Say It Ain’t So, Joel!

Breaking edu-news out of New York City.  NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has resigned, after eight years of helming the nation’s largest public school system.  And never one to miss a beat, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already named Klein’s permanent replacement — Cathie Black, the chairwoman of Hearst magazines and the publisher of USA Today.

In the coming days, we will surely see a great deal written on Klein’s edu-legacy in the city that never sleeps.  There is little doubt that Klein has had a real and lasting impact on NYC and its schools.  Under his watch, NYC schools have improved, student test scores are up, and graduation rates are on the rise.  Klein tackled every challenge Bloomberg put before him, and he became one of the true leaders of the education reform/school improvement movement.  Yes, he has plenty of critics.  But you don’t bring change and you don’t break the status quo without attracting some enemies and some opposition along the way.  
By bringing in another “non-educator” in Black, Bloomberg is clearly hoping to catch lightening in a bottle for the second time in a row.  It is far too early to know what Black stands for and what her agenda will be.  All we can hope is that she builds on Klein’s successes while learning from his shortcomings (particularly his ability to effectively collaborate and engage with parents and the community at large).
Today’s announcement has far greater impact on school reform in general.  Next fall, we are looking at new superintendents (or chancellors) in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Washington DC, and Newark (just to name a few).  Some think a new supe in Atlanta is on its way.  That is a lot of change in some of our largest and most influential school districts.
We already know that LA is likely replacing its supe with a seasoned educator in John Deasy.  NYC is going the other route, with a seasoned business mind.  So how will mayoral control districts like DC, Chicago, and Newark break when the music stops and a new supe is placed in the big desk?
Now is the true measure to see the future of urban school reform.  Is Joel Klein the model, as DC tried with Michelle Rhee?  Do these districts in need go with educators who can work with strong teachers unions?  Or maybe this gives the Broad Foundation a real opportunity transform the urban school landscape?
And to think we used to worry about whether a potential supe candidate had the proper administrator credential in a given state …

The Drumbeat for Mayoral Control

Do mayors run better urban school systems?  That is the question the Wall Street Journal asked yesterday as it used Rochester (NY) Mayor’s Robert Duffy’s bid to take over his struggling city schools as a launching pad to discuss the merits of mayoral control.

Duffy is lobbying the New York Legislature to take over his schools, seeking to dissolve the current elected school board and replace it with a board appointed by himself and the city council.  The pressing demand?  The need to close failing schools and reopen new ones better aligned with student needs and learning expectations.

For those that read the WSJ’s education coverage, this is a regular drumbeat.  Back in March of 2009, the Journal wrote (and Eduflack opined on) an interesting piece on the growing embrace of mayoral control, riffing off of the notion that President Obama and EdSec Arne Duncan were advocating for mayoral takeovers in order to implement their aggressive school improvement plans.  As it did 17 months ago, the Wall Street Journal cites successes in New York, Boston, and Washington DC to make its case for giving the keys to the schools to the municipal leader.

Interestingly, yesterday’s article by Joy Ressmovits seems to note there has been no mad rush to add to the powers of our nation’s mayors.  Despite last year’s declarations, we are not seeing huge numbers of urban districts turning to mayoral control.  Despite efforts in cities like Detroit and Milwaukee, such moves seem to be the exception, not the rule.


First, there is no clear “mayoral control” model for which one can buy the playbook and just implement the plan.  In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg had a particular plan in place, and he and Chancellor Joel Klein have implemented it step by step.  In our nation’s capital, Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee have tried to crib from NYC and build a NYCDOE South in DC.  But leaders in Boston have behaved very differently, both in leadership style and in organization.  The same can be said for Chicago.

Second, because there is no one-size-fits-all model, there is no guarantee of success.  Just look at Cleveland, where student performance on NAEP has actually declined since the mayor’s office took control of the schools.  Or look at NYC, where despite an historic increase in test scores, many still believe that the current regime isn’t working, even seizing on the recent realignment of the state assessment to discredit recent gains.  And in DC, after two years of real gains, this year’s scores seem to have flatlined some. 

Third, there are real political ramifications for taking over the schools.  Case in point here is Washington, DC, where Fenty is in the re-election fight of his life this fall.  One of the central issues to the campaign?  Control of the schools.  Fenty’s chief opponent, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, has made major issue of how the DC Schools are run.  So much so, in fact, that he has strongly suggested one of his first orders of business when elected mayor would be the removal of Rhee as schools chancellor.  Who would have thought a superintendent would be a major campaign issue for an urban mayor? 

If we just look at the NAEP, clearly mayoral control is not the answer to school success.  The top districts (including Charlotte, NC and Austin, TX) on the NAEP TUDA are those run by school boards.  Mayoral control superstars like NYC and Boston are still posting scores below the national NAEP average (though above the large city average).

In hearing Mayor (and hopeful NY LG) Duffy tell his tale, one has to believe there has to be a middle ground.  Can’t we adequately deal with failing schools without needing to seize control of the district?  Can’t school boards be held to the same accountability as we expect of the superintendent and the principals?  Aren’t there incentives (beyond the current federal dollars) to get school districts to make the necessary changes to turn around histories of failure?  Aren’t there ways to bring in the reforms Duffy seeks without having to go to the state legislature and ask for the nuclear option to deal with the schools?  And as we assess our ability to turn around struggling districts, what measures should we use, besides NAEP, to determine success?

Lots of questions.  But who has the answers? 

Teacher Pay in Gotham City

Over the weekend, Eduflack was fortunate enough to break from the mugginess of our nation’s capital to enjoy the mugginess of the capital of the world — New York City.  After a busy and tough summer, I was fortunate enough to take in my fourth Mets game at Citi Field, this time preceded by the opportunity to be down on that perfect brown dirt and beautiful green grass, with my Fred Flintstone feet touching the same hallowed ground as my beloved New York Mets (before they all took to the DL this year).  I even got to meet David Wright, a great treat (though odd since he is a few years younger than my youngest sister).

These trips to NYC also give me a chance to get a better sense for what is happening in NYC’s public schools.  From time to time, I will wade into discussions on the great Joel Klein experiment, and will usually have my head handed to me by a group of irate New Yorkers.  Why?  I believe that Chancellor Klein has made some real gains in the City That Never Sleeps.  Student achievement on the state standardized tests is up.  The achievement gap appears to be narrowing.  Graduation rates are up.  Progress is being made.  We may quibble on whether progress has gone far enough and deep enough, but when you are steering a ship of that size and shape, any positive progress should be acknowledged.  He’s got that Broad Prize on his mantel for a reason.
For most of the summer, attention in NYC has been centered on the issue of mayoral control.  Thanks to the NY State Senate, we actually had a period of a few weeks when Mayor Mike Bloomberg was not actually in control of the schools.  Some used that opportunity to call for Klein’s head, trying to use the absence of the King as an excuse for a palace coup in DOE headquarters in Brooklyn.  Saner heads prevailed, the Klein team stayed intact, and the good Mayor is back captaining an educational renaissance in New York.
Along the way, we lost sight of the fact that the contract between the NYC Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers is set to expire.  The brouhaha over mayoral control forced us to forget that NYC’s public school teachers may soon be working without a contract.  And in an urban district like NYC, that is HUGE news.  Yet somehow it isn’t getting the HUGE media attention we would expect from similar issues in similar cities.
What was even more surprising, though, was the state of negotiations with the UFT.  For the record, Eduflack is not a New York Times reader.  When I am in NYC, my newspaper of choice is the New York Post.  First and foremost, better Mets coverage.  But it also provides a more “diverse” view of what is happening in the cities and the myriad of issues the boroughs are truly grappling with.  So I was quite taken by a splashy story on Mayor Bloomberg’s negotiating position with UFT.  These are numbers that I honestly can say rarely surface when we talk about the love/hate relationship between management and teachers in NYC.
According to the NY Post, Bloomberg is starting by placing an 8 percent pay increase on the table for all teachers.  At a time when police and firefighters are at risk for furloughs and the city is looking to tax the purchase of junk food and the mere appearance of folks from New Jersey to keep the lights on, he is starting by offering a fair raise to teachers in a tough economy.  Just by looking at the cards he has been dealt, well before we reveal the flop, Bloomberg is seeking to boost starting salaries in NYC schools to almost $50K a year, with veteran teachers gaining the possibility to max out at $108K by 2011.  The full story can be found here
And then we look a little deeper at the Bloomberg/UFT relationship over the years.  Since Bloomberg started hopping the subway down to Gracie Mansion, he will have boosted NYC teacher pay by almost 50 percent if this base 8 percent raise takes place.  There are few careers — particularly those in the public sector — that can boost those sorts of increases over the same period.
Of course, the cynics claim that Bloomberg’s starting offer is just the “pro quo” for UFT agreeing to the extension of mayoral control.  But even Eduflack isn’t quite that pessimistic.  Was the other 40 percent just a downpayment leading to this summer’s showdown in Albany?  Or maybe, just maybe, Mayor Bloomberg and his team recognize the important role NYC’s public school teachers play in academic achievement.  Better to dance with the ones who brought you national attention and the Broad Prize than to try and start over believing that the “system” and not the “teachers” are the drivers for that classroom performance.
At the end of the day, UFT may end up with more than the 8 percent that Bloomberg is anteing with.  A new union president may be looking to make a statement.  UFT could end up with a 10 or 11 percent boost when all is said and done.  They may even be able to extract some protections from Klein’s continued push to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom, at least protecting the checks and benefits for those educators that don’t fit with the chancellor’s long-term plan.  And they may even manage to leave their lasting mark on any Race to the Top or Innovation Fund application that would include NYCDOE.
Nearly two decades ago, then WV Gov. Gaston Caperton became known as the “education governor” because he withstood a two-week, statewide strike of his public school teachers, ultimately giving them raises that took them from the bottom of the rankings to the low middles of state teacher pay.  So what does that make Bloomberg?  If he is serious about essentially boosting NYC teacher pay 50 percent in a 10-year period, “education mayor” does seem to quite do him justice, particularly if the Klein team keeps student achievement on the rise while retaining overall student numbers and getting more of them to earn that high school diploma.  The term czar is now vastly overused.  Maybe it is time to resurrect that terrific moniker “Little Magician” in NY again.  I’m sure Martin Van Buren won’t mind.

“Because I’m the Mayor, That’s Why!”

One of the billion-dollar questions in education improvement these days is whether change is better served through mayoral control or strong superintendents.  To many, traditional superintendent/school board structures are merely the last line of defense for the status quo, with supes looking to protect the same old structures and programs, because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

Mayors, on the other hand, have a bully pulpit unlike any superintendent.  They can force through real change, rallying key stakeholders (like the business community and philanthropy) that may otherwise back away from the same-old, same-old.  They can push through the new, even if it may face resistance from those defenders of the status quo.  They can put new leadership in place, layer in the necessary oversight, and do what is needed.
So it seems obvious that, at least for struggling urban school districts, mayoral takeover is the way to go.  But as Eduflack wrote last month, such moves aren’t necessarily slam dunks.  For every New York City success (and I realize that there are many who doubt the NYC DOE miracle), there is a Detroit.  Even recent research out of the Brown Center found no real school improvement impact coming from mayoral takeovers.
Apparently, the Wall Street Journal sees things a little differently.  Late last week, under the banner headline, “For More Mayors, School Takeovers Are a No-Brainer,” reporters John Hechinger and Suzanne Sataline describe how “more U.S. cities are considering scrapping a longstanding tradition in American education, the elected school board, and opting to let mayors rule over the classroom.”
For its case studies, WSJ offers up for mayors and their education successes.  In Boston, where Mayor Tom Menino took over the schools in 1992, they credit the takeover with major achievement gains in national math tests and the opening of charter schools.  In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley took over in 1995 and is credited with improvements on state test scores.  NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2002 takeover is credited with raising high school graduation rates by 11 percentage points.  And in DC, the new kid on the block, Mayor Adrian Fenty’s 2007 takeover is also credited with raising graduation rates in a majority of high schools.
I learned long ago, courtesy of my friends up at Gotham Schools, to be careful when defending the improvements in NYC.  For the record, I believe that Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have done a great deal when it comes to improving NYC schools.  We’ve seen the data and heard it retold by folks like the Broad Foundation.  Student achievement gains may not be exploding, but they are moving forward.  And such progress is a significant achievement in a system as large and entrenched as NYC.  Yes, I recognize that some teachers and parents have taken issue with the approaches Bloomberg and Klein have taken.  But at the end of the day, I continue to appreciate Klein’s unapologetic approach, particularly when he says there is nothing wrong with teachers teaching to a test if such a test is a fair measure of student performance.
Eduflack is really scratching his head, though, when it comes to branding DC as a successful mayoral takeover model.  If anything, Fenty and DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee have earned significant incompletes at this point.  Yes, Fenty has given Rhee the power.  But she still is fighting to implement a new staffing structure and is now preparing for what could be a bloody showdown with Randi Weingarten and the American Federation of Teachers over tenure and teacher incentives.  And while Rhee declared victory over the summer for first-year student achievement gains, the real win only comes when such gains are demonstrated year-on-year-on-year over the next three years or not.
But how can DC claim victory when it comes to raising high school graduation rates?  Most education researchers will tell you that student dropouts occur primarily between eighth and ninth and ninth and 10th grades.  The common belief is if you can get a student into the 11th grade, you probably can get them to stick around.  So how, exactly, does Fenty take credit for raising high school graduation rates in a majority of high schools when he only has one year of data (2007-08) to look at?  If more kids graduated during the first year of his mayoral control, is that due to mayoral leadership or to efforts put in place by the former superintendent and current high school teachers three or four years ago?  Most would say 2008 graduation rates are due to 2005 activities, those interventions taken years before Fenty took over.
I recognize we want to see Washington, DC’s schools succeed.  Even though DCPS is the smallest of the four school districts spotlighted, it carries a cache that Boston and even Chicago does not.  It is our nation’s capital, and a school district long seen as a disaster that simply cannot be fixed.  We embraced Rhee’s year one student achievement gains last summer as proof of success, even through we knew, in our heart of hearts, that a lion’s share of the success probably belonged to Cliff Janey and the previous regime.  We want and need DC to succeed, so we grab onto whatever we can.  We cannot afford for DC to become another Detroit, at least when it comes to mayoral control and school success.
WSJ does the field a disservice, though, by declaring such victory in Washington, DC.  Yes, we can look at places like Boston, Chicago, and NYC and look at five or more years of progress and results.  Any ed researcher worth her salt will tell you we need that much data to truly know whether a reform has been successful or not.  A year’s worth of data is meaningless.  We need some year-on-year information, a longitudinal view, to truly measure.
I’m the first to stand up and say we need to do whatever it takes to improve opportunity and success in public schools in our urban centers.  We have too much at stake, and too far to go, to pussyfoot around or nibble around the edges when it comes to real reforms and measurable improvements.  If it takes a mayor to take those steps, all the better.  It provides us a strong leader who can be held accountable for such efforts.  Let’s model best practices where there is evidence of real success.  If that comes as a result mayoral control, terrific.  
But we have to remember that for every mayoral success, we have equal parts failure or lack of impact.  Now is certainly not the time to declare premature victory or to misrepresent data that is, or is not, even there.  Although year’s worth of information is interesting, it is a far cry from a school improvement victory.  DC still has many miles to go before it is ready to even think about declaring a major win as a result of mayoral takeover of the schools.

“The 21st Century Begins Now?”

We are a nation of lists.  We love lists.  To do lists.  In lists.  Out lists.  Check offs.  Top 25s.  Up and comers.  Give us a list, and it is something that we can embrace.

This month, Esquire magazine (yes, thank you Chris Whittle for saving this pub a few decades ago) is running a cover story on the 75th anniversary of the magazine, focusing on “The 21st Century Begins Now.”  The magazine’s publishers lay out the 75 most influential people of the 21st century.  The selections are more photo than caption (typical for the magazine), and many of them are quite interesting.
What is most startling, though, is how small a role education seems to play in the 21st century (at least in Esquire’s eyes).  When Time magazine did a similar list last year, we saw names like Bill Gates, Wendy Kopp, and others.  Real names that have been involved in real education reforms — and, more importantly, improvements — over the past decade.  Since then, we’ve seen continued investment from Ed in 08 to draw attention to education issues, we’ve heard the phoenix story of New Orleans public schools, and we’ve seen new superintendents take over new districts with a zeal that hasn’t been felt in quite some time.  Now we have events like Aspen’s National Education Summit tomorrow, designed to harness the power, enthusiasm, and sense of urgency that has been brought to modern day education reform.
Esquire seems to turn a blind eye to the influence of educators, though.  We have actors and musicians, futurists and techies.  But it seems educators struggle to make the top 75 list.  Perhaps they’ve forgotten that education has the potential to be the great equalizer, or that it serves as one of the most significant civil rights issues of our time.  Maybe they’ve failed to recognize that better education today results in better jobs and a stronger economy tomorrow.  Whatever the reason, education got little respect from Esquire.
NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg makes the cut, but it is all about organizational reform and environmentalism.  Michael Milken is one it, but for his work with FasterCures healthcare reform, and not his previous education efforts.   Recent TED honoree Dave Eggers is on the list, and he nobly talks about the importance of reading, even in the 21st century society.  Bill Gates, of course is there, with a chart of his July charitable giving — only a fraction of it went to education causes, though, showing the diversification of his efforts (health, poverty, microfinance, policy, and education).
That would be the full list.  Maybe we can add actor Will Smith to the educators list because of his recent good work with charter schools.  But at the end of the day, we have one person on the list — an author — who is full-time involved in education.  Two on the list with education experience, though you can find it on their bios.  And one who’s impact on education has been quite measurable, even if it is a small part of the overall philanthropic impact.
I’ll say it.  That simply isn’t enough.  If we are looking at the 75 most influential people of the 21st century, we need to be looking at those who are influencing the actual leaders of the 21st century.  Actors and musicians and politicians may be trendy choices, but are they affecting real influence?  And can we really project the influencers of the century, when most organizations lack the foresight to thoroughly develop a 10-year strategic plan?
That’s why Eduflack is going to assemble a list of the nine individuals with the potential to influence education reform over the next decade.  If nine is good enough for a baseball team, it is good enough for me.  Maybe we’ll add a bench and some role players, but for now, the focus is our starting nine.  And I’m looking for some nominations for my draft.
Who is going assume the HR lead in getting hundreds of thousands of teachers hired following mass retirements over the next five years?  Who is going to harness disparate interests and move us to national education standards?  Who is going to redefine science and research in the classroom?  Who will lead the change evolve the role of principal into instructional and institutional leader?  Who has the approach to close the achievement gap?  Who’s got the inside track to end drop-out crisis?  Who moves STEM from the fringe to a central movement?
Our all-star team is not intended to be a list of well-known urban superintendents or organizational CEOs.  We’re looking for thinkers and voices.  We seek innovators and defenders.  We want the known and those who need to and should be discovered.  Eduflack has had a lot of fun playing parlor games regarding who will become the next EdSec.  But at the end of the day, I know that real reform and real improvement comes from those on the front lines.  EdSecs can provide vision and leadership, and they may even be able to coach the ed reform team, but they will never be the one to win the game.  We’re looking for true game changers and game winners.
Perhaps the Aspen Institute summit will spotlight on some individuals and some ideas that deserve consideration.  Perhaps the lists from Edutopia and others will help educate.  Regardless, the hunt is on.  Who wants to join the search?

Mini Me, Version DCPS

Educators are very big on the concept of modeling.  We find what is effective in a similar situation (with a school, a class, or a student just like mine) and put it into practice in our own situation.  Makes sense — if it is works for someone else, it just may work for me.

But sometimes we can take modeling a little too far, giving the impression we are just mimicking or copying those that others like.  Case in point, DC Public Schools.  For a school district that is supposedly all about innovation and improvement, they seem to be an awful lot like the new student trying to dress, talk, and act like the “cool kid” on the playground.
We saw it last year when DC Mayor Fenty decided he would channel NYC Mayor Bloomberg, appointing a schools chancellor (instead of a superintendent) and choosing a non-traditional choice (former Justice Department official Joel Klein in NYC and New Teacher Project founder Michelle Rhee in DC).  Since, we’ve seen it in Rhee’s dealings issues such as school closings and dealings with the unions and even parental engagement.
Yesterday, though, Rhee officially became Klein’s mini-me.  She announced a new pilot project to “pay” middle school students for showing up for school and doing their work.  If successful, Rhee intends to take the pilot project across all middle schools in DC, offering up crisp Benjamins for students who do their jobs as students.
Let’s forget that there are still unanswered questions about the effectiveness of NYC’s own pilot effort.  What message does it send when we offer middle school students pay for play?
Supporters of such efforts would argue it is simply an equity issue.  Upper-class families have been paying their kids for good grades for years, the line goes, why can’t we give at-risk students the financial incentive to come to class, pay attention, and do their homework.  After all, fair is fair.
Unfortunately, such thinking completely misses the larger picture.  Pay for play is necessary when there is no larger reason for the action.  In recent years, though, we’ve been telling students and their families that a good education is necessary for a good job.  We need more rigorous classes.  We need kids with high school diplomas and postsecondary educations.  We need students with the academic and social skills to succeed.
Step one to getting there is actually showing up for school.  Step two is paying attention.  Step three is doing the work.  Step four is measuring proficiency.  Repeat.  
The reward should be the proficiency and the skill acquisition.  A crisp $100 bill shouldn’t be the incentive for student performance.  If it is, getting middle school students to show up is the least of our problems.
If DCPS wants to borrow from the NYC DOE playbook, it should be focusing on increasing student achievement and closing the achievement gap.  Gimmicks such as pay to play may look good in the local papers, but they simply aren’t going to solve the larger issues facing DCPS and other urban districts.

Grading the Schools

Back in November, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg released a report card grading all of the city’s public schools.  It was a bold move at the time, though the impact of grading the schools took a few months to come to a boil.  Now we are seeing it, as New York parents are now taking exception with the grades their neighborhood schools received.

That should come as no surprise.  As Eduflack has written previously, we all want to believe our own schools are doing just fine, even if the system around it may be falling apart.  We believe in our teachers and our administrators, taking solace that our child is receiving a top-notch education, regardless of the conditions around us.

When Bloomberg announced the grades, he did so in an attempt to do something about underperforming schools.  And we can’t do anything about such schools if we don’t first identify them.  So he issued them grades, grades based on student achievement.  After all, shouldn’t we measure our schools based on how well they do their primary job — educating our kids?

To be expected, the critics are now hitting back against Bloomberg and his report cards.  It took a little time, but we are now hearing the hollow refrains of high-stakes testing, teaching to the test, and abandoning “non-essential” courses like art, music, and the like.  Such grading must be unfair because it doesn’t align with our popular thinking.

Let there be no doubt, we should be grading our schools.  Every parent has the right to know if their school is achieving and if their school compares with the school across town, across the state, or across the country.  Every student has the right to an effective education, and education as good as any other student is getting.  Every superintendent has the right to know how his schools compare to each other, and which are getting it done and which need additional help, support, and direction.  And every taxpayer has the right to know that our tax dollars are going to effective education and demonstrable student achievement.

So how do we measure that?  What’s the most effective rubric to get the job done?  And more importantly, if Bloomberg’s way is wrong, what is right? 

It all comes down to whether we grade the process or the outcomes.  Measures like parental involvement, per-pupil expenditure, class size, teacher experience, tutoring programs, transfers, grade promotion, and such are all good process measures.  But we can check the box on all of those and more, and still be left with a failing school.  it is frustrating, yes, but true.  We can do it all “right,” and still not demonstrate results.  What good is that?

Which gets us back to the Bloomberg formula of outcome-based grading.  It sends a strong message to virtually every stakeholder audience in a school district to say we measure our schools based on student achievement.  Our schools (and our teachers) succeed when our kids do.  How we get there is important, sure, but our primary objective is where we went.  Did our kids learn what is necessary to succeed in school and in life?  If not, our schools aren’t doing as good a job as they should.  There is room for improvement.

We can quibble about what tests should be used to grade a school, whether there are multiple quantitative measures and such.  We can dream of a national standard by which every school in the country is graded.  We can even look to models like Quality Counts or Newsweek and US News & World Report’s top high schools rubrics.  But we all should agree that our schools should be evaluated, graded, compared, and appropriately improved.

If you have a better idea for determining whether our schools are effective or not, I’m all ears.  I’m sure there are folks far smarter than I who are exploring such issues at think tanks, NFPs, and universities across the country.  But until we have a better way, shouldn’t we use the best way we have now?  Let’s grade our schools, and let them figure out how to earn the extra credit and do the make-up work necessary so they all achieve. 

2 + 2 = controversy

Sometimes, it just isn’t as simple as two plus two.  Case in point, the current brouhaha down in Texas, where the State Board of Education is rejecting the third grade Everyday Mathematics program.  The program currently has 20 percent marketshare in Texas, and its been credited with turning around the math scores in New York City’s public schools.  Despite that, Texas is expelling the program, citing its failure to prepare kids for college.

The full story is in the New York Sun — — courtesy of <a href="


Texas educators should be allowed to do what they think is right for Texas students.  Just because it works in New York or anywhere else doesn’t mean it will work in the Lone Star State.  Sometimes, what happens in New York needs to stay in New York.

Be clear, we do know it is working in New York City.  Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein will clearly tell you that, as will the folks who decided the Broad Prize this year.  And NYC’s math scores have improved since the curriculum was implemented almost five years.  Both opinion and the data seem to point to the effectiveness of the program, at least in the Big Apple.

What makes this interesting, particularly from a communications perspective, is WHY folks are standing up in opposition to Everyday Mathematics.  It comes down to two issues — rigor and readiness.

Rigor, of course, is the new buzz word.  Here at the end of 2007, it is now being used in place of scientifically or evidence based.  Called progressive or fuzzy, Everyday Math is getting caught in the crosshairs of the math wars (a far more dastardly battle than any reading war skirmish).  Funny that, since it comes from McGraw Hill, the publisher usually beaten up for its overemphasis on research and methodology for its Open Court reading programs.

Regardless, the U.S. Department of Education, according to the Sun, judged “Everyday Math more effective than some more traditional programs but calling its impact still just “potentially” positive.”  So it must have some rigor to pass IES’ WWC filters.

So we move on to readiness.  The public criticism is that Everyday Math is not preparing kids for college.  Some Texas officials rejected it because the book doesn’t include multiplication tables.  And an NYU computer science professor has attacked the curriculum for not preparing kids for the types of college courses he teaches.

Eduflack is the first to recognize that college readiness is all the rage these days.  But how many of our third graders are planning on matriculating to postsecondary institutions this coming fall?  Are third-grade math courses designed to prepare us for the rigors of college, or the rigors of middle school?

Yes, states and school districts should be given the flexibility to do what is best for their students.  Even in NYC, Klein has provided waivers to those schools looking to use an alternative elementary school math curriculum.  But when we attack third grade textbooks on the college readiness issue, aren’t we starting to play Chicken Little?

College readiness is an important, even a critical, issue for our nation’s public schools.  But if we use it as a rhetorical strawman to turn back each and every program, curriculum, and initiative we oppose, we remove the soul and value of the issue.  Sure, everything from preK on in some way gets our kids ready for college.  They are building blocks of learning.  Does this now mean that if don’t provide our kindergartners with phonics and phonemic awareness, we are not effectively preparing them for college?  Technically, yes, but rhetorically, of course not.

Students become math-ready for college by taking Algebra, Algebra II, geometry, and trig in their middle and high schools.  Third grade prepares some of the building blocks to get there, but even the most successful, beyond this world third-grade curriculum will not make today’s average nine-year-old college ready.  It doesn’t take a math Ph.D. to see that.

The Texas State Board of Education should be making sure that its elementary school mathbooks are providing the foundations every kid needs to succeed.  If not, stand up and say so and propose a better solution.  If Everyday Math isn’t cutting it for Texas kids, just say it isn’t the best choice for Texas classrooms.  That’s the Board’s prerogative and their responsibility.  But do it for the right reasons.  Otherwise, we aren’t too far from hearing that this Play-Doh may not be a college-ready supplemental learning tool.

Finding Models of Reform Excellence

If we’ve learned anything from the education investments of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it is that one of the keys to effective education reform is replicability.  We all seek to improve our schools.  But when it comes to enacting reform, we want some guarantees.  We’d like to know its worked somewhere.  It makes it easier to sell the reform to key constituencies, and it makes it easier to anticipate the improvement you seek.  We want to learn from those who have succeeded.  That’s how we replicate.

Yesterday, we heard Mayor Bloomberg at the National Urban League calling on other cities to emulate the education reforms enacted in New York City.  Under the tenure of Gotham’s Mayor and Chancellor Klein, NYC has a lot to be proud of.  Reform has generated results.  And the kids in NYC’s public schools are benefiting, at least according to the latest round of student assessments.

Bloomberg deserves credit for marketing NYC’s education reforms as the model to emulate.  With most reforms, educators are quick to say that results take time, we need to be patient, and we don’t fully know the extend or the long-term implications.  We caveat the reforms, lower expectations, and generally de-emphasize the results out of fear that the improvement won’t hold.  But not Bloomberg.  His bold declaration was the sort we expect from a business mogul or a seasoned politician.  Bloomberg must be both.  He’s now got the NUL thinking, and he already has mayors like DC Mayor Fenty signing up to adopt the Bloomberg education model.

For those who aren’t willing to invest in the Bloomberg model, the Baltimore Sun offers a second education reform marketing effort, and an unlikely one at that — The Baltimore Schools.

IDing how schools of all shapes, sizes, and such can succeed, Baltimore this week is offering up its formula for success.  The components are simple.  Experienced, veteran teachers.  Extra-curricular activities.  Involved parents.  And a focus on student achievement.  Sounds good to me.  Now we just need to move such lessons beyond the walls of George Washington Elementary.


Bloomberg and Baltimore provide us two sides to the same coin.  And they tell us a clear story.  There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to education reform.  But there are lessons to be learned in all corners of public education.  Cobble together enough of those lessons, and you may just have a comprehensive education reform model that will make a meaningful, long-term difference when it comes to student achievement.

As we are learning these lessons, though, we need to look for opportunities to teach.  Those schools that have reformed and improved.  Those who have implemented NCLB and succeeded.  Those who have IDed a problem and taken a bold step to solve it.  Now is the time for you to step forward.  Now is the time to promote your reforms and talk up your improvements.  The future of our schools depends on it.