Truth and Hope in Education Reform

Too often, education reform discussions focus just on the hard facts.  They spotlight the difficult truths of public education, where too many kids are failing to perform at goal, where too many students are dropping out of high school, and where too many children are denied access to a exemplary public education.

But if we are serious about improving our public schools, and if we are truly committed to ensuring that all kids — regardless of race, family income, or zip code — have access to great public schools, we must focus on both the truths and the hope.  We must be honest about our shortcomings but forthright about the possibilities.

Last month, I had the honor and privilege of speaking at the Connecticut NAACP State Convention.  In remarks focused on both the truth and hope of education reform, I talk of the social contract we have to provide all kids with a great public education.  You can see most of the speech here.  The first few minutes are missing, but it is still worth a watch …

(Originally published on Yes Conn, We Can blog.)


Just Say No to ALEC’s Latest Move

Every three or five years, I changed school districts as a child.  I spent my K-12 years in four different states.  With each move, I was faced with a different set of academic standards and a different set of expectations.

After some moves, I found myself greatly ahead of the curve.  In another, I found myself behind what was expected.  And in my final move, made before my junior year of high school, I actually had my new high school try to say I was ineligible to be valedictorian because I had taken chemistry “too early” in the sequencing.

We are now a nation on the move.  Families move in search of work, to take care of family members, or simply to find better opportunities.  With each of those moves, each and every child should be able to expect the same thing from school  Sixth grade should be sixth grade, whether it is sixth grade in Connecticut, Georgia, Colorado, or California.
Fortunately, over the past several years 45 states came together to develop a common set of standards for our schools, clearly identifying what should be learned in kindergarten through 12th grade.  Led by our nation’s governors and top education leaders, these standards — known as Common Core State Standards — are voluntary benchmarks that assure all kids are getting a world-class education.

Why are these standards important?  Five simple reasons:
* Common Core offers fewer and clearer standards, providing teachers the ability to focus on their student and tailor their lesson plans to the needs of the classroom
* Common Core goes into greater depth within fewer topics and theories within subjects, allowing for more engaging learning and deeper understanding
* Common Core provides faster results when it comes to assessment, empowering educators to address and course correct
* Common Core is built to focus on understanding and not memorization, prioritizing comprehension, mastery, hands-on learning, and learning that sticks with students
* Common Core allows for better materials for the classroom and allows educators to share ideas and resources
Here in Connecticut, school districts are hard at work to adopt the Common Core, working with educators and communities to develop the lesson plans, professional development, classroom support, and assessments that will provide a path for improvement in all of our classrooms.
Unfortunately, later this week, a group called ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) will be taking up an amendment condemning the Common Core.  Between now and the 16th, ALEC’s Board of Directors will vote on whether to approve its “Comprehensive Legislative Package Opposing the Common Core State Standards Initiative.”
Put simply, this is the wrong vote at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.  Now, more than ever, the United States needs common academic standards to ensure that, regardless of the state a kid lives in, a 10th grade education always means the same thing.  We need to be doing more to establish clear standards, standards that individual states can’t tinker with or lower to make themselves look good.  We need one high standard that all states follow, so we can truly compare apples to apples.
It is time to tell ALEC no.  Common Core is a positive step forward that this board should not act against.  We need to focus our energies on strong implementation and fostering its embrace by the entire school community.  It’s the least we can do for our kids.
(The above blog post originally appeared on Patrick Riccards’ Yes Conn, We Can blog on November 8, 2012.)

The Power of Teachers Unions

With just about a week to go before the 2012 presidential elections, all eyes are turned (at least once Sandy passes into the history books) into Get Out the Vote efforts and how successful folks are in getting folks to the polls.

In past presidentials, we have seen the power of the teachers’ unions — the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association — in getting their candidates elected.  When dear ol’ Eduflack was in electoral politics, there were few organizations as important to the win than the teachers’ unions.
Today, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now released a new study that scores states based on the strength of their respective teachers unions.  
According to Fordham, the top 10 teachers’ union states are, in order: Hawaii, Oregon, Montana, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, California, New Jersey, Illinois, New York, and Washington.  For those counting, just one, Pennsylvania, stands a swing state for next week’s balloting.
In Tier Two, we see two swing states, Ohio (12) and Wisconsin (18).  Then we see states like Nevada (25), New Hampshire (30), Colorado (35), Missouri (38), Virginia (47), and Florida (50) rounding out the list.
The full report, How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions?, can be found here.
Over at my Yes Conn, We Can blog, I take a closer look at Connecticut and its number 17, Tier Two ranking.  There, I wrote:
All told, Fordham paints an interesting picture of the power of Connecticut’s teachers unions and their impact on policy.  When we see those states ranked ahead of Connecticut, we see that AFT and CEA enjoy a strong reputation without fully demonstrating the muscle to back it.  Through a strong membership base and state law that fully embraces collective bargaining, the unions are able to enjoy a power that their involvement in politics or perceived influence warrant.

Regardless of the rankings, Connecticut’s teachers’ unions will continue to enjoy their reputation for being a major power in Connecticut politics.  And it is a reputation well deserved.  But if this year has taught us anything it is that one voice alone should not and must not dominate the discussion on how to fix our schools.
Happy reading!

Vote for Somebody!

Election Day is two weeks away.  The debates are now over.  TV commercials are on heavy rotation.  Game on.

Regardless of which candidate or which party one prefers, we can all agree how important is is to vote.  That’s why it is so terrific to see the video that is taking the nation by storm.  The citizen-scholars at Democracy Prep’s Harlem school have put the importance of voting on November 6 to music, offering a terrific remake of Call Me Maybe … Vote for Somebody.
Give it a look.  It is a terrific piece, and it is a reminder of the power of kids and the importance of great schools for all.
Happy viewing!

A Roadmap to Eliminating the Gaps

When we discuss achievement gaps, it is hard not to dwell on the negative.  Put simply, we struggle as a nation to provide an equitable education for all students.  We find solace in incremental gains, even if white or wealthy students are gaining faster than their minority or low-income peers.
Some will maintain the gaps are just figments of our imaginations, and that our students have never achieved as much, academically, as they do today.  But tell that to a poor Black student in the South, or a Latino student in South Central.  There, the achievement gaps are very real.  And they are more than just statistics.  They are walls preventing far too many students from succeeding, both in school and life.
As much as we may talk about the problems, when it comes to
education reform, we really focus on the solutions.  Yes, it is important we understand the
achievement gaps and appreciate the enormity of the problem.  But being aware isn’t nearly enough.  We also need to identify a path for
eliminating those gaps, for providing hope and opportunity to the many kids
that have long been denied both.

To forward that discussion, today the Connecticut Coalition
for Achievement Now (ConnCAN) released an exciting new report – The Roadmap to Closing the Gap: 2012-2020.  In the Roadmap, ConnCAN
explores what is necessary to close the achievement gaps in Connecticut, the
state with the largest such gaps in the nation, by the year 2020.

In this report, ConnCAN moves away from abstract percentages
and depressing statistics.  And instead
identified  – using a student-centered
approach – a path for closing the gaps.

As a state, Connecticut needs to add just 2.8 points a year
to its average SAT score over the next eight years to get to the magical 1,550
level.  The Nutmeg State needs to
graduate just 456 more students a year to hit a statewide graduation rate of 90
percent.  And to move student performance
from the current 65.5 percent at goal to 80 percent, we need to move just 719
kids per grade statewide to goal or better.

In each of the state’s 30 lowest-performing districts, how
many kids need to get to “goal” on the state tests? How many more students in
each of these districts need to graduate from high school? How many more points
must we add to the average SAT score to ensure every student in each of these
districts is college ready?

The answers to these questions may surprise you.  Despite the enormity of our deficiencies, we can close the gaps in less than a
decade.

The Roadmap breaks
down the achievement challenges in each of these 30 districts (known as
“Alliance Districts”), showing what those cities and towns must do to ensure
that we can get 80 percent of our students performing on grade level; we can
achieve a 90-percent graduation rate; and we can get our average SAT score up
to 1,550. 

New Haven can raise its four-year graduation rate from the
current 62.5 percent to 90 percent by graduating 54 more kids a year between
now and 2020.  In Hartford, students can
boost their average composite SAT score from a current 1,194 to the
college-ready measure of 1,550 by adding 44.5 points a year.  And in Bridgeport, where just 31.8 percent of
students are performing on grade level, we can boost that to 80 percent by
moving 82 students per grade per year to goal or above on state measures.

Yes, these are significant goals, and the seriousness of
achieving them should not be underestimated. 
It is possible, it is doable, and it is necessary.  But for it to happen, we have to act, and we
have to act now.

The Roadmap is a
call to action, a map to demonstrate that meaningful education reform is both
possible and achievable in the next decade. 
This report won’t take Connecticut all the way to where public education
needs to be, but it provides an important and clear starting point.

Connecticut’s path to reform has just begun.  The Roadmap
tells which direction to go.  And it
serves as a model for how other states can join in the journey.

Stepping Up Through AP

In our national quest to have every student college ready and to ensure all learners have the math and science knowledge to succeed in the 21st century, are there many stronger yardsticks than AP?

Over at USA Today, Greg Toppo takes a look at the push to get more kids enrolled in AP courses, particularly in math and science.  In what was once an area where just a select few students were deemed “worthy” to take an AP course, Toppo chronicles AP classes than now have 25 or 30 students in them, all in pursuit of that college- and career-ready tag.
What is particularly interesting is folks are finally realizing that AP is about far more than simply securing that elusive 5 on the end-of-course exam.  Instead, it is now about the rigor of the course.  It is about pushing students to do more.  About the learning that happens in such advanced classes.
This is summed up nicely by the principal featured in Toppo’s piece:
Principal Sean Callender said he pushes AP classes “every time I talk to parents.” He invokes a sports analogy to explain his line of reasoning with prospective students: “If you’re getting good grades already,” he said, “why don’t you step up to the next league?” Teachers also push struggling students to attend after-school tutoring sessions each Tuesday and Thursday help “to get them used to the rigor,” he said.
There is something novel about Callender’s approach, and about the general push to increase access and exposure to AP courses, perhaps the best way to expose today’s high school students to college-level learning.  And it may just be one of those great equalizers to help us close the achievement gaps that dog far too many high schools.
With anti-testing fever at an all-time high, and many believing it is unfair to actually assess whether a student has learned something in a class, AP is the ultimate measure of testing.  After completing an AP course, every student in the nation will take the same exam.  They will be graded on a scale of 1-5.  And as more and more students take the test, more and more are likely to score 1s and 2s in those early years.
But taking the test shouldn’t scare kids away from the courses.  Despite an assessment, the content of the course and the lessons learned throughout the year are a worthwhile investment. Even scoring a 1 or 2 shouldn’t prevent students from going AP.  Students who are capable should “step up.”   Taking an AP test is not the demise of modern civilization. 
What we all know, and what the USA Today article focuses on, is that students benefit from taking more rigorous courses.  The push should be on expanding AP, IB, and dual-enrollment programs so that more kids — and ultimately all kids — have access to them and can be pushed to doing more rigorous work in high school.  We should all be demanding increased access to AP math and science courses, particularly for those students from historically disadvantaged populations.
Perhaps the teacher highlighted in the lede of the piece says it best:
“People need to strive to do things that are meaningful and good and hard,” she said. “The more kids you can convince to do tougher things, the better off your society will be.”

Can We Effectively Evaluate Teachers?

“Where are we as a nation with teacher evaluations?  Are we evaluating the right things?  What role should student data play in professional development?  What about employment decisions?”
These are the questions that National Journal is asking this week on its Education Experts blog.  Following up on the Chicago Teachers Union Strike, National Journal is touting the latest discussion section under the header, “Teacher Effectiveness ‘Here to Stay.'”
Dear ol’ Eduflack weighs in on this week’s question, touting ConnCAN’s work in the development of its Measuring Teacher Effectiveness: A Look “Under the Hood” of Teacher Evaluation in 10 Sites.  Released in May by ConnCAN, Measuring Teacher Effectiveness offers a detailed look at 10 strong teacher evaluation models.
From my post:

We know there are few factors as important to student success than that of an effective educator. To ensure that every child has that effective educator, we must implement comprehensive evaluation models. Measuring Teacher Effectiveness is an important tool in understanding what teacher evaluation leaders are doing and what components must be factored into a meaningful evaluation model.

Each site we studied is working to continuously improve their evaluation systems with the belief that the challenges they encounter can be overcome. As Measuring Teacher Effectiveness reported, “None of these systems claims to have cracked the code for teacher evaluation. Nonetheless, we consistently heard that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.”

Happy reading!