The Slow March Toward National Standards

For months now, the education chattering class has been talking about the behind-the-scenes efforts by the US Department of Education to craft national education standards.  We’ve heard that Achieve was slated to deliver draft math and reading standards to Maryland Avenue by early summer, with plans for a thorough and robust debate leading up the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

In this morning’s Washington Post, Maria Glod reports that 46 states and the District of Columbia have signed onto the K-12 national education standards movement, offering “an unprecedented step toward a uniform definition of success in American Schools.”  The full story can be found here.   
The thinking here is a simple one.  In this era of AYP, it only makes sense that we have a single yardstick by which to measure student achievement, starting with math and reading.  For years now, we’ve heard how students are knocking it out of the park when it comes to state assessments (just look at elementary reading in Mississippi), but then we fail to see the progress when it comes to annual NAEP scores.  The common thinking is that some states have dropped their bars so low in order to demonstrate student achievement and student growth that some state tests have become complete irrelevant in determining actual student achievement and success.
So now National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers have brought together most of the states to help develop these common standards for academic performance.  Most states have already anted in.  The only holdouts, according to WaPo, are Texas, Alaska, Missouri, and South Carolina.  Their reason?  These Republican-controlled states are touting the need for local control of the schools, and national standards run contrary to local decisionmakers determining what is best for their local residents.
The current plan is to roll out “readiness standards” in July, benchmarks for high school graduates in reading and math.  Then folks would build out the grade-by-grade needs to reach those readiness standards.  It is important to note that the 46+ states have simply agreed to the process.  They would then need to agree to, adopt, fund, and implement the standards once they are developed.  So we are still a good ways away from national standards even being close to national policy.  Why?
First, every expert, quasi-expert, and member of the chattering class is going to want to get in on this discussion.  Everyone has ideas as to what should be in national standards.  Every political and ideological group will want to get in on the process, running the risk of taking a bold move and watering it down so much to appease all of the audiences that believe they should have a seat at the table.
Second, many will raise concerns that we are only addressing math and reading.  LIke AYP, this push is focusing on the corest of the core subjects.  But can we really have a true national standards system without addressing science, social studies, and foreign language?  In a month when NAEP is actually releasing national art education data (scheduled for June 15), can we settle for just reading and math?  Many an expert or an expert in training will call for a comprehensive system that addresses all academic subjects, worried that an initial focus on math and reading means we only value the two subjects and will only hold states and schools accountable on these two measures (much like we have with AYP).
Third, we need to give standards real teeth.  In many ways, national standards serve as a wish list for public education in the United States.  To put real power behind it, we need to develop and implement actual tests aligned with those standards.  Such tests seem to be the third rail of public education.  We fret about the costs, we worry about the quantitative and qualitative, and we struggle with the notion we are implementing another “high-stakes” test on our kids.  The end result?  We could end up with a lovely policy document outlining our national education expectations, but lacking a tangible way to transform that policy into instructional reality with real measurement and accountability.  National standards only work if we have one strong test that is implemented and enforced EQUALLY by all of the states.
Fourth, states actually need to agree to the final documents … and put them into practice.  In 2005, all 50 states agreed to common high school graduation standards, shepherded through the process by NGA.  At the time, every governor in the country agreed to a measure that called for grad rates to be calculated as the number of ninth graders who secure a diploma four years later.  We’re now four years later, and the majority of states have failed to actually implement the formula.  (In part because those who have have experienced a drop in their statewide grad rates.)  Former EdSec Margaret Spellings tried to institute the new grad rate through federal regulation, but the current talk about town is that EdSec Duncan will be turning back Spellings’ Christmas Eve Eve decision, leaving grad rate determination to the states.  So even if every governor in the country agrees to the idea of standards in principle, they all need to sign off on the final decisions and actually move them into practice, replacing the patchwork of states standards of various strengths and scopes with one common national standard.
Currently, the Nation’s Report Card — or NAEP — is the closest thing we have to national standards.  But as we take a look at the NAEP results, we see many a disturbing data set that must be addressed in developing national standards.  It stands to reason that NAEP measures for reading and math proficiency would be pretty close to national standards in the same subjects.  So what does it mean when slightly more than half of all U.S. fourth graders can score proficient or better on the NAEP reading exam?  What does it mean when only about a third of eighth graders are score proficient or better, and the best state in the union is clocking in at 43 percent proficiency on eighth grade reading?  And what do we do about the persistent achievement gap, particularly the 20-plus year problem we see in 11th grade math and reading?  How do we make sure that all students — even those from historically disadvantaged groups — are performing against the national standards and achieving?  When we set national standards, the goal needs to be all students hitting the mark.  We cannot and must not settle for a system where the majority of kids fail to achieve proficiency, and we still see that as a sign of a successful public school system.
Yes, Eduflack is a pessimist by nature.  But I also believe that today’s NGA/CCSSO announcement is a positive step forward.  In today’s transient society, with students changing schools and states as families change and jobs shift, we need some guarantees that a fifth grade education is the same, regardless of area code.  We need some promise that a high school diploma means the same thing, regardless of Zip code.  This is a non-negotiable if we are to prepare all students for the opportunities before them, particularly if we are looking for them to hold their own on international benchmarks such as TIMSS and PISA.
Obviously, the devil is in the details.  We need to get all states to overcome the notion of local control and embrace the guidance and framework of national standards.  We need to construct effective tests that move those standards into practice.  We need to move beyond just math and reading and ensure that all academic (and even those some would deem non-academic) are measured as well.  We need to give equal billing t
o elementary, middle, and secondary learning standards.  And we need to ensure that if all students are to be held to the same national standard, they all need to have equal access to the same educational resources.  That means national standards, if you will, when it comes to early childhood education, high-quality teachers, and other such measures.
But we are moving forward.  We just have to keep that momentum going, transforming challenges into opportunities and not allowing roadblocks to divert our attention (and subvert our public will) in the process.  If we believe that every student in the United States requires a high-quality, effective education, we need to measure every student with the same yardstick.  Quality and effectiveness should be universal, not subjective based on state borders.  National standards starts making that goal a reality.

Changing the Game on College Funding

We have all heard the stories (and jokes) about college students who are on the five-, six-, or even seven-year plan.  Those students who love their college years so much, that they simply never want to leave those glory days.  Some maximize the financial aid packages available to them, some have generous families, and others just find a way to stick around their hopeful alma mater.

What few tend to talk about is, for most public colleges and universities, these professional students are big business.  Most state institutions of higher education receive public support based on enrollment numbers.  So while a typical student who graduates in the expected four years would could for four “credits” when it comes to state dollars, that student on the six-year plan counts for six.  Assuming new student enrollment numbers (both freshmen and transfers) remain steady, or increase, every year, those who stick around for an extra year or three can become a financial boon to the institution at which they are camping out.  For some institutions, there is little incentive to see students actually graduate.  As long as they remain enrolled, they are cherished.
But how do such “long-term” learning plans meet with our current calls for educational return on investment, plans to boost the number of U.S. postsecondary degreeholders, or expectations that today’s college students will fill the workforce needs of tomorrow?  Unfortunately, they often don’t.  Many students who extend their stays don’t graduate, leaving with more than a half-decade of experience and memories, but no degree to show for it.  As the nation looks to measure the effectiveness of states and their high schools based on our ability to graduate students from secondary school in four years (those who gain a diploma four years after starting ninth grade), we have few rubrics to really measure the effectiveness of postsecondary education.
Until now.
Over at USA Today, Mary Beth Marklein reports on a growing trend to link college graduation to college funding.  It seems like a simple idea long overdue.  Higher education spending coming from state government would be tied to the number of students graduating (or at least the number completing courses).  The desire is results.  If states are going to support public colleges and universities, they want their own ROI.  They want assurances that those taxpayer dollars are resulting in degree holders prepared to hold the jobs and contribute to the economy of the state that has been subsidizing their education for the past four or more years.
USA Today spotlights a couple of states that are looking to break new ground on college funding ROI, including:
* Ohio, which seeks to tie 100 percent of funding to “course and degree completion”
* Indiana, which is traveling a similar path to Ohio
* Louisiana, looking to tie 25 percent of funding to “student success”
* Missouri, basing finance for allied health and other programs on how students do on licensing exams
* Washington, funding community and technical colleges based on specific student performance hurdles
This is not a new trend, but it is taking on greater intensity.  More than half of states have tried such ROI measures over the last three decades.  Nearly half of those who have tried it have abandoned it.  Some of the best results can be seen in states such as Florida, where tough ROI measures have actually resulted in a 43 percent increase in graduation rates and an 18 percent increase in enrollment for the Sunshine State’s community colleges over the last decade.
In the coming years, we are likely to see more states looking to go down the path of the Buckeye State, particularly if Ohio successfully implements it 100-percent funding plan.  Just a few months ago, President Obama set a national goal that the United States would have the highest percentage of postsecondary degree holders in the world by the year 2020.  And the feds are looking to invest $2.5 billion into efforts to boost college completion rates.  If we are going to hit those goals, we need to turn out significantly more college graduates.  To do so, we need to transform college goers into college completers.  And to do that, we need to hold our institutions of higher education accountable (particularly since placing responsibility solely with the students has so far done us little good).
These are bold moves by state legislatures and state higher education boards.  Accountability is a tough issue, particularly when there are so many “reasons” why one fails to complete a degree path.  ROI is a tough issue, particularly with so many that believe the simple pursuit of higher education is the reward itself.  College graduation rates are a tough issue, particularly when we so struggle nationally with our ability to improve high school graduation and college-going rates, particularly with historically disadvantaged students.
But the current times call for bold moves.  There is no question that postsecondary education is quickly becoming a non-negotiable for economic success in the 21st century.  We also know that employers value the degree, and not simply the attendance record, when it comes to evaluating a potential job candidate’s educational background.  If we view state investment in higher education as an investment in strengthening the state’s economy and the state’s future, such linkages between funding and completion make sense.  Taxpayers are subsidizing these education experiences.  They have a right to demand some return on that investment.  And we all should have the expectation that when our sibling or child or spouse enrolls in postsecondary education (be it a two- or four-year institution) the ultimate goal is securing a diploma.  That’s the goal.  We should measure against it.

Competitiveness Through High Schools

High school dropout rates are at epidemic proportions.  The recent NAEP data demonstrates that we haven’t moved a hair on the achievement gap among high school students in decades.  Yet we all seem to recognize that a high school diploma and some form of postsecondary education is a non-negotiable when it comes to personal success and economic strength.  So how do we bridge the disconnect?

The topic is particularly interesting in light of a guest post on today’s Politics K-12 blog, which indicates there is some grumbling with regard to the Obama Administration’s financial commitment to meaningful high school improvement.

Looking for more info?  This afternoon, House Education Committee Chairman George Miller (CA) hosted a full committee hearing on “America’s Competitiveness and through High School Reform.”  Important topic, one for which we have more questions than answers.  Panelists included Vicki Phillips of the Gates Foundation and Bob Wise of the Alliance for Excellent Education.  All the info is here, including a webcast and the testimony of all participants.  Worth taking a look.

Where Does the Student Optimism Go?

By now, we’ve all heard the gory details.  One third of all students will drop out of high school.  Nearly half of all students in our inner-city schools will drop out.  Minority and low-income students have half the opportunity to learn as white, non-Latino students.  Ninety percent of newly created jobs will require postsecondary education, but only a third of today’s ninth graders will secure a postsecondary degree.  

These are the statistics that the adults managing our education system provide us.  Today, Gallup, along with the America’s Promise Alliance and AASA, provide us a close look at what students in the United States are thinking.  Surveying more than 70,000 students in grades five through 12 in 18 states and the District of Columbia, on topics such as dropout prevention and college readiness.  The results may surprise you:
* More than a third of students are “struggling or suffering”
* Half of students are “not hopeful”
* A third of students feel “stuck”
* 94 percent of students say they will graduate from high school
* 86 percent of students believe there is a good job waiting for them after high school
Eduflack finds the dichotomy between the views on the present and the future to be the most interesting.  Living in the current, students are focused on the negative, feeling stuck, not hopeful, and generally cynical about their current experiences.  Just half of students say there were treated with respect on the day surveyed.  When it comes to the qualitative of now, students are just as negative and cynical as the rest of us.
But in looking ahead, in looking at life after high school, these same students seem transform into bluebirds of happiness and optimism.  They all see high school diplomas in their future, despite the statistics that one in three will drop out.  And nearly as many believe there is a good job waiting for them after high school, at a time when even graduates from our top colleges and graduate schools can’t find gainful employment.
Why the difference?  Over the years, Eduflack has spent a lot of time conducting interviews and focus groups with high school students about their futures.  In general, today’s students do not enjoy their high school experience.  They are bored by the classes, feel disrespected by many teachers, and generally worry about what opportunities may come next.  But they follow through because they want to believe there is a positive at the end of the path.  They persevere because they believe there is a payout at the end of the game.
What’s likely missing from this survey sample are those youth for whom reality has set in — those who have already dropped out of high school.  The survey is likely heavy on middle schoolers, and light on high schoolers.  Thus the optimism about the future and the hopes for a high school diploma and a good job.  The current struggles are indicative of today’s middle schoolers, many of whom are starting to think about dropping out as a viable alternative to continuing their education.
So the big question is how we bridge the hope to the reality?  If 94 percent of students believe they will graduate, how do we get to the nearly 30 percent that will change their minds before earning that diploma?  For those 86 percent who believe they have a good job waiting for them, how do we get nearly half of them to realize that a good job requires postsecondary education?  How do we transform the optimism for the future into achievement today?  How do we get all students to feel a sense of hope and a right to opportunity?  How do we do better?
Call me mister negativity, but Gallup’s data points should be a wake-up call to all of those who think we have righted the ship.  We have fathoms to travel before we reach our destination.  It is good that students are hopeful, even if they are facing harsh realities today.  But at some point, we need to transform that hope into real action.  We need to fulfill the promise we have made to every student, that if they work hard and stay in school, success is in their grasp.  Otherwise, those struggling, stuck, and hopeless students become similarly distraught adults.  And we all know the effect that has on our economy, society, and nation.

Opportunity First, Then Achievement

How do we close the achievement gap?  The long-term NAEP data released earlier this week clearly demonstrate that we, as a nation, have been unable to make any real inroads at reducing the achievement gaps between minority students and white students.  Despite all our efforts and the best of intentions, the gaps between African-American and white students are as large as they were two decades ago.  The gaps between Hispanic and white students are as large as they were two decades ago.  And one can assume the gaps between low-income and high-income students are as large (or even larger) than they were two decades ago.

Some have looked at the NAEP scores, viewing them as a mantra from heaven.  Forget the gaps, they say, we need to focus on a rising tide that has lifted all boats.  Eduflack is the first to acknowledge that, as a nation, we made improvements, particularly in reading instruction.  And we did see upticks for all disaggregated groups.  A definite plus, particularly in an era where so many have questioned our focus on student achievement and evidence-based standards.
But there is no shaking the fact that the achievement gap is very, very real.  It is public enemy number one for our public schools.  If white students are outperforming minority students by 20, 30, or 50 points on standardized math or reading exams, that is a real problem.  All of the interventions, policies, and standards in the world mean very little if we can’t get all students up to a common level.  We cannot guarantee all students equal pathways to success as long as we are posting significant gaps in student learning and achievement.
Over the last few months, the education community has been focused on the notions of improvement and innovation.  In many ways, such concepts are step three in the education continuum.  Step two, leading to such innovation, is student achievement.  To get there, our first step must be one of opportunity, ensuring every student has access to the learning opportunities and resources that are necessary to moving down the pathways of success.
This AM, the Schott Foundation for Public Education released national data for its Opportunity to Learn Resource Index (OTLRI), a data-based tool designed to evaluate students’ access to such educational resources and opportunities.  Schott will be releasing state-by-state educational opportunity numbers next month, but the national numbers are just as frightening as the recent NAEP data:
Specifically, Schott found:
* Black students only have a 47 percent “opportunity to learn,” and Latino and low-income students only have a 53 percent “opportunity to learn,” compared to white, non-Latino students
* Only 15 percent of Black students are currently in well-resourced, high-performing schools, while 42 percent are in poorly resourced, low-performing schools
* Latino, American Indian, and low-income students attend poorly resourced, low-performing schools at similar percentages as Black students
* The average White, non-Latino student is twice as likely to be in a well-resourced, high-performing school
Why are these numbers so important?  We simply cannot close the achievement gap if we aren’t adequately resourcing those students on the losing end of the gap.  We can’t expect African-American and Hispanic students to pull themselves closer to their white counterparts if they are being asked to do more and more in poorly resourced, low-performing schools.  We can’t provide all students the promise of equal paths of success when white students are twice as likely to attend a well-equipped school than minority students.  
Full disclosure, Eduflack has been working with the Schott Foundation on early strategic efforts for its Opportunity to Learn Initiative, of which OTLRI is a centerpiece.  But I am involved in such issues because it becomes very personal for me.  Loyal readers know that, at the end of the day, it all comes back to family for me.  My views on education improvement are rooted in my experiences growing up in an education household, son of a college president and a high school English teacher.  It is rooted in the realization that my maternal grandfather was a high school dropout, who never saw the value of formal education, but who worked his tail off for nearly 40 years to raise a family of five children.  And it is rooted in knowing where my own children come from, and the paths that were almost taken for them.
Two days ago, my son celebrated his third birthday.  Miggy was born in Guatemala to a single mother with no formal education and an absence of basic literacy skills.  She put Miggy up for adoption a day after he was born, hoping for a better life for him, one where he could access a full spectrum of opportunities and could fulfill his true potential.  Last fall, Miggy’s full birth sister joined our family.  Now 19 months old, Anna Patricia entered this country just like her brother.  Both were immigrants in search of a better life.  And although Miggy came to the United States at seven months old and Anna at 13 months old, both are ESL children. 
Their story is not unlike a growing number of 21st century Americans.  As their father, I know I can provide them the educational (and other) opportunities that they may not have received otherwise.  They’ll get the formal early childhood education programs necessary to be fully prepared for the K-12 experience.  They will attend public schools in one of the finest school districts in the nation, gaining access to highly qualified and effective teachers and classrooms that are properly supported and resourced.  They will participate in a rigorous college prep curriculum (our district uses I, and they will have access to high-quality postsecondary options.  Miggy and my princesa will be provided every opportunity to learn, and if they don’t I will raise holy hell to ensure that any barriers are removed.
But I look at the Schott numbers and know my two children are the exception, not the rule.  Their fellow Hispanic students will have half the chance to access true learning opportunities than they do.  Hopefully, they will be at the top of the curve on the achievement gap, posting achievement numbers that can help close the Hispanic-white achievement gap.  They will demonstrate academic proficiency early on, and will never look back.  They will avoid the drop-out factories, and will never see dropping out of high school as a viable option (as my grandfather did).  They will be provided every opportunity to learn.
Our national goal is every student achieving and every student succeeding.  We want every student reading and math proficient by fourth grade, every student graduating from high school, and every child pursuing some form of postsecondary education.  It doesn’t matter their race, family education level, or family income level.  That is our goal for each and every child.  That is why we are growing closer and closer to the notion of a high-quality education being a right, and not a merely wish.
But we can’t achieve that goal until every child is provided an equal opportunity to learn.  And that opportunity cannot be the lowest common denominator.  Every student needs access to real, demonstrable educational resources.  Every student needs access to effective, well-trained teachers.  Every student needs pathways to the future.  Every child needs the sort of opportunities that Miggy and Anna will now have.
Until we can get to that stage, we can never close the achievement gap, and we can never eliminate the battle between the haves and have nots in public education.  Half a chance is not a chance.
 Fifty percent opportunity is not an opportunity.  And true achievement and innovation cannot occur without equal access to real, measurable resources and opportunities.  I know that is true for my two children, and I know it is fact for each and every child attending public schools in the United States, particularly for those for whom a strong education is their only chance at real success and real choice.

Reflecting on Columbine

Ten years ago today, two gunmen killed 13, 12 students and one teacher,  (and themselves) at Columbine High School in Colorado.  The tragedy was one of those moments that truly caught a community, a state, and a nation off guard.  We never expect such actions to happen in our public schools, particularly in the suburbs of Denver, and when they do it results in a range of thoughts, rhetoric, and actions.

Since the shootings (and subsequent tragedies on campuses like Virginia Tech) we talk about a lot, including the impact of bullying, the need for improved guidance departments, and even the arming of classroom teachers.  But today is not a day to debate such issues.  Today is really just a day to remember those 13 students, the 24 others who were injured in the mindless attacks, and the families of Columbine who are still affected, even a decade later.
USA Today, and reporters Greg Toppo and Marilyn Elias, offered a good story last week on the lessons learned from Columbine.  This AM, USA Today highlights, on its editorial pages, what schools have done to avoid such inexplainable actions in the future.  The piece is worth a close read from any policymaker, superintendent, school administrator, teacher, or community leader who is dealing today’s students in today’s complex society.  The four primary observations coming out of Columbine, according to our national newspaper of record. the need for:
* Better partnerships between law enforcement and schools
* Encouraging students to report suspicions
* Watching for red flags
* Better reaction plans
Today, and this topic, is not a time for clever Eduflack quips and rhetorical cadences designed to promote (or tear down) a policy agenda.  For educators, today should be a day of remembrance, and a day to ensure that tragedies like Columbine never happen again.  We can’t expect our kids to develop, academically and socially, if they don’t feel safe once they step through those schoolhouse doors.  There’s no simpler way to state such a serious issue.

Guaranteeing a High School Diploma

Many will say that a high school diploma simply isn’t worth what it was a half-century ago, or even a decade ago.  That may be true, but in this day and age, shouldn’t we offer some sort of guarantee as to what a high school diploma really stands for?  Shouldn’t an employer be assured that a high school graduate possesses a finite skill set and is holds competencies in core subjects?  Shouldn’t an institution of higher education trust that a high school graduate doesn’t require massive amounts of remediation?

If you answered yes to any of these (or a strong no, for that matter), check out my latest column over at Education News.  This morning, I discuss how we need to begin guaranteeing the value of a high school diploma if we are to retain their value in our education system and our economy.

STEM, CCs, and Opportunity

The power of STEM, science-tech-engineering-math, instruction is virtually limitless.  In our 21st century workforce, we know that all employees need both a common knowledgebase and key skills.  What may have sufficed a few decades ago, or even a few years ago, just does not cut it these days.  If one is to contribute to the economy, one needs an understanding of technology and abilities in critical thinking, teamwork, and problem-solving.  Virtually every new job being created these days requires some form of postsecondary education, those career certificate programs or college degrees that ensure successful students are proficient in core subjects such as math and science.  If one is looking for the entrance to a successful and productive career, these days it is starting with that STEM entrance sign.

Unfortunately, there are often a lot of misperceptions about STEM and its intended audience.  We first think that STEM is only for those seeking to be rocket scientists and brain surgeons.  Untrue.  Good STEM programs are for every student, as all learners benefit from being STEM literate.  We think that STEM is a high school issue.  Untrue.  There are some really successful K-8 STEM efforts (just look at some of the work being done in states like Minnesota).  There are some incredibly successful STEM efforts being undertaken at our institutions of higher education, both for those seeking careers in the STEM fields and those just looking for a leg up in their own individual pursuits.
Perhaps one of the greatest STEM urban legends is the notion that STEM skills and STEM literacy are only concerns for our current students.  As evidenced by today’s USA Today article on laid-off workers heading back to school, nothing could be further from the truth.  Those who have been adversely affected by the economy (which at this point is just about everyone) are now looking to retool and reskill, pursuing new educational opportunities so they can get into new career fields with current job opportunities and significant long-term potential.
Historically, we see this sort of behavior during many of our nation’s economic downturns.  The economy goes south, unemployment rates edge up, and more and more people turn to IHEs — usually our community colleges — to fill the gaps and improve their chances of success.  Sometimes it means acquiring some new skills to complement existing degrees, certificates, and work experience.  Sometimes it means a complete change, with former airline mechanics becoming nurses or bricklayers becoming graphic designers.
Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, our nation’s giant piggybank for economic stimulus, $1.7 billion is available for adult employment services and training programs.  As USA Today reports, recently displaced workers are looking to tap this aid to take advantage of community college and vocational programs to give them the 21st century skills necessary to secure and succeed in 21st century jobs.
To some, investment in these sorts of vocational education programs is like throwing money down a black hole.  Once and future workers pursue certificates and degrees in a wide range of topics and interests, with little regard for local community economic needs or a true understanding of the employment landscape over the next decade.  We use such funds to pursue personal interests and passions, rather than to truly retool and gain the skills necessary to take a step forward and add a layer of knowledgebase and security to their future.
is it an unfair assumption?  Absolutely.  Over the past few decades our community colleges have done yeoman’s work in providing the sort of retraining programs our workforce needed to remain skilled, knowledgeable, and effective.  As the technology changed, the CCs were there to offer courses in everything from basic computing to complex machinery and technologies.  Some of our best environmental programs are found in CCs.  And we could keep going.
So what does this mean for us now, in 2009?  Put simply, our community colleges are the front lines for effective STEM education.  Those heading back to school are looking for practical skills that will get them back into the workforce and back into jobs with a future.  STEM is the answer.  Those heading back to community colleges are looking for skills that are attractive to employers and needed by their local industries.  STEM is the answer.  And those looking to reskill and retool want to invest their time in courses and programs that represent future opportunities, not the lessons of the past.  STEM is the answer.  As we look at community colleges’ role in the P-20 education continuum, particularly as it related to those re-entering the education gateway, STEM is the answer.
Moving forward, it is essential that we effectively link STEM education, our community colleges, and the students and potential students they are seeking to serve.  How do we do it?  First, we need to strengthen linkages between K-12 and higher education, allowing more current students to see the value and impact of a community college education.  The CCs are not simply for remedial postsecondary courses or as cheaper gateways to a four-year institution.  They offer their own value and their own impact.  These linkages are already being established across the nation, as high schools and community colleges are working together on early colleges and other dual-degree programs, allowing more young people to see the strength, value, and opportunity found on their local community college campuses.  And these linkages often focus on STEM-focused courses.
Second, we need to better link our community colleges with local industry.  We need to do the gap analyses to understand the current employment pipeline and where we may be lacking in skilled employees to fill those new jobs.  What can community college do to help prepare future workers for those future jobs?  We need to better understand our assets.  What programs do our CCs currently offer?  How do they align with employer needs?  How do we build the linkages between the two?  How do we build partnerships so employers use their local CCs for worker training programs, retraining efforts, and as impactful pipelines of skilled future employers?
Most importantly, though, we must continue to strengthen the STEM offerings in our institutions of higher education.  There is simply no getting around it.  STEM literacy is an essential component to gainful employment in the 21st century.  Today’s — and tomorrow’s — workers must think differently, work smartly, and adapt to the ever-changing environment around them.  That requires a core understanding of the math, science, and technology that does into even the most unlikely of STEM jobs.  That requires the 21CS that often accompany an effective STEM education.  Even those looking to work alongside their fathers and grandfathers on the assembly line or at the construction site require a STEM literacy that was never required of generations past.  A union card is no longer enough for some jobs.  STEM proficiency needs to accompany that union bug if our workers are going to compete, innovate, and outperform industry competitors around the globe.
Kudos to those who have already recognized that, those employees or the recently laid off who are already turning to schools and vocational programs to better equip them for the opportunities of the future.  Kudos to community colleges and other IHEs who are meeting the challenge and providing relevant, effective programs that align with industry needs and expectations.  And kudos to those who see that STEM is at the heart of the future of both.
Eduflack doesn’t seek to evangelize for S
TEM (at least not all of the time), but sometimes we need to sing loudly from the STEM hymnal.  Today’s students need STEM as part of their educational pathway, providing the knowledge and skills they need both in school and in career.  Today’s employees need STEM to stay relevant and adaptable to a changing economy.  And today’s employers need STEM to ensure they current and future workforce possess the skills to contribute to a thriving, growth-focused economy.  STEM education is at the heart of all of it.  We just need to ensure that community colleges and industry keep the blood pumping.

Throwin’ Down on Teachers and School Models

Two interesting news items this morning, showing that what was once old may be new again.  The first the debate over traditional versus alternative teachers, the second on the role of small schools.

Issue One: Up in Boston, the Boston Teachers Union has firmly planted its flag in the sand, hoping to block an influx of new Teach for America educators this fall.  Citing planned cutbacks in the Boston Public Schools and a “surplus” of existing “good” teachers, the BTU is taking its fight to the streets, hoping to keep 20 new TFAers from arriving in Beantown this fall.  The full story is here, in the Boston Globe.
What’s interesting is that TFA seems to be taking the position that it is a public service organization, much along the lines of the Peace Corps or Americorps (something that Bostonians know a thing or two about).  Eduflack doesn’t doubt that many TFAers enroll in the program because they believe they are giving back to the community and performing a public service by going to into urban or rural schools that are having a dickens of a time staffing their classrooms.  But the BTU has a point here.  Is it really public service and volunteerism at its best when a TFA teacher in Boston is making the same starting salary as a beginning teacher in the district (about $46K)?  If Boston were paying TFAers the hourly wage that Americorps members are getting, we are having a different rhetorical fight.  But we are putting each pool of educators on equal footing, at least financially.
Seems to me that if Boston does indeed have this surplus of hundreds of good teachers without current jobs (not something I would be bragging about, but that’s just me) the focus then should be on quality and effectiveness.  Why bring in a TFAer for two years when you can tap the best of the current surplus pool, teachers who may already have a track record of delivering student achievement results in Boston and teachers who are prepared to make a commitment for more than two years?  Do we want surplus teachers or do we want proven-effective teachers who are prepared to make a long-term commitment to closing the achievement gap and boosting student performance?  When caged that way, the answer seems simple (particularly since we are waging this rhetorical war over 20 TFAers).  Part of TFA’s mission is staffing those hard-to-serve schools.  If we have qualified teachers lined up around Fenway Park to serve from Southie to the North End, seems they warrant an equal chance for those 20 available slots.
Issue Two: Back in America’s heartland, Chad Wick, the CEO of KnowledgeWorks Foundation, makes a strong case for the notion that small schools work.  His commentary can be found here at Education News.  This is a bold statement to make, particularly since so many people believe that the Gates Foundation disowned the notion of small schools this past fall.  But if you look at what Bill Gates said back in November, and you look at what Wick says today, they are marching in lockstep.  Those who think we are going to improve the schools simply by changing the structure and implementing a small school model are fooling themselves.  But changing the structure is an important first step to school improvement, particularly if you use the new model to create new learning opportunities for students, offer better supports and PD for teachers, and generally refuse to toe the status quo line.
Having worked with Wick and the good folks at KnowledgeWorks, they seem to know what they are talking about.  They can point to their efforts with the Ohio High School Transformation Initiative and Early College High Schools as examples where the small school structure opened the door to improvement.  They used the new structure to close the achievement gap and improve high school graduation rates.  Seems a model example of using the process (school structure) to actually generate some measurable results.  Isn’t that a novel concept, particularly in this era of innovation.

Actually Getting Kids to College, or Just Talking About It?

By now, Eduflack readers know two evident truths about successful communications.  The first is we must raise awareness about the problem and what people know about it.  The second is we must drive audiences to action, getting them to change their behaviors to fix said problem.  It is modern-day advocacy.  Being informed is no longer enough.  If we aren’t taking the action steps to improve student achievement, then any “PR effort” isn’t worth its salt.

For years now, we’ve screamed from the rooftops that each and every child in the United States required a college degree.  The U.S. Department of Education said that 90 percent of new jobs demanded some form of postsecondary education.  We’ve talked about the problems of dropout factories and business’ need for a college-educated workforce.  We’ve discussed 21st century skills and the learning needs one acquires after high school.
Earlier this week, the KnowHow2Go campaign released new public survey information on its efforts to boost public awareness of its efforts to inform eighth to 10th graders on the need for college.  The results include:
* More than one-third (35 percent) of students say they are regularly taking steps to prepare for college (up from 26 percent in 2007)
* Nine in 10 students (91 percent) have spoken to an adult about college prep, up from 80 percent
* Six in 10 students (63 percent) have seen or heard of KnowHow2Go and its advertising campaign
* Eight in 10 students (81 percent) said they were familiar with the courses needed for college, up from 70 percent two years ago
The data points are interesting, don’t get me wrong, but what do they really tell us?  As we are improving our ability to inform students, are we actually changing student behaviors?  Unfortunately, we just don’t know.  This data seems to raise just as many questions as it provides answers.
One-third of students are taking steps to prepare to college.  Interestingly, one-third of high school students will go on to college.  And one-third have gone on to college for decades.  What does that mean?  In 2007, those students who were likely going on to college didn’t know they were taking the steps necessary to get there.  So now those same students know they are asking the right questions and getting the right information.  But what are we doing for the two-thirds of ninth graders who will never go on to college?  What questions are they asking?  What steps are they taking?  And why aren’t they doing what it takes to prepare for postsecondary education?
Ninety percent of students have spoken to an adult about college.  What about that remaining 10 percent?  What are they talking about?  Who are they talking to?  And how are we defining an adult?  Based on my previous research with high school students on whether or not they go on to college, the vast majority of students say they trust their parents first and foremost when it comes to college decisions..  Guidance counselors usually rank near the bottom of adults when it comes to those voices they value.  So are these students talking to parents and trusted adults, those they may actually listen to, or are they talking to the guidance counselors and such that they will immediately discount?
Eight in 10 students are now familiar with the courses needed for college.  But are they taking them?  Again, information is great, but are students acting on the information?  Are they enrolling in higher level science and math classes?  Are they taking dual-credit opportunities?  Are they taking the ACT or SAT test?  Are they passing their state proficiency exams? It is one thing to say we know what we need to do.  It is something completely different to actually do it.
What do we know?  We know that only a third of today’s ninth graders will go on to postsecondary education.  We know that of those who enter college, more than half are unprepared for college-level work, evidenced by the high numbers of students requiring remedial math and ELA courses.  We know that a third of students are still dropping out of high school, and those numbers reach almost 50 percent in our African-American and Hispanic populations.  We know that drop-out factories are still far-too-prominent in too many of our urban centers.
I give KnowHow2Go credit for boosting awareness of the issue.  Based on their data, their message is getting out there and students are more aware of the issues (at least those students who are participating in the survey).  But how is that awareness being used to actually change public behavior?  How do we use that awareness to boost high school graduation rates?  How do we use it to close the achievement gap?  How do we use it to actually boost the college-going rate, particularly among minority and low-income students?  How do we get more students to pursue the multiple pathways of postsecondary education?  How do we move this newly acquired information into real action that is improving student achievement and preparedness for the opportunities in the 21st century workforce.
Growing up, GI Joe taught Eduflack (and many others) that knowing was half the battle.  He was right.  KnowHow2Go has done a good job of informing students of the questions they need to ask and the issues they need to think about.  But what are they doing with that information?  Success only comes when we can show more students are actually going to college.  Success only comes when we demonstrate that students are actually taking the courses they need to go on to college.  Success only comes when we have tangible results to show for it, real results tied to grad rates, college preparedness, and the number of students gaining postsecondary degrees.  Success only comes when we fight that other half of the battle.  And far too many of us still need to gear up for that fight.