Is It “Blood Money?”

Recently, it was revealed that former EdSec Arne Duncan advised a group of education reformers to refuse new dollars coming from the Trump Administration intended to further support charter schools. In his thinking, Duncan referred to it as “blood money,” suggesting that charter school operators should not accept these dollars if it meant hurting the traditional public schools they share a community with.

In the latest episode of TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network, we explore the sentiments offered by the former U.S. Education Secretary and former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. And we ask if the same could be said to those who benefited from program consolidations under the Obama Administration, and if efforts like Teach for America should have refused new dollars from Obama because it was taking from other programs in the field.

Give it a listen here.

Off the Pace on ED Hiring

Eight years ago, Eduflack wrote on the appointments the then new Obama Administration had made. With almost all of the senior, Senate-confirmable appointments made by then EdSec Arne Duncan, we saw a great deal of ED leaders coming with backgrounds including the Gates Foundation and New Schools Venture Fund, but almost none that came with experience working on educational issues at the state level.

Oh, the good ol’ days!

Here we are in May of 2017, and we are still waiting to see what experiences and backgrounds the senior ranks of EdSec Betsy DeVos’ Education Department will bring. One would like to believe that she will have strong representation of those with experiences at the state and local level. One can assume that the state of Michigan, as well as the American Federation for Children, Great Lakes Education Project, and other efforts DeVos has personally involved herself in. But that’s what it is, a belief. It is a guess. It is a hope (or for others, a fear).

It’s not a matter of waiting for those positions to be confirmed by a cantankerous Senate. No, it is still an issue of actual nominations being put forward.

No word on who will serve as Under Secretary, with a responsibility of overseeing most higher education work, including student loans. No word on who will serve as Deputy  Secretary, essentially running ED day to day. No word on who will run Elementary and Secondary Education, overseeing ESSA implementation and all that comes with it. No word on who will run the Office of Innovation and Improvement, with the likely portfolio of implementing DeVos’ school choice effort. Not even word on who will run the Office of Communications and Outreach, ensuring a consistent message and a community of supporters to move whatever agenda is ultimately put forward forward.
EdSec DeVos has an opportunity to really move some things. Setting aside budget politics for a second, the Trump agenda allows for significant action on issues like career and technical education, adult education, and early childhood. The school choice proposal is on par — both financially and inspirationally — with Duncan’s Race to the Top Efforts or Rod Paige’s NCLB agenda. But to take advantage of it, DeVos needs leaders who can help shepherd parts of a cohesive policy agenda. She needs individuals who can build coalitions and recruit advocates. She needs visionaries who can help states and localities think outside the box. And yes, she needs rabble rousers who can constantly push against the defenders of the status quo.

Until we see who is in those positions, we truly have no idea what the potential impact of a DeVos agenda may be. Washington, DC is often where good ideas go to die. Whether it be because of Hill inaction, lobbyist pressures, grassroots uprisings, implementation challenges, or unforced errors, change in education is a hard nut to crack. Time will tell if Team DeVos will get to enjoy the meat, or will continue to tap away at the often unpenatrable shell.

Free College, With Caveats

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama announced his plans to provide all “hard working” students with two years of free community college. But such a grand promise comes with a great number of questions, questions that we just aren’t getting a lot of answers to at this point.

Over at Education World, Eduflack opines on some of the many questions that come out of a promise to free college. Impact on dual-enrollment programs and proprietary colleges? Improved quality of community college programs? Impact on Pell? Future of competency-based education? And are we putting the emphasis on the right higher ed items?

As I write at Education World:

Will this be another good idea that only gets tossed aside because it lacks the funding and the changes it calls for are too hard (or too ambiguous) for institutions and policymakers to take on? Or is it just the innovation needed to begin to shake up higher education policy and place greater power and focus on the students, and not just on the institutions?

Give it a read. And please, offer answers if you have any …

Edu-Deja Vu All Over Again?

Nearly 20 years ago, Eduflack remembers working on Capitol Hill and in political campaigns when the “hot” thing was calling for the dissolution of the U.S. Department of Education. The Contract with America was the law of the land. A new Republican Congress was seeking to scale back, make cuts, and return more money and power to the American people. Big government was a dirty word (or a dirty two words).

If I were 150 pounds heavier and had hair again, I’d swear I was back in the mid-1990s. Catching up on some evening reading last night, I saw a post from New Hampshire Public Radio detailing U.S. Senator Rand Paul’s visit to the Granite State. We all know why the junior senator from Kentucky is visiting the first presidential primary state in the union. He has his eyes on a bigger prize that being an elected representative for just the people of the Bluegrass State.

According to NHPR, Paul visited a Manchester charter school and called for “a rollback of common core, the repeal of no child left behind, and the elimination of the department of education.”

I won’t ask why NHPR chose to decapitalize Common Core, NCLB, or the U.S. Department of Education. That’s an English lesson for another day.

And I won’t ask how, or better, why, a Libertarian candidate for President of the United States would be take a position that the President should take a leading position in demanding governors take specific action with regard to state law (i.e. Common Core).

But I will ask why we are back on the refrain that the republic will be saved, achievement gaps will be closed, and all will be well with American society if only we could get rid of that pesky U.S. Department of Education. When every national survey shows education is NOT an issue that folks cast their national election (Congress, president) votes on, why do we continue to go after the folks on Maryland Avenue?

I get that bureaucracy isn’t popular, and Feds are an easy target. And I can appreciate trying to tap into “testing rage” by blaming the federal government and its call for accountability when it comes to educating ALL students. But is this really where we want to plant to the great change, the great libertarian, the great states’ rights, the great power of the people flag?

Even more importantly, do we want an education system without a U.S. Department of Education? One where:

  • Student loans are run and administered by banks, rather than by the U.S. Department of Education
  • There are no national safeguards to ensure special education rights are protected for all who qualify
  • Civil rights protections for students, particularly those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, will vary greatly
  • A third grade education in Massachusetts is the equivalent of a seventh grade education in Mississippi
  • There are no national incubators for education research and innovation, as we can find in the RELs and through IES
  • There is no real oversight of diploma mills taking students’ money and issuing worthless college degrees
  • Equity and opportunity shifts from every student graduating college and career ready to students in many states having equal access to lousy public schools

Let’s remember, the Feds are still responsible for less than one thin dime for every dollar spent on public education, Some may dislike ED’s growing use of the bully pulpit or of competitive grant programs, but true power still rests with the states. And none of us should forget it.

Could we get by without a U.S. Department of Education? Probably. But do we just want to get by? Probably not.

It’s frustrating that we can’t have meaningful national discussions of education on the campaign trail. And it is plum irritating that we are resorting back to this red meat, half-thought rhetorical throwback. Voters, particularly families, deserve better.

Local Districts, Standardized Testing

Last evening, the White House released a statement from President Obama on efforts from CCSSO and CGCS to cut back on unnecessary testing and the dreaded test-prep focus so many fear is taking over our classrooms.

Where I’m scratching my head is trying to see what the “news” is. The full statement is below. The so-called directive to EdSec Arne Duncan seems to be an effort that the EdSec has focused on for years now. That parents have more info on student learning. That classroom time is used well. That assessments play a part, but not the whole part, of teacher eval.

Perhaps Eduflack is missing something. Maybe this action is worthy of presidential proclamation. But from the cheap seats, this reads far more like “stay the course” than “let’s break new ground.”

Here’s the full statement. You tell me ….

Over the past five years, my Administration has worked with states to remove obstacles created by unworkable requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. While the goals behind No Child Left Behind – promoting school accountability and closing the achievement gap – were admirable, in too many cases the law created conditions that failed to give our young people the fair shot at success they deserve. Too many states felt they had no choice but to lower their standards and emphasize punishing failure more than rewarding success. Too many teachers felt they had no choice but to teach to the test.

That’s why my Administration has given states that have set higher, more honest standards the flexibility to meet them. In that spirit of flexibility, I welcome today’s announcement from the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools that state education chiefs and district superintendents will work together to cut back on unnecessary testing and test preparation, while promoting the smarter use of tests that measure real student learning. I have directed Secretary Duncan to support states and school districts in the effort to improve assessment of student learning so that parents and teachers have the information they need, that classroom time is used wisely, and assessments are one part of fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools.

In the 21st century economy, a world-class education is more important than ever. We should be preparing every child for success, because the countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow. Our nation’s schools are on the right track: Our high school graduation rate is at its highest in our history, the dropout rate is the lowest on record, and more of our young people are earning college degrees than ever before. I’m determined to support our nation’s educators and families as they work to set high expectations for our students and for the schools in which they learn.

The EdSec, The Educators, and The Testing Conundrum

It’s no secret that the education community is in the throws of a major debate on testing and its proper use (or its improper misuse). Whether it be a lack of assessment literacy on the part of most involved, a distrust of the providers of said tests, or the fear that tests are the first step down a slippery slope of moral and educational decay, testing seems to be the issue that is holding up many a school improvement, educational reform, and standards implementation effort.

It’s also no secret that much misinformation and misattribution regarding testing has been directed at EdSec Arne Duncan. Listen to some, and it seems he is traveling city to city, selling the latest and greatest tests, and checking off more educational souls that have been captured in the name of accountability.

So Eduflack was glad to see that the EdSec offered up a blog post earlier today to try and set the record straight. Posted on SmartBlog on Education, Arne writes:

As teachers gear up for a new school year, I want to offer two thoughts. One is a message of celebration and thanks. The other is a response to a concern that has come up often in many conversations with teachers and families, and which deserves an answer.
 
First, the thanks. America’s students have posted some unprecedented achievements in the last year – the highest high school graduation rate in the nation’s history, and sharp cuts in dropout rates and increases in college enrollment, especially for groups that in the past have lagged significantly. For these achievements, we should celebrate America’s teachers, principals, and students and their families. These achievements are also indications of deeper, more successful relationships with our students. All of us who’ve worked with young people know how much they yearn for adults to care about them and know them as individuals.
 
These achievements come at a time of nearly unprecedented change in American education – which entails enormously hard work by educators. Nearly every state has adopted new standards, new assessments, new approaches to incorporating data on student learning, and new efforts to support teachers.
 
This transition represents the biggest, fastest change in schools nationwide in our lifetime. And these efforts are essential to prepare kids to succeed in an age when the ability to think critically and creatively, communicate skillfully, and manipulate ideas fluently is vital. I have heard from many teachers that they have not received all the support they’d want during this transition. Yet America’s teachers are making this change work – and I want to recognize and thank them for that and encourage their leadership in this time of change.
 
That’s the easy part of this message. The harder part has to do with concerns that many teachers have brought to my door.
 
My team and I hold regular conversations with teachers, principals and other educators, often led by Teacher and Principal Ambassador Fellows, who take a year away from their schools to advise my agency. Increasingly, in those conversations, I hear concerns about standardized testing.
 
Assessment of student progress has a fundamental place in teaching and learning – few question that teachers, schools and parents need to know what progress students are making. And few question the particular importance of knowing how our most vulnerable students are progressing. Indeed, there’s wide recognition that annual assessments – those required by federal law – have done much to shine a light on the places and groups of students most in need of help. Yet in too many places, it’s clear that the yardstick has become the focus.
 
There are three main issues I’ve heard about repeatedly from educators:
  1. It doesn’t make sense to hold them accountable during this transition year for results on the new assessments – a test many of them have not seen before – and as many are coming up to speed with new standards.
  2. The standardized tests they have today focus too much on basic skills, not enough on critical thinking and deeper learning.
  3. Testing – and test preparation – takes up too much time.
I share these concerns. And I want our department to be part of the solution.
 
To those who are reading the last sentence with surprise, let me be clear: assessment is a vital part of teaching and learning, but it should be one part (and only one part) of how adults hold themselves responsible for students’ progress. Schools, teachers and families need and deserve clear, useful information about how their students are progressing. As a parent of two children in public school, I know I want that. And in fact, most teachers and principals I talk with want to be held responsible for students’ progress – through a sensible, smart combination of factors that reflect their work with students – not the level students came in at, or factors outside of their control.
 
But assessment needs to be done wisely. No school or teacher should look bad because they took on kids with greater challenges. Growth is what matters. No teacher or school should be judged on any one test, or tests alone – always on a mix of measures – which could range from classroom observations to family engagement indicators. In Nevada, educators include a teacher’s contribution to the school community in their measures; in Hawaii, schools consider student feedback surveys and professional growth, such as leading workshops or taking university coursework). Educators in Delaware look at measures of planning and preparation such as lesson plans and descriptions of instructional strategies to be used for students with diverse needs. Federal policy rightly stays out of picking those individual measures, but ensures that in evaluating teachers, states and districts include student growth, and consider multiple measures.
 
But the larger issue is, testing should never be the main focus of our schools. Educators work all day to inspire, to intrigue, to know their students – not just in a few subjects, and not just in “academic” areas. There’s a whole world of skills that tests can never touch that are vital to students’ success. No test will ever measure what a student is, or can be. It’s simply one measure of one kind of progress. Yet in too many places, testing itself has become a distraction from the work it is meant to support.
 
I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools – oxygen that is needed for a healthy transition to higher standards, improved systems for data, better aligned assessments, teacher professional development, evaluation and support, and more. This is one of the biggest changes education in this country has ever seen, and teachers who’ve worked through it have told me it’s allowed them to become the best teachers they’ve ever been. That change needs educators’ full attention.
 
That’s why we will be taking action in the coming weeks that give states more flexibility in key areas that teachers have said are causing worry.
 
States will have the opportunity to request a delay in when test results matter for teacher evaluation during this transition. As we always have, we’ll work with them in a spirit of flexibility to develop a plan that works, but typically I’d expect this to mean that states that request this delay will push back by one year (to 2015-16) the time when student growth measures based on new state assessments become part of their evaluation systems – and we will work with states seeking other areas of flexibility as well. We want to make sure that they are still sharing growth data with their teachers, and still moving forward on the other critical pieces of evaluation systems that provide useful feedback to educators. We will be working in concert with other educators and leaders to get this right. These changes are incredibly important, and educators should not have to make them in an atmosphere of worry. Some states will choose to take advantage of that flexibility; others, especially those that are well along in this transition, will not need a delay. The bottom line is that educators deserve strong support as our schools make vital, and urgently needed, changes. As many educators have pointed out, getting this right rests also on high-quality assessments. Many educators, and parents, have made clear that they’re supportive of assessment that measures what matters – but that a lot of tests today don’t do that – they focus too much on basic skills rather than problem solving and critical thinking. That’s why we’ve committed a third of a billion dollars to two consortia of states working to create new assessments that get beyond the bubble test, and do a better job of measuring critical thinking and writing.
 
I’m concerned, too, when I see places where adults are gaming tests, rather than using them to help students.
And we also need to recognize that in many places, the sheer quantity of testing – and test prep – has become an issue. In some schools and districts, over time tests have simply been layered on top of one another, without a clear sense of strategy or direction. Where tests are redundant, or not sufficiently helpful for instruction, they cost precious time that teachers and kids can’t afford. Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress. This issue is a priority for us, and we’ll continue to work throughout the fall on efforts to cut back on over-testing.
 
There’s plenty of responsibility to share on these challenges, and a fair chunk of that sits with me and my department. We encouraged states to move a whole lot of changes simultaneously, because of the enormous urgency to raise standards and improve systems of teacher support – not for another generation of students, but for today’s students.
 
But in how this change happens, we need to listen carefully to the teachers, principals and other educators who are living it on a daily basis – and we need to be true to our promise to be tight on outcomes, but loose on how we get there.
 
From my first day on this job, the objective has been to work in a spirit of flexibility to help states and communities improve outcomes for kids. We need to make changes, but we are also making progress. I’m determined that, working in partnership, we’ll continue to do both – be flexible and make progress for our kids.
 
Change is hard, and changes of significance rarely work exactly as planned. But in partnership, making course alterations as necessary, we will get there.
 
Well said, Mr. Secretary!