Earlier today, Eduflack examined the educational highlights of President Obama’s State of the Union address.  The Cliff Notes version — strong on effective teachers, keep every kid in high school until age 18, college is expensive.  But what is equally interesting is what was NOT included in the SOTU, particularly as a lead-up to the presidential campaign.  

What was missing?
Race to the Top — No mention whatsoever of the crown jewel of the Obama education reform platform.  No talk about the progress states like Delaware and others are making. No discussion of the new world order likely coming out of the first few rounds of RttT.  (But there was that veiled reference to RttT driving states to adopt the Common Core, but only the insideriest of insiders will have caught the “for less than one percent of what our Nation spends on education each year, we’ve convinced nearly every State in the country to raise their standards …”)
Early childhood education — Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars the Obama administration just awarded to the winning states in the RttT Early Learning edition, there was no mention of ECE or the importance of ensuring all kids are ready to learn when the hit kindergarten.
Principals — In the President’s focus on effective teachers, he seemed to forget that a great principal is just as important — if not more so — in improving student learning and turning a school around.  Using “educators” is the common catch-all phrase, but Obama decided to focus just on teachers.
ESEA — No call to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  No sense of urgency to act, as we have heard in previous years.  Have we officially determined this is a 2013 activity now?
Parental engagement — In one of his earlier SOTUs, Obama got all Bill Cosby on us and called for greater parental involvement in the K-12 process.  This year, nothing.  If we are serious about real reform, it can’t all be on the backs of the teachers Obama singled out.  It requires involved and committed parents, clergy, business leaders, and community voices too.
Choice — Embracing the entire public school infrastructure — traditional publics, public charters, magnets, and technicals — used to be a part of the President’s educational stump speech.  But when talking about the need for all kids to finish high school, there was no mention of ensuring all of those kids actually have access to good high schools.
Competitive Grants — Similar to the failure to mention RttT, we saw no mention of the Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund, no discussion of the impacts of recent educational budget “consolidations,” and no teaser on ARPA ED.  Are competitive grants moving to the back burner?
What else are we missing?  Anyone?  Anyone? 

“Teachers Matter”

Last evening, President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union Address to Congress and the nation.  The speech focused on the four pillars the President and his team see as necessary for turning around the United States and strengthening our community and our economy.  No surprise for those following the pre-game shows, education stood as one of those four pillars.

Five paragraphs committed to education.  One pointing out our states and districts are cutting education budgets when we should be strengthening them.  One on the importance of teachers.  One on high school dropouts.  Two on higher education and how we fund a college education.  (We have a sixth if you include the President’s call to do something to help hard-working students who are not yet citizens.)
So let’s go ahead and dissect what the President offered up last evening.
“Teachers matter.”
Absolutely.  No question about it.  We cannot and should not reform our K-12 educational systems without educators.  Teachers (and I would add, principals) are the single-greatest factor in education improvement.  They need to be at the table as we work toward the improved educational offerings the President and so many other dream of.
“So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal.  Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones.”
Sign me up.  As the son of two educators, the last thing I want to do is bash a teacher (I’ll get in trouble with my mom if I do).  As I’ve said many times on this blog, teaching — particularly in this day and age — is one of the most difficult professions out there.  Most people aren’t cut out to do it, or at least do it well.  We need to make sure our precious tax dollars are being directed at recruiting, retaining, and supporting great teachers.  We should reward classroom excellence with merit pay and other acknowledgements.  But the President is also right in noting we cannot defend the status quo.  We can no longer debate whether reform is necessary.  Reform is necessary.  The discussion must now shift to how we change how we teach, not whether we change.
“In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”
Yes, yes, yes.  Great educators know how to help virtually all kids learn.  They know to tailor their instruction based on data and other research points.  We should be encouraging that and empowering teachers to do so each and every day.  But we can’t lose sight of that last clause (and many may have missed it last night over the cheap applause line of not teaching to the test).  We must “replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”  In our quest for a great educator in every classroom, we must also realize not everyone is cut out to teach.  We need serious educator evaluation systems that ensure everyone is evaluated, everyone is evaluated every year, and those evaluations are based primarily on student learning.  And, like it or not, student performance tests still remain the greatest measure we have for student learning.  So if we can’t get struggling educators the professional development and support necessary to excel in the classroom, we need to be prepared to transition them out of the school.       
And lastly, President Obama’s “bold” call to action to ensure every student is college and career ready.
“I call on every State to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn eighteen.” 
And here we have the President’s big educational swing and a miss.  This is a process goal, not an outcomes goal.  Based on AYP figures and recent on school improvement and turnaround, we know that far too many kids — particularly those from historically disadvantaged populations — are attending failing schools.  This is particularly true of secondary school students.  
Why force a student to stay in a school that has long been branded a “drop-out factory?”  Why keep a kid in school until he is 18 when he only reading at the grade level of an eight-year-old?  Why stick around for a high school diploma when it also requires massive remediation to attend a postsecondary institution?
No, the call should not be to require students to stick around a bad situation, giving us nothing more than a process win.  Instead, we should be focused on improving the outcomes of high school.  How do we demonstrate the relevance of a high school curriculum?  How do we engage kids?  How do we provide choices for a meaningful high school education?  How do we show the college and career paths that come from earning that diploma?  How do we make kids see they want to stick around, and don’t have to be mandated to do so?
At this point in time, we all realize that a high school diploma is the bare minimum to participate in our economy and our society.  For most, some form of postsecondary education is also necessary.  Until we improve the quality and direction of our high schools — and help kids see that dropping out is never a viable option — that mandatory diploma will be nothing more than a certificate of attendance.  We need to make a diploma something all kids covet … not a mandatory experience like going to the dentist.

“Choice Can, Should, and Must Inform”

It is School Choice Week!  Of course, that means yet another debate focused on whether schools of choice should play a role in our K-12 public education infrastructure.  By now, you would think such a debate would be unnecessary, yet the beat goes on.

Over at National Journal’s Education Experts Blog, the question of the week is “Is school choice a useful tool to fuel common ground on education policy?”  First up to offer a resounding “yes” to the question is dear ol’ Eduflack.
As for the continued question at hand, I opine:
It is unfortunate that, in 2012, we must continue a debate about whether all students should have access to high-quality school options. It is unfortunate that too many children don’t have the opportunity to attend public schools that can change their destinies. And it is truly unfortunate that we continue to look for excuses and justifications for denying students access schools that are proven to be effective when it comes to addressing all students’ learning needs and preparing all kids – regardless of race, family income, or zip code – for college and career.

And in answer to the question of the week:
Choice can, should, and must help inform the entire education policy agenda. Ultimately, our goal must be to provide great public schools to all students, no excuses. Public school success, regardless of the wrapper it might wear, serves as the exemplar for driving change. We should be agnostic about where solutions come from, as long as they are real, effective solutions that work for our kids. The stakes are too high for us to accept anything less.
Happy reading!

Take the Test? Me?

When we talk about the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, we usually like to focus on the freedom of speech part.  Some of us (including us former reporters) like the freedom of the press thing.  The recent Occupy movement has given us new-found interest in the right of peaceable assembly.  And come election time, we often hear about freedom of religion.

But what about that fifth First Amendment right?  How often do we give attention to our right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances?”
This week, clause five takes on special significance for dear ol’ Eduflack.  Courtesy of the good folks over at, I am now the target of an online petition.  
For those unfamiliar, is a terrific site where folks can post their grievances on any topic you care about.  Oppose the war in Afghanistan?  Wanna stop the Keystone pipeline?  Demand the return of tan M&Ms?  Doesn’t matter, is your site.  Post up a petition, spread the word, and work toward that goal of 100,000 signatures.  When you hit the magic number, great things will come to the petitioners.
This week, a petition was posted opposing the use of standardized tests in K-12 education.  Using standard language of attacking those dreaded “bubble exams,” the petitions note:
Students are put under pressure like never before to meet high expectations on Standardized Tests. Not only that, but teachers are held accountable for these tests scores, putting just as much pressure on teachers all over the United States. Ultimately, destroying the true purpose of school and education. Basically, it doesn’t matter how much a teacher helped a student go from a struggling reader to a student now never seen without a book in his hand. It doesn’t matter that the teacher inspired and motivated the student to want to graduate high school instead of dropping out on her 16th birthday just 2 months away.
The petition’s call to action?  Before subjecting our kids to more of those dreaded bubble sheets, the politicians responsible for such horrific measures of accountability should first take those standardized tests themselves.  “If you are in a position of power in the education system and think the tests are good and valuable, the theory goes, then you should feel comfortable taking them yourself and sharing how you performed,” the petitioners write.
The petition is addressed to nine parties.  The U.S. Senate, which is working to enact ESEA reauthorization, is target one.  It is followed by folks like CA Gov. Jerry Brown, NJ Gov. Chris Christie, PA Gov. Tom Corbett, NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo, CT Gov. Dannel Malloy, and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  But wait, there are two other targets on the list.  The first is former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee, now the head of StudentsFirst.  The second?  Patrick Riccards, your friendly neighborhood Eduflack.
For the record, I do think student tests are good and valuable.  I believe that the ultimate measure of our public education systems should be outcomes.  If we are serious about improving student learning, we need to enact some measures to ensure that is happening.  Standardized tests may be far from perfect, and they may not be the only measure of student learning, but they are an important component to determining our success.  Like it or not, we need quantifiable measures of student progress and school achievement.
Sure, technically I’m not “the Government.”  But folks should feel free to bring me their redress of testing grievances.  Will I take the test?  I’d be happy to.  But as the head of an education advocacy organization, I’d like to have some of those voices defending the status quo and chanting “all is well” when we talk about improvement in the testing room right there with their own No. 2 pencils.  
Sadly, we are only up to 27 signatures on the petition.  When we hit the magic number, I’m ready for my bubble sheet.

Flackin’ for School Districts

The world has clearly changed for school districts.  While we are hearing more about test scores and teacher contracts these days, we are just as likely to hear about social media, editorial board meetings, and a superintendent’s “message.”

While some may see this as a troubling sign for what is to come in our schools, I would argue it is actually a strong signal of the increased importance of K-12 education in our social landscape and our community priorities.  LEAs, particularly those in urban areas, now need communications professionals (if they do their jobs properly) to ensure that information and data is properly shared, community stakeholders are effectively engaged, and transparency and sunshine rule the day.
Diane Orson, over at WNPR in New Haven, CT, has a terrific piece on the topic (and not just terrific because it includes dear ol’ Eduflack.)  In her “The Changing Role of School Spokesman,” Orson tells the story of why school district communications is important, and what we should expect from the role. 
As I note in the piece:

“And I think as we look at how we talk about what’s happening in the schools, it really has to be a data driven discussion. We’re no longer just writing about spring break and how local sports teams are doing. This is now a very deep dive discussion into performance measures and data. And that requires a sophistication we’ve haven’t seen in education communications in the past.”

Some of you may have already heard it on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered.  But if not, it the piece is well worth the listen.

Educator Eval … With a British Accent

Over at Education Sector, there is a new report out focused on accountability efforts in England.  The Report, On Her Majesty’s School Inspection Service, offers an interesting look at how expert “inspection teams” can evaluate the success of local schools and local teachers.

Riffing off EdSector’s new report, dear ol’ Eduflack has a guest blog post on Quick and the Ed, examining what we might be able to learn from the British inspectorate and how those lessons could be applied to current U.S. efforts to key in on educator evaluation.  The most important point?  British evaluations are all about the kids, with the vast majority of their multiple measures focused on students and student learning.
By now, we all realize that effective educator evaluation requires multiple measures.  While many want to focus on just the inputs that go into teaching – what our educators are bringing to the classroom – it is equally, if not more, important for us to focus on student achievement.  And England makes clear that student learning is the most important element to its evaluation system.
Definitely some food for thought as SEAs look for the most effective ways to build effective evaluation systems and determine the best ways to measure educator effectiveness.

The Importance of Good Teachers

Most of us can point to that one educator who truly affected our lives — both in and out of the classroom.  We remember the one teacher who really pushed us to achieve.  Or the instructor who refused to let us take the easy way out.  And while we may not remember much about that year in the seventh grade, say, we definitely remember that educator from that year.

Which is why it is always so interesting when you hear folks arguing that “good teachers” can’t be measured in terms of student performance.  Yes, there are multiple measures that need to go into determining educator effectiveness.  Yes, there are inputs a teacher brings to the classroom that need to be factored in.  But at the end of the day, those teachers who likely left their marks on our lives also left their marks on our GPAs.
This morning, we have two interesting pieces out there reflecting on the importance of good teaching and good teachers.  The first is from Nicholas Kristof in today’s New York Times.  Kristof is reflecting on last week’s mega-study which showed the impact a strong teacher can have on the life of a student.  As Kristof notes:

What shone through the study was the variation among teachers. Great teachers not only raised test scores significantly — an effect that mostly faded within a few years — but also left their students with better life outcomes. A great teacher (defined as one better than 84 percent of peers) for a single year between fourth and eighth grades resulted in students earning almost 1 percent more at age 28.

Suppose that the bottom 5 percent of teachers could be replaced by teachers of average quality. The three economists found that each student in the classroom would have extra cumulative lifetime earnings of more than $52,000. That’s more than $1.4 million in gains for the classroom.

To complement Kristof’s keen analysis of an important piece of research, we have a new study coming from Education Trust.  In typical EdTrust fashion, EdTrust-West looks at more than 1 million students and 17,000 teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  One of the major takeaways?  Good teachers in LAUSD can close the achievement gap for Black and Latino students.  The disappointing reality?  Historically disadvantaged students in the City of Angels often have the worst instructors.
We should all be able to agree that all teachers should be evaluated every year to determine the sort of job they are doing.  We should all be able to agree that good teachers have a demonstrable impact on their students, including on student achievement measures.  We should all be able to agree that those good teachers are particularly important levers in the lives of low-income and minority students.  So with all of this agreement, why do we fight teacher effectiveness measures with such gusto?  Why do we fear outcomes being part of educator evaluation?  
Research such as that reflected on by Kristof and released by EdTrust makes a few facts clearer than ever.  Good teachers are essential if we are to improve student learning and close the achievement gaps.  We can determine who those good teachers are, and we can use test scores to help get there.  We need to do everything possible to determine who those good teachers are and ensure they are where they are needed the most.  And while it is not in the research, we need to properly pay and support those teachers that are making the sort of differences we expect to see in our classrooms.
Enough for today’s lesson.  Class dismissed.

Happy Birthday, Nicklebee!

Yes, we are now smack in the middle of celebrating the 10th anniversary of our beloved No Child Left Behind.  As we should expect from something that has been on the “out” list the past three or five seasons, many of the birthday wishes are focusing on the failures or shortfalls of the law.  Yes, shocker!

So over at the National Journal Education Experts Blog, Eduflack focuses on some of the strengths of the law — those positive specifics that we must continue to improve and build on.  Accountability.  A strong focus on achievement gaps.  A commitment to evidence-based decision making.  Choice.  All made enormous steps forward in the NCLB era, and all are essential if we are to improve public education in the post-NCLB era.  After all:
At the end of the day, NCLB will best be remembered as an unfinished legacy, one with great promise, but real challenges in delivering on those promises. But we cannot deny that NCLB succeeded in moving K-12 education away from a discussion of process and inputs (as it had been for so many iterations of ESEA before it) and towards a focus on outcomes. We have started to see students and families as the customers in the process, with providers (the public school system) improving the quality of their product. And now, parents can look at test scores and other achievement measures to determine the return on investment for their local education dollar.

Setting Aside the Vitriol in School Improvement

If we know anything, it is that we have much work in front of us if we are serious about providing all students — regardless of race, family income or zip code — access to truly great public schools.  There are no quick fixes here, nor should we be foolish enough to think one entity has all of the answers to just do it alone.

Yet we continue to see extreme vitriol permeating our discussions about school improvement.  Instead of focusing on the merits of ideas and the importance of outcomes, we continue to personalize the fight and resort to name calling and bullying to try and protect a status quo that we all realize cannot remain.
Over at the CT News Junkie this morning, Eduflack has a commentary on why real school improvement efforts require a team effort.  It is a valuable read that is applicable to virtually any state working toward reform.
For us to be truly successful, we must engage the entire educational “village” – the village we saw firsthand at last Thursday’s education reform summit. From the teachers unions, to superintendent and board of education groups, to think tanks, to community organizations, to advocacy groups, we’re all in this together. And as the adults in the village, it’s our job to focus on the kids. We must stop with the name-calling and the feigned procedural concerns. When we look back in 20 years and ask “What became of the Year for Education Reform?” the worst possible thing would be to say that this unprecedented moment was hijacked by a few status quo defenders who won out by making everyone feel icky. What a disappointment that would be. Can’t we do better, Connecticut?

A “Sensible Fix” for the Achievement Gap

It is no secret that our nation’s achievement gap is significant.  The odds that a white or upper class student succeeds in public schools is significantly higher than the odds of an African-American, Latino, or low-income student receiving the same benefits.  And as frightening as the size of the gaps may be, the persistence of such gaps are even more damaging.

Over at The Washington Post, Jay Mathews points us in the direction of a “startlingly sensible achievement gap fix.”  Mathews writes about the specific efforts undertaken by Arlington (VA) Public Schools starting pre-NCLB (1998) and running through the end of the true NCLB era (2009).
As Mathews notes:
From 1998 to 2009, the portion of black students passing Virginia Standards of Learning tests in Arlington rose from 37 to 77 percent.  For Hispanic students, the jump was from 47 to 84 percent.  The gap between non-Hispanic white and black passing rates dropped from 45 percentage points to 19.  Between Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites, the gap shrank from 35 points to 12.
Now those are the sorts of numbers we are all looking for when we talk about closing the gaps and providing great public schools for all students.   The full work of the Arlington team is available in a new book, “Gaining on the Gap: Changing Hearts, Minds, and Practice.”  But Mathews offers a clear view on what Arlington, and its then superintendent, did:
He insisted on measuring each major ethnic group, plus low-income students, students with disabilities and students learning English, on: the percentage passing first-year algebra with a C or better by the end of eighth grade; the percentage passing advanced courses in grades six through 12; the percentage completing the third year of a foreign language by the end of grade 11; the percentage of sixth- through eighth-graders taking electives in art, music and theater, the percentage meeting or exceeding criterion levels on the Virginia Wellness-Related Fitness Tests, and several other measures.
And this is in addition to the requirements under NCLB/AYP and the Virginia SOLs.
For all those that say student data and achievement numbers are not a fair measure of a school and its success, Arlington County, Virginia is providing them wrong.  By effectively collecting and utilizing data, Arlington was able to confront the problem of the achievement gap and target real solutions for fixing it.  And the results speak for themselves.
Mathews’ piece is definitely worth the read, as is the book by the Arlington leadership team.  We cannot keep ignoring the achievement gap, nor can we discount its significance.  Arlington and other places demonstrate there are real solutions out there, even sensible ones.