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.)

 

 

NAEP Response: More than Words?

Now that the dust has finally settled on the most-recent dump of NAEP scores, we must admit that the results just aren’t good. For a decade now, student performance on our national reading and math tests have remained stagnant. And that stagnation is only because a few select demographics managed gains that kept everyone afloat.

At a time when we all seem to agree that today’s students need stronger and greater skills to succeed in tomorrow’s world, how can we be satisfied with stagnation? And how we can respond simply with words, with the rhetoric of how our students can and should do better?

Over on the BAM! Radio Network, we explore the topic, reflecting on both how we cannot be satisfied with our students treading water and how we need to take real action to improve teaching and learning in the classroom. Give it a listen. Then show your work.

 

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.)

It’s Time To Do Something, Anything, EdSec DeVos!

We are now six months into the Trump Administration, and when it comes to education policy, we must finally ask, what is the strategy, folks?

Just last week, we saw former governor, former U.S. Education Secretary, and current Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander call out the DeVos Administration for failing to understand what ESSA says about state decisionmaking.

We saw the head of the Department’s Civil Rights office state that most Title IX complaints are the result of the woman regretting a night of alcohol and a subsequent breakup with the accused.

And we witnessed supposedly sympathetic Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives pass a federal education budget without the needed funding for the EdSec’s signature school choice effort.

While the Administration continues to struggle to find individuals to take top education positions, the “successes” from the past six months include stripping billions in Title II teacher support dollars from the budget, and freezing action to absolve students from paying back loans to attend failed proprietary colleges.

One may not agree, ideologically, with the Trump/DeVos Administration, but we should all want to see it success when it comes to improving teaching and learning across the United States. And as we complete the first eighth of President Donald Trump’s first term in office, we all should wonder what the plan is here.

Despite what some may want to believe, the concerns facing public education in America are both wide and deep. We struggle to find qualified teachers for our high-need schools, particularly in areas like STEM, ELL, and sped. And we do so as the teaching profession itself has been stripped of the respect it had long enjoyed and deserves.

We fail to see the problem with continuing to pursue a homogenous approach to K-12 education at a time when our population of learners couldn’t be more diverse. And we do it by resisting the incoming wave of personalized learning and differentiated instruction. 

We ignore where we really stand when it comes to student performance, making excuses for the United States placing 38th out of 71 in PISA math and 24th in PISA science. And we do it while criticizing learning assessment itself, rather than focusing on a new generation of better, more effective tests.

The DeVos administration came into power without owing anything to those individuals, organizations, and interests beholden to the status quo and the way things have always been done. There is no benefit to defending flat test scores as other nations experience significant rises. There is no gain in ensuring the protection and support of dropout factories. There is no win in ensuring another generation of short-term educators without the knowledge, skills, and support to succeed in the classroom.

It is now past time for DeVos and her skeleton crew to take real action, be it with the power of the checkbook or the strength of the bully pulpit. What could this action look like?

  • A whistle-stop tour to discuss the true value of school choice, particularly in those communities that don’t already enjoy a robust charter sector. This could be particularly appealing to the special education community, giving it a deep dive on what Florida’s McKay vouchers have meant to sped families in the Sunshine State.
  • A collaboration of the Education, Labor, and Commerce Departments, supported by corporate partners, to make a major investment in career and technical education, with an emphasis on the STEM skills and jobs that will be needed for a strong economy 20 years from now. This can even include the apprenticeship push announced by the President earlier this year.
  • A reinvestment in early childhood education, building on the family leave and support efforts of First Daughter Ivanka Trump. This could include finally having the Federal government recognize that early childhood education is the purview of the U.S. Department of Education, and not Health and Human Services.
  • A refocus on teacher quality, offering even stronger executive action on teacher prep provisions than the recently revoked Obama language. Through a “return on investment” lens, this could include returning Title II dollars for efforts that raise the quality and results of teaching, looking at the outcomes of the teaching profession, not just the inputs.

Six months in, and federal education policy is still stuck in neutral. And based on the state of public education in the United States, neutral means that millions of kids are losing ground. Losing ground when it comes to reading proficiency. Losing ground when it comes to 21st century skills. Losing ground when it comes to required remediation.

It is past time to roll up the sleeves, seize the rostrum, and get it done. If this Administration is seeking to shake up the status quo, if this Administration is serious about breaking from the failed policies of the past, and if this Administration believes that traditional public schools are indeed failing, then do something about it. You are now steering the ship. Take us somewhere. Anywhere.

 

Will DeVos Have Mastery Rule Roost?

“Now, by jettisoning the debate on proficiency versus growth for a more productive discussion of mastery, [Betsy DeVos] is making clear that what a student learns and is able to do with those lessons is the key factor. DeVos has laid down a rhetorical marker that the top-down, one-test-fits-all model may indeed be a thing of the past.”

From dear ol’ Eduflack’s latest for The 74 Million, Beyond Growth and Proficiency Lies Mastery: DeVos and the Crowning of Competence as King 

From Proficiency to Mastery

Earlier this year, EdSec Betsy DeVos caught a great deal of flak for not acknowledging the difference between proficiency and progress when it comes to student learning. But with her remarks earlier this month, she may have changed the discussion by shifting the debate to one on mastery. 

Over on BAM! Radio Network, we examine this development on the latest edition of #TrumpED. Give it a listen!

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.