Reading Should Be a Civil, Constitutional Right

Twenty years ago, I formally enlisted in the “Reading Wars.” As one of the original staffers of the National Reading Panel, I really had no idea what I was getting into. Entering the process, literacy instruction seemed pretty simple to me. I thought English teachers knew how to teach kids to read. It went without saying that those proven-effective methods were what we were using in the classroom.

Boy, was I wrong. I quickly learned that what were scientifically proven instructional methods were often ignored, replaced by an embrace of an unproven philosophy of “whole language.” Ed schools were often preparing prospective teachers in the philosophy as their professors were the advocates of such a belief. Misguided philosophy was trumping fact when it came to literacy instruction.

The National Reading Panel culled through decades of research to determine the most effective methods for teaching young children to read. The Panel’s report became the research cornerstone for the Reading First program, a multi-billion-dollar federal investment in K-12 literacy instruction. This research-based emphasis resulted in an uptick in student literacy rates … until the Reading First program ended as No Child Left Behind faced increased attacks. As a result, reading instruction started returning to where it once was, well-intentioned philosophy over research-based practice.

While some thought of Reading First as a “drill and kill” approach to literacy, the program was addressing its goals. The National Reading Panel had noted that more than a third of fourth graders were unable to read at grade level. Those struggling readers were largely students of color attending high-need schools. And at the time, many of them were on the path to attend high schools affectionately referred to as “drop-out factories.” By refusing to use what we knew worked in teaching young kids to read, we were failing those students for a lifetime. By embracing scientifically based reading instruction, we were strengthening the academic paths for every child to have a chance at success.

I fought those Reading Wars for a decade, and have the intellectual battle scars to show for it. Advocating for better instructional materials. Building new graduate schools of education that were research based. Empowering parents to demand what works in their kids’ classrooms. Highlighting the differences between proven instruction and philosophy. And yes, promoting the notion that literacy skills are indeed a civil right.

After all of those years and all of those fights, I had hoped that things had finally changed. While the dollars from Reading First have long dried up, the impact the policies left on instructional materials and instructional materials lasted. Or so I thought, until reading of a recent court case in Michigan.

In Motown, Detroit Public Schools students have filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the state was denying them their constitutional right to learn. In hearing the case, a federal judge earlier this summer asked and answered an important question: “But the Court is faced with a discrete question: does the Due Process Clause demand that a State affirmatively provide each child with a defined, minimum level of education by which the child can attain literacy? The answer to the question is no.”

The judge based the argument on the fact that the Constitution does not actually include the words “education” or “school.” As a result, while the students’ argument may be morally persuasive, the legal argument just isn’t there. In response, the students’ lawyers are now charging that the failure to teach students to read in essence prevents students from pursuing their constitutional rights, including the right to vote or the right to participate in the civic process.

It is offensive that so many students today complete public school lacking the necessary literacy skills to succeed. It is offensive that government – be it legislatures or the courts – don’t see the lack of student reading resources as the crisis it truly is. And at a time when most states require students be educated (with some states demanding they remain in school until their 18th birthday) that we are unable to provide students the literacy skills they need, deserve, and demand.

Two decades ago, we were fighting the Reading Wars to determine whether whole language or a phonics-based approach was the most effective instructional strategy. Sadly, today we are now fighting over whether young people even have a right to literacy skills and the very basics in public education.

Decades of research is clear on what is most effective when it comes to teaching most young people to read. We know what works, and we have the data to prove it. A former mentor of mine once declared that it was “educational malpractice” for our schools not to use scientifically-based reading instruction in the classroom. He was ridiculed for using such language, but he was correct, then and now.

When our fourth graders can’t read, it is near impossible for them to learn content when they hit middle and high school. When they graduate functionally illiterate in this digital, information age, it is near impossible for them to get a good job or truly participate in the great American citizenry. When we fail to teach our young people to read, we are literally denying them their rightful place in our democratic republic.

Literacy skills are indeed a civil right. And as we pay federal, state, and local taxes each year to fund our local schools, effectively teaching reading should be a constitutional right as well.

(This essay also appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)

 

 

Gender Lines on the … Alphabet?

Most parents have been warned of the dangers of “gender-specific” toys and what that means nowadays. It’s perfectly acceptable for little girls to play with soldiers or guns (as long as parents aren’t anti-violence, etc.) and it is equally acceptable for little boys to play with dolls and tea sets.

Just the other day, a friend of Eduflack shared a photo on Facebook of her five-year old son receiving an American Boy doll for his birthday. The child just couldn’t have been grinning any bigger than he was from scoring his dream present.

We say that there are no gender-specific colors either. It is perfectly fine for girls to prefer drab colors, just as it is for boys to own pinks and purples. (And I can proudly say that Eduflack has a significant number of pink, purple, and pastel articles of clothing, but owns almost nothing black, except for my kickboxing gear.)

One would hope we’ve gotten past the whole gender appropriate discussion when it comes to equipping our children with the attire, toys, and such one needs these days. But then Amazon has to go and ruin everything. For you see, in 2017, there is one set of ABCs for boys, and another set for girls.

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Seriously? We are more than halfway through 2017 and we still think boys learn the ABCs from airplanes and dump trucks while girls only garner it through lessons of butterflies and castles?

Setting aside, for a second, that folks are paying $10 a piece for an ABC book. Setting aside, for a moment, that twice as many people saw the need to review the boys’ ABCs than the girls’. Setting aside, for a bit, that it took two additional years to finally wrap up the ABCs that were appropriate for the “fairer” gender. Was all of this really necessary? Is there now a demand for a gender-fluid ABCs?

I miss the good ol’ days when it was all about making sure a child could read at grade level by the end of the third grade. It didn’t matter if they were reading words from a Babysitters Club book or the Hardy Boys.

Sigh. Double sigh. Sigh in both pink and camo.

 

It’s Time To Do Something, Anything, EdSec DeVos!

We are now six months into the Trump Administration, and when it comes to education policy, we must finally ask, what is the strategy, folks?

Just last week, we saw former governor, former U.S. Education Secretary, and current Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander call out the DeVos Administration for failing to understand what ESSA says about state decisionmaking.

We saw the head of the Department’s Civil Rights office state that most Title IX complaints are the result of the woman regretting a night of alcohol and a subsequent breakup with the accused.

And we witnessed supposedly sympathetic Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives pass a federal education budget without the needed funding for the EdSec’s signature school choice effort.

While the Administration continues to struggle to find individuals to take top education positions, the “successes” from the past six months include stripping billions in Title II teacher support dollars from the budget, and freezing action to absolve students from paying back loans to attend failed proprietary colleges.

One may not agree, ideologically, with the Trump/DeVos Administration, but we should all want to see it success when it comes to improving teaching and learning across the United States. And as we complete the first eighth of President Donald Trump’s first term in office, we all should wonder what the plan is here.

Despite what some may want to believe, the concerns facing public education in America are both wide and deep. We struggle to find qualified teachers for our high-need schools, particularly in areas like STEM, ELL, and sped. And we do so as the teaching profession itself has been stripped of the respect it had long enjoyed and deserves.

We fail to see the problem with continuing to pursue a homogenous approach to K-12 education at a time when our population of learners couldn’t be more diverse. And we do it by resisting the incoming wave of personalized learning and differentiated instruction. 

We ignore where we really stand when it comes to student performance, making excuses for the United States placing 38th out of 71 in PISA math and 24th in PISA science. And we do it while criticizing learning assessment itself, rather than focusing on a new generation of better, more effective tests.

The DeVos administration came into power without owing anything to those individuals, organizations, and interests beholden to the status quo and the way things have always been done. There is no benefit to defending flat test scores as other nations experience significant rises. There is no gain in ensuring the protection and support of dropout factories. There is no win in ensuring another generation of short-term educators without the knowledge, skills, and support to succeed in the classroom.

It is now past time for DeVos and her skeleton crew to take real action, be it with the power of the checkbook or the strength of the bully pulpit. What could this action look like?

  • A whistle-stop tour to discuss the true value of school choice, particularly in those communities that don’t already enjoy a robust charter sector. This could be particularly appealing to the special education community, giving it a deep dive on what Florida’s McKay vouchers have meant to sped families in the Sunshine State.
  • A collaboration of the Education, Labor, and Commerce Departments, supported by corporate partners, to make a major investment in career and technical education, with an emphasis on the STEM skills and jobs that will be needed for a strong economy 20 years from now. This can even include the apprenticeship push announced by the President earlier this year.
  • A reinvestment in early childhood education, building on the family leave and support efforts of First Daughter Ivanka Trump. This could include finally having the Federal government recognize that early childhood education is the purview of the U.S. Department of Education, and not Health and Human Services.
  • A refocus on teacher quality, offering even stronger executive action on teacher prep provisions than the recently revoked Obama language. Through a “return on investment” lens, this could include returning Title II dollars for efforts that raise the quality and results of teaching, looking at the outcomes of the teaching profession, not just the inputs.

Six months in, and federal education policy is still stuck in neutral. And based on the state of public education in the United States, neutral means that millions of kids are losing ground. Losing ground when it comes to reading proficiency. Losing ground when it comes to 21st century skills. Losing ground when it comes to required remediation.

It is past time to roll up the sleeves, seize the rostrum, and get it done. If this Administration is seeking to shake up the status quo, if this Administration is serious about breaking from the failed policies of the past, and if this Administration believes that traditional public schools are indeed failing, then do something about it. You are now steering the ship. Take us somewhere. Anywhere.

 

A Family Engagement Advocate for EdSec!

Last week, Education Week published an interesting look ahead at what could be when a new Education Secretary is selected. In her piece, the always terrific Alyson Klein asks what might be if Hillary Clinton bucked tradition and selected, as her next U.S. secretary of education, an individual coming from the higher education side of the realm.

Historically, we are used to EdSecs coming from the K-12 perspective. That’s definitely true of the past four, with Rod Paige, Margaret Spellings, Arne Duncan, and the current EdSec John King all cutting their teeth on the mean streets of K-12. Before that, we had governors like Dick Riley and Lamar Alexander, who brought a policy perspective but whose educational lens — due to the nature of a state chief exec — was far more primary/secondary ed than higher education.

Sure, it is fun to throw out names and rank this state chief over that urban superintendent over this university president over that former governor or congressman, to talk about who the unions will give an approval to versus who some of the big money reform donors can live with. It can even be interesting to envision what an EdSec with a higher ed focus might bring to the bully pulpit when it comes to topics like student loans, for-profit education, and even the threatened reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

But what if maybe, just maybe, we went in a different direction? What if instead of looking at the two sides of the coin — P-12 and higher ed — we instead looked at the ridged edge that brings the heads and tails together? What if we took the cabinet search in a completely different direction, and instead looked for a parent voice, a family engagement advocate who could talk with some authority on the full continuum, from early childhood education through adult professional learning and all points in between?

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on the value of high-quality early childhood and the linkages between health and education …

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on K-12 issues well beyond “the test” and instead key in on what students should know and be able to do to succeed and how families can be a part of the learning process along with educators …

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on higher education issues, bringing real-life experiences to fights over student loans, free college, and gainful employment …

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on the role continuing education plays after finishing formal P-16 pathways, or about the importance of career and technical education, or about how education and labor can work together to address workforce readiness issues …

There is a reason groups like the National Assessment Governing Board insist of having specific parent voices on their boards. Parent and family advocates bring a particular focus to a range of education policy issues. They can be the link between practitioner and policymaker. And they can ensure the work focuses on both the inputs and the outcomes, with every action focused on how it impacts the learner.

Sure, we’ve had discreet projects like the Parent Information Resource Centers (PIRCs) that sought to give voice to such parents. And sure, a new EdSec could always appoint a special advisor for family engagement. But such an appointment can be empty. Without a formal voice, and without a formal budget, those special advisors can be hamstrung from bringing the best of ideas into practice.

So let’s forget this East Coast/West Coast style battle of K-12 and higher ed. Instead, let’s look to place the first honest-to-goodness parent advocate in the biggest chair on 400 Maryland Avenue. Let’s give the rostrum to a family voice who can work with teacher and policymaker alike, one who can see that P, K-12, and higher ed are deeply connected and should never be separated.

And if we can’t have such an EdSec, and we have to fall back on tradition, can that new EdSec at least create a new Assistant Secretary for Family Engagement position? Please? Pretty please?

 

Rigorous, Evidence-Based ECE

We all agree that early childhood education is an incredibly important, if not the most important, part of a successful P-12 experience.  Yet despite such universal agreement, we are still failing to provide high-quality preK, particularly to those that would benefit from it the most.

Over at National Journal this week, the debate on the Education Experts blog is Before Kindergarten, as the folks at National Journal explore what we should be doing and why we aren’t doing more to help our youngest learners.
Eduflack is first out of the gate, with this post on the need for rigorous, evidence-based ECE.  Among the gems:
The question is not simply whether or not to provide early childhood education. In a time when we are ever-focused on return on investment of scarce public dollars, the real questions should be about the rigor of the ECE program. What is the evidence base on which the program is constructed? How do we correctly target the students most in need? What is the quality and effectiveness of the educators leading an ECE classroom? What is their track record of effectiveness? This may be an unpopular thing to say in our current anti-testing environment, but we need to demand proof that the program (or approach) works and that the children it touches are gaining the skills needed to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.

There is no question it is an important debate.  Hopefully, we continue to take a closer look and continue to take meaningful actions that are proven effective.

SOTU MIA

Earlier today, Eduflack examined the educational highlights of President Obama’s State of the Union address.  The Cliff Notes version — strong on effective teachers, keep every kid in high school until age 18, college is expensive.  But what is equally interesting is what was NOT included in the SOTU, particularly as a lead-up to the presidential campaign.  

What was missing?
Race to the Top — No mention whatsoever of the crown jewel of the Obama education reform platform.  No talk about the progress states like Delaware and others are making. No discussion of the new world order likely coming out of the first few rounds of RttT.  (But there was that veiled reference to RttT driving states to adopt the Common Core, but only the insideriest of insiders will have caught the “for less than one percent of what our Nation spends on education each year, we’ve convinced nearly every State in the country to raise their standards …”)
Early childhood education — Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars the Obama administration just awarded to the winning states in the RttT Early Learning edition, there was no mention of ECE or the importance of ensuring all kids are ready to learn when the hit kindergarten.
Principals — In the President’s focus on effective teachers, he seemed to forget that a great principal is just as important — if not more so — in improving student learning and turning a school around.  Using “educators” is the common catch-all phrase, but Obama decided to focus just on teachers.
ESEA — No call to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  No sense of urgency to act, as we have heard in previous years.  Have we officially determined this is a 2013 activity now?
Parental engagement — In one of his earlier SOTUs, Obama got all Bill Cosby on us and called for greater parental involvement in the K-12 process.  This year, nothing.  If we are serious about real reform, it can’t all be on the backs of the teachers Obama singled out.  It requires involved and committed parents, clergy, business leaders, and community voices too.
Choice — Embracing the entire public school infrastructure — traditional publics, public charters, magnets, and technicals — used to be a part of the President’s educational stump speech.  But when talking about the need for all kids to finish high school, there was no mention of ensuring all of those kids actually have access to good high schools.
Competitive Grants — Similar to the failure to mention RttT, we saw no mention of the Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund, no discussion of the impacts of recent educational budget “consolidations,” and no teaser on ARPA ED.  Are competitive grants moving to the back burner?
What else are we missing?  Anyone?  Anyone? 

Racin’ on Preschool Legs

In an announcement far less anticipated than previous rounds, EdSec Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education today announced the parameters for Round Three of Race to the Top.  After Congress agreed to throw another $700 million in the RttT kitty as part of the FY2011 CR budget deal, most expected they knew how the current round would be distributed.

Original word around town was that ED would simply move down the list of Round Two finalists, making dreams come true.  So New Jersey, which finished less than three points (on a 500-point scale) behind the final Round Two winner, Ohio, was seen as a shoo-in (and a potential recipient of hundreds of millions of federal dollars).  Then came Arizona, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Illinois.  Presumably, the $700 million wouldn’t even last long enough for Illinois to line up for its check, leaving the full boat to be distributed among four states (and four states run by Republican governors, coincidentally).
But a funny thing happened on the way to today’s announcement.  Instead of funding, or nearly funding, the remaining plans that scored the highest, ED determined it best to share the wealth across all of the Phase Two finalist states.  So now we can add California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky to the list.  Nine states sharing RttT dollars, with all likely getting just a fraction of their ask, yet all of the red tape, bureaucracy, and expectation to go with it.
Why?  Because Duncan threw the education community a curve ball.  Of the $700 million going to RttT Round Three, only $200 million of it will go to these nine states.  The remainder, a whopping $500 million, will now go to fund a new Race competition for early childhood education.
If you’ll recall, last month Eduflack wrote about a key change to the RttT law — the addition of early childhood education as a new priority to Race.  At the time, I wondered whether this was finally a real commitment on behalf of the Administration to invest in ECE, or whether this was more rhetoric, without the teeth of real dollars to back it up.
That question was answered loudly and clearly today by Duncan.  Five hundred million dollars to go to a competitive grant program to fund the improvement of early childhood care and education, and it will now carry the Early Learning Challenge moniker.  Half a billion dollars to support preK programs.  Some of the specs released today include:
* State-based award focused on comprehensive plans for early learning
* Emphasis on coordination (presumably with K-12), clearer learning standards, and “meaningful workforce development”
The statement from ED is unclear on some of the larger issues, though.  It notes that just 40 percent of four-year-olds are in preK.  So is the intent to improve preK programs or boost enrollment in existing programs?  At a time when states are reducing their own investments in preK (just look at the Pew numbers), is $500 million spread across the nation enough to jumpstart a universal preK movement?  And when we again challenge the innovation community, this time to get involved in ECE, what role do we see for the private sector and the edu-prenuers to be playing in early childhood education?
On the K-12 side, we see a few other issues.  So now those nine RttT finalist states can recompete for $10-$50 million grants, needing to develop new applications (with ED’s help, of course).  One only needs to do the math, though, to realize we are looking a lot more like a number of $10 million grants than a handful of $50 million ones.  Is $50 million even enough to enact real improvement in a state like California, Illinois, or Pennsylvania?
Most importantly, though, is this an indication that we’ve already given up on RttT?  When it was originally announced, we heard all about how it was most effective when a few states were given big dollars to enact real changes (Former Duncan advisor Mike Smith originally hypothesized there should only be two or three total RttT winners for the original $4 billion prize).  Now that we move to Round Three, we are shifting to small checks for a large number of states, now for targeted activities.  When Delaware and Tennessee received more that they were originally slated to gain in Round One, do we really expect the nine expected to benefit here to be able to do real work and enact real improvements with a fraction of what they asked for (and presumably need)?  Time will tell …
UPDATE: Make that eight.  South Carolina has already pulled out of the RttT3 competition, according to Education Week’s Politics K-12 blog, with its State Superintendent, Mick Zais stating RttT is “offering pieces of silver in exchange for strings attached to Washington.”