A “Develop”ing Interest in Teachers

“We must do more with the talent we have,” said NSDC Executive Director Stephanie Hirsh.  “Nothing is more important than teacher quality,” EdSec Arne Duncan said.  “We must close the yawning achieving gap in this country,” said Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond.  With the statements of all three, we were off to the races on the issue of teacher quality and professional development this morning.

The setting was a briefing hosted by the National Staff Development Council, unveiling their most recent research (led by Darling-Hammond and her School Redesign Network) on the state of teacher development.  The takeaway was simple.  The current state of teacher professional development is severely lacking, particularly as federal and state requirements and expectations continue to grow.  Earth-shattering, no.  But the findings serve as a strong insight into what may be coming down the pike.
If anything, the past era in federal education policy has been one about research.  The need for data.  The definition of good data (and of bad).  And the most stringent of means by which to go about collecting it.  The new era seems to be one of successfully applying that research so it gets to the rank-and-file policymaker and practitioner.  What do we do with data once we have it?  How do we use it to effectively close the achievement gap?  How do we use it to improve student and teacher performance?  How do we use it to grow, to improve, and to generally do better?
Yes, the research data was mostly qualitative.  Yes, we still have a lot of unanswered questions about the correlations between strong teacher PD and student achievement.  But NSDC provided some interesting points to get this new discussion on teacher development started, and they were points heard by the EdSec, by CCSSO chief Gene Wilhoit, and by the many who are looking for details into how to train, retain, and support good teachers in every classroom.
The full report can be found at www.nsdc.org/stateproflearning.cfm.  The highlights, at least according to Eduflack, include:
* “Drive-by” or “dump-and-run” professional development doesn’t cut it, at least not in this time of accountability.  Meaningful PD must be ongoing, content-based, and embedded as part of the learning day.
* According to the data we do have, the right PD can improve student achievement.  
* That said, we need to improve the linkages between teaching and student learning.
* We need experimental research into teacher professional development, particularly in subjects other than math and science.
* Our students are slipping in international measures, in part, because of our professional development opportunities.  Our competitors — particularly those in Southeast Asia — are just investing more time, effort, money, and thought into high-quality PD that has a direct impact on student learning and performance.  They are taking advantage of our water-treading for the past decade.
* We need to increase both the quantity and the quality of PD offered to teachers, particularly those who are entering the profession.
* At the end of the day, improved professional development (particularly in-service) is key to achieving our educational goals.
Information is nice, using it effectively is even better.  As CCSSO’s Wilhoit pointed out, the challenge we face is how do we move from good ideas to better practice?  Particularly as it relates to state policy, how do we take these data points and build a better teacher development and support network, a network offering the ongoing PD, measuring its effectiveness, and ensuring that all teachers are getting the support and professional learning opportunities they need to do their jobs well?
Some good ideas were offered by the experts this morning, including:
* We need to create levers and investments in Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education act to support the features of effective professional development
* We need to invest in rigorous studies of professional learning in relation to student achievement.
* We need to participate in OECD studies of teaching, teacher development, and student learning.
As always, Eduflack has a few other ideas to add to the mix:
* When it comes to PD, all means all.  All teachers (and principals for that matter) need ongoing, content-based, job-embedded professional learning opportunities.  No exceptions.
* We need to align learning goals (as measured by state assessments) with teaching goals.  Every teacher should not only know what is expected of their classes on the state tests, but they should be given the tools and training to deliver.
* Every teacher in the United States should receive specific, content-based PD in reading instruction.  Reading is an issue that affects every teacher, whether you are ELA, math, social studies, or science.  With more than a third of fourth graders still reading below grade level, every teacher needs the knowledgebase to provide the interventions needed to get students reading and engage them in the written word outside of English class.
* We need to incentivize best teaching, through general performance pay provisions and federal efforts such as the Teacher Incentive Fund.  As part of such efforts, we need to document, share, and learn from best practice.  Those schools that are exceeding AYP expectations (particularly those rewarded for it) should be mentoring those schools that are struggling at it.  Such a learning loop should be required as part of any incentive program.
*  And while we are collaborating, we need to use what we know about social networking and online communities to build virtual networks for teachers to share and learn.  How do rural teachers gain best practices from other rural teachers?  What can urban teachers in Detroit learn from their brethren in Atlanta or Los Angeles?  How do we capture best practices so that we can literally see it (via video) happen in classes like ours with kids like ours?  As the teaching profession grows younger and more technologically savvy, such online communities are going to be core to professional learning and development.  Such social networking is the only way we can deliver high-quality, impactful PD at scale to all teachers, urban, suburban, and rural (particularly with our incoming federal investment in school technology).
* We need to focus high-quality PD on those who need it most, particularly schools in urban areas and teachers of ELLs and special education students.  They are the teachers who have fallen through the cracks the most severely, and they are the ones who can most benefit from it today.
* Such PD activities are a shared responsibility.  The feds set the priorities and lay out some of the funding to make it happen.  The states take those priorities and develop specific programs that align with federal expectations yet specifically meet state standards.  Then the districts become the implementers supreme, delivering the right programs to the all teachers, while feeding content and outcomes back to other districts, the state, and the feds to create an ongoing feedback and improvement loop for PD.
No, this isn’t rocket science.  We all know that a well-trained, well-supported, empowered teacher will be more effective than a have not.  We know that ongoing, content-based PD can have a direct impact on teacher quality and student achievement.  We know teaching can’t improve through a drive-by workshop at the start of the school year or a half-day seminar offered twice a year following a half day of teaching.  We know we can do it, we know some are doing it, we just need to figure out how to package it and deliver it to all.  
When it comes to PD, so much time is focused on the pre-service side of the coin, ensuring that every teacher entering the classroom is highly qualified and certified to teach the subject matter.  Two important traits, yes.  But the hard word begins after the certificate is awarded and the classrooms are assigned.  NCLB talked about and offered funding for PD (heck, up to 25% of the billions spent on Reading First was intended for content-based professional development), but little was done to ensure the funds were spent right, the programs delivered correctly, and the outcomes documented effectively.  High marks for intent, low marks for follow through.
EdSec Duncan, along with his colleagues on Maryland Avenue and the crew down on Pennsylvania Avenue, has made it crystal clear that teachers are the gateway to school improvement (and to our general economic and social strength).  “We must dramatically increase our investment in teachers, and do it systemically,” Duncan said today.  Amen.  We also must make sure that investment is delivering real return on investment.  That means doing the scientific research to demonstrate the real linkages between PD and student achievement.  That means content-based PD that is delivered in the appropriate context to meet the needs of today’s teachers.  And that means empowering teachers so they are leading in their classroom.
A new era is here indeed.  We just need to ensure we maximize the opportunities, transform good ideas into great policies, and ensure we are having a real, measurable impact.

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!