This Year’s Top Ed Tech Issues?

Over the last week, Eduflack has been teasing out a few of the key issues the education technology community has identified as top priorities for 2010.  Interestingly, many of these topics are not limited to ed tech, but are applicable to the entire eduworld.  So I thought it was worthwhile to take a look at the full list from the folks over at ISTE (

1. Establish technology in education as the backbone of school improvement. To truly improve our schools for the long term and ensure that all students are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve in the 21st century, education technology must permeate every corner of the learning process. From years of research, we know that technology can serve as a primary driver for systemic school improvement, including school leadership, an improved learning culture and excellence in professional practice. We must ensure that technology is at the foundation of current education reform efforts, and is explicit and clear in its role, mission, and expected impact.

2. Leverage education technology as a gateway for college and career readiness. Last year, President Obama established a national goal of producing the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by the year 2020. To achieve this goal in the next 10 years, we must embrace new instructional approaches that both increase the college-going rates and the high school graduation rates. By effectively engaging learning through technology, teachers can demonstrate the relevance of 21st century education, keeping more children in the pipeline as they pursue a rigorous, interesting and pertinent PK-12 public education.

3. Ensure technology expertise is infused throughout our schools and classrooms. In addition to providing all teachers with digital tools and content we must ensure technology experts are integrated throughout all schools, particularly as we increase focus and priority on STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) instruction and expand distance and online learning opportunities for students. Just as we prioritize reading and math experts, so too must we place a premium on technology experts who can help the entire school maximize its resources and opportunities. To support these experts, as well as all educators who integrate technology into the overall curriculum, we must substantially increase our support for the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program.  EETT provides critical support for on-going professional development, implementation of data-driven decision-making, personalized learning opportunities, and increased parental involvement. EETT should be increased to $500 million in FY2011.

4. Continuously upgrade educators’ classroom technology skills as a pre-requisite of “highly effective” teaching. As part of our nation’s continued push to ensure every classroom is led by a qualified, highly effective teacher, we must commit that all P-12 educators have the skills to use modern information tools and digital content to support student learning in content areas and for student assessment. Effective teachers in the 21st Century should be, by definition, technologically savvy teachers.

5. Invest in pre-service education technology. Teacher preparation is one of the most important aspects of a world-class 21st Century system of education and learning.  A federal investment in a new, technology-savvy generation of teachers is critical. To ensure their success in the classroom, pre-service teachers must be prepared to use technology and integrate it into the curricula before their first day as a teacher of record. By fully funding programs such as Preparing Teachers for Digital Age Learners (PTDAL), we can ensure that the United States produces the most technologically savvy educator workforce in the world.

6. Leverage technology to scale improvement. Through federal initiatives such as i3 grants, school districts across the nation are being asked to scale up current school improvement efforts to maximize reach and impact. School districts that have successfully led school turnaround and improvement efforts recognize that education technology is one of the best ways to accelerate reform, providing the immediate tools to ensure that all teachers and students have access to the latest innovative instructional pathways. If we are serious about school improvement, we must be serious about education technology.

7. Provide high speed broadband for all. The connectivity divide may be the most critical aspect of both our digital divide and our learning divide over the next decade. We must continue our national commitment to ensuring broadband access for all students through initiatives such as the E-Rate program.  Today’s classroom applications require significant bandwidth that many schools lack. Students who don’t have Internet access at home face a significant hurdle to participate in school assignments and produce high quality schoolwork—and their parents are hindered in school-to-home communications. We must provide high-speed bandwidth to our nation’s classrooms and focus on the school-to-home connection so that all students can succeed.

8. Boost student learning through data and assessment efforts. In schools across the nation, teachers, principals, and district administrators are increasingly discovering the benefits of real-time instructional and curriculum management systems. To maximize these efforts, we must provide educators with the systems, knowledge, and support they need to effectively tailor their teaching strategies and better meet the individual needs of each learner. Teachers’ capabilities to use data to improve instruction are equally important to contemporary data and assessment systems.

9. Invest in ongoing research and development. With the current push for both innovation and school improvement, it is essential that we, as a nation, invest in the research and development necessary to identify what is driving increased student achievement and why. Increased investment in education R&D, particularly with regard to innovation in teaching and learning, ensures that we remain a global leader in education. By stimulating meaningful, broad-based research and the dissemination of such research, we can ensure that the quality of teaching and learning in our classrooms keeps up with the goals and expectations we set for our students.

10. Promote global digital citizenship. In recent years, we have seen the walls that divide nations and economies come down and, of necessity, we’ve become focused on an increasingly competitive and flat world. Education technology is the great equalizer in this environment, breaking down artificial barriers to effective teaching and learning, and providing new reasons and opportunities for collaboration. Our children are held to greater scrutiny when it comes to learning and achievement compared to their fellow students overseas. We in turn must ensure that all students have access to the best learning technologies.

So we are seeing the full rodeo here.  We have school improvement issues, including boosting high school graduation rates.  We have relevant instruction.  We have teacher quality and support, both preservice and inservice.  We have data systems and improvement.  We have global competitiveness.  And we touch on issues related to ESEA reauthorization, RttT, i3, and most points in between.

In years past, it seemed like ed tech was an island unto itself.  But if this list is an indication, it looks like ISTE is working to position its members as a core part of the school improvement infrastructure.  This is a necessary move if we are to truly maximize the resources and opportunities available to both our teachers and our students.  But the big unanswered question is a relatively simple one.  Is the traditional K-12 infrastructure prepared to accept ed tech as a non-negotiable in the school improvement/student achievement movement?

STEM-ing the Rising Education Tide

It is hard to ignore the momentum that STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) education is gaining these days.  For years now, states and school districts have invested heavily in STEM education, first as a proactive step to allow our students to better compete in a flat, global economy and most recently as a reactive step to a changing economy and greatly changing job prospects.  No matter the reason, STEM is hot.  It is the only instructional area singled out for bonus points in Race to the Top applications.  Last fall, the White House announced a new federal initiative directing $250 million in new dollars to STEM efforts.  And that doesn’t even count the buckets of money that have been committed to the cause from the National Science Foundation, NASA, philanthropies like the Gates Foundation, and countless corporate entities.

Today, President Obama is slated to announce an additional $250 million to “improve science and math instruction,” essentially doubling the commitment his team made to the topic just a few short months ago in November.  The full story can be found here.

As someone who has worked in STEM education for many years, there is something satisfying about seeing the time, attention, and resources being devoted to this key issue.  There is little question that STEM literacy is a non-negotiable when it comes to an effective education.  The knowledge and skills learned through STEM instruction is not only important for the future rocket scientists and brain surgeons of the world, but it is essential for anyone who hopes to hold any sort of gainful employment in the coming years.  Coupling the necessary science and math with a STEM focus on problem solving, collaboration, critical thinking, is key.  Not only does it keep students engaged (and thus on the path to graduation), but it also demonstrates the relevance of what they are learning (at least when it is done correctly and effectively).

The public-private partnership proposed by the Obama Administration seems focused primarily on teachers, both in the training of new teachers and the in-service support of existing STEM teachers.  The details of both are still to be determined (we seem to have number targets, but not the how quite yet).  Regardless, there are a number of issues that dear ol’ Eduflack hopes are being considered as part of our increased commitment to STEM education:
* Mid-career changers — The changes in the economy have put a great number of STEM-skilled professionals out looking for new positions.  Just by looking at the pharmaceutical and telecommunications sectors alone, we have a great number of potential STEM educators ready, willing, and skilled.  We need to look at specific ways to equip these individuals with the pedagogy and support they need to be effective teachers.  Perhaps we can look to Pennsylvania’s plans for mid-career transition and IBM’s 2005 experiment to transition many of its employees into teaching as models to get us going.
* STEM certification — In the broad sense, STEM is an interdisciplinary field that demonstrates how the four components (and beyond) work together to meet the changing needs of a changing world.  We can’t expect a math teacher to teach engineering or science.  (And we mostly expect that “technology” is being taught through business departments that used to teach typing).  So what about a hybrid certification for secondary STEM teachers?  It may be broader strokes than some would want, but it can be far more effective than hopin’ and prayin’ that we are able to connect the S, T, E, and M in the current model. 
* Teacher Externships — With the private sector stepping up to the plate as a partner in this new endeavor, we need to do a better job of helping teachers communicate the relevance and importance of STEM education.  Like it or not, students look to teachers who have walked the walk.  So what about teacher externships in STEM fields, where teachers take a week in the summer to shadow in local industry (paid time, of course)?  They can then take these “real world” experiences back to the classroom, speaking truth to students about what is needed in the workforce and talking firsthand about the truly interesting opportunities that are out there.

And while we are at it, what about redoubling our investment in STEM internships for students?  As a nation, we are focused on increasing our high school graduation rates while moving more students into postsecondary learning experiences.  What better way to get high school students into internships, where they can explore job possibilities in the community, learn from those who do, and better understand the knowledge, skills, and degrees/certifications necessary to actually obtain the job.  When we talk about making the high school experience more relevant, what better way can we do that by linking lessons in the classroom today with lessons in the workplace today?

At the end of the day, STEM investment needs to focus on both the teachers and the students, with clear goals and expectations for both.  We not only need more STEM teachers, but we need STEM teachers that clearly demonstrate their effectiveness.  We not only need more STEM-literate students, but we need to use that literacy to fill the pipeline of secondary and postsecondary education, whether a child aspires to be an athlete, poet, chemist, or engineer.  And we need a community that places strong value on those STEM skills, recognizing that they are non-negotiables for virtually every citizen looking to contribute to the 21st century. 

Ultimately, $500 million and corporate partnership can go a long way in rising the STEM education tide.  We just need to make sure we are all taking full advantage of the crest.

Don’t Know Much About History …

As Eduflack has written before, I am the son of an historian.  My father is actually an expert on the American presidency (the office itself, and the evolution of presidential leadership over the past two centuries in particular) and is the author of countless books and articles on the subject.  Add to that four years at Mr. Jefferson’s University, and it would be hard for me not to be fascinated with history, particularly American history.  That’s why I am always fascinated with the latest numbers on how little the American people know about our country.  We struggle to name the VP.  We can’t recall how many members are on the U.S. Supreme Court.  We struggle to ID our own elected officials.  And forget it if we’re asked to recall the facts, figures, and dates for the truly significant moments in our nation’s history.  (And we only have 200-plus years of it, imagine if we were Chinese, Greek, or British.)

So I was, of course, taken by a survey shared with me today from the American Revolution Center.  Eduflack was shocked — shocked, I tell you — to learn that 83 percent of adults failed a basic test on the American Revolution (and this is after 89 percent of those surveyed believed they could pass such an exam with no trouble).  Among some of the highlights from ARC’s survey:
* 90 percent of Americans think it is important for U.S. citizens to know the history and principles of the American Revolution
* Half of those surveyed believe we have a direct democracy, despite having pledged to “the republic for which it stands” every morning as a school kid
* More than half of those surveyed attribute a famous quote from Karl Marx’s “The Communist Manifesto” to George Washington, Thomas Paine, or Barack Obama
* No surprise, but more people can ID Michael Jackson as the singer of “Beat It” than know the Bill of Rights is part of the Constitution
* Half of those surveyed believe the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, or War of 1812 occurred before the American Revolution
* One-third of Americans do not know the right to a jury trial is covered in the U.S. Constitution, while 40 percent think a right to vote is covered (when it is not)
For more of these interesting factoids, give a gander over at the report on ARC’s website — <a href="
Every congressional session, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (TN) and U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (WV) offer legislation to refocus on the instruction of American history (particularly around our nation’s founding).  And Eduflack’s former boss, the esteemed Senator Byrd, still carries around a copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket, as a reminder of the very reasons why he has committed his life to our nation’s government.  Legislation focusing on the importance of history of civics in a K-12 classroom may not be sexy, but can we really question whether it is seriously needed?  While we may not be developing common core standards on U.S. history, shouldn’t every high school graduate know the basics about their country, its history, their rights, and other such noble pursuits?
Each year, thousands upon thousands of immigrants study up on U.S. history in order to pass our citizenship test.  They learn more about the nation they hope will soon adopt them than those who are born and raised in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  It’s a shame we don’t all have to pass a citizenship test to be an adult citizen.  Just as we register with Selective Service, if you want a driver’s license or a student loan or the right to vote, why not require passage of a basic skills test.  I’m just sayin’ ….

Beginning of End for ESEA Reauth?

If one talks to those on Maryland Avenue, there has been a relatively steadfast belief that the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) would be coming in the first half of 2010.  Staff have been busy at work on the planning pieces.  Most have been assuming that the framework developed for Race to the Top, particularly the four key pillars, would stand as the foundations of ESEA.  And they’ve even been talking about dropping legislation after the start of the new year, with a goal of completing reauthorization before the summer recess.

But then we ran into major public comment with RttT, delaying the release of the final RFP by a month or two.  We’re now facing a similar push on common core standards, with the full K-12 draft standards now expected by the end of 2009, and moving to the states for implementation by mid-2010.  Layer onto that i3 and other such pieces, and one has to ask if we have the stomach for ESEA reauthorization, with everything else, ed reform wise, that is happening.
Recent pieces of information seem to signal that the timetable for ESEA may now be pushed back.  Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (WA) introduced the LEARN Act, the logical successor to NCLB’s Reading First Initiative.  While LEARN could easily be folded into reauthorization, it is beginning the process as a stand-alone bill, and could become law well before NCLB is every replaced.
Today, U.S. Rep. George Miller (CA), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced the Graduation for All Act of 2009, an impressive piece of legislation that focuses on boosting high school graduation rates and improving the secondary school experience.  Some are even calling it the “S” component of ESEA.  The full description of the legislation can be found here.  While Graduation for All could be seen as the first component of ESEA to move forward, it is easily a signal that revamping NCLB may not be a major priority after all for the coming year, and the good chairman wants to move forward on one of the most pressing education concerns facing K-12, and an issue that is not directly addressed in RttT or i3.
But perhaps the most interesting news impacting ESEA is the headline delivered by Alexander Russo on his This Week in Education blog this morning.  According to Russo (and found here), Alice Cain is leaving the House Education and Labor Committee to join the Hope Street Group and lead its new teacher quality efforts.  While that is terrific news for Hope Street, it leaves a gaping hole on Chairman Miller’s committee staff.  Cain is the go-to staffer on all things K-12 and was seen by many as the quarterback for ESEA reauthorization.  Miller is clearly calling the shots on congressional reauth, and Cain was the person to run the plays for him.  It’ll be tough for Miller to fill her shoes, and quickly, as so many of the best congressional staffers have already moved to ED or the White House, and her departure may very well be a signal that reauthorization isn’t coming as quickly as many of us thought or hoped for.
Regardless, it is all still a guessing game.  But right now, that Magic 8 Ball is telling us “don’t count on it.”

“Disrupting” High School Failure

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

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

It Still Takes a Village

A decade ago, the notion that “it took a village to raise a child” quickly became a political punchline, used by critics to demonstrate that the big bad government was somehow deflecting its responsibility for the education, healthcare, and general social services it takes to help prepare a young person for the challenges and opportunities of the future.

In reading the draft guidance for both Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation, one could get the sense that the schools themselves are the only entities who can truly guide improvement and innovation in the schools.  While i3 offers a tip of the cap to the role that not-for-profits can play in the new push for innovation, both grant programs are still very much a systems-based approach, with new dollars going to the old systems that have long failed to take the specific actions necessary to boost student achievement and close the achievement gap.
That shouldn’t be surprising.  Like it or not, if we are going to improve our public school offerings for all students, we must start inside the system.  While public/private partnerships, afterschool programs, enrichment centers, SES providers, and a host of other actors can play a part in improvement, if you don’t get to the root of the system — the school itself — you will never make the lasting, systemic change that RttT and i3 are seeking.  You’re simply tinkering around the edges, hoping an effort a step or two removes from the core academic day can have real impact on student learning.
But that doesn’t mean it still doesn’t take a village to for those improvements and innovations to take hold and stick around well after the federal funding is gone.  The burden is not simply on the classroom teacher to boost those achievement scores, it is also on parents and families, community leaders, ministers and church leaders, local businesses, and everyone else who touches the lives of today’s young people (and their families).  It is about recognizing that education does not happen in a vacuum, but rather is intrinsically linked to each and every corner of our lives, from our earliest memories to our latest actions.
Don’t believe Eduflack?  Think this just sounds like more of the typical status quo rhetoric to distract us from the issues of assessments, student performance, and test scores?  Take a look at the cover story of the latest American School Board Journal, written by EdSec Arne Duncan.
In his piece on “The Importance of Board and Mayoral Partnerships,” Duncan speaks of the conditions necessary for positive impact from mayoral control of the schools.  Noting a recent U.S. Conference of Mayors report stating that “if schools don’t work, the city does not work,” Duncan opines on the value of elected school boards, a strong mayor, a commitment to accountability, and a focused goal  He does some of it through the lens of his Chicago experience, but hits on mayoral successes like Boston as well.  The full article can be found here.
But perhaps the most interesting line written by Duncan is the following: “It takes more than a school to educate a student.  it takes a city that can provide support from the parks department, health services, law enforcement, social services, after-school programs, nonprofits, businesses, and churches.”
Yes, if the schools don’t work, the city doesn’t work.  But the responsibility is not purely on the schools themselves to self-repair.  Yes, it requires investment from all of the stakeholders articulated by Duncan.  But the good EdSec has left out an essential component to the school success equation — the family.  Schools also need engaged parents, family members who take an interest in the day-to-day learning of their children.  Families who do more than come in when their is a discipline problem or a desire to complain to a teacher about the workload or the “stress” on a child.  Parents who are engaging their children after the school house doors are closed, through afterschool programs, weekend and summer learning, and even family reading time at home.  Families who make sure the homework is done, the children are fed, and everything is being done to maximize the school day.  Parents who know that nothing is more important than their children’s education and they will do anything necessary to ensure their kids have access to the best teachers, the best curriculum, and the best resources possible.
Earlier this week, the Pew Hispanic Center surveyed Hispanic youth ages 16-25.  They found that nine in 10 surveyed believed a college education is “necessary” to get ahead in life.  So educators are getting the importance of a good education across.  Disturbingly, though, fewer than half of Hispanic students say they will earn a bachelor’s degree (compared with more than 60 percent of all students), and only 24 percent of Hispanics ages 18 to 24 are actually enrolled in postsecondary education.  USA Today has the full story here.
It is up to that village to bridge the gap between understanding the importance of postsecondary education and actually acting on that understanding.  It falls on the nonprofits, businesses, churches, and government agencies Duncan speaks of — along with the families — to ensure students are graduating from high school and enrolling in college.  Our teachers can offer the pathways, but it is up to all of the other actors in a young person’s life to ensure that they pursue all that is available to them and actually do what is necessary to get ahead in life.  A high school diploma should be a non-negotiable in every family, with no one seeing dropping out as a viable alternative.  And those high school experiences should be used to show all students that college is possible and is an achievable goal for any student with the right commitment, work ethic, and attitude.
If our schools don’t work, the city does not work.  If our kids are not educated, our kids do not work.  And if our kids do not work, our nation cannot succeed.  It doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out the correlations there.

Grad Rates in the City of Angels

Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times included the boastful headline, “Dropout Rate Declines Almost 17% in L.A. Schools.”  Officials at Los Angeles Unified School District crowed that the latest data demonstrated “the results of three years of work.”  Part of the credit goes to duplicate student records which accounted for extra enrollees who never saw graduation.  But part of the credit also goes to specific interventions put to use by LAUSD to ID and work with at-risk students.

Overall, the drop-out rate for the 2007-08 school year was 26.4 percent in the City of Angels, down from 31.7 percent a year ago.  The LA Times reports that it was one of the largest improvements in the Golden State here.

I don’t want to take anything away from the educators out in Los Angeles.  I applaud them for recognizing the long-term problems caused by the city’s drop-out factories and a history that only had two of every three high schoolers graduating.  They should be encouraged by these first year numbers, spurred on to believe that major improvement is possible when one dedicates the time and resources to it.  But it send a dangerous signal when we are slapping each other on the backs and declaring mission accomplished because of one year of promising data.
It all begs an important question — how do you recognize progress while recognizing that the end result is still far in the offing?  How do we applaud the first sprint in what is going to be a marathon race?  And how do we “prove” our work is genuine?
Don’t get me wrong, reducing the drop-out rate by 5.3 percent is recognition-worthy.  But in doing so, we lose sight of the fact that more than 25 percent of LAUSD students are not graduating from high school.  If we do a deeper dive into the numbers, I’m sure we will find that a vast majority of those drop-outs come from historically disadvantaged homes.  They are kids from black, Hispanic, and low-income families who most benefit from a high school diploma, but are least likely to earn one.
Readers of the LA Times should be horrified that a quarter of students are dropping out long after they are pleased with a 5.3 percent reduction in the number of drop outs.  The true test will be next year and the year after that, once those phantom registrations are off the books.  Does the drop-out rate continue to fall, or does it remain steady, cemented in the notion that our urban high schools are regularly failing anywhere from a quarter to a half of all students?
Good data collection is a first step.  The LA Times notes that the drop-out rate is calculated based on four years of data, but does not track individuals.  It also doesn’t track those students who leave one LAUSD high school for another school.  Why not?  How can a state or school district effectively track graduation rates if the data is not linked to individual students?  In an era where most realize we can manipulate data points to say just about anything,  But grad rates that are “estimations” and guesstimates shouldn’t be allowed in today’s era of data quality and data systems, particularly in a district like Los Angeles where money is scarce, the stakes are high, and principal (and superintendent) jobs are on the line based on student performance measures … including graduation numbers.
Calculating a graduation rate should be an easy thing.  Back in 2005, all 50 states, including California signed onto the National Governors Association’s common graduation rate formula.  Last year, the U.S. Department of Education passed Christmas Eve regs requiring states to adhere to that formula.  Yet we only see a fraction of those 50 states put the formula into practice.  And many of those states — including Michigan and North Carolina — had to deal with a perceived “increase” in drop outs because they were calculating the graduation rate effectively for the first time.
It is relatively easy math.  Take your number of ninth graders, subtracting those students who transferred out or otherwise may have left the school district.  Then look at the number of kids who graduate four years later.  Divide the latter by the former, and you have the graduation rate.  Subtract that rate from 100, and you have the drop-out rate.  It doesn’t take high school calculus to determine the percentage of graduates — and drop outs — in a given state or a given school district.
In its pursuit of Race to the Top dollars, California officials (including the Governator) are claiming that they can effectively track student achievement data with individual teacher records.  School districts like Long Beach claim they are already doing so.  But how can we expect a state like California to effectively use individual student data to incentivize individual educators when it still struggles to accurately calculate graduation rates in districts like Los Angeles?  If LAUSD is still “estimating” grad rates, do we really expect them to manage a RttT grant that financially rewards teachers for the achievement of their students?  It seems like we need to learn how to walk before we can run this latest race. 

Chapter 9 in Detroit

What happens when a school district files for bankruptcy?  We have heard of LEAs on the brink before, but we’ve never witnessed a district actually enter bankruptcy court, as they are usually saved at the 11th hour by the city or state.  But the latest talk and action coming out of the Motor City points to a new first for K-12 public education in the United States — a school district seeking bankruptcy protection from the courts.  The Wall Street Journal has the full story here.

We’ve obviously heard a great deal about corporate bankruptcies, what with General Motors and Chrysler (Detroit Public School neighbors) already seeking help from the courts.  In a previous life, Eduflack worked with a wide range of companies on bankruptcy communications issues, helping consumer goods manufacturers, healthcare companies, and microprocessor producers navigate the Chapter 11 process.
On the corporate side, there are often a great number of misperceptions regarding Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings.  Despite popular belief, it is not usually the first step to liquidation or closing one’s doors forever (that’s left the Chapter 13).  It does not mean that salaries won’t be paid or pensions and benefits have been lost.  It does not mean that vendors will never be paid.  And it certainly does not mean that core business operations will not continue.
Bankruptcy is a chance to reorganize.  Typically, an organization has lost its way and has strayed from its core business.  Expenses have gotten out of hand, debts and obligations have risen, and what has worked in the past simply won’t work again.  As circumstances and conditions change, these organizations need a fresh start.  They need a second chance, an opportunity to break from bad deals and bad situations.  And they need a chance to shed the status quo and refocus on what works and where the future is taking them.  We’ve witnessed companies such as Macy’s, 7-11, and others used bankruptcy reorganization to help them strengthen their business, improve their brand, and better serve their customers.
So when Detroit’s Public Schools talk about filing Chapter 9 bankruptcy (a distinction under the federal code for public entities like school districts), it does not mean Detroit is giving up.  It certainly doesn’t mean we are shuttering public schools in the Motor City and telling all of the area’s students that they need to move on to Catholic schools or similar competitors.  It means Detroit is looking to take control of its own destiny, seeking the flexibility to restructure so it can focus on its core business of educating students and deal with the realities of shrinking student numbers and local tax pools.
Earlier this year, EdSec Arne Duncan referred to Detroit’s schools as a “national disgrace.”  The term drop-out factories may very well have been created to reflect the state of secondary school instruction in Detroit.  While the nation may have been focused on leaving no child behind, Detroit failed to get the memo.  Despite statewide efforts in Michigan to improve public education, boost the high school graduation rate, and better prepare Michiganders with the skills and knowledge they need for the 21st century Michigan workplace, Detroit was a reality we tried to forget, or at least chose to write off.  It stands as the worst-case scenario for the modern-day school district, used as the butt of jokes and an example of what other struggling districts want to avoid. 
All of that makes it very easy for Detroit leaders to simply throw up their hands, say nothing can be done, and simply accept the status quo as the way things need to be in Detroit.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  DPS Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb should be commended for charting the course toward Chapter 9 bankruptcy …. as long as he intends to use it effectively.  

Detroit cannot, should not, and must not simply use bankruptcy to clear the books and go back to operating in the same old way.  Enrollment has dropped nearly 50 percent in less than a decade.  Schools have been closed.  Teachers have been laid off.  These are major changes for a school district.  Such changes mean that one cannot simply go back to the administration and operations of old, content that old debts are behind you.  Doing so simply allows Detroit to run up new debts and likely find themselves in this same situation not too far down the road.
If Bobb and his team take the final step and file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, they need to use the opportunity to change the administration, culture, expectations, and results of Detroit Public Schools.  The courts will provide Detroit the time to reorganize.  They need to take that time to build a better system.  Let’s be honest here.  Students have left DPS in droves for private and charter schools because of quality and outcomes.  Parents want to see their kids succeed.  They want them to be safe.  They want them to learn.  They want them to graduate.  They want them to gain the skills and knowledge necessary for success.  Too many parents haven’t seen those qualities in Detroit Public Schools, so those with the ability — even in this tough economy — have turned to alternatives to ensure their kids are getting the education they need.
Bobb has already taken major steps to clean up Detroit’s administrative issues.  He’s scrubbing the books, rooting out fraud, and providing a clearer view of what, exactly, Detroit is spending its school money on.  Bankruptcy protection provides him additional time and additional power to continue these efforts and build a better operational infrastructure for the schools.  But he must also take the opportunity to focus on the product — ensuring that Detroit is taking the steps to improve the delivery, quality, and results of a Detroit Public Schools education.
How?  Eduflack has three ideas for Mr. Bobb and his team:
* Teacher quality — Simply staffing Detroit’s public school classrooms with whatever warm bodies are coming out of local ed schools isn’t getting the job done.  Detroit needs to demand higher-quality teachers.  They need to require a more rigorous teacher education program from local colleges and universities, one that demands a more rigorous curriculum, a strong clinical experience, and the content and pedagogy that moves classroom educators from “qualified” to “effective.”  Detroit needs to invest in rigorous, content-based professional development for all its teachers, striving for constant improvement.  It needs to reward effective teaching.  And it needs to recognize that not everyone with a teaching degree is cut out to successfully handle the rigors of teaching in Detroit.  Challenging times require the best teachers.  Detroit needs to invest in getting those teachers, and not simply setting for those willing to be part of a failing system.
* Innovative programs — Two weeks ago, Bobb announced plans to bring in partner organizations to help turn around Detroit’s high schools.  This was a master move, and it needs to be followed through (the school board seems to be balking since the announcement).  Bankruptcy be damned, Detroit needs to invest in innovation and new approaches.  it also needs to focus on return on investment.  Elementary school investments make people feel nice, as we help little kids, but their impact isn’t felt for a decade.  Bobb’s plans for the high schools can yield immediate return.  If implemented with fidelity, these partners can boost high school test scores and graduation rates.  They can better prepare today’s high school students for tomorrow’s jobs.  They can be the first step in bringing Detroit’s schools into the 21st century.  We need more thinking and action like this, and fewer roadblocks from those that fear c
hange or embrace the status quo.  These contracts need to be honored and these programs need to be up and running by the start of the new school year this fall.
* Customer focus — Companies that file for bankruptcy often do because they strayed from their core business and invested in products and efforts that didn’t fit their mission.  Detroit Public Schools should have one focus — dramatically improving student achievement.  Every decision coming from the central office should be proceeded by the question, how does this impact student performance?  The hiring of teachers and principals.  The adoption of textbooks.  The selection of instructional programs.  The introduction of technologies and supplemental education.  School build repairs.  Scheduling.  Course offerings.  Professional development.  Every aspect of school operations should focus on the customer (the student) and how to deliver a better product (an education) to that customer.  If an expenditure or a decision is not going to improve the quality or effectiveness of learning, it is likely not needed.
The citizens of Detroit need to see this as an opportunity.  Those voices across the nation calling for school reform and innovation need to see this as an opportunity.  The teachers and students of DPS need to see this as an opportunity.  Bankruptcy filings mean you are not bound by what has happened in the past.  You get a new start, an opportunity to do things differently and take the right steps forward.  It is a chance to succeed when success had been out of grasp for so long.  While many will try to steer Detroit back into its past ways, Bobb needs to keep his eyes on the prize and focus on the end game.  Forget what has been done and focus on what Detroit’s students need to succeed.  We are approaching a new era for Detroit Public Schools.  Here’s hoping it is an era of the new and the innovative, and not a retrospective visit to an era that has failed far too many Detroit students.

The Effectiveness of IB

Each year, we see the high school “rankings,” finding that those schools with a high preponderance of Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB ) programs tend to do the best.  The greater the penetration of such programs and priorities, the higher a high school ranks.  Over the years, though, the education community has begun to ask the question about true results or the true impact of these programs. 

A decade ago, many a high school student collected AP courses like baseball cards, knowing that AP today meant college credit tomorrow.  The eduwife actually entered Stanford University as a sophomore because of all of the AP classes she took (and the fives she secured on the exams), allowing her to spend her fourth year out at the Farm gaining her master’s degree.
But times have changed.  Many colleges are now saying that even a five on an AP course is not the same as successfully completing the college course.  We’ve shifted from awarding college credit to simply allowing students to waive out of core requirements.  
The situation has always been even more murky with IB.  IB was never intended to provide college credits in a way AP does.  Designed decades ago, the program was created to ensure that students received a rigorous, comprehensive, and relevant high school learning experience.  By maximizing the time in high school through the IB curriculum, young people would become better students, better scholars, and better citizens.  
So how does all that translate when it comes to postsecondary education?  Many a college admissions officer knows that an IB graduate means a strong college candidate.  They are prepared for postsecondary work.  They are motivated.  They’ve been challenged.  They are inquisitive.  And they are able to do more than fill out bubble sheets or choose from a list of five answers.  They are scholars and learners, not merely the processors of information.
In past years, Eduflack has had the privilege of working with IB on a number of issues.  Being me, I would always ask about the research.  How do we know IB is working?  IB would say that the proof is in their alumni network.  One knows IB works when you see the complete IB graduate.  It is not just what they know, but how they apply it.  Those who complete an IB program usually move on to college.  And the IB high school instructional model has been so successful in teaching and motivating students that it has resulted in the development of both elementary and middle grades IB programs.
IB has never been about longitudinal research models.  They know the program works.  Their scholars know it works.  Their teachers, who undergo rigorous training and ongoing support, know it works.  And the schools that adopt it know it works.  They don’t need a medical-style research model to prove what they already know.  No, IB isn’t for everyone.  But those who do adopt it are better for it.  And despite the urban legends, IB isn’t just for the rich schools in the suburbs or for the uber-motivated.  IB works for all students who are motivated enough to seek a high-quality, rigorous educational program that provides the content and the skills to perform well after the IB program is completed.
But this is an era of research and of doing what is proven effective.  One’s word or one’s track record isn’t enough.  We need third party data to prove our effectiveness.  And now, IB has some of that as well.  In recent days, IB announced the Education Policy Improvement Center (EPIC) findings of its International Baccalaureate Standards Development and Alignment Project.  What did EPIC find?  
* IB is “highly aligned” with the Knowledge and Skills for University Success (KSUS) college-ready standards
* The IB Diploma’s key cognitive strategies — critical thinking skills, intellectual inquisitiveness, and interpretation — were found to be fully aligned with the expectations of university faculty
* IB math (algebra, trigonometry, and statistical standards) were completely aligned with KSUS
* IB science (chemistry, biology, and environmental science) were completely aligned with KSUS
Alignment is important.  But the data on results is even more compelling.  As part of the EPIC announcement, IB revealed that more than 80 percent of those completing the IB high school program graduate from college within six years, a rate leaps, bounds, and high jumps above the national average for high school students.  IBers are college graduates.  And there are few, if any programs, we can make that statement about with higher certainty.
IB has been one of the best-kept secrets in school improvement and innovation.  We don’t talk about it, but IB’s year-on-year growth in the United States over the last year has been the stuff on which folks write Harvard case studies.  Those teachers who have gone through the training are true believers.  Those students who secure the Diploma are real-life success stories.  And those districts who make the investment quickly realize that the cost is worth it, gaining both quantitative and qualitative return on investment almost from the get-go.
Perhaps IB’s greatest challenge is how it fits into the current environment of improvement, reform, and innovation.  IB succeeded in the NCLB years, in part, because of the misperceptions of who it was targeting.  Since many didn’t see its applicability for those students who were being left behind (despite some tremendous case studies of how IB programs have turned around schools and really helped students from historically disadvantaged groups), the program was left to operate on its own.  It connected enough with AYP and with state assessments that it was a viable alternative for those wishing to pursue it.  But it simply wasn’t seen as a solution for that bottom quartile of students, particularly with NCLB’s focus on the elementary grades.
Today, IB is at a crossroads.  As a nation, we have set hard goals for improving high school graduation rate and college attainment numbers.  The EPIC data demonstrates that IB could be one of those solutions custom-made for rising to the occasion.  The IB training and development model is one that can be used as we look to new ways to improving instruction and preparation for all teachers.  The real challenge, though, is how IB fits into the new call for common standards.  How will the IB framework align with the high school standards currently being pursued?  How do IB assessments dovetail with the assessments that will come out of common standards?  How does IB demonstrate value-add, and not add-on?
Only time will tell if IB is up to the challenge.  It has the opportunity.  It has the track record.  It can display its strengths.  Now is the time for International Baccalaureate to show it is an exemplar of best practice, and not merely a niche program.  It has the pieces.  IB just has to bring them all together for a compelling story that solves the problem so many school decisionmakers are facing.

Getting Halfway to the College Moon?

During his first official address to Congress back this winter (remember, trivia folks, it was not a State of the Union), President Barack Obama made the bold promise that, by 2020, the United States would have the highest percentage of college degree holders in the world.  Recognizing that postsecondary education is quickly becoming a non-negotiable for success in today’s economy (let alone tomorrow’s), it is a promise we need to back up.  And Obama did so recognizing that to get there, we need to turn out millions upon millions of additional college graduates on top of current levels.

So how do we accomplish that?  Improving high school graduation rates, particularly with historically disadvantaged students is a good first-step gateway.  Dual enrollment programs, where we help today’s students see they are capable of doing college-level work helps.  Boosting the number of first-generation college-goers is another.  But how about actually getting those students who enroll in college to actually earn the diploma?  That seems like a no-brainer.
Unfortunately, according to a new report released this AM from the American Enterprise Institute, it seems that a student enrolled at an institution of higher education has only a slightly better chance of earning a degree than an individual who stops at campus for direction, a t-shirt, or a restroom break.  According to AEI’s new study, Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (and Which Don’t), only 53 percent of college-goers have a diploma six years after starting the process.  Don’t forget, college is intended to be a four-year endeavor.  So even when we give today’s students two extra years, only half of enrollees manage to actually gain that intended sheepskin.
The numbers get even scarier when you drill down.  For those postsecondary institutions with the least selective admissions criteria — or those dubbed “noncompetitive” institutions — only 35 percent of students graduate within six years.  Even among “competitive” schools, those falling in the bottom 10 are only graduating 20 percent of their kids in six years.
Not surprisingly, the highest graduation rates lie with the most competitive schools.  Grad rates decline as we move down the scale, from highly competitive to very competitive to competitive to less competitive to noncompetitive.
The AEI report presents top “honors” to 10 schools, identified as noncompetitive that scored the lowest when it comes to six-year graduation rates.  Mountain State University in West Virginia (18%), Bellevue University in Nebraska (18%), Heritage University in Washington (17%), University of Houston in Texas (16%), National American University of South Dakota (15%), American InterContinental University in Georgia (13%), Miles College in Alabama (11%), Jarvis Christian College of Texas (10%), Carlos Albizu University of Florida (10%), and Southern University in Louisiana, with a whopping 8 percent.  These schools were all found to be noncompetitive, with the lowest grad rates — a destructive combination.
For those who think money buys success, eight of the 10 lowest-graduating schools are private institutions, with the University of Houston and Southern University being the only public schools to make “the list.”
But we don’t want to just pick on the noncompetitive schools.  In those schools dubbed most competitive, we see a similar trend.  EIght of the 10 schools with the lowest graduation rates are private schools (Webb Institute, Reed College, Tulane University, University of Miami, George Washington University, Scripps College, Case Western Reserve University, Connecticut College, Occidental College, and University of Rochester.  The two publics with the lowest rates are both service academies — the US Air Force Academy and West Point.  For those two, we’d like to think that the standards outside the classroom are the reason for the lower-than-average grad rate among peers, and you don’t have a high proportion of students at Army or Air Force on the seven- or eight-year BA plan.  So let’s give the Air Force Academy and West Point the benefit of the doubt here.
What’s even more disturbing though, particularly when we consider the challenge issued by President Obama and current efforts to close the achievement gap in this country, are graduation rates on the campuses of our competitive Historically Black Colleges and Historically Hispanic Colleges.  For competitive HBCUs (33 were studied) the six-year grad rate is only 36.5 percent.  For IHHEs (30 schools studied), the numbers were slightly better, 44.3 percent.  The only bright spot (if you can dare call it that) in the disaggregation is that HBCUs are relatively level when it comes to graduation rates, with less competitive schools graduating 34.7 percent of their students and noncompetitive schools graduating 37.1 percent of their students, meaning a student at an HBCU has a relatively equal chance of graduating, regardless of the institution’s competitiveness classification.  On the flip side, with noncompetitive IHHEs, only 19.8 percent of students are graduating in six years.
What does all this tell us?  First off, if our goal is to increase the number of college degree holders in the United States, we need to start with the customers we have.  Forget the need to push more students onto the college path.  We first need to address the 47 percent of current pathwalkers we are failing.  There are no excuses for one’s change of earning a college diploma once in college to being the same as winning a coin flip.  Access is clearly not an excuse, and money certainly shouldn’t be.  We need to do a better job of finding out why these enrollees are not graduating, and then act (either institutionally or nationally) to reverse the trend and prioritize degree attainment over college going once and for all.  Despite what some may say, the postsecondary experience is not nearly as important as the credential.  We owe it to every student who passes through a college’s doors to make sure they leave with a degree.
Second, we need to take a much closer look at how we are serving our historically disadvantaged student groups.  Institutions are to be applauded for making more opportunities available to students of color and providing programs and institutions themselves to better meet student needs and expectations.  But competitive HBCUs should do better than one in three graduating.  And competitive IHHEs need to better than two in five graduating.  This is particularly true when the average competitive IHE is turning out grads at nearly double that rate.
But if the numbers tell us anything, it is that the college graduation problem is one that is color blind and income oblivious.  The real problem here is competitiveness and return on investment.  After decades of convincing every family that their child should go to college, we’ve literally build a college or university for every student.  As a result, the correspondence schools and diploma mills of the past have given way to noncompetitive institutions with open admissions and a come one, come all mentality.  For too many of those schools, the tuition check is the end game, not the diploma.  An enrolled student is a steady stream of income.  There is no incentive to graduate students.  Schools aren’t being held accountable for their graduation rates.  Perhaps they should, but they aren’t.  And that shows in the AEI data.
When he took office nearly half a century ago, President John F. Kennedy made the promise we would send a man to the moon.  As we’ve often heard, this was an audacious goal designed to spur interest and investment in the space program in general.  Obama has don
e the same thing, albeit with less fanfare and public enthusiasm, with his promise to be tops in the world when it comes to college degree holders.  With Kennedy, we couldn’t just go halfway to the moon and back.  It was all or nothing.  
The same is true for Obama’s college pledge.  We have 11 years to get to the postsecondary moon.  Only this time, we aren’t starting from scratch.  First order of business is getting those students who are already in the system graduated.  Improving that 53 percent grad mark to 75 percent gets us far closer to our goal.  
But if we are going to have postsecondary impact for decades to come, we need to take a close look at the product we are selling.  Noncompetitive schools with no accountability and little ROI hurt us all in the long run.  There is no getting around it.  Yes, every student needs some form of postsecondary education to succeed in the 21st century economy.  After all of these years, who knew we needed to say that education needed to bring with it a modicum of quality.  For those who say the accreditation process is too difficult or onerous, this data should give them a great deal of pause.  If anything we need to be tougher on our IHEs and expect more.  Otherwise, we may simply be sliding into a game of rock-paper-scissors to see if we earn our diploma or not.