Let’s Chat about Reformer/Educator Collaboration

Earlier this month, dear ol’ Eduflack had a commentary published in Education Week focusing on the need for both the education reform and the educator community to look for ways to collaborate and work together if we were serious about improving student learning and student achievement.

The idea might be common sense, but it is one that is often absent from so many of these so-called discussions. We seem to only want to debate with those who agree with us 100 percent, and we are quick to discount those with specific differing opinions, even if there is much we can agree on regarding the larger field.

The response I’ve gotten from the piece has been tremendous, and just a little bit surprising. Perhaps the most heartwarming discussion I’ve had is with Michael Ramon Hicks (@TheOtherDrHicks), a professor of education down in Louisiana. As the result of some rich give and take with the good Doctor, I was able to see I have a little bit of educator in me after all, and that those lines of both agreement and disagreement can be wonderful starting points for a meaningful give and take.

Continuing in that vein, I’m happy to announce that I’ll be part of Ed Week … Every Week!, a live Twitter chat hosted by the Arizona K-12 Center, a not-for-profit that provides high-quality professional learning to educators.

On Wednesday, October 1, I’ll be participating in their Bridging the Classroom-Policy Divide discussion. It’s happening at 7:30 pm ET (4:30 pm Arizona Time). You can join in with the hashtag #azk12chat.

Hope you’ll be able to join us.

Seat Time or Competency?

For most, the equation for earning a college degree is fairly simple. Take approximately 120 credit hours (give or take) and you get the sheepskin. For many, what is supposed to be a four-year endeavor can actually take five or six years. For a select few, they manage to shave a semester or two off the top before walking in their caps and gowns.

But is the true measure of college learning the number of hours you’ve actually spent sitting in a lecture hall? Is a college education about seat time, or is it about what you’ve learned and how you can apply it?

Over at Strategy Labs, an initiative supported by the Lumina Foundation, they are exploring a number of topics related to “state policy to increase higher education achievement.” One of the topics that is of particular note is the exploration of competency-based higher education. As the folks at Strategy Labs define in a new white paper on Competency-Based Education Initiatives, competency-based ed “allows students to earn their degrees by demonstrating specific knowledge and skills related to programs of study, as well as general skills, abilities and behaviors such as the ability to communicate well with a variety of audiences orally and in writing.”

Imagine that. College degrees focused on what you actually know and how you can apply it. Degrees that look at skills and abilities, and not simply time on task. A degree that, in theory, is outcomes based and not simply about the time-based inputs that went into the degree pursuits.

In looking at those states involved in national competency-based education initiatives, what is most surprising is that the vast majority of IHEs involved are public institutions, and not private or for-profit ones. Those states that can boast competency-based ed at at least one public college or university include: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin.

Add to it states that are seeing competency-based action at just their private or for-profit universities, and we can add Ohio, Tennessee, Washington, and Wyoming to the mix. And many states can also add partnerships between their community colleges and Western Governors University to the mix.

So which states aren’t in on the fun? Who’s still clinging to the old model of seat-time based college degrees? That would include Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The white paper is definitely worth a look, particularly when you see some “name brand” universities involved in competency-based higher education. Northern Arizona University, one of the true leaders in online higher ed, is on the list., So is DePaul University, IUPUI, University of Maryland (University College), the Minnesota State Colleges and University System, Texas A&M, and University of Wisconsin. The Kentucky Community and Technical College System is also representing. As are the Missouri Community Colleges.

As Strategy Labs notes:

Competency-based education is not new to higher education; however, there has been a recent resurgence of interest. The growth has been driven primarily by efforts to redefine the quality of higher education in terms of student learning, As states, systems and institutions more widely implement competency-based programs, there are a number of initiatives aimed at better understanding these programs, how to set supportive contexts for these programs and how to effectively scale and communicate about these programs.

As more states start exploring $10,000 degrees, as more IHEs recognize that students are consumers and their needs must be factored in, and as we demand more than a “well-rounded student” from those who attain a postsecondary degree, focus on competency-based education will continue to grow. The challenge will be how to meet the need without sacrificing quality. But these institutions seem to be off to a good start.

Student Journalism, Student Freedoms

Although Eduflack is several decades removed, I still look fondly on his student journalism experience. In high school, I remember a principal who would often tell us what we could or should not be writing about. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. It was high school. I was engaged in other activities. And I just didn’t think it really affected me much.

College was a different story. While I was a student at the University of Virginia, I really see my college years at The Cavalier Daily. The CD was an independent newspaper at U.Va. We published daily, typically 12 or 16 pages a day. I ultimately served as managing editor of the paper, overseeing a volunteer staff of nearly 150 and the content that was put out each day. We never got paid. We never received college credit. We did it for the love of journalism.

When I was on the managing board, we faced a particularly delicate issue involving the University’s Honor Committee and the son of a prominent internationally recognized businessman. We broke the story. We had papers like The Washington Post and The Richmond Times-Dispatch looking to our coverage (and at times, even calling our printer to try and get an advance read before the papers hit the news stands in the morning).

Because of the high profile, it was a tough issue for our managing board — five kids in their early 20s — to navigate. We received many threats. We had the University and others talk about lawsuits against us for violating the sanctity of the Honor system. We had legal counsel on speed dial (a former CD alum who looked out for us and did a helluva job). And we continued to publish. We continued to push. We continued to throw a spotlight on a system that was treating a student of incredible means and of powerful upbringing differently than the average student when it came to our single-sanction Honor system.

Our news coverage ended up winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association and praise from free press groups. Every step along the way, we heeded the words of Thomas Jefferson that appeared on our masthead every morning.

For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.

Why do I take this little trip down memory lane? I do so because of the student journalists of the Playwickian, a student newspaper at Neshaminy HIgh School in Pennsylvania. The newspaper has had student activity fees withdrawn and its advisor and journalism teacher suspended. According to news reports, the principal and the school board have sought to dictate editorial policy for the newspaper, demanding the student journalists follow orders from on high. And just last week, the editor in chief was stripped of her position by the administration.

What was their offense? Did these student journalists print profanities? Did they libel school or community leadership? Did they violate federal law about the privacy of student records?

No. They refused to publish the school mascot’s name. The name in question? Redskins. These journalists followed the lead of publications like The Washington Post and refused to use what they saw as a racist term in editorial coverage (namely a letter to the editor). And when facing pressure, these journalists and their advisors stood their ground.

You can read more about their issue on the #FreethePlaywickian Indigogo campaign.

Around the nation, we are seeing professional media outlets praised for doing what these student journalists are doing. We are also reading more and more about media freedoms around the world being at risk. We should be honoring these students for taking a stand they believe in. We should be praising them for embodying everything a free press stands for. We should raise them up as an example of how students and the media can lead.

This isn’t about whether one feels the Redskin mascot is racist or not. This is about media freedoms. It is about student journalism. And it is about teaching one to stand up for their beliefs. It is, as Jefferson wrote, about using reason to combat those errors we see in society.

I proudly stand with the Playwickian I just pledged my financial support to help them.. And I hope some of these journalists will one day join The Cavalier Daily and other fine examples of student journalism found around the country.

Ban a Book? Really?

It’s Banned Books Week. It’s a little disappointing that we, as a society built on freedoms, needs to acknowledge that we still have a problem in trying to censor material, particularly material that is part of the learning process.

Over on Twitter, the newly relaunched Reading Rainbow is soliciting stories from folks on their personal banning experience. Just check out @readingrainbow and their #BannedBooksWeek and #MyStory hashtags to see some of the tales being told. It is particularly surprising to see the role that some librarians, the very folks who should be protecting and promoting said books, have played in the process.

Which gets us to Eduflack’s tale. I remember it all quite well. When I was in elementary school, I was a huge fan of Judy Blume, I read any book that had her name on the cover. I loved them. Owned many of them, and read them over and over and over again.

One day, Eduflack went to the local library to check out one of Blume’s titles he didn’t have. The book? Are You There God?, It’s Me Margaret. If you are unaware of the book, go ahead and click on the title and check out the Wiki summary.

At any rate, the local librarian wouldn’t let me check the book out of the library. I had a library card. I hadn’t maxed out my checked out books yet. I had no overdue books. But I was blocked at the desk.

The librarian then placed a call to my mother. Yep, getting ratted out to my own mom. The librarian explained that I wanted to check out this book. She wasn’t going to let me, because she felt the book was inappropriate, both because of my age and because of my gender. My mom, a good liberal and a great English teacher, didn’t quite understand the problem. She told the librarian to let me have the book. There would be no book banning in the future Eduflack’s house.

Then dear ol’ mom went out and bought me the book, so I wouldn’t have future issues at the local library. I remember reading the book many times in the years after the incident. And somehow I managed to survive without any emotional scars or spiritual questions or concerns about my gender.

I’m always amazed by the books I see on the “banned” list here in the United States. Books that I adore and that have shaped my thinking and my life. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (a far better book than either version of the movie). Catcher in the Rye. Go Ask Alice. How to Eat Fried Worms. James and the Giant Peach. Lord of the Flies. A Wrinkle in Time. Most things written by Judy Blume … and by S.E. Hinton.

One of my favorite movies (and a damned good book by Christopher Buckley) is Thank You for Smoking. The protagonist is a tobacco lobbyist. When asked what he would do when his son was of age and wanted to smoke, he replies, “I’d buy him his first pack.”

That’s how I feel about banned books. Either of my kids want to read a title that a teacher or a librarian or a talking head says is inappropriate material for a child or teen, I’ll buy them their own copy. My mom did it for me. I’ll carry it forward.

A College-Educated United States

For the past five years, the education community has been fond of quoting President Obama’s 2009 goal of having more college graduates, per capita, in the world by the year 2020. It is an area where we were once a leader, but have seen other nations pass us by.

That isn’t saying that we don’t have a huge number of Americans who are graduating from college. Nor does it mean that the number of college grads has seen a decline in recent years or recent decades. We are talking per capita numbers here, an area where it can be difficult to pick up gains when the percentage of P-12-age students is rapidly growing.

That’s why Eduflack was fascinated to see a new map, offered by the folks at Vox, which looks at the growth in the number of Americans gaining a college education over the past four decades. Vox bills it as a chance to “watch the US get more educated in 20 seconds.” And they are right. You can look state by state, major urban area by major urban area, and see the map change before your beautiful eyes.

What is Vox charting? In 1970, one in 10 Americans had at least a bachelor’s degree (according to data provided by the USDA Economic Resource Services). Today (OK, 2012), that number is now almost triple that.

As Vox writer Danielle Kurtzleben notes:

College degrees clearly became more commonplace nationwide over the last 40 years, but the geography of them is striking today. Broadly speaking, the South remains the place where degrees are the least common. Meanwhile, cities — and particularly the northeastern Amtrak corridor — are where college graduates have concentrated.

What’s most striking about the data Kurtzleben has charted is that we saw the steepest growth in college attainment earlier on. Between 1970 and 1980, the number of degree holders almost doubled. But even from 2000 to 2011, we saw some pretty impressive gains.

Strongest gains, over time, can be found in the Northeast out in the Northwest (both Pacific and in the Big Sky country areas). The weakest showing appears to be in the Midwest, with the Southeast coming in a close second.

It is definitely worth the look. It’ll be 20 seconds you won’t regret spending.

It’s Constitution Day!

Today, September 17, is Constitution Day. It recognizes the date that the U.S. Constitution was officially adopted as the law that governed our land.

As kids, many of us learned the Preamble:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

As adults, we often forget the content of the seven Articles or even how many amendments there have been since its passage. Hopefully, we are aware of the Bill of Rights (those first 10 Amendments.)

As it is Constitution Day, I can’t help but think of my first job out of college. I was fortunate enough to work as an aide to U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd (WV) both while at the University of Virginia and after graduation. Those who know the Senate know that Senator Byrd was one of the Constitution’s staunchest defenders. In his decades on the Hill, he never was without a pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution. He was known to pull it out during committee hearings, referencing our Founding Fathers’ words when witnesses would forget the basis on which this nation was founded.

I still have the pocket version of the Constitution Senator Byrd gave me when I worked for him as a foolish 20-year-old communications intern. Can’t think of today without thinking of the senior senator from the great state of West Virginia, who gave me my first job in communications.


(And thanks to Anne Barth, another former Byrd staffer and state director extraordinaire, for the great photo reminder this AM.)

Seeking Collaboration Between Reformers, Educators

For too long, we have heard of the battles between the education reform community and educators. From the way these debates have been framed, one would think the two sides couldn’t agree that the sky was blue or that water was wet.

Truth be told, reformers and educators agree on far more than they disagree. and both sides of the school improvement coin are necessary if we are to be successful in efforts to improve student learning and achievement.

Or so Eduflack writes in this week’s Education Week. In a commentary entitled, “It’s Time for Reformers, Educators to Work Together,” I note:

The time has come to turn away from the divisive, us-vs.-them approaches of past policy fights. Instead, we must work together with educators to improve our public schools. We must focus on options and opportunities that can have real impact on all our children, not just a select few. And we must do so in a way that improves teaching and learning for all.

Otherwise, we are merely tinkering around the edges, seeking to set the next boundaries for the next fight. Our kids, our communities, and our nation deserve far better than such rhetorical posturing.

As we start another school year, we can’t afford another year of sniping, motive questioning, and hyperbole. Hopefully, this piece gives all sides something to consider.