Gaps, Equality, and Student Achievement

For nearly a decade now, the buzzword in education reform has been student achievement.  Thanks to NCLB and AYP, we were all about the test scores and whether learners were able to show year-on-year gains, demonstrating that their skills and abilities were improving academic year after academic year.

Often overlooked in our push for improved student achievement has been the student achievement gap.  While we were tracking how students were doing longitudinally, we were missing the boat on the growing performance problems between the haves and the have nots.  How were African-American students measuring up compared to white students?  Hispanic students versus white students?  Native-American students versus white students?  Low-income students versus rich students?
Since the release of A National at Risk two and a half decades ago, we have realized the achievement gap should be a top concern, one that we need to address and, more importantly, one that we need to solve.  Despite improvements in student achievement, performance gaps are still there, still large, and still very much a destructive force in our nation’s public schools.  Yesterday, McKinsey & Company released a new study on the achievement gap, offering up some pretty startling statistics.  According to McKinsey, achievement gap data can predict, as early as the fourth grade, that the achievement gap can result in:
* Lower rates of high school and college graduation;
* Lower lifetime earnings;
* Poorer health; and
* Higher rates of incarceration.
Why is this so important?  First, student achievement is about more than just student test scores.  It has a wholesale and long-term impact on students, families, and the community at large.  McKinsey estimates that the achievement gap between students of color and white students cost the nation upwards of $525 billion in 2008, or 4 percent of our GDP.  For the gap between rich and poor, the cost was upwards of $670 billion, or 5 percent of our GDP.
Such numbers should be unacceptable to a nation that prides itself of the quality of its public education system and the often misguided notion that every child has access to equal opportunities and high-quality chances when it comes to their education and their future.  What is clear is we are not providing all students equal access to meaningful learning opportunities.  Poor students do not have the same learning opportunities and the same resources as rich students.  Black and Hispanic students do not have the same learning opportunities as white students.  Fifty-five years after Brown v. Board, we believe in equal education, but we aren’t delivering on it, particularly when it comes to students in our lowest performing schools and our struggling economic communities.
The McKinsey research was released in conjunction with the Education Equality Project, an effort joining the unlikely bedfellows of NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and the Rev. Al Sharpton.  EEP is looking at a series of issues on how to bring real, measurable equity to our nation’s public schools.  Issue one for EEP is teacher quality.  Their first briefing paper can be found here.  The highlights are not groundbreaking, but remind us of some key issues that school districts — particularly those serving historically disadvantaged populations — must consider when they look at how to improve the quality and outcomes of instruction:
1) Recruit the best possible candidates for teaching jobs;
2) Give aspiring and veteran teachers the right incentives and targeted training to perform well in the classroom;
3) Evaluating teacher performance fairly but rigorously;
4) Dismissing incompetent instructors after they have had an opportunity to improve their performance; and
5) Placing the best teachers where they are needed most.
Off the bat, we should be able to agree to 80 percent of the above recommendations.  Idea number four is likely to cause heartburn and major concern for the teachers unions and many who don’t want to rock the boat too much.  Such ideas, though, force us to look comprehensively at the ways we can address the issues and close the gaps.  They start debates that need to be had.  Will EEP win the day on removing teachers from their duties?  Unlikely.  But raising the subject forces superintendents and policymakers to take a much keener look at how we measure the effectiveness of the teachers entrusted with closing our learning and achievement gaps.
Currently, there are a number of groups and collaborations focusing on issues of access and equity in public education.  Some like to think that groups like EEP and Bigger, Bolder are competing interests.  But can’t we all agree that the achievement gap problem is one that needs lots of great thinkers and lots of new ideas and new approaches?  As long as organizations are out there putting forward ideas, offering new thoughts and new recommendations about how to better spend our current education dollars, how to better measure our effectiveness in the classroom, how to better teach our students, and how to ensure more (and hopefully) all students have access to the same high-quality learning opportunities, aren’t we better off for it?  Doesn’t such civil discourse force us to shake the status quo and start thinking about real solutions that rattle the system yet offer real chances to improve educational opportunities?
EEP will continue to issue recommendations on a series of classroom-based issues for addressing the achievement gap.  They need to.  For those who agree, they need to amplify the voice and move these ideas into action.  For those who disagree, they need to get on their soapboxes and offer better ideas to capture the hearts and minds of the community.  But there is no room for staying silent.  The education, economic, and societal impacts of the achievement gap are simply too great for us to say nothing, do nothing, and expect nothing.  The status quo is no longer an option.  Too many students have dropped out, lost out, and missed out because we have done nothing.  If we are to fulfill our national promise to provide every child with equal, high-quality learning opportunities, we need to act.  And we need to act now.

“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 Future of Education is in Transit?

When Eduflack first saw that the incoming CEO of the Chicago Public Schools is the current CTA president, I had two thoughts.  First, I wondered why I had the local Chicago teachers’ union name wrong, thinking they must have changed it to the Chicago Teachers Association.  And second, I thought how refreshing it would be, in this age of innovation, to tap a teacher leader as the new superintendent.

Then, of course, I actually read beyond the headline, seeing that Mayor Daley had selected the head of the Chicago Transit Authority to lead Chicago Public Schools.  How wrong I was on both counts.  The full story can be found here —,huberman-appointed-cps-chief-012709.article  
Now I’m not quite sure what to think.  In recent years, we’ve seen city leaders get creative in selecting superintendents.  The Broad Foundation is training a new generation of urban supes from the ranks of business and not-for-profits.  New York City tapped a lawyer and former U.S. Department of Justice official to head the NYC Department of Education.  Denver picked a former business leader and mayoral chief of staff for its top job (who has now moved on to become Colorado’s junior U.S. senator).  And Washington, DC selected a not-for-profit leader (albeit an education non-profit involved in teacher recruitment) to serve as its schools chancellor.  Such sea changes seemed to have worked for NYC and Denver, and we’ll know for sure in DC in another year or two.  In an age of school improvement, we’re all trying to think outside the box to find the best individuals to lead school transformation and improvement.  Sometimes, those individuals are found outside of the traditional K-12 environment.
We’ll all have to wait and see what Chicago’s Ron Huberman lays out as his platform and his agenda at CPS.  And we’ll need to see how much authority and input he truly provides Barbara Eason-Watkins, CPS’ chief education officer (and Duncan’s presumed successor, until the Huberman appointment).  But if the news reports are true, and Huberman’s priority number one is school security and safety procedures for team sports, it really raises an important issue of the role of urban superintendent and the priorities that come with the job.  And it shows just how important it is for non-educators to focus on the core academics when they take the top job.  NYC’s Klein and DC’s Rhee immediately focused on student achievement and taking whatever steps were necessary to boost student gains.  Denver’s Bennet went to work on teacher incentive pay.  Jumping into the educational deep end like Klein, Rhee, and Bennet did defines a superintendency and sets the tone for the school district moving forward.
Yes, it is important for a mayor to trust his superintendent.  Yes, school safety is a concern for just about every school district.  But can we really bring about school improvement and sustain progress on issues such as charter schools and alternative paths for principals and school closings and the like without the support and trust of the classroom teacher?  Will teachers line up behind a superintendent whose last experience in the public schools was likely when he graduated from high school?  Doesn’t a district like Chicago deserve a national search to bring in the best leader — from education or other ranks — available in the United States, whether they bear a Chicago zip code or not?  
As for the future of CPS’  school improvements, only time will tell.  The successes in NYC, Denver, and DC are likely the exceptions to the rule, and not the new norm for urban education.  I’m all for breaking the mold, but sometimes we have a mold because it is the best way to deliver the necessary product.  Yes, we have seen some cities choose non-traditional superintendents and thrive as a result.  No, one doesn’t have to have taught in a classroom to be a strong instructional leader.  Yes, we need to break the cycle of recycling the same school district leaders who seem to move from one city to the next, leaving little student achievement impact to show for it.  
But running an urban district is a complex challenge with little available learning curve.  We’ve heard so much lately about the academic progress being made in Chicago, and the instructional improvements being made across the city.  It just seems, when selecting a leader, that someone with familiarity with school funding, school choice, teacher professional development, instructional programs, student assessment, and such is more of a non-negotiable than merely a value-add.
I guess, at least, we can count on the CPS school buses running on schedule.

Coming Together for School Improvement

Over the last month or so, a great deal has been written (and far more has been spoken and gossiped) about the wars between “education camps” and who is going to take the lead in the Obama Administration.  At Sunday’s National Urban Alliance gathering, the crowd heard from NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, AASA Chief Dan Domenech, and Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University professor and top Obama education advisor, on the need for coming together.  The message was a simple one, and it is one that all those seeking improvement in our public schools should take into account, particularly today when we swear in a new president.

What is that message?  Put simply:
* We are all committed to improving our public schools.
* In this process, nothing is more important than our children, ensuring all have access to high-quality education and high-quality teachers.
* Real improvement requires the participation of all parties.  Now is not the time to sit on the sidelines.
* Those committed to improving our public schools have far more in common than they realize.  Those commonalities are what will drive the agenda for the next four years.
Feeding from the energy, commitment, and passion demonstrated by the overpacked room at the NUA event, I would add a few additional messages for consideration in our quest toward school improvement:
* Lasting improvement begins with the teacher.  That means training qualified and effective teachers, supporting their ongoing development once they are in the classroom, and ensuring they have the materials and supports necessary to lead and inspire in their classroom.
* True success requires building on the promising practices of the past.  What can we do to improve and strengthen NCLB?  How do we preserve the good of the past eight years in moving us to the great of the next eight?
* We are learning, and teaching, across a continuum.  Our focus should not be limited to fourth through eighth grades, as NCLB’s accountability measures focus.  Learning begins in preK, and extends through secondary school and beyond.  We must invest and attend to the full continuum, particularly those who may have fallen through the cracks in recent years, entering the middle or secondary grades without the core skills or abilities they need to succeed.
* We must continue to challenge one another to get lasting improvement.  There is no magic bullet or quick path here.  It takes hard work.  That means challenging conventional wisdom and engaging with a wide range of perspectives to get to the best, most effective path possible.
* The achievement gap should be priority number one.  Education is a civil right, as so many have articulated, it also is a non-negotiable.  If we are to give every student access to the American dream — regardless of the state of the economy — we must first make sure that access to quality education (and the equitability of such programs, whether they be offered in urban, suburban, or rural communities) is universal and adequately funded.
* In 2009, improvement comes from a velvet glove approach, not from the carrot-stick version we’ve experiences for years now.
* There is a hunger to see real, tangible improvements soon.  Step number one will be ensuring that the economic stimulus money designated for public education is getting into our schools.  We must effectively capture those real-life stories of how such funding is making a difference and impacting the lives of real teachers and real students immediately.  We must show that economic stimulus in education is having an immediate impact in schools like ours, with kids like ours.
Yesterday, in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day,  Democrats for Education Reform held an education equality rally in Washington, DC.  DFER Chair Kevin Chavous’ remarks reflect much of what was said at NUA and much of what we should consider as we hopefully join together to close the achievement gap and improve public schools in every city and town across the United States:

At this historic time, in this city of our nation’s founders,  on the day designated to honor Dr. Martin Luther King and his legacy, it is fitting that we all stand before you to challenge America. Although this challenge is made out of love and respect, it is a challenge nonetheless. 

Quite simply, it is time for our country to stand up for our children.  As great as we are, we still are failing our kids.  Failing them miserably.  When half of the children of color drop out of high school, we are failing our kids; when we offer fewer and fewer AP courses, we are failing our kids; when our world education rankings continue to slide, we are failing our kids; and when we remain committed to a one size fits all model of education service delivery, we are failing our kids.  Yes, there are some very good schools in America that provide some children with an excellent education.  But that is not good enough and we are still failing our kids.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Dr. King directly chastises white clergy for their unwillingness to confront the status quo on the issue of segregation and social justice.  Dr. King alludes to the interconnectedness of us all by saying that ‘we are caught on an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly’.  Indeed, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.  This is the inter-related structure of reality.

Like King, we need to be honest and forthright about what ails us in education.  If a child is failing in a school in southeast Washington, DC, it hurts the suburbanite living in Aurora, Colorado. And we all lose.  Until each and every American child receives equal access to a high quality education, our destiny will never be fulfilled, our promise never reached.  This is the last civil rights struggle in America and we need to employ the same sense of urgency and resolve that we did to end segregation during the time of King.

UPDATE — The MLK event where Kevin Chavous spoke was sponsored by Education Equality Project, not DFER.  But the power of the remarks remain the same.

Looking for a Chicago Education Miracle?

Eight years ago, the education community was all abuzz about the “Houston Miracle” and how then EdSec Rod Paige was going to take the magic that transformed the Houston Independent School District into a Broad Prize winner, federalize it into No Child Left Behind, and leave a path of school improvement and student achievement in its wake.

Nearly a decade later, we’re still waiting for some of that magic.  Chalk it up to poor implementation, increased criticism, a lack of faith, or even programs that didn’t work.  But those Texas improvements, carried out in theory with even more zeal by EdSec Margaret Spellings, are still a work in progress.  We still haven’t bottled what made HISD the success story it was in 2000-2001, and we likely never will.
Interestingly, we are not hearing the same claims about Chicago Public Schools and the real impact EdSec in-waiting Arne Duncan can have on our nation’s schools — until now.  Maria Glod’s piece in today’s Washington Post paints a picture of an urban school district of reform, innovation, and improvement.  Test scores up, achievement gaps closing, performance pay awarded.  The full story can be found here —  
Eduwonkette ( has been telling a different story on Chicago and its data.  So have others on the blogsphere who look at the third-largest school district in the nation and wonder if it has come far enough and if it has accomplished enough to be sold as a success story.
Leading an urban school district is hard work.  The life expectancy for a schools superintendent is about three years.  Duncan has been there more than twice as long.  He’s worked with a strong union (the AFT affiliate in Chicago) and he’s managed to expand charter schools and implement a performance pay plan that seems to be working, at least according to WaPo.  And he’s mostly done it without drawing headlines for himself.
This past fall, Eduflack learned how strongly folks feel about NYC Public Schools and the alleged turnaround led by Chancellor Joel Klein.  I’ve remarked that the NYCDOE has demonstrated improvement.  Test scores are up.  Achievement gap is closing.  NYC kids are doing better against students upstate than they used to.  Such remarks brought a hail storm of attacks from those on the front lines in New York, those who believed that such statements were merely the PR work of a zealous schools chancellor.  Folks just didn’t want to believe that NYC schools and NYC schoolteachers had begun to turn the corner on student achievement.
The same could be said about Chicago.  Demonstrating eye-popping results in a school district of 400,000 is near impossible.  Incremental gains are the proof.  The case studies and stories offered by Glod and WaPo give us insight into the sorts of improvements Duncan and his team have brought to Chicago.  We know there is a lot more we need to learn about Duncan and Chicago.  But the data demonstrates an uptick.  And we all know that upward movement is better than downward.
But there is a larger issue here, one not raised during the Paige era and one that should be raised during the Duncan era.  The EdSec is not intended to be a superintendent in chief, the top supe in a nation of chief school officers.  He is meant to lead federal investment, policymaking, and thought leadership on education.  Yes, being a supe brings a unique perspective to that job, allowing very real experiences in boosting student achievement, closing the achievement gap, and negotiating collective bargaining agreements with teachers to educate and color one’s world view on education policy.  It demonstrates one understands the challenges facing today’s educators and today’s school leaders.  And it shows appreciation for practice and impact, and not just theory.
It is silly to think that Duncan is going to transform the nation into one larger version of Chicago Pubic Schools.  The CPS experience is helpful in showing us what Duncan thinks of issues like charter schools and performance pay.  It is useful in showing how well the incoming EdSec works with teachers, how much respect he shows them, and how much power he grants them in school improvement efforts.  And it helps determine whether he is an improver or a status quoer, whether he will go along with what has always been done or whether he will bring about real change for a real goal.
We shouldn’t be looking at Chicago test scores and ask how we replicate the experience nationwide.  Instead, we need to look at the innovations implemented by Duncan, the team he’s built, and the relationships he’s established with Chicago teachers, families, and community and business leaders and use all that information as a map for what is possible and where ED may head.  We look at the Chicago experience to measure Duncan’s character and set our expectations for the next four years.  

A National Spotlight on the Next EdSec

Over the past few days, Cabinet posts in the new Obama Administration have been assigned with great speed and zeal.  It seems we now have a heads for Treasury, State, Justice, Homeland Security, and Commerce.  A new Chief of Staff has been named, and the National Security Advisor seems close at hand.  But the likely question for those who read Eduflack is, wither the U.S. Department of Education?

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano was considered a possibility, until she got Homeland Security.  New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was running a darkhorse campaign for ED, until he was tapped for Commerce.  So what’s next for ED?  Personally, I still think one of the strongest choices is outgoing North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley.  He gets education, he has been willing to reform and innovate, and he has invested in ideas like high school reform, even taking the arrows that came with adopting the national graduation rate and seeing his personal numbers fall.  But no one is calling me for referrals.
If you read the blogs, you hear a number of other names — SC Education Commissioner Inez Tannenbaum, NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and Chicago Schools Superintendent Arne Duncan chief among them.  The Fordham Foundation has even been pushing United Negro College Fund chief Michael Lomax as a darkhorse candidate.  Lots of choices, all bringing different experiences and different points of view.
It should be no surprise that this morning’s Washington Post weighed in on the Obama cabinet announcements in its lead editorial.  Jobs like State, Treasury, and AG can generate some real excitement.  What has particularly interesting, though, was that WaPo dedicated the final paragraph (and the subhead of the editorial) to the selection of an EdSec.  No, we aren’t focusing our attentions on Defense or EPA or Labor or Veterans Affairs.  We aren’t looking at key diplomatic postings.  Instead, WaPo is recognizing the value of Education in this perfect storm of economic uncertainty, a shifting workforce, and a unprecedented demands for new skills among new workers.
What did the Post say?  Here it is, word for word:

Another selection that will merit scrutiny is Mr. Obama’s education secretary: Will the choice reflect his stated commitment to reform? Will it be someone with hands-on experience in education and a proven willingness to experiment? While the new president’s attention is understandably focused on the economy, not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s critical to have someone who comes to the education post with those credentials.   

In one paragraph, the Washington Post has done what Ed in 08 and countless other organizations tried to do — it has raised the profile of the federal role in education and has highlighted the importance of an EdSec in times of economic uncertainty.  And it did so without bemoaning the NCLB regime or the problems and roadblocks education has faced these past eight years.  It did so by focusing on the future and what may be possible.

WaPo is absolutely right.  The next U.S. Secretary of Education needs to reflect the Obama Administration’s commitment to reform.  He or she needs to be an EdSec willing to experiment and innovate.  An EdSec willing to effectively use the bully pulpit and proclaim that some actions and programs of the past simply don’t work, and we need to build a better mousetrap.  The EdSec needs to reconfirm our national belief that every student can succeed, when provided with proven instruction, effective and well-supported teachers, and a school system invested in their success.  The EdSec needs to become the educational motivator in chief, reminding us that education improvement affects all, and positive changes lift all learning boats.  That an education focus today impacts health, justice, jobs, and the economy tomorrow.  That education does not happen in a vacuum; it is the lifeblood of our nation and its future.
Does the new EdSec need hands-on experience in education?  That’s a question that many a policy expert has been debating since November 4 (or before).  The larger question is what is hands-on experience in education?  Does that mean they once taught, either at the K-12 or postsecondary level?  Does that mean the EdSec needs to be a former superintendent (remembering we have only had one of those previously, and many were resistant of it from the start)?  Does it mean they’ve led education reforms, be at the local, state, or federal level?  Yes, an EdSec needs education experience, but it is all a matter of what your definition of experience is.
Personally, Eduflack would broaden the search criteria for the new EdSec.  Experience and a willingness to experiment are important.  So are the following:
* A visionary who can see where 21st century education should take us, rather than be bound by the confines of the 20th century status quo
* A leader who can build bridges and strengthen relationships, establishing a network of support for federal education policy with teachers, parents, business leaders, community leaders, higher education, education organizations, the community at large, and even the media
* A thinker who views education through a P-20 lens, recognizing the equal importance of early childhood education, K-12 education (and the differences between elementary, middle,and secondary schools and their needs), and higher education
* A CEO who brings in the right people to lead the right efforts, including prioritizing teacher recruitment and quality, early childhood education, STEM, and college preparedness (all parts of the Obama change agenda)
* A rhetorical leader, one who can build stakeholder and national buy-in for major education improvements, even if we don’t have the funds to pay for it yet.  A true master of ED’s bully pulpit (and this is a character trait way overdo at ED).
* An individual committed to education improvement.  More importantly, an individual committed to the notion that every child in this nation can succeed when provided the proper support, instruction, and attention, both at school and at home.
On top of that, we need an EdSec who is going to better engage parents in the process, including families as part of the reform and improvement transformation.  We need an EdSec who better engages the business community as well, seeing them as more than just a funding source, but as a partner for identifying skills gaps and supplementing instruction with expertise that aligns with future needs.  And, yes, we need an EdSec who can effectively work with the teachers unions, partnering with them on school improvements and finding ways to work together, rather than work around or work against each other.
Does such a person exist?  Sure, I could name a few.  At the start of this parlor game, I believed a governor was the strongest choice, particularly if it was one who could blend an understanding of education policy, a track record of improvements, and an ability to master the bully pulpit and the relationship-building game.  But the Obama cabinet is already looking heavy with governors.  At the end of the day, the name of the new EdSec isn’t as important as the qualities he or she brings to the job.  Education experience and a commitment to reform.  Track record of relationship building and partnership development.  World view that education is a P-20 continuum and impacts the student and the community well after the schoolhouse door is exited for the last time.  We
need a leader to inspire, innovate, and motivate.  And we need it now.

Getting Bitten by the Big Apple on Education

Well, Eduflack really stepped into it yesterday.  Writing about the future of NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein in an Obama Department of Education, I remarked that NYC has seen improved student achievement during the Klein era, an observation gathered through personal experience, conversation, news coverage, and other third party sources.

Eduwonkette quickly pointed out that the numbers under the Klein regime have not improved, and, in fact, the achievement gap has either frozen or widened during the Klein era.  And I’ll be the first to admit, there are few, Diane Ravitch comes to mind, that know the NYC data like Eduwonkette does.
As I’ve stated, the legend is that NYC is a district on the upswing.  Test scores up.  Achievement gap closing.  Improved engagement.  One reader suggested it is all just good PR, and the results aren’t there.  So I decided to get up in the wee hours this morning, and check out some of the NYC data itself.
My first stop was the NYCDOE itself, and the data it makes available on its website — data that every school district is supposed to make available to the concerned public.  I hate to admit it, but I found very little of use.  What I did find was fairly positive.  For the current year, the four-year graduation rate is at an all-time high — 55.8%.  And the graduation gap has narrowed for both black and Hispanic audiences.
In 2007, NYC’s ELA scores, grades 3-8, rose from 53.2% proficient to 56% proficient or better.  This represented gains in every grade but third grade.  And the percentage of students with serious academic problems significantly declined.
Unfortunately, the math data was a little more troubling for me.  There are bold headlines declaring “Grades 3-8 Math Progress,” but the link has been disabled.  So if there is real math progress, it is being undermined by a technology deficiency.
I recognize some would say a 55.8% grad rate and 56% reading proficiency are hardly data points to trumpet and be proud of.  But improvement is improvement.  If you boost your grade rate from 45% to 55%, that is a start.  You just have to figure out what to do for those remaining 45%.  Gains are gains, even under our current AYP structure.
Unsatisfied with the NYC-provided data, I decided to check in with our California friends out at the Broad Foundation. After all, NYC won the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2007.  It was touted as the top urban district in the nation.  So what data did Broad use to make that determination?  Using 2006 data, Broad found:
* NYC outperformed other schools in the state serving students with similar income levels in reading and math achievement, at all grade levels — elementary, middle, and high school.
* NYC’s African-American and Hispanic students outperformed and showed greater improvement than their peers in other NY schools
* NYC narrowed the African-American and Hispanic achievement gaps in both reading and math for both elementary and high school students
* NYC increased the number of African-American and Hispanic students performing at the most advanced levels
All positive points.  All validated through Broad’s independent research and independent review process.  
So what’s the verdict out there?  Is NYC an education success story?  Is it a complicated game of smoke and mirrors?  Do we simply trust the data made available to the public, or is there more important data we aren’t seeing?  Eduflack may be a native New Yorker, but I’ll yield to those up in the field to set the record straight.  And yes, Eduwonkette, I’ll even provide you the full rostrum here.  No need for just commenting.

What’s a Superintendent to Do in the New ED?

As the Obama teams plans a new organization and new staffing for the U.S. Department of Education, one primary thought from the field is the role of real educators — and real administrators — in the new ED.  Eight years ago, Rod Paige became the first schools superintendent (he, of Houston) to take the helm as the nation’s chief schools officer.  Since then, some have questioned whether the job is the right job for a superintendent, what with its political, policy, administrative, and organizational requirements.

Earlier in the week, Eduflack advocated for the need to put a governor at the top of the Education structure.  Yes, I recognize that likely means appointing an individual who has not been a classroom teacher or who has personally worked in instruction or in education policy.  But a governor provides the leadership, the management, and the command of the bully pulpit that is in such demand at ED.  Personally, my short list would include NC’s Mike Easley, Arizona’s Janet Napolitano (though she is being mentioned for AG and Homeland Security), and Tennessee’s Phil Bredensen.

So what is the role of the superintendent in the new ED?  Currently, the top practitioner is Ray Simon, the former state schools chief and superintendent from Arkansas.  And if the local media reports are any indication, that seems to be the model Obama is pursuing as well.  On this morning’s NYC news, the expectation is that NYC Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein will move to ED, possibly to take over the number two position.  This would name Klein the de facto COO of the Department.  And if the Ray Simon mold holds, he would also retain a significant policy role, particularly as it applies to K-12 policy, including NCLB, IDEA, and the offices that govern them (OESE, OII, OSERS, OELA).

Similarly, a rumor has started brewing that Peter McWalters, the outgoing education commissioner in Rhode Island, is the frontrunner to head the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.  The commissioner is one of the longest serving chief state school officers in the nation, and has a long and distinguished career as a practitioner and school and district leader.  Personally, I think he would be great at OESE, just the leader the office has needed for quite some time.

Over the last decade, we have seen a shift in public thinking about public schools.  Issues like accountability and achievement gaps are now dominating the landscape, for good or bad.  We hear it from the business community, we hear it from appropriators and authorizers at the policy level, we hear it from parents, and we even hear it from the educators themselves.  So it only makes sense that someone who has “walked the walk” is involved in developing and enforcing the policies designed to improve our public schools and boost student achievement.

The bigger question is, if you are Joel Klein, do you leave NYC for anything less than the top job at ED?  In NY, Klein has led a revolution in public instruction.  Test scores are up.  The achievement gap is smaller.  The district has won the Broad Prize.  And teachers, kids, and parents are more interested and more involved in the process of improving our schools.  There is a greater commitment to school quality in NYC than we have seen in quite some time.

If Klein can replicate that model at the national level, and help districts across the nation do what his team did in NYC, then this is the logical choice.  But if the number two job yields much of its policy-shaping responsibility to the Under Secretary, as was the model in the Clinton/Riley Department of Education, isn’t Klein better off continuing improvement in NYC and finishing what he started?  Aren’t we better off as a nation, allowing him to demonstrate the long-term, longitudinal effects of his reforms in the world’s greatest city? 

We need great thinkers and great leaders at ED.  Klein and McWalters both fit in both categories.  But if they are tapped, they need to be tapped for the right position.  The worst thing we can do is bring in the right people, then put them in the wrong job, denying them the opportunity to do what they do best and stripping our nation of their ability to make a true, long-term difference.

UPDATE — WCBS in NYC asked Klein directly about his interest in the EdSec position itself, and he provided the standard “I am very happy in my current position” response.  

To Be An Urban Superintendent

Over the past few weeks, the national education media has reported on the perils of being (or more importantly hiring and retaining) the urban superintendent.  By now, we’ve all read of the soap opera down in Miami-Dade, first with Rudy Crew’s departure and then with the delay on the official appointment of Alberto Carvalho as Crew’s permanent replacement (it is always the fault of those reporters, after all, isn’t it).

Most recently, the spotlight has been focused on the revolving door of the St. Louis superintendency, where it seems no one really wanted the top job, or at least no one wants to hold the job.  The Associated Press has Oklahoma City Schools on its 25th supe in 39 years, with the average tenure for a school chief now less than three years.  (See the full story here at <a href="
There is no question it is hard, hard work to lead an urban school district these days.  Reduced financial resources.  Greater academic expectations.  AYP demands.  Struggling schools.  Collective bargaining with teachers unions.  Increased energy costs.  School violence.  Drugs.  Drop outs.  And we haven’t even gotten into the issues of effectively educating today’s young people.  Being a superintendent may be one of the most difficult jobs out there, particularly when you factor in the searing spotlight, the high stakes, and the even higher expectations.
Two years ago, Prince George’s County, MD, handed over the keys to their educational kingdom to John Deasy, a promising educational leader from a small beach community in California.  His old Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District was one-tenth the size of PG’s 130,000 student system.  He was a white man coming into a predominantly minority school district.  And he brought real stability — and real improvement — to a district in need of some positive development.
We all know that it takes a good five years to see the true impact of educational reforms, particularly those classroom-based changes.  We need many years of data to view the long-term result.  But after a year or two, we can see some promising practices.  And in PG, Deasy has posted some real promise.  Test scores seem to be rising, and rising faster than the state average.  The number of schools on the state watch list has dramatically declined since Deasy’s arrival.  The district is now a beacon of possibility, and not the punchline for school failure it once was.   
Why is all this so important?  This morning’s Washington Post reports that Deasy will depart from PG in February, to take a senior position with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  No doubt, it is a great opportunity for Deasy and it will be a strong asset for the Gates Foundation.  Deasy’s experience in PG will be of real value to Gates, as he has solved problems in just the sort of school district that Gates is trying to reach with its education reform efforts. 
But it is a sad development for Prince George’s Public Schools, and a sadder day for urban education in general.  As the lifespan of an urban superintendent continues to shrink, we need to do everything we can to keep the good ones in place.  We need continuity in our district leadership, ensuring that good supes are sufficiently recognized, rewarded, and supported.  We need a system for mentoring the next generation of superstar superintendents, where the Deasys and Joel Kleins and Tom Payzants of the world can mentor and teach.  And just as we focus on teacher recruitment, we need a national investment in high-quality, effective school and district leadership.
Superintendent Deasy should be congratulated on his new appointment.  Through Gates, he has the opportunity to impact millions of students and dozens of school districts like PG.  He has the chance to take his PG experiences to scale, demonstrating to a larger audience that school improvement is possible, student test scores can rise, and schools can take the necessary steps to make AYP.  
Eduflack only hopes that PG will seek out a replacement from the reformer/improver model, someone who can continue the work Deasy has moved forward since his arrival in 2006.  Now is not the time for caretakers or those who won’t cause ripples.  Deasy shook up PG.  Gates saw that, and wanted to see more of that.  Hopefully, PG will stay the course.   

We Are Agitators, Not Advocates

We’ve reached halftime at the Aspen Institute’s National Education Summit.  So far, the sessions have been interesting … and a little surprising.  What’s surprising?  No one is calling for the abolition of No Child Left Behind.  Even on a panel with two superintendents and the new president of the AFT, no one called for NCLB’s demise.  In fact, everyone seemed to believe the law has had a positive impact on education in the United States.  Why aren’t these folks talking to Congress?

But this is clearly not a conference on NCLB.  If the morning sessions are any indication, the future of education is about one thing and one thing only — accountability.  Perhaps EdSec Margaret Spellings is correct that accountability is going to be the lasting legacy of the NCLB era.  Today, everyone is talking about accountability, and everyone is talking about it in positive and glowing terms.
Some of the highlights from this morning:
* Spellings is reporting that test scores are up, the achievement gap is closing, and we are making great progress, particularly when it comes to math instruction.  EdSec also used the forum to promote her notion of Key Educational Indicators, her banking-industry metaphor for improving education (though the timing of modeling yourself after banking today is a little iffy.  I’d even prefer Tommy Thompson’s comparison to evaluating nursing homes).  What are those Indicators you may ask?  Simple measures — effective educators, reliable data, proven strategies.
* Ed in O8’s Roy Romer used his time at the rostrum to focus on his group’s new study on remedial education in postsecondary education, reporting one in three college-going high school grads needs remedial ed.  An important statistic, yes, but Eduflack thinks we should first figure out how to eliminate the 35% or so high school drop out rate, before focusing on those who made it through the system (even if it was a mediocre system at best)
* NPR/Fox commentator Juan Williams surprised the room by stating one of the biggest issues facing public education is the need (or the requirement) that we must be willing to challenge the unions.
* NYCPS’ Joel Klein has apparently heard one too many times that you can’t fix education until you fix poverty.  He countered with the mirror.  You can fix poverty once you fix education.  He also served as the chief voice for national education standards.
Surprisingly, Roy Romer seems to now be backing off his support for national standards.  A year ago, the former Colorado governor laid out what Eduflack thought was a terrific plan for using the nation’s top education governors to develop national education standards that could be adopted by all states.  Today, Romer said national standards just weren’t doable.  Instead, he proposed states developing their own standards that aligned with international standards, with the feds rewarding them for basing benchmarks on things like PISA.  An interesting idea, yes, but isn’t it more important to have the United States develop a single standard that matches up with PISA or TIMSS, and not that Arizona and Virginia have figured out how to do it by themselves, leaving the other 48 behind?  If national standards are not doable, tell us why and let’s task some folks to solve the problem.  Surrender isn’t the option, particularly on national standards.
The morning closed with an interesting discussion that focused, in part, on staff development.  Prince George’s County (MD) superintendent John Deasy focused on the concept that “teaching matters.”  Atlanta supe Beverly Hall called for professional development to be job embedded, and not simply an add-on offered one morning a month (Are you listing National Staff Development Council?  Hall is singing your song.)  Even Ed Trust’s Kati Haycock got in the act, suggesting that our schools need more programs like Core Knowledge if we are to really close that achievement gap and boost student achievement.
The takeaways?  No fireworks.  The Mayflower Hotel is hosting a room full of power players with the ability to enact real change.  They spent the morning listening and gathering information.  This was not about posturing or getting your slogan mentioned (since there are no open mikes for statements or questions) or showing you are the smartest person in the room.  Instead, this was about hearing and really understanding.  It was about making sure your view (and your motivation) for education reform is motivated by the same issues as your colleague across the table.  It is about making sure we’re all working together to solve the same problem and seeing success in the same way.
The event is being billed as “An Urgent Call.”  What is clear, though, is that there is still an absence of a national sense of urgency for the issue, particularly with those who aren’t running school districts, organizations, or corporations.  We still believe our individual school is doing a great job, regardless of the available data.  We still believe our students can compete, despite our slippage in international competition.  And we still think our kids are ready for the future, despite the growing dropout rate and increased remediation rate.  Clearly, we need an urgent call to Main Street, USA … and we need it now.
For years, Eduflack has talked about the need for public engagement and advocacy, particularly when it comes to the issue of school improvement.  But EdSec Spellings had it right when she said we should not settle for being advocates.  Instead, we should be agitators.  We’ve advocated for reform for decades.  Maybe the only way to really make a difference — to close the achievement gap, to boost student achievement in national and international measures, to measurably improve and support teaching, to broaden school choice and school opportunities — we really need to agitate.  I’m ready.  I’m Eduflack, and I’m an agitator.