School Enrollment Math in DC

According to The Washington Post, 37,000 students are expected to start in DC Public Schools today.  That number is down 17 percent from those who ended the year back in June, and it falls about 17 percent short of the 44,681 DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee has been targeting for the 2009-2010 academic year (and the number on which this year’s budget is based).  The full story can be found here. 

Despite the advertising campaigns, the door-knocking, and the community marketing designed to boost public interest in DCPS — “Go public and get a great free education!” — families are still not looking to send their kids to DC public schools.  DC-CAS scores may be up, but enrollment is down.  Rhee is focusing on teacher quality and new standards for teachers, but enrollment is down.  Theoretically, we’ve closed some of DC’s lowest-performing schools, thus giving more students access to a decent public school, yet enrollment is still down.
To be expected, DCPS has its reasons.  First, school leaders say that DC parents traditionally don’t complete their paperwork on time, so that number will increase over the course of the school year (we’ll forget for a second that not every kid currently enrolled today will stay at DCPS or even stay in school before all is said and done, thus making the whole thing a wash).  We’ll hold our tongues on how those students who are late to enroll are probably the ones that need that free education from day one in the first place.  
Of course, we also hear that the charter schools are threatening the growth of DCPS.  Despite the hype about improved DC Public Schools, boosts in student achievement, and an overall change in attitude, DC families are still looking to send their kids to charters before they go to traditional public schools.  Currently, nearly a third of DC school children are enrolled in charters, and charters are posting a 10 percent increase in enrollees, up to about 28,000.  Guess charter families don’t have the same challenges getting their paperwork in by the first day of the school year.
On top of it all, we also need to factor in the demise of the DC Voucher program.  This year, there are no new kids getting vouchers under DC Choice.  Clearly, those students are looking to attend school somewhere.  But they must be choosing between charters and private schools, based on the numbers.  Where are the 216 denied their choice enrolling once the protests are over?
Eduflack doesn’t mean to beat DCPS while it is down, but the numbers do raise an interesting question.  Right now, enrollment at DCPS is down about 7,500 students from last year and from where it was projected for this year.  Enrollment at DC charter schools is up by about 2,600 students.  So where are those nearly 5,000 students?  Are they finishing up a late beach week, and will join DCPS as school officials believe?  Have they moved on to the private schools, looking for a better pathway?  Have their families moved out of the District, bringing them to schools in PG or Montgomery Counties in Maryland, Arlington or Fairfax Counties in Virginia, or other communities throughout the United States?  Or are these students just not present and unaccounted for?
We all want to see a real renaissance at DCPS, with teacher quality improving, student achievement rising, and all DC children having access to a high-quality high school that can get them into a postsecondary program.  But even if we assume that each and every new student in the charter schools is one lost by DCPS, we still have more than 11 percent of the projected 2009-2010 DC student body undocumented.  For a district of DCPS’ size, that’s an awful lot of students to misplace or fail to document. 
I want to believe DCPS that those students are merely stragglers, and their paperwork will soon be in and they will be enrolled at their neighborhood public schools  I don’t like the fact that they will have missed the start to the school year, but I’d like to believe they are just running a little late.  But how do we know for sure?  And what happens if those 5,000 or 6,000 students aren’t on the DCPS rolls by September or October?  Are those just more kids that are written off in the ongoing saga of urban public education?

Real Improvement or Student “Creaming” in DC?

What exactly is happening with K-12 transformation in our nation’s capital?  Last week, DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced that reading and math scores in the District improved for the second year in a row, with nearly half of DC’s elementary students scoring proficiency or better on the standardized test.  Two years ago, just more than a third of such students were posting such scores, allowing one to clearly proclaim that the past two years have resulted in test scores on the rise.

Buried under the test scores lede was that fewer DC schools made adequate yearly progress, or AYP, this year.  Just 27 percent of DCPS schools made AYP, compared with 31 percent last year.  And that is after Rhee closed 15 of the poorest-performing schools in the first place.
So how do scores go up, but AYP declines?  Rhee herself provided us insight into how DCPS can improve yet do a poorer overall job.  By teaching testing strategies, targeting “low-hanging” fruit students who could make one-year gains, and conducting that dreaded “teaching to the test,” DC schools were able to focus on the immediate gains.  And before one gets too critical of Eduflack’s choice of words, look at Rhee’s own word choice here.  “Low-hanging fruit” is her description for DCPS’ new targeted approach to learning.
Let me be very clear here.  I want to see DCPS and Michelle Rhee succeed.  For too many years, for too many generations of students, DCPS has failed the people of Washington, DC.  The hearty embrace of the status quo has not worked in DC.  Increasing per-pupil expenditures, yet spending on failed programs, has not worked.  Focusing on the inputs, while trying to divert attention from the outcomes, has not worked.  Denying students most in need access to the schools, teachers, materials, instruction, and attention they need has not worked.
Without question, DCPS needed a revolution.  It needed a new way of thinking, a new way of acting, and new way of measuring success.  It needed a way to harness all of its educational experiments — charters, vouchers, TFA, NLNS, and everything in between — to determine what works and what doesn’t.  And it needed a new sheriff who was beholden to no one but the students she was trying to serve.
In donning the badge, the new DCPS sheriff has been granted powers and authority that previous superintendents simply have not received.  She’s acted quickly, shutting down failing schools, removing failing principals, and seeking to do the same to struggling teachers.  She added a new “return on investment” approach to public education, calling everyone’s attention to the bottom line — results.  And she has done so successfully.
But in cherry picking that “low-hanging fruit,” Rhee has forgotten her responsibility to all of the students of the District.  Increasing test scores is important, yes, but at what cost?  Do we sacrifice real learning to hit the magic number on one test administered each winter?  Do we sacrifice the majority of students to focus raising scores for the one quartile most likely to show improvement based on statistical models?  Is the school day for learning or test prep?  Does an increased score for some on the DC-CAS substitute for improved high school graduation rates and for the acquisition of the knowledge and skills all DC students will need to succeed?  What about those teachers who are not teaching the “chosen group” of students who get the added push to improve?  Are they to be held responsible because they drew a classroom that didn’t make the cut for the added resources and attention?  Instead of making a high-quality public education a right for every DC student, have we really reached the point where it is acceptable to leave significant segments of the student population behind because it is too hard to improve their scores on the standardized tests?
Yes, all of this may be a bit of an overreaction.  DCPS should be proud that it has raised scores for the second year in a row (personally, I expected a small slippage in the numbers this year, the result of year two weariness and the ongoing battle between Rhee and the teachers union).  But we should be troubled that fewer schools are hitting AYP, particularly after already closing the worst of the bunch.  In a city of haves and have nots, we run a real danger of building a class system in the public schools, where some students are on the path to potential, and others are simply just running out the clock.
Such problems are compounded with Mayor Fenty’s decision to cut funding for the independent assessor who was to evaluate the success of Fenty and Rhee’s transformation of DCPS.  With so many changes, reforms, and innovations underway, with so many dollars being spent and additional dollars potentially coming in, with scores rising yet few knowing exactly what to attribute the increases to, an independent assessment is exactly what the DC Public Schools needs.  We need an impartial third party to come in and determine what is working and what isn’t.  We need a review of policies and procedures.  And we need a true vetting of the data to ensuring that such gains are real and sustaining, and aren’t simply a spinning of the numbers or a fancy card trick that can’t be replicated or sustained with all of DC’s young people.
For the sake of all of the students in all of DC’s 128 schools, let’s give Rhee the benefit of the doubt.  Student proficiency in reading and math is increasing.  The achievement gap is narrowing.  The reforms are taking hold and having effect.  And even those efforts targeting “low-hanging fruit” are nothing more than phase one of an effort to do the same for all students, better preparing all for the rigors of more rigorous and comprehensive assessments down the road.  These are the first steps in a true revolution to improve the quality, access, and impact of education for all DC students.  Now we just need to make sure they continue to move onward and upward for years three, four, five, and beyond.
Yes, let’s trust Rhee.  But let’s do so with independent reviewers scrutinizing what’s happening under the DCPS hood.  Trust … but verify, if you will.

Vouching for DC Students

By now, the funeral procession for the DC school voucher program has been winding its was through the city streets.  Long a target of the status quo, the DC Scholarship Opportunity Program has been criticized for many things, chief among them for taking money from well-deserving DC public schools and handing it over to local private schools.  As of late, it has faced fire over its effectiveness, with opponents alleging that student achievement had not improved as a result of a change in environment and the empowerment of choice.

When it was introduced at the start of the NCLB era, the model was pretty simple.  DC public schools were failing a significant number of the very students it was designed to serve, to help, and to provide with the knowledge they needed to succeed.  Despite the rich network of public charter schools across the District, federal officials decided to introduce the voucher model, allowing families of children in truly failing schools to send their children to private schools in the area.  Private schools would agree to accept the “vouchers” in exchange for school tuition.  The plan was modeled after successful efforts in places like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida.
Competition for the voucher program was fierce from the very start.  Families lined up 10-deep for the access to these vouchers, all looking to provide their kids a better choice and better options.  Interestingly, vouchers provided no more than $7,500 a year in tuition, fees, and expenses for private schools, less than 50 percent of what DCPS spends to educate its students in the public schools, even in the worst of its failing schools.
Critics have been chipping away at the program from the start.  When initial data showing promising results was released by researchers a few years, ago, we attacked it for being incomplete or not providing a full picture of the situation.  We’ve painted a picture that there has been a mass exodus from DCPS into Gonzaga, Sidwell Friends, and Georgetown Prep, where wealthy schools are getting wealthier off the backs of DCPS and DC taxpayers.  (Let’s forget that most voucher students were not going to these “blue chip” privates and all privates were taking a significant cut in their tuition to admit voucher students.)  Most recently, the dealt the death blow to the voucher effort in DC, getting funding stripped from the federal appropriations bill last month.  For all practical purposes, DC Vouchers is now dead as a doornail, even with more than 1,700 DC students taking advantage of the program.
What’s interesting, then, is the report that came out of the U.S. Department of Education yesterday afternoon.  Despite all of the chatter about the failure of the DC Scholarship Opportunity Program, an ED study determined that voucher students outperformed their public school counterparts on reading proficiency.  The full story can be found here at The Washington Post.
House of Representatives Republican Educator-in-Chief Buck McKeon has used the IES research to demonstrate that the voucher program works and demands it be continued.  Senator Joe Lieberman, who oversees the District in our senior legislative body, is talking about holding further hearings on the issue.  It begs the question, is the great DC voucher experiment as dead as it appeared just a week ago?
This has long been an issue of federal voices deciding what is best for the residents of Washington, DC.  The program was initiated by a zealous Bush Administration and Republicans in Congress who wanted to prove that vouchers were the solution to failing public schools.  The program has faced relentless attack from equally zealous Democrats in Congress (along with the national teachers’ unions) who believed it was robbing the public schools of needed financial resources and was undermining the very foundations of public education.
What about the residents of DC?  What about the very families who have been impacted (or who have chosen not to be) by the DC Voucher program?  One can look at the demand for the limited slots and say there is local public desire for the program. One can look at the qualitative surveys over the years, showing support for the program and satisfaction with its outcomes.  One can even look at recent efforts by the Washington Archdiocese to convert many of its Catholic schools (those where so many DC residents were attending through their vouchers) into public charter schools to ensure that those kids currently in the pipeline were not kicked out of their learning environments when the voucher program came to an end later this year.
WaPo’s Colbert King takes the issue even further this AM, calling on District leaders to make the ultimate decision on the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program’s fate.  What a novel concept.  Instead of seeking the permission and dollars of federal officials, Mayor Fenty, the DC Council, and other local leaders should talk to the community and determine if DC Vouchers are in the best interests of the city.  Imagine that.  Local officials making local education decisions, policies, and funding choices that affect local residents.  It’s almost as if one could build a governmental structure around such a silly idea.
But back to the key issue, the research.  IES has determined that DC voucher students are outperforming the public school peers when it comes reading scores.  Overall, the study found that voucher students were nearly four months ahead of non-voucher students when it came to reading skill.  Those students moving from the lowest-performing public schools did not show that level of reading gain.  And there appeared to be no difference in math proficiency.
Seems that such data requires more than a Friday afternoon media release, with the hopes that few notice it in our rush to celebrate the Palm Sunday weekend (or Eduflack’s birthday, whichever holiday you prefer).  Fridays are notorious for dumping information and data you hope will get short shrift from the media or will get overlooked entirely.  One has to ask if this data was available a few weeks ago when Congress was inflicting its death blow on DC vouchers.  If so, why wasn’t it discussed then?  And now that we do have it, how closely will we look at it?  Does the research model stand up to scrutiny, or does it have its failings like so many recent IES studies?  Do we have some real information here that needs to factor into education policy in our nation’s capital and throughout the country?
At the end of the day, what are we left with?  Is there public demand for vouchers in DC?  Absolutely.  Has the program been implemented effectively?  It appears so.  Is the program working?  It seems so.  Is the program a political atomic bomb?  Absolutely.
It seems, in this era of innovation and demands for improved student achievement, we need every opportunity and every good idea we can find.  If vouchers are showing promise in DC, shouldn’t we let the District decide if they continue the program, allowing us to see if that promise transforms into best practice?  And at some point, shouldn’t those decisions be made by the citizens the program is designed to affect, instead of by representatives who will never receive a single vote from a single resident of the District of Columbia?
Let’s take EdSec Arne Duncan at his word and that he does not want to end the voucher program for any student that is currently participating in it.  Even if we don’t add new students to the program, it seems there is a lot we can learn by supporting those already in the syst
em.  And we haven’t even touched on the positive impact we could have on those kids whose lives have been changed by providing them the opportunity to leave failing schools.  The choice itself has given them hope, a chance at opportunity, and a worldview that education can impact their lives.  That’s a return on investment we all should seek.

School Improvement, the Gates Way

Over at the Washington Post this AM, Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt asks the multi-billion-dollar question, How would Bill Gates repair our schools?  Reflecting on a recent interview Gates had with WaPo, Hiatt opines that Gates is an advocate for the sort of reforms that EdSec Arne Duncan and DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee evangelize.  He points to the status quo — collective bargaining agreements, tenure, resistance to charter schools, and opposition to pay for performance — as some of the great roadblocks that Duncan, Rhee, and even Gates face in their quest to improve public education.

Eduflack agrees that, for the most part, Duncan and Rhee must play within the system.  For all of this talk about innovation, Duncan must still balance the concerns voiced by traditional groups such as AASA, NSBA, the teachers unions, and others.  As for Rhee, all but the good chancellor have recognized that the American Federation of Teachers is not simply a work-around, and is a reality that must be talked to, dealt with, and respected.  In both cases, innovation and improvement can only come with, to a great degree, buy-in and support from those considered a part of the education “status quo,” the very component so many of us point to as the roadblock to real, significant change.
But Bill Gates, and the Gates Foundation, are a completely different story.  In recent years, the Gates Foundation has invested billions of dollars into our public schools.  It has experimented in small schools and has staked its claim in high school reform.  It has supported dual enrollment and early college programs and invested in libraries and other resources.  Now, it embarks on a path of human capital, seeking to invest in the teachers and administrators that are a necessary component to school turnarounds and school improvements.
So who says Gates has to play by the rules and the confines of the current system?  After all, this is a man who released a box full of mosquitoes as an international conference so all could feel the possible threat of malaria.  This is a man who built a global corporate giant out of his garage by refusing to abide by mores and by never hearing the word no.  This is a man who is investing significant wealth into American public education, despite so many people telling him it was a lost cause and he was throwing his money into a pit that will never yield a return.
To date, the Gates Foundation is thinking about the right issues.  School structure.  Teacher training and support.  Rigor and relevance of instruction.  Connections between K-12 and the workforce.  Pay structures that reward success.  Student assessments and standards.  Return on educational investment.  The Foundation has tried to implement these issues in a number of ways, trying pilot projects across the nation, looking for promising practice, and hoping to find real solutions that can be adopted at scale across the United States.
The latter is the most important point for reformers.  How do we adopt proven solutions at scale?  To date, we are tinkering around the edges.  We can point to achievement gap solutions in Ohio, early college successes in the JFF network, and virtual options in Texas, for instance.  These issues have come, in large part, from working within the system, as Gates seeks to supplement existing efforts and provide the funding to do more within the current system, essentially layering potential solutions on top of systems that may well be broken at their core.
More than a year ago, Eduflack reflected on this same issue.  How can Gates get more bang for its buck?  How can it move from tinkering to dropping a brand-new engine into our public schools?  How does it move from supplementing what is broken to supplanting?  How does it use its power, vision, and checkbook to literally build that better mousetrap.
In recent months, Bill Gates has laid out his vision for what our schools need to improve.  That vision is reflected in Hiatt’s piece this morning.  Flexibility in structure, evidenced by a greater need for charter schools.  Flexibility in human capital, evidenced by new formulas for training, hiring, and rewarding teachers.  Strong standards by which all students are measured, ensuring all students are embracing both the relevance and rigor of 21st century education.  And an unwavering commitment to success, whereby dropout factories are a thing of the past and dropping out is viable option for no student and no family.
So it has me back to my original thinking.  Forget about supporting existing school districts and trying to layer new programs on top of old, failed efforts.  Now is the time for Gates to be bold and different.  Now is the time for the Gates Foundation to chart a different course.  Now is the time for Gates to reject the status quo, and chart a completely new path for K-12 education in the United States.
It is a simple one.  Gates needs to get in the business of empire building.  Instead of investing in urban school districts and trying to overcome decades of problems that have become ingrained on the schools’ DNA, Gates needs to begin building alternative school districts.  That’s right.  Forget charter schools, we need charter districts.  If the current model is broken, as Gates claims, the answer is not to fix.  The true answer is to create a better one.  Move into an urban center and set up a K-12 charter district.  Determine the most effective, research-proven curriculum.  Train, hire, and support the best teachers.  Reward those teachers properly.  Apply strong standards to every student, accepting no excuses and demanding proficiency and success from all.  Better align our elementary, middle, and secondary school programs.  Engage students early on, so they see the relevance of their academic pursuits.  Offer internships and externships so all students see the career opportunities before them.  Build the buildings, implement the learning structures, acquire the technology and learning materials, and do what is necessary to get us to success.  No boundaries to prevent us from doing what is necessary.  No excuses to fall back on.  
These new school districts can build on the successes of Gates programs to date.  They can take the best of Early College High Schools, of the Ohio High School Transformation Initiative, and of Green Dot Schools.  They can also build on the efforts of KIPP and Teach for America and even from school districts like NYC that are truly thinking outside the box.  They can borrow and steal from the very best in school reform, community engagement, corporate innovation, and some of the news ways of thinking coming from small, nimble not-for-profits.
Then take this new system and provide families the choice.  Those who wish to remain in the traditional school district that has served their family for generations can do so.  Those who are seeking new options, those who are seeking new opportunities, those seeking more choice can opt for the Gates route.  It is about providing options and choice.  If implemented properly, such choices not only offer a strong Gates model, but the competition forces traditional school districts to act differently, improve, and meet the demands of their current customers — the families.  If done well, the rising Gates tide would lift all schools — traditional publics, charters, and privates alike.
I know what many are thinking — what an absolutely ridiculous idea.  Funders don’t do such a thing.  They provide resources to support the current infrastructure. They fund new projects and new ideas.
 They supplement, they don’t compete.  Yes, that may have been the way we have traditionally worked, but does it need to be that way?  Do philanthropies need to simply serve as advisors, consultants, and checkbooks, or can they get more active?
When Bill Gates built Microsoft, his mature business model was not to simply advise IBM on the operating software they needed.  He determined the status quo — both in terms of hardware and software — weren’t cutting it.  He tried working as part of that system, and it just didn’t work.  So he turned the industry on its head, positioning software as the driver in the technology industry.  Microsoft became Microsoft because he offered consumers a choice, and he offered them a better one.  After a while, it was no choice at all.  If one wanted to succeed in business, one had to use Microsoft products.
So why can’t we do the same in education?  Why can’t Gates use its investment to build a better school district?  Take all of those great minds that have been assembled at the foundation, and do it differently and do it better.  From the top down and the bottom up, build a school structure that is both student and teacher focused, geared toward real results, and not beholden to the status quo or the ways we used to do it simply because that is how we used to do it.
Could this path be a complete failure?  Absolutely.  The Foundation could get into the middle of it and find that curriculum selection, teacher training, and CBAs are far more difficult than they ever envisioned.  They could discover that managing buildings or dealing with operational issues is not what they want to do.  They could realize that human capital management is simply too difficult a nut to crack, particularly if they are not in charge of the pre-service education that delivers the teachers to their door.  They could even find that the first or second generation of this experiment is a failure, and they have to keep changing and adapting on the fly to meet goals and deliver on their promises to the community.  And, shudder, they could even find themselves lapsing into models and behaviors far too similar to the school districts they are trying to change and offer an alternative to.
Or it could just work.  Gates could pick a four or five cities, invest significantly in those cities and demonstrate how district-wide change can happen at the city, school, classroom, and student level.  They could identify those best practices that can indeed be replicated at scale in districts throughout the nation.  They can find a way to build better pathways and make real opportunities available to more students in need.  They can truly build a better learning environment, particularly for those who have been dealt a bad hand for far too long.
Let’s face it.  If anyone can do it, Gates can do it.  And at this point of the game, not trying is far worse than the risk of failure.  If the EdSec is going to stake a number of school districts with the funds to Race to the Top, why can’t Gates do the same?  We let ED fund internal improvements designed to improve current districts.  Gates funds the construction of new school districts focused on 21st century needs and expectations.  And we see who provides a better education, and a better ROI.  Let the best model win.
Now that’s a race any reformer would watch, from pole to pole.

“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.

Trust Us, We’re With DCPS

Data can be a dangerous weapon.  In public education, we use it to validate ideas, attack initiatives we are unsure of, and guide spending and policy decisions.  Over the last decade, we’ve seen a massive transformation on data and research — what counts and what doesn’t, what’s good and what’s bad, what’s evidence-based and what’s purely squishy.  Through it all, though, we clearly know that data is an important component to an effective argument.

Along the way, we have picked up a few key pointers.  There is a difference between quantitative and qualitative research, with the former a stronger measure of effectiveness.  A medical model with control groups is the ideal, but is also impossible to achieve in the schools, as no student or no class wants to be the one that receives no instruction at all, limited to sit there like a bump on a log as every other child learns.  And methodology and documentation is king, particularly so others can scrutinize the process and replicate the research study to quiet the doubting Thomases.
When the National Reading Panel released its Teaching Children to Read report, it generated a firestorm of reaction and overreaction.  Many questioned the personalities involved.  Others scrutinized the methodology, and some the findings themselves.  So it fell to Rutgers University Professor Greg Camilli to replicate the research.  He applied a broader, more appeasing methodology, and found the same essential results as the NRP.  So the research debate ended (and the field focused on fights over personalities and implementation.)
When the Institute for Education Sciences released its Reading First Impact Study last year, it was seen as the final nail in the RF coffin.  Here was the gold standard in research models — IES — finding that there was no measurable impact of the high profile reading initiative.  But those who take a closer look at the research saw real problems in the methodology.  First, the study did not take the issue of “contamination” into question, all but saying that students in RF schools received different instruction, different textbooks, and differently trained and supported teachers than those in non-RF schools.  We know that is not the case.  But even more damning is that the Impact Study looked at a relatively small sample size to reach its conclusions, and did so in a way that the research can never be replicated.  There is no public record of what actual schools were studied.  And there is little hope that such information could ever be obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.  So hundreds of millions of dollars in education policy has been decided by a study with questionable methodology that can never be validated and replicated by another researcher, as the field scrambles to try and validate (or invalidate) the findings.
Why all of this background?  To show that the quality of research and the transparency of the process is key.  We trust that the evidence will guide us to strong policy and funding decisions.  We look for the data, believing the numbers will serve as a compass pointing toward student achievement.  And despite Mark Twain’s warnings about statistics, we still hold them to be a primary driver in our decisionmaking.  Citing data and research studies is often the final piece to closing a deal in education improvement these days.
Which is why the most recent pronouncement coming out of Washington, DC Public Schools is all the more problematic.  By now, most know of the battle between DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee and the American Federation of Teachers over the issues of tenure and teacher pay.  For more than a year now, Rhee has been pushing the notion of dramatically increasing salaries for effective teachers (assuming the give up tenure) and has secured outside, private funding to accomplish the pay raises.  Critics have attacked her for many reasons, one of which is the sustainability of such pay raises.  What happens when the outside foundations or corporate sponsors move on to the next issue?  How will DCPS be able to sustain the new, higher pay structure?
On a radio program yesterday, Rhee stated she had a research report from an economic consultant showing that the plan can indeed be sustained.  But she won’t name the consultant.  And she won’t release the report.  She wants us simply to take her word that she can make up the supposed $100 million pledge to DCPS for pay raises if need be, while waiving an unnamed report from an unnamed researcher to prove her point.
The full story can be found in this morning’s Washington Post —  
Let me say for the record that Eduflack believes that Rhee’s teacher pay structure can indeed be sustained.  Quite honestly, she has no choice.  If she signs a contact with the Washington Teachers Union outlining a pay structure that will offer $135,000 salaries to non-tenured teachers, she needs to honor the CBA, regardless of changes in her financial pipeline.  A deal is a deal.  (Though Eduflack seriously doubts that AFT will ever agree to the deal, at least as it has been presented to date.)  She’s resourceful and will find the funds from other donors, or from within the DCPS budget itself if necessary.
But waiving around an unnamed research study that supposedly proves your point, no questions asked, but refusing to provide details, identifiers, or even the study itself is just amateur grandstanding.  The “I have in my hand” approach asks us to trust Rhee when, quite frankly, she hasn’t earned the trust of those she is seeking to reach.
If Rhee wants to show her teacher pay plan is sustainable, she needs to release her research study know and get it into the hands of every member of the city council and every leader at WTU and AFT.  And she needs to get its toplines to every single teacher in DCPS.  She should be making the data case now.  If she has the research, post it online, distribute it at DCPS headquarters, heck, hand it out to everyone coming to visit the Lincoln Memorial.  Get the data out there, let it speak for itself, and let your opponents see the true strength of your argument.
Trying to sidestep a major question like sustainability with a “Trust me, I’m with the government” approach just doesn’t cut it in the new era of 21st century school improvement.  Our schools, educators, and students have been sold a lot of vapor in recent years.  Victory comes to those who can prove their point, and have the data to back it up.  Until Rhee releases this economic study on the sustainability of her pay proposal, she can’t win the day.

Getting to the Heart of DCPS, Part II

A friend and colleague raises a very interesting, cogent, and all-around dead-on point regarding DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s op-ed in this morning’s Washington Post (written about previously today).  How can a commentary piece like this be successful if there isn’t an “ask” involved?  There was no sale, there was no request for one’s vote, so wasn’t it a wasted opportunity?

In the general sense, I would agree with her every day of the week and twice on Sunday.  So it really has me thinking that I’ve let Rhee off easy this morning (in part because I think I see the larger end-game than is reflected in her 700 words).  Successful communications — whether it be a meeting, a speech, a commentary, or a conversation — requires maximizing opportunity.  When you are given access to the opinion pages of one of the top daily newspapers in the country, you need to take advantage of that.  Given the forum, if you fail to ask for something, it is a missed opportunity, no?  Isn’t that Sales 101?
Not necessarily.  That’s why I raise the question of intended audience.  We can only truly gage the effectiveness of a commentary like Rhee’s if we understand who she is trying to reach, first and foremost.  From the tone, the content, and the context, it is fair to say Rhee was not speaking to DCPS teachers, the parents of DCPS students, or even the regular reader of The Washington Post.  She wasn’t looking for votes for her alternative pay structure, nor was she looking for PTAs to rally behind her efforts in the name of DC’s students.  No, I would argue that her intent was much more primal than we would think.
Rhee had two goals here.  One, she remind key decisionmakers of her relevance and of the innovation behind her proposed teacher pay plan.  Thus, her only intent was to inform.  She wasn’t looking to sell or get buy-in.  She already has that buy-in from federal lawmakers, DC officials, and leaders at key education organizations.  She just needed to goose them a little to remind them of what she was doing and demonstrate that it fits with the new world order that took over federal education January 20.  She needed to show that in a golden federal education age that will spotlight Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, KIPP, ProComp, and others, she was still at the top of the reform class.
Second, she needed to reassure her potential funders.  It is no secret that Rhee has lined up significant corporate and philanthropic support for her plans at DCPS.  These donors are ready, willing, and able to support the sort of innovation she is advocating for and has been talking about since her arrival in DC almost two years ago.  This audience would be her soft spot today.  She needs to keep these donors on the line, even though this transformation is taking far longer than originally intended.  Today’s piece — and its intended crosswalk with upcoming federal education policy — was likely intended to remind those funders that this plan will work, DC will be at the forefront, and this is a model that others will follow (and one that will ultimately be embodied in national priorities coming out of a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act, along with a realignment of Title II).
If you look at it that way, the only ask or the only sale that Rhee is seeking is one of patience.  She needs her supporters to continue to trust her while she goes to the mattresses with Randi Weingarten and the AFT.  Today’s piece tried to position DC’s reforms on the side of angels, fighting the union to do what is best for teachers.  But if we were expecting Rhee to ask for help or support from rank-and-file teachers, principals, parents, CBOs, or the community at large, we were looking in the wrong place.
This was a strategically placed commentary designed to serve a specific purpose.  That purpose was not to amplify the drumbeat for public support nor was it drive new stakeholders to specific actions to help reform DC’s ailing public schools.  And that’s the cryin’ shame here.  
We all know Rhee isn’t in the business to make friends or to build consensus.  I appreciate (and applaud that).  But she needs a broader tent and a larger group of allies if she is going to succeed, particularly when it comes to implementing what is a complex and controversial idea (assuming she gets it passed the AFT).  While her piece in today’s WaPo serves a very specific purpose, it uses a water cannon to deliver what required a delicate pin prick.  And unless the Post is going to give her a weekly column, that does constitute a wasted opportunity of sorts.  Too many people will read today’s commentary not knowing its intended audience or purpose, triggering far more questions and concerns from those audiences on the periphery.

Trying to Win the Hearts and Minds of DC Teachers

The fight over the future of Washington, DC’s public schools continues.  For more than a year now, DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee has worked to secure buy-in for a new plan to incentivize teachers, all but eliminating the traditional tenure system that has long dominated our K-12 systems and replace it with a new meritocracy that increases teachers pay, but has been tagged with taking away their job security and current collective bargaining protections.

The battle has reached the stage when AFT President Randi Weingarten (she being the president of the NATIONAL American Federation of Teachers, not the DC chapter) has stepped in to serve as the primary spokesperson for DC teachers in this debate.
In this morning’s pages of The Washington Post, Rhee issues the latest volley in the ongoing tennis match regarding the future of DCPS teachers.  The op-ed is most cogent and compelling explanation of Rhee’s plans yet, and can be found at  
In her piece, Rhee seeks, rhetorically, to do two things.  First, she clearly aligns her long-term goals with DCPS to the long-term education goals of the Obama Administration.  She breaks her teacher plan down into five key areas — individual choice (teacher empowerment), measuring excellence (multiple measures of school performance), growth model for achievement (teachers aren’t expected to do everything and show success in one academic year), protection from arbitrary firings (saving teachers from principal firings), and professional development and support.  Essentially, if you like the President’s plans for education spending on the campaign trail and in the economic stimulus package, you should love what Rhee is attempting.
Second, Rhee is trying to portray herself as the true protector of the DC teacher.  Month after month, we have heard how DCPS is arbitrarily firing principals and teachers as part of its long-term plan (such stories may be unfair, but they are now a regular part of the dialogue).  She boldly proclaims that her plan is designed to protect teachers from such firings, stating that too many DC teachers are living in fear of being fired by their principals for non-performance reasons.  This was a new concern for me.
The piece is well written and chock full of informational nuggets.  But it begs one large question for Eduflack — who is the intended audience?  Clearly, this was not written for the DCPS teacher.  The content and tone is written as if Rhee is trying to explain the deeply rooted beliefs of DCPS educators to others.  So who is it for?  Is this truly a volley over to Weingarten, awaiting her return?  If so, this volley is likely to be returned with a decisive forehand, speaking on behalf of the “real” DCPS teacher.  Is it intended for the national education blob, carving out a new view on a stalled staffing plan?  Or is it a reminder to the DC policy community that Rhee is indeed relevant in this new administration, even with a new “top superintendent” at the helm over on Maryland Avenue?
Time will tell about the effectiveness of this latest missive.  Rhee still has miles to go if she is going to win over the hearts and minds of her teachers.  Focusing on teacher empowerment, professional development, and the need for longitudinal measures of teacher effectiveness is a good way to start.  Trying to position the elimination of tenure as a way to prevent arbitrary firings by principals, though is a head-scratcher.  At this point, I have to believe DC’s teachers trust their principals more than their central office.
But Rhee has laid out new parameters by which to measure and reward teacher performance.  This is more than just a score on the annual high-stakes test.  She’s planning on multiple uses for good data, including teacher achievement and educator needs.  That may be just what urban school districts need, particularly as the feds look to new data systems and multiple evaluation measures.
The ball is now in AFT’s court.  Weingarten can gently return the volley, seeking to build a dialogue on what beliefs she and Rhee hold in common, or she can return the ball down DCPS’ throat, putting teachers and their protection first and foremost.  Game on!

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.

The Future of Urban School District Leaders

At yesterday’s EdSec confirmation hearings, senator after senator went out of their way to praise the selection of Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan and how terrific it will be to have a real urban educator at the helm of the U.S. Department of Education.  At the beginning of the year, many folks (Eduflack included) praised the selection of Denver Public Schools chief Michael Bennet for the open U.S. Senate seat from Colorado, again applauding the notion that a true-blue educator would be involved in authorizing and appropriating federal education dollars.

As a friend pointed out this afternoon, though, all this talk about our top urban superintendents moving up to new, more powerful political jobs raises one large unanswered (and often unasked) question.  What is the impact on our urban districts?  At a time when our school districts are facing greater demands on their resources, higher expectations on their performance, shrinking budgets from their cities and states, and a more demanding economy into which their most successful students are now entering, what happens to those districts that lose great leaders?
This isn’t just a federal issue, either.  our states are seeing massive turnover in the chief state school officer positions.  For each of those open state chiefs, there are likely superintendents in that state (as well as those from others) who pique the interests of politicians, policymakers, and educators.
But let’s get back to our urban districts.  Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver.  All are facing brand new superintendents at their most important moments.  Same is true for districts like Prince Georges County in Maryland.  Other districts — Boston, Philadelphia, Newark, and the like, have supes in their first years.  It’s getting to the point where DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, on the job for a year and a half now, is quickly become a grizzled veteran in world of urban superintendents.
Yes, ED is fortunate to soon have Duncan at the helm, where he can bring his Chicago experiences and insights to bear on the national scene.  We can look at the improvements and the innovations and the ideas that have percolated in Chicago (and other cities) and paint them with a larger brush and allow them to have larger impact.  But as ED begins to fill out its other positions, how many cities will lose their top school administrator for the greater good?  I assume that a supe or a chief state school officer will take over at the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, but what about the other openings in ED’s Duncan era?
It raises a lot of questions in Eduflack’s mind.  Does one have to run a major urban school district to lead school improvement at the national level?  What about our rural school districts?  Who speaks for the small communities or the K-8 school districts when the focus is on urban turnaround?  How important is it for a senior-level ED appointee to have real K-12 classroom instruction experience?  How much of such experience is enough?  What’s the necessary balance between pedagogy and innovation at ED?  Does K-12 or higher ed experience truly matter when it comes to the knock-around political world that is Washington? 
We all know heading one of the larger school districts in the nation is a difficult job.  The stakes are high.  Turnover is frequent.  Districts churn through leaders, with many top districts recycling many of the same leaders again and again.  So how does one protect the gains in such districts, while preventing the brain drain that comes with turnover and current upward mobility?  And more importantly, what are groups like the Council of Great City Schools and AASA doing to ensure that incoming superintendents — in both our most urban and most rural districts — have the professional development tools, support, and guidance necessary to keep improvements moving forward and bringing about the sort of change that so many communities are crying out for?
Maybe Duncan is already thinking of that, and is going to adopt a superintendent-in-residence program at ED to help ensure that school administrators have the access to best practice that we are constantly trying to deliver to both principals and teachers.  Or maybe we figure that urban districts always manage to figure it out, and between CGCS and the Broad Foundation, we’ll keep those top jobs staffed, so no need to worry.
And while we’re off the topic, allow me this little rant.  By now, many have seen the screaming Internet messages warning that all of the top jobs at ED are going to go to educational innovators and free thinkers, and not those with distinct classroom pedagogical training or instructional experience.  I don’t want to address such rumors here because I don’t think they are worth the electronic ink.  And anyway, Sherman Dorn does a far better job discussing the silly fears than I ever could —  But I do want to address the larger issue.   What ED needs now, what ED always needs, is a team that is committed to school improvement and is committed to the child.  That commitment takes many forms.  We see it in classroom and district educators.  We see it in education researchers who have committed themselves to spotlighting best practice.  And we see it in innovators, idea-makers, and policy minds who look for new ways to solve the problems that ail our schools.  Before we condemn picks for jobs at ED, we should let President-elect Obama and EdSec in-waiting Duncan actually make the picks.  There may just be a method to their madness.  And we may be surprised how the individuals, the personalities, and the backgrounds selected complement each other and form a wide net of experience and action designed to real school improvement.  At the end of the day, we have to believe that Obama and Duncan (and their surrogates) are seeking to improve public education through ED, and not harm it.  So let’s let them give it a try.
I’ll step down from the soapbox and relinquish the rostrum.  More questions than I have answers today, I’m afraid.  But sometimes such questions result in really interesting answers and insights down the road.