An Ed Reform Gov in a Blue State?

For the past few decades, we often talk about who the latest “education governor” is, particularly among Democrats.  In the late 1980s, Bill Clinton of Arkansas tried to take the mantle from the esteemed Jim Hunt of North Carolina.  For a bit, it shifted over to Gaston Caperton of West Virginia, as he emerged from a devastating state-wide teachers strike.  And most recently, it was Virginia’s Mark Warner, who ushered in the 21st century in the Old Dominion by focusing on high school reform.

But recent history points primarily to Republicans as the “education governors.”  Lamar Alexander in Tennessee.  George W. Bush in Texas.  Jeb Bush in Florida.  Mitch Daniels in Indiana.  Republicans seem to have the upper hand when it comes to conditions for pushing forward with reforms.  And while many may question the final outcomes, it is those Republican state leaders, be they in red or purple states, that stand as leaders in education.
This week, we may have seen the start of a major shift in the “education governor” formula.  A true-blue Democrat, in one of the truest of blue states boldly laying out an ambitious set of priorities for education reform.  The leader? Dannel Malloy, the governor of Connecticut.
Governor Malloy was sworn into office this past January, elected in a 2010 cycle that wasn’t particularly friendly to Democrats.  Much of his first year has been spent focused on natural disasters and an unmanageable budget.  He addressed the latter in the most unusual of ways for a governor — he both cut spending and raised taxes.  Connecticut is now looking at a potential budget surplus for the year, and that’s following some significant investment in economic strength and jobs creation in the Nutmeg State.
Through it all, Malloy pledged that 2012 would be the “year of education reform.”  He recognized the important that strong public schools played in strengthening the state’s economy.  He knew he couldn’t give it the full attention it needed in year one of his administration.  But in year two, it would be game on.
Yesterday, Malloy threw that first pitch of that ed reform game in Connecticut.  In a bold pronouncement to the state’s legislative leaders, Malloy offered six key principles that would guide the 2012 legislative session.  He urged leaders to act on these six issues — six topics that are intertwined and interconnected to ensure progress.  And he tasked his new Education Commissioner with presenting specific proposals in the next month or so to address these themes.
So what is Connecticut’s new education agenda?
1) Enhance families’ access to high-quality early childhood opportunities
2) Authorize the intensive interventions and enable the supports necessary to turn around Connecticut’s lowest-performing schools and districts
3) Expand the availability of high-quality school models, including traditional schools, magnets, charters, and others
4) Unleash innovation by removing red tape and other barriers to success, especially in high-performing schools and districts
5) Ensure that our schools are home to the very best teachers and principals — working within a fair system that values their skill and effectiveness over seniority and tenure.
6) Deliver more resources, targeted to districts with the greatest need — provided that they embrace key reforms that position our students for success.
Expanding school choice.  Removing red tape.  Valuing educator effectiveness over years on the job.  Focusing resources on the students who need them the most.  This is not a status quo agenda from a typical Democratic politician.  This is the start of an audacious plan focused on actually improving public education for all students, whatever it takes.  These principles can serve as the very model for how a post-NCLB governor of a blue state can take real action steps that get to the heart of what ails our public schools.
Obviously, the devil is in the details.  Connecticut must now look to its State Department of Education to offer up specific policy proposals that ensure effective teachers and principals for all students.  The SDE must move forward ideas on how to fix a school funding formula that has been broken for decades.  And it must do all of this under the reality that there may not be buckets of new money to spend, and we need to expand choice and provide more direct interventions simply by spending existing dollars better than we have in past years. 
While Connecticut is still a long ways from solving its achievement gap crisis and ensuring that all students have access to great public schools, Malloy’s announcement is an important step forward for Connecticut’s students, schools, and the state as a whole.  He has signaled that a Democratic governor in a strong union state can get serious about statewide education reform.  And he has done it in a way that builds on what we have learned from similar efforts in other states, building on the successes and hopefully avoiding the pitfalls.
Yes, Connecticut, we can have an ed reform governor with a real ed reform agenda. 

Reconnecting McDowell County, WV

Readers of Eduflack know I often speak of my roots and connections to West Virginia.  I am a proud graduate of Jefferson County High School in Shenandoah Junction, WV (Go, Cougars!)  But I am particularly privileged to have served on the staff of one of the greatest U.S. Senators in our nation’s history, the Honorable Robert C. Byrd.  

Working for Senator Byrd, I was able to see much of what makes West Virginia and the nation great.  I had the ability to travel the Mountain State’s 55 counties, from its beautiful ranges to its research universities, its large cities to its company towns, its river rapids to its coal mines.  Yes, West Virginia has much to be proud of.  But it is also a state with communities ravaged by poverty, poor health, and struggling schools.
Which is I was so taken by an announcement made last week by the American Federation of Teachers.  On Friday, the AFT officially launched “Reconnecting McDowell County,” a “comprehensive, long-term effort to make educational improvements in McDowell County the route to a brighter economic future.”
Reconnecting McDowell County has an impressive list of partners, including WV Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, the WV Congressional Delegation, Benedum Foundation, Blue Cross Blue Shield of West Virginia, College Board, Safe the Children, WV AFL-CIO, and the West Virginia State Police, just to name a few.  
The effort’s Covenant of Commitment is a particularly interesting read.  The effort is focused on six key issues: 1) education; 2) services for students and their families; 3) transportation, technology, and other issues; 4) housing; 5) jobs and economic development; and 6) the McDowell Community.  In the Covenant, the partners note:
We understand that there are no simple solutions — no easy answers or quick fixes.  Together, we are striving to meet these challenges, but we know we won’t accomplish that in a day, a month, or even a year.  We will find ways to measure our progress, and we believe that the changes we propose and implement must be judged by rigorous standards of accountability.  We accept that this will be a long-term endeavor, and we commit to stay engaged until we have achieved our goals of building the support systems the students need and helping the residents of McDowell County to take charge of their desire for a better life ahead.
Yes, I realize that McDowell County is not alone its history, its current challenges, or its desire to change.  Across the nation, we have counties, cities, and communities that face similar struggles.  What makes this interesting is that Reconnecting McDowell is committed to demonstrating the demographics do not equal destiny.  Old industrial towns, even old coal towns, can be reborn in the 21st century.  We can rebuild currently struggling schools around a new culture of improving instruction, greater accountability, and rising student performance.  And we can work together to put all of the conditions — from housing and health to education and jobs — in place for achievement and success.
We should all keep an eye on Reconnecting McDowell, looking at its metrics and watching its progress.  And we should be asking why we aren’t launching similar efforts in other states, in other counties, and in other communities across the nation.  The principles laid forward by Reconnecting McDowell are universal.  

Saving American Education

So how do we “save American education?”  As a nation we obviously spend a great deal of time diagnosing the problems, while offering a few targeted solutions.  But what does comprehensive treatment of the problem really look like. 

That’s actually the question that Jay Mathews of The Washington Post recently posed to Mark Tucker, the head of the National Center for Education and the Economy.  And Tucker’s answers may surprise some.  His top five solutions?
1) Make admissions to teacher training programs more competitive
2) Raise teacher compensation significantly
3) Allow larger class sizes
4) End annual standardized testing
5) Spend more money on students who need more help getting to high standards
It is an interesting collection of recommendations, which Tucker and NCEE offer based on observing what other countries have done to improve their educational offerings.  But it begs an important question — are these reforms that the federal government should be leading, or reforms that need to be driven by the states?  Can the United States of America really follow the lead of Singapore, a nation no larger than Kentucky?
Yes, it is important we focus on educator effectiveness.  That starts with getting the best individuals into our teacher training programs and continues with ensuring schools are able to recruit, retain, and support those truly excellent educators.  And yes, we should pay those teachers better, but only after we have developed teacher evaluation systems focused on student achievement measures.
And you will get no disagreement from Eduflack on the need to spend more money on the students who need the most help.  The time has clearly come to overhaul our school finance systems to ensure that scarce tax dollars are going where they are needed the most.  We shouldn’t be funding schools based simply on an historical perspective, doing what we do because it worked a few decades ago.  We need to fund our schools in real time, recognizing that all schools — be they traditional public, magnet, technical, or charter — are treated fairly and equitably when it comes to funding formulas and per-pupil expenditures.
But eliminate testing?  While I like Tucker’s idea of three national exams that identify student performance at the end of elementary school, 10th grade, and 12th grade, do we really believe that is enough?  Is one test between kindergarten and high school really sufficient, particularly when we know a third of our elementary school students are reading below grade level and the real trouble spot for our schools is the middle school years?  
Instead of cutting back on the number of tests, we should first look to use our testing data more effectively.  Empower teachers with formative and summative assessment data to tailor their instructional approaches to meet student needs.  Let the data guide what happens in the classroom.  We need to change the mindset that the test is the end product.  It needs to be the starting line, providing educators with a strong diagnosis for how to proceed with the work at hand for a given school year.
That’s how we can save American education.  Data-driven decision making.  Evidence-based instruction.  By better understanding and applying the research, we have the power to focus on effective teachers, getting the resources where they are most needed, and actually improving student achievement.  Without it, we will just continue to feel our way in the dark.

The Strangest of Bedfellows on Ed Reform

This morning’s New York Times Opinion page headline says it all — “How to Rescue Education Reform.”  No, this isn’t the first time we have tried to diagnose the ed reform movement nor is this the first (or last) effort to talk through how ed reform can drive the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

What makes the NYT piece so interesting is who shares the byline.  The most recent piece on how to rescue education reform is co-authored by AEI Education Policy Director Rick Hess and Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond.  While not exactly the Burns and Allen we’d expect to see on education reform, Hess and Darling-Hammond offer an interesting and refreshing perspective on public education’s needs.  The fact that it comes from two individuals who most would believe couldn’t agree that the ed world is round or that it rotates around the sun makes the reccs even more interesting.
And what, exactly, do the dynamic duo offer up?  After agreeing that the federal government “should not micromanage schools, but should focus on the four functions it alone can perform,” Darling-Hammond and Hess point to these four functions:
* Encouraging transparency for school performance and spending, noting that “Without transparency, it’s tough for parents, voters and taxpayers to hold schools and public officials accountable.”
* Ensuring that basic constitutional protections — such as civil rights and special education — are respected.
* Supporting basic research, particularly that which “asks fundamental questions.”
* Providing “voluntary, competitive federal grants that support innovation while providing political cover for school boards, union leaders and others to throw off anachronistic routines.”
On the latter, it is important to note that the authors don’t necessarily see Race to the Top as that innovation, noting that RttT “tried to do some of this, but it ended up demanding that winning states hire consultants to comply with a 19-point federal agenda, rather than truly innovate.”
And what shouldn’t the federal government do?  According to the newest Batman and Robin of education, the feds shouldn’t focus on making schools and teachers improve.  Too much is simply lost in translation as we take it from the Feds down to the schools and districts that need to put it to use.  “The federal government can make states, localities and schools do things — but not necessarily do them well,” Hess and Darling-Hammond write.
So what say you, education community?  Are Linda and Rick onto something?  Have we been over thinking and over planning ESEA reauthorization?  Do we need to focus on a few core principles and not try to be everything for everyone?  Or can we not get beyond the shock of this partnership and thus fail to see the merits of the argument?

Applauding Public School Successes and Progress

In education reform, it is often easy to focus on the negative.  A third of all kids are not reading proficient in third grade.  No coincidence, the high school dropout rate is also about a third.  We have stagnant test scores, even as state standards were reduced.  We are slipping in international comparisons.  And even the U.S. Secretary of Education says four in five public schools in our nation are likely not making adequate yearly progress.

But today I am here to praise some of our public schools, not bury them.  In schools across the nation, educators are recognizing there are serious problems and there are real, productive solutions for addressing those problems.  And in those schools and those communities that are fortunate enough to have superintendents, principals, teachers, and other educators enacting those solutions, the kids are reaping the benefits.
Today’s case in point is up in the Nutmeg State.  Yes, Connecticut has the largest achievement gaps in the nation.  But we are seeing pockets of success and progress in elementary, middle, and even a few high schools across the state. 
Today, ConnCAN (or the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now) released its annual report cards on the state’s public schools.  For the last six years, ConnCAN has provided a simple, yet effective, report card for grading every school and every school district in the state.  Using state test scores, ConnCAN ranks all public schools on how they are doing with regard to four measures — 1) overall performance, 2) student subgroup performance (low-income, African-American, and Hispanic), 3) performance gains, and 4) achievement gap.  Each school receives both a ranking (relative performance) and a letter grade (absolute performance).  The complete set of 2011 ConnCAN report cards can be found here.

In addition to scoring more than 1,000 schools this way, ConnCAN also provides a list of Top 10 schools (elementary, middle and high school) based on many of the above measures.  And to top it off, the not-for-profit offers up a list of 2011 Success Story Schools.  Each of these Success Stories are at least 75 percent low-income and/or minority.  And in each of these schools, at least one subgroup (low-income, African-American, or Hispanic) outperforms the overall average for the state at that school level (elementary, middle, or high school). 
While the staff of ConnCAN deserves real credit for undertaking this effort each year, the intent of this missive is not a self-congratulatory pat on the back.  No, the purpose is to put the spotlight and the plaudits where they belong — on those schools that are making real progress, particularly when it comes to addressing the achievement gaps.
So here’s to the Worthington Hooker School in New Haven, where 86 percent of low-income students are at or above goal.  To Jefferson Elementary in Norwalk, where 67.5 percent of African-American students are at or above goal.  To the Mead School in Ansonia and the Ralph M.T. Johnson School in Bethel, both of which have more than 80 percent of their Hispanic students at or above goal.  And to the AnnieFisher STEM Magnet School and Breakthrough 2, both in Hartford, and Fair Haven School in New Haven, all three of which posted improvement in excess of 20 percentage points from last year.
These — and all of the others on ConnCAN’s 2011 Top 10 and Success Story Schools Lists — are examples of what is possible.  They signal that change, while difficult, can happen.  They show that all students — regardless of race, family income, or zip code — can have access to great schools.  And they demonstrate the power and impact truly great educators can have on the achievement of our young people.
These schools also teach us there is no one solution, no one magic bullet, and no one enchanted elixir for improving our schools.  It takes hard work.  It demands commitment.  It requires a true student focus.  And it calls for learning from and modeling after schools like those recognized by ConnCAN on this year’s lists.
So congratulations to those public schools on ConnCAN’s Top 10 and Success Story Schools Lists and to other public schools posting similar progress in other states across the country.  Kudos to those administrators, teachers, and staff who are making it happen.  And applause to those students and their families who are making clear that terms like dropout factories and achievement gaps can become nothing more than urban legend.
(Full disclosure, Eduflack not only works with ConnCAN, but he also runs the organization.)