Last week, the Learning First Alliance hosted an important Twitter Town Hall. Those of us in the Twitterverse recognize there is a great deal of negativity floating around on the Common Core State Standards. This is particularly true of the testing and high-stakes consequences attached to the coming school year.

Back in the spring, LFA issued a rare public statement urging states to take the proper time in implementing CCSS, making sure that we get it right. In its statement, LFA noted that there is only one chance to get implementation right. There are no do overs in this.

Following the LFA recommendations, several states took note. Places like New York and Washington, DC called for a pause in high-stakes consequences for at least another year so they could focus on proper implementation. Just recently, New Jersey followed suit, asking for more time before CCSS student assessment scores counted in teacher evaluation.

Even the Gates Foundation recently called for implementation and the consequences to be separated, offering a statement quite similar to the original LFA call.

To help focus the education community’s attention further, LFA set out to focus on the success stories regarding Implementation. With so many focused on the challenges and road bumps, it was important to begin talking about those states and districts that were getting it right. The LFA Get It Right podcast series now serves as that venue, spotlighting the best and promising practice in implementation.

LFA took this discussion to a new level last week with this Twitter chat, using the opportunity to talk about what states like NJ, NY, and DC should do with the extra time they have now called for. Hundreds discussed better ways to involve parents and educators. They talked about how to unpack the standards to make them easier to apply to the classroom. They spoke of the importance of real materials aligned to the standards, rather than those bearing a phony seal of approval.

It was the beginning of a very important discussion, all of which can be found at #CCSStime. Why was it so important? Mainly because it was a productive talk on how to get it right, not on urban legends or dreaming ways to short circuit standards that are not going away.

And it is one the public cares about. By early counts, it seems the #CCSStime hour-long discussion, a trending topic on Twitter that evening, included in nearly 2,000 tweets, resulting in more than 15 million impressions. That’s a lot of people giving up a summer evening to ensure we get CCSS implementation right. And a lot of concerned educators committed to improving teaching and learning for their students.

(Full disclosure, Eduflack has worked with LFA and many of its member organizations over the years.)

The ROI on $5B

Over at The Wall Street Journal this weekend, Jason L. Riley provides an interesting write-up of his interview with Bill Gates.  The lead question was whether the $5 billion spent to date by the Gates Foundation on education reform in the United States was worth it.

In the piece, Gates reflects on how little influence such donations can have on our education culture, while touting the Foundation’s commitment to innovation and to new looks at human capital (some of its current investments).  He spoke of the need to better engage teachers in the process and of the Common Core key to both excellence and equity in public education.
Yes, the piece provides a decent snapshot of the Foundation’s successes to date (as well as some of its missteps), but it still doesn’t answer that $5 billion question — was it worth it?
About three and a half years ago, Eduflack wrote a blog post on how we effectively fix the American high school.  Within that February 2008 musing, I asked if Gates might be better served by scrapping its plans to invest in this and that along the edges, and instead go all in in a few places, essentially building Gates school districts that could start from scratch, build a better mousetrap, and not be wedded to the issues that have dogged struggling districts for decades.  I wrote:

Instead of renovating our existing high schools, what if Gates were to build an entirely new model?  Over the past five years, Gates has learned a great deal about how, and how not, to run an effective high school.  They understand the curriculum and the need for multiple academic pathways.  They understand school structure.  They are starting to get into the HR game, focusing on the teachers that are needed to lead such classrooms.  They are quickly assembling all of the pieces.  Now we move to that bold and audacious act.

What if the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation were to take its money and build new high schools in our top 25 urban districts?  State-of-the-art buildings. Technology.  Rigorous and relevant curriculum.  Public-private partnerships.  Relevant professional development for the teachers.  Common educational standards measured across all Gates schools.  Open enrollment for all those seeking a better high school experience.  And the power of the Gates Foundation behind it.

And let’s get even bolder.  A system of public high schools managed by the Gates Foundation.  All in major cities across the nation.  All with high standards for its teachers.  All working from a common school design, a common curriculum, and common assessment that, over time, could be replicated in district after district across the nation.

So as Bill Gates, the Foundation, and the Wall Street Journal ponders the ROI to date and whether it is $5B well spent, I again raise the question.  What if the Gates Foundation were to build a system of public high schools, based on the principles Gates is trying to spread through its current giving?  What if instead of trying to renovate our existing struggling schools, we tore down and built new?  What if?

The points I made three years ago still hold true today.  And they are still questions and issues in demand of real answers.

Can Gates Remake K-12 Education?

Yesterday, Nick Anderson offered up a front-page story in The Washington Post on the influence and impact the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is having on education reform in the United States.  For many, this was not new news (particularly since Libby Quaid and the Associated Press did a similar story about two years ago), but the size and scope was bound to attract attention.  When we start to see the number of grants awarded, the total dollars doled out, and the influential individuals who have moved from Gates into either government or practitioner roles, and you start to see the possibility of the Gates Foundation and education improvement.

But Eduflack is struck by the same thinking that has dogged him for years.  Anderson’s well-written piece portrays the current K-12 public education environment and how the Gates Foundation needs to work within the confines of that system.  It continues to be about refurbishing existing homes, not about tearing down and building new.  And if anything was clear from the Anderson article, it is that Gates is in a position to do it its way, and not simply as we have always done.

So it had Eduflack going back into the archives to look at some past writing.  In March of 2009, I opined on this topic as well, riffing off another WaPo piece, that time from Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, on how Bill Gates could repair our schools.  Rather than reinvent the wheel, let’s look at how smart Eduflack appeared nearly a year and a half ago:

“So who says Gates has to play by the rules and the confines of the current system?  After all, this is a man who released a box full of mosquitoes as an international conference so all could feel the possible threat of malaria.  This is a man who built a global corporate giant out of his garage by refusing to abide by mores and by never hearing the word no.  This is a man who is investing significant wealth into American public education, despite so many people telling him it was a lost cause and he was throwing his money into a pit that will never yield a return.

To date, the Gates Foundation is thinking about the right issues.  School structure.  Teacher training and support.  Rigor and relevance of instruction.  Connections between K-12 and the workforce.  Pay structures that reward success.  Student assessments and standards.  Return on educational investment.  The Foundation has tried to implement these issues in a number of ways, trying pilot projects across the nation, looking for promising practice, and hoping to find real solutions that can be adopted at scale across the United States.
The latter is the most important point for reformers.  How do we adopt proven solutions at scale?  To date, we are tinkering around the edges.  We can point to achievement gap solutions in Ohio, early college successes in the JFF network, and virtual options in Texas, for instance.  These issues have come, in large part, from working within the system, as Gates seeks to supplement existing efforts and provide the funding to do more within the current system, essentially layering potential solutions on top of systems that may well be broken at their core.
More than a year ago, Eduflack reflected on this same issue.  How can Gates get more bang for its buck?  How can it move from tinkering to dropping a brand-new engine into our public schools?  How does it move from supplementing what is broken to supplanting?  How does it use its power, vision, and checkbook to literally build that better mousetrap.
In recent months, Bill Gates has laid out his vision for what our schools need to improve.  That vision is reflected in Hiatt’s piece this morning.  Flexibility in structure, evidenced by a greater need for charter schools.  Flexibility in human capital, evidenced by new formulas for training, hiring, and rewarding teachers.  Strong standards by which all students are measured, ensuring all students are embracing both the relevance and rigor of 21st century education.  And an unwavering commitment to success, whereby dropout factories are a thing of the past and dropping out is viable option for no student and no family.
So it has me back to my original thinking.  Forget about supporting existing school districts and trying to layer new programs on top of old, failed efforts.  Now is the time for Gates to be bold and different.  Now is the time for the Gates Foundation to chart a different course.  Now is the time for Gates to reject the status quo, and chart a completely new path for K-12 education in the United States.
It is a simple one.  Gates needs to get in the business of empire building.  Instead of investing in urban school districts and trying to overcome decades of problems that have become ingrained on the schools’ DNA, Gates needs to begin building alternative school districts.  That’s right.  Forget charter schools, we need charter districts.  If the current model is broken, as Gates claims, the answer is not to fix.  The true answer is to create a better one.  Move into an urban center and set up a K-12 charter district.  Determine the most effective, research-proven curriculum.  Train, hire, and support the best teachers.  Reward those teachers properly.  Apply strong standards to every student, accepting no excuses and demanding proficiency and success from all.  Better align our elementary, middle, and secondary school programs.  Engage students early on, so they see the relevance of their academic pursuits.  Offer internships and externships so all students see the career opportunities before them.  Build the buildings, implement the learning structures, acquire the technology and learning materials, and do what is necessary to get us to success.  No boundaries to prevent us from doing what is necessary.  No excuses to fall back on.  
These new school districts can build on the successes of Gates programs to date.  They can take the best of Early College High Schools, of the Ohio High School Transformation Initiative, and of Green Dot Schools.  They can also build on the efforts of KIPP and Teach for America and even from school districts like NYC that are truly thinking outside the box.  They can borrow and steal from the very best in school reform, community engagement, corporate innovation, and some of the news ways of thinking coming from small, nimble not-for-profits.
Then take this new system and provide families the choice.  Those who wish to remain in the traditional school district that has served their family for generations can do so.  Those who are seeking new options, those who are seeking new opportunities, those seeking more choice can opt for the Gates route.  It is about providing options and choice.  If implemented properly, such choices not only offer a strong Gates model, but the competition forces traditional school districts to act differently, improve, and meet the demands of their current customers — the families.  If done well, the rising Gates tide would lift all schools — traditional publics, charters, and privates alike.
I know what many are thinking — what an absolutely ridiculous idea.  Funders don’t do such a thing.  They provide resources to support the current infrastructure. They fund new projects and new ideas.  They supplement, they don’t compete.  Yes, that may have been the way we have traditionally worked, but does it need to be that way?  Do philanthropies need to simply serve as advisors, consultants, and checkbooks, or can they get more active?
When Bill Gates built Microsoft, his mature business model was not to simply advise IBM on the operating software they needed.  He determined the status quo — both in terms of hardware and software — weren’t cutting it.  He tried working as part of that system, and it just didn’t work.  So he turned the industry on its head, positioning software as the driver in the technology industry.  Microsoft became Microsoft because he offered consumers a choice, and he offered them a better one.  After a while, it was no choice at all.  If one wanted to succeed in business, one had to use Microsoft products.
So why can’t we do the same in education?  Why can’t Gates use its investment to build a better school district?  Take all of those great minds that have been assembled at the foundation, and do it differently and do it better.  From the top down and the bottom up, build a school structure that is both student and teacher focused, geared toward real results, and not beholden to the status quo or the ways we used to do it simply because that is how we used to do it.
Could this path be a complete failure?  Absolutely.  The Foundation could get into the middle of it and find that curriculum selection, teacher training, and CBAs are far more difficult than they ever envisioned.  They could discover that managing buildings or dealing with operational issues is not what they want to do.  They could realize that human capital management is simply too difficult a nut to crack, particularly if they are not in charge of the pre-service education that delivers the teachers to their door.  They could even find that the first or second generation of this experiment is a failure, and they have to keep changing and adapting on the fly to meet goals and deliver on their promises to the community.  And, shudder, they could even find themselves lapsing into models and behaviors far too similar to the school districts they are trying to change and offer an alternative to.
Or it could just work.  Gates could pick a four or five cities, invest significantly in those cities and demonstrate how district-wide change can happen at the city, school, classroom, and student level.  They could identify those best practices that can indeed be replicated at scale in districts throughout the nation.  They can find a way to build better pathways and make real opportunities available to more students in need.  They can truly build a better learning environment, particularly for those who have been dealt a bad hand for far too long.
Let’s face it.  If anyone can do it, Gates can do it.  And at this point of the game, not trying is far worse than the risk of failure.  If the EdSec is going to stake a number of school districts with the funds to Race to the Top, why can’t Gates do the same?  We let ED fund internal improvements designed to improve current districts.  Gates funds the construction of new school districts focused on 21st century needs and expectations.  And we see who provides a better education, and a better ROI.  Let the best model win.”

Doesn’t seem so foolish after all, now does it?

Taking the Pole Position on Race

Those Phase One Race to the Top finalists have now been announced.  As we all know by now, the 16 jurisdictions that will now vie for the honor of being the first three or four states to win a RttT grant include: Colorado, Delaware, Washington DC, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

For Eduflack, the only real surprise here is Washington, DC (which is a pleasant surprise).  The remaining 15 are all states that have been on most lists for some time.  While a few may be surprised by Illinois, those doubters should read the proposal.  It was one of the strongest in the pool.  And while some may question South Carolina, the state has been touting it has the best application in the pool.  So no major surprised there.

Now let’s take a look at some of the interesting facts.  Back in the summer, the Gates Foundation provided $250,000 grants to 15 states to help with the development of their Race grants.  Fourteen of those states submitted for Phase One (Texas was the holdout), and 10 of those 14 made the cut — Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.  And of the remaining six finalists, four of them received later assistance from Gates, after NGA and CCSSO urgings.  Only Delaware and South Carolina did the heavy lifting themselves.

The four Gates-funded states who didn’t make the cut?  Arkansas, Arizona, Minnesota, and New Mexico.  (Along with the Republic of Texas, of course.)

Only one of the 16 states — Colorado — is west of Mississippi.  That seems a bit surprising, but the scoring rubric didn’t take geography into account.  The South is particularly well represented, which some could see as a sign of the region’s willingness to embrace education reforms and others may see as the value of right to work states and weaker teachers’ unions/organizations.

And for you history buffs, eight of the original 13 colonies made the cut!  Condolences to New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia.

According to the US Department of Education, each of these states scored at least 80 percent — or 400 points — on the reviewer scores.  States will be coming to DC in a week and a half (without their consultants and outside proposal preparers) to orally defend their proposals.  And states will either gain or lose points based on the interview and swimsuit competitions.

If academic achievement is the name of the game, it is a surprising mix of states.  Looking at eighth grade NAEP reading performance (one of the best measures of actual student academic success), of the 16 finalists, only Massachusetts is in the Top 10 for eighth grade NAEP reading scores.  And only four of the states — Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Colorado — rank in the top 20.  Five of the finalists (Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Louisiana, and DC) are in the bottom quartile. 

While Eduflack has read his share of RttT applications, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on the nuance and the details (though I will continue to pretend to be to amaze people at forums and cocktail parties).  The finalists appear to be a strong mix of states with a good track record, states with a strong plan for the future, states that have made major legislative changes to qualify for RttT, and some states that really need the dollars.  But don’t take my word for it.  Check out what others are saying.

The US Department of Education’s formal announcement and supporting materials can be found here.  Politics K-12 has great analysis here, while Eduwonk weighs in here, Andy Smarick here, with Tom Vander Ark here.  Who else wants on the carousel of RttT fun?

Raising the Gates on Teacher Effectiveness

As most know by now, yesterday the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation officially named the four school districts that will share in the coveted “Deep DIve” prize.  Originally billed as a $500 million endeavor, we learned yesterday that the four winners are now sharing in $335 million grant money.  Hillsborough County Schools in Tampa, FL received $100 million; Memphis, TN secured $90 million, Pittsburgh took in $40 million; and five charter school systems in Los Angeles (including Aspire and Green Dot) picked up $60 million to fund teacher quality and effectiveness efforts.  A full article on the announcement can be found in this morning’s Washington Post here.  And Stephen Sawchuk has a particularly good writeup of the decision over at EdWeek here.

In addition to the district awards, Gates is committing another $45 million to determine how one actually measures teacher effectiveness, an important rubric as most states now scurry to meet the high-points expectations of the teacher quality section of the Race to the Top RFP.  Details to come, Eduflack guesses.
I’ll leave it to the experts to determine the efficacy of these four winning applications, how soon we should see results, and how we’re actually measuring such results in the first place.  These districts are wading into relatively unknown waters at this point, at a time when too many people are defining teacher effectiveness based solely on student test scores.  A lot of eyes will be on these districts, which represent a pretty good cross-section of the challenges facing public education across the nation.  All we needed was a good urban district, and we’d have our little model U.S. public school system.
But the announcement begs three questions.  For nearly a year now, we’ve been hearing how Gates was committing a half a billion dollars to this effort, with WaPo even stating that this investment is on par with the discretionary moneys that Duncan and company are spending over at ED.  So where is the remaining $125 million going?  Is that money that will be spent on this topic at a later date, either to replicate the promising practices found in the winning districts or to further engage in national explorations of measurement and tracking?  Or is this a scale back in overall investment, with Gates already looking to move some of this funding to new priorities and new areas of interest?
Second, why, exactly, did Omaha drop out of the running as it was approaching the final tape?  Did it read the handwriting on the wall and think it would be the only partygoer left without a seat come announcement day?  Did the school district have a change of heart?  Or was it as simple as the “financial constraints” argument they offered EdWeek, where they found that accepting the grant would mean all sorts of additional costs and investments they just weren’t prepared for (a realization that far too many aspiring RttT states still have yet to internalize)?  And if it was an issue of financial constraints, how much are each of the winning districts expected to bring to the table themselves in order to enjoy the dollars being showered by those well-meaning ed reformers from the Pacific Northwest?
And finally, how will this Gates money complement, intersect, or interfere with the $100 million that the Ford Foundation is investing to transforming secondary education.  A big chunk of that money is going to investigate similar issues of teacher quality, both in terms of preparedness and effectiveness.  The American Federation of Teachers is one of the early beneficiaries of this stream of Ford support.  Is there the possibility of collaboration in struggling urban districts like Memphis, or will this become a territorial thing.
It will be interesting to see some of the early returns coming in from the Gates Deep Dive, particularly in Memphis.  Somehow, this city has quickly become ground zero for education reform.  Memphis City Schools is one of the central components to New Leaders for New Schools’ EPIC program, funded through federal TIF dollars.  Tennessee is a clear frontrunner for RttT funding.  The state’s business community has recently moved a major education reform agenda forward.  And now they win a Deep Dive grant.  It’s a city with a strong union presence and many of the pitfalls of modern-day urban public education.  In short order, the glances of all ed reformers will soon be on Memphis, with expectations higher than ever before.

“Disrupting” High School Failure

Can you legislate graduation rates?  Today, the Washington Post editorial board called on the state of Maryland to raise the compulsory age for school attendance, essentially using state law to require students to stay in Maryland high schools until the age of 18 (it is 16 now).  The move, following on the heels of a similar policy adopted by the Montgomery County Board of Education is in direct response to the latest data showing a growing dropout rate in Maryland.  The full editorial can be found here.

Eduflack is all for any measure designed to improve high school graduation rates, but can you really legislate the problem away?  And if so, why just raise the dropout age to 18?  Why not require by law that every student stay in school until they earn a high school diploma or reach the age of 21?  Why not mandate a high school diploma in order to secure a driver’s license or buy a beer?
We don’t take such steps because such a “stick” approach to high school reform simply doesn’t work.  Despite the best of intentions, requiring an intended dropout to stay in school for two extra years rarely results in that “a-ha” moment when he finds his calling in high school, puts himself on the illuminated path, earns his diploma, and leads a successful life.  It leads to two more years of resentment, coupled with two years of wasted resources at the school and district level.
Talk to anyone who has succeeded in high school improvement efforts, and you will hear that the secret to true high school transformation is not about maintaining the current course.  To boost high school graduation rates, we need to make classroom learning more relevant to at-risk students.  We need to personalize courses, connecting directly with students.  We need to bring real-life into classroom learning, through internships, speakers, and any other means that link high school with life.
As part of its efforts to invest in meaningful high school reform models, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has regularly touted the successes of the high school reform model offered by Big Picture Learning.  While the Gates model for high schools has shifted over the years, its praise for Big Picture has been unwavering.  But the Big Picture model has been one of those “best kept secrets” in education policy.  Those intimate with the details are true believers, but many are unawares of what the Rhode Island-based organization is truly doing in schools across the world.  (Full disclaimer, Eduflack worked with Big Picture’s founders on their October policy event.)
Last month, Big Picture held its coming out in Washington, DC, educating the policy community on how the Big Picture model fits with the current call for school improvement and innovation.  Touting the need for “disruptive innovation” in school improvement, Big Picture leaders focused on the importance of a student-centered curriculum, a close relationship with teachers, and real world internships to best serve those students at greatest risk of dropping out.  And working in more than 130 schools, Big Picture knows of what it speaks.  More than eight in 10 BPL schools receive Title I funding, while 66 percent of their students are eligible for free and reduced lunch.  Such measures are usually the early markers of dropout factories and graduation problems.  But at Big Picture schools, more than 92 percent of students earn their high school diplomas (compared with 52 percent nationally).  And 95 percent of their students are accepted into college, the first step toward achieving the President’s college-educated Americans goal by 2020.
The true measure of Big Picture’s effectiveness, though, may best be found in what others were saying about them in DC a few weeks ago.  According to Congressman George Miller, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, “Big Picture is engaging students in discovering the level of context they understand, and how they apply it, and how they appreciate it, and how they can connect it to the next task in education, life, and experience.”  
And Harvard Business School Prof. Clay Christensen, the author of Disrupting Class and the godfather of the concept of “disruptive innovation” said: “I think that the Big Picture schools are about as great an example of integrating opportunities to feel success with the delivery of curriculum as exists in America.  By knitting together the delivery of the content they need to learn, with projects that allow them to use that they learn and feel successful, they’ve just done a wonderful thing; and I think it is a beacon for all of us.”
High praise from two who know a little bit about the topics of school improvement and comprehensive reforms.  So how does it translate back into what our states and school districts are looking to do through Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation to improve our schools and reform those so-called dropout factories?  Big Picture co-founder Elliot Washor summed it up best as part of their October event: “In our quest to improve public education, we often overlook the importance of the student perspective.  Based on our experiences, students thrive in high school when they see the relevance to their current interests and future plans.  Every student can earn a high school diploma with the right classroom and practical instruction.”
The data is there, and folks like Bill Gates and George Miller have recognized the benefits and impact.  Perhaps there really is more to high school improvement than increasing the compulsory age for school attendance.  Relevance and an increased focus on the students surely can’t hurt.

Public Schools and “Philanthropy”

What role should philanthropy and fundraising play in the operations of our public schools?  We like to believe that, through local taxes and state taxes and a little help from our friends in Washington, we have more than enough to fund a high-quality public education.  Yet in an era of school improvement and school turnarounds, we hear more and more about the need for corporate and philanthropic support for our public schools.  We listen to calls for alternative funding for teacher salaries and instructional interventions and new school models.  We know of virtually every major public school districts clamoring for moneys from the Gates Foundation, and Broad, and Wallace, and just about anyone else who is willing to invest in K-12 school improvement.

Over the weekend, The Washington Post ran a column by Robert McCarthy talking about the current struggles DCPS is enduring to secure those much needed private funds.  As the legend goes, DCPS Chancellor is asking many a deep pocket for funding to help pay for her turnaround of the schools in our nation’s capital.  Some money, particularly that being raised by the recently established DC Public Education Fund, is still on the ledger sheet (important since much of this money is intended to pay for Rhee’s new teacher pay system, whereby we eliminate tenure and boost salaries for high-performing teachers).  But much of the typical philanthropy that has flowed into DC appears to be in doubt, with traditional DC philanthropists concerned about how their money is being spent and how DCPS will be held accountable as responsible stewards of the dollars.  The full story can be found here.
While issues of accountability are important, and surely donors should know specifically how their education dollars are being spent, the issue in Washington, DC raises a significantly more important concern.  In an era where our urban school districts are spending between $15,000 and $20,000 per student for public education, why is that not adequate resources for an effective public education?  Should the success of our struggling school districts really require the kindness of strangers to provide a core education to every student?
Perhaps I am naive here, but it seems that school budgets should be constructed so they are addressing all of the necessary expenditures of operating a school district — salaries, buildings, transportation, textbooks and instructional materials, technology, breakfasts and lunches, athletics and extracurriculars, even afterschool programs.  Such funds should be constant each and every year.  If a district hits a patch where the committed dollars coming in from federal, state, and local sources are inadequate for meeting the educational needs of the students, then we have a problem.  Then (as we are experiencing now) we tap emergency funding, make difficult decisions, and try to carry on.  Rarely does the acceptance of a grant (along with the oversight, redtape, and additional accountability provisions attached to it) allow one to backfill such cuts.  And that shouldn’t be their intention.
Third-party donations, be they from philanthropies, corporations, or one-time federal grant programs, are meant to supplement and provide value-add to the core instructional day.  They are used to bring in a new program designed to help a segment of the student population.  They are used to provide targeted professional development and support to teachers.  They are used to jumpstart a new effort or say bring in a new computer lab.  But they are not designed to be funds to support the ongoing operations nor are they dollars guaranteed to continue for the perpetuity of a school’s existence. 
And that really becomes the danger with the path some are now pursuing.  Yes, philanthropy plays an essential role in education reform and school improvement.  Targeted dollars can be used to spearhead specific initiatives, act where action was previously impossible, and generally goose a school into change and reform it may have previously ignored.  But it is not a continuous spigot of funds designed to supplement the dedicated moneys coming from the government.  Philanthropic support is designed to have a specific beginning and a specific end.  It falls to states and school districts to use a grant period well, build the reform into their core operating structure, and carry on — both financially and operationally — well after the third-party support is gone.  Otherwise, we simply move from one latest and greatest idea to the next, with nothing taking hold and nothing having real impact.
We are running a real danger here when we expect that philanthropic support for our schools is intended to help fund core operations in our classrooms.  Such supports are intended to innovate and spur action where it otherwise may not be possible.  But if we are extending a hand out to ensure adequate funding of per-pupil expenditures and core instruction, we have a much larger issue to address.  We should be strengthening our schools to improve based on the resources available.  Outside funding then helps us accelerate the process.    

How Does Education Really Rank?

For as long as Eduflack can remember, we have always cited that “education” is a top three issue in the eyes of the American people.  While we may debate whether it is a subject on which we cast our votes (and there is little to show that education policy has any effect on national campaigns), it is supposedly an issue that we hold near and dear.  So much so that just last year the Gates and Broad Foundations used Ed in 08/Stronger American Schools to try and push education through the win/place/show list to make it THE major driver in the 2008 presidential elections.

Funny how quickly things can change.  Education may have long been a top-three concern, but according to a recent national poll, it is now barely making the top 10.  Rasmussen recently surveyed Americans on their priorities, asking the question, “How important is it for the nation to face these issues …”  One could answer “very important” to any and all of the categories.  Following are those issues that scored very important (and how many of those surveyed thought so):
* Government ethics and corruption — 83 percent
* Economy — 82 percent
* Health care — 73 percent
* National security — 67 percent
* Social Security — 65 percent
* Taxes — 62 percent
* Education — 59 percent
* War in Iraq — 49 percent
* Immigration — 49 percent
That’s right, education now comes in seventh place.  Fewer than six in 10 people believe that education is a very important issue for our nation to face.  Makes you wonder about the 23 percent of those surveyed who are worried about the economy, but don’t see that a strong public education is a primary driver to economic improvement.  Or the 14 percent who fail to understand the correlations between healthcare (and healthcare costs) and education.  (Of course, Eduflack is even more startled that government ethics and corruption comes in at the top of the list, when we haven’t had a truly good scandal to rock the United States’ perception of those pulling the levers and writing the checks.  I suppose this is in response to the banking crisis and the bailout dollars).
If these numbers tell us anything, it is we cannot perceive education as an activity that occurs in a vacuum.  The quality of and access to a strong preK, K-12, and postsecondary education links virtually everything in our lives.  it effects jobs, tax revenues, and the economy at large.  It impacts healthcare, justice systems, and the environment.  It effects every American, regardless of race, gender, socio-economic status, or zip code.  But somehow, it is an “also ran” when it comes to the important issues our nation faces.
If we are to make real, lasting change to our educational systems, we need to build a sense of urgency and demand for such improvements.  Without that demand, it is going to be hard to move audiences to change their thinking, change their behaviors, and change our spending priorities.  Moreover, it will be harder for some to make the intellectual investment in education, particularly when they have five or six issues that are viewed as more important in the grand scheme of things.
With all of the time, effort, and money spent on education debates and school improvement efforts, why aren’t we breaking through?  Is it the message or the messenger?  Clearly, we are missing something.

Digging Deeper into Deep Dive

While it has taken a back seat to Race to the Top talk (and is shouldn’t since it is worth far more to the winning school districts than any RttT or i3 innovation), folks are still waiting to see who the Gates Foundation will award their Deep Dive teacher improvement grants to.  Earlier this fall, the pool was narrowed down to five — Pittsburgh, Memphis, Hillsborough County (FL), Oklahoma City, and a consortium of charter schools in Los Angeles.  The talk has long been the four winners will split the $500 million Gates is committing to the project.

On several occasions, Eduflack has asked why we continue to refer to an unnamed consortium of charter schools in the City of Angels, and just come out and say Green Dot.  Seems the logical choice, based on Gates’ ongoing support for Green Dot, current plans to expand the charter network on the East Coast, and the favor with which Green Dot is held by Duncan and his crew at ED.
But an Eduflack reader has recently pointed out that Green Dot is but part of the teacher quality petri dish that Gates is looking for in Los Angeles.  They are using the consortium of charter schools language to describe plans to invest in a group of charter school organizations out on the left coast.  Should LA win, the likely recipients of Deep Dive dollars would include LA-area schools led by the Alliance for College Ready Public Schools, Aspire, the Inner City Education Foundation, Partnership to Uplift Communities, and, yes, Green Dot.
And how much will these trailblazing charters have to spend on the identification, cultivation, instruction, and incentivization of effective teaching?  That still seems to be up in the air.  Since the Deep Dive plan was first discussed earlier this year, we’ve been hearing four districts, $500 million.  Dear ole Eduflack did fairly well on the math portion of his SATs way back when, and my abacus tells me that works out to about $125 million per Deep Dive district.
In yesterday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, there is an interesting story about how Pittsburgh is working to provide a new contract for whiz superintendent Mark Roosevelt, whose contract is set to expire in a year and a half.  The full piece can be found here, but the article cites that Pittsburgh is being fast-tracked for Gates Deep Dive money, and has requested $50 million for its teacher efforts.
So it begs the question.  If the finalists are requesting a specific amount of dollars for their plan, instead of working under the assumption of an equal allocation of the pot, what will happen to the excess money in the fund?  Will the four winners go back for additional rounds of funding?  Will Gates open up a phase two to other districts who try to model what the first cohort is doing?  Will some districts, like Pittsburgh seek $50 million while others look for $150 or $200 million for their ideas? 
Regardless, this is A LOT of money going into a few districts to focus on teacher quality.  And it is far, far more than even the best district can hope to gain through RttT or other federal programs.  Significant eyes will be on the winners and their plans, with many a reformer (and a status quoer) expecting to see immediate results.  Unfair?  Yes.  But in our rush for broad and immediate school improvement, we don’t have time for programs to mature and develop.  We need our results now.  Pittsburgh, Green Dot, and others are going to have high expectations to reach with those oversized Gates checks.

Filling the Gaps on Innovation

For much of the summer, we’ve been handicapping the future of Race to the Top and which states are going to be the beneficiaries of the $4.35 billion honeypot.  As of this morning, more than 1,500 comments and suggestions have officially be submitted with regard to the draft regs.  To date, the media highlight has been the statement issued by the National Education Association, making clear that effective teaching needs to focus on good, well-supported teachers.  As noted last week, Eduflack was most taken by the remarks jointly submitted by EdTrust, DFER, CAP, and EEP, which provided a broad-brush approach to many of the issues keeping us up at night.

As those comments have been diligently filed on www.regulations.gov (with many parties submitting three, four, or even five position papers apiece), the handicappers in the Vegas-version of education reform have been putting the odds on those states that will win, place, or show when it comes to RttT.  Florida and Louisiana are looking strong.  Tennessee and Arizona are mounting strong darkhorse candidacies.  States like Texas, California, and Pennsylvania are quickly seeing the roadblocks that will get in their way.  And of those not getting a special boost from the Gates Foundation, places like Rhode Island, Virginia, and Colorado offer some potential.
We all know that not every state will become an RttT state.  In fact, no one seems to expect that half of the states will receive the designation.  That leaves a lot of states on the outside looking in, particularly for those seeking to make some real change but currently lacking some of the intangibles.  So what happens to those who won’t make the short list?
Along comes a little program called the Investing in Innovation (or i3) program.  in our zeal to embrace RttT, many have forgotten all about i3 and its $650 million.  And while we are still waiting for the draft regs around i3 to be released, the rhetoric surrounding the program is starting to give us a roadmap for where we are headed, making it clear that i3 is designed to help fill some of the innovation gaps created by RttT.
To date, EdSec Duncan has spoken about i3 and its real investments in proven-effective innovations.  We’ve talked about working with non-profits and other third parties that are able to drive real change and improvement in the schools.  We’ve discussed how K12 and higher ed need to work together, and how we can leverage current pilot projects into future success stories.  
Clearly, i3 is going to reward those states that don’t benefit from RttT (or from the upcoming Gates Deep Dive grants, I’d suspect).  So think Chicago and i3 for its TAP teacher quality program.  A little love for NYC and its continued efforts to boost student achievement.  Some continued support for a few Texas cities that have shown some real high school improvements (since Eduflack is all but certain Texas will not win RttT, despite Gates’ best attempts).  We may even see some reward for Robert Bobb and Detroit if the Motor City can find some “successes” on which to build, as that seems to be the name of the i3 game.
Without seeing the draft protocols for Investing in Innovation (we wait with baited breath), the safe money seems to be on those communities that will not be covered through RttT.  Instead of further leveraging investments, we will likely see RttT going one direction and i3 going in another. Current stimulus dollars will be spread to hit as many regions as possible.  (The lone exception may be Tennessee, which looks good for RttT and where Memphis is a current Teacher Incentive Fund site, is a likely Gates Deep Dive site, and could truly double down with some i3 money.)  
The race will be on to see whether state-based or district-based reforms are the quickest paths to success.  RttT will let us try something new.  i3 allows us to take promising practice and innovation up to scale.  How fast we move down each path will likely determine the direction and emphasis of ESEA reauthorization over the next 12 to 18 months.  Through our federal lens of education reform, does success come through state leadership or district implementation?