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.

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.

Reform Vs. Improvement, 2009 Edition

For the past few weeks, the crystal ball gazers waiting to see who is tapped for EdSec have been all a twitter about how the choice will serve as the white smoke as to whether the Obama Administration is the status quo or a reformer when it comes to education.  Will reformers (whether they be Democrats for Education Reform or advocates for new ideas such as Teach for America or New Leaders for New Schools) be given the keys to Maryland Avenue?  Or will the old guard (be it the teachers unions or old-school researchers and academics) be given the power to lead?

It is no secret that Eduflack is no fan of the status quo.  Those that are unable or unwilling to change bear ultimate responsibility for 40 percent of today’s fourth graders being unable to read at grade level, they bear responsibility for two thirds of today’s ninth graders failing to earn a college degree.  And they bear responsibility for too few effective teachers in far too many classrooms, particularly the urban and low-income classrooms that needs good teachers the most.
In recent years, though, we have used the term reform as a form a shorthand to describe a few key issues.  Reform is charter schools.  Reform is vouchers.  Reform is school choice.  Reform is alternative certification.  In essence, reform is a particular education intervention, designed to improve access, opportunity, reach, and quality of public education.  Reforms are important, yes.  And I haven’t been shy to advocate for key reforms, particularly charter schools, virtual education, and the like.  But at the end of the day, reform is but a process.  It is an input.  Important, yes, but not as important as the ultimate output.
Instead of talking about reforms and inputs, shouldn’t our focus be on improvement?  Shouldn’t the discussion about the next EdSec and the next list of marching orders for ED be a debate between the status quo and real school improvement?  Shouldn’t it be about whether we continue down to same path, or whether we identify and pursue a better path?
I realize this may be a matter of semantics, and that many of those who talk about education reform are meaning to talk about school improvement.  But from the discussions over the past few years, it is high time for us to drop the term “reform” from our educational vocabularies.  It is overused and has lost most meaning.  (That’s why many have already shifted from reform to innovation.)  We should be talking about improvements — improvements for the schools, improvements for the teachers, and improvements for the students.  Reform gives the impression we are acting for acting’s sake.  Improvement is about results and ROI.
So what does this all mean?  First and foremost, I would say we don’t need any additional reforms, we need real improvements.  When we look at the policy positions of the President-elect and the rhetoric coming out of the Senate HELP Committee Chairman’s office, we know that such improvement starts with the teacher.  We know that the best instructional ideas fall flat without an effective educator leading the classroom.  We have clear and uncontroverted evidence of what good teaching is and of effective pre-service and in-service teacher education.  You invest in the teacher — providing them the training, instructional materials and ongoing supports they need to do their job effectively — you see the results in terms of student achievement.
When we talk about current reform efforts — be it TFA, NLNS, KIPP, Green Dot, or others — they all hold similar characteristics.  They all start with the importance of caring educators and quality teaching.  They pledge a commitment to ongoing, job-embedded PD opportunities.  They provide educators the materials and technology they need to do the job.  They empower educators by giving them data and teaching them how to effectively use data to deliver needed interventions for kids.  And they are focused on more than just education reform, they are all committed to improvement, as measured by student achievement and school success.
A recent New Yorker article highlighted the research of Stanford/Hoover researcher Rick Hanushek on effective teaching.  The data is simple, yet illuminating.  Quality teaching trumps all.  Kids have a better chance of success with great teachers in lousy schools than they do with mediocre or bad teachers in great schools.  (Sorry for oversimplifying your research, Rick, but that’s this layman’s interpretation.)
From his work at Hoover and Koret, and his training as an economist, Hanushek is seen as a leading researcher for the “reform” side of the education debate.  But how different is his bottom line of the importance of high-quality, effective teachers than the decades of work developed by fellow Stanford-ite Linda Darling-Hammond?  They may come at it from different angles, they may define effective teaching differently, but they both recognize that school improvement begins and ends with highly qualified, effective, supported teachers.
Our schools need improvement, and improvement begins with the teacher.  The status quoers are those who say that today’s teachers are better than any generation of teachers before them.  The status quoers are those who say that schools of education and in-service PD is the best it can be.  The status quoers are those who say the current outputs of our K-12 teachers (whether it be measured by “high-stakes tests or other quantitative or qualitative measures) are sufficient, and don’t require improvement.  The status quoers are those who don’t see the need for President-elect Obama’s call for major investment in the recruitment, retention, and support of the 21st century teacher.
Yes, there are ideological differences on how we can build and support a better teacher, including the pedagogical needs of new and veteran teachers, the ongoing, embedded PD teachers needs throughout the year, and the better understanding and implementation of data in the classroom.   But improving teaching is improving education.  Clear and simple.
We should be talking about how we are going to improve teaching and improve education, not whether we will or not.  Perhaps the selection of an EdSec redirects the debate for the positive.  Regardless, we need to be focusing on improvements, and not on personalities and personal agendas.  Has it really been almost two years since the NCLB Commission called for a greater focus on “effective” teachers?  Has it really been a year since a bi-partisan group of U.S. Senators called for adding “effective” to the HQT provisions?  How much longer does it have to be before we really invest in quality, effective teaching, aligning federal policy and Title II with outcomes and ROI?  That should be the reformers’ dream come true.

The Future of Charter Schools?

With both presidential candidates discussing school choice as a plank in their educational platforms, it is only natural to start thinking about the role of charter schools in the coming years.  It is no secret that charters were vigorously fought by the educational establishment for many years, seen as a vehicle for taking money from the old-school publics and “diluting” the school district’s mission.  As years have gone by, we’ve seen many charters do extremely well (and some still very poorly), as the model has moved into the mainstream and status quoers’ ire has instead been directed at vouchers and similar programs.

Earlier this week, Eduflack was discussing the future of charter schools with a colleague, and the discussion took an interesting turn.  What model would a future president embrace?  Would the charter school movement still be dominated by “mom-and-pop” schools, the sort that defined the poor quality at the start of the movement but have been able to turn themselves around with quality management and strict performance rubrics?  Would we turn to a not-for-profit model, leading the way for continued national scalability of programs such as Green Dot and KIPP?  Or would there be an opening for for-profit providers, as those corporations formerly referred to as EMOs take center stage once again.
Personally, Eduflack believes that choice number two is the likely path of choice, regardless of who is running the U.S. Department of Education.  Providers like Green Dot and KIPP can demonstrate results and produce data, some almost providing the sort of longitudinal studies we’ve long been looking for on student performance.  They also allow implementation at scale, providing a common level of quality and a common measure of achievement from school to school, whether it be across the city, across the state, or across the nation.  And at the end of the day, the education establishment still doesn’t feel comfortable turning over the future of their schools to for-profit providers.  Sure, we’ll procure services or programs, but we aren’t ready to hand over the keys and the alarm codes to a “money-making” corporation.  (We can debate this argument at another date.)
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education released a new report on quality charter schools.  www.ed.gov/admins/comm/choice/csforum/report.html  In its expected call for greater innovation in our nation’s public school infrastructure, the policy document lays out six key principles for quality charter schools:
* Charter schools achieve excellence early in their operations
* Charter schools improve their performance year in and year out
* Charter schools that achieve consistently strong results can expand and replicate
* Charter schools have access to robust infrastructure to help students and teachers succeed
* Authorizers address chronic underperformance by closing the school and opening superior options swiftly
* Charter schools strengthen all corners of public education by sharing successful practices and fostering choice and competition among the schools
These principles are dead on, not only for charter schools but for all public schools.  Shouldn’t all our schools achieve excellence?  Shouldn’t all improve year in and year out?  Shouldn’t we replicate best practices at all schools?  Shouldn’t all have a robust infrastructure?  Shouldn’t we do something about chronic underperformance at all schools?  These should principles should be nailed to the schoolhouse doors of every school in the United States, not just our charters.  These should be shared national goals, embraced by every principal and every superintendent across this land.
Even after all this time, we still see public charter schools as completely separate entities from our public school systems.  In cities like Washington, New Orleans, Cleveland, New York, Chicago, etc. charters are a major part of the public instruction infrastructure.  Yet we put them in their own bucket, separated from the very schools they are intended to supplement and divided from the school districts they are intended to improve.  We set academic standards for charters that are far higher than those set for old-school publics, yet expect them to achieve it with far fewer resources.  We want them to do more, but we want them to do it quietly where few will actually notice.
In many ways, quality charters can serve as incubators for best practice in our school districts.  They allow us to strengthen administrative functions and oversights.  They allow us to set tough standards and chart the path to reach them.  They allow us to innovate, both in terms of instruction and social structures.  And they allow us to break the notion that we can’t expect more, and we should be satisfied with the status quo.
Last week, the Brookings Institution released a new paper from Andrew Rotherham and Sara Mead on the federal role of supporting innovation in education.  www.brookings.edu/reports/2008/1016_education_mead_rotherham.aspx  As I read this paper, I can see the opportunity for high-quality charter providers, those who can demonstrate their results and hold the opportunity to replicate their successes in new schools or in new communities.  A chance for charters (along with highly successful traditional publics) to spotlight their best practices and use them to improve quality throughout our national school framework.  If that isn’t how we should be spending federal educational R&D funds, I don’t know how else we should. 
Just imagine — federal investment in proven innovations that establish strong, well-managed schools, boost student achievement, and model best practices?  Doesn’t matter if it is a public school, a charter school, or a finishing school, that’s an investment we all benefit from.

A College-Ready Culture

Thanks in large part to the funding and attention provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, much of the past five years in education reform has focused on improving high schools.  We’ve seen programs large and small looking for ways to improve rigor and relevance of high school instruction.  We’ve looked at small schools.  We’ve tried to tackle the high school dropout rate and the issue of dropout factories.  We’ve even looked at career education and career academies.  Lots of great ideas that have worked in a lot of well-meaning communities.  But much of it steps along the path of finding a high school improvement model that can truly be implemented at scale.

Why is scale so important?  Scale demonstrates that the reform can have an impact on the nation, and not just the community it is launched in.  It shows real reach and real opportunity.  Don’t believe Eduflack?  Check out groups like KIPP and Green Dot, and it is a discussion of scale.  Look at programs like Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools, it is about scale.  Innovation looking to truly improve public education is all about scale.  It’s about reaching as many people as possible and impacting as many schools and districts as allowable.
Last year, Eduflack was privileged to work with the National Governors Association on its Honor States Initiative, a Gates-funded effort to develop and cultivate meaningful high school reforms at the state level.  In many ways, the Honor States effort was one of the closest we’ve come to identifying a program that truly could be adopted and adapted at scale.  Working with 10 states (and their respective governors and state departments of education), NGA empowered states to implement state-level solutions to issues like grad rates, STEM, increased AP, and graduation requirements.  Equip all states with a similar set of tools and resources and supports, let them tackle the top issue preventing them from improving the high school experience, and help them solve the problem.  With flexibility and personalization, the Initiative provides a scalable model for state-level school improvement, a model that can be followed by all 50 states, regardless of where they get their funding.
As we dig deeper into scalability, though, particularly when it comes to high school improvement, it all comes down to tackling the high school dropout rate and boosting the college-going rate.  Most in education can agree that postsecondary education is a necessity in today’s economy and today’s world.  But with a third of today’s ninth graders dropping out of high school (and almost 50 percent of them in urban centers), and with a third of high school graduates never earning a postsecondary degree or certificate, how do you implement a national solution to reverse the trend?  How do you build a college-ready culture?
Today, College Summit (www.collegesummit.org) — a not-for-profit focused on college-going rates and postsecondary planning — announced a new partnership with the Gates Foundation to focus on “preparing all graduating high school students for college and career success.”  The goal is to get more students, particularly those in underserved populations — onto the college path as quickly and as permanently as possible.
Why is this important?  It is possible that the College Summit model could evolve into a scalable solution for reducing the dropout rate and getting more kids into college.  Why?
* It begins with a focus on ninth grade.  Look at the data, and we see that dropouts come in the ninth grade.  Once a student makes it through that first year of high school, the likelihood of sticking around for the remaining years increases exponentially.  But far too many programs focus on the upper grades of high school, spotlighting rigorous courses in 11th or 12th grade only.  By then, it is simply too late to focus a student on the college path.  If Eduflack had his druthers, we’d start even earlier than the ninth grade, beginning college prep in middle school.
* It is a collaborative process.  If we are to change the college-going behaviors of at-risk students, we need to do more than change those students’ thinking on the value of college.  We need to engage teachers and counselors.  We need to include parents and families.  We need to construct a collaborative discussion that focuses on the problem, the need for a solution, and a discussion of practical, implementable solutions.
* Geographic mix.  College Summit has assembled an interesting list of 13 regions it will start this effort in.  Yes, it includes the traditional urban bellweathers like New York City and Miami.  But it also includes B-list urban districts like Oakland, leadership-challenged districts like St. Louis, and innovation-focused districts like Indianapolis.  And it throws communities like Kanawha County, WV in, to boot.
* They are focusing on the whole school.  The goal here is to change the culture.  How do we get the whole school to transform into a school singularly focused on the path to postsecondary?  How do we ensure all students see a high school diploma and a postsecondary degree as necessary tools for a good job and a successful life?  This isn’t about pulling out specific students or targeting specific populations.  It is about the entire community.
Much is still left to be seen.  What are the hard goals three years from now?  Five years from now?  What rubrics will we use to measure the success of the program?  How will we ensure the 13 regions collaborate and learn from each others’ experiences?  How do we ensure innovations like online education and STEM are included in the process?  How do we make sure the best or promising practices gleaned from this experiment can be applied to more and more communities, offering a truly scalable solution to college readiness?
Lots of questions, yes.  But important questions worth the ask.  No doubt, the issue is one we need to address.  How do we identify and adopt national solutions to our dropout and college-going crisis?  Here’s hoping College Summit may be on to something.

Jumpstarting a Dialogue?

We often hear about action for action’s sake, but how often do we act for the benefit of rhetoric?  Apparently, that’s what LA Mayor Villariagosa is saying regarding his attempt to take over LAUSD.  In today’s Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/news/education/la-me-lausd19may19,1,3072284.story?coll=la-news-learning&ctrack=3&cset=true) the LA Mayor talks about dropping his bid for takeover, rewriting history by saying his intent was to “provide a framework for dialogue.”

I’ll be the first to say that dialogue is good.  But I am a firm believer that you use rhetoric to advance action.  Pick the right words, the right spokespeople, and understand the right audiences, and you can drive the right action.  Nowhere is that more true than in education reform.  Our goal should not be talk.  Our goal should be to change public behavior (and improve student achievement) through effective communication.

I respect Villariagosa’s attempt to save face in what was a difficult situation.  But when we see the effectiveness of Bloomberg in NYC, or Fenty’s undeterred effort to take over DCPS, do we honestly think either the NYC or DC Mayors would be happy knowing that they had simply provided a “framework for dialogue?”  Of course not.

In the end of the day, Villariagosa forgot an important key to reform communications — build a strong cadre of supporters and advocates.  At times, it appeared he was fighting a one-man fight.  Fighting the school board.  Fighting the union.  Fighting just about anyone who stood for the status quo.  And at the end of the day, he paid the price.  A loss in court, a loss of stakeholder support, and ultimately a loss of public trust.

Lost in the discussion is the fact that LAUSD has some strong reforms they can boast of, particularly the recent successes of Green Dot Schools.  There, they have a reform focused on students and teachers, focused on academic success, and focused on strong communications and ally building in the community.  And its successes have helped it weather public rhetorical opposition from the unions and other sources.

The aborted takeover of LAUSD was a defeat for Villariagosa, no matter how he tries to publicly spin it.  But it teaches an important lesson to many of today’s education reformers.  Reform can’t be personal.  This isn’t about what a particular mayor, a particular superintendent, a particular corporate leader, or a particular researcher want.  As we have seen from LAUSD and from the Reading First and NCLB hearings, personalities can be torn down.  Individual personalities are easy targets.  Find a hole in their rhetoric, their background, or their public persona, and you can turn back their ideas. 

For such reforms to be truly successful, they need to focus on those who are being helped, those who are ultimately benefiting.  Instead of hearing what Villariagosa would do if he won and how he would change the school board and who he would hire, we should have been hearing about that child in Southcentral LA who would finally have that chance to succeed under a streamlined system.  Let’s hear how reform would impact the teachers and the students, not how it would bolster the power of the mayor.

Yes, LA can teach many of our urban districts a great deal.  Hopefully, Mayor Fenty is listening as he prepares to wage a public battle to get his school takeover plan through Congress.  Let’s hear how it will benefit DC schoolchildren and educators, and not how it will enhance the Mayor’s legacybuilding efforts.  In districts like DCPS and LAUSD, simply initiating a dialogue is not enough.  Communication without reform is simply talking to maintain the status quo.  Should that really be a goal … or an achievement to celebrate?