A Win for Education Research

For nearly a year now, the education community has been waiting for key nominees for President Donald Trump’s Education Department. Some have been holding their collective breaths to see who get the nods for some of the “sexy” posts, including assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education.

Last night, President Trump announced the nomination of Mark Schneider to head the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). No, IES is hardly considered a sexy post by most in education. But it is an incredibly important nomination … and job.

If one believes in the identification, understanding, and use of education research, then IES is important. If one believes in scientifically based education, then IES is important. If one believes our schools — both K-12 and higher ed — should be focused on what is proven effective, then IES is important. If one believes data should trump philosophy when it comes to education, then IES is important.

It’s equally important that someone like Dr. Schneider is getting the nod for this job. Mark is both a terrific education researcher and a keen education policy person. He served as commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in the George W. Bush Administration. Perhaps just as important, he is the nation’s foremost expert on the data surrounding the cost of college — the true cost of college — at least as it applies to students and their families.

I don’t just offer this hearty endorsement based on Dr. Schneider’s reputation. Eduflack has had the opportunity to work closely with the new head of IES, particularly in helping him launch College Measures, an American Institutes of Research center focused on improving higher education outcomes by better understanding higher education data.

At Dr. Schneider’s side, I gained a far greater appreciation for both the data and for its true meaning. I was able to explore how costly some community colleges truly were, when one looked at the cost of actually earning a degree. I had to do rhetorical battle with a university president who thought his eight-year graduation rate (for four-year undergraduate program!) of less than 30 percent was something to be applauded, not concerned about. And I came to appreciate the costs and benefits of college are best looked at through the lens of the consumer, not necessarily the provider, that we need to look at the cost of degree for a student to obtain, not for the university to offer.

I’m fortunate to call Mark Schneider a friend and a mentor in the ed data space. And from nearly two decades experience working with IES — working with the Institute since its inception in 2001 — I’m grateful we will have an experienced, knowledgeable, results-focused leader at the helm.

We may not always know who is leading an agency like IES, but when it isn’t someone of the caliber of Mark Schneider, we feel the impact.

 

College Degree … or Work Skills?

A decade ago, President Obama declared a nations, goal of having the highest percentage of college graduates in the world. This month, EdSec Betsy DeVos called for a renewed focus on career education and workforce training.

Now before we condemn DeVos for somehow being anti-education, we need to consider that she may indeed be correct. A liberal arts education may have value for the soul, but it can be just as important to some to pursue an education that guarantees one can support a family and pay the mortgage.

We explore the topic on the latest edition of #TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network. Give it a listen.

Men, We Can Do Better

With new allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault rolling in on a daily basis now, it is time for men to have a very real discussion on what is appropriate – and what is not – when it comes to our dealings with others.

This isn’t about being a better husband or father. We need to drop the qualifiers. Thus us about being a decent human being.

As I write on Medium:

Finally, if you have to ask if something is appropriate, it is a good bet it is not. If you have to defend your actions because so-and-so also did it, they what you did is indefensible. If you justify what you have done by stating that it isn’t as bad as what someone else did, you really have no justification for your actions.

Please give it a read. Sadly, these are the conversations we need to have these days.

What I Learned While Lecturing At College

There is something rejuvenating about speaking on college campuses, particularly when it offers the opportunity to reflect on your profession and your career choices. In our day-to-day world, we can often lose sight of why we do what we do, letting the frustrations of the day get in the way of the successes of the career.

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with students at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri about strategic communications. Heading in, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve spoken at public and private universities. I’ve presented at Ivy League institutions and community colleges. At HBCUs and foreign universities. Each one is different, each comes with its own set of questions and its own frames of discussion.

Over the years, I’ve learned I’m an effective storyteller. Anyone in the communications profession can go onto a college campus and describe what their job is like. Speakers can approach such scenarios as if they are going in for a first round job interview or talking to someone at a cocktail party that they will never see again. They can provide a “just the facts” approach, as if they are describing the work to a crime scene investigator. Me, I prefer to tell old war stories.

It’s easy to get someone’s attention when you are able to talk about defending bomb-detecting dolphins trained by the U.S. Navy or flacking for a company that allegedly employed paramilitary death squads or managing an “angel of death” scenario at a local hospital or doing rhetorical battle with a brand name like Bill O’Reilly. Such tales make a communications job seem glamorous, taking away from those countless days and years in a cubicle cold-calling reporters and begging them to attend an event or review a release or the reams of paper and the countless drafts before a commentary meets the approval of the cast of thousands who may need to OK it.

Such stories, though, can often be the easy way out. It is one-way communication, with the storyteller (me) simply informing my audience. Even when one opens it up for questions, those answers are often simply more stories, or the expansion of the existing ones.

But in my discussion at Southwest Baptist University, I found a different discussion. Yes, the tales were entertaining (at least I thought so, but I’ve heard them all before). But the questions asked of me were illuminating. I was forced to go into my personal recesses and find answers to questions I haven’t asked myself in a long time. And in a few instances, explore some topics I have never consciously explored as a communications professional.

These were questions like:

  • What are the similarities in working in communications in fields like politics, government, healthcare, education? What are the differences?
  • Compare working in the private sector with working in the public sector? Working for for-profits versus not-for-profits? Which is better for a young professional? Why?
  • Is it better to be a communications generalist today or to specialize in a specific skill, like social media?
  • How does one measure the success, or failure, of communications initiatives? How do you know when you are doing it right?
  • How do you find the voice of your boss or your client?
  • I found that last question of particular interest and intrigue. I’ve been fortunate to be an on-the-record spokesman for more than two decades. I’ve also ghost written hundreds of commentaries for individuals over that time. In all of those years, I’m not sure I had ever thought about HOW to find that voice, I just did it.

When I worked for Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, I got there by watching his floor speeches and trying to parrot them. With Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, it was by reading his basketball memoir, Life on the Run. With the African-American national not-for-profit leader, it was from speaking one-on-one with him. With the former college president, it was from watching him speak to small groups. While each experience was different, each also shared a common thread. It was about finding voice in the setting where the speaker was most comfortable, most him or herself.

These were the sorts of questions that my 22-year-old self would never have known to ask. Heck, these are questions that my 30-year-old self wouldn’t have asked either. But these students were not just hearing the stories, but they were listening to them. And they were trying to distill these tales into useable lessons that would help them secure the jobs they sought and enter the careers they dreamed of.

At the same time, they reminded me of why I do what I do, what drew me to it, and what brings me the joy that keeps me from chucking it all and opening that cupcake shop on Grand Cayman. In teaching last week, I learned – or re-learned – a great deal.

(The above was also published in LinkedIn Pulse.)

My Kids Should Be Friends With All Comers

Over the weekend, The New York Times made dear ol’ Eduflack incredibly sad. No, it wasn’t the rash of stories on President Donald Trump’s latest statements or the most-recent revelations of what celebrities did what despicable things from their position of power. Sadly, many of us have become immune to that. Instead, I was troubled by a commentary piece from Ekow N. Yankah, Can My Children Be Friends With White People?

The law professor concludes, in the Times’ Sunday Review, that children of color — particularly African-American children — just cannot be true friends with white kids in Trump’s America. That real friendship is just impossible in the toxicity that is modern-day America.

Those who know Eduflack know that I am, by nature, a cynical pessimist. But I just cannot, and will not, accept Yankah’s conclusion. For if I did, I just play into the the same thinking that gives rise to every torch-wielding hater out there today. And I just won’t do that.

As the father of two Latinx children, I refuse to accept that hate and lack of understanding should win. I cannot accept a world when my own children live in some sort of DMZ, where their mixed race family ensures that they have no true home, no center of trust they can depend on. I refuse to oblige a notion that says my young children can only truly trust the handful of other brown children they might find in their schools, and should distrust the white, African-American, Chinese-American, and Indian-American kids who dominate their classrooms and social activities. I just won’t do it.

Years ago, I wrote about observing my son’s birthday party, a party held shortly after the AME Church shooting in Charleston, SC. My son had just turned nine, and I watched him enjoy an afternoon with friends representing a wide range of races, colors, religions, and creeds. As our nation was trying to come to grips with the horrific actions in the Palmetto State, I found warmth in realizing that hate — and racism — was not something our kids are inherently born with.

Five months later, I asked my daughter about the start of her new school year. The previous year, she was the only Latinx in her class. There also were no white kids in her class. So as we were talking about her new classmates, I casually asked if she had anyone in her class who looked like me. She paused for a second and replied, “no daddy, there are no bald kids in my class.”

Just this fall, I had the honor and privilege of helping coach my daughter’s junior pee wee cheerleading squad. I was the only male among four coaches, three junior coaches, and 17 cheerleaders. The only Latinx, my daughter spent the past three months training and working and cheering and laughing and crying alongside a squad of white, African-American, and Asian-American girls. These girls weren’t identified by their race or their family income. Instead, they were all Wildcats. That was what mattered to them. That’s what should matter to all parents today.

So while I can appreciate where Yankah is coming from, it is not a thinking I can or will subscribe to. I recognize all too well that the color of my kids’ skin means they are treated differently when they are with me than when they are out alone or with friends. I also want my kids to live in a world where they can believe in humanity. I want them to understand that while they may face hate or discrimination in their lives, that is on the individual hater and the individual only.

Perhaps I am being pollyannish. It won’t be the first time I’m accused of such. But coming off an election week where so many are preaching that love defeated hate, how can we embrace the notion that we must teach our children the only individuals they can truly trust, can truly confide in, can truly be friends with are those who come from the same backgrounds, the same neighborhoods, and are the same same race?

First and foremost, I want both of my kiddos to be seen as fine human beings. I don’t want to have to teach them to prioritize race in determining trust or friendship. When I do so, I’m just handing the future to those who muddied my alma mater of the University of Virginia this past summer. I refuse to do that.

Come at the King …

In King Lear, Shakespeare famously wrote, “come at the king, you best not miss.” For those not as familiar with the Bard, it is also a quote many today will attribute to Omar from The Wire. Most, particularly those in politics, know that when you come after the top dog, you better be successful … or suffer the consequences.

That may be a very hard lesson that the New Jersey Education Association is soon to learn. For those who hadn’t been paying attention to legislative races in the Garden State, the state’s largest teachers union decided to set its sites this fall on the Senate President. The Democratic Senate President, Steve Sweeney. And the NJEA did so by pouring millions — at least $5 million reported before election day — into Sweeney’s Republican, Trump-loving opponent.

Why, one may ask, did the teachers union decide to take on the (at the time) most powerful Democrat in the state, a Democrat with strong backing from labor unions across Jersey? By most accounts, it had to do with pensions and Sweeney’s decision to side with his constituents and not back a constitutional amendment guaranteeing increased pension payments by the state. Some might also point to Sweeney’s willingness to be open to the idea of charter schools, particularly in the struggling communities of South Jersey.

All told, the Sweeney Senate race is likely to be the most expensive state legislative race in history. Some say the total spending will exceed $20 million when all is said and done. Much of that was money Sweeney had to use to defend himself, dollars that he otherwise would have raised to help other Democrats win Assembly and Senate seats at a time when Democrats were taking back the governor’s mansion for the first time in nearly a decade.

When the dust settled Tuesday night, the most powerful Democrat in New Jersey (and Sweeney may just retain that title even after Gov.-elect Phil Murphy is sworn in in January) won his state senate re-election campaign by 18 points, defeating the Trump/Chris Christie protege — and darling of the NJEA — by 18 points.

The big question is, what comes next? In the rough and tumble world of Jersey politics, it is hard to see Sweeney giving the NJEA an “attaboy” and congratulating it for sticking to their beliefs and doing what they thought was best for its members. While Sweeney has always been a friend of the teachers — and even had the AFT come into the state and campaign with him to mitigate the NJEA attacks — it is hard to see a world where Sweeney now becomes besties with the NJEA, even if the NJEA is now on the top of the “must call list” for the incoming governor.

The NJEA decided to come at the king, and they missed. No one doubts that Gov.-elect Murphy has made a list of promises to the NJEA as part of his march to the big desk. And Murphy will need to make good on those promises, helping move the NJEA’s agenda forward in a state when the governor’s office burned NJEA requests on sight for nearly a decade. But we are fooling ourselves if we think the Senate President is going to just go along with every one of those requests because a Democratic politician asks for it, even if that politician is a Democrat governor elected by 13 points in a blue state.

Successful politicians like Sweeney don’t get where they are, and don’t hold onto where they got, by rolling over and showing a soft underbelly. Sweeney is all too aware of who his friends are, who helped him win re-election, and who needlessly forced him to spend millions of dollars that could have been more wisely spent increasing his majority in the State Senate. He may not proactively seek retribution in the upcoming legislative session, but he will not forget. Nor should he. Progressives may rejoice about their collective successes on election day, but when they turn on dependable Democrat voices like Sweeney — and back conservative Trumpites to play single-issue politics — it is a dangerous gambit that places politics ahead of policy.

Nothing will get through the New Jersey Legislature, no matter how strongly it is endorsed by the incoming governor, that the powerful Senate President doesn’t want. The NJEA came at the king, and it missed. As a result, the union — and its members — may have to pay the price. That’s politics, particularly Jersey politics. And it will likely be a very expensive lesson for the New Jersey Education Association.

 

Don’t Buy Those Farewell EdSec Cards Just Yet …

For the past week or so, social media has been all a-twitter (sorry, I just couldn’t help myself) with rumors of the demise of the Betsy DeVos administration. Far too many people have been sharing news stories from shady fake-news sites declaring EdSec DeVos was leaving the Trump Adminustration, was being pushed out of the Trump Administration, and was generally being cast aside.

Yes, some of these shares were from people I know who post anything anti-Trump, truth be damned. But even respected voices like the AFT’s Randi Weingarten shared the information with the screamer, “breaking news!”

Many of those questionable news sites sourced the rumor back to the respected publication Politico. Such citation gave the whispers even greater respectability. And it forced Politico to share the following with its readers this morning:

VIA POLITICO’S MORNING EDUCATION: Articles are making the rounds online that cite a POLITICO Magazine profile of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and claim that education “officials” expect her to step down. That is NOT what the POLITICO article said, and there’s no reason to believe DeVos is on her way out. What the POLITICO article, written by Tim Alberta, did say: “Anyone betting against DeVos serving all four years of Trump’s first term – which, she tells me, she plans to do – is underestimating the sense of duty and moral righteousness deeply embedded in someone who could be doing just about anything else right now.”

The false reports have gained traction. Randi Weingarten, the American Federation of Teachers president, who is a constant DeVos critic, tweeted one, calling it “breaking news.” The posts appear to be built around a single quote in the POLITICO profile. Thomas Toch, the director of FutureEd, an independent education think tank at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy – not an education “official,” as many of the posts claim – said in the POLITICO piece that “in Washington education circles, the conversation is already about the post-DeVos landscape, because the assumption is she won’t stay long. …” Toch took to Twitter to clear the record: “Was tallying DeVos odds in @politico, not suggesting her plane’s idling at National with a flight plan to Michigan. I give her a year.”

Despite what we may think, wanting something to be true isn’t proof of its veracity. As long as President Trump has faith in his EdSec, Betsy DeVos isn’t likely going anywhere. As long as the EdSec believes she can have impact, she isn’t likely vacating the top floor of Maryland Avenue.