Jeb Bush and the Politics of Education Policy

Over at the New Yorker this week, there is a terrific deep dive from Alec MacGillis on former Florida Gov. and potential GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush and his deep work in education reform, both in Florida and nationally.

MacGillis does a great job of really telling the tale of the breadth of Bush’s efforts in education, how his thinking has evolved, and how one action or issue led to his involvement in another. It’s definitely worth the read.

And dear ol’ Eduflack is included in the piece:

Some friends and associates saw personal motivations behind Bush’s initiatives. Patrick Riccards, who, as counsel for the federal government’s National Reading Panel, discussed education reform with Bush, said, “As the father of Hispanic kids, you become far more sensitive to disparities—kids who look like your kids not getting the skills they need or getting into the right colleges.” (Bush’s children attended private schools in Miami and Jacksonville.) Others detected a competitive desire to surpass his brother’s agenda in Texas.

I’m speaking personally in the above. As the father of two Latino kids, talk of achievement gaps grew far more personal to me. It was no longer just a rhetorical point, but it affected my kids and kids just like them. Having engaged some with Jeb over the years, I have to believe it has had the same impact on him. If not, he wouldn’t be as passionate about the topic as he is.

Definitely take the time to read MacGillis’ piece in the New Yorker. There is a lot flying around about Jeb and Common Core, but this is the first piece I’ve seen in a good long while that really takes a thorough look at a complex issue.

Common Core Test Camp?

One of Eduflack’s favorite streams on Twitter these days is @ThanksCommonCore (also with #thankscommoncore hashtag). With each passing day, it seems more and more that leads to the potential downfall of western civilization is being blamed on Common Core.

We, of course, know it isn’t actually Common Core’s fault. Those who actually take the time to read and understand what is in the standards realize Common Core that Common Core really isn’t to blame for all of the horrors in the world. And neither are the Common Core tests. A good assessment measures the progress of student learning. It isn’t something that is prepped or crammed for the evening before.

But back to today’s story. Over the weekend, the edu-family decided to check out a summer camp fair at the local shopping mall. Being new to the area in New Jersey, we wanted to see what local day camps were available for the summer, hoping to avoid the “free-range children” approach we took to last summer.

And much of what we saw was what we expected. Several nature camps. A number offering Minecraft and robotics. Camps run by the YMCA. Fabulously expensive day camps run by local private schools. Even summer camps run by our daughter’s gymnastics school. But I was sucked in by a banner from a local “learning center” trumpeting PARCC Preparation Camp.

Yep, you read that right. We now have folks looking to turn a summer buck cashing in on parents’ fears about the dreaded Common Core test.

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“Spaces are limited!”

The marketing materials go on to say:

We know PARCC is on everyone’s mind. We are actively working to make sure our students are prepared for whatever the test throws at them this March and May. If you’re not sure what you can do to help your child prepare, come speak with us. We can diagnose your child to see where there may be some areas of weakness and put together a game plan on how to fill those gaps in understanding.

That’s right. For all those parents worried about the dreaded Common Core test, have we got a product to prey on you. And we do it with the big logo and image that PARCC uses, so you think it is official. Worried the test will doom your kid to a life of flipping burgers? Have we got a program for you. Concerned the neighbor kids will do better than yours? Enroll today. Fear that some of the top public schools in the nation are falling down on the job? We are here to help.

They also offer to supplement the Common Core Test Prep Camp with other programs to better your kids in English, math, literature, creative writing, and critical thinking. And they throw in essay writing to ensure your kids can get into college once they’ve mastered that dreaded Common Core test.

Eduflack realizes that companies looking to profit on changes in education is nothing new. A decade ago, I spent far too much time dealing with new companies looking to cash in on the Reading First largesse. It seemed everyone had a new product “aligned” with scientifically based reading, and was more than happy to take money from the state, a school district, or a parent to ensure that all kids were reading. Unfortunately, too many of them were smoke and mirrors, magical elixirs and silver bullets that had no basis in what works and just wanted to score a quick buck while the going was good.

And now we see that in Common Core. Everything from Common Core-aligned (and Star Wars-themed) workbooks for parents to purchase to now CCSS test prep camps. It’s just shameful how often we look to take advantage of the legitimate concerns of parents and teachers to make a quick score and pick up a few more bucks in the process.

My kids won’t be going to Common Core camp this summer. There is likely Minecraft and gymnastics camps in our future. Our son (a third grader) also wants to go to one that will help teach him to make his own Lego movie. But he won’t be cramming on things that most likely aren’t even found in the Common Core State Standards.

And they may even go to one of those nature camps. Should they get sunburn, I’m just going to blame Common Core.

Edu-Deja Vu All Over Again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How About Those Edu-Elections?

If anything, yesterday’s midterm elections were entertaining. We saw incumbents defeated. We saw incumbents previously left for dead winning big. We saw darkhorses win in the end. We races long written off come in within recount range. For those without a vested interest in a specific candidate, it was a heckuva night.

While yesterday’s results will be deconstructed ad naseum in the coming days and weeks, let’s take a look at some of the edu-implications.

The Power of Teachers’ Unions

It was the best of times and worst of times for the teachers’ unions. Teachers were able to start the night by crowing loudly about Tom Wolf’s win for the Pennsylvania governorship, knocking off an incumbent Republican governor who had slashed state education spending and sought to cancel out teacher contracts in Philadelphia. The unions also got to wrap up Election Day wit a big win, as Tom Torlakson was re-elected as state superintendent for public instruction in California, turning back reformer-backed Marshall Tuck. (And we will set aside the fact that the job has very little actual power in California education, with the real strength lying with the state board of education).

But what happened in between will have many people questioning the political power of the teachers’ unions. AFT and NEA put major dollars and major GOTV muscle into taking the governorships in states like Wisconsin, Illinois, Florida, Georgia, and Colorado. All went Republican. Strong union support couldn’t even help true-blue states like Massachusetts and Maryland elect Democratic (presumably pro-union, pro-teacher) governors.

Those Dems that did win the big chairs have some “history” with the teachers’ unions. In Connecticut, Dannel Malloy barely won re-election, and likely owes his win to teachers after just two years seeking to eliminate teacher tenure. In Rhode Island, Dem Gina Raimondo won the race, largely because she took on unions as part of a pension reform push she led.

Put all together, and the unions had limited impact in statewide elections, particularly in those states they targeted.

The Role of Ed Reformers

Yes, the AFT and NEA had a rough night. But it wasn’t all rainbows and lollipops for education reformers either. They lost their biggest prize of the evening when Torlakson beat Tuck in Cali. Reformers only won half the prize they sought with a big spend in the Minneapolis school board race.

Ed reform Dem governors like CT’s Malloy and NY’s Andrew Cuomo only won by seeking to reframe or rewrite their past support for reforms, as Cuomo practically came out as anti-CCSS.

In fact, reformers seemed most proud by Raimondo’s win, believing pension reform is a sure path to more education reform.

While much of the edreform community tends to focus on Democratic reformers, it was a good night for GOP edreformers. NM Gov. Susana Martinez., MA Gov.-elect Charlie Baker, and GA Gov. Nathan Deal to name but a few.

Common Core Impact

When it comes to the political impact of Common Core, support of opposition seemed to be neither help nor hindrance. The Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli says that half the Republican governors are pro-Common Core. For those like Ohio’s John Kasich, such support didn’t hurt him at all. School Reform News reported that nine of the 10 GOP govs up for re-elect yesterday were against Common Core. For those like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker or Florida’s Rick Scott, opposition to the Core helped. (Though I have to question School Reform News’ math, as with OH’s Kasich and NM’s Martinez, I already have two of the 10 GOP govs pro-CCSS, without adding voices like NV’s Sandoval and GA’s Deal.)

Those Pesky Statehouses

Over the weekend, John Oliver ranted about how few were paying attention to state legislature elections. And he is absolutely right. For education, that’s where the action will be, from CCSS to testing, from teacher evaluations to school funding. We still need to wait for the dust to settle, but the initial returns seem to show that GOP governors will have more supportive legislatures behind them, while Dem governors will have a few less supporters on their benches. Issue coalitions may very well win the day in state capitals, particularly on issues such as education.

No doubt there is more to come. The one thing we know with certainty? With Sen. Lamar Alexander taking over as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, it is safe to say we have a Senate chairman who, as a former gov, former EdSec and former university president, knows a thing or two about the issue of education.

Do We Need a “New Approach to Accountability?”

In public education, the term “accountability” often brings out the best and the worst in folks. Some see it as a necessary measure to understanding if teachers are teaching, students are learning, and districts are doing what districts need to do. Others see it as a “mandate” that measures the wrong things and places one-time student performance over the learning process as a whole.

Yesterday, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of Great City Schools issued their statement on testing, offering another voice opposed to “high-stakes testing” and calling for assessments that are meaningful and less stress inducing. President Barack Obama and EdSec Arne Duncan quickly backed the CCSSO/CGCS opinion (though I still maintain it is the path that Duncan has been largely advocating for nearly six years now).

Today, we have some new thinking that gets factored into the equation. The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) released Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm. Written by Linda Darling-Hammond, Gene Wilhoit, and Linda Pittenger, the manifesto outlines for changes that need to be addressed in the accountability debate, while offering some fresh thinking on accountability 2.0 (or is it 8.0?).

What changes are needed? Put simply:

  • More sophisticated assessments that get at a deeper understanding of content, critical and creative thinking, problem solving, and the like;
  • More equitable and adequate resources with regard to teaching, materials, and technology;
  • Greater capacity among schools and educators to reach more challenging content; and
  • A more effective model for change and improvement that moves schools from the current industrial model to “innovative learning systems for the future.”

To get us there, the authors point to a new accountability model that focuses on four key components: 1) meaningful learning; 2) professional accountability; 3) resource accountability; and 4) continuous improvement.

And what of those dreaded assessments that seem to block any meaningful discussion on true accountability? The good folks at SCOPE call for a model that looks to both standardized tests and performance-based assessments and portfolios. Standardized tests would inform the performance-based assessments, and results from the latter would be used to improve and enrich the former (while also informing teaching as a whole).

It’s hard to argue with what Darling-Hammond et al put forward, for it is really common sense. We need better assessments, tests that inform instruction and focus on student learning. We need to do a better job of delivering resources to all classrooms, particularly those that would be labeled historically disadvantaged. We need to push the envelope with regard to teaching more challenging content (which I would argue is why CCSS is an important floor to start with).

And we definitely need to move beyond the misguided notion that a single test, taken on a single day defines the success of a school, a teacher, or a kid.

But how does such a frame fit with the anti-testing zealots (or advocates, depending on your view) out there? Can we accept there is a meaningful role for standardized tests in the learning process? Can we use such tests, along with performance-based assessments, without cries of drilling, killing, and death by bubble sheet?

Even more importantly, can we all agree there are significant achievement, learning, and opportunity gaps in our public education tapestry and that we need a strong accountability model to bridge those gaps? Can we agree all is not roses, lollipops, and rainbows in our schools, and we have a need to improve and thus need to chart the best course to get there?

The ideas moved forward by SCOPE help us see where we need to go. The notion of moving from our current industrial model to a more innovative, future-focused one is particularly valuable. But the devil is always in the details. Can we use these sorts of ideas to move the discussion forward? Or are we destined for another round of “testing bad, accountability badder?” I hope for the former, but fear the latter.

Seeking Collaboration Between Reformers, Educators

For too long, we have heard of the battles between the education reform community and educators. From the way these debates have been framed, one would think the two sides couldn’t agree that the sky was blue or that water was wet.

Truth be told, reformers and educators agree on far more than they disagree. and both sides of the school improvement coin are necessary if we are to be successful in efforts to improve student learning and achievement.

Or so Eduflack writes in this week’s Education Week. In a commentary entitled, “It’s Time for Reformers, Educators to Work Together,” I note:

The time has come to turn away from the divisive, us-vs.-them approaches of past policy fights. Instead, we must work together with educators to improve our public schools. We must focus on options and opportunities that can have real impact on all our children, not just a select few. And we must do so in a way that improves teaching and learning for all.

Otherwise, we are merely tinkering around the edges, seeking to set the next boundaries for the next fight. Our kids, our communities, and our nation deserve far better than such rhetorical posturing.

As we start another school year, we can’t afford another year of sniping, motive questioning, and hyperbole. Hopefully, this piece gives all sides something to consider.

Maybe Math is Hard

We often hear the parent horror stories about the homework their children are sent home with. The backpacks packed with books that force kids to tip over. The assignments that require advanced degrees to complete. The hours of work for the youngest of kids.

The stories have gotten worse with the introduction of Common Core State Standards. Now we have parents posting ridiculous student assignments (usually on the math side of the learning equation), blaming Common Core for forcing their kids to focus on everything from the ridiculous to sublime.

Eduflack usually writes off such rantings. Common Core, after all, is all about the standards. Good districts and good schools leave it to the teachers to determine the best ways to actually instruct our kids. And those who complain about the state of homework reflect nostalgically on their own childhoods, forgetting that we all had some pretty bad years and some pretty horrific assignments in the good ol’ days.

And then I saw the homework assignment my second grader brought home this week. Less than a week into the new school year. In a district known as one of the best school districts in the high-achieving state of New Jersey. I get home from work to find my little princesa frustrated with the math assignment of the day.

How hard can second-grade math be, I foolishly think? I take off my suit and tie, change into the fatherly uniform of shorts and a t-shirt and sit down to help my emerging learner.

I find a photocopied sheet of paper that is practically blank. The math assignment has two sentences typed across the top of the page. The remainder of the 8 1/2 by 11″ harbinger of doom is blank. Plenty of room to show your work.

What were those two sentences? How hard could it possibly be to follow such short directions?

The bolded sentence read, “What is mathematics? Use words or pictures to provide your answer.”

Wahhhh?

When did my lovely second grader transform into Euclid or Archimedes?

When did second-grade arithmetic become a Greek philosophy course?

I know I’ve seen more than my share of Big Bang Theory. I remember the episode when Sheldon explains the meaning  and roots of physics. But I seemed to miss the episode explaining the universal meaning of mathematics.

And as someone who once actually studied calculus and took college statistics, I can honestly say this was the first time in my 41-plus years I’ve ever been asked for the meaning of math.

So I did what any caring father did. I faked it. I pulled out of my daughter an answer that I felt would suffice. To her, math was numbers. We through in a some plus, minus, and equal signs as well. She even went on to note how she needed numbers to enter the password on her iPod, to work the TV remote, and to tell time.

I considered the assignment done at that point. She read for 20 minutes, and then I let her go outside to ride her bike until it got dark. The edu-wife thought I should have pulled more meaning out of the edu-princesa for the assignment. But she isn’t even seven years old yet. How much meaning does math truly have for a six-year old?

I refuse to chalk this up to Common Core. Nowhere in the standards do I remember seeing the philosophical implications of math. But it does make me wonder about how we translate what kids are expected to learn into what is actually taught.

I wonder if maybe that mid-1990s Barbie doll is right. Maybe math is hard. 

And I wonder how Sir Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein would answer the question. Or if there is even a right/wrong answer here. Or how many more times will I be stymied by elementary school homework.  

Standards, Curriculum, Assessment

As discussions around Common Core continue to heat up, we quickly lose sight of what the standards actually are. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard on the Twittersphere from folks who say we need to eliminate CCSS, and when I ask why, I’m told because the tests are just too much, too hard, too something, well, I’d have a really big bag of nickels.

Sometimes, standards are just standards. And this Infographic from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation reminds us of what standards, curriculum, and assessment mean, and how they work together.

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