Cast Your SxSWedu Votes Now!

It’s that time of year! Only a few more weeks left to have your say in some of the edu-panels that will be on the docket for next year’s SxSWedu event.

As always, there are tons of terrific ideas out there. But not every good idea gets a time slot. They need the backing of the audience as well. So it means you need to go to the SxSW PanelPicker and give a great big thumbs up to those sessions you think are worthy of SxSWedu.

When we go to the ballot box, we usually face a gauntlet of folks handing us sample ballots of those we should vote for. SxSWedu is no different. Take a gander over at Twitter and you can see tons of folks lobbying for their sessions. All can be found at #SxSWedu.

Your cheat sheet is here, though. Three panels worth your consideration and your endorsement:

Disruptive Change in Higher Ed: Replace or Repair?

In the digital age, higher education, willingly or unwillingly, will undergo disruptive change. Existing institutions can lead the change or become its victim. If higher education resists, new digital institutions will be established to meet the needs of the time. Tradition simply cannot save a college or university unwilling to adapt or unable to learn from those who adapted previously. It will explore what disruptive innovation really means for higher education in the 21st century learning.

Forget Leaning In, We Need to Dadprove

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi have preached the merits of “leaning in.” But if we are serious about boosting student achievement and inspiring successful children, we need less leaning in and more fathers who are “diving in” to their families. Instead of encouraging more to prioritize work over family, we need to inspire a generation of men to realize what they can and should do as dads, being active in their children’s lives and involved in their learning process. (Fair warning, this is a presentation by dear ol’ Eduflack)

Tech x Teacher Prep x Disruption = Student Success

In different ways, these panelists are leaders challenging the status quo in education to help teachers and students today and tomorrow. They understand a continued rise in teacher attrition is a huge problem for all, and solutions come in the form of a smart intersection of tools and technology, support, education and mentorship. Successful teachers help us get to student success, and leadership in learning takes on new meaning when this group covers what it will take to get us there and why.

Each one unique. Each one important. Each one worthy of your endorsement. Vote early. Vote often. And make sure you vote for these sessions for SxSWedu 2015!

Pencils, Bubble Sheets, and Erasures

After yet another investigation into alleged cheating on DC Public Schools’ student achievement tests, DCPS officials yesterday announced that they were tossing out the standardized test scores for three classrooms.  If one reads between the lines, it appears that the current action was based on allegations that someone altered the beloved bubble tests after the students took the exam.

This follows on the heels of similar allegations in Atlanta last year, which forced the resignation of long-time Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall.  And, of course, this isn’t the first time that DCPS has investigated alleged altering of the bubble sheets on its exams.  The same charges were levied just a few years ago.
For the past few years, we have heard EdSec Arne Duncan rail against the dreaded “bubble test.”  And while the good EdSec may be taking issue with such exams for a very different reason, he is correct.  The days of No.2 pencils and scanned bubble sheets should be over. 
With a growing chorus of opposition to bubble tests, with allegations of cheating on said tests on the rise, and with those pencil-and-scan sheet exams viewed as a general enemy to the educational process, it begs some essential questions.  Why aren’t we testing through other means?  In our 21st century learning environment, why do we still use 19th century testing approaches?  Can we build a better testing mousetrap?
Those first two questions are typically answered with the usual responses.  Change is more difficult than the status quo.  We fear the new.  If it isn’t truly broken, why try to fix it?  It costs too much, either in dollars or in stakeholder chits.  We don’t know enough yet (maybe we can form a committee to explore).  It just isn’t a high enough priority.
As for the last question, though, we have already built a better mousetrap.  A few states have begun using online adaptive testing, demonstrating promising practice (on its way to best practice).  The gold standard, at this point, is Oregon’s OAKS Online, or the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.  Following on its heels are similar online adaptive assessment systems in Hawaii and Delaware.  And with a $176 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (led by the State of Washington) is looking to develop a similar assessment framework to measure the K-12 Common Core State Standards.
Why these new systems?  To the point, they seem to assess student achievement and learning faster and better than ye olde bubble sheets, at a lower cost to the states.  From a practical point of view, they hopefully bring testing up to speed with instruction and learning.  If we are serious about a 21st century education for all, it only makes sense that we would couple that with 21st century assessment.  And that just isn’t done with a stick of wood and some graphite.
So in looking at alleged issues in DC, Atlanta, and elsewhere, the last questions we should be asking is how to avoid erasures on tests or the best way to detect systematic changes on bubble sheets.  Instead, we should be asking why we aren’t using a more effective testing system in the first place, a system that better aligns with both where we are headed on instruction and how today’s — and tomorrow’s — students actually learn?
* Full disclosure — Eduflack does work related to the assessment efforts in Oregon, Hawaii, and Delaware.         

Mayors, Supes, and Turnover

This morning, the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting (in an exclusive, no less) that

Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman has told the city’s mayor that he will resign as schools CEO before the end of the school year.  Why, when Huberman has been on the job less than two years?  The Sun-Times claims he is quitting the top schools job because Mayor Richard Daley is not running for reelection in 2012, and Huberman has no intention of working for another mayor.

So it begs a big question — is this one of the unintended consequences of mayoral control?  Last month, we began the death watch for DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, following the defeat of DC Mayor Adrian Fenty in our nation’s capital’s primary.  New mayor, new superintendent.  The presumptive mayor of DC, Vincent Gray, has made clear he wants his own person in the chancellor’s chair.  Is Huberman simply reading the writing on the wall, assuming that Rahm Emanuel or any of a host of other candidates for mayor in the Windy City will want their own schools CEO?

Urban school superintendent turnover is already a major problem.  Our cities chew through school district leaders, with most big-city supes serving in a given job for only two or three years.  At the same time, we know that real school improvement takes four, five, or even more years to take hold.  With supe tenure and time for turnaround at such odds, is it any wonder that we continue to suffer through persistently low-performing schools, growing drop-out factories, and an embarassing achievement gap?

Don’t get me wrong.  Eduflack recognizes the value of mayoral control.  We can see the positive impact it has had in cities like New York and Boston.  But isn’t an urban supe’s job difficult enough without having to worry about how the political winds are blowing for his boss?  Yes, in a mayoral control model, a supe needs to make sure he or she is on the same page as the mayor.  But do we really want a cycle where a change in city leadership means a change in school leadership?  And do we really want strong supe candidates in cities like DC, Chicago, and Newark to think twice before accepting the job as they wonder if their potential new boss is politically viable beyond the current term (or in Newark’s Booker’s case, moving up to bigger and better things)?


Wither DCPS?

It doesn’t get more definitive than this.  After calling Vincent Gray’s DC mayoral win on Tuesday “devastating for the schoolchildren of Washington, DC,” DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has all but announced she will resign as head of our nation’s capital’s public schools (and likely be gone well before the end of the this academic year).  

So what comes next for a school district that seems to change superintendents as frequently as some kids change their underwear?  Yet another schools chief is likely to roll into town (and it could be a retread of someone who has already been in DC), offering yet another approach to school improvement, spending the next few years rearranging the deck chairs.

In a front page story in today’s Washington Post, Bill Turque offers up four possible successors to Rhee.  Two would offer us our Back to the Future moment, with the possibility of either current Detroit education czar Robert Bobb or outgoing Newark (NJ) superintendent Cliff Janey returning to DC.  Also on Turque’s short list, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the current academic chief in Detroit, or Deborah Gist, current Rhode Island education commissioner and former DC state supe.

For the record, Eduflack loves Gist.  What she has done in Rhode Island this past year is nothing short of remarkable.  She’s completely overhauled the way the state approaches public education — from instruction to teacher quality to data and all points in between.  Gist guided the state to a big Race to the Top win a few weeks ago.  Yes, she is facing a new governor come January (and possibly one who has not endorsed the RttT plan), but if she decides to leave Providence, I’m hoping it is to bring her vision to another state in need of forward movement and real improvement. 

Janey may be a good man and a fine superintendent, but bringing him back to DC sends the wrong message on the direction of DCPS.  Make no mistake, Janey deserves some of the credit for the student test score gains enjoyed under Rhee.  And yes, he has a lot of friends here (including the incoming mayor and the teachers’ union).  But for those looking closely at DC’s next K-12 move, Janey reflects, rhetorically, a step backward, not a step forward.  It may be an unfair characterization, but how can we say DC schools are better off going where they were five years ago?

That leaves us with the two candidates from the Motor City left on Turque’s short list.  First things first, Detroit needs to name one of these two its superintendent … and fast.  Bobb has done remarkable things in Detroit under very difficult circumstances.  And in a desire to bring improvement, he has been open to just about any good idea in the city.  He needs to be given time to see those ideas through, and he needs to be given the full authority over both finances and instruction a real superintendent deserves.  So it Detroit is forced to pick, and either Bobb or Byrd-Bennett would be strong choices, does DC really want to settle for the candidate Detroit didn’t want?

So where does that leave us?  Over the last few days, the future of DCPS has focused on the traditional.  Eduflack has heard names like Rudy Crew (formerly of NYC and Miami-Dade), Arlene Ackerman (currently of Philly and formerly of San Fran and DC), and others who seem to take the tour of the great urban schools circuit.  But is that what DC needs?  Is DC simply looking for a steady hand who understands the job of superintendent, or does it need someone who will think differently and not know what isn’t allowed?

After the Rhee experiment, Tuesday’s victorious parties are not going to be in any mood to find another outside-the-box candidate.  As much as a district like DC would benefit from a leader like Rhee or NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, that just isn’t in the cards.  We are likely looking for candidates who are all too familiar with the urban supe musical chairs game.  It makes for an easy decision for Gray and company, but it may not be the best thing for DC’s school children.

So who will it be?  Janey?  Crew?  Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall?  Out west, the biggest supe search is currently Clark County, NV, or the Las Vegas Schools.  Yesterday, they named their three finalists — Colorado Education Commissioner Dwight Jones, Dallas ISD Superintenden Michael Hinojosa, and Lee County (FL) Supe James Browder.  Do we get one of the two that fail to hit it big in Sin City?  Only time will tell …

If You Don’t Know Where DCPS is Starting …

By now, most realize that the DC Public Schools has become a central issue to next month’s DC mayoral primary.  Since taking over DCPS in 2007, Mayor Adrian Fenty has put the schools front and center.  After hiring Michelle Rhee as his schools chancellor, Fenty has regularly touted DC test score improvements and other measures to show that the schools have improved over the last two or three years.

So how does it all really measure up?  In this morning’s Washington Post, Bill Turque offers up

a terrific analysis of current benchmarks and measures for DC’s schools.  (And for those who aren’t paying attention, Turque regularly offers up some of the best insights on the continued schools evolution in our nation’s capital.)  Among the highlights are massive achievement gaps across the wards, including a 51-point reading proficiency gap between the poorest ward (Ward 8) and the wealthiest (Ward 3) and similar achievement gaps between black and white students, including a math achievement gap that has now widened to 58 points.

Perhaps most interesting, though, was the detailing of DC high school graduation rates.  We all know that grad rates are now the big dog in accountability.  We’ve shifted from middle school AYP to college and career ready, with the latter being measured by graduation and college-going rates.

According to Turque:

“Graduation rates: Fenty points to data showing that 72 percent of students graduated in 2009, up nearly three points from the previous year. Officials attributed the gains to stronger intervention programs and closer scrutiny of transcripts to make certain students have the credits to finish.

But the Office of the State Superintendent of Education uses what many experts call a flawed method for calculating high school completion. The formula divides the number of graduating seniors by that same number plus those who have dropped out in the previous four years. Analysts say a better way to track graduation rates would be to measure the percentage of ninth-graders who graduate within four years. D.C. officials say they are planning to switch to the more widely accepted “cohort” method. That would probably show a less-rosy picture. Education Week this year estimated the District’s 2007 graduation rate at about 59 percent.”

Eduflack must admit it.  I was floored to read the formula that OSSE uses to determine high school grad rates.  How can one calculate graduation rates by first EXCLUDING the number of students who have dropped out of high school?  Eduflack doesn’t have to be a statistician to know that DC is simply calculating the on-time graduation rate.  Of those students who remain in high school for four years, 72 percent earn their diploma in that time.  It is presumed that others will earn a diploma in five or even six years.  Laudable, indeed, but it is not the graduation rate.

You’ve heard it here before, but I’m going to get back up on my high edu-horse.  Back in 2005, the National Governors Association got every single state to sign onto the Graduation Counts Compact and a common graduation rate formula.  The formula is simple.  Look at the number of ninth graders enrolled in school.  Four years later, look at how many students earned a regular or advanced diploma.  Divide A by B, and you have the graduation rate.  Rinse and repeat.

We always seem shocked by the great disparities in high school grad rates, depending on who is reporting what.  Urban districts like DC tend to paint far rosier pictures than doom-and-gloomers like Jay Greene.  But can anyone really question the need for one, single, common graduation rate formula?  As we try to evaluate school districts and states and determine ROI for our school investments, don’t we need a single measure that let’s us compare apples to apples?

Yes, DC can point to improvement.  Test scores have increased.  Enrollment levels have stopped dropping.  The city is investing in facilities and in improving special education options.  But one can’t adequately address progress if one doesn’t have a clear starting point. 

Earlier this month, Eduflack congratulated Detroit for pulling back the curtain and showing their true schools data, warts and all.  Perhaps it is time for Fenty, Rhee, and DCPS to do the same.  There is a huge difference between a stated 72 percent grad rate and a likely actual 59 percent graduation rate.

Years ago, baseball philosopher Yogi Berra wisely said, if you don’t know where you are going, you might not get there.  That sage advice couldn’t be more true for school improvement.  Equally important is knowing where one is starting.  You can’t get to your destination if you don’t know the true starting point.

Private Dollars and Public Education

For years now, we have heard how school districts simply don’t have the necessary funds to operate as we expect.  Just in recent weeks, we’ve had education advocates lobby for $23 billion in federal funding to help pay teacher salaries, asking for outside assistance to avoid major cuts to their payrolls and their educator forces.  And while this $23 billion for edujobs has gotten stymied in Congress, it hasn’t been because folks feel it is inappropriate for anyone other than the school district to pay for teacher salaries.

So why the double standard when it comes to the District of Columbia Public Schools and Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s plans for financial incentives and pay raises for teachers who excel in the classroom?  Over in today’s Washington Post, Bill Turque offers up another strong piece on the evolution of teaching in our nation’s capital, this time focusing on efforts by the DC Office of Campaign Finance to investigate charges that the philanthropic support behind the new teacher pay pact somehow violates the law.

Let’s pause to take a look at the basic facts.  Rhee has pushed for nearly three years to enact her vision to boost student acheivement and teacher quality in DC Schools, offering up a new approach to scrap traditional teacher tenure and reward educators based on performance.  To accomplish this, she secured $64.5 million from private foundations, including Broad, Walton, Robertson, and Arnold.  Knowing the politics of our little city by the swamp, these generour philanthropic donors included language in their agreements that they could pull back the $64.5 million if Rhee is no longer with DCPS.  The Cliff Notes version here — these foundations are investing in Rhee and her vision of teacher quality.  If Rhee isn’t here to shepherd the project, the donors reserve the right to re-evaluate their financial commitment to the District.

Accusers say this is a violation of the law, and that such wiggle langauge does nothing more than protect Rhee in the event of a change in mayoral leadership.  The Chancellor, the allegations go, personally benefits because she agreed to such “leadership clauses.”

Over on WaPo’s editorial pages, the newspaper rightfully questions why such an investigation is even being pursued.  As WaPo notes, Rhee raised millions from credible philanthropic organizations, all with a significant track record in public education and school improvement. 

It all makes Eduflack wonder, if Rhee had gone to these foundations, hat in hand, because she needed $60 million to avoid laying off hundreds of teachers, would there be the same outrage?  If the Chancellor were coming forward and saying she can’t make due with her available resources and needs real help to shore up her basic operating budget, would there be the same concern?  Or is this simply an issue of using a little inginuity to break the status quo, and the status quoers being upset about it?

From the cheap seats, it seems that Rhee is using philanthropic support exactly as it is intended.  DCPS operations continue to get funded through the traditional mixes of federal, state, and local funding (though a little less traditional in DC’s case).  Rather than cut those core services and programs, Rhee has secured outside funding to implement an innovative (or not so innovative, depending on your perspective) program intended to boost student achievement and teacher quality.  If it works, terrific.  If it doesn’t, it is largely the outside funders who fail to gain return on their investment.

In return, those philanthropic causes want to see some conditions on their contributions.  They aren’t handing over tens of millions of dollars blind.  They want oversight and assurances.  They want guarantees.  And they want some stability in management to make sure years aren’t wasted or programmatic goals don’t change mid-stream.  All seems perfectly reasonable.

Without question, there are a significant number of individuals — inside DC, in the eduaction community, etc. — who simply don’t like DCPS’s new teacher pact.  They will play whatever cards they can to try and delay and derail the deal, particularly knowing that this year’s campaign for DC mayor could result in new leadership, both for the city and for DCPS.  But this investigation seems silly, even for DC politics.

It does raise a very important point, though.  We are at a time when more private sector and philanthropic money is going into public K-12 education than ever before.  From the Gates Foundation to the matches sought by the pending federal Investing in Innovation grants, public/private partnerships and third-party financial support is becoming more and more the norm these days.  Yet much of these deals seem to still happen behind closed doors.  We learn of private support, but we often don’t know the dollar figures involved or the conditions attached, as we do with the current DCPS deal.

It seems we need some additional sunshine on the process.  A common database where philanthropic donations over a certain threshold are reported and cataloged.  A place where we can see who is giving money (and for what and with what conditions) and who is receiving it.  A clearinghouse where we can both see the inputs of such public/private school improvement efforts, as well as the documented outcomes of such investments.  A way to see what is working and replicate it, using these philanthropic supports to guide systemic reforms later on.

I recognize that folks are tired of reporting and accountability, but if we are to truly learn from these sorts of public/private investments, a little sunshine and accountability can be an enormous help.  And it may even maximize such outside investments, allowing us to see real, long-term results. 

So, You Say It’s Not a Revolution

It is now official.  Yesterday afternoon, the Washington (DC) Teachers Union revealed the vote on DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s ambitious plan to move toward merit pay for all teachers in the nation’s capital.  While some suspected the vote would be close (with new teachers voting yes and the many veteran teachers having doubts), it wasn’t close at all.  The new contract was ratified 1,412 to 425, giving the Rhee agenda a nearly 4:1 win.

The Washington Post’s Bill Turque offers us the full story here.

We’ve come a long way from when Rhee first offered up the plan back in 2007.  When the DCPS Chancellor first arrived in Washington nearly three years ago, she was brimming with ideas and innovations.  One of them was merit pay, offering huge incentives to teachers who could boost student achievement (as Rhee says she did as a Teach for America teacher in Baltimore two decades ago).  At the time, few school districts had been able to truly do merit pay well.  In fact, Denver’s ProComp program probably stood as the only true exemplar in the field.

Rhee was offering five-figure bonuses to teachers in a district that was already perceived as paying its teachers, particularly its veterans, extremely well.  To get to her end game, Rhee enlisted the help of the philanthropic community, which pledged tens of millions of dollars to make this all happen.

Along the way, there were missteps.  A Time magazine cover story with a broom.  Significant teacher layoffs in the name of budget, then under the banner of misconduct.  Concerns of the financial stability of the promise of such incentives.  And, of course, the worry of what happens to all of that outside support should Rhee (or the mayor) move on.  (And Eduflack is thinking, perhaps, of Rhee going to the Gates Foundation to do nationally what she has just done in the District of Columbia, but that’s just me thinking it fits nicely with Gates’ human capital push and the work currently being done at Gates by John Deasy.)

What was particularly telling about the ratification was the sentiment offered up by Kurt Schmoke, the former Baltimore mayor and the consigliere brought in to make peace between Rhee and WTU.  As reported by Turque, in regard to merit pay, Schmoke said, “The ideas have gained currency at the national level … What was seen as bold is now reform, not revolution.”

It is a very interesting thought, and one the entire education community should reflect on.  Just a few years ago, what Rhee proposed was seen as true revolution by most, and a breaking of an urban teachers union by quite a few.  Since then, we’ve seen Houston beat DC to the punch on such a plan (though Houston doesn’t have to deal with unions the way DC does).  We’ve seen threats of massive teacher layoffs and a growing feeling that last hired, first fired is no way to run school systems looking to boost student achievement.  And we’ve now seen 40 or so states pledge to adopt ambitous teacher quality efforts in pursuit of the $4 billion Race to the Top grail.  One can now argue that the DC teacher deal is no longer revolution, and may no longer even be reform.  It is just keeping up with the Joneses.

Don’t believe Eduflack?  Take a look at the public statements offered yesterday.  Rhee, who should be declaring victory from every rooftop in the District, offered a very muted statement here. (And based on past experience, this was the right approach.  Rhee should let others declare her victory for her.)    AFT President Randi Weingarten, as to be expected, praised DC teachers here for putting their students first.  And, interestingly, WTU still does not have a statement posted on its website, with interested readers being directed to last month’s missives on the “tentative” contract.  This was far from a bold pronouncement of revolutionizing the education sector.  In many ways, it read like DCPS has changed its chalk provider.

The real celebration (or protestation) will come next year, as teachers start feeling the 21 percent pay increases and start anticipating those $20,000 to $30,000 performance pay bonuses.  The real fun is now in seeing if other urban school districts (particularly those in AFT cities) decide to “borrow” from the DC model and enact similar plans, or if we wait a few years to see if the DC approach works.

Looking at the history of real reform and improvement in the education sector, DC is likely to be extremely lonely in this pool for a bit. 

Public Schools and “Philanthropy”

What role should philanthropy and fundraising play in the operations of our public schools?  We like to believe that, through local taxes and state taxes and a little help from our friends in Washington, we have more than enough to fund a high-quality public education.  Yet in an era of school improvement and school turnarounds, we hear more and more about the need for corporate and philanthropic support for our public schools.  We listen to calls for alternative funding for teacher salaries and instructional interventions and new school models.  We know of virtually every major public school districts clamoring for moneys from the Gates Foundation, and Broad, and Wallace, and just about anyone else who is willing to invest in K-12 school improvement.

Over the weekend, The Washington Post ran a column by Robert McCarthy talking about the current struggles DCPS is enduring to secure those much needed private funds.  As the legend goes, DCPS Chancellor is asking many a deep pocket for funding to help pay for her turnaround of the schools in our nation’s capital.  Some money, particularly that being raised by the recently established DC Public Education Fund, is still on the ledger sheet (important since much of this money is intended to pay for Rhee’s new teacher pay system, whereby we eliminate tenure and boost salaries for high-performing teachers).  But much of the typical philanthropy that has flowed into DC appears to be in doubt, with traditional DC philanthropists concerned about how their money is being spent and how DCPS will be held accountable as responsible stewards of the dollars.  The full story can be found here.
While issues of accountability are important, and surely donors should know specifically how their education dollars are being spent, the issue in Washington, DC raises a significantly more important concern.  In an era where our urban school districts are spending between $15,000 and $20,000 per student for public education, why is that not adequate resources for an effective public education?  Should the success of our struggling school districts really require the kindness of strangers to provide a core education to every student?
Perhaps I am naive here, but it seems that school budgets should be constructed so they are addressing all of the necessary expenditures of operating a school district — salaries, buildings, transportation, textbooks and instructional materials, technology, breakfasts and lunches, athletics and extracurriculars, even afterschool programs.  Such funds should be constant each and every year.  If a district hits a patch where the committed dollars coming in from federal, state, and local sources are inadequate for meeting the educational needs of the students, then we have a problem.  Then (as we are experiencing now) we tap emergency funding, make difficult decisions, and try to carry on.  Rarely does the acceptance of a grant (along with the oversight, redtape, and additional accountability provisions attached to it) allow one to backfill such cuts.  And that shouldn’t be their intention.
Third-party donations, be they from philanthropies, corporations, or one-time federal grant programs, are meant to supplement and provide value-add to the core instructional day.  They are used to bring in a new program designed to help a segment of the student population.  They are used to provide targeted professional development and support to teachers.  They are used to jumpstart a new effort or say bring in a new computer lab.  But they are not designed to be funds to support the ongoing operations nor are they dollars guaranteed to continue for the perpetuity of a school’s existence. 
And that really becomes the danger with the path some are now pursuing.  Yes, philanthropy plays an essential role in education reform and school improvement.  Targeted dollars can be used to spearhead specific initiatives, act where action was previously impossible, and generally goose a school into change and reform it may have previously ignored.  But it is not a continuous spigot of funds designed to supplement the dedicated moneys coming from the government.  Philanthropic support is designed to have a specific beginning and a specific end.  It falls to states and school districts to use a grant period well, build the reform into their core operating structure, and carry on — both financially and operationally — well after the third-party support is gone.  Otherwise, we simply move from one latest and greatest idea to the next, with nothing taking hold and nothing having real impact.
We are running a real danger here when we expect that philanthropic support for our schools is intended to help fund core operations in our classrooms.  Such supports are intended to innovate and spur action where it otherwise may not be possible.  But if we are extending a hand out to ensure adequate funding of per-pupil expenditures and core instruction, we have a much larger issue to address.  We should be strengthening our schools to improve based on the resources available.  Outside funding then helps us accelerate the process.    

Data Use in Our Nation’s Capital

Last evening, Eduflack had the honor of testifying before the District of Columbia State Board of Education on DC’s student assessment scores and how they can be used in state-level policy development.  For those unawares, DC is an interesting case study in education system structure.  DC is both a State Education Agency (SEA) and a Local Education Agency (LEA).  The DC State Board serves as a state board in Massachusetts, Texas, or California would, and the SEA is headed by former U.S. Department of Education official Dr. Kerri Briggs.  The SEA is responsible not only for DC Public Schools, but also for the growing number of charter schools in our nation’s capital (with nearly a third of the District’s students attending charters, it is quite some job for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE)).

I was the closing act for a three-part hearing.  The panel first heard from Mike Casserly, the chief of the Council of Great City Schools, who spoke to what other urban school districts are doing with their assessments and their data.  Then they heard a detailed presentation from State Superintendent Briggs and her staff, providing far greater detail on the DC-CAS numbers than was originally provided by the Mayor and Chancellor Rhee back in July.  Yours truly followed up the rear.
For readers who recall, I was harsh on DCPS back in July when they released the initial numbers.  I was concerned that student achievement, on the whole, ticked up, but there was a drop in AYP.  I was worried by Rhee’s comments about picking the low-hanging fruit to achieve those gains, knowing such fruit is now gone for later year replication.  And I was worried about declaring victory based on one or two years of data, when four or five years of real, substantive data is really necessary to see the true impact of reforms.
I was impressed with the probing questions the DCSBOE asked of OSSE and of the data, particularly its persistence in asking for greater disaggregation and a better understanding of what they do with what they have.  So what, exactly, did little ole Eduflack recommend to the District’s education leaders?  I can break it down into five key points.
1. The District should be reassured by the numbers presented by OSSE.  After further reflection and additional breakdowns, we can see that specific schools in DC are indeed trending up (though there are still some worry spots).  More importantly, DC is breaking the national cycle and is really making some progress in closing the achievement gap.  Both black and Hispanic achievement numbers were on the rise, while white student achievement remained relatively flat (noting, though, that only 5 percent of DC schoolchildren are white).
2. The most important data sets for DCSBOE to be concerned with should not be DC-CAS, but rather NAEP and NAEP-TUDA.  These data sets are the most accurate yardstick for determining how DC’s students are doing.  The District needs to better use the NAEP data, better slicing and dicing it to really understand what the data means and how it can be applied. DC also needs to avoid falling victim to the typical NAEP horserace games.  This is not about trying to catch Massachusetts in eighth grade reading NAEP or trying to outdo Atlanta in NAEP-TUDA.  DC needs to look at the data, look at the gaps, and set clear goals based on where DC is, and where they want it to head.  
3. As important as assessments are, Superintendent Briggs is correct.  It makes little sense to rework DC’s tests before core standards are complete and we know what new skills and benchmarks we are supposed to be measuring.  But rather than focusing on the assessment tool itself, DC needs to start taking a far closer look at its overall data system and how that system is better put to use.  This shouldn’t be about collecting more data, it is about better using the existing data.  How do they further disaggregate the numbers so DC families have a better sense for how individual schools and classrooms are doing?  How do they look at the data longitudinally, so they are not just measuring this year’s fourth graders against next year’s fourth graders, but are seeing how this years fourth graders are doing, performance wise, in fifth, sixth, and even eighth grades. 
DC not only needs to determine that it is improving, but it needs to know why.  The system has been layering reform after reform in the schools over the past several years.  It is near impossible to decide what is responsible for the gains and what is the chafe that should probably be cut away so the effective interventions can do their jobs.  In monitoring the schools and classes that are showing the most progress, DC needs to track the efforts that are resulting in those gains, looking at the clusters of specific interventions, and try to diagnose the best and promising practices that are happening in DC classrooms.
4. With that information, DC needs to do a better job of applying what it learns.  Principals and teachers need to be better trained in how to use the data, both before they enter the teaching profession and once they are there.  Best practices needs to be shared and modeled across the district.  Effective teachers need to serve as mentors for new teachers so they can teach good behaviors (hopefully before one has to unteach bad behaviors.)  And we need to give time for new interventions and reforms to take place.  While four or five years may seem like an eternity in education reform, changing horses after just a year or two of data, even if it is promising, is not necessarily in the best interests of DC’s students in the long run.
Many members of the board were focused on the back end, asking what could be done with regard to high school dropouts and college-going rates.  I urged them to look at the front end as well, and make sure that OSSE’s focus on investment in high-quality early childhood education is successfully translated into real ECE opportunities in DCPS.  One only needs to look at the impact of the Abbott decisions in New Jersey, and see how good early childhood education has now impacted student achievement and the achievement gap in some of the Garden State’s historically worst-performing school districts, to see that the gateway to long-term student achievement happens before kindergarten, and not in middle and high school.
5. Finally, this is a team game, and not a one-man sport.  Chancellor Rhee cannot do this by herself, nor can the DCSBOE take the responsibility entirely on its shoulders.  Lasting school improvement requires real buy in from parents and families, teachers, students, and the community at large.  With families in particular, they don’t necessarily understand the arcane definitions of AYP (particularly now that the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t even want to use the term), nor should they have to.  They want assurances that their kids are going to good schools, and if they aren’t good, they want assurances that everything is being done to improve them.  At the end of the day, families want to believe their neighborhood schools are good, particularly because they usually have affection for the principal and the teachers.  If all are invested in school turnaround, and all understand how we are doing it and how we are measuring it, we will come further faster.
Ultimately, it comes down to one key issue — how do we use the data we have?  In most cities and most SEAs, we have a wealth of data points, probably far more than most know are even there.  What we do with it is what is most important.  How do we use it to shape both teaching and learning?  How do teachers use data to implement specific in
terventions for struggling students?  How do we ID promising practice so it can be shared?  How do we find the most effective teachers and learn why they are effective?  How do we support what is working, while cutting away what may be tried, but is having no real impact?  How do we invest in the student, and not just the system?
A lot of questions, yes.  But just the sort of thinking many state boards are pondering as they enter into this new world order of assessments, data systems, achievement, innovation, and the like.