Stepping Up Through AP

In our national quest to have every student college ready and to ensure all learners have the math and science knowledge to succeed in the 21st century, are there many stronger yardsticks than AP?

Over at USA Today, Greg Toppo takes a look at the push to get more kids enrolled in AP courses, particularly in math and science.  In what was once an area where just a select few students were deemed “worthy” to take an AP course, Toppo chronicles AP classes than now have 25 or 30 students in them, all in pursuit of that college- and career-ready tag.
What is particularly interesting is folks are finally realizing that AP is about far more than simply securing that elusive 5 on the end-of-course exam.  Instead, it is now about the rigor of the course.  It is about pushing students to do more.  About the learning that happens in such advanced classes.
This is summed up nicely by the principal featured in Toppo’s piece:
Principal Sean Callender said he pushes AP classes “every time I talk to parents.” He invokes a sports analogy to explain his line of reasoning with prospective students: “If you’re getting good grades already,” he said, “why don’t you step up to the next league?” Teachers also push struggling students to attend after-school tutoring sessions each Tuesday and Thursday help “to get them used to the rigor,” he said.
There is something novel about Callender’s approach, and about the general push to increase access and exposure to AP courses, perhaps the best way to expose today’s high school students to college-level learning.  And it may just be one of those great equalizers to help us close the achievement gaps that dog far too many high schools.
With anti-testing fever at an all-time high, and many believing it is unfair to actually assess whether a student has learned something in a class, AP is the ultimate measure of testing.  After completing an AP course, every student in the nation will take the same exam.  They will be graded on a scale of 1-5.  And as more and more students take the test, more and more are likely to score 1s and 2s in those early years.
But taking the test shouldn’t scare kids away from the courses.  Despite an assessment, the content of the course and the lessons learned throughout the year are a worthwhile investment. Even scoring a 1 or 2 shouldn’t prevent students from going AP.  Students who are capable should “step up.”   Taking an AP test is not the demise of modern civilization. 
What we all know, and what the USA Today article focuses on, is that students benefit from taking more rigorous courses.  The push should be on expanding AP, IB, and dual-enrollment programs so that more kids — and ultimately all kids — have access to them and can be pushed to doing more rigorous work in high school.  We should all be demanding increased access to AP math and science courses, particularly for those students from historically disadvantaged populations.
Perhaps the teacher highlighted in the lede of the piece says it best:
“People need to strive to do things that are meaningful and good and hard,” she said. “The more kids you can convince to do tougher things, the better off your society will be.”

Some Kudos for the Home Team

Please pardon the personal indulgence here, but Eduf’lack can’t help himself.  About a year ago, I made a general pledge not to write about my work on my local school board on these electronic pages.  It just didn’t seem fair to the teachers, administrators, educators, and parents in my local community on a daily basis to dissect and analyze our issues for all my readers to read.  So school board has been a relative topic non grata (with a few exceptions) over the last year.

Today is one of those exceptions.  Over the weekend, The Washington Post released its latest edition of the High School Challenge Index.  Based on the Index, Virginia’s Falls Church City Public Schools was ranked the top public school district in the greater Washington, DC area.  Our George Mason High School has named the fifth best high school in the region.  And GM also took home the honor of being the 70th best high school in the United States.  
The rankings are a reflection of the enormous investment Falls Church has placed in both International Baccalaureate (IB ) and Advanced Placement (AP).  And the results are showing themselves in other ways.  Earlier this academic year, the Commonwealth of Virginia honored GM for having one of the highest high school graduation rates in the state — 97 percent.  And our average SAT scores were 1795, nearly 300 points higher than both the Virginia (1521) and national (1509) averages.
And we do it all as our sports teams won six state titles during the last school year, our teachers receive national and international recognition, and our students demonstrate the highest levels of excellence in everything from robotics to the theater.
All this doesn’t happen by accident.  We reap the value of IB in our high schools because we invest in the IB program in our elementary and middle schools.  We promise a world-class education for all students, and back that up by committing to pre-school programs that target our ESOL populations to begin equipping them with the skills they will need to succeed in elementary school and beyond.  And we continue to support a school district that is both student- and educator-centric, where parents and our employees have the opportunity to participate in the decisionmaking process and help shape our budget and our policies.
This past budget cycle, we were faced with many of same issues most school districts are facing these days.  How do we effectively invest in e-learning and other instructional opportunities for all our students?  How do we fairly compensate all our educators, particularly after recent years of frozen salaries?  How do we address our physical plant, particularly our needs to expand our school buildings in the face of growing student populations?  And how do we do it all in a way that is respectful to both our educational mission and the local taxpayers who need to fund it?
Somehow, we’ve done it.  Public-private partnerships to fund e-learning.  Step increase for our teachers.  Groundbreaking next month for expansion on one of our elementary schools.  And all done without asking taxpayers for a dime more than we asked for last budget year.
The DC area has some terrific schools, particularly in Northern Virginia.  Falls Church’s rankings in the annual Challenge Index are a testament to the terrific job our educators, our parents, our students, and our community does, day in and day out.  Education is priority number one (or at least 1-A) in Falls Church.  The true reward is virtually all of our students graduate from high school, and they graduate with a top-notch public education, an education that prepares them for college, the military, or work.  Kudos from Jay Mathews and WaPo are just the icing on the cake.
Congratulations to the entire Falls Church City Public Schools team!  You do a terrific job, and it shows in both the data points and the students themselves.  We have much to be proud of in Falls Church.  I, for one, am honored to serve as an elected official in a community that recognizes the importance of a strong K-12 education system, that invests in its schools and its kids, and that regularly demonstrates true return on investment.
Go Mustangs!  Go Huskies!  Go Tigers!  Go Hippos!  Eduflack is proud to be part of the FCCPS family, today and every day.

Dual Enrollment for All!

When most discuss the merits of dual-enrollment programs in our high schools, thoughts immediately turn to those classic over-achievers who are looking to earn a high school diploma along with two or three years of college before they turn 18.  We talk of how K-12 systems and higher education systems struggle to work together.  And sometimes, we even discuss how we shouldn’t rush our kids and deprive them of a “traditional” high school experience.

Meanwhile the high school dropout rate has remained steady for decades (and Eduflack is one who believes that the dropout rate is, unfortunately, close to one-third.)  Drop-out factories remain prevalent in many of our urban and rural communities.  Too many students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds do not have access to college prep high schools (with AP and IB classes).  Yet we continue to talk about how every student should be college ready when the odds are against at-risk students to even get through high school.

So what is one to do?  A new study from the Blackboard Institute finds that dual enrollment programs could be the great equalizer.  In the report, Columbia University’s Elisabeth Barrett and Rutgers University’s Liesa Stamm found that dual enrollment can benefit all students, not just those on the fast track.  Specifically, the found dual enrollment offers all students benefits such as:

* Enhancing the academic rigor of high school curricula
* Providing students with a broader range of academic and career-oriented courses and electives
* Offering students the opportunity to earn college credit while still in high school
* Introducing high school students to college academic expectations and preparing them for college-level study
* Making education more interesting and relevant, to the extent that students can take courses that relate to their interests or career goals
* Facilitating the transition from high school to college
* Improving student prospects during the college admissions process as a result of college credits earned
* Accelerating progression to college degree completion
* Reducing the costs of college education by enabling students to earn college credits while in high school that are generally tuition-free

Of course, these are all arguments we have heard before.  But the study’s authors also point to the significant role that dual enrollment can play in helping at-risk students … if they are provided the right support services.  Such services include academic supports, course re-configurations, college preparatory initiatives, career exploration, and mentoring.

Perhaps most interesting, though, was the discussion of online dual enrollment.  First, the statistics.  According to the report, 70 percent of school districts had one or more students enrolled in a fully online or blended course.  Nearly 70 percent of those enrolled in online learning do so at the high school level.  Nearly two thirds of school districts expect growth in their fully online courses and 61 percent see growth for their blended courses.  

Despite popular opinion, these online courses are not being used to help accelerate those already far ahead.  Yes, they are being used to supplement AP offerings.  But school districts also reported they are using online to assist students who need extra help or credit recovery, to let students who failed a course take it again, to get around scheduling conflicts, and to offer courses not offered at the school.  It becomes particularly important to rural school districts, serving as “a cost-benefit mechanism for small rural school districts to provide students with course choices and in some cases even basic courses that would not otherwise be available to them.”

So why is all this important?  If we are serious about improving high school graduation rates and having those high school diplomas serving as more than just a glorified attendance certificate, we need to do things differently.  When one-third of students fail to earn a high school diploma, our high schools are failing.  When half of those going on to college need remediation, our high schools are failing.  And when too many students — particularly those from historically disadvantaged communities — don’t see the value of staying in school, our high schools are failing.

If we truly intend to make each and every child “college and career ready” after leaving high school, we need radical changes to how we teach in high school.  A rearrangement of the deck chairs simply won’t do.  We need to teach new courses in new ways.  We need to personalize instruction.  We need to emphasize the value.  We need all students to see what they are capable of.  And we need to recognize that different students learn in different ways.

The Blackboard Institute report reminds us a robust dual enrollment program can be key to transforming a high school.  And it highlights that online learning — and online dual enrollment programs — can be a core component to a high-quality, 21st century high school.  Need more?  Such dual enrollment and online programs are beneficial for all students, not just those on the Most Likely to Succeed list.  Dual enrollment for all!


Standing and Delivering

Yesterday, the education community received some sad news out of Los Angeles.  Jaime Escalante, the famed calculus teacher depicted in the 1988 movie “Stand and Deliver,” passed away. 

Eduflack assumes that just about everyone in education policy has seen this movie, and knows the story of what “Kimo” was able to do for the students of Garfield High School.  The tale is actually quite remarkable, and is incredibly told in WaPo’s Jay Mathews book, “Escalante: The Best Teacher in America.”

Escalante’s story is about more than just getting a group of students, previously given up on by just about every corner of public education, to succeed on one of the hardest tests (AP Calculus) that high school student can take.  In many ways, Escalante embodies many of the issues we face today.  He was a mid-career transition teacher, giving up a corporate career to follow his passion for teaching.  He demonstrated that it is possible to close the achievement gap, and it is possible by pushing students harder and accepting no excuses.  The cinematic version of his tale forced many to better understand the issues of cheating on standardized exams and what sends up red flags.  And Escalante was a textbook example of what is possible with an effective, passionate, and skilled teacher leading a classroom.

The Los Angeles Times has the full story here

For more than two decades, many have said we need more Jaime Escalantes in our classrooms.  Eduflack couldn’t agree more.

The Effectiveness of IB

Each year, we see the high school “rankings,” finding that those schools with a high preponderance of Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB ) programs tend to do the best.  The greater the penetration of such programs and priorities, the higher a high school ranks.  Over the years, though, the education community has begun to ask the question about true results or the true impact of these programs. 

A decade ago, many a high school student collected AP courses like baseball cards, knowing that AP today meant college credit tomorrow.  The eduwife actually entered Stanford University as a sophomore because of all of the AP classes she took (and the fives she secured on the exams), allowing her to spend her fourth year out at the Farm gaining her master’s degree.
But times have changed.  Many colleges are now saying that even a five on an AP course is not the same as successfully completing the college course.  We’ve shifted from awarding college credit to simply allowing students to waive out of core requirements.  
The situation has always been even more murky with IB.  IB was never intended to provide college credits in a way AP does.  Designed decades ago, the program was created to ensure that students received a rigorous, comprehensive, and relevant high school learning experience.  By maximizing the time in high school through the IB curriculum, young people would become better students, better scholars, and better citizens.  
So how does all that translate when it comes to postsecondary education?  Many a college admissions officer knows that an IB graduate means a strong college candidate.  They are prepared for postsecondary work.  They are motivated.  They’ve been challenged.  They are inquisitive.  And they are able to do more than fill out bubble sheets or choose from a list of five answers.  They are scholars and learners, not merely the processors of information.
In past years, Eduflack has had the privilege of working with IB on a number of issues.  Being me, I would always ask about the research.  How do we know IB is working?  IB would say that the proof is in their alumni network.  One knows IB works when you see the complete IB graduate.  It is not just what they know, but how they apply it.  Those who complete an IB program usually move on to college.  And the IB high school instructional model has been so successful in teaching and motivating students that it has resulted in the development of both elementary and middle grades IB programs.
IB has never been about longitudinal research models.  They know the program works.  Their scholars know it works.  Their teachers, who undergo rigorous training and ongoing support, know it works.  And the schools that adopt it know it works.  They don’t need a medical-style research model to prove what they already know.  No, IB isn’t for everyone.  But those who do adopt it are better for it.  And despite the urban legends, IB isn’t just for the rich schools in the suburbs or for the uber-motivated.  IB works for all students who are motivated enough to seek a high-quality, rigorous educational program that provides the content and the skills to perform well after the IB program is completed.
But this is an era of research and of doing what is proven effective.  One’s word or one’s track record isn’t enough.  We need third party data to prove our effectiveness.  And now, IB has some of that as well.  In recent days, IB announced the Education Policy Improvement Center (EPIC) findings of its International Baccalaureate Standards Development and Alignment Project.  What did EPIC find?  
* IB is “highly aligned” with the Knowledge and Skills for University Success (KSUS) college-ready standards
* The IB Diploma’s key cognitive strategies — critical thinking skills, intellectual inquisitiveness, and interpretation — were found to be fully aligned with the expectations of university faculty
* IB math (algebra, trigonometry, and statistical standards) were completely aligned with KSUS
* IB science (chemistry, biology, and environmental science) were completely aligned with KSUS
Alignment is important.  But the data on results is even more compelling.  As part of the EPIC announcement, IB revealed that more than 80 percent of those completing the IB high school program graduate from college within six years, a rate leaps, bounds, and high jumps above the national average for high school students.  IBers are college graduates.  And there are few, if any programs, we can make that statement about with higher certainty.
IB has been one of the best-kept secrets in school improvement and innovation.  We don’t talk about it, but IB’s year-on-year growth in the United States over the last year has been the stuff on which folks write Harvard case studies.  Those teachers who have gone through the training are true believers.  Those students who secure the Diploma are real-life success stories.  And those districts who make the investment quickly realize that the cost is worth it, gaining both quantitative and qualitative return on investment almost from the get-go.
Perhaps IB’s greatest challenge is how it fits into the current environment of improvement, reform, and innovation.  IB succeeded in the NCLB years, in part, because of the misperceptions of who it was targeting.  Since many didn’t see its applicability for those students who were being left behind (despite some tremendous case studies of how IB programs have turned around schools and really helped students from historically disadvantaged groups), the program was left to operate on its own.  It connected enough with AYP and with state assessments that it was a viable alternative for those wishing to pursue it.  But it simply wasn’t seen as a solution for that bottom quartile of students, particularly with NCLB’s focus on the elementary grades.
Today, IB is at a crossroads.  As a nation, we have set hard goals for improving high school graduation rate and college attainment numbers.  The EPIC data demonstrates that IB could be one of those solutions custom-made for rising to the occasion.  The IB training and development model is one that can be used as we look to new ways to improving instruction and preparation for all teachers.  The real challenge, though, is how IB fits into the new call for common standards.  How will the IB framework align with the high school standards currently being pursued?  How do IB assessments dovetail with the assessments that will come out of common standards?  How does IB demonstrate value-add, and not add-on?
Only time will tell if IB is up to the challenge.  It has the opportunity.  It has the track record.  It can display its strengths.  Now is the time for International Baccalaureate to show it is an exemplar of best practice, and not merely a niche program.  It has the pieces.  IB just has to bring them all together for a compelling story that solves the problem so many school decisionmakers are facing.

This Test Brought To You By …

We have all heard the stories of how classroom teachers are forced to supplement instructional materials on their own dime.  Every fall, office supply stores offer discounts for teachers, knowing that supplies are being funded directly from the pockets of educators (and not just from the school districts themselves).  According to the National Education Association, the average teacher spends $430 of their own hard-earned dollars for books and supplies for the students in their classrooms.

When Edu-mom was teaching high school English, Eduflack knew this ritual all too well.  Yes, there were the annual visits to the office supply stores for the basics.  But there were also the add-ons — the videos, the classroom sets of novels, out-of-pocket cash for student lunches, and even dollars for class trips and events.  For her, it was all a part of being a classroom teacher.  If she didn’t provide it, her students wouldn’t receive it.  If her students didn’t receive it, they weren’t getting the full education they deserved.  Providing every student full academic opportunity was far more important than the number of bills in her wallet (and the same could be said for many of her colleagues, particularly those in the English departments of those schools in New Mexico, West Virginia, Massachusetts, and DC in which she taught).
So we definitely have to give California high school teacher Tom Farber an A for creativity when it comes to meeting classroom costs.  In a move to cut costs, Rancho Bernardo Schools cut their teachers’ photocopy budget by nearly a third, to a little more than $300 a year per teacher.  Over a 10-month school year, that means $30 a month, or roughly 1,000 pages a month.  Calculate it out over six classes, and that means about 150 pages a month for tests, quizzes and handouts (or by my calculation, about five pages per student per month, based on average class sizes).
Farber realized $300 wouldn’t cut it, particularly for the AP students he was working with.  His copy bill would be more than $500 a year for the basics.  But rather than dip into his own pocket (which I am sure he is already doing for other classroom supplies), he came up with a novel idea — selling advertising on his quizzes and exams.  The full story is on the front page of today’s USA Today, courtesy of Greg Toppo and Janet Kornblum —  
According to USA Today, Farber has already sold more than $350 in ad space, much of it to parents and local businesses.  These aren’t big print ads with photos and visuals and custom-designed logos.  Think more along the lines of inspirational quotes and simple “Sponsored by Eduflack, the leading voice in education reform communications.”  Minor mentions running along the footer of the photocopied material in question.
Some are up in arms about this, crying about commercialism in the schools and the corporatization of instruction.  But this isn’t requiring every AP English student to only show up to school in Nikes or declaring Coke the official beverage of chemistry students at Jefferson High School.  At the end of the day, this isn’t much different than the words of wisdom and inspirational messages sold in virtually every high school yearbook in virtually every public school across the nation.
No, Farber should not be attacked for his actions, he should be praised.  He realized his school couldn’t (or wouldn’t) meet the needs he had for instructional materials and supplies for his classes.  Rather than offer the bare minimum and complaining about the situation, he came up with a novel solution.  Now, his students get the study aids and preparatory materials they need to achieve on AP exams.
Could he have paid for it himself?  Of course.  But what other white-collar professions do we know that require employees to fund their own supplies (particularly since those supplies are going to others)?  Could he have asked students to pony up?  Of course.  But that sorta gets away from the notion of a free public education for all students.  What Farber did is no different than the public-private partnerships that we encourage in the schools on a daily basis.
The cryin’ shame here, of course, is that we aren’t providing our teachers the resources they need to do their jobs effectively.  The demands on today’s teachers are rising by the day.  We want higher student performance, smaller achievement gaps, higher grad rates, and larger college-going rates.  And we want it all in classes that are getting larger while teacher salaries are barely keeping up with inflation.  
It is offensive we expect public school teachers to pay out of their own pocket to photocopy tests or buy novels or other instructional materials.  It is equally wrong that we don’t provide the instructional materials we know are most effective, having to choose between replacing lost textbooks or paying for gasoline for the buses or electricity for the florescent bulbs in the halls.  
We know what it takes to effectively teach a child and have them succeed, both in school and in life.  If we are to empower teachers to provide that instruction, we need to give them the materials they need to succeed.  And if we don’t, we need to give them the flexibility to pursue “alternative” funding sources to get the job done.  If advertising is required to deliver effective instruction (particularly learning materials) then so be it.

The Obama Education Platform

As many of us have known for much of the past two years, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama is all about change.  His approach to education reform is no different.  It is a diverse strategy, like his base of supporters, and reflects a message of change from some of the traditional Democratic education planks.  

The Bumper Sticker
We have a real problem with public education in the United States.  We are underfunding No Child Left Behind, or “No Child Left Behind Left the Money Behind.”  It is harder and harder to keep new teachers in the classroom.  And college is too expensive for the average Joe (even if he isn’t from Scranton, PA).
The Plan
Obama-Biden’s education platform operates under four key areas — early childhood education, K-12, teachers, and higher education.
Early Childhood Education
Obama’s early ed efforts are programmatically focused, in an effort to reach as many preschoolers as possible:
* Zero to Five Plan, focusing on early care and infant education; would offer Early Learning Challenge Grants to promote state efforts and help move to state-led universal preschool
* Expanded Early Head Start and Head Start, calling for a 4X funding increase in Early Head Start and improving the quality of both programs
* Affordable, high-quality child care
Obama’s K-12 plan is a relative top eight list of the top buzz issues in education reform today:
* Reform No Child Left Behind, through increased funding and improving assessment and accountability
* Support high-quality schools and close low-performing charter schools, doubling the funding for the Federal Charter School Program and improving general accountability for charters
* Make math and science education a national priority, by recruiting and supporting strong math and science teachers
* Address the dropout crisis, through federal funding for middle school intervention strategies
* Expand high-quality afterschool opportunities, by doubling funding for the 21st Century Learning Centers program
* Support college outreach programs, lending support to GEAR UP, TRIO, and Upward Bound
* Support college credit initiatives, creating a “Make College a Reality” initiative to increase AP-going by 50% by 2016
* Support English language learners, through transitional bilingual education and general school accountability
Recruit, Prepare, Retain, and Reward America’s Teachers
With Obama-Biden, the classroom teacher is clearly the center of the movement.  (And don’t forget it is Biden’s wife’s career of choice):
* Recruit teachers, by creating a new Teacher Service Scholarship program to pay for four years of undergrad or two years of grad school in teacher education
* Prepare teachers, requiring all ed schools to be accredited and to create a voluntary national performance assessment of teacher training
* Retain teachers, expanding mentoring programs that pair vets with newbie teachers
* Reward teachers, allowing teachers a seat at the table in developing incentive programs and providing better pay for those in underserved location and those with a consistent record of success (read: merit pay)
Higher Education
Obama touched on higher ed in K-12, as he looked at college prep issues such college outreach and dual credit, but his platform also includes the following:
* Create the American Opportunity Tax Credit, ensuring the first $4,000 of a college education is “completely free for most Americans”
* Simplify the application process for financial aid, streamlining the process and authorizing the feds to use tax returns automatically as part of the system
The Takeaway
There you have it.  The full Obama-Biden education platform as presented on the official Obama-Biden campaign website.  Available now to lay side-by-side with McCain-Palin to compare, contrast, and critique.  Three pages of total text on the site, along with three downloadable plans (PreK-12 Plan, College Affordability Plan, and Education Reform Plan) and two speeches (one on PreK to 12 education, one on college affordability).  And before I hear it from readers, I know there are many more issues Obama and his surrogates have been talking about. Remember, folks, this is intended to look at the official plans, as offered up by the official websites of the candidates.
So what’s Eduflack’s takeaway?
* A clear understanding of the issues and concerns of the education community, particularly those seen by teachers and school leaders.  This is the ed community hotlist, particularly in K-12
* A stronger-than-strong emphasis on programs, both support of the old and calls for many, many new
* A significant increase in federal funding for education issues
* A focus on the processes that make education systems go
* Emphasis on the student and the school level
* An attempt to improve NCLB, particularly when it comes to funding
What’s missing?  There is little talk, other than some rhetorical mentions, to the need for standards and accountability in the schools.  It seems to be process over results.  And Obama’s previously strong stance on merit pay for teachers is weakly positioned in this policy.  Discussions of issues such as reading instruction, education research, vouchers, parental involvement, alternative certification, elementary schools, and online learning can’t be found.  Again, we can guess where an Obama administration would stand on these issues, based on his personal bio and the good work of his education team, but it isn’t spelled out.
So there you have it, the Obama-Biden education platform, in an equally handy format.  Tomorrow, we put our agitator hat back on and take a close look at how the two campaigns stack up against each other, educa
tion wise, and what are remaining unanswered questions may be.

Going Where the Education Action Is

If you spend enough time reading about education reform — particularly over the past few years — you get the sense that Washington, DC is the unwavering center and base for all that is new, all that is relevant, and all that is necessary to school improvement.  NCLB.  The U.S. Department of Education.  The Institute of Education Sciences.  The blob of representative education organizations.  All, it seems, serve as the epicenter for real change in our educational system.

But when you really get down to it, the real action of education reform is not at the national level.  In reality, the U.S. Department of Education and the federal government account for less than eight cents of every dollar spent on public K-12 education in the United States.  Despite the tales coming from the status quoer bogeymen, there are few educators who are taking their marching orders directly from NCLB or from the data captured by IES or NAGB.  And although some would like to believe it, superintendents and principals are not waiting for detailed instructions from the EdSec before they take action on instructional improvement.
Don’t get me wrong.  The federal hand is a great influencer in what is happening in education reform.  It provides an enormous carrot, usually in the form of federal dollars, to get new and valuable programs — such as Reading First or the American Competitiveness Initiative — from research to policy to practice.  It also provides a more ominous stick, providing punishment for those who fail to meet AYP, misuse federal funds, or generally choose not to follow the mission and guidelines put forward by the federal government (particularly as it relates to important laws such as Title I).
In a perfect world, the federal education lever is one of a velvet hammer.  It provides us the opportunity to feel good about what we are doing, while knowing that swift and meaningful judgment can come down on those who ignore, flaunt, or seek to reverse the laws of the land.  Be it gender equity, special education, teacher training, or even reading or math instruction, there is little doubt that the educational velvet hammer rests in the hands of ED and the EdSec.
Many know I spend most of my working days helping organizations, companies, and agencies determine the best ways to advocate for education issues, particularly improvements to the current K-12 system.  Much of these discussions tend to focus on the federal, for the reasons detailed above.  We all want to meet with folks on the seventh floor of ED, hoping to convince them we’ve built a better mousetrap or offer a solution unmatched by those that have come previously.  As a good counselor and advisor, I try to respect the wishes of my clients, and identify ways they can be a part of the federal discussion of education reform.
Eduflack finds himself spending more and more time these days, though, redirecting these good intentions to where the education action really is.  For those looking to make a difference, for those looking to enact meaningful change, for those looking to truly boost student achievement and improve instruction, for those looking to identify and develop an education solution that can be implemented at scale, the real action is happening at the state level.
Real reform has the greatest opportunity to succeed when introduced at the state level.  First, it can serve as a lever of influence on federal decisionmakers, demonstrating the results we need to see that a particular program or intervention works.  Second, it has the power to implement those changes in a large number of school districts simultaneously, using the state’s own carrot/stick powers to implement reforms directly in school districts that need the help the most.  The feds have levels of bureaucracy to go through before they can reach the school district. The state gets there with a phone call and a well-constructed relationship.
In the education policy world, we’re all looking to the future to see what the next version of No Child Left Behind will hold.  But we don’t need to wait for the NCLB lever to enact real, meaningful reforms.  The Gates Foundation recognized this long ago, and has invested significant money in statewide education reforms designed to model innovations.  The National Governors Association has focused tremendous effort and incredible intellectual capital on issues such as high school reform, AP, science/math education, national standards, and data collection — each path offering statewide solutions and demonstrating statewide results.  The National Conference of State Legislatures has all but ignored NCLB, focusing on its own issues.  And membership groups such as the Council of Chief State School Officers, Education Commission of the States, and even the Southern Regional Education Board have taken courageous policy stands to enact real reforms that improve the quality and results of education across the states.
What’s the lesson to be learned here?  Those seeking to enact real, meaningful education reforms must include statewide engagement strategies as part of their efforts.  They must recognize that each state is different, and each state must be handled and approached differently.  They must know that most state departments of education are vastly understaffed and overworked, and thus have little time to hear about the great ideas.  They must know that results are king, whether you be a principal, a state education chief, or the EdSec herself.  And they must know that states watch what other states do, they model after the successful ones, and they try to ensure their “competitors” don’t get too far ahead of them when it comes to policy or education results.
The success of integrated communications advocacy comes when you reach multiple stakeholders at multiple levels.  We all know that.  And preaching state education officials as a key stakeholder is hardly a new idea to slap anyone upside the head.  But we all must remember where the real action is.  We all must remember where real change and improvement can occur.  And we all must remember who can make a real difference.
High school reform.  Graduation rates.  National standards.  General accountability provisions.  STEM education.  Early childhood ed.  ELL and ESL.  RTI.  Closing the achievement gap.  Reading, math, and science instruction.  Professional development.  Teacher recruitment.  Online education.  Charter schools.  True success for these and other issues lies in our states,working in partnership with bellweather school districts.  To paraphrase from politics, as Ohio (and Pennsylvania and Georgia and Florida and Arizona and Minnesota) goes, so goes the nation.  True in politics.  Definitely true in education reform.
UPDATE: Great minds think alike.  Over at Fordham Foundation’s Flypaper, check out a similar post on the power of the states in education policy this year —  

The Future of Teacher Incentives?

If teachers go above and beyond the call of duty, and their students’ achievement benefits from it, should those teachers be rewarded?  What if teachers seek out additional training to improve their craft?  What if teachers commit to increasing curricular rigor … and their students demonstrate improvement?  Is there ever a time when superstar teachers should be rewarded?  Does it matter if the incentive comes from the school district’s annual budget or third-party grant funding?

These are questions that school districts have been grappling with for years.  And the issue of teacher incentive pay is only going to grow more and more heated.  Programs like Denver’s ProComp have figured out how to make it work.  Incentive programs in Minnesota, though, decided to simply reward every teacher in the school.  And we’re still waiting to see the impact of the U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher Incentive Fund.

But recent developments in Seattle have Eduflack scratching his head.  The National Math & Science Initiative provided schools in Washington more than $13 million to boost AP math and science courses.  As part of the grant, teachers would be paid for time they spent in training and could be financially rewarded for how well their students performed on AP exams. 

The grant has been scuttled.  Pay for Washington State teachers can only be determined in negotiations between the union and the school district.  NMSI wanted to pay the teachers directly (representing less than a quarter of the full grant).  Since that violates the state CBO, these AP math and science incentives are now history.  The full story is here, with kudos to Fordham’s Flypaper for drawing attention to it —

Rules are rules, I get that.  And the unions should play a role in determining how some of this money is used, particularly in terms of professional development and training.  But by denying groups like NMSI an opportunity like this only hurts the teachers and the students they teach.

The Washington Education Association says they can’t allow outside groups to reward teachers.  Why not?  If I own the largest company in the state, and I depend on a steady workforce pool with science and math skills, why can’t I reward those teachers or those schools that are helping to fill my jobs?  If I find out a specific physics or algebra teacher is responsible for my top performers, why can’t I reward her, and even pay her to train other teachers to do it her way?

We continually hear that teachers are underpaid.  We seek out ways to get businesses and outside interests to assume a role, usually financially, in the process.  Is it really so far out of the realm of possibility to provide a teacher incentives outside of the school district budget?  Shouldn’t we be looking for more ideas like this to reward teachers and honor achievement?  Shouldn’t we be looking for innovations to get more good teachers in the classroom and keep them there?  Shouldn’t we be doing more, rather than putting up barriers to protect the status quo?

What’s Wrong with Boston?

The writers of Boston Legal are at it again.  A few months ago, the plot line went after NCLB.  This week’s episode (thank you, DVR) centers its attack on the American high school.  Now, we have a mother suing her late daughter’s high school, alleging that the rigors of high school were responsible for her daughter’s “driving while drowsy” death.

Like the NCLB episode, we have a Boston high school full of overachievers.  This time, lawyers are attacking the high school experience because kids are working too hard.  They are taking too many AP courses.  They are involved in too many extracurriculars.  They all want to be tops in their class, and they all want to attend Harvard.  

While I still want to find this Boston high school that seems to be all white with a 100% graduation rate and every kid moving onto postsecondary education, I just have to let it go.  But there was one line that was truly disturbing.

In attacking the rigor of the high school, the mother’s lawyer asks why do we need to offer AP courses at all? Those are college courses, she says, they should be offered in college and not in high school.  Of course, the school’s principal agrees, and placed the blame on the students.  If we didn’t offer all those AP classes, the principal says, kids would just go to a different high school that would meet their needs.

Eduflack doesn’t know which is more ridiculous, the cavalier notion of school choice or the disdain for AP courses.  Let’s leave the former alone, knowing it is an absurd statement without any ground in reality.  The latter is just as frustrating, seeking to place blame on a solution, rather than a problem.

Just last week, we saw that more students are taking AP classes than ever before.  Whether they secure a four or five on the exam is irrelevant.  These students are able to experience college-level instruction before they get to college.  They get to learn if they are up to the rigors of a college-level exam.  They get to explore new subjects.  And they get the opportunity to earn college credits or exemptions from college requirements.

No one is saying a high school junior or senior should be taking five or seven AP courses each semester.  But if they have the interest and the ability, they should be allowed to push themselves and see what they are capable of.  They should be given the opportunity to succeed, rather than given the an excuse to fail.

Many can say we are where we are in public education because of low expectations.  A decade or two ago, students were lucky if they could take two or three AP courses during high school.  Today, schools can offer dozens of such courses.  That’s a good thing, not a reason to attack well-meaning high schools.

Maybe the writers for Boston Legal should go in and take a real tour of real Boston’s public schools before they use them for another plot line or as a punchline to another joke.  Those TV junkies will remember a great little Fox drama called Boston Public, set in a Beantown public high school.  If memory serves, those writers seemed to get what public education was all about.  Maybe they can offer a little primer to James Spader and company.  Or we could just keep education on the news pagers, instead of the TV reviews.