Blocking Jeffersonian Lessons at Mr. Jefferson’s University

Loyal readers of Eduflack know that I am a proud alumnus of the University of Virginia. As a Wahoo, I spent my college years believing the University’s founder was a deity. We spoke of Mr. Jefferson has if he had just stepped away to grab some lunch on the Corner. We revered the Jeffersonian ideal and what we thought it stood for.

In recent years, it hasn’t been so popular to be a fan of Thomas (nor has it been particularly popular for Eduflack to have many of the heroes he has, as I wrote about last year.) In our zeal to judge leaders of the past by today’s standards, we are quick to condemn.

I get that Thomas Jefferson is a complicated figure in our history. And I get that he is completely dissed (and mischaracterized) in the smash Broadway hit Hamilton. But Jefferson is a Founding Father. He was our third president. He helped expand the fledgling United States into the country that we largely recognize today.

Despite all of that, he noted three accomplishments on his tombstone, which reads, “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.”

Yes, founding U.Va. was one of the Jefferson’s top three accomplishments, more significant to him that serving as president. Thomas Jefferson is the University of Virginia, and U.Va. is TJ.

So it was shocking to see a group of University professors write to U.Va. President Sullivan asking that she stop quoting the University’s founder and father. My alma mater, The Cavalier Daily, reports that these professors noted:

We would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it. For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you are attempting to convey.

Almost a year to the day, I wrote about how college campuses need to stop being so cavalier about First Amendment rights. That we needed to stop promoting this “do as I say, not as I do” approach to free speech, recognizing that such rights are absolute and not based on what an individual may find in contrast to their personal life mission or sensibilities.

I’m not naive. I get that many these days would not put Jefferson on their personal Mount Rushmores. But I would hope that those individuals would also recognize that Jefferson’s stands as one of the most influential writers and thinkers in the founding of this nation. I’d particularly hope that college professors, particularly those at Mr. Jefferson’s University, could respect the words of Jefferson helped establish this nation, helped shape modern thinking on political liberty, and that cemented the divisions between church and state.

I’d also hope that those who take no issue in drawing a paycheck from Mr. Jefferson’s University yet take every issue with his words would be a little more open-minded about reading some of the words he wrote nearly a quarter of a millennia ago.

As a student at the U.Va., I spent more hours than I can count working at The Cavalier Daily, the independent daily student newspaper of Mr. Jefferson’s University. Each morning, we would publish a new edition under some poignant words written by Jefferson:

“For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

These words become particularly important in light of President Sullivan’s letter and her message of bringing the University community together. It is unfortunate that the sensitivities of some professors would seek to shut down such a dialogue by finding offense in the words of one messenger, the most important messenger in the University’s history.

We can only hope that reason continues to thrive at the University of Virginia, and that the lessons of its founder can be used to lead important discussions and guide equally important actions.

Seeking to restrict speech by removing Jeffersonian quotes from communications is an affront to the lessons of freedom and liberty that the University of Virginia was built on, and of ideals we would hope college professors were teaching on campuses throughout the country.

Everything is “High Stakes”

Student assessment has been under assault for years now.  And that assault usually begins with the attack on “high-stakes” tests.

We hated No Child Left Behind because of its high-stakes tests, with student assessments determining whether schools were making adequate yearly progress and ultimately if the school doors would stay open or not.
We hated the current batch of end-of-year “high-stakes” tests offered by the states, particularly now that the student performance numbers are being used by some states (and encouraged by others through NCLB waivers) in their teacher and principal evaluation process.
And we hate the “high-stakes” Common Core Assessments, whenever they come on line, as they blend our fears from both NCLB and state tests and wrap them up into one easy package.
Today, The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss has applied the “high-stakes” label to another target — the SAT and the ACT.  In writing about how Common Core State Standards could <SHUDDER> actually have an impact in all states, even in those that haven’t adopted CCSS, she notes that “Students in every state take the high-stakes college admissions exams, the SAT and the ACT.”
Eduflack understands “high stakes” is a powerful term and it can raise the hackles of everyone from the left who oppose stricter accountability measures to the right which recoils from a greater federal footprint on the local classroom.  And he gets that Strauss is using the phrase as fighting words, hoping to generate continued negative feelings toward CCSS.  But sometimes, can’t a test just be a test?
Aren’t there some assessments that should have some stakes attached?  Shouldn’t high school exit exams be “high stakes” as they determine whether a student has earned a high school diploma or not?  And shouldn’t we want the SAT and ACT to have stakes, as they determine who gains entrance to a four-year college, particularly when the costs of college are about as high stakes as they come?
Tests have consequences.  And all tests should have stakes attached.  Driver’s exams are “high stakes” as they determine if you get a license and have access to the freedom that comes with it.  Eye exams are “high stakes,” particularly when anything less than 20/20 will keep you from becoming a pilot in the Armed Forces.  DNA tests are “high stakes” as they determine one’s family lineage, an essential to knowing your history and your health future. The new Google/Bing taste tests are “high stakes,” as they could determine marketing campaigns and huge swings in search usership. 
So if there are no stakes attached, and some seem to advocate, is it even a test?  

National Skill Standards, Again??

Earlier this year, ACT released its Breaking New Ground: Building a National Workforce Skills Credentialing System report.  In the paper, ACT looks at the current state of the economy, the role that community colleges in particular can play in better preparing Americans to effectively hold the jobs of the future, and the specific job and personal skills one needs to work in a given sector in the 21st century.
Sounds like a good idea, huh?  Linking postsecondary education to career paths.  Identifying the skills employers need to fill the jobs they have.  Making clear to workers what they should know and be able to do if they are to be successful in the workforce.  All terrific goals.  It is a wonder we have never thought of this before.
Funny thing is, we have.  Back in the mid- to late 1990s, Eduflack worked with a little outfit in the U.S. Department of Labor called the National Skill Standards Board.  NSSB was tasked by Congress to identify and develop the basic and advanced skill standards necessary to work in about a dozen industry sectors.  First out of the gate was manufacturing, with NSSB working with the National Council for Advanced Manufacturing, along with a slew of educators, labor unions, and industry voices.  NSSB then proceeded to develop basic standards for the education and technology sectors, before the effort was shut down by the Bush Administration and efforts to fund it outside the government couldn’t quite come together.  Almost wiped off the electronic records, NSSB is actually best described on Wikipedia these days.  
Of course, NSSB itself wasn’t even a new idea when it was created in 1994.  The National Skill Standards Board was the offspring of SCANS, or the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills.  SCANS began in 1990, and led with its What Work Requires of Schools report, which outlined a range of skills, qualities and competencies needed to perform in the workplace of the 1990s.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to what ACT is doing.  it is important for our nation and our educational institutions to continue to look at issues of relevancy and how best to connect the classroom to the workplace.  The credentialing framework offered up by ACT looks remarkably like the frameworks that NSSB built and advocated for.  ACT mentions SCANS at the end of its report (explaining that SCANS resulted in the development of ACT’s terrific Work Keys effort), but there is no mention of NSSB (even though ACT was involved in the NSSB movement).
Why must we re-invent the wheel on this again?  NSSB had its positives and its negatives, sure.  But if we are serious about better preparing folks for work and ensuring a higher level of skills in the workforce, can’t we build on previous successes and learn from previous setbacks?  
I’ll be honest.  I lived NSSB from 1998 until it was shut down in 2002.  I’m not sure I’d want to wish that total experience on many others.  But I’d love to see someone benefit from the work a lot of good people put into NSSB, particularly in the early years.  If ACT is serious about moving Breaking New Ground forward and changing policy and behavior, it needs to take a close look at the NSSB case study.  Otherwise, we should just prepare for yet another “new” skill standards movement to surface in a decade or so.   

Sunshine on Core Standards

In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of discussion about the core standards movement and how “public” the development of these national standards will truly be.  Those who see such standards as a needed pathway to lead us to real, tangible improvement and focus on quality believe the process is just underway.  Those who see monsters under the bed and hear things that go bump in the night are certain that the deck is already stacked, the standards are already written, and we’re merely going through the motions.  

If core standards are like most education “movements” in Washington, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Yesterday, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers announced a new website for information on all things related to core standards —  The new site provides a few pieces of interesting information, including a tentative development schedule and those involved with its development.
Currently, the Common Core Standards Initiative (as dubbed by NGA and CCSSO) is sticking by its story that college- and career-ready standards will be completed by the end of the month, by July 2009.  Such an aggressive timeline may lend a little credibility to the notion that these standards are already in the can, pulled mainly from work already done by Achieve, College Board, ACT, and others.  More interestingly, the Initiative is also promising grade-by-grade standards work will be completed by the end of the calendar year, or by December 2009.
In looking at the members of both the Work Groups and the Feedback Groups, one thing is clear.  Grade-by-grade standards will be limited to English-Language Arts and mathematics.  By the end of the year, we will not have grade-by-grade standards for science, social studies, foreign languages, arts, or any of the other subjects that our K-12 students are currently engaging in.  How do we know?  Both the Work Groups and the Feedback Groups are divided into two camps — mathematics and ELA.  Eduflack can’t imagine that the math groups will be working on science standards, or the ELA groups will be working on social studies expectations.  So for now, our core standards are designed to model our current AYP efforts.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Moving AYP beyond grades three through eight into a full K-12 education continuum is an important thing.  But if we are going to truly get buy-in for the core standards (and more importantly, get states to adopt them and the common assessments that will need to be developed with them), we need to hit all of the key subject areas.  In Eduflack’s home state of Virginia, for instance, we can’t have core standards for math and reading, but then offer the state’s SOL for social studies.  It just doesn’t make sense for the long term.  The minds behind the Core Standards Initiative understand that, but we are still waiting for the explanations and the timetables that will align with all of the other academic subjects our students learn.
It seems most of the heavy lifting will be done by the Work Groups.  So who is on these groups?  A run-through of the rosters (available on the website) shows teams consisting primarily of staff from Achieve, College Board, and ACT.  Student Achievement Partners made the cut, and America’s Choice has a few slots in there (which may also speak to why outgoing Arkansas Schools Chief Ken James is headed to America’s Choice), and there is an academic or two added to each for good measure.
The feedback groups represent a strong list of academics and researchers who know the literature and the research base behind the subject matter.  The ELA Feedback Group, for instance, has two members of the National Reading Panel, as well as the chair of NRC’s reading research effort. 
Folks are going to read into this announcement what they want to.  Some will continue to question the sunshine put on the process and whether the “education blob,” particularly the content-area organizations, will have a real role in the development of the proposed standards.  Others will question whether their is a particular political slant to the approach.  And still others will beat the drum that classroom educators, the ones who will ultimately need to teach to these standards, are not represented at all.
Regardless, it is a first step.  The second step is seeing the work product that will be released at the end of the month.  But soon, we’ll be expecting to hear how the Initiative is going to address subject areas beyond math and reading.  Soon, we’ll want to hear how these standards will be incorporated into current and future curriculum.  And real soon, we’ll need to start discussing how one assesses student proficiency of these standards.  A long to-do list, particularly in light of potential ESEA reauthorization this fall.  Time will tell ….

Actually Getting Kids to College, or Just Talking About It?

By now, Eduflack readers know two evident truths about successful communications.  The first is we must raise awareness about the problem and what people know about it.  The second is we must drive audiences to action, getting them to change their behaviors to fix said problem.  It is modern-day advocacy.  Being informed is no longer enough.  If we aren’t taking the action steps to improve student achievement, then any “PR effort” isn’t worth its salt.

For years now, we’ve screamed from the rooftops that each and every child in the United States required a college degree.  The U.S. Department of Education said that 90 percent of new jobs demanded some form of postsecondary education.  We’ve talked about the problems of dropout factories and business’ need for a college-educated workforce.  We’ve discussed 21st century skills and the learning needs one acquires after high school.
Earlier this week, the KnowHow2Go campaign released new public survey information on its efforts to boost public awareness of its efforts to inform eighth to 10th graders on the need for college.  The results include:
* More than one-third (35 percent) of students say they are regularly taking steps to prepare for college (up from 26 percent in 2007)
* Nine in 10 students (91 percent) have spoken to an adult about college prep, up from 80 percent
* Six in 10 students (63 percent) have seen or heard of KnowHow2Go and its advertising campaign
* Eight in 10 students (81 percent) said they were familiar with the courses needed for college, up from 70 percent two years ago
The data points are interesting, don’t get me wrong, but what do they really tell us?  As we are improving our ability to inform students, are we actually changing student behaviors?  Unfortunately, we just don’t know.  This data seems to raise just as many questions as it provides answers.
One-third of students are taking steps to prepare to college.  Interestingly, one-third of high school students will go on to college.  And one-third have gone on to college for decades.  What does that mean?  In 2007, those students who were likely going on to college didn’t know they were taking the steps necessary to get there.  So now those same students know they are asking the right questions and getting the right information.  But what are we doing for the two-thirds of ninth graders who will never go on to college?  What questions are they asking?  What steps are they taking?  And why aren’t they doing what it takes to prepare for postsecondary education?
Ninety percent of students have spoken to an adult about college.  What about that remaining 10 percent?  What are they talking about?  Who are they talking to?  And how are we defining an adult?  Based on my previous research with high school students on whether or not they go on to college, the vast majority of students say they trust their parents first and foremost when it comes to college decisions..  Guidance counselors usually rank near the bottom of adults when it comes to those voices they value.  So are these students talking to parents and trusted adults, those they may actually listen to, or are they talking to the guidance counselors and such that they will immediately discount?
Eight in 10 students are now familiar with the courses needed for college.  But are they taking them?  Again, information is great, but are students acting on the information?  Are they enrolling in higher level science and math classes?  Are they taking dual-credit opportunities?  Are they taking the ACT or SAT test?  Are they passing their state proficiency exams? It is one thing to say we know what we need to do.  It is something completely different to actually do it.
What do we know?  We know that only a third of today’s ninth graders will go on to postsecondary education.  We know that of those who enter college, more than half are unprepared for college-level work, evidenced by the high numbers of students requiring remedial math and ELA courses.  We know that a third of students are still dropping out of high school, and those numbers reach almost 50 percent in our African-American and Hispanic populations.  We know that drop-out factories are still far-too-prominent in too many of our urban centers.
I give KnowHow2Go credit for boosting awareness of the issue.  Based on their data, their message is getting out there and students are more aware of the issues (at least those students who are participating in the survey).  But how is that awareness being used to actually change public behavior?  How do we use that awareness to boost high school graduation rates?  How do we use it to close the achievement gap?  How do we use it to actually boost the college-going rate, particularly among minority and low-income students?  How do we get more students to pursue the multiple pathways of postsecondary education?  How do we move this newly acquired information into real action that is improving student achievement and preparedness for the opportunities in the 21st century workforce.
Growing up, GI Joe taught Eduflack (and many others) that knowing was half the battle.  He was right.  KnowHow2Go has done a good job of informing students of the questions they need to ask and the issues they need to think about.  But what are they doing with that information?  Success only comes when we can show more students are actually going to college.  Success only comes when we demonstrate that students are actually taking the courses they need to go on to college.  Success only comes when we have tangible results to show for it, real results tied to grad rates, college preparedness, and the number of students gaining postsecondary degrees.  Success only comes when we fight that other half of the battle.  And far too many of us still need to gear up for that fight. 

The Measure of College Admissions

Down here in Eduflack’s temporary offices in Central America (long story, but the good news is that it looks like baby Eduflackette, who turned one on Saturday, should be coming home to the DC area for good before the end of the year), my eye was caught by a newsbrief in the NYTimes Digest (even I’m not willing to pay $8 for the full NYT down here) about the latest commission report on college admissions.

Headed By Harvard University Admissions Dean William Fitzsimmons, the latest report recommends that colleges and universities reduce their dependence on SAT and ACT scores when it comes to admitting new students.  Instead, the commission is recommending specific admission exams more closely tied to high school curriculum and student achievement.
For years now, we have seen leading national colleges and universities back off of SAT and ACT scores as requirements for admission.  Researchers have claimed that high school grades, and not standardized admission scores, are the true measure of student success in the postsecondary classroom.  And still more see the tests — particularly the SAT — as yet another example of the high stakes testing that has permeated P-16 education today.
At the very heart of Fitzsimmons’ report, though, I can’t help but think we are simply rearranging some of the deck chairs for postsecondary admittance.  After all, how different do we expect an “admissions exam” to be from the SAT or ACT.  All will serve as standardized tests.  All will measure students on a common level of English, math (and hopefully science and social studies, and maybe even foreign language) abilities.  All will be used to determine the cutoff line, knowing that a score of X gets you in, a score of Y puts you on the border line, and a score of Z puts you in the also rans.
The real issue is how one goes about constructing the admission exam.  By early reports, the Fitzsimmons commission is proposing an admissions exam based on high school curriculum.  A noble idea, yes.  But is it worth the paper it would be printed on (or the computer it would be coded on?)  Can national college admissions exams really be worth anything until we have national standards on which high school curriculum is based?
The answer, as we all know, is of course not.  College entry exams are intended to demonstrate that entering students have the skills and abilities to do basic postsecondary education work.  At a time when nearly half of all college-going students are forced to take remedial reading or math courses, such a determination has never been more important.  Are our high schools turning out students capable of college-level work?  Are our kids ready for postsecondary education?  And if not, what is it our secondary schools should be doing to ensure they are meeting their responsibilities in the P-16 education continuum?
It all brings us back to the simple concept of national education standards.  A rising senior B student in Alabama should have the same skills, abilities, and access to information as a B student in Connecticut, or one in Wisconsin, or one in Oregon or Nevada.  Algebra II should mean the same thing, no matter what state or what school district is taking it.  And a high school diploma should come with a guarantee of a basic knowledge and ability in English, math, and science.  As a nation, we should have common goals.  As a national education system, we should have common expectations from all of our students, regardless of location or socioeconomic status.
Yes, our goal should be getting a greater number of diverse students into postsecondary education.  We need to increase the number of first-generation students entering the halls of higher education.  We need to promote the notion that postsecondary education is a requirement for success in today’s ever-evolving economy.
A college admissions test simply doesn’t get us there, and in today’s environment, too many colleges may be required to develop dozens of such tests to reflect the vast differences in standards and performances across our 50 states.  If college admissions deans really want to make a difference, they should be out there advocating for national K-12 standards.  They should be demanding that every applicant be measured on the same scale.  They should require that a high school education — rural, suburban, or urban; northeast, south, midwest, or southwest — provides the same levels of skill, preparation, and knowledge.  They should require national standards.

Those Lazy, Hazy Days

In media relations, you learn quickly that if you are looking to dump a story (meaning you need to distribute it, but either don’t want it prominently covered or don’t want too many folks reading it), you either drop it on a Friday afternoon or distribute it on the week between Christmas and New Years.  Little fuss, little muss, and little will be remembered in the coming days.

In the education world, though, it seems that August is often where good stories go to die.  I’ll admit, now is the time when Eduflack’s top concern is whether the Mets can hold off Philly and Atlanta to win the NL East.  Then when you factor in the Edufamily, education reform comes in a strong third (still better than education’s priority in recent voter polling data, which puts it no higher than fifth).

Looking at this week’s Education Week and, we see a number of interesting stories.  But as it is mid-August, what impact will they have on those down at the shore or those already preparing for the start of the school year?  Earlier this summer, we asked where all of the good stories had gone?  Now we ask, if those good stories come, but come in mid-August, do ed reformers notice them?

Here’s just a sampling of attention-worthy stories:
* NSBA’s survey on social networking and students
* Annual ACT score release
* Current efforts to turn around the Recovery District in New Orleans
* The future impact of NBPTS, and the impact and quality of future NBCTs

The timing of public announcements is a tricky thing.  For the ACT scores announcement, for instance, this is an annual release, and the education media know to anticipate it.  So there is little risk.  For others, August is a double-edged sword.  While readership may be down from the norm, the chances of coverage are dramatically increased.  If we look to the ed reform calendar for September and October, there are already dozens of report releases, conferences, forums, and events.  And that doesn’t even include the communications push from both sides on NCLB reform.

So what’s an educause supposed to do?

Cast a wide net.  Many believe the game is won with an article in Education Week.  Yes, it is an important win, but it isn’t an all-defining act.  We don’t truly understand and appreciate an issue until we have heard it four or five or seven times.  Repetition is key.  We need to hear the same story from different sources and through different channels.  Supplement the EdWeek piece with some regional daily news coverage, postings on multiple websites, emails to your database, and outreach to the blogsphere.  Do it over the course of  few weeks.  Multiple touches, multiple stories, multiplying success.

We’re already starting to see that with NSBA’s study, and ACT has become a master at segmenting its story for national, regional, and statewide significance.  In a field that is so big on modeling, hopefully others can pick up some pointers from those orgs that successfully release their reports or promote their events.

August doesn’t have to be a graveyard for well-intentioned education stories.  But to avoid the tombstone, one needs to work harder and work smarter.  A good story, a broad net, and an integrated outreach strategy can make the difference between a one-hit-wonder and a Hall of Famer.