Reading Should Be a Civil, Constitutional Right

Twenty years ago, I formally enlisted in the “Reading Wars.” As one of the original staffers of the National Reading Panel, I really had no idea what I was getting into. Entering the process, literacy instruction seemed pretty simple to me. I thought English teachers knew how to teach kids to read. It went without saying that those proven-effective methods were what we were using in the classroom.

Boy, was I wrong. I quickly learned that what were scientifically proven instructional methods were often ignored, replaced by an embrace of an unproven philosophy of “whole language.” Ed schools were often preparing prospective teachers in the philosophy as their professors were the advocates of such a belief. Misguided philosophy was trumping fact when it came to literacy instruction.

The National Reading Panel culled through decades of research to determine the most effective methods for teaching young children to read. The Panel’s report became the research cornerstone for the Reading First program, a multi-billion-dollar federal investment in K-12 literacy instruction. This research-based emphasis resulted in an uptick in student literacy rates … until the Reading First program ended as No Child Left Behind faced increased attacks. As a result, reading instruction started returning to where it once was, well-intentioned philosophy over research-based practice.

While some thought of Reading First as a “drill and kill” approach to literacy, the program was addressing its goals. The National Reading Panel had noted that more than a third of fourth graders were unable to read at grade level. Those struggling readers were largely students of color attending high-need schools. And at the time, many of them were on the path to attend high schools affectionately referred to as “drop-out factories.” By refusing to use what we knew worked in teaching young kids to read, we were failing those students for a lifetime. By embracing scientifically based reading instruction, we were strengthening the academic paths for every child to have a chance at success.

I fought those Reading Wars for a decade, and have the intellectual battle scars to show for it. Advocating for better instructional materials. Building new graduate schools of education that were research based. Empowering parents to demand what works in their kids’ classrooms. Highlighting the differences between proven instruction and philosophy. And yes, promoting the notion that literacy skills are indeed a civil right.

After all of those years and all of those fights, I had hoped that things had finally changed. While the dollars from Reading First have long dried up, the impact the policies left on instructional materials and instructional materials lasted. Or so I thought, until reading of a recent court case in Michigan.

In Motown, Detroit Public Schools students have filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the state was denying them their constitutional right to learn. In hearing the case, a federal judge earlier this summer asked and answered an important question: “But the Court is faced with a discrete question: does the Due Process Clause demand that a State affirmatively provide each child with a defined, minimum level of education by which the child can attain literacy? The answer to the question is no.”

The judge based the argument on the fact that the Constitution does not actually include the words “education” or “school.” As a result, while the students’ argument may be morally persuasive, the legal argument just isn’t there. In response, the students’ lawyers are now charging that the failure to teach students to read in essence prevents students from pursuing their constitutional rights, including the right to vote or the right to participate in the civic process.

It is offensive that so many students today complete public school lacking the necessary literacy skills to succeed. It is offensive that government – be it legislatures or the courts – don’t see the lack of student reading resources as the crisis it truly is. And at a time when most states require students be educated (with some states demanding they remain in school until their 18th birthday) that we are unable to provide students the literacy skills they need, deserve, and demand.

Two decades ago, we were fighting the Reading Wars to determine whether whole language or a phonics-based approach was the most effective instructional strategy. Sadly, today we are now fighting over whether young people even have a right to literacy skills and the very basics in public education.

Decades of research is clear on what is most effective when it comes to teaching most young people to read. We know what works, and we have the data to prove it. A former mentor of mine once declared that it was “educational malpractice” for our schools not to use scientifically-based reading instruction in the classroom. He was ridiculed for using such language, but he was correct, then and now.

When our fourth graders can’t read, it is near impossible for them to learn content when they hit middle and high school. When they graduate functionally illiterate in this digital, information age, it is near impossible for them to get a good job or truly participate in the great American citizenry. When we fail to teach our young people to read, we are literally denying them their rightful place in our democratic republic.

Literacy skills are indeed a civil right. And as we pay federal, state, and local taxes each year to fund our local schools, effectively teaching reading should be a constitutional right as well.

(This essay also appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)

 

 

When It Comes to Ed Reform, Are We Willing to Do More Than Just Talk the Talk?

As former EdSec Arne Duncan is our promoting his new book, he has a lot to say about what improvements happened – and didn’t – during his tenure at the US Department of Education.

While it is easy to say one needed to work harder to implement real education policy change, the criticisms from Duncan are a little startling. And they beg an important question – are we really willing to put in the work needed to make the changes we like to talk about?

On the most recent episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network, I explore that very question. Give it a listen!

Are School Issues Just a Matter of Boredom?

Earlier this month, EdSec Betsy DeVos suggested school choice was needed because high school students get bored otherwise.

Yes, traditional public schools have some issues. And yes, high school kids are often bored with their assigned curriculum. But instead of simply changing the operational structure of the school building, shouldn’t we instead be looking at approaches like personalized learning?

I explore the topic on the most recent edition of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network. Be sure to give it a listen. Tens of thousands of others do each week!

A New Face for #CareerTechEd

Last month, President Donald Trump signed into law the Congressional reauthorization of the Perkins Act. This is good news for the future of career and technical education IF we are willing to see CTE and career prep as more than the 1950s-style vo-tech often cited by POTUS.

We go deeper on the topic on the most recent episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network. We explain here.

Why I’m Running for School Board … Again

Nearly a decade ago, I decided to run to serve on my local school board. With two young children not yet in the local schools, I wanted to use my day job focusing on school improvement to ensure that my children had the best possible public education.

That year, the voters of Falls Church, Virginia elected me to serve on the board overseeing one of the the top school districts in the nation. The work was substantial. We had to restore funding to a school system that was hit hard by the recession. We had to improve school quality, particularly with regard to online courses, in a high-achieving school district. We had to continue to ensure that every student in our community was able to take AP and IB classes — and exams — without needing to pay for it themselves. We had to increase teacher salaries during tough budgetary times. And if that wasn’t enough, we needed to launch a major capital effort — including securing federal funding to expand our middle school — while hiring a new superintendent in the middle of it all.

I was honored to work alongside the teachers, administrators, community leaders, families, and board members who made our little city the success story it was. I was fortunate to be able to serve as both vice chair and chairman of our school board. Despite all of the countless hours, the tough political battles, and the continual searches for hard-to-find educational dollars, the hardest part of the work for me was when I had to leave the board after relocating out of state for a new job opportunity.

Since my service, I have been fond of saying how serving on a local board of education was one of the toughest challenges I’ve every faced. When asked about future service, I’ve regularly said I had no intention of ever returning to such a position. After all, these days I take great pride in my work as an assistant coach on my daughter’s competitive cheer squad. That’s how I enjoy spending my fall nights now.

A few weeks ago, I began reflecting on the state of my current school community, a high-achieving school district in New Jersey. The challenges and opportunities before the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District are not unique. It’s about balancing the needs of academic achievement with those of the whole child. It is about rewarding and empowering educators when more and more demands are placed on them. It’s about properly involving parents in educational decisions. And its about ensuring all students are gaining the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in their careers and lives.

So it is with renewed enthusiasm that I decided to run for a seat on our local board of education, filing my candidacy papers yesterday afternoon. Like most of the families in my community, mine moved to WW-P because of the quality of the public schools. I believe that our schools are very good … and can be even better. And I believe that my skill sets and past experiences provide me a unique position to lead that push for improvement.

As a former school board chairman for a district similar to my current community, I understand how to deal with a growing student population in smartly, ensuring that building construction and expansion is done in a financially sound way, meeting the needs without saddling the community for decades to come. I also recognize the importance of setting clear goals that are shared with the community, while holding the superintendent and all school district officials accountable for achieving those goals.

As a voice for school improvement, I understand the importance of strong inputs in our schools, and equally understand how outcomes are the ultimate measure of a school, a district, and a community.

As someone who has worked in education policy for two decades, I understand the importance of scientifically based research in school decision making, of understanding the value of assessments and the student data they derive, of how to select the best literacy programs for an ever-changing student population, and of how to ensure that technology in the classroom is used in the most effective way possible.

As a special education parent, I understand the importance of educators and parents working together, forming a team of individuals with the best interests of the student at heart.

This year, I will be the father of two middle schoolers — a seventh grader and a sixth grader. It would be far easier for me, both personally and professionally, to sit on the local schools’ sidelines, offering my thoughts via Facebook debates and the occasional blog post. It would be easier for me to focus on my professional life, my family, and my extremely limited cheer coaching abilities. But life isn’t always easy.

My children are now in the second half of their k-12 experiences. It can’t be about what is easy for me, and instead needs to be about what is best for my kids and for the many like them in the classroom. If I can help improve our schools and the pathways available to my children and their friends, then I need to take the opportunity. I cannot simply hope or wish or complain that things should be done differently. I have to step up and try to do them.

I do so recognizing that I am largely an unknown newbie in our community. Most know nothing about my work leading the National Reading Panel or the Pennsylvania STEM Initiative. They don’t know I have helped build two new graduate schools of education to better prepare teachers. They are unaware that I’ve worked to improve teacher education in five states — including New Jersey — or helped lead the most substantial education reform initiative in Connecticut’s history. They don’t know that this son of a high school teacher and a college president has spent the past 20 years fighting each and every day to improve educational access, quality, and outcomes. And that’s OK.

Over the next three months, I will spend much of my time talking to my neighbors about my background and my vision for our local schools. I will hopefully spend far more time listening than I will talking. And I will try and emphasize the importance of transparency, accountability, and community in our local schools.

If I can use the coming months to help focus on these issues and raise the level of educational discourse in our community, then I will consider it a big win. The bigger win is having my kids see me campaign hard, learning the same lessons that my educator parents instilled in me. That nothing is more important than a good education.

If We Only Get Three Great Mentors …

In the movie A Bronx Tale, Chazz Palminteri’s Sonny explains that we each have “three great ones” in our lives. While Sonny waxes on about the belief that we all only have three great loves in our life, recent news has me wondering if the same holds true for professional mentors.

I was incredibly fortunate to have two absolutely incredible mentors early in my career. The former executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, Phyllis Blaunstein, was my first. Phyllis first showed me there was more to successful communications that simply “PR.” She introduced me to the concept of public engagement. I learned from her days at what is now the U.S. Department of Education when she helped pass the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), thus ushering in special education as we now know it. Phyllis taught me how to be a professional. She taught me how to engage in active listening. She helped me become a qualitative researcher. And she has guided me through far more professional twists and turns then I can ever imagine.

My second was Reid Lyon. A former Army Ranger, Reid is the Godfather of research-based reading instruction. Reid gave me a practical Ph.D. in education earned on the mean streets of the Reading Wars. He taught me how to disaggregate data and how to tell good research from bad. He also taught me how to dream big when no progress was thought possible. In DC, I was fortunate enough to work with Reid on the National Reading Panel and the federal Partnership for Reading. I then followed him to the private sector as we sought to revolutionize teacher education and the high school-to-college pipeline.

Phyllis and Reid have had an enormous impact on my life. I was lucky enough to co-edit a book – Why Kids Can’t Read: Continuing to Challenge the Status Quo in Education – with them, a primer for parents on how to move research-based literacy instruction into their local schools. Reid was a personal reference as I went through the adoption of my son. And Phyllis continues to be a source of advice, wisdom, and inspiration, 20 years after we first met. I considered myself fortunate to have both of them in my life, and to be able to call both of them mentors. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to enjoy the luck and fortune that would give me that third great mentor in my life.

That changed when I joined the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. For many years, I had heard the legend of Arthur Levine, particularly as he fought to improve schools of education from his perch as president of one of the most well known teachers colleges out there. I had read his work and had seen him on panels and giving plenary lectures.

Four years ago, Arthur brought me in to head communications and strategy for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. There, he had created two ambitious programs — the state Teaching Fellowship and the MBA Fellowship in Education Leadership — and sought to expand them. He yearned to strengthen the reputation of the Foundation and its impact on educator development and school improvement. And he planned to launch a new graduate school of education — one based on competencies and content mastery — intended to successfully prepare teachers for both the realities of today and the possibilities of tomorrow.

For the past 1,455 days, I have worked alongside Arthur to help bring those dreams to reality. Each of those days, he has served as a mentor and teacher. I have learned about organizational management and successful fundraising. I have learned about innovation and strategic planning. I have about the history of higher education and about what the future can hold for the field. And I been able to strengthen my belief in the importance of the customer (the student) and of outcomes in education, particularly when one looks to transform institutions and systems that may be in need of change, but is resistant to it.

Earlier today, it was my job to announce Arthur’s intentions to step down from his perch at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation next summer. After 13 years at WW, Arthur is allowing a new voice to write the next chapter in the organization’s history. He does so leaving the Foundation in a much stronger financial and programmatic position than the one he found it in. And he does so showing eight states and more than 35 institutions of higher education that change is both possible and achievable when it comes to improving how we prepare educators, particularly those for high-need schools.

In 340 days, my third “great one” will step aside. I’m far enough along in my career to know that A Bronx Tale may indeed be correct, and we only get three great mentors. For now, I get to make the most of the time, working feverishly to accomplish all of organizational goals we have laid out for the next year.

In the long term, I can only hope to hold on to all of the lessons I have learned from all of those who have made me the (hopefully successful) professional I am today. And I need to try to continue to examine and better understand what I have learned, knitting together those lessons and new reflections on them so that I can continue to become a better educator, a better strategic communicator, and a better not-for-profit executive.

Words can never express all that we have taken from our mentors, all that they have taught up, and all that we appreciate from the experiences. I can only hope that the next chapters in my own professional life show to Arthur (and Reid and Phyllis) what sort of impact they truly have had on me.

(This piece was also published on LinkedIn Pulse.)

Beware the Impending Cuts

A recent study found that federal contributions to public education is on the decline … and heading for a significant drop. While the Feds put in less than 10 cents for every dollar spent in k-12, the expected drop could have a dangerous impact on the future success of our schools.

And let’s not even talk about the rhetorical signal it offers regarding our collective commitment to strong public schools.

Want to hear more? Then listen to our recent discussion of the topic on the latest episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network.