Is Budget an Education Strategy?

Last week, the Trump White House released its education budget. Most of its content was no real surprise, as it mirrored the skinny budget the Administration offered earlier this year. But as the education community continues to wait for a clear blueprint on how the Administration intends to make public education great again, the budget substitutes as strategy. We now read what we want to read out of the numbers, whether it be true or not.

On the latest episode of #TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network, we explore how budget just can’t substitute for strategy, and how EdSec Betsy DeVos could go a long way focusing on the latter, rather than defending the former. Give it a listen.

Some PR Advice for the EdSec

It’s been four months since the start of the Trump Administration. Three months since EdSec Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing. Yet most are still waiting for DeVos to take control of the ED bully pulpit like her predecessors did. And waiting. And waiting.

Over at the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog, Michael Petrilli offers some advice from PR pros on how DeVos could, or should, up her comms game. There are some valuable thoughts there. Then there are some insights offered by yours truly. You may be right, Eduflack may be cray-cray. But I do think it would be a master stroke to have DeVos ask Randi Weingarten if she can address the full AFT at its summer gathering. 

Give the full article a read. You won’t be disappointed.

Home Schoolers Don’t Want to Be a “Choice”

Earlier this week, EdSec Betsy DeVos continued to tease the details of the big school choice plan that is likely to come from the Trump Administration. The next day, the President’s budget reflects that same commitment to dramatically expanding access (and dollars for) public charter schools and vouchers for private education.

In all of the discussion, though, an interesting voice has spoken out asking NOT to be included in the expanded school choice plan. That voice? The homeschool community. As Eduflack explains in the most recent edition of #TrumpED on BAM! Radio Network, the reasons for this make a great deal of sense. With federal dollars comes federal oversight and regulations.  And while the homeschool community may largely trust President Trump and his administration on the topic, there are no guarantees that a future President or EdSec will hold the same level of respect for homeschoolers.

Give it a listen. I promise it is an interesting examination of an equally interesting topic.

Learning to Learn Better: The Interview

Dear ol’ Eduflack has been spending a great deal of time recently focused on the subject of cognitive science. Dating back to my time helping lead the National Reading Panel, I’ve been fascinated with learning about how people learn. And I’ve been even more fascinated by those that, despite the incredible growth in cognitive learning research in recent years, continue to believe that learning is an art, with little room for hard science.

So when I heard about the new book, Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and Schools, or How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything, I was sold. The book itself is terrific, weaving a tight narrative of instruction, storytelling, and inspiration. And it applies to concepts of learning, and learning better, in areas many of us may never have thought of.

That’s why I just had to reach out to Ulrich Boser, the author of this terrific book, to get some answers to the questions I was begging to ask. Most know Boser as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. My first interactions with him date back to when he was an editor at US News & World Report. As author of Learn Better, Boser has made an important contribution to the discussion of how we improve learning and how we ensure our educators, our institutions, and our learners are prepared for what the future of learning might bring.

Huge thanks to Boser for indulging me and stepping up on the five most important questions his book left me with. 

EDUFLACK: What was the most surprising story on learning you heard as part of your research? 

BOSER: For me at least, the story of Roger Craig was definitely the most surprising. To explain, Roger Craig thought that he might have an edge at Jeopardy after reading about an approach to learning known as spacing. The idea behind spacing is pretty simple. Since we all forget, learning should be spread out—or spaced—in order increase the amount of learning.  

So Craig began to study Jeopardy! trivia using a spaced approach, and with the help of a bit of software, he would revisit every weird Jeopardy detail in a highly distributed—or spaced—way.

Armed with this bit of the science of learning, Craig dominated Jeopardy. He first appeared on the game show in the fall of 2010 and eventually set a record for the most amount of money won in a single game.

Craig’s success at the game show tells two bigger stories, I think. First, learning often leaves as soon as it arrives, and to account for this fact, people should revisit whatever they’ve learned at regular intervals.

Second, people can use the science of learning to develop much richer skills. 

EDUFLACK: Learn Better seems to champion competency-based education, the ability of a student to both learn and be able to do/demonstrate. Is that a fair assessment?

BOSER: Absolutely. Indeed, I find the debate over competency-based education a little narrow minded, to be honest. More specifically, does anyone really argue that we should not measure competency? To me at least, it seems obvious that if students learn something, they should be able to–you know– do it.

In my mind, the more important question is: How do we measure competency? What programs and policies do we need to figure out if students can really demonstrate their learning?

From my conversations with researchers, it seems that robust learning is the ability to think in a certain field. So if someone wants to be a competent engineer, they should be able to think like a engineer. If someone wants to be a competent a car mechanic, they need to think like a car mechanic.

This isn’t as complicated as it seems, and according to a growing number of experts, this sort of thinking—and learning—often comes down to analogies. In other words, we can learn a lot by seeing the relationships within a field, by seeing how things fit together.

For me, the problem is that our education system is not aligned with the research. Standards, curriculum, tests, they often push in different directions on the issue of competency, and we need better tests and instructional tools to promote—and measure— analogical thinking within an area of expertise. 

EDUFLACK: In recent years, there has been a drumbeat that every student can and should benefit from a liberal arts college education. But as you emphasize finding value in one’s learning, is “all can benefit” the approach we should be looking to?

BOSER: I think a liberal arts education is deeply important. To engage in the world, we need a broad base of knowledge, from knowing Mozart to understanding the Battle of Mogadishu. What’s more, a liberal arts-oriented education can help us learn new things. Background knowledge helps learning, and the most reliable indicator of what you can learn is what you know.

At the same, we expect way too much of schools. In K-12 at least, schools are supposed to teach everything from reading to coding, social skills to citizenship, tuba to Picasso, plus win an occasional sports championship. That’s simply too much, and it keeps schools from focusing on effective teaching and learning. 

EDUFLACK: The thesis of Learn Better seems to place a great deal of responsibility on the learner to own his or her own education. What should teachers today be doing, or doing differently, to ensure better learning in their classrooms?

BOSER: Great question. First, I’d point out that students need to learn responsibility in the same way that they learn geometry or Spanish, and we need to give young people more opportunities to develop ownership skills in meaningful ways.

This can be difficult, to be sure. I have little kids, and as we are rushing out the door each morning—a mess of untied shoes and missing water bottles—it’s hard to imagine giving my kids any more responsibility. But giving kids some ownership is crucial. It gives them an opportunity to practice responsibility.

Second, we have to realize that people need to find their own meaning. This is key to learning, and people have to find their own meaning in a subject in order to be driven to learn that subject.

This means that just sprinkling some pop culture facts on a topic isn’t going to make it interesting. Alas, just mentioning the Kardashians during math class isn’t going to promote any robust forms of motivation.

Instead, educators should encourage students to find their own value in a topic, to figure out how the students might uncover their own relevance in a field of expertise.

Chris Hulleman at the University of Virginia puts this idea well. Motivation “is about making that connection between what people are learning and what’s going on in their lives,” he told me. “Value is the mechanism. For people, the question is, ‘Can I see why this is valuable to me?’” 

EDUFLACK: In talking about the need to shift from rote memorization to deeper thinking, I read it as a need to move learners from being generalists — or jacks of all trades — to being specialists or expert in those things that really drive them. Are we headed toward such a future?

BOSER: Yes, and in many ways, this future is already here. After all, the history of the modern world is the history of specialization, and our economy runs on people developing pretty narrow areas of expertise.

Adam Smith wrote about the power of specialization centuries ago in his book Wealth of Nations, and at its core, it’s about dividing up labor. What’s more, technology is putting a version of this trend into hyperspeed by automating more and more tasks, which requires more and more specialization.

That said, we don’t always need to become experts. Mastery isn’t always necessary. But we should stay away from rote learning. It’s simply not effective.

Let’s take changing a tire on a car, for instance. I don’t need to become expert in the skill of tire changing. My tires don’t break down that often. But I do want to go beyond a rote understanding of tire changing.

Because if I have a rote understanding, I will not be able to change a tire on any other car besides my current car. That doesn’t help me that much, especially if my friend’s car has a flat tire or if I get a new car.  

So when it comes to changing a tire, I would want to learn how to change a tire well enough that I understand some of the basic principles (like lift) and enough of the mechanics (like unscrewing bolts) that I can change the tires on different cars.

To answer your question, then, we want people to specialize–and learn some topics very well. But some generalization remains necessary, at least if you don’t want to be stranded by the side of the road with a flat tire.

Off the Pace on ED Hiring

Eight years ago, Eduflack wrote on the appointments the then new Obama Administration had made. With almost all of the senior, Senate-confirmable appointments made by then EdSec Arne Duncan, we saw a great deal of ED leaders coming with backgrounds including the Gates Foundation and New Schools Venture Fund, but almost none that came with experience working on educational issues at the state level.

Oh, the good ol’ days!

Here we are in May of 2017, and we are still waiting to see what experiences and backgrounds the senior ranks of EdSec Betsy DeVos’ Education Department will bring. One would like to believe that she will have strong representation of those with experiences at the state and local level. One can assume that the state of Michigan, as well as the American Federation for Children, Great Lakes Education Project, and other efforts DeVos has personally involved herself in. But that’s what it is, a belief. It is a guess. It is a hope (or for others, a fear).

It’s not a matter of waiting for those positions to be confirmed by a cantankerous Senate. No, it is still an issue of actual nominations being put forward.

No word on who will serve as Under Secretary, with a responsibility of overseeing most higher education work, including student loans. No word on who will serve as Deputy  Secretary, essentially running ED day to day. No word on who will run Elementary and Secondary Education, overseeing ESSA implementation and all that comes with it. No word on who will run the Office of Innovation and Improvement, with the likely portfolio of implementing DeVos’ school choice effort. Not even word on who will run the Office of Communications and Outreach, ensuring a consistent message and a community of supporters to move whatever agenda is ultimately put forward forward.
EdSec DeVos has an opportunity to really move some things. Setting aside budget politics for a second, the Trump agenda allows for significant action on issues like career and technical education, adult education, and early childhood. The school choice proposal is on par — both financially and inspirationally — with Duncan’s Race to the Top Efforts or Rod Paige’s NCLB agenda. But to take advantage of it, DeVos needs leaders who can help shepherd parts of a cohesive policy agenda. She needs individuals who can build coalitions and recruit advocates. She needs visionaries who can help states and localities think outside the box. And yes, she needs rabble rousers who can constantly push against the defenders of the status quo.

Until we see who is in those positions, we truly have no idea what the potential impact of a DeVos agenda may be. Washington, DC is often where good ideas go to die. Whether it be because of Hill inaction, lobbyist pressures, grassroots uprisings, implementation challenges, or unforced errors, change in education is a hard nut to crack. Time will tell if Team DeVos will get to enjoy the meat, or will continue to tap away at the often unpenatrable shell.

Just Say No to Political Pottymouths

If you haven’t noticed yet (and it is near impossible not to notice), the 2016 elections have led us into a 2017 political discourse where the name of the game is vulgarity. The language that was once used in political backrooms is now being used front and center in public meetings, speeches, and in social media. Things most people wouldn’t say to their mothers are now being said before cheering crowds of thousands.

Over on Medium, I look at the rise of cuss words as substitute for political voice. As with any name calling, it fills the space because we simply can’t think of anything substantive to put in its place.

As dear ol’ Eduflack writes: “it is fascinating that a generation of parents who regularly preach to their kids, ‘use your words,’ to express their frustrations now throw in the towel when it comes to doing the same themselves.”

Give the full piece a read. You won’t f*%!in’ believe it!

Improving the #STEM Teacher Pipeline in New Jersey

Earlier this month, dear ol’ Eduflack had the honor and privilege of testifying before the New Jersey General Assembly’s Higher Education Committee. The topic? How to improve the recruitment, preparation, and support of STEM teachers for the state’s high-need schools. While I almost never speak with prepared remarks, this time, I did. While I strayed a little (including talking about chasing education unicorns), here is the totality of what I intended to say:
Five years ago, New Jersey committed to becoming a national leader in recruiting, preparing, and supporting exemplary STEM teachers.

Through the New Jersey Teaching Fellows program, innovative teacher preparation efforts are currently underway at The College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, Rowan University, Rutgers University-Camden, and William Paterson University. The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation is working with these institutions of higher education to create a more effective teacher education model focused on a yearlong classroom experience, rigorous academic work, and ongoing mentoring and support.

By focusing on clinical experience and giving prospective teachers as much time in K-12 classrooms as possible, these programs ensure all of their graduates understand the challenges of teaching in a high-need school, and all are prepared to succeed as teachers of record from day one.

New Jersey is one of five states to offer the Teaching Fellows program, including Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Georgia. The New Jersey program has grown from the previous work of these states, learning from their challenges and building on their successes from the start.

Looking at these other programs, we can see the impact the New Jersey Teaching Fellows program can have long term. A future where effective teachers remain in high-need schools as a career, not just for a year or three. A future where colleges and school districts work together to ensure a pipeline of strong STEM teachers prepared to meet the needs of our local schools and the expectations of an ever-changing workforce.

The Teaching Fellows program is not a cookie cutter effort. Far from it. The New Jersey Teaching Fellows program was created specifically to meet the needs and expectations of New Jersey, its schools, and its communities. This program is New Jersey, and its graduates reflect the very best the state has to offer. It should be no surprise that the Woodrow Wilson Foundation calls New Jersey home, with our headquarters located just a few miles up Route 1.

As you all know, New Jersey has 24 traditional teacher education programs, housed in the state’s colleges and universities. In recent years, across all of those programs, the state has produced as few as 9 physics teachers and 16 chemistry teachers annually. These numbers are hardly enough to fill all of the STEM hiring needs in the state’s 600+ school districts. The problems of filling these teaching positions are even greater in high-need districts.

The Woodrow Wilson Foundation partners with colleges and universities to create a more effective teacher education program focused on a yearlong classroom experience, rigorous academic work, and ongoing mentoring. The year-long program includes:

  • Admission to a master’s degree program at a well-established NJ partner university
  • Preparation for teacher certification in science, math, or technology education
  • Extensive clinical experience teaching in a high-need urban or rural secondary school for one full year prior to becoming the teacher-of-record in a high-need science or math classroom
  • Support and mentoring throughout the first three years as teacher of record

In Woodrow Wilson’s past eight years of work, we have been helping states like New Jersey strengthen the pipeline to provide excellent teachers for high-need schools. And we have done it while increasing the number of teachers of color assuming STEM teaching positions in New Jersey classrooms.

Nationally, approximately 16 percent of all teachers are people of color. Those numbers are notably smaller when it comes to individuals teaching science, technology, engineering, and math in our secondary schools. Targeting only those with strong STEM backgrounds, 41 percent of New Jersey Teaching Fellows are people of color.

The value of the New Jersey Teaching Fellowship model can be seen in the teacher preparation regulations adopted by the state a little more than a year ago. In focusing on the value of clinical experience, mentoring, and the overall quality of teacher candidates, the state is now looking to all seeking to become New Jersey educators to follow a preparation path similar to those taken by New Jersey Teaching Fellows.

Later this year, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation will announce its fourth and final class of New Jersey Teaching Fellows. As of last year, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation awarded 180 Fellowships to high-achieving STEM students to become science, technology, engineering and math teachers in the New Jersey schools and districts that need them most.

Let me share a few facts from the New Jersey Teaching Fellows program with you, in addition to the 41 percent statistic offered earlier. In a profession where three-quarters of all educators are female, 43 percent of New Jersey Teaching Fellows are male. Last year alone, 25 percent of all Teaching Fellows already held advanced degrees, including Ph.Ds, law degrees, and M.Ds. They are a mix of recent college graduates, career changers, and former military. All bring real STEM content knowledge to New Jersey classrooms. All are committing to careers, not stints, as New Jersey public school teachers.

The educators produced through the Teaching Fellowship are enough to fill the STEM vacancies in the state’s highest-need school districts. Among the people who received these Fellowships are a Ph.D. cancer researcher who has taught at Princeton University, and a geologist and veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, now teaching in Orange. The Fellowship draws on in-state talent: 82 percent of our Fellows are New Jersey residents.

Each Fellow is committed to teaching for at least three years in New Jersey’s urban and rural schools ̶ in cities and towns such as Bridgeton, Camden, Newark, New Brunswick, Orange, Passaic, Paterson, Trenton, and dozens more. We know from other states where we have been doing this work longer, that roughly 80 percent of Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellows remain in teaching after finishing their three-year commitment, far surpassing national trends that show rates of teacher attrition as high as 40–60 percent in the first three years on the job.

A coalition of support for the Woodrow Wilson New Jersey Teaching Fellowship program has also been developed, which includes the Governor, key legislators on both sides of the aisle, the Commissioner of Education, the Secretary of Higher Education, school districts, universities, the NJEA, the business community, and philanthropy.

When the program was invited to New Jersey, our promise to the state was simple. We would work with our partner universities to help transform their STEM teacher preparation efforts. We would work with local school districts to ensure they, and their students, are getting the STEM teachers they need. And we would help prepare three cohorts of teachers for New Jersey schools.

The success on each of our partner campuses, coupled with the new state teacher preparation regs, demonstrate success on point one. The more than 20 high-need districts currently employing New Jersey Teaching Fellows answer point two. And our commitment to now add a fourth cohort of New Jersey Teaching Fellows to ensure ongoing staffing needs are met moves beyond our promise in point three.

In each Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellow state, program sustainability is always a non-negotiable. The program is constructed so that outside philanthropy funds the first three years of Teaching Fellows. In New Jersey, we were able to extend that to four. Currently, each of our university partners has identified and committed to a plan to keep the program going on their campuses, whether that be through an increased focus on the clinical experience, a robust mentoring program, or the continuation of a stipended Fellowship program.

It is our hope that the Legislature sees the value this program plays in recruiting and preparing excellent educators, particularly those from disadvantaged groups, who may otherwise have never considered teaching as a profession. It is our hope that we all can see the impact this program is currently having. And it is our hope that the state continues this program, sustaining the New Jersey Teaching Fellows effort and ensuring generations of effective STEM teachers for the state’s high-need schools.