see charter schools (and let there be no mistake, charters are also public schools) that are posting top student performance numbers, despite spending only one-half or two-thirds of what is being spent in a low-performing traditional public school in the same city.  Not only can we do better with less, we have true exemplars that are already doing it.
Yes, it would be fabulous if we were able to wave a magic wand and inject billions of additional dollars into our public schools.  It would be terrific if resources weren’t an issue and poverty weren’t a concern that every educator and community leader needed to worry about.  And it would be great if every child could ride a unicorn to school.
Like it or not, we are now in the new normal.  We must do better with the resources we have.  We must ensure all kids have strong, effective teachers leading their classrooms, and those teachers are adequately supported.  We must ensure all students have access to great public schools, regardless of their zip code.  And we must ensure that all of those in the learning process — be they teachers, administrators, students, parents, or even those dreaded reformers — are focused on the true outcomes of public education, and not just on the inputs.

Some Nutmeg on the NAEP

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released the latest round of NAEP scores, offering the most recent snapshot on how our nation’s students are doing when it comes to reading and math.  The results were downright depressing, with the majority of kids still failing to post proficient scores and the achievement gaps growing in far too many areas.

National Journal is running its weekly blog on those very same NAEP results.  You can check out Eduflack’s post on the scores, their impact in Connecticut in particular, and how if these latest scores don’t signify an urgent call, I don’t know what will.
We often think of Connecticut, the Nutmeg State, as the land of plentiful budgets and bountiful student success.  But the numbers tell a vastly different picture.  While Connecticut is indeed in the top 10 when it comes to per-pupil expenditure, it is tops when it comes to achievement gaps.  From my National Journal post:
For those looking to strap on the pom-poms for number one rankings, Connecticut did score first in seven of the 16 disaggregated categories. Of course, that’s a first place for largest gaps. And we’re in the top 10 for every single one of those 16.

As always, this week’s debate is worth checking out, as are the actual reports, breakdowns and official government statements on the 2011 Nation’s Report Cards on reading and math, as released by the National Assessment Governing Board.

Act Early, Act Often on ECE

While Eduflack has spent a great part of the last half decade focused on high school redesign, the horrid state of drop-out factories, and the general college and career readiness pipeline, I’ve also called out for greater investment in early childhood education.  Like many others, I have recommended that we pay greater attention to high-quality ECE, particularly as it relates to pre-reading programs and a general embrace of evidence-based instruction for our youngest learners.

In January 2009, I wrote of the importance of expanding our literacy commitment to include PreK.  We had hope in mid-2009 as a Pew study showed a renewed interest in ECE.  And earlier this year, Eduflack praised President Obama for putting some muscle behind his early childhood rhetoric with the establishment of the Early Learning Challenge Fund.
Yet I always wondered if earlier calls to establish a U.S. Department of Education office committed to early childhood education (rather than letting Health & Human Services and its Head Start office having all of the ECE fun).  That wondering has now ceased, thanks to the announcement made late Friday by EdSec Arne Duncan’s ECE advisor, Jacqueline Jones, at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Conference.  ED is now creating of Office of Early Learning, operating under the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE).
In his public announcement, Duncan cited:
Effective early learning programs are essential to prepare our children for success in school and beyond.  A dedicated early learning office will institutionalize, elevate and coordinate federal support for high-quality early learning, while enhancing support for state efforts to build high-performing early education systems.

And in an emailed note circulating over the weekend, the EdSec noted:

Improving early
learning programs for children birth through third grade is critical work and
plays a fundamental role in building a cradle to college and career education
system for our children. Research consistently shows that high-quality early
learning programs benefit children, our society, and our national prosperity.
It is simply one of the most cost-effective investments America can make in its

In this year’s State
of the Union address, the President posited that “if we raise expectations for
every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education, from the
day they are born until the last job they take – we will reach the goal that I
set two years ago:  By the end of the decade, America will once again have
the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

Our children deserve nothing
less than a strong start to a life filled with opportunity, and it all starts
with successful early learning programs. Through the courage, skill, and
commitment of states across the country, early learning has already begun its
transformation. An Office of Early Learning will allow our Department to better
support their efforts, deepen public awareness of the impact of this work, and
leverage early learning investments in ways that raise quality and expand
access for more children.







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First order of business, the new Office will focus on the administration of those Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grants.  Beyond that, the charge of the office is anyone’s guess.  But let there be no mistake.  This is an important step forward for both ECE and the P-20 learning continuum.  It is no secret that the percentage of students failing to read at at least grade level by third grade is remarkably similar to the high school drop-out rate.  And there is little question that those with a strong, evidence-based preK experience are far better prepared for hitting that early reading proficiency rates.  

Kudos for the EdSec for acting on early learning.  Now let’s make sure the new office is empowered to have real impact.