Are You There God, It’s Me Eduflack?

The latest volley has been launched in the ongoing battle against the evils of testing.  Today, the folks over at No Test, sorry, meant Fair Test, released a letter they coordinated from more than 100 children’s book authors to EdSec Arne Duncan, attacking increased testing, computer adaptive testing, teacher evaluation measures, and “the narrowing of curriculum” for eliminating students’ love of reading and literature.

The full letter can be found here.   Hat tip to Stephanie Simon over at Politico PRO Education for spotlighting the letter this morning.
Lots of signatories on the list.  Some names folks know, many that they don’t.  Eduflack’s personal fave is Judy Blume.  I’ll admit, as a kid, she was one of my favorite authors.  I read everything she wrote.  I even triggered the town librarian call my mom one afternoon because she thought it was inappropriate for a young boy to be reading “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?” My mother, the high school English teacher, ignored the advice of the librarian, and I read the book many times over.
Eduflack can appreciate the concerns these authors and illustrators have.  And I might even be willing to concede that a child’s love for reading and literature has declined in recent years.  But is it because of testing, or is it because of multimedia?  Do we blame the bubble sheet, or do we blame the multitude of options now competing for a young learner’s attention?
Honestly, I’m getting a little tired of testing being blamed for all that is perceived wrong in our country.  Too many people far too often are throwing everything and anything they can in their Quixotic approach to rid our world of testing.  We ignore that testing has been a part of our public schools for as long as we’ve had public schools.  We overlook that testing data can play a meaningful role in improving both teaching and learning.  We avoid the true debate, a discussion about ensuring the value of testing and the use and application of high-quality assessments.
Instead, we rail against the system, throwing the red meat on “high-stakes testing,” “testing and reading schemes,” and “testing overuse and abuse.”  We talk in media releases, instead of engaging in dialogues.  And we turn to scare tactics and the negative, instead of exploring common ground and the positive.
We need to stop our Blubber, clear our Tiger Eyes, and Forever commit to a better way to talk about schools, school improvement, and testing.  Otherwise, there will be no more Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing because more than a third of our fourth graders still won’t be reading at grade level.  If we really want Sally J. Freedman to star as herself, can’t we shift from this vitriol to a more meaningful community engagement?
Or perhaps I should just let a few Superfudges fly, and accept this is just as it is.  Then Again, Maybe I Won’t …

The Most Useless College Majors

We used to joke about those who took classes like “children’s games,” “rocks for jocks,” or even “underwater basket weaving” while in college.  That was then, when college degrees guaranteed gainful employment.  This is now, when a liberal arts degree guarantees very little.

The folks over at The Daily Beast have identified The 13 Most Useless Majors.  The list derives from Anthony Carnevale et al’s recent study, Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment, and Earnings.  The list was comprised looking at factors such as recent graduate employment, experienced graduate employment, recent graduate earnings, experienced graduate earnings, and projected growth in total number of jobs from 2010 to 2020.
So what undergraduate degrees made the dubious baker’s dozen?
1. Fine arts
2. Drama and theatre arts
3. Film, video, and photographic arts
4. Commercial art and graphic design
5. Architecture
6. Philosophy and religious studies
7. English literature and language
8. Journalism
9. Anthropology and archeology
10. Hospitality management
11. Music
12. History
13. Political science and government
Clearly, the arts don’t seem to be doing well in this economy, with art-related majors holding five or six of the spots, depending on how you look at them.  And it seems that the path to being the next Mike Brady, Indiana Jones, or Woodward and Bernstein don’t look too bright these days.
Our second president, John Adams, once said, “I must study politics and war, that my sons have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history, and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry, and porcelain.”
Based on Carnevale’s work and the current economy, I don’t think there are many now hoping their kids will be studying poetry and porcelain.  

It Takes an Educational Village …

In years past, we used to talk about how it took a village to truly improve public education.  It wasn’t just up to teachers to do what they do behind the schoolhouse doors between the hours of 8 and 3.  Parents needed to take a more active role.  Local policymakers needed a greater understanding.  Community leaders — from youth groups to churches — needed greater connection.  And even the business community needed greater focus on skills and outcomes.

Oh, how the times have changed.  In our post-NCLB environment, we are now hearing more and more vitriol about those “outside forces” trying to influence what is happening in our public schools.  We have rallies and blogs and media coverage on how school improvement should be left exclusively to the trained, certified educators in the system.  All others should watch from the sidelines, being told, in the words of Kevin Bacon in Animal House, “Stay calm!  All is well!!”
But we know all is not well.  From third-grade reading proficiency levels to high school graduation rates and all measures in between, all is not well in our public schools.  Yet another generation of students has fallen through the cracks, leaving school either less than proficient or without a high school diploma all together.
The point of this is not to place blame.  There is plenty of blame to go around.  Our struggles are team struggles.  Parents, teachers, administrators, community leaders, elected officials, business community, and students themselves all bear significant responsibility for where we stand today, and play an important role in where we need to head tomorrow.  (And as a parent, a taxpayer, a former school board chairman, and an advocate, Eduflack is right in the middle of those who bear responsibility.)
Which is why it was so disconcerting to read the December 23 Wall Street Journal.  In the print edition (sorry folks, somehow it got edited out of the online version), the WSJ reported on the hire of Chicago/Philly/Recovery District Supe Paul Vallas as the new head of Bridgeport (CT) Public Schools.  The article noted that the hire was made possible, in part, because of philanthropic contributions to help the academically and financially struggling district bring in a talent like Vallas.  
In the piece, the reporter spoke to a leader at the Bridgeport Education Association, who referred to those local Connecticut philanthropists as “robber barons,” and questioned the legitimacy of their contributions.
We will forget, for a moment, the philanthropic support that Bridgeport Education Association and its parent National Education Association receive.  While those dollars may come from a different “clan” of philanthropic and corporate support, there is not question that NEA and BEA are beneficiaries of similar outside support, and that such support is serving a real public good when it comes to teacher effectiveness and improved instruction.
But it was yet another example of the venom with which some speak when discussing the role of public/private partnerships and the growing philanthropic interest in improving our public schools.  Local community members, who want to see their local schools improve and have the financial means to help jumpstart a reform process, are now “robber barons?”  Really?
A century ago, our public schools (both K-12 and higher ed) were hardly the models to write home about.  We lacked the educational resources offered by libraries, museums, and the performing arts.  We saw our medical schools take a significant step forward because of folks like Carnegie.  Libraries benefited from people like Ford.  General education and research supported by the likes of Rockefeller.
There is now an entire literature dedicated to the role of corporate philanthropy and the societal benefits that derived from such giving.  Today, we see large foundations the result of those original “robber barons,” foundations that are committed to improving children’s health, education, and society as a whole.  They do so without a profit motive, just hoping to make a difference with the resources the have available.
Ultimately, we are doing our kids, our schools, and our community a disservice when we try to run off well-meaning philanthropists with name calling, insinuation of ulterior motives, or promoting a general sense of “ickiness” because the private sector wants to get involved in our public schools.  Instead, we should be embracing such involvement.  No, I’m not saying all those involved in ed reform are Carnegies and Rockefellers, nor am I saying that some do not come to the table with a specific agenda.  But for all of those who argue that additional resources are needed in our public schools, yet must acknowledge that beloved tax base doesn’t allow for it, there are alternative paths.  Through private support, we can invest in technology or STEM or improved teacher support or the arts or a plethora of other areas that individuals, foundations, and companies want to get behind.
So where do we go from here?  To start, we need to turn down the rhetoric a little and realize there is a role for many at the school improvement table.  For educators, we need to realize it ultimately becomes an all or nothing bargain; we can’t say this outside funding is OK, but this isn’t.  Either we believe in public/private partnerships, or we don’t.  We depend on philanthropic support, or we don’t.
And what about those business types and educational philanthropists?  First off, be transparent in your giving and proud of your support.  Be vocal about your giving — who you are giving to, why you are giving, and what your expected outcomes are.  And don’t let others define your motives.
Ultimately, it really does take an educational village to improve our public schools.  Teachers, parents, community leaders, policymakers, taxpayers, the business community, and students all have a vested interest in seeing our schools improve and our kids succeed.  And all have a potential role they can play in the improvement process.  Now is not the time to say I can do this myself, and try to walk the road alone.  We need all the help we can get.

Are Our High Schools Becoming Glee-ful?

I’ll admit it, I’m a Gleek.  I love the Fox show, Glee.  I’ve taken the Facebook quiz (and learned I am most like Rachel).  I posted last fall’s Single Ladies/football scene to my FB page, I loved this week’s Les Miz nod, and I’m even looking forward to next week’s Lady Gaga homage.  I even have a running list of those songs and/or performers I want to see covered by the Glee kids.  

And it doesn’t appear that I am alone.  The number of Gleeks out there seems to be increasing exponentially, and many of them are surprises (I’m guessing a few will be surprised that Eduflack is such a fan).  After a year, we are reminded of the enormous value of a high school glee club, the role music can play in student development, self-esteem, and other qualitative measures we expect to see from our schools.  So it begs the question, is Glee having any impact on school budgets and priorities?

Even since the introduction of the NCLB era nearly a decade ago, we’ve heard the urban legends that art and music programs across the nation were being gutted in favor or reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.  Just last year, NAEP released its long-anticipated assessment of student arts performance, which looked at the core competencies U.S. students have in both the visual arts and music (with many now demanding that the assessment be offered more than once nearly every decade).

After a year of watching Glee, are high school students demanding music options in their schools?  Are school boards and administrators seeing growing interest in arts electives?  Are we seeing an increase in the number of upstart glee clubs beginning in high schools across the heartland?  Is Glee impacting instruction and curricular options in our public schools?

More than two decades ago, we talked about how the popularity of L.A. Law dramatically increased the number of applicants for law school in the mid-1980s.  In the early 1990s, we saw spikes in the number of medical school applications because of television programs like ER.  Will Glee have the same impact, particularly as we see a growing demand for educating the “whole child” and focusing on more than just the ELA and math required by state assessments?

Only time will tell.  But if the Glee buzz continues to rise, we may very well have a renaissance in music education in K-12.  And we may even see more social acceptance of track suits in the workplace.

Arts Education and Quantification

For nearly a decade now, we have talked about quantifying the impact of education.  How do we effectively measure student progress?  How do we measure effective teaching?  How do we make sure our policymakers, school districts, administrators, and educators are doing their jobs when it comes to impactful and results-based instruction?

For many, AYP and achievement on the state assessments usually suffices.  Under federal law, we are now measuring core competency in reading, math, and science, using those scores as a benchmark for evaluating student achievement.  Like it or not, decisionmaking and funding is usually based on that triad of academic subjects, with reading and math winning the day (as science is the late comer to this little education data dance.)
But what about other subjects?  More importantly, what about the arts?  How many people are truly aware that this year’s NAEP results are going to include data on our nation’s proficiency in the arts?  How many know that the arts are included in the federal law as a core part of the K-12 curriculum?  How many know that there are some states looking at how to measure effective art instruction and determine student knowledge and ability in the field?  And more importantly, how many realize that effective arts education can be used as an early predictor of student reading ability and a general predictor of a student’s postsecondary pursuits and opportunities?
A few years ago, while working with new Leaders for New Schools on its EPIC teacher incentive program, I learned of a music teacher in the District of Columbia who was doing phenomenal work with her kindergarten music students.  To an outside observer, you would think you were watching a math class.  But she was using the power of music to teacher her students.  She was integrating the arts into the other subjects her kids were taking.  And she was doing so with incredible results.
In recent years, the arts have faced some trying times.  They are usually the first on the budgetary chopping block, seen as a nice value-add but not part of the core curriculum it actually is.  This tends to be driven by a great public misperception about the arts’ role in K-12 and our general inability to quantify the impact of its teaching.  Thing about it.  For what other academic subject do we sacrifice certified, effective teachers, substituting in well-meaning but untrained professionals-in-residence?  And in what other subjects do we fail to see the negative impact such a move can have?  We don’t have to talk about the need for a certified reading, math, science, social studies, foreign language, or even physical education or drivers ed teacher in every school, but we have to have that fight over a certified arts teacher far too often.
We are starting to see some of the data pointing to the value and impact of arts education.  As chair of the Education Commission of the States, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee placed a spotlight on the need for arts education.  We’re seeing quantifiable data out of the University of California, Los Angeles and the College Board on the outcomes.  The research is coming, and it is telling us a lot.
When I teach effective communication, I often focus on the power of telling an effect story.  Data points are nice, but we really resonate with the personal story.  We like to hear about the real people and the real communities that are affected by real policies and real ideas.  We like to hear about the protagonist, the struggle, and the ultimate victory.  We want the fairy tale, even for issues such as education policy, education research, and school improvement and innovation.
So this evening, I want to pass along a little story on that has appeared in two parts recently on Huffington Post, written by one of the most passionate advocates for arts education Eduflack has ever come across.  Lucia Brawley.  Part one can be found here, with part two recently published here.  Brawley tells a fascinating story, highlighting both the “art” and the “science” behind arts education.  For those who question the true value of the visual arts, drama, and music in the classroom, it is a most read.
As we start contemplating reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and what are the non-negotiables for new programs such as the Innovation Fund and the Race to the Top, we need to consider these data points and these stories as we build a better K-12 educational system.  Effective learning and skill development can come from many places, particularly if we have the data to prove it.  Not every child is going to become the next Jackson Pollack, Wynton Marsalis, or Meryl Streep.  They may not even be particularly talented in any of the arts.  But they can benefit from effective visual arts, music, and theater programs.  And we are gathering the research to prove it.