Hillaryland, We Have an Edu-Optics Problem

Typically, Eduflack tries to stay away from purely political issues here. Yes, I love to write about the intersection of education policy, politics, and communications. But there has to be a real education slant to it. Even though Eduflack is a former campaign hack and flack, and has worked to elect Democrats (and a few Republicans) to political office, and even though I am a former elected official myself, this isn’t a political platform.

So I’ve largely bitten my tongue (at least on this blog) when it comes to the rookie mistakes and amateur actions that we have seen month after month from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. I’m not going to rehash those here, but with her experience, with the experience of the best political team money can buy, let’s just say I expect much, much better.

But this morning, those problems oozed out into the edu-sphere, so I see it as fair game on Eduflack. As many news outlets are reporting, today Hillary Clinton is announcing a $350 billion college affordability plan. Bloomberg’s account of the plan is here, while The Washington Post’s is here and Politico’s can be found here.

Let me make clear. I don’t have any issue with any efforts to increase the number of college-going (and college-completing) Americans, nor do I oppose efforts to make college more affordable (even if it is by loan, rather than grant). And I don’t even take issue with a plan that, as reported, sound remarkably like the idea that Toby and Josh hatched in a bar on West Wing when they missed the campaign plane in Indiana and got stranded in a local bar and met a dad who didn’t know how he was going to pay for college for his daughter.

No, my real issue is with the optics of today’s announcement. While every major media outlet has already reported on the Clinton affordability plan, the official announcement will be made today in New Hampshire. In Exeter, New Hampshire.

For those unfamiliar, Exeter is the hometown of the Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the most elite private high schools in the nation. The uber-wealthy who send their children to this private high school pay, according to the school’s website, $46,905 a year in tuition, room, and board. They also have to pony up $180 for linen service, $365 for a student health and wellness fee, and $340 for a technology fee. For an optional $2,060, families can also buy a student accident/sickness insurance plan (for when, I’m assuming, the student health fee and mommy and daddy’s corporate insurance just won’t do).

While this may cause some sticker shock for many of us parents, don’t fret. Phillips Exeter boasts that it is able to provide financial aid to those families who suffer by earning less than $400,000 a year. (No, that isn’t a typo, that’s $400k, not $40k.)

Let that sink in for a moment. We are off to talk about the struggles of middle class parents paying for college in a town where the private high school costs more than most middle class parents’ take-home income for the entire year. We are preaching “affordability” in a community where those earning just under a half-million-dollars a year are considered needy and demanding of financial aid.

The sunny-eyed optimist in me would like to believe that Hillary is going to Exeter to proclaim that every student, even those who attend the elitist Phillips Exeter Academy, should have the opportunity and ability to attend the college of their choice. But the steely-eyed realist knows Exeter was chosen because it was in New Hampshire, with no real symbolism at all.

I hate to break it to those making campaign decisions these days, but the average American family doesn’t quite relate to a private school that charges upwards of $50,000 a year FOR HIGH SCHOOL. They bristle when one suggests $400,000 a year in income qualifies for financial aid.

Hillary’s advisors may see today as the declaration of a “mandate to act on college affordability,” as they told Politico. But for far too many families who currently don’t qualify for grants and yet can’t afford college for their kids next year, they will see it as just another example of the millionaire class just not getting it. Particularly when Hillary’s standard $275,000 speaking fee was more than adequate, with just one speech, to pay for daughter Chelsea’s four years at Stanford University.

Face. Palm. Repeat.

UPDATE: For those who want to give Hillary the benefit of the doubt, and have asked some questions, I’ll offer up a little more data. The grand unveiling of the plan will be at Exeter High School. As for the town of Exeter, New Hampshire itself. I’m sure it is lovely. It has a little more than 14,000 residents, more than 95 percent of whom are white. Two percent of the population is Asian-American. A little more than half a percent of the population is African-American. Latinos don’t even register. And the median family income falls just short of $100,000 per year. Ain’t that America?

“Don’t Call Them Dropouts”

Over at GradNation, America’s Promise Alliance is running a blog series on its new report, “Don’t Call Them Dropouts.” The report is an important one, making clear there is no quick-and-dirty explanation as to why so many fail to earn their high school diplomas. More importantly, America’s Promise Alliance has launched a valuable discussion on what the report really means and how we can move its findings and observations into meaningful policy that increases high school graduation rates and pathways to success.

Eduflack was proud that he was asked to contribute to this series, and my post is up this morning. In Driving To a Better Future, I write about how we can better engage students at risk, and how it could have impacted my family.

From today’s GradNation post, in telling the story of my grandfather:

Oh, how times have changed. A high school diploma is now a non-negotiable. My grandfather would not have been able to join the Army without a high school diploma. And the chances that he would be able to buy a house and raise a family where all five of his kids would graduate from high school would be slim. 

I urge you to check out the full post, and spend some time exploring some of the other posts on the GradNation blog. It is well worth the read.


Dream School, Seriously?

“Pregnant, neglected or bullied; the students all have one thing in common — each had a life experience that caused them to take an unexpected left turn.  Dream School’s celebrity teachers will have one mission — to excite these young minds, reignite their passions, and get them to graduate from a real, accredited high school.”
And so begins the introduction to Dream School, the latest television spectacle from the Sundance Channel, a subsidiary of the AMC Networks.  Based on the website, the show has been on for at least a month and a half (if we do the math from the six episodes up for viewing on the site now.  But dear ol’ Eduflack (a self-confessed television junkie) honestly hadn’t heard about it until this week.
The premise is fairly simple.  A team of “celebrities” decide to play teacher as they seek to change the lives of young adults in need of life changing.  For the enormity of the challenge, Sundance has turned to successful educators such as 50 Cent, David Arquette, Oliver Stone, and Jesse Jackson.  They are supported by a superintendent from California and three teachers (all from California charter schools, interestingly).
So it begs an important question.  Where is the public outrage on Dream School?  
For all of those who grow short of breath ranting about Teach for America and its lack of proper teacher preparation, where is the outrage of placing inexperienced and untrained celebrities in classrooms with the very definition of at-risk students?
For all of those who get red in the face questioning the value of charter schools, where is the outrage of only using teacher coaches who come from public charter schools?
For all of those who argue good teachers cannot overcome poverty and family situations, where is the outrage that a celebrity can step in and do the job that entire school system was supposedly unable to do?
For those who talk of overcrowded classrooms, where is the outrage that Dream School is essentially a one-to-one intervention?
For those who fear the “profiteering” on our public schools, where is the outrage over where all of the ad revenue for this new show is going?
And how can we pass up responding to a gem like, “But how will they perform as teachers to some of America’s toughest high school dropouts?”
Yes, our schools shouldn’t be test tubes.  But they also shouldn’t be the settings for reality television experiments.  Some of these students seem to have real problems.  They need knowledgeable, experienced educators who can provide them the support and attention they need.  Somehow, “no, I’m not a teacher, but I play one on TV” doesn’t quite seem to be the full answer these at-risk students need.

Parent Survey (or Statistics are Dangerous)

We began the week reflecting on an AP poll on parent sentiments about public education.  As we roll into hump day, we now have the 2013 edition of the Gallup/PDK poll of “what Americans said about the public schools.

This year’s Gallup/PDK highlights:
* As we’ve heard for decades, most Americans give the public schools a “C” grade, but give their own schools an “A” or “B”
* 62 percent of parents have never heard of Common Core State Standards
* 36 percent believe increased testing has hurt school performance, 22 percent say it has helped, and 41 percent said it makes no diff at all
* 58 percent oppose using standardized test scores in teacher evals, up from 47 percent in last year’s survey
* 52 percent said teachers have a right to strike (yes, that really is a question PDK asked)
* 88 percent say their child is safe when they are in school
* 66 percent favor educating children whose parents are in the United States illegally
* Only 29 percent favor sending kids to private schools at public school expense
Overall, the survey results aren’t that big a surprise.  They seem to jive with what PDK reports annually in this survey, and they aren’t too big a deviation from what AP released earlier in the week.
What’s disappointing is how PDK decided to present this year.  One would think that a semi-intelligent human being could take a look at polling toplines and understand that when only 22 percent say high stakes testing helps school performance, the majority doesn’t believe it to be so.  Unfortunately, PDK dumbed it down a step further, putting out a “highlights” document that makes sweeping statements without providing any statistical backup,  While one can track down the supports, it is definitely a dangerous document in the hands of the wrong folks.
Some of these self-proclaimed “highlights include:
  • Common Core – “Most Americans don’t know about the Common Core and those who do don’t understand it.”
  • Standardized Tests – “The significant increase in testing in the past decade has either hurt or made no difference in improving schools.”
  • Charter Schools – “Charter schools probably offer a better education than traditional schools.”
  • Online Learning – “High school students should be able to earn college credits via the Internet while attending high school.”
  • Biggest Problem – “Lack of financial support continues to be the biggest problem facing public schools.”
Let’s just take the last item.  Per-pupil public school funding is at its highest rates ever in the history of United States public education.  Do we honestly believe that is the biggest problem facing the schools?  More so than the obscene achievement gap?  More so than a third of all fourth graders unable to read on grade level?  More so than our inability to address the needs of a growing ELL population in our classrooms?  More so than ensuring that good teachers remain in the classroom and get the support and respect they need?
They again, sometimes poll results are just poll results.  But looking at the latest PDK release, Eduflack is left with two thoughts.
“A little information is a dangerous thing.” Albert Einstein
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Mark Twain

13th Grade Dual Enrollment?

We often bemoan the lack of connection between K-12 education and higher education.  While we like to talk of the P-20 education continuum, we still can’t get away from the reality that these are two very different, very separate systems.

Over at Hechinger Report, Joanne Jacobs relays the story originally reported in Community College Times of school districts in Oregon and Colorado that are strengthening the connections between K-12 and higher education, offering a fifth year of high school while earning a first year of college credits.

On the latest Eduflack Yack, we opine on the importance of dual enrollment and maximizing those high school years, while asking some important questions on who should be paying for that first year of postsecondary education …

The ROI on $5B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Kudos for the Home Team

Please pardon the personal indulgence here, but Eduf’lack can’t help himself.  About a year ago, I made a general pledge not to write about my work on my local school board on these electronic pages.  It just didn’t seem fair to the teachers, administrators, educators, and parents in my local community on a daily basis to dissect and analyze our issues for all my readers to read.  So school board has been a relative topic non grata (with a few exceptions) over the last year.

Today is one of those exceptions.  Over the weekend, The Washington Post released its latest edition of the High School Challenge Index.  Based on the Index, Virginia’s Falls Church City Public Schools was ranked the top public school district in the greater Washington, DC area.  Our George Mason High School has named the fifth best high school in the region.  And GM also took home the honor of being the 70th best high school in the United States.  
The rankings are a reflection of the enormous investment Falls Church has placed in both International Baccalaureate (IB ) and Advanced Placement (AP).  And the results are showing themselves in other ways.  Earlier this academic year, the Commonwealth of Virginia honored GM for having one of the highest high school graduation rates in the state — 97 percent.  And our average SAT scores were 1795, nearly 300 points higher than both the Virginia (1521) and national (1509) averages.
And we do it all as our sports teams won six state titles during the last school year, our teachers receive national and international recognition, and our students demonstrate the highest levels of excellence in everything from robotics to the theater.
All this doesn’t happen by accident.  We reap the value of IB in our high schools because we invest in the IB program in our elementary and middle schools.  We promise a world-class education for all students, and back that up by committing to pre-school programs that target our ESOL populations to begin equipping them with the skills they will need to succeed in elementary school and beyond.  And we continue to support a school district that is both student- and educator-centric, where parents and our employees have the opportunity to participate in the decisionmaking process and help shape our budget and our policies.
This past budget cycle, we were faced with many of same issues most school districts are facing these days.  How do we effectively invest in e-learning and other instructional opportunities for all our students?  How do we fairly compensate all our educators, particularly after recent years of frozen salaries?  How do we address our physical plant, particularly our needs to expand our school buildings in the face of growing student populations?  And how do we do it all in a way that is respectful to both our educational mission and the local taxpayers who need to fund it?
Somehow, we’ve done it.  Public-private partnerships to fund e-learning.  Step increase for our teachers.  Groundbreaking next month for expansion on one of our elementary schools.  And all done without asking taxpayers for a dime more than we asked for last budget year.
The DC area has some terrific schools, particularly in Northern Virginia.  Falls Church’s rankings in the annual Challenge Index are a testament to the terrific job our educators, our parents, our students, and our community does, day in and day out.  Education is priority number one (or at least 1-A) in Falls Church.  The true reward is virtually all of our students graduate from high school, and they graduate with a top-notch public education, an education that prepares them for college, the military, or work.  Kudos from Jay Mathews and WaPo are just the icing on the cake.
Congratulations to the entire Falls Church City Public Schools team!  You do a terrific job, and it shows in both the data points and the students themselves.  We have much to be proud of in Falls Church.  I, for one, am honored to serve as an elected official in a community that recognizes the importance of a strong K-12 education system, that invests in its schools and its kids, and that regularly demonstrates true return on investment.
Go Mustangs!  Go Huskies!  Go Tigers!  Go Hippos!  Eduflack is proud to be part of the FCCPS family, today and every day.