ELL, More Today Than Before

As we’ve watched the policy and political fights over immigration overtake our public schools, some are asking a lot of questions about the families served by the schools and our obligations to those students who seek an education from our community schools. As a result, in many cities and downs the needs of our schools continue to expand, particularly with regard to English language learners.

These increased demands speak to a need to more effectively address the ELL and immigrant communities in our schools. But for some at the US Department of Education, it shouts the opposite, a desire to contract our ELL offerings and our commitment to meet the needs of all learners.

On the most recent episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network, we take on this important topic, urging the US Department of Education not to bury our commitment to ELL education when it is needed more today than it ever has been. Give it a listen!

Highlighting First-Gen College Students

As we continue to talk about the importance of postsecondary education and the United States’ goal of (again) having the highest percentage of college graduates in the world, it becomes important to focus specifically on first-generation college students. After all, the only way to truly expand the pool is to bring in those who previously haven’t been able to enjoy the swim.

To that end, today is Proof Point Day, a concept created by Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow Chastity Lord. As the Aspen Institute details, “After years of witnessing the challenges first-generation college students face, Lord decided to use her Fellowship project to start the conversation about this issue.”
Eduflack can’t stress how important a discussion this is to have. In all of our talks on access and affordability of college, we can lose sight of the motivation, supports, and encouragement necessary to both get first-gen college students into postsecondary and then to help them ultimately earn their degrees. And it starts with making sure high school students recognize they are college material, regardless of their socioeconomic or educational backgrounds.
So I’ll take Proof Point Day (#ProofPointDay) to give a major shout out to my favorite first-generation college student, my mom. Neither of my mother’s parents earned their high school diplomas. My mother herself (the daughter of a GI) came to this country at age five without knowing the language. When she graduated from high school (the oldest of five children), it was assumed she would go down the street, get a job at the local biscuit factory, find a husband, and start a family.
She had other ideas, though. Something in her told her she needed to reach farther and earn a college degree. So instead of taking that factory job, she took three jobs, with one of them being a secretary at Rutgers University. Why? Because university employees could take one free course every semester. Slow and steady could win the college race.
My mother met my dad at Rutgers, as he was completing his doctorate. They got married and moved to Buffalo. He was a newbie political science professor, and she became a full-time college student. She had to take my dad’s Poly Sci 101 class (the only time in his teaching career he didn’t have essay exams). Her junior year of college, she was pregnant with me. He senior year, she had an infant in tow, and I began my academic career as a fussy, red-haired baby at Buffalo State. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology soon after my first birthday.
But she never received her diploma. Too many family demands to get the actual piece of paper she earned. Twenty one years later, I would track down that diploma, and give it to her on the day that I earned my B.A. from the University of Virginia.
This first-generation college student wasn’t done with her education, though. More than a decade later, as Eduflack’s youngest sister was entering the public school system full time, my mom earned her teaching certificate. She student taught at an Indian school in New Mexico, then had her first teaching job in one of the roughest school districts in the Land of Enchantment. And more than a decade after that, she would earn her master’s degree in education. 
She spent two decades as a high school English teacher, mostly offering 10th grade English. She taught in urban, suburban, and rural schools. She impacted, for the better, the lives of hundreds of kids, many of whom would become first-generation college students themselves.
So this #ProofPointDay, Eduflack offers huge kudos and major thank yous to Barbara Riccards, the most important first-generation college student in my life.

The First Day of School

Today is a very special day in the Eduflack household.  This morning, the edu-son started kindergarten.  As we walked up North Oak Street toward his elementary school, he was getting a little apprehensive.  For weeks, we had been excited about going to the “hippo school” (the school’s mascot is a purple hippo).  We did a week of “kindergarten orientation” and went last week to meet his new teachers.  But as we walked up the steep hill, I could tell the previous excitement was giving way to some fear about the new.

All those worries evaporated once the edu-son entered his classroom.  Warm hugs from the three teachers who will be manning classroom three this year.  His own hook and cubby to house his new Captain America backpack.  And a seat at the “Lego table” where he immediately started the building process before class even began.
Before this morning, we talked about what the edu-son wanted to learn now that he was in kindergarten.  His expectations were specific and direct.  He wanted to learn to build a robot.  He wanted to learn about outer space, penguins, and sharks.  And he wanted to learn how to make pizza.  After all that, he wanted to learn math.  Sounds like a full academic year.  I just hope his teachers are up for the challenge.
I’ll admit, I was a little misty eyed when I dropped my son off this morning.  He didn’t quite understand what the big deal was (and certainly didn’t know why dad had a tear in his eye).  But as I watched him start his public school career today, I am reminded of a blog post I wrote nearly three years ago, when we brought our daughter home from Guatemala.  At the time, I reflected on my educational hopes and dreams for the edu-daughter (and by extension, my son, who is 18 months older).  
At the time, I laid out 10 tenets for the education I wanted my children to experience.  Three years later, they seem even more appropriate:

What is my vision for my children?  Let me nail Eduflack’s 10 tenets to the electronic wall:

* I want every kid, particularly mine, reading proficient before the start of the fourth grade.  Without reading proficiency, it is near impossible to keep up in the other academic subjects.  And to get there, we need high-quality, academically focused early childhood education offerings for all.

* I want proven-effective instruction, the sort of math, reading, and science teaching that has worked in schools like those in my neighborhood with kids just like mine. 

* I want teachers who understand research and know how to use it.  And I want teachers to be empowered to use that research to provide the specific interventions a specific student may need.

* I want clear and easily accessible state, district, school, and student data.  I want to know how my kids stack up by comparison.

* I want relevant education, providing clear building blocks for future success.  That means strong math and technology classes.  It means courses that provide the soft skills needed to succeed in both college and career through interesting instruction.  And it means art and music right alongside math and reading.

* I want national standards, so if my family relocates (as mine did many times when I was a child), I am guaranteed the same high-quality education regardless of the state’s capitol.

* I want educational options, be they charter schools or magnet schools, after-school or summer enrichment programs.  And these options should be available for all kids, not just those struggling to keep up.

* I want schools that encourage bilingual education, without stigmatizing those students for whom English is a second language.  Our nation is changing, and our approach to English instruction must change too.

* I want a high-quality, effective teacher in every classroom.  Teaching is really, really hard.  Not everyone is cut out for it.  We need the best educators in the classroom, and we need to properly reward them for their performance.

* I want access to postsecondary education for all.  If a student graduates from high school and meets national performance standards, they should gain access to an institution of higher education.  And if they can’t afford it, we have a collective obligation to provide the aid, grants, and work study to ensure that no student is denied college because of finances.

   
As we all experience the start of the new school year, aren’t these tenets that we should expect from all of our schools?   

No Excuses

No deep policy discussion today, folks.  But I do need to share an interesting (or disturbing, depending on your perspective) story that I heard earlier this week.

As the merriment of commencement commences, a parent went in for an end-of-the-year conference with her child’s teacher.  It was intended to be the typical check-in.  Is my child on track?  Anything to work on before the start of the new school year?  Tips for summer activities?  The usual drill.
In the discussion, the teacher began by focusing on math skills, talking about successes and areas that needed work.  As part of the conversation, the teacher made an off-handed comment.  In reflecting that the student did not enjoy doing a specific math assignment, she noted, “maybe he would do it in Spanish, though.”
Did I mention that the student in question is Hispanic?  No, he’s not ESOL.  He doesn’t work from an IEP.  Doesn’t come from a low-income household.  But his ancestors also did not come over on the Mayflower.  As a result, the teacher’s failure to connect with the student must be a cultural thing.  It must be a language thing.  It can’t be a breakdown in teaching or instruction, it must be a Spanish thing.
If this was the first time the teacher had made such a remark to the parent, it would likely have been dropped, and I wouldn’t be telling the tale here today.  Unfortunately, it seems this isn’t the first comment like this.  A month or so, when reflecting on the same student’s ELA abilities, the same teacher told the parent (albeit the father this time), that the male student’s reading wasn’t quite up to where some of the girls in class were.  So the teacher’s inquiry, “perhaps it is because of the Spanish language at home.”
I’m willing to write this off as an isolated incident from an ignorant teacher.  From my experiences with teachers in the classroom — be it the educators I deal with as part of my business day, those terrific ones I interact with through my school board service, and those who actually taught me — I never heard such comments, nor do I suspect they would even think it.
But I also realize that much of teaching is learned behavior.  The teacher in question asks such questions because she was either taught it, or she has learned it from colleagues or mentors.  She decided to diagnose students without the benefit of data, information, or common sense.  And in trying to justify her own struggles in connecting with a particular student (or class of students), she managed to even inject a little bit of racism into the student evaluation process.
I feel for both the student and the parents in question.  They deserve better, and can just look forward to a new teacher in a new classroom with a new approach and fewer stereotypes come September.  But I feel for those students who will be passing through said teacher’s classroom in the years to come.  Surely, with a rising Hispanic population, this won’t be the last “Spanish” issue in such a class.  And if she is so quick to make such comments with parents (typically protective, even downright helicopterish) who is to say she isn’t making similar comments in the classroom, comments that other students are picking up and using themselves to drive divisions between “us” and “them?”
We should have high expectations for all students … and all teachers.  We tell our students they can’t make excuses for not demonstrating proficiency or not passing the state exams.  We tell parents they can’t make excuses for their kids not attending school or not doing their homework.  And we certainly should tell our teachers that they can’t make excuses — particularly racially discrimenatory ones — when they fail to connect or properly educate a child.
Ningunas excusas.  Debemos esperar mas de nuestros estudiantes, de nuestras familias, y de nuestros maestros.

Some Resolutions for 2011

Another year about to go down in the history books.  Are we any closer to truly improving our public schools?  For every likely step forward we may have taken in 2010, it seems to be met with a similar step back.  For every rhetorical push ahead, we had a very real headwind blocking progress. 

So as we head into 2011, your friendly neighborhood Eduflack offers up a few “resolutions” for all on the education reform boat to consider as we start a new year.  We need to come to accept the following:
1.  True reform does not happen at the federal level.  The federal government is an important lever in the school improvement process, offering some necessary financial resources and some bully pulpit language to inspire reform.  But true improvement happens at the state and local levels.  It is about what our SEAs and LEAs do with those resources and whether they embrace the call from the bully pulpit.  Just as all politics is local, so too is all education reform.  Why do you think groups like DFER are so keen on launching new statewide efforts, like the new one in California?
2.  ESEA reauthorization really doesn’t matter.  As much as we want to fret about when ESEA is going to be reauthorized and what will and won’t be included, it doesn’t have much impact on the game at hand.  At the end of the day, EdSec Duncan could work from the current NCLB, make a few tweaks, and be just fine for the next few years.  Those thinking a major sea change is coming with reauth will be sadly mistaken.  If we see reauth this year (put at about 60 percent), expect it to simply be a kinder, gentler NCLB.  Nothing more.
3. Education technology matters.  For years now, we’ve placed ed tech in the perifery when it comes to school improvement, trying to define it as simply the adoption of a particular piece of hardware.  Ed tech needs to be at the center of 21st century school improvement.  It is important to instruction and student achievement, teacher quality, and all-around turnaround efforts.  If we are to realize its impact, we need to ensure it is a non-negotiable in the process.
4. We cannot forget about reading instruction.  Nine years ago, Reading First was born, emphasizing the importance of literacy instruction in the elementary grades.  We cannot boost student test scores and we cannot ensure that all kids are college and career ready if everyone isn’t reading at grade level.  RF taught us a great deal on how to teach reading (and how not to advocate it politically).  Building on those lessons, we need to redouble our efforts to get each and every child reading proficient.  And that now includes focusing on middle and high schools, where too many students have fallen between the cracks.
5. Superintendents matter.  Many of our largest and most influential school districts will experience change at the top this coming year.  These new leaders can’t forget that the role of instructional leader is essential to their success.  Shaking things up is good.  Sweeping out the old is fine.  Doing things differently is great.  But at the end of the day, being a superintendent is all about teaching and learning and measurement.  Magazine covers are nice, but rising test scores are far more rewarding.
6. We still need to figure out what teacher quality is.  Is it just student test scores?  Does it include preservice education requirements beyond HQT provisions?  Are their qualitative factors?  Can we accept a “we’ll know it when we see it” definition?  With increased focus continuing to be placed on the topic of teacher quality, we need a true defition and a true measurement to really launch a meaningful discussion.  We’ve spent too much time talking about what it isn’t or what it shouldn’t be.  It is time to determine what it is.
7. Research remains king.  In 2010, we spent a great deal of money on school reforms and improvement ideas.  Most of these dollars were an investment in hope.  Now it is time to verify.  We need to determine what is working and what is not.  We need to know not just that the money is being spent (as ED typically sees evaluation) but instead need to know what it is being spent on and what is showing promise of success.  We need to redouble our investments in evaluation.  Other sectors have made real advances because of investments in R&D.  It is about time for education to do the same.
8. We need to learn how to use social media in education.  It is quite disheartening to see that states like Virginia are exploring banning teachers from using tools like Facebook with their students.  It is also a little frustrating to see that media like Twitter are still being used for one-way communications.  We need to see more engagement and dialogue through our social media.  An example?  How about more Twitter debates like those between @DianeRavitch and @MichaelPetrilli ?
And as we look forward to the new year, some predictions on what is hot and what is not for 2011.
HOT — Accountability (and its flexibility).  Assessments.  International benchmarking.  Rural education.  Alternative certification.  Special education.  Competitive grants.  Local control.  School improvement.  Local elected school boards.  Online education.
NOT —  Charter schools.  Early childhood education.  21st century skills.  STEM.  ELL.  Education schools.  RttT/i3.  Education reform (yeah, you heard me).  Teachers unions.  Mayoral control.  AYP.  Early colleges.  Edujobs.
Happy new year!  

Speaking Collaboratively on RttT

For months now, Eduflack has been asked the same question from a growing group of education policy observers and a great many of those who are looking to get out of the stands and into the game.  The question focuses on why a number of groups have been relatively silent on issues like the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, Race to the Top, and other new funding streams coming out of the U.S. Department of Education.

Typically, the query focuses on two groups — Education Trust and Democrats for Education Reform.  Is EdTrust just planning on transferring its status as NCLB cheerleader and chief over to RttT (somehow those folks seemed to miss the strong critique coming out of EdTrust during the stimulus debate)?  Or is EdTrust speaking no evil because Russlynn Ali is now over at ED?  Is DFER simply basking in the glow of having so many of its disciples named to ED posts?  Or is DFER simply measuring itself for NCLB 2.0 cheerleader skirts?
All of those questions were put to rest last night with a quick look over to the public comment postings for the draft RttT language.  In a strong, powerful statement, EdTrust and DFER, along with the Center for American Progress and the Education Equality Project, offered a detailed, thoughtful, and tough critique of RttT (and SFSF), making quite clear that we have far to go before we have “perfect” education reform and improvement policy.  The full statement can be found here.
The reform collaborative reminds us that, with all of the talk about reform and improvement, we can’t lose sight of those schools most in need, those “serving large numbers of low-income students, English-language learners, and students of color.”  And at a time when we are talking about using SFSF monies to backfill budgetary losses, the organizations are quick to point out that “the temptation to use State Fiscal Stabilization Fund and Race to the Top funds to get things back to normal must absolutely be resisted.”  In other words, using funds to get us back to the status quo is the wrong path to take.  Funding systems that result is only 40 percent student proficiency and a growing number of drop-out factories is simply not the way to improve and innovate.
The groups make several thought-provoking points:
* In our zeal to use data to determine and reward teacher quality immediately, we fail to acknowledge that we don’t have the information systems needed to deliver on the promise.  Such data systems are years and years away, yet the law could be using bad data or incomplete information to identify and reward “effective” teachers.  This is particularly true in schools and districts that serve historically disadvantaged students.  We just don’t have the data or the systems to collect the data to truly measure teacher effectiveness.
* Struggling schools are not stuck because they don’t know what to do.  We need to move off the notion of focusing on “the metrics only on the interventions made,” and instead be sure to require reporting of subsequent student achievement results.  In simpler terms, like its predecessors before it, RttT runs the risk of evaluating inputs and processes, and not outcomes and results.  And while the group acknowledges that ED is working toward fixing the problems of measuring high schools, the current proposal is still not adequate.
* While applauding the core standards movement, the collective notes that “better standards and better tests aren’t enough.”  Teachers need better curriculum, students need better instruction, and we all need better expectations.
* In addition to ED’s current focus on standards and assessments, real reform needs greater emphasis on college and career readiness.
As one would expect from EdTrust, DFER, and the like, the education thought leaders offer three specific recommendations for improving RttT language:
* Assure a stronger focus on equity by (a) asking states not just about the amount of funding in education, but also about the fairness of its distribution to high- and low-poverty and high- and low-minority districts and schools, and (b) asking states to document their efforts (required under federal law) to address gaps in teacher quality between high- and low-poverty and high- and low-minority schools.
* Ensure that higher education does its part by including a sign-off from the state’s chief higher education officer (or CEO of the public university system) on the RttT application.
* Bolster the evidence of progress in raising achievement and closing gaps requested of states.
When one takes a look at the more than 106 pages of RttT online comments (representing well more than 1,000 pieces of “input” provided from all sorts of groups with specific interests and self-interests in mind), it is easy to see many groups and individuals looking to defend their “turf.”  What makes this collaborative statement so interesting is that it isn’t about the four organizations who have lent their signatures to the final draft.  It is about improving teaching and learning for those students who need improvement the most.  While these reccs may not influence the final RttT guidance, they certainly should serve as a guide for how we can improve standards, assessment, data, and teachers as part of ESEA reauthorization and the future of education policy.
Kudos to DFER, EdTrust, CAP, and EEP for putting forward this draft and focusing on the bigger picture.  Rather than getting hung up in the weeds, they are offering a clearer, alternative path for improvement and innovation.  And these groups know of which they speak.

Cutting Off Our Thumbs …

We all recognize that state departments of education are hurting.  Even once they receive a significant financial booster shot from the federal stimulus to help pay for core instructional needs, states are still looking for places to trim, cut, or generally push back on.  Usually, we think that such cuts should first be directed at those areas considered expendable, the sort of luxuries our schools want, but just can’t afford during these belt-tightening times.

Who ever would have thought that such expendable programs would be English Language Learning efforts in the state of Arizona.  Unbelievable, but true.  Over in the Grand Canyon State, the state superintendent has recommended that the Arizona Legislature remove $30 million in ELL funding from the state budget, a nearly three-quarters cut in what was intended.
The full story can be found in the Arizona Republic — <a href="http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/2009/02/13/20090213horne0213.html.
Eduflack”>www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/2009/02/13/20090213horne0213.html.
Eduflack is not going to quibble with State Supe Tom Horne that Arizona is making great strides in ELL instruction.  I want to believe that Arizona school districts are doubling fluency rates under current efforts, and more and more students are becoming English language proficient.  I even want to believe Horne when Arizona will see “a dramatic increase in the percentage of students becoming proficient in English quickly.”
But our actions often speak far louder than our rhetoric.  Last year, Arizona provided its K-12 schools $40 million to implement new ELL provisions, state standards that many say require at least $275 million to staff and equip with fidelity.  So as the districts start to demonstrate improvement, even very early in the process, our response is to cut funding because clearly the program has already demonstrated effectiveness and accomplished its intended goals?  Foolishness.
Like it or not, the ESL population in states like Arizona will continue to grow.  School districts will continue to face increased needs to deal with non-English speakers, integrate them into the schools quickly, and ensure they are gaining core instruction in math, science, and even literacy in their native language as they are trying to learn English.  This is not a luxury or a value add.  This is a non-negotiable, particularly in states like Arizona, Texas, and others in the Southwest.
Instead, Arizona is now looking at establishing new ways to determine English language proficiency of its students.  This is akin to states that have dramatically lowered their state academic standards in math and reading to meet AYP requirements.  Changing the standard doesn’t get more kids proficient, it just gets them to pass a test.  And those kids who aren’t proficient are the ones that will struggle in school, may ultimately drop out, and will be unable to attain and retain good jobs that will pay the rent and support a family.
Let’s hope the Arizona Legislature takes a close look at its citizens, and its taxpayers, and realizes that Superintendent Horne’s request is a lose-lose-lose position.  It is a loser for the schools, who will be forced to deal with a growing problem with fewer dollars.  It is a loser for the students, many of whom have come to the United States for that better education and opportunity in the first place.  And it is a loser for the state, as they sacrifice a significant portion of the next generation of taxpayer and worker, the very engines that will drive the Arizona economy in the decades to come.