Keepin’ Tuesday Interesting

The education headlines continue to pile in today, and most of them aren’t focused on nominations at the U.S. Department of Education nor the education implications of the economic stimulus bill.  Some ideas to consider:

Further Proof We Need National Education Standards
Over in Kentucky, legislators are looking to rewrite the state’s reading and math school standards, seeking to improve student proficiency by reducing the number of state standards they are held to.  A noble intent, particularly when it is intended to address remedial needs in postsecondary education, but by now, you’d think every state would understand core academic standards.  Our focus should be on delivering the proven-effective instruction in math and science and equipping teachers with the materials and supports they need to get the job done.  This seems like a side step when so many are calling for a large step forward.
Refocusing on Teaching
By now, we all should recognize the importance of the classroom teacher in school improvement and the need to provide those teachers ongoing, content-focused professional development.  And with expectations for our schools, teachers, and students growing higher and higher, one would think PD would gain greater attention from the education system.  But in Iowa, teachers are struggling to find the time they need for professional development.
A Little College Help
We often hear how the job of K-12 education is complete once graduation day finally arrives.  Over in Indianapolis, though, educators seem to take their commitment to boost the college-going rate just a little more seriously.  Imagine, high schools providing guidance counselors to recent high school graduates, to help them adjust to the challenges and rigors of postsecondary education.  It’s true, at least for those who attended Indianapolis Metropolitan High School.
Learnin’ the Language
While the focus on school improvement grows larger and larger with each passing week, there is still little discussion about the issue of English Language Learners.  Seems the National Association of Bilingual Education, through its former ED James Lyons, is trying to change that, talking up the need for greater ELL focus in national education policy.
Wire Me Up
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 25 percent of adults in the United States do not use the Internet.  While we expect the vast majority of those individuals are older Americans, one has to ask, how many parents of school-aged children are disconnected at home?

Learnin’ the Language

Imagine entering your educational pipeline, not understanding a single word uttered by the teacher in front of the classroom.  Listening to classmates having conversations that you can’t participate in.  Attending a school district where dozens of languages can be heard in the hallways of a particular school.  In a growing number of school districts across the nation, these imaginary situations are all too real.

English Language Learners (ELL) and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs have never been more important than they are today.  Our student populations is rapidly shifting, and those students entering the schools speaking only Spanish or Hmong or Chinese are increasing.  According to Education Week, our public schools are now looking at educating 5.1 million English-language learners.  How do we ensure that those 5.1 million individuals, along with every other student, are getting the high-quality education we expect?
EdWeek takes a look at that question in this year’s Quality Counts.  The 2009 focus — ELL.  In addition to its regular state-by-state look at education achievement, the staff at EdWeek takes a look at a range of issues facing the ELL community, including “current research, specialized teacher preparation, screening and assessment of English-learners, and ways in which state funding resources and priorities affect programs for English-learners.”
The full Quality Counts report can be found here — www.edweek.org/ew/toc/2009/01/08/index.html.  What are the highlights?
* There is a significant math achievement gap between ELLs and all public school students.  On NAEP, for instance, 34.8 percent of 4th and 8th graders scores proficient or higher, while only 9.6 percent of ELLs hit the magic number. 
* The achievement gap is just as significant in reading, where those scoring proficient or better on reading was 30.4 percent nationally, but just 5.6 percent among ELLs.
* There is no national standard for dealing with ELLs.  According to EdWeek, only 1.4 percent of ELLs in Connecticut failed to make progress toward English-language proficiency.  In Maine, that number was nearly 45 percent.
* Thirty-three states set standards for ELL teachers.  But only three of them — Arizona, Florida, and New York — require prospective teachers to demonstrate competency on those standards.
What does all of this mean?
* We have a long way to go, as a nation, on ELL.  In New York City alone, the number of ELL students is expected to increase by more than 20 percent this year.  We need strong policies tied to real outcomes to deal with the increases in the ELL population.
* We need better data and research on English-language learning.  The breadth and depth of research related to ELLs, including how they transition literacy skills in their primary language to English, is lacking.  if the population is increasing, and our spending on the population is increasing (presumably), we need a better sense for what we do, how we do it, and how we ensure return on investment.
* And while we’re on the subject of data, we need more bilingual researchers involved in the mix.  If we are going to study ELLs with Spanish as a first language, we should have researchers who are fluent in Spanish and English involved in the process.  And it doesn’t hurt to have researchers who understand the social and cultural parameters that are facing today’s ELL communities.
* Like everything else, effective ELL instruction begins with effective teachers.  We should be looking at those states that have standards for ELL teachers, particularly those where teachers must demonstrate competency in those standards, and use that to model effective ELL teaching. 
* Whether we want to believe it or not, virtually every teacher is now becoming an ELL teacher.  Regardless of the subject or grade taught, if you have ELL students in the class, you are an ELL teacher.  It doesn’t matter if you are a designated ELL or ELA teacher.  Every educator must learn how to bridge the learning gaps for ELLs and ensure that student proficiency in math, science, and even the arts continues to move forward and English-language skills are developed.
* The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition is in desperate need of the spotlight.  OELA has long been a red-headed stepchild over at ED, failing to get the full attention it deserves in the K-12 debate.  Now that early childhood education is likely to get greater focus at ED and K-12 will continue to be priority number one, we need to do a better job to integrate OELA into both and ensure that ELLs are a factor in policy and funding for both preK and K-12.
Nationally, we talk about closing the achievement gap, boosting high school graduation rates, and getting increasing the number of first-generation college goers.  ELLs are a common instructional link to all three.  We can’t deny the population is growing.  So we must look for real, practical solutions to improving ELL instruction.  It’s time to talk the talk, in multiple languages.
 

Putting the Schools In the U.S. Senate

If this is how 2009 is starting off, it is going to be a very fun and interesting year for Eduflack and the education improvement community.  Word out of Colorado this afternoon is that Gov. Bill Ritter has selected a replacement for U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, who is moving over to be Secretary of the Interior.  Over the past few weeks, a lot of names of been mentioned for the Senate seat, including those of sitting congressmen and the Denver mayor.  So why is Gov. Ritter’s selection so exciting for Eduflack?  Ritter has chosen Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet to represent the Centennial State in the senior legislative body.

Many will remember that President-elect Obama was vetting Bennet for the EdSec position, with teams on the ground in Denver up until Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan was named Educator in Chief.  Now Bennet moves into a far more interesting position, becoming a U.S. Senator with hopefully a seat on the Senate HELP Committee.
For the life of me, I can’t remember a former schools superintendent serving in the U.S. Senate.  We’ve had educators and professors and college presidents, sure.  But there are few who can speak on issues such as urban education, equity, and school improvement like the Denver Schools superintendent.  Ritter’s announcement is a big win for public education, a big win for reformers, and a big win for the Senate as it plans for NCLB reauthorization.
In moving from the Rocky Mountains to Capitol Hill, Bennet brings an interesting portfolio of moving policies into action.  His background in city government and private business show a leader who can bring together stakeholders and recognizes the needs and roles all audiences can play in the process.  What can that mean for federal education policy?  Let’s look at two areas where Denver has led.
Issue One — Teacher performance pay.  Many would say that Denver’s ProComp program is the only truly successful teacher incentive program out there.  The President-elect has already gone on record in favor of performance pay for teachers.  Bennet is now in a position to take the lessons learned in Denver (both the positives and the negatives), and apply them on the federal stage.  If EdSec in-waiting Duncan is going to seriously look at teacher performance pay (particularly with ED’s EPIC program holding hundreds of millions of dollars for such efforts), there is no better ally and advocate on the Hill to lead the effort than Bennet.
Issue Two — STEM education.  Colorado has been a leader in Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics education, with the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Math, Science, Technology, and Engineering Education Coalition (COMSTEC) taking the lead.  Denver, and its public schools have been at the center of it all.  Working with the University of Colorado-Denver and the Governor’s Office, Denver Public Schools has been working hard promoting STEM education and linking STEM literacy with economic possibilities.  Bennet can immediately become a leading voice for the intersection between education and the economy.
Add to that Bennet’s exposure to student equity issues, charter schools, the achievement gap, ELL, and other such issues, and you have a real platform and real experiences to build upon.  The education community has been eager to have a practitioner in charge on Maryland Avenue.  Now they also have an experienced practitioner writing policy under the Capitol dome.  If Senators Reid and Kennedy are smart, they’ll quickly give Bennet a seat on the HELP Committee.  And Bennet should be tasked with moving the Obama education platform — and NCLB reauthorization — by focusing on the school administrators and the educators necessary for the success of both.
Bennet’s soon-to-be constituents in Colorado, along with the entire school reform community, will expect a lot from Bennet.  He’ll be expected to deliver and deliver fast, particularly with a 2010 special election staring him down.  He has the opportunity to hit the ground running and make a national name for himself as a seasoned voice for education improvement.  Is it asking a lot?  Sure.  But Bennet’s ability to navigate issues such as incentive pay, charters, early childhood education, and ELL show he’s up to it.  Welcome to Washington, Mr. Bennet!

From Under the Eduflack Tree

I admit it, Eduflack is a sucker for Christmas.  As a kid, I used to stay up all night, just waiting for Christmas morning to come.  Now, there is nothing I like more than giving gifts to the Edu-family.  Each year, I tend to go a little overboard, receiving more than my share of reprimands from Eduwife for my “generosity.”  This season is sure to be no different.

The good thing about the blogsphere is that words are (virtually) free.  So I can’t help but offer up a few virtual gifts or best wishes for the holidays for those who were good little boys and girls this past year.
To EdSec in-waiting Arne Duncan and the incoming U.S. Department of Education, an Office of Communications and Outreach that is proactive and engaging.  Now is the time to seize the bully pulpit, engage key stakeholders, and promote the need for school improvement and the avenues by which we achieve it.  That doesn’t get done through press conferences and reports.  Duncan and ED need to get innovative, using new communication vehicles, new communication channels, and new ideas to build an army of support for real, meaningful school improvement.
To the Institute of Education Sciences, a new director with a sharper mission about engaging practitioners and policymakers on research.  IES is meant to be the R&D arm of the U.S. Department of Education.  We don’t need more discussion between researchers, debating which ivory tower is more effective on which research issue.  IES should build a national dialogue on education research, committing itself to providing data (and how to use it) to the practitioners in the field.  Don’t settle for anything less than becoming the Consumer Reports or the Good Housekeeping seal for education research.
To DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, a velvet glove.  I appreciate her take-no-prisoners approach to improving education in our nation’s capital, and I applaud her willingness to buck the status quo and do whatever she sees necessary.  But she can’t neglect what she’ll be left with when the dust settles.  It is fine to demand more from your teachers.  But you need to treat them with general respect, rather than tagging them all as the lowest common denominator.  Win over the teachers (and the teachers union), and you’ll have the hearts and minds of the schools and the city itself.
To Randi Weingarten and the AFT, an unprecedented opportunity.  The Obama Administration has made clear that teachers — particularly their training, recruitment, and retention — is at the top of the education improvement wish list.  If that’s to happen, teachers need a clear, powerful voice to break through the white noise and effectively advocate for good teachers and good teaching.  AFT is nimble enough, reform-minded enough, and innovative enough to be that voice.  The coming year provides a unique opportunity to remind all stakeholders that there is no more important investment than that of effective classroom instruction.  And it all starts with the teacher.  Someone needs to give those teachers a voice during such a debate, and that someone is the AFT.  Seize the opportunity.
To the National Governors Association’s Dane Linn and his Education Division, the spotlight.  In many ways, NGA is the workhorse of education improvement organizations.  They are in the mix on most major issues.  They give and receive grants.  And they provide great intellectual leadership on key issues, including high school reform, STEM, literacy, national standards, and the like.  But they often get the backseat when it comes to media attention and recognition beyond those in the know.  Eduflack always favors the workhorse over the showhorse, but NGA has earned its ring of roses these days.
To the next education governor, a bold plan.  Virtually every governor declares him or herself as the next education governor.  Behind this rhetoric is often little follow through.  By now, we should realize that the truly great education improvements are not going to happen at the federal level.  They are going to occur at the state level, led by governors who see how improved P-20 education leads to improved economic opportunity.  Those governors who effectively connect educational pathways to economic prosperity will be the ones who persevere the current economic situation and leave a lasting mark on their schools.
To Kati Haycock and Education Trust, a continued drumbeat.  Many believe that EdTrust hitched its star onto No Child Left Behind, and that such a move would ultimately come with a price.  As we prepare to move into NCLB 2.0, reauthorization, and a new Administration, EdTrust is in the catbird seat when it comes to advocating for student achievement and school improvement.  Haycock and company have long focused on the end game of the students.  NCLB was a means for that.  It wasn’t an end to it.  Continue to keep an eye on the end result, and EdTrust will continue to drive this debate.
To the U.S. Congress, a reauthorized NCLB.  There is no need to put off what needs to be done now.  NCLB needs improvement.  Senator Kennedy, Congressman Miller, Congressman McKeon, and others have put forward ideas for improving the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  EdSec Designate Duncan wants a federal law of his own, one that reflects his goals and the priorities of the Obama Administration.  Let’s reauthorize the law now, proudly proclaiming a national commitment to improved student achievement, improved teaching, improved data collection, and the supports needed to deliver all of the above.
To STEM advocates, a moment in the spotlight.  Those who read Eduflack know I am a strong advocate for science-technology-engineering-math education efforts.  STEM is a complex topic with the potential for real impact on our schools and our economy.  It isn’t just for rocket scientists and brain surgeons.  As more and more states ramp up STEM efforts and more non-profits support STEM initiatives, I wish them the headlines and communication channels to ensure their good work gets the good attention it deserves.  Without the right advocacy and the right communications, the STEM star may soon burn out, before it has fulfilled its true potential.
To the education advocacy community, a better appreciation for effective communication.  For far too many, effective communication is a one-way activity, where we share information with others and hope they put it to use.  You’ve heard it hear before, but information-sharing is merely the first step to effective communication.  Our goal should not be to simply inform.  Our goal is to change thinking and change public behavior.  That means communications efforts that focus on stakeholder engagement and real measures of success. A clip packet is not a measure of effective communication.
To the education blog community, some ideas to go along with our rocks.  It is very easy to shout against the wind or to throw rocks against that which we don’t like.  Eduflack has been blogging for almost two years now, and I’m constantly amazed by the number of people who look to the education blogs for information and how ideas quickly circulate through education’s online community.  We need to use that power for good.  Yes, it is important to be a watchdog and to keep those in power in check.  But we also need to use these forums for good — for sharing information, offering up solutions, and spotlighting best practices and the good in school improvement.  I can promise you it’ll be one of my New Year’s resolutions.  I hope others will join me.
My scroll of gifts is curling over.  I hope stockings are filled for the advocates of scientifically based reading and early childhood education and ELL and national standards and real school innovations.  I hope the agitators and the improvers and t
he innovators receive the best of holiday tidings.  And I hope the status quoers see a guiding light this holiday season, recognizing that our schools need real improvement, and that we should stop at nothing until every fourth grader is reading at grade level, every student is graduating high school and is graduating college ready, and every teacher has the training and ongoing support necessary to deliver the high-quality education every student needs and deserves.  ‘Tis the season, after all.

Re-Prioritizing the U.S. Department of Education

As President-Elect Obama and his Administration-in-waiting begin working through the transition, they have a terrific opportunity to shape the direction of future policy and future successes.  With each new administration, particularly with a change in party leadership, there is the opportunity to reorganize Cabinet departments, the chance to emphasize new priorities and to turn back the efforts of previous administrations.  While Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution cautions against overhauls and reorganizations at the start of an Administration, now is definitely the time to look at a new organization for the U.S. Department of Education.

In the coming weeks, the Obama transition team will begin reading through the ED transition notebooks, interview staff (particularly the career staff), and quickly making staffing decisions, from EdSec down to a slew of congressionally-approved assistant secretaries.  This is a lot of work, and it will be happening simultaneously in all agencies.  But the amount of work should not keep us from thinking about education — and education improvement — a little differently.
For the most part, the Bush Administration took on the structure that Clinton EdSec Richard Riley left behind.  But if recent years and new thinking are any indication, an Obama Administration may need a very different framework to focus on the issues emphasized on the stump, in policy platforms, and by its strongest advocates.
So how do we do it?  Never shy about such things, Eduflack has a few ideas for the new Obama Administration:
The New Approaches
* Office of Early Childhood Education — Obama has really driven home the importance of early childhood education and its ability to prepare all students — particularly those from at risk families — for the instructional, social, and emotional challenges of elementary school.  The creation of this office systematizes that commitment.  And if you really want to be bold, move Head Start over from HHS and put it under ED, and this new office’s, purview.  While early childhood has long been the official territory of HHS, ED has always had a chip in the game, and Obama’s priorities could settle the issue once and for all whether early childhood ed is just Head Start or a broader academic preparedness scope.
* Office of Elementary Education — For quite some time, we have had an Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.  It is time to separate the two.  The Office of Elementary Education would focus on the foundations of education success, particularly reading and math.  With a K-8 focus, this office would emphasize the early building blocks of successful learning (reflecting much of the research we now know), while providing some new-found emphasis on the middle grades.  We at least need someone who will continue to promote the National Math Panel findings, particularly if we expect STEM to drive secondary ed policy.
* Office of Secondary Education and 21st Century Skills — Nationally, we have made a major investment in improving high schools, making them more rigorous, and providing all students the pathways to educational and life successes.  This office would focus on high school improvement, early colleges, and the transition from secondary to postsecondary.  Bolder still would be a deputy assistant secretary for STEM education, to ensure science-tech-engineering-math instruction is embedded in all our secondary school improvements.
* Office of Teacher Advancement — Obama has made a major commitment to recruiting, retaining, and rewarding teachers.  We should focus an office on the teacher, including teacher training and pre-service education, in-service professional development, teacher incentives, alternative routes for teachers, and overall educator quality.
* Office of Assessment and Accountability — Yes, I know we have an Institute of Education Sciences.  We’ll address that later.  ED needs an office that works directly with SEAs and LEAs on assessment issues, how we measure student achievement, how we address the issue of multiple measures, and how we ensure our schools and our government are accountable and focusing on the instruction and the supports that make a true difference.  And I wouldn’t mind if this office took a close look at the notion of national education standards.
* Office of School Options — During Obama’s time in Chicago, he was involved in the charter school movement.  He has also acknowledged charters as a piece of the education improvement puzzle.  This office would seek to de-politicize the issue, focusing on effective infrastructure, supports, and accountability in school options, particularly charter schools and virtual schools.  Within this office, ED should also include after-school, or out-of-school-time, programs, as such OST efforts are now a bastion for academic supports, social supports, the arts and other opportunities designed to fill the current learning gaps.
* Office of Family and Community Engagement — As I detailed in my open letter to the President-Elect earlier this week, there is a need and a hunger for an office focused on better involving parents and families in the education improvement process.  We need to better inform families, better encourage families to pursue options, and better prepare families to be a part of the solution. (http://blog.eduflack.com/2008/11/05/an-open-letter-to-presidentelect-barack-obama.aspx)
* Office of Educational Entrepreneurship and Innovation — I’ll admit it, I’ll buy into Andy Rotherham’s vision for converting OII into an incubator for new ideas and new opportunities.  Call it entrepreneurship, call it venture capitalism, even call it pubic/private partnerships if it feels easier, but it is a needed component to education improvement in the 21st century.
Not all of these may be (or should be) assistant secretary-level offices, but they should merit consideration somewhere in the grid.
The Conversions  
In addition to these new approaches, there are also a number of current offices that could use some assistance and  fresh outlook on the education landscape:
* Office of Communication and Outreach — This is obviously an office near and dear to Eduflack’s heart.  For too long, OCO has been viewed as a reactive office, one that regularly issues press releases, fields FOIA requests, and decides which media calls will be returned by whom.  Moving forward, the office needs to jump on the latter part of its name, and transform into an office of public engagement.  Utilize the vast social network built by the Obama campaign.  Broaden the reach to stakeholders.  Be proactive in pushing policy issues and promoting successes.  Set the terms and drive the story.  Doesn’t get more simple than that.
* Institute of Education Sciences — IES was created to be our nation’s home for education R&D.  Unfortunately,
there is still a great deal of work that needs to be done to meet that goal.  IES needs to broaden its mission beyond the WWC and become a true clearinghouse for quality research and a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for what works.  More importantly, it needs to expand the dialogue beyond the researchers and effectively communicate the education sciences to practitioners, advocates, and others in the field.
* Office of English Language Acquisition — OELA, and its previous personalities, has almost been a red-headed stepchild in ED for quite some time.  But as our nation’s demographics continue to shift, ELL and ESL issues become more and more important to closing the achievement gap and providing opportunity to all students.  Focusing on inclusiveness, partnership development, stakeholder engagement, and integration with other offices (particularly elementary ed), OELA can be the lever for improvement many want it to be.
* Office of Federal Student Aid — I’ll admit, I am a little out of my element here.  But with the economic issues we are facing as a nation, ED is going to have to spend more time and intellectual capital on helping students and their families better understand the funding options for postsecondary education.  Simplifying the FASA, ensuring students understand accreditation, articulation of credits between institutions (and between high schools and colleges), and other issues that factor into our ability to pay for college.
I can go on, but I will leave it at that.  Obviously, many core offices will likely remain in place — General Counsel, Inspector General, Civil Rights, Leg Affairs, etc.  Some will say the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development — could be folded into the core responsibilities of a top three ED official.  And offices like Vocational and Adult Education may be past rescuing and just need to be left alone.  Regardless, there are clearly a lot of options for those thinking the big thoughts in the transition.
Yes, the Obama campaign was based on hope and change.  When it comes to the U.S. Department of Education, it may also be a time for similar hope and change.  Clearly, our educational priorities and needs have shifted over the last decade, as we focus on teacher development, 21st century skills, STEM, and the P-20 education continuum.  A new approach, with new foci, serves as a strong rhetorical tool to make clear what the Obama Administration will hold dear.  And such rhetoric is all the more important when current economic concerns make it difficult to fund new policy ideas straight out of the gate.  

As Goes Brownsville, So Goes the World

This morning, the Broad Foundation unveiled the big winner of the 2008 Broad Prize for Urban Education.  Heading into the announcement in New York City, many believed that Miami-Dade would be the big winner.  But when the name was announced and the check was awarded, Brownsville, Texas stood proud and tall.

For those not in the know, Brownsville is a “border community” on the southernmost tip of Texas.  According to the Houston Chronicle, “Brownsville Independent School District serves nearly 50,000 students — 98 percent Hispanic and 43 percent learning English.  Ninety-four percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, a common measure of poverty.  Surrounding Cameron County had the highest poverty rate for a county of its size in the country at 34.7 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.”
The full Chronicle piece can be found here — www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ap/tx/6057934.html.  
So why Brownsville ISD?  According to Broad, the answer is clear — student performance.  Brownsville simply outperformed other districts across Texas when it came to reading and math achievement.  They made dramatic steps in closing the achievement gap between Hispanic and white students.  And they did so despite the demographics and with 2,000 new students coming in from Mexico each school year.
At the announcement ceremony, Eli Broad noted that “Brownsville is the best kept secret in America.”  Not for long.  By winning the Broad Prize, Brownsville has demonstrated that student achievement and school improvement is possible, period.  No excuses.  No data sleight of hand.  No exclusions or “recalibrations” of the system.
For most, it would be easy to write off a community like Brownsville.  Too many at-risk students.  Too many language barriers to overcome.  Too much poverty.  Too many first-generations.  Too little funding.  Too little hope.  
What many failed to see, and failed to respect, is that Brownsville is a true community.  For nearly a decade now, Eduflack has heard from a native daughter of Brownsville about all of the good that was going on in this community.  The investments made to boost student reading achievement.  The commitment to early education and getting every Brownsville child ready for the start of kindergarten.  The partnerships with businesses and institutions of higher education to make postsecondary education a possibility and a reality for virtually all, and not just a select few.
Brownsville is a testament to the good that can happen from collaboration, an unwavering sense of community, and a commitment to results.  They refused to make excuses, and now they’ve got the hardware to show they are doing what works.  Congrats to Brownsville ISD, the city, and its many proud citizens.  Felicidades!

McCain v. Obama: The Thrilla for the Schoolhouse

Over the past two days, Eduflack has taken a close look at the educational platforms offered up by the two presidential campaigns.  Again, the ground rules were simple.  We looked at the campaigns’ plans as identified, laid out, and described on both candidates’ official websites.  No cheating from the speeches made by Lisa Keegan or Jon Schnur or other surrogates.  No interpreting what a few throw-away lines from the conventions meant.  Not even a few glimpses into both senators’ voting records in the congress these past four years (the time they were together).  No, we are here to measure vetted, official plan against vetted official plan.

The 10,000-Foot View
Just like the two campaigns, the two education platforms couldn’t be more different, particularly in terms of their rhetoric and the framing of the issues.  Yes, they both focused on the issues of early ed, K-12, and higher education.  But that’s a given.  Beyond that, their foci are quite different.  McCain’s plan is a running mantra of accountability and choice.  Obama’s is one of programs, resources, and opportunities.  McCain’s takeaway is one of improvement, where Obama is focused on the problems.  Interestingly, McCain seems more focused on change, while Obama seems keyed in on conserving what we already have in place.
The Buzz Words
Eduflack wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t focus on the words being used by the candidates and the power behind the rhetoric.  So let’s take a look at the hot words lists for each candidate:
* McCain — Standards, accountability, quality, empower, excellence, parents, effectiveness, choice
* Obama — High quality, opportunity, teachers, programs, support, reward
Areas of Agreement
Both campaigns recognize the need for a strong early childhood education program and both want to improve and simplify the financial aid process for those going to college.  Both recognize that NCLB needs work.  Obama seeks to improve and better fund it, McCain wants to build on its lessons.  Both support charter schools, and both want greater accountability for these school choice options.
Issues of Importance
Obama and McCain clearly come to the table with a different view of the federal role in education.  Again, Obama’s platform focuses on strengthening and improving funding for a number of existing federal programs, while adding funding and support for more efforts.  McCain is focused on innovation and local empowerment, almost re-embracing the old-school GOP role of locally controlled education.
What issues stand out for the two candidates?
* McCain — School-based decisionmaking, parental involvement, school choice, alternative certification, merit pay, virtual learning, higher standards, greater accountability
* Obama — Head Start and Early Head Start, math/science education, dropout prevention, afterschool programs, ELL, teacher recruitment and retention (and merit pay, albeit to a lesser degree than we hear on the stump), and college opportunities   
Again, McCain is talking ideas, Obama is speaking programs. It is an important distinction, particularly when we don’t know who will be calling the policy shots from either the Domestic Policy Council or the EdSec’s office.  So the devil is in the details.
Areas of Disagreement
It’s funny, but these are less areas of disagreement than they are issues of priority.  McCain and Obama simply aren’t focusing on many of the same issues.  Their degrees of importance really define the differences.  
On early childhood education, McCain is focused on Centers for Excellence, improving Head Start on a state-by-state basis.  He also emphasizes the need for standards and quality for our youngest learners. Obama believes early education is about getting as many kids as possible into programs.  Obama focuses on quadrupling the funding for Early Head Start, a program that McCain doesn’t even mention.
On K-12, McCain focuses on options, choice (charters and vouchers), and doing what it takes to boost student achievement (particularly principal empowerment).  Obama focuses on the programs that make our schools run — math/science, dropout prevention, afterschool, and college credits.   Obama also mentions charter schools, but his focus is on closing those that are low performing.
On teachers, the biggest difference is prominence.  Obama provides teachers with their own policy category; McCain embeds them in his K-12 platform.  For Obama, it is all about recruiting, training, retaining, and rewarding. For McCain, it is an issue of alternative certification (which Obama never mentions), incentive pay, and professional development.
On higher education, Obama wants new tax breaks, while McCain wants more research and simplified tax benefits.  McCain also emphasizes the need for information, particularly to parents (while Obama seems to avoid parents all together in his education platform).  Both want to fix the “broken” system of student lending, though.
Funding
By focusing so heavily on programs, Obama essentially calls for increased federal spending for education.  He pledges sizable funding increases for Early Head Start, NCLB, the Federal Charter School Program, dropout prevention, 21st Century Learning Centers, GEAR UP, TRIO, and Upward Bound.  He would also create a number of new federal initiatives, including Early Learning Challenge Grants, Make College a Reality, Teacher Service Scholarships, and the American Opportunity Tax Credit.  In today’s economic climate, this is a bold statement.  Paying for these programs either means eliminating current programs that don’t work (see Mike Petrilli’s suggestions at www.edexcellence.net/flypaper for a good start) or it means increasing the annual appropriation for the U.S. Department of Education.  Based on current politics, I’d say the latter is a near impossibility.
On the McCain side, the Republican nominee focuses on some new programs as well — including Centers for Excellence for Head Start, a grant program for online education opportunities, and Digital Passport Scholarships.  He also calls for funding for teacher merit pay, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, and increased monies for Enhancing Education Through Technology.  Still a nice Christmas list, but far more affordable than his Democratic counterpart.
What’s Missing
You know me, I always like to dwell on the negative.  So I immediately jump to the issues that didn’t make the cut in developing the platform.  Neither candidate speaks to the idea of national education standards.  There is almost no discussion of student testing and the measurement of student performance.  Data and research-based practice and decisionmaking can’t be found here.  And while Obama mentions math and science, neither candidate focuses on STEM education, what Eduflack sees as a key to truly linking education, the economy, and our national strength.
Added to the list, McCain avoids ELL (strange for a senator from Arizona), high school dropouts, afterschool, and t
eacher education in general.  Obama avoids discussions of reading/literacy, alternative certification, online learning, and parental involvement.
So Now What?
Eduflack is not going to be so audacious as to make an endorsement of a presidential candidate based on his education platform.  (Those who know me well know where I stand.  And at the end of the day, my opinion is going to be a fairly uncommon one.  Having worked on the Hill for Democratic stalwarts like Robert Byrd and Bill Bradley and then spending so much time advocating for NCLB, Reading First, and accountability, there are few in the Eduflack mold.)  And who cares who I pick?  This above breakdown is to help others take their education priorities and see which candidate better addresses them in the official platform.
If these past 18 months are any indication, education is not a priority for either candidate.  It isn’t what they are out there stumping on, and it is not the red meat the voters want to hear or seem concerned about.  And anyone who has been in this town for more than a few weeks knows that a policy paper is barely worth the paper on which it is printed.
What this does, though, is it makes clear to Eduflack where the priorities are and what emphasis we should see, education wise, should candidate M or candidate O take the oath on a cold January day.  What does Eduflack see?
A McCain Department of Education is one of accountability, standards, and innovation.  Data-driven decisionmaking.  School choice opportunities.  A heavy emphasis on the role of technology, particularly in terms of online learning.  McCain also sees his ultimate customer as the parent, giving them a seat at the table in charting their child’s educational path.
No surprise, then, when we see some of the names on the “finalist” list for McCain EdSec — Lisa Keegan, New Orleans Supe Paul Vallas, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty at the top.  (I know some add former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift to the short list, but I fail to see how someone who called for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education a decade ago is really the choice to head that same department today).   All steady, experienced hands to steer the ship.
An Obama Department of Education, though, would have a much different feel.  It almost seems more like a foundation, with a great number of programs running to achieve a common goal.  An Obama ED is one of teacher education, universal preK, increased supports, and improved paths to postsecondary education.  Obama’s ultimate customer — the teacher, without whom most reforms will fail before the get off the ground.
And the tea leaves on an Obama EdSec?  We have the usual suspects, the programmatic heads such as former NC Gov. Jim Hunt.  But we also have out-of-the-box names like New Leaders for New Schools founder Jon Schnur.  The future direction of Obama ed may very well hinge on the leadership qualities he seeks from an EdSec. 
There you have it, the education presidential campaign gospel according to Eduflack.  Let the reflections, debates, and attacks begin.
  

Meeting the Education Needs of the Hispanic Community

When we discuss education reform, the issue of urban education is usually one of the top discussion points.  But in most corners, urban education translates into the education of the African-American community.  We look at the achievement gap, and it is usually how black students measure up against white students.  Even recent efforts to boost high school graduation rates and college-going rates that focus on underserved populations seem to focus first on the African-American community.

Anyone who has followed politics over the last year, however, knows that much of the political and community action is now happening in the Hispanic community.  The fastest growing demographic in the United States, Hispanic Americans are a growing force in the education reform movement, but in general terms and with regard to issues specific to their community.
Just this week, Eduflack had two interesting announcements cross his desk.  The first was from the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE).  The alternative certification group announced a new partnership with the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to recruit and certify more teachers of color for high-need Florida schools.  The real challenge — how do we get more qualified, successful Hispanic teachers at the front of Hispanic-dominant classes?
Through scholarships and incentives, ABCTE will work across a number of Florida counties to build a better program.  To date, they claim 150 individuals, both career changers and recent graduates, have taken up the cause and made the commitment.
Today, the U.S. Department of Education announced a three-quarter-of-a-million-dollar grant to the National Academy of Sciences to study how best to distribute Title III English Language Acquisition state grant funds.  The goal here?  Ensuring that federal ELL funding is actually getting to the communities that need it the most, those with the highest concentrations of English language proficiency.  For those keeping track, the feds are spending about $700 million on such state grants, so delivering them to the right addresses is a pretty good priority.
So why does all of this have my antenna up?  Education reform isn’t just a black-and-white issue.  These two announcements serve as a clear reminder of the need to focus on the Hispanic community in education reform.  And for education communicators, we also need to realize that means more than just ELL/ESL issues.  Accountability and standards are just as important.  Research and proven effectiveness are just as important.  Reading, math, and STEM education are just as important.  PreK and afterschool programs are just as important.  School choice and online education are just as important.  Qualified, effective teachers and equipped, supported schools are just as important.
As the population continues to shift, those who figure out how to effectively engage the Hispanic community in overall education reform issues will be in a position to make a real difference.  To get there, we need to set aside urban legends like Hispanic families don’t have home computers or such families don’t want to get engaged in the educational process.
ABCTE and NAS can help us expand the debate.  But there is a national dialogue on this issue that is just itching to happen.

The Obama Education Platform

As many of us have known for much of the past two years, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama is all about change.  His approach to education reform is no different.  It is a diverse strategy, like his base of supporters, and reflects a message of change from some of the traditional Democratic education planks.  

The Bumper Sticker
We have a real problem with public education in the United States.  We are underfunding No Child Left Behind, or “No Child Left Behind Left the Money Behind.”  It is harder and harder to keep new teachers in the classroom.  And college is too expensive for the average Joe (even if he isn’t from Scranton, PA).
The Plan
Obama-Biden’s education platform operates under four key areas — early childhood education, K-12, teachers, and higher education.
Early Childhood Education
Obama’s early ed efforts are programmatically focused, in an effort to reach as many preschoolers as possible:
* Zero to Five Plan, focusing on early care and infant education; would offer Early Learning Challenge Grants to promote state efforts and help move to state-led universal preschool
* Expanded Early Head Start and Head Start, calling for a 4X funding increase in Early Head Start and improving the quality of both programs
* Affordable, high-quality child care
K-12
Obama’s K-12 plan is a relative top eight list of the top buzz issues in education reform today:
* Reform No Child Left Behind, through increased funding and improving assessment and accountability
* Support high-quality schools and close low-performing charter schools, doubling the funding for the Federal Charter School Program and improving general accountability for charters
* Make math and science education a national priority, by recruiting and supporting strong math and science teachers
* Address the dropout crisis, through federal funding for middle school intervention strategies
* Expand high-quality afterschool opportunities, by doubling funding for the 21st Century Learning Centers program
* Support college outreach programs, lending support to GEAR UP, TRIO, and Upward Bound
* Support college credit initiatives, creating a “Make College a Reality” initiative to increase AP-going by 50% by 2016
* Support English language learners, through transitional bilingual education and general school accountability
Recruit, Prepare, Retain, and Reward America’s Teachers
With Obama-Biden, the classroom teacher is clearly the center of the movement.  (And don’t forget it is Biden’s wife’s career of choice):
* Recruit teachers, by creating a new Teacher Service Scholarship program to pay for four years of undergrad or two years of grad school in teacher education
* Prepare teachers, requiring all ed schools to be accredited and to create a voluntary national performance assessment of teacher training
* Retain teachers, expanding mentoring programs that pair vets with newbie teachers
* Reward teachers, allowing teachers a seat at the table in developing incentive programs and providing better pay for those in underserved location and those with a consistent record of success (read: merit pay)
Higher Education
Obama touched on higher ed in K-12, as he looked at college prep issues such college outreach and dual credit, but his platform also includes the following:
* Create the American Opportunity Tax Credit, ensuring the first $4,000 of a college education is “completely free for most Americans”
* Simplify the application process for financial aid, streamlining the process and authorizing the feds to use tax returns automatically as part of the system
The Takeaway
There you have it.  The full Obama-Biden education platform as presented on the official Obama-Biden campaign website.  Available now to lay side-by-side with McCain-Palin to compare, contrast, and critique.  Three pages of total text on the site, along with three downloadable plans (PreK-12 Plan, College Affordability Plan, and Education Reform Plan) and two speeches (one on PreK to 12 education, one on college affordability).  And before I hear it from readers, I know there are many more issues Obama and his surrogates have been talking about. Remember, folks, this is intended to look at the official plans, as offered up by the official websites of the candidates.
So what’s Eduflack’s takeaway?
* A clear understanding of the issues and concerns of the education community, particularly those seen by teachers and school leaders.  This is the ed community hotlist, particularly in K-12
* A stronger-than-strong emphasis on programs, both support of the old and calls for many, many new
* A significant increase in federal funding for education issues
* A focus on the processes that make education systems go
* Emphasis on the student and the school level
* An attempt to improve NCLB, particularly when it comes to funding
What’s missing?  There is little talk, other than some rhetorical mentions, to the need for standards and accountability in the schools.  It seems to be process over results.  And Obama’s previously strong stance on merit pay for teachers is weakly positioned in this policy.  Discussions of issues such as reading instruction, education research, vouchers, parental involvement, alternative certification, elementary schools, and online learning can’t be found.  Again, we can guess where an Obama administration would stand on these issues, based on his personal bio and the good work of his education team, but it isn’t spelled out.
So there you have it, the Obama-Biden education platform, in an equally handy format.  Tomorrow, we put our agitator hat back on and take a close look at how the two campaigns stack up against each other, educa
tion wise, and what are remaining unanswered questions may be.

Going Where the Education Action Is

If you spend enough time reading about education reform — particularly over the past few years — you get the sense that Washington, DC is the unwavering center and base for all that is new, all that is relevant, and all that is necessary to school improvement.  NCLB.  The U.S. Department of Education.  The Institute of Education Sciences.  The blob of representative education organizations.  All, it seems, serve as the epicenter for real change in our educational system.

But when you really get down to it, the real action of education reform is not at the national level.  In reality, the U.S. Department of Education and the federal government account for less than eight cents of every dollar spent on public K-12 education in the United States.  Despite the tales coming from the status quoer bogeymen, there are few educators who are taking their marching orders directly from NCLB or from the data captured by IES or NAGB.  And although some would like to believe it, superintendents and principals are not waiting for detailed instructions from the EdSec before they take action on instructional improvement.
Don’t get me wrong.  The federal hand is a great influencer in what is happening in education reform.  It provides an enormous carrot, usually in the form of federal dollars, to get new and valuable programs — such as Reading First or the American Competitiveness Initiative — from research to policy to practice.  It also provides a more ominous stick, providing punishment for those who fail to meet AYP, misuse federal funds, or generally choose not to follow the mission and guidelines put forward by the federal government (particularly as it relates to important laws such as Title I).
In a perfect world, the federal education lever is one of a velvet hammer.  It provides us the opportunity to feel good about what we are doing, while knowing that swift and meaningful judgment can come down on those who ignore, flaunt, or seek to reverse the laws of the land.  Be it gender equity, special education, teacher training, or even reading or math instruction, there is little doubt that the educational velvet hammer rests in the hands of ED and the EdSec.
Many know I spend most of my working days helping organizations, companies, and agencies determine the best ways to advocate for education issues, particularly improvements to the current K-12 system.  Much of these discussions tend to focus on the federal, for the reasons detailed above.  We all want to meet with folks on the seventh floor of ED, hoping to convince them we’ve built a better mousetrap or offer a solution unmatched by those that have come previously.  As a good counselor and advisor, I try to respect the wishes of my clients, and identify ways they can be a part of the federal discussion of education reform.
Eduflack finds himself spending more and more time these days, though, redirecting these good intentions to where the education action really is.  For those looking to make a difference, for those looking to enact meaningful change, for those looking to truly boost student achievement and improve instruction, for those looking to identify and develop an education solution that can be implemented at scale, the real action is happening at the state level.
Real reform has the greatest opportunity to succeed when introduced at the state level.  First, it can serve as a lever of influence on federal decisionmakers, demonstrating the results we need to see that a particular program or intervention works.  Second, it has the power to implement those changes in a large number of school districts simultaneously, using the state’s own carrot/stick powers to implement reforms directly in school districts that need the help the most.  The feds have levels of bureaucracy to go through before they can reach the school district. The state gets there with a phone call and a well-constructed relationship.
In the education policy world, we’re all looking to the future to see what the next version of No Child Left Behind will hold.  But we don’t need to wait for the NCLB lever to enact real, meaningful reforms.  The Gates Foundation recognized this long ago, and has invested significant money in statewide education reforms designed to model innovations.  The National Governors Association has focused tremendous effort and incredible intellectual capital on issues such as high school reform, AP, science/math education, national standards, and data collection — each path offering statewide solutions and demonstrating statewide results.  The National Conference of State Legislatures has all but ignored NCLB, focusing on its own issues.  And membership groups such as the Council of Chief State School Officers, Education Commission of the States, and even the Southern Regional Education Board have taken courageous policy stands to enact real reforms that improve the quality and results of education across the states.
What’s the lesson to be learned here?  Those seeking to enact real, meaningful education reforms must include statewide engagement strategies as part of their efforts.  They must recognize that each state is different, and each state must be handled and approached differently.  They must know that most state departments of education are vastly understaffed and overworked, and thus have little time to hear about the great ideas.  They must know that results are king, whether you be a principal, a state education chief, or the EdSec herself.  And they must know that states watch what other states do, they model after the successful ones, and they try to ensure their “competitors” don’t get too far ahead of them when it comes to policy or education results.
The success of integrated communications advocacy comes when you reach multiple stakeholders at multiple levels.  We all know that.  And preaching state education officials as a key stakeholder is hardly a new idea to slap anyone upside the head.  But we all must remember where the real action is.  We all must remember where real change and improvement can occur.  And we all must remember who can make a real difference.
High school reform.  Graduation rates.  National standards.  General accountability provisions.  STEM education.  Early childhood ed.  ELL and ESL.  RTI.  Closing the achievement gap.  Reading, math, and science instruction.  Professional development.  Teacher recruitment.  Online education.  Charter schools.  True success for these and other issues lies in our states,working in partnership with bellweather school districts.  To paraphrase from politics, as Ohio (and Pennsylvania and Georgia and Florida and Arizona and Minnesota) goes, so goes the nation.  True in politics.  Definitely true in education reform.
UPDATE: Great minds think alike.  Over at Fordham Foundation’s Flypaper, check out a similar post on the power of the states in education policy this year — www.edexcellence.net/flypaper/index.php/2008/10/education-really-is-a-state-issue-at-least-this-year/