“Much Superior” Virginia?

For weeks now, we have been hearing about states that have decided they will not pursue Race to the Top, Part II.  Over at Politics K-12 , Michele McNeil has a dozen or so states that either have decided not to apply or are dangerously close to not applying before next Tuesday’s drop-dead date for the final taste of the $4 billion pot.

This shouldn’t be surprising.  More than 40 states put in hundreds upon hundreds of hours of work and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants to prepare their Phase I apps.  Two states, Delaware and Tennessee, won in the early round.  Those remaining states were left with detailed judges’ scores to help guide a redo due June 1.  But some states simply don’t have the stomach for it, offering a host of reasons not to pursue.

Perhaps one of the most interesting reasons for declining was offered yesterday by Eduflack’s home state of Virginia.  According to the Washington Post, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is not entering the Race because of the Common Core Standards.  The chief executive of the Old Dominion claims that Virginia’s current academic standards are “much superior” and he doesn’t see the need of tinkering with 15 years of work to establish the current Standards of Learning.

I understand a state like Massachusetts, which is known for having some of the top performance standards in the nation to be wary of common core, but Virginia, really?  When discussions turn to state standards and the leaders and laggards, one really hears about Virginia’s SOLs being at the top of the class.  

Earlier this month, Eduflack wrote about the dangers of states that have reduced their standards to show performance gains on AYP.  Unfortunately, we see far too many states that tout impressive records of student acheivement on their state exams and measured against their state standards, only to see that performance plummet when compared to a common yardstick like NAEP.

So let’s take another look at the data offered by Gary Phillips, a vice president at American Institutes for Research and the former acting commissioner at NCES.  How does Virginia stack up?  According to the SOLs, 82 percent of fourth graders in Virginia were proficient in math.  But when we look at the NAEP scores, that number drops to the low 40s.  It is even worse for eighth grade math, where the SOLs put proficiency at 79, but NAEP puts it under 40.

Why is this important?  The NAEP is a common measure.  It lets Virginia see where it stacks up compared to other states.  And the numbers there are startling.  In fourth grade, we are in the middle of the pack, far behind states like Massachusetts, South Carolina, Missouri, Washington, Vermont, and New Hampshire.  By eighth grade, Virginia is near the bottom of the pack in such performance, only posting better numbers that seven states.

Is that really “much superior?”  Are we really declaring “mission accomplished” when we are mediocre at fourth grade and drop to the bottom quartile by eighth grade?  The bar we’ve set on academic standards is … at least we are better than Oklahoma?

Promises, Promises

The first week of June is shaping up to be a busy one for federal education policy.  On June 1, Phase Two Race to the Top applications are due to the U.S. Department of Education.  Then on June 2, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association are slated to to release their K-12 common core standards to all who are watching.

What is the significance of these two dates?  Every state seeking a RttT grant is expected to pledge to adopt the common core standards as a term of eligibility for RttT.  And while working drafts of the K-12 standards have been circulating around town for months, the actual document each state pledges to follow won’t be released until the day after such pledges are due.

Fordham’s Mike Petrilli has an interesting discussion on the common core/RttT implications for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts here.  And while his discussion is Massachusetts-centric, the argument is an interesting one for every state seeking funding from the $4 billion pot.

For those who fail to recall, last summer, when the draft RttT guidelines first came out, NGA and CCSSO raised concerns about the requirements tying common core to RttT.  The chief concern was timeline, particularly for Phase One applicants who had to make such a pledge back in January almost entirely in the dark.

But it begs larger questions.  Does promising to adopt common core standards demand specific follow through?  Will ED consider pulling back a RttT award if a state doesn’t aggressively implement the standards in the coming year?  And what, exactly, does implementing the standards look like before we have actual assessments to measure expected student performance?

Back in 2005, NGA pulled off a monumental task, getting all 50 states to agree to adopt a common high school graduation rate.  It was a major step forward for both accountability and accurate data, using a formula that clearly and unequivocally determined how many kids actually earned a high school diploma.  The formula was simple.  Look at the number of incoming ninth graders four years ago, look at how many are graduating today, and there you have it.  No multiple definitions of graduates, no partial credits, no semi-applause for those on the six-year grad plan.

it was a bold and necessary move.  And NGA got every governor to agree to it.  But governors and state legislatures change.  It takes time to adopt such new policies.  And then some states realize that a new grad rate means waking up one morning and finding your percentage of high school graduates dropped 15 percent overnight.  As a result, only about a third of states have actually enacted the new (or not so new, five years later) formula.  But all are still on record as supporting it.

Is that where we are headed on common core standards?  Every state, save for Texas and Alaska, signs onto the movement and agrees to the general framework.  But when the rubber hits the road, adoption does not necessarily mean enactment.  We agree to the principle, but not to the practice?

I certainly hope not.  From what Eduflack has heard, the K-12 common core standards are strong, and probably stronger than most expected.  While a state like Massachusetts may have to look at how much of an improvement these proposed standards are to the current state standards, just about every other state in the union cannot deny it would be a major improvement.  The challenge is moving from the intellectual acceptance of common core to the practical adoption of the framework. 

A College Degree for Every Child?

By now, most in national education policy circles realize we are transitioning from the era of AYP to the era of college/career ready.  Instead of using middle school reading and math proficiency as our yardstick, we will soon be using the college- and career-ready common core standards to determine if states, districts, and schools are truly making progress toward student achievement.

Over at National Journal’s Education Experts Blog, they’ve been spending the week discussing EdSec Arne Duncan’s Blueprint for ESEA Reauthorization.  Lots of interesting opinion here, from Sandy Kress’ significant disappointment to Michael Lomax’ support to real concerns about the “5 percent rule” to a general feeling that lack of details is a good thing in planning legislative policy.

But this morning, your NJ ring leader Eliza Kligman broke a bit from protocol and posted an anonymous comment from a reader in South Carolina.  (For those who don’t realize the participant list for the Education Experts Blog is a virtual who’s who.  There are MANY in the chattering class who desperately want to be added to the list, but haven’t yet.  And to focus on these experts, National Journal doesn’t allow readers to post comments to the blog.  A general concept that usually means the kiss of death for a blog, but seems to work for National Journal.)

But I digress.  This reader raised an important question with regard to the next generation of ESEA and our intent of getting every child in the United States “college ready.”  In fact, the comment is a little more pointed, with the reader stating, “if everyone is highly technically trained or college educated who is going to check out my groceries, cut down the dead tree in my back yard, tow my car when it breaks down, or take my money when I buy gas at the convenience store?  If you think the illegal alien problem is bad now, just wait until all of us middle class soon-to-be-elderly are told we have to pay highly skilled wages tot he guy who cuts our grass.”

While SC is mixing and matching a wide range of policy issues that shouldn’t be joined together (such as who is worthy of earning highly skilled wages and the immigration issue), he does start to touch on an interesting point.  But Eduflack would ask a more important question — does being college ready mean that every student should actually attend college?

In today’s global economy, just about everyone who holds a full-time job likely needs the sort of knowledge and skills that would be deemed “college- and career-ready.”  That guy fixing his car is most likely ASE certified and needs to be well versed in computers, math, and other subjects to successfully repair what are now four-wheeled computers with AC and a killer sound system.  The guy cutting the tree now needs to know ecology and life sciences and hopefully some math to generate accurate invoices.  And regardless of the job, we want everyone to be literate with some level of social skill.  So the fear expressed by SC and many, many others is a bit of a straw man.

It opens the larger question, though.  As a nation, though, we have set a national goal to have the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by the year 2020.  Why?  Is it more important for someone to hold a diploma or a good-paying job?  What is the measure of a successful nation?  A strong economy?  A robust workforce?  Or the total worth of outstanding student loans?

I don’t mean to be negative here, but Eduflack has long believed we are selling students a bill of goods by telling them everyone should go to college.  First off, when we say college, most mean four-year degrees (and that’s even how that national goal is being measured).  But what about the knowledge and skills that are earned through community college programs and career and technical education programs?   What about military service, where four years of Army training may be far more beneficial than a BA in the liberal arts?  What about those whose passion is pursuing a trade, or the true entrepreneurs who are itching to open a business and pursue their passion?  Are all of those pursuits worth less because they don’t come attached to a four-year degree?

When Eduflack got into this discussion a few years ago, it generated an ongoing offline debate with a liberal arts professor from a college in the Pacific Northwest.  He regularly called me a complete idiot, saying I completely missed the point.  The role of college, he would say, is not to prepare kids for career, it was to broaden their minds and open them up to new experiences.

The ESEA Blueprint is correct is seeking to ensure that all those who graduate from U.S. high schools are ready for either college or career.  But we need to have a much deeper discussion of who should go to college, why they should pursue postsecondary education, and what the expected return on investment is for such a pursuit.  In an era where an aspiring college student can drop more than $200,000 to earn a BA from a private liberal arts institution, ROI becomes an important topic — for lenders, potential employers, and the students themselves.

Swingin’ for the ESEA Fences

In yesterday’s initial analysis of the US Department of Education’s ESEA reauthorization blueprint, I noted I was “whelmed” by the plan as a whole.  (And for the record, I am a strong proponent of using the word whelmed.  If I can be overwhelmed and underwhelmed, I certainly can be whelmed.  It’s not like having to choose between North and South Dakota.)  Since then, I’ve received a number of questions as to why, particularly since so many people seem to see this as a strong step forward in improving No Child Left Behind.

My biggest issue with the blueprint is there is no big, stinkin’, knock-you-off your-seat big idea offered.  When we were introduced to the wonderful world of NCLB a little over nine years ago (can we all believe it has been that long?), we were immediately embraced by some huge ideas that almost immediately changed the education policy landscape.  Before the ink was even dry on the legislative drafts, we all knew what Annual Yearly Progress was (and the potential dangers it offered).  The term “scientifically based research” was quickly added to the vocabulary of wonk and practitioner alike.  And Reading First was a new program where the Administration was putting their proverbial money where their mouths were.  These were all but twinkles in Sandy’s, Margaret’s BethAnn’s, and Reid’s eyes before the reauthorization process began.

But this time around, we have no great new big idea YET.  Part of the problem is that the Duncan regime has been hard at work on ed policy for the past 14 or 15 months, moving ideas well before they moved this blueprint for ESEA reauthorization.  So what were once big ideas — Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, common core standards — are now ingrained as part of the ed reform status quo these days.  We are looking to codify that which we have debated for more than a year now.  We expected all of that in this blueprint, thus it is hardly something designed to knock us off our barstools.

The teacher quality component, which could have provided some real fodder for a sock-knocking idea, seems to be a finetuning and improving over NCLB’s Highly Qualified Teacher effort, former EdSec Margaret Spellings’ Teacher Incentive Fund, and the teacher requirements included in RttT.  Even in addressing the persistent problem with low-performing schools, this blueprint simply evolves from NCLB’s two-tiered evaluation with a new three-tiered system, as reported here by Greg Toppo.  And while that extra tier may really help at addressing those 5,000 lowest-performing schools, it hardly wins hearts and minds.

To be fair, Eduflack realizes you don’t always need some new shiny toy or a jaw-dropping new idea to move forward solid legislation.  In fact, in a perfect world, I would hope we’d never need such gimmicks.  But with short attention spans and even shorter understanding curves, one often needs that hook, that big idea, to help gain attention and start winning over the necessary converts.  When ESEA was reauthorized back in 2001 (and signed into law in early 2002), we not only gave it a new name (NCLB ), but we offered some new ideas and programs to show this was not your father’s version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Working from the existing blueprint, Eduflack sees a few potentials for both some smallball ideas as well as some bases-clearing longballs.  What am I thinking?

* Immediately include strong pieces of congressional legislation in the plan.  I’m thinking things like U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s (WA) LEARN Act focused on K-12 reading instruction, Chairman George Miller’s (CA) plan for high school improvement, or even the recent legislation offered by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (RI) and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (CO) establishing a federal definition for teacher professional development.

* Get personal on teacher quality.  Teacher quality is now clearly a central point of the debate, with even Obama calling out the teacher education sector for not living up to expectations.  So let’s get personal here.  As part of your data system work, ensure that we are able to track teachers (both leaders and laggards) back to their originating program, be it a college of education or an alt cert program.  Then be prepared to name names when it comes to those institutions that are not delivering the long-term results sought under the new law. 

* Invest in parents.  The day after Obama was elected, Eduflack opined that the EdSec should establish a family engagement office (at the assistant secretary level) so that the Administration could focus on the role of families in school improvement.  To date, the Administration has talked a good game.  But with the pending elimination of Parent Information Resource Center (PIRC) grants, there is a gaping hole for engaging families.  NCLB tried to do this, with mixed results.  Building off of the Obama campaign’s success in 2008 and recent activities around healthcare reform, one can build a strong, effective multi-touch effort to really involve parents and families in school turnaround and improvement efforts.

* Kill the bubble sheet.  Under ESEA reauthorization, this administration has the power to do away with the dreaded “bubble sheet test.”  Proudly proclaim that new assessments coming out of common core standards will be required to be smart computer-based exams.  Bring testing into the 21st century while allowing for a more-comprehensive assessment than can be captured by guessing which one of five bubbles may be the most correct.

* Require online learning.  I applaud the commitment to improving high schools and working to boost graduation rates.  Let’s add a little 21st century relevancy here.  Learning from states like Florida and Alabama, let’s require that, by 2020, every student in the United States must take at least one virtual course in order to graduate from high school.  Not only does it introduce more relevant coursework into the classroom, it clearly promotes that learning happens beyond what happens between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. behind the traditional schoolhouse doors.

Those are just five ideas to get the discussion started.  The legislative pieces could be endorsed by EdSec Duncan during Wednesday’s hearings.  Teacher quality could be done this summer when NCATE’s anticipated report is released.  A Family Engagement Office could be started immediately.  And killing the bubble sheet and folding virtual education into state requirements can be done now as stimulus money is used to invest in a range of ed reform ideas.  Regardless, we should be taking this opportunity to continue to move forward big, bold thoughts.  Real ed improvement can’t be limited by those ideas moved during year one.  Not to mix my sports metaphors, but this game goes at least four quarters.  We need to maximize all opportunities. 

Finally, an ESEA Blueprint from the Feds

After months of anticipation, we finally have the official blueprint for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act form the Obama Administration.  The plan was teased in some news articles yesterday (Saturday) morning and was previewed during President Barack Obama’s weekly radio address on Saturday morning.  The official plan, found here, was officially released on Saturday evening at 8 p.m.

At first glance, I found the plan to be whelming.  On the whole, I thought it was entirely solid and relatively thoughtful.  But as I read it (and it shows you what type of life Eduflack lives when he spends his Saturday night reading the Administration’s ESEA blueprint, but for what is was worth, I was also watching West Virginia University beat Georgetown), I was surprised by how little I was surprised with.  As we used to write about two years ago, this was clearly NCLB 2.0.  Much of the last iteration of ESEA remains intact.  Some needed improvements are being made.  And the priorities emphasized in Race to the Top are being codified, hopefully, into the new law.
The highlights?  The plan is grouped under five key principles (not to be confused with ED’s four pillars).  The principles include: college and career-ready students, great teachers and leaders, raise the bar and reward excellence, equity and opportunity, and promote innovation.  These principles break into the following tasks:
  • College and Career-Ready Students — Raising standards for all students, better assessments, a complete education (meaning a well-rounded curriculum beyond the common core standards)
  • Great Teachers and Leaders in Every School — Effective teachers and principals, our best teachers and leaders where they are needed the most, and strengthening teacher and leadership preparation and recruitment.
  • Equity and Opportunity for All Students — Rigorous and fair accountability for all students, meeting the needs of diverse learners, and greater equity.
  • Raise the Bar and Reward Excellence — Fostering a Race to the Top, supporting effective school choice, and promoting a culture of college readiness and success.
  • Promoting Innovation and Continuous Improvement — Fostering innovation and accelerating success, supporting recognizing and rewarding local innovations, and supporting student success.
See, nothing that exactly shakes the K-12 education earth.  As I read the blueprint, I am seeing much of the original intent of NCLB, mixed in with the goals of RttT, a heavy, heavy influence of common core standards, and a strong dash of the principles advocated through the Schott Foundation’s recent Opportunity to Learn (OTL) campaign (primarily the equity planks).  A little something here for everyone, but not enough that any one party is quite swooning at this point.
I’ll be honest, the timing of this release as Eduflack completely puzzled.  This blueprint was released as if ED was trying to dump it so no one noticed it.  In PR, the general rule is you never release something of importance over a weekend.  And you certainly don’t do it at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night.  Many of the leading reporters got an advance briefing of the blueprint (as evidenced by The Washington Post coverage here, which notes an expected 16 percent spending increase in the federal education budget), but it is clear from the early comments that this release was not maximizing the interest in the topic.  We have 16 states coming over to ED this week to plead their case for RttT, with this blueprint now stepping on that significant reform story.  Yes, Duncan is slated to speak before the Senate HELP Committee this Wednesday, but with all of Washington focused on healthcare reform, this blueprint is likely to go undernoticed in the coming days and weeks.
But from the look and feel of the blueprint, it is clear that neither Capitol Hill nor the media is in the intended target here.  Since the beginning of the calendar year, we have been hearing how Assistant ED Secretary Carmel Martin was preparing an ESEA blueprint for legislators on the Hill.  But this document, from its design to its word choices to its bulleted focus of key concepts, is designed to deliver talking points and marching orders to the education blob.  This “blueprint” is designed to move the discussion at member organizations, forums about town, and cocktail parties and gab sessions.  In that way, it isn’t so much a blueprint as it is framing document for debate.
A few things are crystal clear.  One, EdSec Arne Duncan is going all in when it comes to common core standards.  The execution of this blueprint requires the adoption of the proposed standards across the country.  Anything short of 80 percent adoption within the year is going to severely hamstring much of what is proposed in this plan.
Two, those who were expecting accountability (and AYP) to be weakened are going to be severely disappointed.  Yes, we no longer use the term AYP.  But accountability remains alive and well in this document.  Localities are not being granted the flexibility many had hoped they may receive.  And while we are changing some of the rubrics (again, aligning them with those core standards) it is clear that continued improvement of student achievement remains the name of the game.  Even more so when it now appears that states, districts, schools, and teachers will be judged by how good a job they do getting more kids to graduate from high school.
Three, the teachers unions have been put on notice.  Obama’s remarks last week about the situation in Rhode Island were quite an intentional statement against the teaching status quo.  This blueprint strengthens the call for closing low-performing schools, addressing teachers who aren’t making the cut, and holding school districts, administrators, and teachers far more accountable for student achievement than even NCLB did.
Four, rural education is not going to be happy.  After seeking to improve its lot under NCLB, rural ed is almost an afterthought in this blueprint, inserted in a list of specialty audiences AFTER Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native Education interests.  Hardly the sort of focus that Senate HELP Committee Ranking Member Mike Enzi (WY) and House Education Committee Ranking Member John Kline (MN) are hoping to see.  And Eduflack would quibble with what is labeled as “A New Approach,” as many of these bullet items do indeed read like the rhetoric surrounding NCLB intentions back in 2001 and 2002.  But looking to bullet out the takeaways (and distinguish between new and continued approaches) is always useful to those who will be asked to opine on this blueprint now and in the future.
And what’s missing?  No real discussion of anticipated plans of eliminating the current Title II (focused on teachers) and replacing it with new language aligned with the last year’s activities (though I suspect that’s what the effective teachers section is intended to address).  No real emphasis on plans to eliminate traditional, guaranteed block grants and replace them with competitive grant programs a la RttT and i3, particularly at the school district level.  And most importantly, no crosswalk of dollars with priorities.  WaPo may be pointing to a major spending increase under the reauthorization, but it simply isn’t part of the plan that has
been shared with the at large chattering class.  We’re being asked to buy into big ideas, with specific dollars, programs, and line items available on a need-to-know basis at a later date.
So what now?  From early reports, AASA (which was a strong opponent to NCL seems happy.  Teachers unions are upset.  And most simply didn’t realize this was dropped late last night (and announced proudly on Facebook for those who are Fans of the US Department of Education).  While this gives both the House and Senate committees additional information to consider as they hold their ESEA hearings, it is clear that Chairman George Miller (CA) is moving forward with his own plans, and this blueprint may very well be tossed onto the pile with other recommendations coming in to Miller from across the sector.  
Timing?  Eduflack loves those cock-eyed optimists who are still talking about reauthorization by this summer.  It ain’t happening.  If the intent is to re-bucket ESEA around this proposed blueprint, we are looking at spring 2011 at the earliest, assuming we don’t have significant shifts in congressional makeup this November.  But at least it gives us more to talk about than just RttT!

Doubting ESEA Reauthorization

My name is Eduflack, and I am a natural-born cynic.  All day, I have been reading the unbridled optimism that folks seem to have for a quick and easy reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  In this morning’s Washington Post, House Education and Labor Committee members boldly declare their intentions to begin work on reauth next week.  For Chairman George Miller (CA) and company, it is now full steam ahead.  But I still have my doubts.

Congressional leaders are to be commended for moving forward in a bipartisan fashion.  Last year, few thought we would see Miller and John Kline (MN) work together to move this important issue forward.  Today, House Democrats and Republicans signaled it is time to improve No Child Left Behind and better align the federal law with the priorities and issues that have been moving forward over the past year.  Issues like common core standards, the next iteration of AYP, teacher quality, and charter schools will likely take center stage right quick.
But how realistic are we being in saying that this will get done now, on the express timetable many are expecting?  All parties involved have made clear this needs to be done by summer, in advance of the House of Representatives having to head back home and stand for re-election in November.  This is particularly true of Democrats, many of whom may have to vote for a law that makes life a little tougher for the teachers’ unions that help get them elected every two years.
But let’s be frank about timing.  First off, today’s big announcements are only coming out of the House of Representatives.  We have yet to hear a similarly ambitious agenda from the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee or from Chairman Tom Harkin (IA) and Ranking Member Mike Enzi (WY).  If we learned anything from issues such as climate change and health care, it is you need both sides of the Hill working in tandem to actually move legislation forward.  The House can have the best of intentions, but unless the Senate is planning the same rapid reauthorization, this bill is going to get bogged down over on the senior circuit.
Second, let’s look at the calendar.  Back in 2001, President George W. Bush made ESEA reauthorization priority number one.  It was his first piece of legislation out of the box and he immediately enlisted the help of folks like Senator Ted Kennedy to move it.  Despite the bipartisanship and the quick movement of both the House and Senate, it still took a full year to get NCLB through.  Granted, 9-11 forced congressional priorities to change in the fall of 2001.  But that team couldn’t get NCLB through in those first eight months.  It is now the second half of February.  Eight months puts us into October, which is completely untenable, particularly since congressional campaigns will begin in earnest come Labor Day.  Can we really reauthorize ESEA in four or five months this time around?  And can we do it when Congress is grappling with healthcare reform, a jobs bill, banking reform, climate control, and the full complement of annual appropriations bills?
Eduflack doesn’t want to be the skunk at this particular garden party, but I do want to be realistic.  I would love to see Congress reauthorize ESEA by summer.  I hope they are able to.  But I also know that the Hill calendar is working against such an effort, particularly with other major issues still pending.  I know that some in Congress may not have the stomach to pass an ESEA that will likely come with increased spending.  I know there are the continuing debates between rural districts and the perceived urban thrust of the last year.  And I know that many of the major issues involving ESEA — standards, AYP, data systems, Title II, and other issues — are not simple ideas that will be fixed in a hearing or two.  So this takes real work.  
Can Miller and Kline get such a bill out of committee by the end of spring?  Yes, absolutely.  Can it be voted out of the House, possibly.  But will we see all of that, along with Senate action and conference committee, happen before our final trip to the beach in September?  I just can’t see it … yet.
So that leaves me with one big question.  Are we talking a wholesale reauthorization of ESEA and all of its Titles or are we talking targeted legislation that focuses on a couple of the big issues?  Are we talking full-blown open-heart surgery or triage?  Are we swinging for the fences or playing small ball?
If it is the former, we may be in for a tough stretch.  If we are working toward the latter, and targeted amendment to NCLB, we could be in business.

Assessing Assessment

Over at ISTE Connects, they are continuing the countdown on the Top 10 education technology issues facing the eduworld in 2010.  In the latest installment, ISTE’s Hilary Goldmann focuses on the issue of assessment, noting that “we’re looking for better, richer, and more diverse assessment measures. Assessments that provide early feedback in the learning process, not just high-stakes bubble tests in a few content areas that don’t really evaluate the skills students will need. We can do better than this, and we must.”

If one puts an ear to the eduground, one hears multiple discussions on the topic of assessments.  Many states are waiting to develop new tools until after the common core standards have been finalized and adopted.  Others are working at improving their current measures, with the true leaders adopting new online or computer assisted assessments to provide educators and policymakers alike with a broader and more comprehensive set of data points.  And then there are a few voices in the wilderness advocating for the elimination of assessment entirely, believing it is unfair to measure students or teachers on the results of an exam or a collection of tests.

Of course, we are assessing all of our students now.  Under NCLB, every state in the union (even you Texas) is working to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP.  Each state sets their own learning standards and each year we evaluate how many students are proficient (according to those standards) compared to the previous year.  Those states that show year-on-year gains quickly become our case studies.  Those that flatline on proficiency or, heaven forbid, slip, are put on our lists.

In the pursuit of making the AYP success list, many states have been accused of lowering standards in order to show continued gains on the assessments.  And some started at a low threshold for proficiency to begin with just so they could have high marks right out of the box a few years ago.  As a result, we have a mis-mash of state learning standards. 

Don’t believe it?  Take a look at some of data released by Gary Phillips of the American Institutes for Research last week at the Quality Counts event.  Phillips took a look at state test scores, state academic standards, and comparable international benchmarks.  We shouldn’t be surprised to see that those states with the highest AYP scores are those with some of the lowest standards.  And those states with the highest standards (and some of the lower proficiency numbers) are the states mostly closely aligned with the international learning standards set forth by TIMSS, PISA, and PIRLS.  (And just as interesting, how a state does on eighth grade NAEP seems to align pretty well with how it does in international comparisons.)

So which becomes more important when it comes to student proficiency?  Is the emphasis on how many students score high enough on the scale or is it making sure that students are working on a scale that ensures they are academically competitive with their peers, regardless of country?

Common core standards is intended to fix some of this, supposedly giving all 50 states (and DC) one common standard to work toward and, presumably, one common assessment to measure it.  But it begs two important issues, one of which Goldmann highlights, the other illuminated by Phillips and others.

First, can one single exam adequately assess the teaching and learning in a classroom, or do we need multi-variable assessments that look at both formative and summative assessment?  It it a single state-administered exam, or is it a state exam influenced and shaped by ongoing tests and temperature-taking in the classroom at all points along the learning process?

And second, and perhaps most importantly, how do those assessments stack up outside of our fine union?  How do they match up to PISA and PIRLS?  Are the offering multiple-choice, constructed-response, extended tasks and project queries?  Are they offering on-demand and curriculum embedded tests and tasks?  Do they assess both knowledge (recall and analysis) and assessments of performance (demonstration of ability to apply knowledge in practice)?  Do they effectively measure whether all students have both the skills and knowledge to succeed outside of a classroom environment?

Ultimately, we are putting an awful lot on the shoulders of “assessment” when we talk about school improvement, student achievement, and the narrowing of the achievement gap.  But if we don’t have the right yardstick, we’ll never know exactly how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go.  By taking a hard look at the data, as scientists like Phillips have, and building better mousetraps, both in terms of content and the shift away from those bubble sheets, are essential steps forward.

Reading Gaining Speed as Fed Priority?

With all of the talk about RttT, school turnarounds, and the like, we haven’t spent much time at all talking about core instructional issues.  As many schools continue to struggle reaching AYP and demonstrating the sort of student achievement we all expect (and that the federal law still demands), we just haven’t been focusing on the curricular foundations that help us get to our intended destination.  This is particularly true of reading instruction, which has been a red-headed stepchild in federal education policy for the past few years (ever since Congress defunded the Reading First program short of its intended completion date).

For the past year, those in DC who pay attention to reading instruction issues have been hearing grumblings about the next generations of Reading First, a new federal policy that would provide comprehensive reading instruction across grades kindergarten through 12.  We’ve seen working drafts circulated about town talking about a more “comprehensive” approach to reading, a greater emphasis on teaching techniques (and less so on instructional materials), and the possibility of a new definition of “scientifically based,” the one term that came to define RF, for good or bad.
But all has been quiet on the reading front for the past six months or so.  The closest we’ve gotten to talk about reading has been discussions of common core standards.  But after six years of making reading instruction in the elementary grades priority number one in school improvement, we’ve all but forgotten about reading.  (OK, most have forgotten.  Some of us have continued to tilt at windmills in search RF, the next generation.)
Now we finally have our answer.  Yesterday, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (WA) introduced the Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation Act, or LEARN.  The bill summary looks remarkably similar to the working drafts being circulated around town earlier this year by folks like the Alliance for Excellent Education, the International Reading Association and others.  Among LEARN’s highlights:
* $2.35 billion in total funding for K-12 literacy instruction, with at least 10 percent going to early childhood education, 40 percent going to K-5 (RF’s sweet spot), and at least 40 percent going to grades 6-12.
* A new rigorous national evaluation of the programs being funded through LEARN (with a particular note of “stringent conflict of interest restrictions for the program’s peer review process,” a direct response to IG investigation into RF)
* A focus on state-based literacy programs (again similar to RF), focusing on leadership teams, a state literacy plan, subgrants to LEAs, focus on struggling schools, and attention to pre-service literacy instruction.  Interestingly, LEARN also includes language to help fund those districts doing well in reading, so they can continue improvements.
The bill summary offered by Senator Murray’s office also sets forward four key goals.  LEARN is intended to “support the creation of local high-quality literacy programs in schools by:

a) providing high-quality professional development for instructional staff that is job-embedded, ongoing, and research-based, providing teachers with expertise in literacy instruction appropriate to specific grade levels, analyzing data to improve student learning, and effective implementation of literacy instruction strategies; 
b) providing students with explicit, systematic, and developmentally appropriate instruction in reading and writing, including but not limited to vocabulary development, phonemic awareness, 
reading comprehension, and the use of diverse texts; 
c) utilizing diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments to inform and improve instruction and student learning at all age levels; and 
d) supporting schoolwide literacy programs and additional literacy supports to address the specific learning needs of struggling readers and writers, including English language learners and students with disabilities.” 

A similar bill is expected to be offered in the U.S. House of Representatives.  RIght now, LEARN is slated to move forward as an independent piece of legislation, not attached as part of ESEA reauthorization or any other similar bill.  Of course, if ESEA reauth does move quickly early next year (a hope Eduflack is quickly losing confidence in) it could easily be rolled into the larger bill.
So what are we to make of all this?  There is much good here, and much still to be determined, including:
* LEARN re-declares a federal commitment to reading instruction, putting billions more into supporting the advances made by many states and school districts under RF;
* It extends our commitment to reading beyond the previous grades K-4 to K-12, ensuring that all of those children who benefited from RF investments in recent years are now seeing similar commitments in middle and high school;
* It recognizes that reading instruction in those middle and secondary grades is essential to our national goals around high school graduation and college-going, and emphasizes that literacy instruction must continue throughout one’s academic career;
LEARN continues to emphasize the importance of professional development, an often overlooked piece of RF (where the law called for up to 25 percent of RF’s $6 billion be directed to PD and teacher training);
* It actually doubles down on the importance of professional development by specifically focusing on the pre-service needs of preparing teachers to teach reading; and
* It continues our emphasis on explicit, systematic, and developmentally appropriate instruction in reading.
And what remains TBD here?
* First and foremost, the money.  RF focused $6 billion on the elementary grades, and many are still questioning the effectiveness of the program and its impact.  As we expand the program to include early childhood education (likely swallowing what was Early Reading First), elementary grades (the old Reading First), and middle and high school grades (currently funded by the meager Struggling Readers program), we are now doing for more in federal reading instruction with significantly less money.  Does the proposed funding get the job done, or does it merely set things in motion, leaving it to SEAs and LEAs to find new funds to enact the comprehensive reading efforts needed.  It is frightening to say, but $2.35 billion, particularly if distributed K-12 to all 50 states, likely won’t be enough.
* It talks about instruction beyond vocabulary and phonemic awareness, but doesn’t specify a specific definition.  Some will read this as a repudiation of RF.  Others can see it as a continuation of those priorities, where phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension were the intended foci.  Both sides in the reading wars will be fighting to “redefine” what LEARN’s instruction is intended to focus on.
* It calls for diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments at all age levels.  An essential piece to education reform in the current era, without doubt.  But do we have such tests?  RF was limited by state assessments in grades 3-8, yes.  But after spending the past decade in the so-called “high stakes testing” era, do we have research-based, accepted diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments that can be used immediately in grades k-12?  Or a better question, do we have such assessments that all parties will agree on and use correctly?
* While there is mention of “research-based,” how will that be defined?  Clearly, the previous SBRR definition is going to be rewritten.  So how do we capture “research-based,” and how do we do it so that it means something, and isn’t merely a consensus definition that is acceptable by all, but loved by none?
* While I understand the reasons behind it, can we successfully use LEARN money to both raise reading achievement in struggling schools while incentivizing high-performing schools to continue their investment in results-based reading instruction?
* Most importantly, what are the intended outcomes?  If all of the points identified in Murray’s summary of LEARN are followed and followed with fidelity, what should we expect to see at the end of three or four years?
These are all questions that Murray and other legislators will be able to answer in the coming months as LEARN moves through the process.  Regardless, LEARN is a good next step for our federal reading instruction efforts.  Will make RF advocates happy?  No.  Will it satisfy RF critics?  Based on the summary, absolutely not.  But it may just have the right combination to continue to improve the acquisition of reading skills among students in grades K-12, while continuing to equip all teachers with the literacy instruction skills they need to lead a successful classroom.  It continues to focus on doing what works in the classroom, pursuing paths that are supported by the research and demonstrate effectiveness.  And it recognizes that school and student success hinges on a child’s ability to read at grade level, regardless of what grade they are in.
In an era where nearly two-thirds of all of our nation’s eighth graders are unable to score proficient or better on the eighth grade reading NAEP, LEARN is clearly much needed legislation.  Here’s hoping it doesn’t get lost in the push for Racing, Innovation, and such.  This is too important an issue not to be at center stage for school improvement efforts.

There’s Gambling in Our Ed Assessment Casablanca?

Yesterday’s release of the National Center for Education Statistics’ report Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto National Assessment of Education Progress Scales: 2005-2007 seemed like it was almost lifted from the movie Casablanca.  We are shocked, shocked to learn that many states’ “standards” are hardly standards at all.  For years, we’ve been reading about how student proficiency on state exams has been on the rise, while NAEP scores have remained virtually stagnant.  Now, NCES paints a grim picture of the situation, demonstrating that most states are below or only meet the basic learning standards established by NAEP.
How can that be?  The cynic in us says that states have been downgrading their state assessments to meet NCLB and AYP expectations.  As they need to demonstrate year-on-year gains in math and reading, they’ve had to readjust their tests and their scoring scales to demonstrate such gains.  It is why we hear that, according to state data, students in Alabama beat students in Massachusetts when it comes to reading proficiency.  Of course, there is no telling what those numbers would look like if Bay Staters were taking Alabama’s state test instead of their own MCAS.  The full NCES study can be found here.
Perhaps the strongest statement on the NCES report came from Congressman George Miller, the chairman of the House Education Committee.  In response to the latest data comparisons, Miller said: “The quality of a child’s education should not be determined by their zip code.  It is unacceptable that many states have chosen to lower the bar rather than strive for excellence.  This means that many students aren’t even expected to rise to meet rigorous standards — they are allowed to linger in a system that doesn’t challenge them to do better and doesn’t help them to develop the complex skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the jobs of the future.”
These are strong words from the man who is in charge of managing reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act next year, the Congressman who will ultimately decide the future of AYP, the adoption of core standards, and the development of the assessments and data systems to track against those standards.  And they are right on the money.  Effective assessment has hardly been a strong suit in U.S. public education, particularly considering the rough patchwork that has long made up our testing systems.  That’s why so many people are providing a big bear hug to the notion of common core standards.  In the pursuit of a better mousetrap, we hope that core standards provide a common baseline for all assessment, regardless of the state administering the exam.  If we accept the concept of core standards, it means that fourth grade reading proficiency means the same thing in Alabama as it does in Massachusetts, the same in Texas as it is in Oregon.  And if the we are all working off the same standards, in theory, we should all have similar benchmarks by which to measure proficiency.  Proficient is proficient.
But if we are moving from the promise of core standards to the realization of common expectations, we can’t overlook some of the core realities that underly the data.  Yes, we should be appalled that proficiency percentages on state exams don’t track well with NAEP proficiencies.  But we should be equally appalled (if not more so) by what NAEP itself tells us.  
As Eduflack has discussed before, the eighth grade reading NAEP has long been considered the best measure of true student achievement.  It provides a strong longitudinal approach to learning (as kids have been taught reading four eight years), and those reading skills are essential to success in other academic subjects.  We look at Massachusetts, with the highest eighth grade NAEP scores, and see it as the gold standard in reading proficiency.  But only 43 percent of Massachusetts eighth graders score proficient or better on the reading NAEP.  Is that really the bar we want to set, where nearly six in 10 students are scoring below proficient?  Is that the best we can do, or the best to which we aspire? 
Core standards will only take us so far.  At some point, we have to raise our game when it comes to both teaching and learning, ensuring that all students are gaining the skills and knowledge necessary to both hit the mark on the requisite assessments and achieve when it comes to both college and career opportunities.  Standards only mean so much if we aren’t achieving the goals they set forth. 

Hold On, ESEA Reauth is Coming

Likely one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington, DC, the U.S. Department of Education is now hard at work on draft language for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  EdSec Arne Duncan started the ball bouncing last week, bringing together the education blob to talk about his reauth priorities, including increasing funding for key NCLB components, taking some of the nastiness out of the current law, and codifying some of the policies that have been moved forward under the stimulus package.

As Eduflack has heard from many folks this week, the plan is to introduce ESEA reauthorization in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House in January 2010.  The goal will be final passage of the federal ed law before the Memorial Day recess.  House Education Committee Chairman George Miller (CA) will likely serve as the lead dog moving the bill through Congress in Q1 of next year.
Why is this significant?  For months now, those opposed to NCLB have been wishing, hoping, and projecting that reauthorization wouldn’t move until 2011.  They offered up a host of reasons for this misguided belief, most of which aren’t worthy of dissection here.  The simple fact is that NCLB opponents need reauthorization to be put off until 2011 because they simply aren’t ready to fight the good fight on federal ed policy in a few months.  The “loyal opposition” is not gathered around a few key points.  They haven’t adopted a common language of change.  They don’t necessarily have reccs on how to improve the law to meet their needs.  They know they don’t like NCLB, and likely won’t like NCLB 2.0.  They know what they are opposed to, but don’t necessarily know what to stand for … at least not yet.
Most presume that the new ESEA will not be a major change from the current law.  The new bill will still emphasize accountability and student achievement, but will provide greater flexibility to SEAs and LEAs to achieve it.  The stick of AYP will be whittled down to a nub before all is said and done.  Highly Qualified Teachers (HQTs) will be redefined, focusing on the effective teachers emphasized in Race to the Top and de-emphasizing the checklist of what is needed simply to enter a classroom.  New Senate Education Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (IA) will ensure that special education, RtI, and IDEA will get greater attention than in the previous iteration.  Charter schools will continue to remain strong.  Teacher incentives will see increased funding.  And we may even see Reading First transformed from an elementary grades program to a more comprehensive effort focused on middle and secondary students.  While the law will most likely be bucketed around the priorities of standards, assessments/data systems, teacher quality, and school turnaround, the details will be a reorganization of NCLB components, not a reinvention.
When the EdSec outlined these priorities (and emphasized the need for equity in public education) his remarks were well-received in most corners of the education community.  The strongest voice of opposition came from the Forum for Education and Democracy, who took Duncan to task for seeking to narrow the curriculum, lacking details on real teacher quality, and staying true to current accountability provisions.  The comments from Forum head Sam Chaltain were even distributed under the header, “you can’t just invoke MLK, Jr. – you have to really address fairness and equity.”  So it is clear where they shake out with regard to the future of ESEA.  And at the end of the day, the Forum speaks for more than itself (at least in terms of philosophy).
National Education Association’s strong response to the draft Race to the Top RFP guidance still serves as the best primer for those who want to make significant change to ESEA, particularly if they want to move the law back to where it stood in the 1990s.  In fact, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel upped the ante yesterday when he testified before the U.S. House of Representatives, where he called for a better distribution of exemplary teachers in struggling schools (with additional pay for such moves likely to be the second shoe to drop in his noble pursuits).
Barring the completely unforeseen, Chairman Miller is going to get this reauthorization through before this time next year.  And if I were taking bets, the current line is that the draft legislation dropped in January is going to be pretty darned close to the final that will be passed (with some additional dollars thrown into the mix for some to swallow the policy priorities).  If folks think they are truly going to influence ESEA and shape federal education policy for the next decade, now is the time to act.  Now is the time to have voices heard at ED and on the Hill about priorities and lines in the sand.  Now is the time to make clear what support or opposition will be based on.  Now is the time to form those alliances and determine what the truly make-or-break issues may be.
ESEA reauthorization is going to be a fast-tracked affair.  The first five months of 2010 are going to be spent winning folks over to the proposed law, not looking for alterations, changes, and overhauls to months of work at ED and in Chairman Miller’s office.  Those waiting to engage after the draft legislation is introduced will likely miss the show before the curtain is even raised.