Ed Policy Whiplash

We continue to shift our battle lines when it comes to education policy. Do we let the federal government or the state’s drive the K-12 train? Do we want common standards and expectations? Are the regs laid out by ESSA and other federal laws intended to be the floor or the ceiling when it comes to policy direction?

It’s all enough to give the education community a bad case of policy whiplash.

Over at the BAM! Radio Network, we explore this schizophrenia and look at how we set appropriate expectations – and appropriate outrage – in such a policy context. Give it a listen!

Improving High School, #HighSchool Graduation

Last month, the issues in DC Public Schools brought down its relatively new schools chancellor. This week, The Washington Post is reporting the graduation scandal now poses a clear and present danger for many DC students who have long thought that they would be graduating from high school this spring.

The District of Columbia isn’t the first school district to recognize its path to a high school diploma may indeed be broken. For decades now, we have heard of both dropout factories and those districts that responded by treating diplomas as nothing more than certificates of attendance, recognizing those who stuck with school for 12 or 13 years, 180 days or so each year.

In response, the Fordham Institute has focused its annual #Wonkathon on whether high school graduation requirements need to change to make the diploma more relevant. A number of smart people — including Peter Cunningham, Michael Petrilli, and Peter Greene — have already responded.

Of course, dear ol’ Eduflack couldn’t pass up the chance to suggest we need to a completely different frame for the high school school experience, once that emphasizes mastery of content and an ability to apply what is supposedly learned, rather than just rewarding students for “time served” in the classroom. As I write:

Today, we remain caught up on what is taught and how it is taught, not necessarily what is learned and how it is put to use. The student population today is nowhere close to being as homogenous as it was when the Carnegie Unit was adopted. In any given classroom, we have students of different backgrounds, different language abilities, different learning challenges, different preferred learning styles—different everything. A student adept at Algebra II shouldn’t need to sit through the class for 180 days because others don’t grasp the concepts. A student with a deep understanding of American history shouldn’t be asked to sit through the basics yet again because it is expected in ninth grade. Once a learner is able to demonstrate a mastery of the content and is able to apply that content in an appropriate manner, he or she should be able to move on to the next content area. Mastery-based high school allows us to prioritize the LEARNER in a way most high schools today simply do not.

I hope you will give all the entries a read. It is an important issue that warrants real discussion, disagreement, and action.


Of Vocational Schools, Career Tech, and Learners

Years ago, I worked for an education entrepreneur who drilled in me the notion that American high schools were fundamentally broken, built for an era that was long gone. Today, we know that postsecondary education – in some form – is a non-negotiable. For one to have a successful career, to be able to take care of a family and keep a roof over their heads, a high school degree alone was no longer sufficient. High schools needed to become passageways to the successful pursuit of postsecondary education.

It wasn’t always this way. One can look back to the post-World War II era and see a time when only a third of high schoolers went on to college. A third of students graduated from high school to directly enter the workforce or pursue military service. And yes, a third would fail to earn a high school diploma, but still were able to obtain and keep employment.

Recently, President Donald J. Trump spoke longingly on those good ol’ days, noting how America’s future economic success may very well lie with a return to vocational schools. And while most do not use the term anymore, he may indeed be correct. It’s tough to deny that career and technical education is more important than ever. But it is careerteched that is vastly different than the shop class that President Trump may remember from high schools of decades past and is calling for. And it is at a time when we now look to community colleges to provide much of what those good ol’ voke ed schools used to offer.

It’s career and technical education that today is largely delivered by community colleges, either to recent high school graduates seeking that non-negotiable postsecondary education or to career changers needing to update their skills and knowledge to compete in a digital, information economy. It’s for those who recognize that the future economy demands a strong blend of all of the educational buzzwords we’ve heard over the past decade or two, whether it be STEM, 21st century skills, or the like.

It is also a reminder that the education offered and the students pursuing it are not nearly as homogenous as we’d like to believe. Sure, we all have this picture of the “typical” college student pursuing a “typical” liberal arts education at a “typical” four-year college. But there is nothing typical about students today, their aspirations, or the pathways one takes to get there. Nothing typical about the K-12 experience, and certainly nothing typical about the postsecondary experience.

I was reminded of this, yet again, this morning when watching Good Morning America. As a transition, Robin Roberts spoke briefly with student representatives from the Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America, or FCCLA. It was an organization that the edu-wife, the product of a private high school in New England, was completely unfamiliar with. And she works in education.

But as the product of Jefferson (County Consolidated) High School in Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia, I knew the organization well. Or rather I knew the organization as it once was known, the Future Homemakers of America. In my high school, FHA was a more popular student group than the Future Business Leaders of America. It was almost as strong a student organization as our Future Farmers of America contingent, which spent every fall missing classes to make apple butter out in the high school parking lot.

In my day, our county high school had about 1,200 students in total. About a third of our high school graduates went on to college. We weren’t a large enough school district to have a fully functioning vocational high school or career/technical education program. At the time, we didn’t even have a community college in our part of West Virginia (my father, when he was president of Shepherd University, actually created the community college that is now the state’s largest and most successful, to meet the growing demands).

So career and technical education was largely supported by clubs like FFA, FHA, and FBLA. Such organizations supplemented what was learned in the classroom. They provided much of the “vocational” training that President Trump now seeks, and did so largely because of teachers who were willing to give their time and knowledge to do so.

In the nearly three decades since I graduated from Jefferson High, those organizations have adjusted their approach and their services to their members. They’ve continued to serve as a gateway for so many seeking postsecondary career and technical education. And they’ve turned out generations of individuals with the skills, knowledge, and passions to pursue a wide range of careers.

When we debate the successes or failures of K-12 education, it is easy to get bogged down in test scores and growth measures. It is easy to focus on those learners who beat the odds to get accepted into a dozen Ivy League schools. And its easy to point out how much that used to fall to K-12, from remediation to career and technical ed, has now been pushed onto our local community colleges.

It is far harder for us to recognize, acknowledge, and celebrate the ways communities do come together to provide for their students. It harder to see the value in the student who will soon run his family’s farm also knowing how to code (and knowing the comedies and tragedies of Shakespeare).

Preparing for a strong economic future does not mean needing to return to the bricks-and-mortar good ol’ days of voke ed. Instead, it means recognizing the importance of instilling a wide range of skills, knowledge, and ability with today’s learners, and recognizing that such lessons can – and should – be taught beyond the traditional classroom in the little red schoolhouse. And it means seeing how community colleges and clubs and OST programs can contribute.

(A version of this post also appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)

From CAP, How to Leverage #ESSA to Elevate Teaching Profession

For much of the past year, the education community (yours truly included) has opined on how proposed federal budgets and actions coming from our nation’s capital pose a clear and present danger to teaching and teacher preparation. After all, when you essentially look to zero out all Title II moneys for teachers and their continued support, what is one supposed to think?

All hope may not be lost, though. The good folks at the Center for American Progress lifted the curtain on an important project in which it has been engaged. The first is a new interactive tool developed to spotlight specific efforts to elevate the teaching profession. On the site, users can click on a given state and choose a particular focus (compensation, career pathways, licensure, recruitment, retention, and the like) to see how individual states are innovating and meeting the specific needs of educators in its jurisdiction.

The second is a white paper that takes a deep dive into what specific states are doing to use ESSA and its Title II provisions to modernize and elevate the teaching profession. There, CAP explores hot-button issues such as recruitment and diversity, teacher prep and new teacher supports, licensure and certification, compensation and loan forgiveness, data support, and pipeline-spanning initiatives.

What’s particularly terrific about that issue brief is it spotlights the work in states that often don’t get the shout-outs when it comes to innovation and teacher supports, but are states that are really doing tremendous work. All serve as examples of what can be done and what should be done in an environment where we believe that change and innovation really isn’t possible, based on legislative restrictions.

Give both a gander. You won’t be disappointed.

Really!?! You’re Going to Make Me Defend PARCC Again?

I really didn’t want to spend this week defending PARCC tests, but the universe is working against dear ol’ Eduflack. Yet again, I’m forced to take up rhetorical arms against those who either fail to understand, or choose to prey on, concerns regarding the Common Core and the assessments used to measure student progress against those standards.

This week, an Eduflack reader shared a screen shot of a recent web page. The below was created for parents in a highly resourced, high-performing school district. It was shared as one would share promotional materials for the latest summer camp or child social activity. And it preys on the helicopter parents’ worst fears.


Yep, its time to send your little ones to “PARCC Preparation Camp.” Over the course of a month and a half, your child can spend their summer days in test prep, preparing for an assessment that one is not supposed to do test prep for. You can drill and be told those areas where you need to purchase additional tutoring because the schools clearly aren’t cutting it. And I’m not even sure what you are getting when your 12-year old will receive “all guidance regarding writing PARCC tests,” but clearly that is important (it is the second selling point in a list of just four!).

And one enhances the offerings by highlighting to a STEM-obsessed parent community that additional tutoring in robotics and coding is also available. That makes it a downright party!

This is why we just can’t have nice things in the education community.

One would be hard pressed to find a parent who wouldn’t seek to give his or her child every possible help available when it comes to school. We are constantly inundated with television ads for the latest tutoring services, as for-profit companies pledge to turn the most struggling of learners into a future Nobel laureate. We purchase the latest technology, buy the latest software and apps, all in the name of giving our kids a leg up. As parents, one of our jobs is to ensure our kids are getting the best educations possible. We use the resources we have to do the best we can at that job.

But when companies are taking advantage of that parental concern — and playing up community concerns around a specific test or particular instructional content — it just makes the blood boil.

And it is should come as no surprise that such ads are populating parents’ social media at a time when the local community started to learn that the PARCC test is being used to determine whether middle schoolers get into the gifted math classes sought by so many parents. Now, if your kid doesn’t get into the math class necessary to create the next Google or Bitcoin, it is your fault as a parent for not sending them to PARCC camp when you could. (And don’t even get me started on the PARCC test prep books that are now available. I can even find them that are specific to the “New Jersey PARCC.”)

As parents, we need to do a far better job of educating ourselves on teaching and learning. Assessments like PARCC are not tests that one should be doing test prep for. They are tests meant to serve as a milestone for how the student is doing. Is my kid at a proficient level, compared with other fifth graders across the country? If not, I need to be talking to the teachers and the schools to understand where the deficiencies may be and address them appropriately and in partnership with the teacher. It isn’t a time to enroll my kid in PARCC boot camp or have them take the walk of PARCC shame.

Sadly, a great number of parents will likely sign up for this camp, and others like it across the country. They will believe these strip-mall tutors will have the cryptex necessary to crack the PARCC code, win the game, get into the Ivy League, and become the smartest, most successful person in the history of persons. Even more sad, parents will credit PARCC gains to test prep and their foresight, not to the hard work of the teacher throughout the academic year.

Or they could just have their kids do some independent reading over the summer. And play outside. And identify, develop, and pursue some of their passions during the summer months.

P.T. Barnum allegedly claimed there was a sucker born every minute. Imagine what he would have said seeing test prep outfits take advantage of parent concerns over testing and the school achievement of their kids.

Because Fed Ed Isn’t Meant to Be Creative

Earlier this month, the good folks over at Bellwether Education Partners released their review of the state implementation plans for the most recent version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESSA. In its review, Bellwether found that that the states were largely unimaginative in responding to the new federal mandate. The minds at Bellwether were looking for innovation and the unexpected. Instead, they got what was largely expected.

But isn’t that the point? We’ve seen time and again that the feds aren’t looking or the most unique thinking when looking for state responses. Whether it be No Child Left Behind and Reading First or Race to the Top, we want creativity that isn’t too creative. We want unique thoughts that align with the non-unique checklists of reviewers. We want the what we expect.

Over on dear ol’ Eduflack’s BAM! Radio Network, we take a look at the responses to the state ESSA plans, and how the critics are looking for far more from state ESSA than they should expect.

When it comes down to it, state ESSA plans are meant to serve as a floor, not a ceiling. They are intended to make sure that every state is expending the required minimum effort when it comes to ESSA implementation. It now falls to the field to push them harder, to seek ceilings on what is possible that are always beyond reach.

If we look to bureaucratic responses to formulaic funding plans for innovation, we will always be left disappointed. Maybe it is time to read between the lines at what states might now be able to do.


If You Can Read This …

Loyal readers of Eduflack know that I have spent far too much time, in far too many battles, over effective reading instruction. It still baffles me that we even need to have this debate, that parents and educators will fight having research-based literacy instruction in the classroom, instead advocating for a philosophy that doesn’t do a lick actually getting struggling readers reading.

But we do. And we regularly debate the merits of research over philosophy, of hard facts versus soft opinion. Then we wonder why our kids aren’t reading and why we aren’t seeing student achievement improve on virtually every literacy benchmark available to modern man.

The latest such benchmark is the PIRLS, which has now shown the United States to slip significantly, falling all the way down to 13th in the latest international measure of reading skills. It doesn’t need to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way. We know better. We just choose not to apply what is proven effective in the classrooms that need it the most, with the kids who would benefit from it the most.

On the latest episode of my program on the BAM! Radio Network, I take a look at our sad position when it comes to PIRLS and literacy instruction, and call on President Donald Trump to focus on teaching our kids reading … at least if he is serious about making America great again. Give it a listen!