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!
 

“The Top Twitter Feeds in Education Policy,” Courtesy of EdNext

August. That time of year when parents start wondering when their kids can go back to school already, when Mets fans can start thinking about how we will get over the hump “next year,” and when Education Next and Michael Petrilli (president of the Fordham Institute) release the annual Top Twitter Feeds in Education Policy.

I believe this is the fourth year that Education Next has published the list. Each time, I am amazed by the rich list of names of organizations and individuals that are committed to Tweeting about all things education. And while some may question the methodology, Petrilli does a strong job in building the list, relying on Klout scores and total number of followers to apply some quantitative metrics to an exercise that could quickly devolve into qualitative messiness.

So who is on top this year? Teach for America (@teachforamerica) vaulted from the “show” spot last year to lead the pack for 2014. TFA is followed by EdSec Arne Duncan (@arneduncan) at #2 and Diane Ravitch (@DianeRavitch) at #3. The two shared the top spot last year. (And one has to ask the question why Ravitch uses CAPS in her handle while Arne goes all ee cummings on us.)

The Top 10 is rounded out with Education Week (@educationweek), AFT’s Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten), Michelle Rhee (@MichelleRhee), Education Next (@educationnext), the U.S. Department of Education (@usedgov), Huffington Post Education (@HuffPoEdu), and Harvard Graduate School of Education (@HGSE).

You can view the full list, along with the metrics and last year’s rankings at Education Next.

There are four newcomers to the list this year. Badass Teachers Association (@BadassTeachersA) jumps in at #15. Mark Naison (@mcfiredogg) enters the charts at #21. Campbell Brown (@campell_brown) quickly joins the edu-fray and comes in at #24, and Education Nation (@educationnation) launches at #26.

And what of dear ol’ Eduflack? Thanks to a growing group of Twitter friends, @Eduflack went from 26th last year (with a Klout score of 64) to 22nd this year (an a 67 Klout).

This year, Education Next also provided some additional perspective by looking at the “top education-policy people on Twitter), with Arne, Ravitch, and Randi taking win, place, and show respectively. (Your favorite neighborhood Eduflack came in at 13, between Naison and Campbell Brown.) The people list also adds a number of media members to the list, including Joy Resmovits (@joy_resmovits), Eilzabeth Green (@elizwgreen), and Libby Nelson (@libbynelson).

If you are on the Twitters, you need to be following all the voices on this year’s lists. Collectively, they offer some valuable perspective, a wealth of resources, and a ton of content.

(and while you are at it, retweet and favorite more of my posts, so my Klout score can increase. 🙂 )

 

AFT Yells, “Game On!”

Some were wondering how AFT, at its annual assembly, would top NEA and its official vote calling for EdSec Arne Duncan’s ouster. Would AFT call for the same? Would they seek heads on pikes?

Well, AFT has responded, and they decided to do so in the most political of ways. First, they announce the formation of “Democrats for Public Education,” a new 527 that will seek to inject addition teacher unionism in political races. While details of the new org are still being worked out, it’ll be co-chaired by former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and Dem political consultant Donna Brazile.

It is best seen as a direct counter to Democrats for Education Reform, a group that has grown more and more active in political campaigns. So,me traditional Dems in Los Angeles even tried to block them from using the “Democrats” word, questioning their allegiance to the party.

In welcoming the new group to the fold, DFER ED Joe Williams offered an appropriate Guns n Roses response, “Welcome to the jungle, baby!”

Then over the weekend. AFT also issued an email missive to rally the troops. Under the header of “Are You In?” AFT sent the following:

The promise of America isn’t disappearing by accident. We are being ripped off.

Today, I stood in front of 3,500 AFT members and leaders and asked them to pledge to push back and fight forward. Now I’m asking you.

Our students are suffering. Our families are being squeezed. Our communities are being starved. But it doesn’t have to happen this way.

Will you pledge to stand with us—in our communities, in our workplaces, and at the ballot box?

Our enemy is organized and motivated. They blame teachers for struggling schools. They blame public employees for budget deficits. They blame workers for the broken economy. They sell austerity as the solution while they buy elections, push radical legislation and fund court cases to strip us of our rights.

They use their wealth to build power. Our strength is people-powered. It’s in our members, our leaders and the communities we serve. Despite the vast challenges we face, our ranks continue to grow. Today, our union is 1.6 million members strong.

We work every day to create a better life for our members and the communities we serve. More and more, we’re fighting together to reclaim the promise that’s being stolen from us.

Take the pledge, and join us as we push back and fight forward.

This is the promise we believe in: If you work hard, you have a fair shot to get ahead. Your children can attend a great neighborhood public school, no matter where you live. You can get high-quality healthcare without going broke. Your tax dollars will help build and support a safe community for all of us. You’ll be treated fairly at work, and you’ll get a real raise once in a while. A lifetime of work will earn a retirement with dignity.

While we’re fighting for big things, no action is too small. We need you to do whatever you can. Commit to engage your colleagues in the fight. To build power at the ballot box. To share our work online and in person. To work hand in hand with the communities we serve.

Joe, it seems Randi Weingarten’s retort is “game on.” The big question is whether the new AFT response results in the sort of power they seek come Election Day. Will the new AFT call be a reason for folks to vote in coming elections, or will it be an also ran, as education issues have been for decades. Only time will tell.