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 (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?  

Diving Off the Gates High Board

In our zeal to find out which states have the inside track with regard to Race to the Top (and the good folks over at EdWeek’s Politics K-12 blog have given us the list of the 15 states getting a quarter million from Gates to “help” with their applications, providing the most inside of inside tracks) we seem to have lost sight of the Gates Foundation’s big plans for a “deep dive” into school district-based professional development and teacher support.

For those who have forgotten, earlier this year Gates announced its intention to award four school districts a grand total of $500 million to invest in real, meaningful teacher development activities.  That works out to $125 million per district, real money that can speak directly to teacher quality issues in those specific districts while providing a model for what can work in other urban LEAs looking for ways to boost teacher achievement and success.
Back in the spring, the initial list of “finalist” sites for this grant was leaked, with many quickly handicapping the race.  At the time, Gates has requested proposals and planned site visits at 10 locales — Atlanta, Denver, Hillsborough County (FL), Memphis, Omaha, Palm Beach County (FL), Pittsburgh, Prince George’s County (MD), Tulsa, and a group of Los Angeles charter schools.
When that original list went public, the chattering class immediately began handicapping the field.  We assumed PG County was a slam dunk, since its superstar superintendent John Deasy had just moved over to the Gates Foundation to help oversee this project.  Because of her longevity, track record of success, and ability to deliver results, we bet that Beverly Hall and Atlanta would make the final cut.  Many thought that the merit pay successes of Denver’s ProComp program would give the edge to the Mile High City, even though its superintendent had moved on to the U.S. Senate.  And we all know that that group of unnamed charter schools in the greater Los Angeles area has to be none other than Green Dot, a favorite child of the Gates Foundation and the Duncan regime.
So those were our supposed final four.  Some would put one of the Florida districts in as a dark horse (not distinguishing which one), recognizing that the Sunshine State has been a terrific site for school reform efforts.  Other cities had their pluses and minuses, but we assumed the die were cast and checks were being cut in Seattle for our frontrunner districts.
It seems a funny thing has happened on the way to determining the ultimate Deep Dive winners.  The New York Times is reporting that the list of final finalists has narrowed, and most of those slam dunks are now on the outside looking in.  According to the Times, the pool of 10 has now been narrowed to five — Florida’s Hillsborough County, Memphis, Omaha, Pittsburgh, and the Los Angeles charters.  No Prince Georges.  No Atlanta.  No Denver.  No frontrunners, save for Green Dot.  The full story can be found here. 
So what do the finalists tell us?  Three of the five (Hillsborough, Memphis, and Pittsburgh) are in states where Gates is trying to help secure RttT grants.  And Green Dot is a huge hat tip to Duncan’s emphasis on the role of charter schools in urban turnarounds (the fourth pillar of RttT).  Omaha is a surprising diverse school district, chock full of magnet schools and other programs designed to offer choice and alternatives, so it is a darkhorse that makes a lot of sense.
So which of the five will be the one district left without a chair when Gates’ music stops?  Historically, the teachers union in Memphis has been resistant to these “latest and greatest” efforts, most recently pushing back in both contract negotiations and the adoption of a Teacher Incentive Fund effort in the city.  Pittsburgh has done some interesting ed reform efforts, but always struggles with the view it is a “second city” to Philadelphia.  Hillsborough (essentially Tampa) is already a big Gates grantee and is heavily invested in teacher programs from National Board Certification to merit pay, meaning it may be far enough along with the additional help.  And Green Dot needs little extra fanfare.
Most surprising?  The truly large urban districts are noticeably absent from the finalists.  Gates has clearly made the decision to focus on more manageable LEAs where the money can be wisely invested, progress tracked, and best practice defined, captured, and modeled.  By focusing on the second ring of urban school districts, Gates is targeting some of the lower-hanging fruit, hoping that past Gates investment coupled with a district-wide culture of self-improvement and a focus on teacher quality will help win the day.
This will only be further enhanced if Gates’ RttT efforts are successful.  Deep Dive money in Tampa, Memphis, and Pittsburgh can be leveraged with teacher quality commitments under RttT to provide “super investments” in teacher development in these communities.  And we can assume that Gates is readying similar applications for the anticipated Innovation Fund, teeing up each of its finalist Deep Dive districts for a piece of the $650 million in innovation dollars expected to be released shortly by the Office of Innovation and Improvement.
Regardless of who makes it through the final filter, all eyes are going to be on “what” this money will be spent on.  Looking at the big picture, $125 million per district, spent over five years, isn’t the hugest of huge dollars.  But $25 million a year can go a long way in those districts that are currently being targeted by Gates.  If the funds really go to determining what qualities make the best teachers, how we measure those qualities in the classroom, and how we replicate and teach those qualities to all teachers in the district and throughout the nation, then we may really be onto something.  But that is the real key.  Many will tell you we already know what goes into good teaching.  Our struggle has always been applying what we know.  If Gates can’t figure it out, then few others can.

Top 10 RTT Questions

The clock has officially started.  Last night, the U.S. Department of Education officially posted the draft Race to the Top (RTT) RFP on the Federal Register.  Interested parties can find at  The big change from the draft circulating before last week’s unveiling is the proposed criteria are now put in a handy, dandy chart, instead of just being pages and pages of text.  Regardless, all interested parties have until August 28 to provide their comments and recommendations to officials at ED.  Eduflack would be surprised if the final version of the RFP is not released to states as close to September 1 as possible.

Earlier this week, ED officials held a conference call to speak to the RFP (along with other funding streams such as State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, ed technology grants, and the like).  After taking some time to digest it all, Eduflack is left with more questions than he has answers.  So rather than suffer with these queries on my own, I’m just going to put them out there so others can struggle along with me (or at least realize that they are not alone).  So here’s my top 10.
1) How many states does ED intend to bestow with RTT grants?  Clearly, they aren’t intending most states to secure Race funding (else the language would be quite different).  But is this intended for half the states?  A quarter?  Fewer?  I’ve heard six to 10 states.  Alexander Russo has reported at that the Gates Foundation is helping 15 states with their applications.  So how many states will actually become RTT states?
2) Speaking of Gates, if it is true, who are the 15 states that they are assisting?  I’ve heard two handfuls of states mentioned as possibles/likelies, including Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana, and Illinois.  Will the four states that will play home to Gates’ deep dive states be priorities for funding?  Can states like Texas, which receives big Gates dollars, overcome the political and administrative obstacles to qualify if they have the right assistance?  Will we ever know who Gates is helping?  (Some ED RFPs require that the applicant disclose who actually wrote the proposal, but I don’t see that in the requirements here.)
3) We know that there will be a Phase One and a Phase Two of grants, so what prevents a prospective state from laying the weeds, waiting to see who is approved in Phase One, and then liberally “borrowing” from the previously approved application?  We saw some of this in the initial rounds of Reading First back in 2002.  Will we see it again this year?
4) And about those approvals, who, exactly, will be reviewing applications?  The folks over at Education Week and its Politics K-12 blog have noted that ED is expecting to get top-notch, expert, experiences individuals with SEA backgrounds to review these applications.  Obviously, reviewers can’t have a dog in the fight.  So who are these reviewers who aren’t currently working with individual states or the organizations that represent them (like NGA or CCSSO) that will be determining how the $4-plus billion is spent?
5) Are California and New York (and Wisconsin) really knocked out of the running because of their prohibitions to link teacher identifiers with student performance data?  ED did a great deal of research and vetting of what was happening in the states before releasing this draft.  I guarantee that they knew about the CA and NY laws.  And we heard EdSec Duncan in California earlier this year expressing some doubts about California being an RTT state.  Is the Golden State just too big with too many moving parts to demonstrate measurable change out of the gates?  Would we prefer to work with smaller states like Delaware, Georgia, or Ohio that may be easier to navigate in the early going?
6) How sacrosanct are the proposed criteria that guide selection?  I can’t help but notice one of the criteria is a letter of endorsement from the state teachers union.  Is that a recommended or a non-negotiable?  Do the state chapters of the NEA and AFT essentially have veto power over a state’s RTT application?  How does a state determine whether they need this item, or whether it is just a nice value-add?
7) With regard to charter schools and requirements around school choice, how will reviewers distinguish between states whose laws essentially prohibit charter schools versus those like Virginia that have terrific charter laws on the books, but just don’t authorize them?  Is the measuring stick intent or actual implementation?
8) The draft focusing on alternative certification, but where is emphasis on improving the quality of traditional certification paths?  Collecting data on the student achievement of graduates of specific colleges of education?  Comparing the impact of traditional certification with alternative certification (and with Teach for America)?  How can RTT be used to ensure an ample supply of effective teachers, regardless of the path they take to the classroom?
9) What is the real crosswalk with core standards?  It seems like ED is hedging its bets, asking states to provide annual reports based on their state assessments, yet requiring RTT states to sign onto the core standards by mid-2010 (if they are out).  Assuming core standards are in place, do we not expect assessments to accompany them?  Or do we expect that such assessments will not be completed and in place until after RTT’s four-year run?
10) Other than state self-reporting, how will we actually know that RTT dollars have improved student performance and closed the achievement gap?  What specific measures, other than state tests, will be in place?  What is ED planning on replacing AYP with for the long haul?  How do we ensure that dollars are being invested to change practice for the long term, and that RTT reforms will stay in place and have impact long after the funding is gone?  
A lot of questions, I know.  Hopefully, others are asking these questions as well as part of the review process.  Or are these just the rants and musings of an education agitator?                     

Jumpin’ Before the RTT Gun Sounds

Washington, DC is a horrible place to keep a secret.  While the average education wonk’s calendar had a reminder that the common standards (for high school at least) would be released next week, the draft is made public yesterday, with Core Knowledge the first to reveal and then Education Week providing more context and substance around it.

Most have similarly been waiting with baited breath for tomorrow’s expected announcement of the Race to the Top (RTT) RFP draft, the great piggy bank for states to demonstrate their education innovation and improvement.  We’ve been working under a hard release date of tomorrow for RTT, with those with a dog in the fight looking to move quickly to help shape and revise the draft before it goes final next month (though I wouldn’t hold my breath on how different the final will be from the draft).
Then we start hearing about a big event in DC, where the RTT will be announced along with Innovation Funds, ed tech, teacher incentives, data systems, and even second round SFSF money.  We hear about governors and chief state school officers being invited to Maryland Avenue.  And this morning, the Education Equality Project, among others, “announces” that President Barack Obama himself will be on hand at the US Department of Education tomorrow AM to help EdSec Duncan announce the draft RTT RFP and re-emphasize the importance of K-12 education reform in our nation’s overall turnaround.  (Of course, the President’s participation hasn’t officially been announced by ED or the White House, but it seems a safe bet at this point.)
All of this is typical, particularly when you compound it with the fact that the draft Race to the Top RFP is already circulating around town.  Lest we forget, RTT is tasked with distributing $4.3 billion for, as described in the draft, “competitive grants to States to encourage and reward States that are creating the conditions for innovation and reform, implementing ambitious plans in the four reform areas described in the statute, and achieving dramatic improvement in student outcomes, including driving substantial gains in student achievement, closing achievement gaps, improving graduation rates, and ensuring student preparation for success in college and careers.”
The draft RTT regs (at least the version Eduflack has seen) currently run at 61 pages.  The money will be distributed in two phases, with states ready to run out of the gates can apply for the funds in late 2009, while others can wait until mid-to-late spring of 2010 for Phase Two to open up.  Applicants must address all four of the above noted areas, and can’t just cherry-pick the two or three they think they can make progress in.  It’s all in, or you can’t play.  
Eduflack is particularly tickled to see that STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) education has been singled out as a priority in RTT.  While groups like the Gates Foundation, National Governors Association, NMSI and others have been investing in STEM, making it an RTT invitational priority — particularly with an emphasis on training effective K-12 STEM teachers — is a huge step forward for STEM efforts across the nation.  
ED is also to be applauded for calling for stronger K-16 linkages, forcing K-12 and higher education to work together on Race to the Top.  
It is also intriguing to see some of the definitions RTT is using.  Student achievement is measured mostly by performance on the state’s standardized assessment.  Whether that means just reading and math a la AYP or whether it includes science, social studies, and other assessments offered by states is a big TBD.  Instead of AYP, which is a term all but abandoned by this ED, we are now talking student growth (with a similar definition).  Graduation rates are defined by the NGA formula of a four-year grad rate (kudos to ED for sticking with it.)  Formative and interim assessments make the definitions list.  And we are now provided with an official RTT definition of Alternative Certification Programs for teachers.  
Charter schools are featured, as is incentives for teachers and principals.  In my initial read, I can’t find mention of terms like the previously popular “scientifically based,” though they do seem to enjoy the term “evidence” for both qualitative and quantitative purposes.  
Hopefully, we will see a little more teeth in the Annual Reporting and Performance Measures section before this RFP goes to final. This is likely a point that is still being worked out with the states.  Right now, ED is basically asking states to provide an annual written report documenting how they are doing against their own goals.  But it doesn’t call for third-party assessment at all.  We’re being asked to trust grant recipients to tell us how effectively they are spending the money they get.  We’ve seen how well that has worked in the past, particularly if there isn’t an office at ED who is reviewing those reports, documented the results, and performing the spot checks on states to ensure that those written self-assessments are rooted in the realities at the building level.
On the whole, Race to the Top looks like a strong start to actually trying some new things and breaking the bonds of the status quo in far too many struggling schools.  While some will be quick to try and offer changes to the RFP and look to redefine certain sections or re-emphasize (or de-emphasize) others, there seems to be little to quibble with.  The RFP is broad, and intentionally so.  The challenge is how well states respond to it, how closely those responses are scrutinized, and how strongly the states are held to following through on what they promise to receive their RTT checks.
Regardless, tomorrow should be fun.  It’s always good to see a President throw his rhetorical weight behind public education.  Even more so when we are talking about innovation, improvement, and change, and not just more dollars for the status quo.  Now it is up to 50 governors, their chief state school officers, and their education advisors to quickly write some terrific applications so they can get at this money this fall, and put it to use before another generation of kids is lost in the cracks.

Bill Gates: Ed Reformer in Chief

This morning, Bill Gates addressed the National Conference of State Legislatures.  This was a little more than just an address.  Gates’ remarks have the possibility of being the education reform equivalent of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.  In riffing on everything from teacher quality to charter schools, college preparedness to data systems, Gates laid out a passionate call to arms for school improvement.  In doing so, he demonstrated that the Gates Foundation is more than just a checkbook, it is beginning to lay out a vision for K-12 improvement.

Rather than summarizing Gates’ words, let’s just go right to the horse’s mouth — Gates’ speech to NCSL. 

Thank you for that kind welcome. And thank you for offering me this chance to talk with you as you face big decisions for your states and our country.

These are not ordinary times. We’re in a severe economic downturn—and you, as state legislators, may have a more complete picture of the impact of this recession than anyone else in the country. You are forced to balance your budgets, even as the recession increases your expenditures and cuts your revenues. Your constituents are losing their jobs, their savings, and their homes—and everywhere you go, people are asking you to make it better.

This is a painful time.

But difficult times can spark great reforms—and changes we can make now can help us come out of the downturn stronger than when we entered.

We’ve been in an economic crisis for a year or so. But we’ve been in an education crisis for decades. As a country, our performance at every level—primary and secondary school achievement, high school graduation, college entry, college completion—is dropping against the rest of the world.

In college graduation rates, we are now 10th among industrialized nations—down from number one. If that is a leading indicator, I don’t like where it’s leading.

But this performance is not a fair measure of our country’s energy, effort, or intelligence. It’s a reflection of weak systems run by old beliefs and bad habits.

In these circumstances, a crisis can work as a pivot. It can give us the traction to leave behind bad habits—to start something new and better…

…. if you’re willing to do it.

You are the authorizers and appropriators of school reform in America. The president and the Congress can make recommendations—and they have passed a stimulus package with billions of dollars you can spend to advance school reform—but ultimately, you decide.

I hope you decide to accelerate reform, because America is changing.

African-American and Hispanic-American youth represent a rising share of our workforce. Success in this century will depend on how well America does what we have so far done very badly: give low-income and minority students a world-class education.

That’s what I want to talk with you about today. The $100 billion in education stimulus money should do more than stimulate the economy. It should stimulate us to rethink the way we run our schools. We need to make achievement more measurable, and the system more accountable, so we can get dramatically higher numbers of Americans to and through college.

America is a land of staggering opportunity. But if you want to make the most of this opportunity, high school is not enough, and some postsecondary is no longer enough. If you want to have the skills to build a career, or the resources to raise a family, you need a two-year or four-year degree. You need to complete college. Yet college completion rates in the U.S. have been flat since the 1970s.

Our foundation has set a goal to dramatically increase the numbers of young people who complete a postsecondary degree or credential with value in the marketplace. We hope you will set a similar goal in your states.

The first step toward this goal is to find out which colleges are doing a good job—and which innovations are making the biggest difference.

The institutions and innovations that are getting great outcomes should be expanded. Those that aren’t should be changed or ended.

To do this, we need to measure what matters. We need to know what the students learn, and what jobs they get. We need to know why students of some community colleges do better in the job market than others. Why minority students at some colleges take longer to earn a degree than similar students elsewhere. We don’t know the answers. We’re not even asking the questions.

I understand that there are challenges in developing fair measurements—but colleges are not entitled to escape scrutiny at a time of a plunging educational performance and permanent fiscal pressure.

Without measurement, there is no pressure for improvement.

 As we push to measure performance, the second step is to make an important shift in the incentive system: We should ensure that state funding, financial aid, and other incentives reward the institution when students make progress toward a degree, not just when they enroll.

Financial incentives for completion can encourage colleges to offer schedules that make more sense for students who have to work. They can encourage colleges to offer courses and counseling that guide students toward explicit job goals. They can encourage colleges to make more innovative use of technology—to use online lectures that students can watch anytime, anywhere.

This would help colleges—many of which are facing both funding cuts and enrollment spikes—to serve more students at higher quality and lower cost.

With the right incentives, more colleges will make these changes and help many more students complete their programs.

I would urge the legislators here to start the push to greater measurement by asking the colleges and universities in your districts to publish their graduation rates. In the future, we should also be able to publish data not just on completion, but on how many of those with degrees get professional credentials and are hired into good jobs.

Greater measurement, more public attention, and smarter financial incentives will spark innovation that can make a dramatic difference in the number of students who get a postsecondary credential with value in the workplace.

Of course, the most important step in helping students complete college is ensuring that they graduate from high school ready for college. 
While the rest of the world has been raising their high-school graduation rates, U.S. rates have not improved for 40 years.

More than 30 percent of our students drop out before graduating from high school. For minority kids, it’s nearly 50 percent. Among those who do graduate, most are not ready for college.

Those statistics are appalling. If all you knew were these numbers, you’d be pretty demoraliz
ed. But this is a composite picture, and it hides some really exciting successes.

In fact, whenever I get discouraged about public education, I go visit some exceptional schools to see how great they can be. I recommend you do the same thing. It will give you a burst of optimism.

Last year, I went to Texas, walked into a classroom, sat down, and thought: “What’s going on here?” The energy was so high I thought, “I must be in a pep rally or something.” The teacher was running around, scanning the classroom, pulling in every kid, putting things up on the board. It was a very exciting class.

I was at a KIPP School. KIPP stands for the “Knowledge is Power Program.” Eighty percent of KIPP students are low-income kids; 95% are Black or Hispanic. Among eighth graders who have gone to one of 30 KIPP middle schools for four years, average percentile scores jumped from 31 to 58 in reading; and 41 to 80 in math.

KIPP Schools are amazing, but they are not isolated examples. There are public schools and charter schools serving some of the most disadvantaged students in the country and getting astounding results.

In my experience, when you find a stunning success—you let it grow.

Unfortunately, states are putting caps on the number of these high-performing schools. Why do we want to put caps on the greatest success stories in American education?

Caps should be lifted for charter school operators who have a proven record of success—and charters should be offered the same per-pupil funding as other public schools. As you know, a relatively small percentage of schools are responsible for a high percentage of the dropouts. We can make dramatic advances by replacing the worst schools with high-performing charters —operated by organizations with a great track record.

This is not just to benefit the students who attend charter schools; this is to benefit all students. Charter schools are where many of the new discoveries are coming from—the value of the longer day, giving teachers data on student performance, and the huge advantage from having a critical mass of effective teachers in one school.

Charter schools, in my view, have been the lead researchers in the most important recent finding in the field of school reform. Namely: The most decisive factor in student achievement is the teacher.

Our foundation has studied the variation between the teachers who get the most student achievement and those who get the least – and the numbers are absolutely unbelievable. A top quartile teacher will increase the performance of an average student—based on test scores—by 10 percentile points in a single year. What does that mean? That means that if the entire U.S., for two years, had top quartile teachers, the entire difference between us and Japan would vanish.

So, when you see the power of the top quartile teachers, you naturally think: We should identify those teachers. We should reward them. We should retain them. We should make sure other teachers learn from them.

But we don’t identify effective teachers and reward them. We reward teachers for things that do not identify effective teaching—like seniority and master’s degrees. And we don’t reward teachers for the one thing that does identify effective teaching—great performance.

If you guided your students to great accomplishments last year, that’s the best indication that you’re going to do it again next year.

Even in the earliest grades where the effects of class size are strongest, students get five times the gain from having an effective teacher as from having a small classroom.

No factor advances student achievement more than an effective teacher. So a true reformer will be obsessed with one question: “What changes will improve the quality of teaching, so every student can have an effective teacher?”

We need to take two enabling steps: we need longitudinal data systems that track student performance and are linked to the teacher; and we need fewer, clearer, higher standards that are common from state to state. The standards will tell the teachers what their students are supposed to learn, and the data will tell them whether they’re learning it. These two changes will open up options we’ve never had before.

We’ll be able to reward teachers for raising their students’ achievement. We’ll be able to pay the best teachers more for teaching in low-income schools. We’ll be able to see what successful teachers are doing, and use that to give targeted help to other teachers. This will increase the average quality of teaching dramatically – and that will be a fantastic thing for pupils at the top, the middle, and the bottom.

Fortunately, the state-led Common Core State Standards Initiative is developing clear, rigorous common standards that match the best in the world. Last month, 46 Governors and Chief State School Officers made a public commitment to embrace these common standards.

This is encouraging—but identifying common standards is not enough. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when the curriculum and the tests are aligned to these standards.

Secretary Arne Duncan recently announced that $350 million of the stimulus package will be used to create just these kinds of tests—next-generation assessments aligned to the common core.

When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better. Imagine having the people who create electrifying video games applying their intelligence to online tools that pull kids in and make algebra fun.

There can also be—and there should be —online videos of every required course, taught by master teachers, and made available free of charge. These would help train teachers. They would help students who need some review or just want to get ahead. Melinda and I have used online videos when we’ve helped our own kids on some of their school work. They are phenomenal tools that can help every student in the country—if we get the common standards that will encourage people to make them.

If your state doesn’t join the common standards, your kids will be left behind; and if too many states opt out—the country will be left behind. Remember—this is not a debate that China, Korea, and Japan are having. Either our schools will get better—or our economic position will get worse.

Common standards define what the students need to learn; robust data systems tell us whether they’re learning it—and they tell us a whole lot more than that.

Most data on student performance today comes in the form of a snapshot. We know only how students did on a test at the end of the year—we don’t see the progression; we don’t have much context, and the information comes too late to improve the teaching.

In postsecondary schools, our information is even worse. Current federal data systems track only graduation rates for full-time students who are enrolled for the first time—but that’s a minority of our postsecondary students.

The stimulus package contains funding for longitudinal data systems; I hope you will use this funding to support systems that track student performance from early childhood education through high school and college and into the workplace. Student performance should be linked to the teacher and the curriculum and the instructional tools. It should let us know what the best schools and teachers are doing differently and what kind of teacher training promotes student achievement. It should help us improve college completion rates, and determine what curriculum leads to career success.

According to the Data Quality Campaign, 47 states have adopted portions of a strong data system, but we still have a long way to go. There is a big gap between the data that states are gathering and the data they need to have to answer important policy questions.

There are dozens of different data points a state could use to define aspects of student and teacher performance. That difference is compounded across 50 states and the federal government. And states use different products that manage that data in different ways – so states can’t compare their results to see what works best.

All states and districts should collect common data on teachers and students. We need to define the data in a standardized way, we need to collect all of it for all of our students, and we need to enter it in something cheap and simple that people can share. The stimulus bill includes competitive grant funding for these efforts. I hope you make use of it for the people in your state.

In the coming year, our goal is to partner with state education leaders, the Secretary of Education, and others to advance the field so that policymakers and educators demand standardized data—not just for compliance, but for improving student achievement.

Of course, if you do build this system and get this data, you may have to deal with people who don’t want you to use it.

Last year the New York legislature passed a law that says you can’t consider student test scores when you make teacher tenure decisions. That was a strategic win for people who oppose reform – because no real reform will happen until we can evaluate teachers based on their students’ achievement.

I understand the legitimate concern of teachers who point out that, without the right design, teacher measurement systems based on student performance could seem arbitrary.

But without them, we won’t be able to identify our best teachers, reward them, help others learn from them, or deploy them where they’re most needed. We won’t be able to see what curriculum, instructional tools, and teacher training work best.

The solution is not to block teacher evaluations. The solution is to work with teachers who are eager to help build measurement systems that are transparent, that make sense, that lead teachers to say: “This works. It’s fair. It helps me become a better teacher.”

These systems would include test scores, but they would also involve classroom observation, parent and student surveys, and video taken in the classroom.

We’ll know we have the answer when teachers are eager to see the data, to see how their kids are doing and find out what worked. The stimulus package provides funding that could be used to build these kinds of measurement systems. I hope you make the most of it.

My big hope is that some states will establish these systems over the next three to four years, and their success will help spread them to other states. No single initiative could do more to get every student a good teacher.

Over the past ten years, Melinda and I have dedicated a large share of our foundation’s resources to the cause of school reform. We believe America’s greatest promise is in its commitment to equality—and fulfilling that promise demands strong public schools.

This responsibility—to a great extent—lies with you.

I’m asking you to draw on the stimulus funding to do two things:

  1. Embrace common standards and data systems so we can know where we stand and how to move forward.
  2. Raise the quality of teaching by measuring teacher effectiveness, encouraging innovation, and spreading best practices.

I know you’ll face pressure if you push for reform.

But I want to ask you to consider two different schools. In one school, student achievement is low, morale is low, and nothing ever changes—because nobody expects anything better. In the other school, minority students from low-income families take the toughest classes, get the best teachers, and go on to get college degrees.

Both kinds of schools exist in America. How many of each depends on you. 
You could be tempted to shrug off this responsibility if the schools in your district are pretty good. But America’s schools are not pretty good, and they’re your schools too.

This is a national challenge.

It doesn’t really matter whether you are driven by an ethical commitment to equal opportunity or by a long-term economic vision for the country. Both lines of reasoning lead to the same conclusion. We need to measure progress. We need to hold teachers and schools accountable. We need to give all students a chance to make the most of their lives.