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.”
 
     

Some Chamber Education

For the past two years, the education community has been all abuzz about the role of reform organizations in the process.  What are TFA and NLNS saying?  What are Gates and Broad trying to do?  What about that DFER and 50CAN expansion?  We hang on every word, analyze every check, and scrutinize every action.  Good or bad (depending on your perspective), these reform groups have become our own education reality TV programming.

It gets so intense that we almost forget about those groups that were pushing “reform” before reform was cool.  But many of those organizations have not yet ridden off into the sunset.  Today’s exhibit A — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
For years, the Chamber has been promoting college and career readiness through its Institute for a Competitive Workforce (which, interestingly, is now championing early childhood education).  Its Leaders and Laggards analysis, particularly 2007’s on school effectiveness, has a been a useful tool.  The Chamber even has former EdSec Margaret Spellings as a senior advisor and president of its U.S. Forum for Policy Innovation. 
But this little history lesson isn’t the focus of Eduflack’s attention.  Instead, I was drawn in by the Chamber’s advertising in this week’s Roll Call newspaper, the back page of the newspaper, no less.
The full-page ad offers the header, “Congress, Don’t Fail on Education Reform.”  Building off of the photo of a confused kindergartner, the Chamber offers some chronological stats.  For 2021, “By the time he reaches the ninth grade, he could be part of the 70% of middle school students who score below grade level in reading and math.”  For 2025, “If he makes it to high school, he may be one of the 1.3 million American students who drop out of high school.  And for 2027, “If he gets to college, he may be among the 40% of students who will be required to enroll in remedial courses.”
The call to action has three components to it.  “Congress, act now to: Hold our nation’s schools accountable; Promote effective teachers; and Provide choices to parents.”
Yes, we’ve heard these statistics before (and often from Spellings and company when they ran Maryland Avenue).  The call to action could be from either the NCLB era or from EdSec Duncan’s own ESEA blueprint.  So let’s go a little deeper into the rhetoric.
The ad closes with two additional sentences of text.  “Now is not the time to retreat from our national commitment to the success of every child.  If we don’t address our broken education system today, then our kids and our nation will pay the price.”
A little old school, a little new school (or a little Texas, a little Chicago, if you prefer).  The first sentence, a clear defense of NCLB and its role in putting us on the path to success.  The latter, borrowed from President Obama and his call for change.  Which leads to the confusion.  So now is not the time to retreat from our broken education system?  If not now, when?  And if not now, why not?
In many ways, the Chamber’s latest advertising campaign is but a microcosm of our current struggles in school improvement.  We need to build on the successes of the past, while casting aside the reforms that didn’t work.  We need to display a sense of urgency for change, but need to do so in a way tips a hat to those doing well.  And we need to do it all in an environment where the average person, even the average congressman, believes the average school district and average school building is doing just fine.
As always, the devil is in the details.  Whose version of accountability should Congress follow?  Which definition of effective teachers?  And what “choices” do we want to provide to parents?  Where Congress (and governors and state legislators) turn for answers is the next great education policy battleground.  Will anyone besides the “reformy” groups step forward and offer some substantive, even if unpopular, policy reccs to address such issues?  Only time will tell …
 

The CR Ain’t All Bad …

Last week, Eduflack detailed the long and distinguished list of “losers” in the FY2011 Continuing Resolution and the ongoing budget fight between the White House and Congress.  All those billions that both sides had to cut needed to come from somewhere and, unfortunately, education was unable to avoid the knife.

Fortunately, President Obama made it easy for those looking to nip and tuck from the ED budget.  In the previous two budget cycles, Obama offered up lists of programs to either be eliminated or consolidated in the ED budget.  Those programs eliminated were often cited for a lack of efficacy.  Those consolidated into a potential competitive grant program were victims of a new world order when competition is king, and the dollars for a competitive process needed to come from somewhere.  So if the President wasn’t going to protect specific education programs in his own budget, it made them easy pickin’s for an opposition Congress.
But it seems there was a bit of good edu-news in the CR after all.  Yes, we saw increased in Race to the Top ($700 million), Investing in Innovation ($150 million), and Promise Neighborhoods ($20 million more).  But there was also some interesting policy language inserted into the CR.
While campaigning in 2008, Obama often spoke of the importance of early childhood education.  Good ECE and good parenting were the cornerstone to his child development plans.  But that rhetoric never seemed to translate into real policies.  Parental engagement continues to lag, despite both authority and funding under NCLB.  And although ECE offered real promise in 2008, the realities of state budget cuts have stymied expansion plans, with ED and HHS relatively unsure of who should actually take control of moving strong, evidence-based ECE into practice.  At least until last week, say the experts.
Buried in the wording regarding the additional $700 million for RttT is language that adds a new priority to ED’s prized RttT.  ED, along with early childhood education advocates, are touting the addition of “Improving Early Childhood Care and Education” as a RttT priority and something Race dollars can now fund.  (Always the skeptic, Eduflack must admit that I’m still not completely sure how this differs from the original Priority 3: Invitational Priority — Innovations for Improving Early Learning Outcomes, but I must just be hung up on the language of the language.)
This is potentially a major step forward for ECE in two ways.  First, it opens up new funding streams.  While it doesn’t provide specific, dedicated ED funds for ECE, it does confirm that RttT dollars can be spent on early childhood education.  ECE can now be a fundable component of those grants seeking a piece of the $700 million in extra pie.  And one could even make the case of adding ECE efforts to the current RttT winners’ effort.
More importantly, though, the language addition signals a general commitment — from both the Administration and the Congress — that early childhood education is a key component of the educational continuum.  We turn around low-performing schools, in part, by better preparing kids for school in the first place.  We address the dropout and remediation problems by ensuring that kindergartners are not starting the formal learning process a year or two behind some of their classmates.  We make a difference by providing instructional building blocks early and often, finally declaring that ECE, if done correctly, is more than just babysitting on the cream and the clear.
While there is still much work to be done to build up our national commitment to high-quality early childhood education, the new RttT language is definitely a start.  Add some significant dedicated funding, and we might really have something here.
  
UPDATE: So sometimes a priority just isn’t a priority.  Per my confusion about Priority 3: Invitational Priority versus this new priority in the CR.  As it has been explained to me, the Priority 3 is the “absolute, competitive and invitational priorities” in the original RttT applications.  The new priority, on improving early childhood care and education, added a new priority to the RttT authorization statute.  So early childhood now joins 1) maintenance of effort; 2) achieving equity in teacher distribution; 3) improving collection and use of data; 4) standards and assessment; and 5) supporting struggling schools.    

Presidential Education Budget Redux

Yesterday, President Obama released his FY2012 Budget.  And it was hardly a “the new phone books are here” sort of moment.  In an era of supposed budgetary belt-tightening, we all knew that the U.S. Department of Education was facing a budget increase.  The major question was how much of that increase would go to Pell and how much to P-12.

So when the details of the budget were revealed, Eduflack’s primary response was, “didn’t we just have this discussion last year?”  New rounds of Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation.  A handful of programs eliminated.  A good number of programs “consolidated” into a series of competitive buckets.  So while some of the specific dollars may be a little different (more for RttT this year than last, less for i3), Eduflack comments on the FY2011 budget seem to be fairly evergreen, all things considered. 
Of course, there are a few things that make this year a little different:
* Political realities — For those eagerly waiting to cash checks based on FY2012 presidential projections, please remember we still haven’t passed the FY2011 budget yet.  FY2012 is largely a do-over because FY2011 never became law.  The Administration is to be commended for sticking to its guns and staying with the same policy priorities.  But we can’t forget these priorities couldn’t get passed in a Democratic Congress in 2010.  If the current fight over the FY2011 continuing resolution is any indication, Congress (particularly House Republicans) have a VERY different view of where our education budget should head.  So let’s realize that the President has essentially put forward a “ceiling” for education spending.  The House will drive it down some, and both the House and Senate will swap out some of the president’s programs for their own favorite funding recipients.
* Reauthorization — Much of the “big thinking” in this year’s presidential budget is based on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Based on yesterday’s ED presentation, all those interesting new programs and the continuation of RttT and i3 are all linked to successful ESEA reauth.  What happens, then, if reauth rolls out at House Education Committee John Kline (MN) wants — incrementally?  Or what happens if Dems in the Senate can’t agree on a strategy?  Another year of ED CRs means none of these big ideas are funded.
* Early childhood education — Kudos to the Administration for the creation of the Early Learning Challenge Fund.  The President is now addressing his 2008 campaign pledges about the importance of ECE.  Even more important, he is placing the responsibility for 21st century early learning with the U.S. Department of Education (instead of over in HHS with the Head Start office).  Could it be we may actually see a P-20 education continuum run through Maryland Avenue?  One can only hope.
* Title I Rewards — Perhaps the most intriguing new idea is that of a Title I Rewards program.  And it is interesting because of what we know, and what we still don’t.  Based on yesterday, it seems that ED will provide $300 million in new Title I dollars directly to the states, based on current Title I formulas.  It will then be up to the states to divide that money up among those Title I districts who are demonstrating the most progress in student achievement improvement.  So will dollars go to a select few districts or most?  Are rewards simply the thanks of a grateful nation, or are they to be designated for specific interventions or to scale particular improvements?  Lots of questions, with lots of opportunities.
* Teacher training — Last year, the Administration took a beating for the perception that it was scrapping its commitment to preservice education for teachers, instead handing the keys over to alt cert providers and programs like Teach for America.  This year, the President is offering up $975 million for the recruitment, reward, and retention of new teachers.  We’re looking at recruitment programs, scholarship efforts (particularly those targeting minorities), and an emphasis on science and math teachers.  This seems like an awful lot of real capital to begin supporting the Teach.gov initiative.
And who is getting condolence cards today?  Those 13 programs slated for elimination (including the Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners, which is experiencing another year of life and another $8.8 million under the CR).  The 38 programs targeted for consolidation, while a few are destined for greatness in the competitive grant process (I’m looking at you, TFA), most may go the way of those Whaling Partners.  Career and Technical Education, which seemed to be the big loser, as some well-meaning program had to sacrifice to make this year’s number, and CTE seems to be the recipient of such cuts.  And I’d also put ARPA-ED on the list, simply because after all of the build up it received in the week leading into the budget, the total dollar figure allotted to our very own DARPA seems small by comparison.
Now the fun begins.  Anyone willing to bet more than half the new funding makes it through the House of Representatives this fall?