A Few Good State Ed Chiefs

On Tuesday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal announced that Paul Pastorek would be stepping down as the Pelican State’s education commissioner, taking a corporate job with EADS North America.  The announcement was a big blow for Louisiana, which has done some interesting things under Pastorek, and could be an even bigger blow for the start-up Chiefs for Change, which has now lost two of its founding members.  Guess they needed to be clearer that the “change” wasn’t from the education chief job itself.

The other departing chief, of course, is Eric Smith, who will vacate the top position in Florida in a month.  And as the St. Petersburg Times details, there doesn’t seem to be a wish list of candidates for the Sunshine State yet.  Some are so desperate for names, that the Times even asked dear ol’ Eduflack to opine on who could make Florida Gov. Scott’s short list.
Undoubtedly, other states may soon be adding their names to the search list.  Louisiana or Florida could fill their jobs with a sitting state supe in another jurisdiction.  The new crop of governors, approaching six months in office, may have new ideas about where they want to go in education.  And some state supes may look to jump for a corporate job, a potential federal job, or even to get mixed up in a presidential campaign or two.
The challenge in identifying a good state education chief is knowing what to look for.  There is no textbook model to follow.  Some states go the practitioner route.  Some go the political route.  Some go the policy route.  And some others may look for that darkhorse business/lawyer/attack dog type.  It all depends on the governor’s style, the governor’s interest in the issue, and the role of education in a given state.
So after much reflection and careful consideration (essentially a few moments on a too-long redeye flight back from Los Angeles), I have humbly decided to make myself available for governors in need.  Why not Eduflack for state superintendent?  I offer the following:
* Political acumen — Having served as a senior aide to members of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House, and as an advisor to multiple presidential administrations and countless governors, I know how the game is played.  I know how to build relationships with the legislature and with the governor’s office.  I know how to bring value to the administration and avoid “stepping in it.”  And, most importantly, I know how to give the governor the credit, while I do the dirty work.  I even pledge to join both CCSSO and Chiefs for Change.  Added bonus, I’m already an elected official in a state with hundreds of years experience turning out terrific public servants.  And you already get to call me “the Honorable.”
* Experience with multiple camps — I’ve successfully worked with both the “status quo” and the “ed reform” crowds.  I have friends on both teams.  I can play well with the unions, while advocating for meaningful reforms.  I can focus on innovations, without turning over the keys to both sides.  I can be an honest broker, one who understands all the players in the game and maximizes their involvement in future state education activities.  Depending on how you look at it, I can either get buy-in from all, or have the trust of none.
* Content knowledge — While I have never personally been a classroom teacher, I do know a thing or two about content.  Reading instruction.  STEM.  Ed tech.  Educator quality.  High school reform.  I have real experience working in all those areas, with specific experience in developing and delivering state-level K-12 education programs.  And for those concerned with the teacher thing, I have worked as an elementary basketball coach.  That has to be worth something, right?
* The power nexus — Perhaps most importantly, I naturally work from that all important education power nexus, where research, policy, and communications meet.  I know more about education research than the average bear.  I certainly know how to translate that research and related practice into meaningful policies (and to know the difference when squishy or meaningless policies are offered in its stead).  And if I don’t know how to successfully communicate it all to key stakeholders, I certainly have a lot of explaining to do regarding the past dozen or so years of my life. 
There you have it.  Eduflack as your next chief state school officer.  Think about it, is it really any worse than some of the other names that may be floated around?  I look good on paper and give a great press conference.  I’m new and fresh (I’ll try to watch the language, though), without too much of a track record (save for this troublesome blog).  I’m not afraid to speak my mind, but I can also toe the company line.  I just might be on to something …

Chiefs, Change, Cheers?

Nearly a decade ago, a new organization of chief state school officers was charting new ground.  The Education Leaders Council (ELC) was THE hip group to belong to.  NCLB was the freshly minted law of the land.  Chiefs, influencers, and vendors wanted to be part of the ELC posse, seeing the group as the drivers of NCLB in key states.  And many were believing ELC would overtake the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) as the state supe organization of choice, becoming the state ed policy voice in the country.  Five short years later, ELC was no longer.

Late last year, five up-and-coming, reform-minded chief state school officers announced the launch of “Chiefs for Change,” a group designed to push state-level policy issues from the state supe level.  The founding members were Florida’s Eric Smith, Indiana’s Tony Bennett, Louisiana’s Paul Pastorek, Rhode Island’s Deborah Gist, and Virginia’s Gerard Robinson.  Since establishing the group, Smith has announced he is stepping down from his post as Florida’s top education voice.
Last week, five new members were named to the state ed policy reform cabal.  The new five are Maine’s Stephen Bowen, New Jersey’s Chris Cerf, New Mexico’s Hanna Skandera, Oklahoma’s Janet Barresi, and Tennessee’s Kevin Huffman.
Chiefs for Change is promising to be very much a policy-driving organization, far more so than CCSSO.  Its nine and a half members (including Smith) are committed to finding a common voice on issues like teacher evaluation and testing.  They clearly will offer some rhetorical hand grenades when it comes to ESEA reauthorization.  So where will they come down on the issues?
While many are quick to say the group is non-partisan (or at least bi-partisan), take a look at the roster.  Of the 10 members, nine represent states helmed by Republican governors, and one (RI) now represents an independent governor.  One can also find deep roots to both the Jeb Bush family tree of ed reformers, as well as to the formal “Education Reform” community.  And there are a number of states represented who now have ties to Michelle Rhee and her relatively new “StudentsFirst” organization.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  It is still too early to tell.  Twenty percent of the nation’s chief state school officers have decided to join together to offer a louder, more coordinated voice on education policy.  Those chiefs sing from the same hymnal on many of the key policy issues of the day.  Some states (Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, Indiana) are now seen as major ed reform states.  Others (Virginia, New Jersey, Maine) can best be called defenders of the status quo, at least historically.  All (except for Indiana and Louisiana) are working with governors in the first halves of their terms, meaning they may have real time to bring real change. 
What’s left to be seen is HOW Chiefs for Change plans to operate.  In deconstructing ELC, one of its challenges is it tried to out-CCSSO CCSSO, building a similar model, similar management structure, and similar expectations.  Instead of being a nimble rump group focused on change, it almost tried to build CCSSO 2.0.  And we clearly didn’t need a newer version of the established organization.
So the question before Chiefs is how it functions.  If it throws aside process in favor of results, it has potential.  If it is designed to serve as an advocacy soapbox for reform-minded supes, it brings promise.  And if it is willing to take provocative stances on complex and controversial policy issues, it could signal progress.
At this point, Chiefs for Change doesn’t need to look to recruit new members or scope out locations for its 2012 annual conference.  It has critical mass, and it has some forward-looking chiefs who know how to use 21st century communications tools to replace those by-gone days of three-day conferences.  Instead, Chiefs for Change needs its nail its version of 95 Theses to the schoolhouse door.  And it needs to do so now, before ESEA is rewritten.  
We all recognize that the states are where ed policy action is happening.  The feds have played their hand, and are now looking for some additional dollars to buy back into the game.  Statehouses now have the power, and state chiefs are holding all the cards.  If we are going to see real movement in the area of school improvement, we need a real call to action at the state level.  Chiefs for Change could be that vehicle, if it learns from the past and engages for the future.

Standards or Curriculum, Curriculum or Standards?

Over at ASCDedge (a professional networking community managed by, of course, ASCD), Steven Weber reflects on recent Education Week coverage on the topic of Common Core State Standards and how it relates to curriculum.  One of the key questions Weber asks those in “the community” is “Do you think that the Common Core State Standards are curriculum or do you believe there is a distinct difference between standards and curriculum?”

When I was out at ASCD last week, I heard some very similar concerns from educators across the country.  Lots of teachers freaked out by CCSSI because they believe it is the “new curriculum” to go with the new world order likely coming through the reauthorization of ESEA.
If one ventures over to the CCSSI website, it is nearly impossible to even find the word “curriculum.”  In describing what CCSSI is, the good folks at National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are pretty darned clear about what common standards are, and curriculum ain’t it.  Just take a look at the description:

The standards are informed by the highest, most effective models from states across the country and countries around the world, and provide teachers and parents with a common understanding of what students are expected to learn. Consistent standards will provide appropriate benchmarks for all students, regardless of where they live.

These standards define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs. The standards:

    • Are aligned with college and work expectations;
    • Are clear, understandable and consistent;
    • Include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills;
    • Build upon strengths and lessons of current state standards;
    • Are informed by other top performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society; and
    • Are evidence-based.

Lots on skill.  Lots on standards.  Nothing about curriculum.  The closest we have is they are built upon current state standards, which in theory tie to current state curriculum.  But is there anyone who believes that the hodgepodge of current state standards is very definition of a model curriculum?
So why the confusion and the concern?  First and foremost, it is driven by a lack of information.  CCSSI was released nearly a year ago, and virtually every state in the union has signed onto the movement.  But beyond those policymakers who put their states into the CCSSI camp and those consultants who wrote Race to the Top applications pledging to follow the Common Standards, few actually know what this means.  We’ve signed on to CCSSI, the thought process goes, so now what?
In the absence of information, we make it up.  We know CCSSI isn’t assessment and tests, because we have federally funded tests aligned with CCSSI currently under development.  But the feds don’t develop curriculum.   So we have a choice.  Vendors claiming their products are the CCSSI curriculum or the notion that CCSSI is the curriculum itself.  And while many vendors may be quick to claim CCSSI alignment, no one has yet been bold enough to claim they are the embodiment of the curriculum itself.  The only remaining choice, then, is that the standards must be the curriculum.  After all, what value is the alignment of product if it isn’t aligned to both the standard and the curriculum?
We all know that moving the concept of common core state standards into practice is going to take time.  We have standards.  We are developing tests.  It is now likely going to take us a few years to develop a curriculum (particularly with the 15% add ons most states will take advantage of) and then create the professional developments and supports to go with it.  Yet here we stand, expecting all of this to take hold in a matter of months, rather than the years it typically takes the education community to get up to speed.
Before we rush to accept national standards as a new curriculum, it seems we need to ask ourselves one important question.  Do national standards mean a national curriculum, or is curriculum best left to localities and teachers to determine?  Seems CCSSI is all about providing us one universal yardstick, but it should be left up to the user to determine how to hit a given mark.

Changes to the “Race” Track?

Are there changes underfoot for the Race to the Top?  When the $4.35 billion grant program was first conceived, some senior personnel at the U.S. Department of Education hypothesized that awards may only go to a handful of states, maybe only four or five.  Since then, those “in the know” have come around to expect that 10-15 states would ultimately be named “Race” states, a belief only further strengthened by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s recent support of 15 states in their RttT applications.

Those looking to handicap the RttT field have committed the 15 Gates “favorite children” to memory.  Currently, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas are benefiting from the full and unfettered support of the Gates Foundation, including $250,000 grants to fund Gates-approved consultants to put in the nearly 900 manhours expected from a successful Race application.  In addition to the funding, these top 15 also receive the unofficial endorsement of Gates, seen by many as the quickest path to RttT success (except for the Lone Star State, which few expect to make the final cut).
But a funny thing happened on the way to finalizing the RttT RFP.  Over at EdWeek’s Politics K-12 blog, Michele McNeil has a significantly important development in the Race to the Top.  The Cliff Notes version — Gates is now looking to extend some form of RttT technical assistance to any and all states that can answer eight ed reform questions correctly.  Pass the filter on topics such as core standards, alternative certification, and the firewall, and you too can benefit from the benefits of Gates.  The full story is here.
Why is this development significant?  Two important reasons.  According to McNeil, this expansion of Gates assistance is due, in large part, to the urgings of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.  Since the start of the Duncan regime at ED, NGA and CCSSO have been two of the leading forces in education improvement.  The two groups are credited with helping secure the cornucopia of new funding made available through the economic stimulus bill, including RttT and the upcoming Investing in Innovation program.  More important, NGA and CCSSO are the drivers behind the core standards effort, a top priority for the Administration (at least in terms of education) and a non-negotiable for RttT applicants.
NGA and CCSSO were clearly advocating for the other 35 members of their organizations (the remaining states), and that advocacy was heard loud and clear by Gates.  So for those who questions the position of strength both state-focused organizations are operating under, it doesn’t get much stronger than having ED and Gates both adjust their strategies based on your requests and concerns.
And the second?  For weeks now, Eduflack has been hearing that there is a growing drumbeat for RttT scope expansion.  While there may not be additional dollars, more and more voices are clamoring for a greater sense of “sharing the wealth.”  For those 35 states perceived as on the outside looking in, they’d rather have a half-share of RttT than a full share of nothing.  And as ED tries to make wholesale improvements to our nation’s education system, it is far easier to do so with a RttT lever in 35 states than it is in 12.  So the gossip is likely true, and the intended number of RttT states is going to at least double before all is said and done this time next year, when Phase Two RttT awards are determined.
What does it all mean?  When all is said and done, we’re likely looking at 35-40 RttT states, not 10-15.  And we may even be seeing some exceptions or waivers made for high-profile states that don’t meet requirements around firewalls and charter caps.  Smaller checks for everyone, I’m afraid, but a larger cohort to actually deliver results and move the ball forward on ED’s priorities.
But it makes the entire RttT review process all the more curious.  Most states are scurrying to get their apps in as part of Phase One, figuring it increases the chances of winning an award.  After all, no one wants to be left without a chair when the music stops.  But what if we’re working like college admissions, where early decision applicants (Phase One) who don’t make the first cut get put into the general apps pool with the regular decision applicants (Phase Two)?  While there obviously won’t be time for Phase One applicants to revise and resubmit their applications for Phase Two, do circumstances change when ED is trying to fill out that final list of 40?  Do expectations and standards drop in Phase Two, after the truly Gates-supported states have had the first bite of the apple?  Only time will tell.