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 http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2009/pdf/E9-17909.pdf.  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 thisweekineducation.com 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.  

Community Investment in Education

For years now, those in the education community have noted that education R&D just doesn’t get the love that R&D in other industries — particularly healthcare — receive.  Yes, we throw a few pennies (in the global sense) at the issue through the Institute of Education Sciences and a few private sector interests, but investment in true education R&D is a pittance.  It should come as no surprise, though, as attention to real, measurable, scientific education research is a relatively new issue (and we still haven’t figured out how to adequately focus on the D side of education R&D).

All of the talk and action around healthcare reform has Eduflack thinking.  The Obama Administration is looking to offer a major shift in how we deliver healthcare in this nation, seeking to improve quality and access in one shift action.  Like it or hate it, healthcare is moving.  Stakeholders are seeing the need for change.  We’ve outlined the action steps for improvement and, supposedly, innovation.  And we are moving toward it.  To help such a monumental effort continue to move forward, the Administration has gained the rhetorical support from major entities such as the pharmaceutical industry and the nation’s hospitals.  More importantly, they’ve gotten these stakeholders to ante in, with the pharmaceutical industry offering $80 billion and hospitals throwing in $155 billion toward the effort.  The thought is real reform cannot happen by government fiat alone. 
Why doesn’t such thinking carry over into public education?  When we look at national reforms in education — changes designed to boost student achievement, access, and quality — we look solely to the federal government for the dollars.  Look to implement core standards in the 50 states, our SEAs will turn to the feds for the money to follow through.  Call for an injection of innovation in the classroom, recognizing that following the status quo path all these many decades hasn’t gotten us very far, we provide an address where the federal government can send the check.  Demand change, reform, improvement, or any of the above, and we look to the U.S. Treasury to make it all happen.
Yes, the US Department of Education is seeking a $5 billion commitment from the philanthropic community to match the $5 billion the feds are willing to invest in education innovation.  Yes, groups like the Gates Foundation are now looking to throw in $500 million to dive deep into teacher quality in a select group of school districts.  But in the grand scheme of things, are these significant investments to education improvement — on par with those PhRMA and the hospitals are providing to healthcare reform — or are they simply nibbles around the edges of the major issues at hand.
Ultimately, it falls on folks like the EdSec and other to utilize the bully pulpit to draw attention and commitment to the issue of education improvement.  In recent years, we’ve done a damned fine job informing virtually every stakeholder audience of the problems in K-12 (or even P-16) education.  We’ve even started building commitment for some of the changes that are needed to improve the quality and impact of education delivery in the United States.  But we are still struggling to mobilize those audiences around those specific changes.
Why?  We are still struggling to show those audiences what specifically they can do to deliver on those changes.  What action steps can I take to improve the system?  What do I prioritize?  What do I do?  What do I fund?  To what do I hold my members accountable?
After much trial and error, we’ve learned these issues in healthcare, which is why we are now getting rhetorical and checkbook buy-in from the pharmaceutical industry and the hospital industry to move reform.  But we still haven’t learned this in education.  We are still looking for the ultimate Sugar Daddy — the federal government — to let us know what to do, how to do it, and then provide the dollars for it.
If we expect plans to improve public education to truly take hold and have the impact we all seek, we need to call on all stakeholders to play a specific role in the development, implementation, and funding of it.  If the past eight years has taught us anything, it is that the feds can’t do it alone.  We need the help of teachers, administrations, higher education, business leaders, community organizations, families, and students.  We need their support.  We need their advocacy.  And we need their financial support.  Each stakeholder may not play a starring role, but they play a role in improving our public schools.  Now’s the time for all to step up and make that role their own.  
It doesn’t matter if they’ve received a golden-gilded invitation to the game or if they are crashing the gates.  You can’t complain about the final outcome if you aren’t ready to step up to the plate.  The feds can get the ball rolling, but it is going to fall to all of those stakeholder audiences to sustain, build on, and cultivate additional improvements.  

Charter-ing the Race

There seems to be little question about it.  Charter schools are front and center when it comes to the federal government’s new approach to school improvement and student achievement.  EdSec Arne Duncan has been promoting charters as a core part of successful Race to the Top grants and as necessary components to comprehensive district turnarounds.  Duncan can even point to his use of the charter tool in Chicago as the justification for his new push.

The Gates Foundation has announced its plans to go in and do a “deep dive” in four school districts across the nation, focusing $125 million per district on improved professional development.  On the short list for the final four, an unnamed charter school district in the Los Angeles area.  Only the village idiot doesn’t realize that Green Dot is the intended target for these funds.
We’ve seen greater interest and appreciation for what KIPP has done, due in large part to Jay Mathews’ recent book on that charter system.  And the number of ED employees with ties to the NewSchool Venture Fund, one of the top thinkers on the effective development of high-quality charter schools (and part of New Leaders for New Schools’ model for teacher incentives under their TIF-funded EPIC program) continues to grow by the day.
So for those who thought charters may take a back seat under a new Democratic administration, they have been sadly mistaken.  The economic stimulus package called for states to raise their charter caps.  Other states are being pushed to actually maximize their current laws (like my home state of Virginia, which has a decent charter law, but just doesn’t allow any charters to actually get started under it, thus failing to live up to the promise).  And others still are being asked to establish flexible, growth-oriented charter laws that demonstrate the value-add charters can play to a school district on the rise or a school district in need of improvement.
But who is doing it well?  A decade ago, charters were tagged with a reputation of low quality and low results.  We had images of individuals running schools out of their homes and their basements, trying to take advantage of available funding or looking to thrust a particular political or religious point of view on a select group of students.  Many still subscribe to that stereotype, despite the hard work undertaken by groups like NACSA to ensure that states have strong charter establishment and accountability laws and by organizations like the Center for Education Reform for continually providing new data on how well our charter systems are doing.
CER actually has a new report out, this one called Race to the Top for Charter Schools: Which States Have What It Takes to Win, Rankings and Scorecard 2009.  In the study, CER provides some interesting data, grading our states on issues such as the number of charter operators, number of schools allowed, operations, and equity.  We see that three states earn As from CER — the District of Columbia, Minnesota, and California.  Four states earn Fs — Kansas, Virginia, Iowa, and Mississippi.  D seems to be the most popular grade when it comes to charter scores.
When you couple this data with recent CER data on charter school achievement and the costs involved (showing that charters are putting up equal or better performance when compared to their traditional public school peers for nearly half the per-pupil dollars), it gives you a strong sense for why Duncan and company are emphasizing the opportunity available under charters … and how much work we really have to do before we effectively integrate charters into the public school network.
Most states want to get their Race to the Top dollars and the chances that come with it.  In the process, hopefully they will recognize that good, effective charter networks are designed to supplement, not supplant, our traditional public school systems.  They aren’t the magic bullet for struggling schools, but they sure are a useful tool.  And that like most in school improvement, charters only work when we focus on quality, proven research, assessment, and accountability.

Lessons Learned from Ed in 08

Paraphrasing from Major League’s legendary Harry Doyle, in case you haven’t noticed, and judging by the attention we haven’t, Strong American Schools has managed to win a few ball games, at least according to SAS.

Two years ago, the Gates and Broad Foundations announced a $60 million initiative designed to make education a major focus of the 2008 presidential campaigns.  Launched under the dual banner of the parent Strong American Schools organization and its Ed in 08 campaign, SAS issued a simple goal — “Use the presidential race to highlight the crisis in American public schools.”
It did so by issuing three key “pillars:” 1) common education standards; 2) an effective teacher in every classroom; and 3) extended learning time for students.
Yesterday, SAS offered up its summary report on the success of its two-year effort tilting at educational windmills.  After both the Democratic and Republic primaries showed little interest in education issues, and then as the bottom fell out of the economy during the general election, SAS never quite got the traction and influence it sought.  Then again, neither did similar efforts to highlight the crisis in healthcare, the environment, and a host of other issues.
None of us are foolish enough to believe that the 2008 presidential campaign was decided (or even debated) on education issues.  Both sides offered up comprehensive education plans.  Eduflack summarized the two here last fall.  Good ideas across the P-16 education continuum.  Now President Obama is being held accountable for promises on preK, teacher quality, incentive pay, and affordable college.  He’s also raised the ante by throwing a spotlight on STEM education, charter schools, and increasing the number of college graduates by 2020.
So what impact did Ed in 08 have on the current state of educational affairs?  How has ARRA and the presidential budget been shaped by the tens of millions of dollars spent by Ed in 08?  Honestly, we still don’t know.  When we look at the SAS successes, they don’t crosswalk cleanly with current policy or promises such as common standards.
According to Strong American Schools, its accomplishments were many, including:
* Obama supported (and continues to support) all three of the campaign’s policy pillars.  John McCain supported two.
* Ed in 08 had “significant input” on the education efforts of John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani.
* Changed the debate on performance pay
* Made education a bipartisan issue
* Produced more than 150 pages of research and policy materials
* Created an 86-page Policy Toolkit
* Commemorated the 25th anniversary of A Nation at Risk with a research update
* Published an examination of the cost of college remediation
* Created a network of 200 organizers and advisors across the country
* Received thousands of media hits
* Used the Internet and other new media tools to engage the public
These “wins” are a mixed bag.  Some are clearly process issues.  Some are stretches (did Ed in 08 change the debate on performance pay, or was that the result of a combination of programs such as Denver’s ProComp and Obama taking a tough stand on incentive pay early in the process?).  Some are just puzzling, such as education being a bipartisan issue (both sides have made education an issue for decades, they just do so from different perspectives).  
What is most interesting in the SAS summary report is the explanation of the obstacles, those challenges that prevented Ed in 08 from achieving its bold objectives.  These challenges include:
* Structure, as a not-for-profit, some activities were restricted, including claims that staff members could not take a position on any legislation, could not directly question candidates, nor could compare candidates’ platforms to SAS recommendations
* The media, and its failure to cover a sustained debate on education and its inability to “push policymakers to consider the failures of our current education system”
* The teachers unions, protecting “the interests of their members” even if it conflicted with reforms
As for structure, wasn’t it up to Broad and Gates to establish the most effective structure possible to achieve the goal?  If SAS was structurally prohibited from advocating for specific policies and holding candidates accountable, shouldn’t it have been built to allow for true advocacy?  Why build a ship that we can’t sail?
As for the media, did we really see the role of media, particularly that of the education media, to “push policymakers?”  If Ed in 08 can’t advocate an agenda, did we really expect reporters to do so?
And as for the unions, did we expect them to do anything other than protect their constituency, the group they are created to protect?
SAS should be given credit for better organizing new media and social networking outlets around education issues.  Their blogger summit in the spring of 2008 is but one example of this.  The drumbeat picked up by Richard Whitmire and others to keep the spotlight on education issues is another.  So there are successes.
More importantly, though, SAS has helped provide a blueprint that future advocacy efforts can learn from.  As part of its final report, SAS is handing the baton off to the Education Equality Project, looking to Joel Klein, Al Sharpton, and company to carry the torch on the issues of standards, teacher quality, and extended learning.  It could have also claimed credit for the current common standards movement, as Roy Romer’s clarion call for national standards and how to get there looks dangerously similar to what NGA, CCSSO, and other are engaging in right now.
So as groups like EEP, Broader and Bolder, Opportunity to Learn, Extended Day, and others look to build advocacy efforts around national education policy, reauthorization, and related issues, they should look closely at SAS.  What can they build on and improve?  What can they learn from and avoid?  What can they throw cold water on?  What can they aspire to?  What’s possible?  What’s a pipe dream?  
Personally, I think SAS was a good idea that was never fully realized.  It didn’t live up to the hype nor to the potential.  But that doesn’t it mean it couldn’t.  The model can work, with the right tweaks and the proper attention. Education advocacy is a must these days.  For all those looking to get in the game, let’s take a close look at Strong American Schools, learning from its forward steps and its missteps.  Rather than starting new each and every day, we need to build on those that come before us.  That’s the only way that real, lasting educational improvement can come.

ARRA: Rise of the Charters

Can one make lasting improvement working solely within the confines of the status quo?  That seems to be the question the US Department of Education, particularly EdSec Arne Duncan, is asking as additional details on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and our federal education policy come into crisper focus.

In recent weeks, the education community has “discovered” that ARRA included language requiring states to boost their charter school cap, essentially requiring the expansion of charter offerings if states want access to all of the new economic stimulus money.  Couple the details of ARRA with recent speeches by Duncan and hires of those with backgrounds that include organizations such as the NewSchool Venture Fund, and we are starting to see that the limits of the status quo simply will not hold.
Today, the EdSec went all in on the topic.  Addressing the media on how to turnaround our lowest performing schools, Duncan cited the value of “real autonomy for charters combined with a rigorous authorization process and high performance standards.”  Among the stats used by ED this afternoon:
* 10 states currently do not have laws allowing charter schools;
* 26 states put artificial caps on the number of public charter schools (with President Obama calling on states to lift those caps);
* The Maine state legislature is debating a bill to establish a pilot program for its first charter schools (though this afternoon’s headlines looked like the legislature would reject the proposal and risk losing its education stimulus dollars); and
* Tennessee refuses to lift its charter enrollment restrictions while Indiana is considering a moratorium on new charter schools.
And that status quo question?  Duncan seemed to answer that this afternoon as well.  “I am advocating for using whatever models work for students, and particularly where improvements have stagnated for years,” Duncan said.  “We cannot continue to do that same thing and expect different results.  We cannot let another generation of children be deprived of their civil right to a quality education.”
While one has to question Duncan’s definition of insanity to be used as a justification for expanding our charter laws, he does have a point.  And all this talk is bound to generate a great of attention, particularly with the positive press generated by charters like KIPP and the Gates Foundation’s likely intention to provide a $125 million “deep dive” into a “network of charter schools” in the Los Angeles area (can we all say Green Dot?).  The real challenge, then, for Duncan, Obama, Gates, and others is to ensure that this is not an either-or situation.
In the early days of the charter debate, opponents of public charter schools fought the good fight, accusing school districts of looking to replace traditional public schools with these new charters.  Over time, we have witnessed that the best of our charter schools are in communities where they complement the traditional publics.  Strong charters, with strong accountability, offer greater opportunity.  They can raise quality.  They increase choice.  And, if held to high standards, they contribute to student achievement gains and can be a useful lever in turning around our lowest performing school districts.  They can also give families and students a choice in communities where previous choice was between one failing school and another.
Ultimately, the EdSec is right in seeking to include charter schools in our Race to the Top funds.  if we are to turn around persistently underperforming schools, we need to do something different.  We can’t simply pump more dollars into historically troubled schools and expect that student achievement will improve.  After all, we’ve tried that approach for decades now.  How has it worked so far?
But we also must recognize that charters are not the magical elixir that will aid any district in need.  We can point to plenty of school districts with liberal charter policies but poor student achievement (just look at our nation’s capital).  Charters work when they take a firm line with regard to structure, expectations, and accountability.  Such a line isn’t for everyone.  Too often, we make compromises, offering charter schools destined for many of the same failings their traditional publics are suffering through.  If the Race to the Top is going to work, we need new ideas and new approaches.  But we also need the research and accountability behind them to ensure success.  Otherwise, we will keep throwing good money after bad, doing more of the same and expecting a different outcome.  With the stakes as high as they are, that, my friends, really is insanity.

Tale of “The New Global Student”

At Eduflack, we spent A LOT of time talking about the education continuum.  How do we ensure that the educational pathways we are offering today’s students will lead to tomorrow’s jobs?  What do we do in middle school to bolster one’s chances of graduating from high school?  What do we do in high school to show more students they are capable of college-level work?  How do we ensure that virtually all students are equipped with the postsecondary learning necessary to secure a good job in our 21st century economy?

Along the way, we talk about a great number of issues, including dual enrollment, early college, 21st century skills, and STEM education.  We look at programs like IB and AP.  We even try to advocate for stronger measurements and greater accountability to ensure that our students are gaining the skills and knowledge they need to compete, regardless of their race, socioeconomic status, or Zip code.
During the past year, Eduflack has developed an online relationship with a voice bringing a vastly different opinion to the discussion on the P-16 continuum.  I’ve found her ideas interesting, but not nearly as fascinating as the personal narrative.  For those who don’t know Maya Frost, you have to first learn the family story.  Back in 2005, Maya and her husband decided it was time for a change.  Both were working good jobs, but they weren’t breaking six figures in combined income.  They seemed tired of the rat race and yearned for something a little different.  So they “decided to sell everything and move abroad.”  Nothing altogether strange about that.  From time to time, even Eduflack has considered just dropping all of this, moving the Grand Cayman Island, and opening up a gourmet cupcake shop for natives and tourists alike.
The catch here is that Maya had four teenage daughters at the time.  For most of us, that would be the roadblock to prevent the “dream.” What about school?  What about the SATs and getting ready for college?  How do you navigate college visits?  What about the prom?  All logical questions from naysayers like me.  But it didn’t stop the Frosts.  They picked up an moved to South America anyway, seeing it as a family adventure.  And the resultant story is a fascinating one.
This month, Three River Press released Maya’s book about the process — “The New Global Student: Skip the SAT, Save Thousands on Tuition, and Get a Truly International Education.”  The book is an incredible read, providing great stories, good guidance, and a different view on how we really prepare our kids for the future.  Maya has gone with the tagline “Good-bye Old School, Hello Bold School,” and when you read her story, you understand how appropriate the line is for her story and her recommendations.
But what about those poor four Frost girls, the ones ripped from their cozy American high schools and forced into a South American world of intrigue, new experiences, and the great unknown?  They have managed to get by.  The oldest graduated from college at 19 and has worked for the Gates Foundation and as a health educator.  At 22, she’s wrapping up her master’s in public health while working at a community health clinic in Harlem.  Daughter two has studied in numerous countries, earned her BA in the United States at the age of 20 and is working at two internships in the communications field (yeah!).  Daughter three used a number of learning opportunities, including private tutors and lessons, and will earn a dual major bachelor’s degree at the age of 19.  Daughter four never actually attended high school, but has used her learning experiences to earn a scholarship, a teaching assistantship, and two years of college credit at a NY IHE, and she is just 17 years old.
Few of us would ever have the, er, stomach to do the sort of thing that Maya and her family did.  But in reading The New Global Student, one can see how it is possible if one really wants to.  It doesn’t take a trust fund.  It doesn’t take a network of experts and tutors to guide you along the way.  It doesn’t require friends in high places to make sure you can “explain the situation” to American universities.  It just takes a little work, flexibility, exploration, and a whole lot of embracing of the unknown.  It also take an unbending positive attitude, of which Maya is a textbook definition.
Such options are hardly for anyone.  In fact, I would say it takes a very special family to be able to do what the Frosts did and do it as well as they did.  And I am thrilled it has been particularly successful for the four girls.  Whether it is the unworn path you truly seek or are justing looking for a new perspective on the silliness of helicopter parents, violin lessons for first graders, and hyper-competitiveness for slots in NYC preschools, The New Global Student is worth a read.  It provides an interesting perspective on what parents can do to provide their children learning opportunities, particularly beyond the confines of the walls of the traditional red brick schoolhouse.

Inside the Mind of Arne Duncan

The popular parlor game these days is trying to figure our the inner psyche of our EdSec, Arne Duncan.  Anyone who is anyone is trying to read nuanced meanings into everything he says or does.  We scour over this internal emails to ED staff, his stump speeches, the groups he speaks to (and those he doesn’t), where is going on his listening tour (and who he will listen to), and just about every stop in between.

Today, though, we are provided with two interesting insights into what makes the good ole EdSec tick.  The first are his words themselves.  For those who missed it, Duncan spoke at the National Press Club today, riffing on a whole host of issues.  The “buzz” coming out of the event is that the EdSec is pro-charter schools, seeking to lift the caps on the number of such schools.  At least that is what has been filling up Eduflack’s Tweet deck this afternoon.   The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools is also making the full clip of the “pro-charter” remarks available here.  
The leading ladies over at Politics K-12 have a more detailed description of the high points of Duncan’s NPC remarks here.
Perhaps more interesting is Eddy Ramirez’ piece over at US News & World Report today, which takes a closer look at what Duncan did as head of Chicago Public Schools to help turn around the city’s true problem-child buildings.  We’re talking closures, firing entire staffs, and bringing in third-party organizations to run the schools.  In the piece, Ramirez reflects on Duncan’s recent remarks to turn around the 1,000 lowest-performing schools in the United States — just 1 percent of our total schools — we can “move the needle” and “change the lives of tens of millions of underserved children.”
The CPS experience is interesting, particularly when one factors in the large contingent of Gates Foundation and NewSchool Venture Fund alums currently running around the seventh floor of 400 Maryland Avenue.  But like most good pieces, the USNWR piece, along with Politics K-12 provides most parties their own view on the future.  Some see the future of charter schools.  Some see school management companies.  Some are even going to see the opportunity for the teachers unions to re-inject themselves into the process and demonstrate their relevance in school improvement efforts. 
Insight is in the eye of the reader.  But no matter how you look at it, it is safe to say that Duncan is not looking to defend the status quo.  Big changes are a comin’.  If not through economic stimulus, then through the policies and programs that are soon to follow.  Duncan’s built a great deal of capital these past four-plus months defending the economic stimulus package and serving as an Administration all-around go-to guy.  Those chits are going to come due soon.  And the EdSec is laying the groundwork for some new ideas and for some legitimate rockin’ of the ed policy boat.