A Win for Education Research

For nearly a year now, the education community has been waiting for key nominees for President Donald Trump’s Education Department. Some have been holding their collective breaths to see who get the nods for some of the “sexy” posts, including assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education.

Last night, President Trump announced the nomination of Mark Schneider to head the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). No, IES is hardly considered a sexy post by most in education. But it is an incredibly important nomination … and job.

If one believes in the identification, understanding, and use of education research, then IES is important. If one believes in scientifically based education, then IES is important. If one believes our schools — both K-12 and higher ed — should be focused on what is proven effective, then IES is important. If one believes data should trump philosophy when it comes to education, then IES is important.

It’s equally important that someone like Dr. Schneider is getting the nod for this job. Mark is both a terrific education researcher and a keen education policy person. He served as commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in the George W. Bush Administration. Perhaps just as important, he is the nation’s foremost expert on the data surrounding the cost of college — the true cost of college — at least as it applies to students and their families.

I don’t just offer this hearty endorsement based on Dr. Schneider’s reputation. Eduflack has had the opportunity to work closely with the new head of IES, particularly in helping him launch College Measures, an American Institutes of Research center focused on improving higher education outcomes by better understanding higher education data.

At Dr. Schneider’s side, I gained a far greater appreciation for both the data and for its true meaning. I was able to explore how costly some community colleges truly were, when one looked at the cost of actually earning a degree. I had to do rhetorical battle with a university president who thought his eight-year graduation rate (for four-year undergraduate program!) of less than 30 percent was something to be applauded, not concerned about. And I came to appreciate the costs and benefits of college are best looked at through the lens of the consumer, not necessarily the provider, that we need to look at the cost of degree for a student to obtain, not for the university to offer.

I’m fortunate to call Mark Schneider a friend and a mentor in the ed data space. And from nearly two decades experience working with IES — working with the Institute since its inception in 2001 — I’m grateful we will have an experienced, knowledgeable, results-focused leader at the helm.

We may not always know who is leading an agency like IES, but when it isn’t someone of the caliber of Mark Schneider, we feel the impact.


Investing in Proven Innovation

The hits keep coming from the good folks down on Maryland Avenue.  Today, the U.S. Department of Education officially released its Investing in Innovation, or i3, grant RFP.  For all of those districts looking to get a piece of nearly $650 million in i3 dollars, the clock starts … NOW.  Full details on the grant process can be found here.  

Many will recall that ED circulated a draft i3 RFP for public comment back in the fall.  Today’s announcement very closely mirrors that which we say months ago.  We are still looking at three categories of grants — development, validation, and scale-up.  Development grants still come in with a max of $5 million per; validation with a max of $30 million per, and scale up with a max of $50 million per.
School district applicants still need to provide a 20 percent matching contribution from private sources (including those college/university partners).  Bonus points remain for early childhood focus, college access and success focus, ELL focus, and rural schools focus (with rural schools worth two extra points and the others worth just one).
Most importantly, the evidence requirements remain the same as they have always been.  What does this mean?  In this case, innovation not only means the introduction of something new or different; it also means that you have to prove that that new or different approach is proven effective.  The feds are seeking very real research to drive this innovation, even in the development grants.
Before the end of the month, our friends with the federal government will hold three information sessions for prospective applicants — in Baltimore, Denver, and Atlanta.  Those districts looking to apply for i3 should file a notice of intent within 20 days of the RFP being posted on the Federal Register (still hasn’t gone up, as of 11 a.m. today) and applications are due within 60 days of Federal Register posting.  ED is now saying they will award i3 grants in two phases.
Today’s official grant notice also offers some guidance on how many grants can be awarded.  But in the words immortalized by Barbie (the Doll) back in the late 1990s, “math is hard!”  For months now, Eduflack has been telling interested LEAs that we are likely only looking at 30 total winners.  With a $650 million pool (now down to $643 million), you are looking at eight or nine winners in each of the three categories, assuming districts get close to the max.  So $400 million for scale up (eight grants), $200 million for validation (10 grants), and $40-50 million or so for development grants (10 grants).  Then the pot has run dry.
But ED seems to have a different view of things.  Average grant awards are estimated at $3 million for development, $17.5 million for validation, and $30 million for scale up.  (This despite the realization that virtually every state that applied for Race to the Top funds exceeded the budget range that was assigned to their state).  Based on those ranges, ED estimates up to five scale up winners, and up to 100 winners each in both development and validation.  Obviously, the budget doesn’t allow anything close to that.  
Five scale up winners at $30 million knocks the total pool down to less than $500 million remaining.  A hundred validation grants at $17.5 million per would put us at $1.75 billion, more than three times the remaining pool.  And those up to 100 development grants at $3 million per adds another $300 million.  So if we top out on the estimates (realizing they are all generous ranges) ED is saying i3 could be up to nearly $2.2 billion.  I’m all for stretching the dollar, but that seems to be a little more than the $643 million currently available.
Why is this so important?  LEAs need to realize that competition for these grants is going to be significantly difficult and cutthroat.  With RttT, we had a sense for how many states would and can win.  Virtually every state applies, and based on the funding ranges, we can expect close to 20 states to win.  If we don’t spend the full RttT pool, then we will have fewer winners.
But with i3, we have the possibility of thousands of school districts and consortia applying for a piece of this money.   Some districts have been hard at work on their projects for years, and a scale up grant seems like a slam dunk (Eduflack has long said Chicago Public Schools and its Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP, would be a slam dunk for i3).  Other districts have been focusing on their applications for months, even before the draft regulations came out.  Still others have been looking to partner with other districts, local universities, or nationally recognized non-profits, to strengthen their applications.  And then you have some who think that “innovation” in the title means it is supposed to fund technology programs.  Regardless, all want a piece of this.
So instead of 25 or 40 percent of states winning a RttT grant, we are looking at the possibility that far fewer than 5 percent of i3 applicants will get a taste of that federal nectar.  That means applications must be well written, on point, and based on research like few grant proposals have ever been based before (and unlike RttT, i3 applications can’t be more than 35-50 pages, depending on type).  Competition is going to be fierce.  The strength of both the research and the impact will be king.
And what does Eduflack expect to see?  First, many districts will be dusting off ye olde research protocols to ensure their proposed models match that offered by IES these past five or so years.  Second, rural schools are going to fair pretty well here, both because of the extra points and because of the realization that RttT doesn’t provide rurals the attention they may need.  And at the end of the day, we still should expect no more than 35 total winners.  Five scale up winners each coming in close the $50 million cap, 10 or so validation winners coming closer to the $30 million cap than the $17.5 million ED estimate, and another 10-12 development winners, most of which need more than the $3 million in expected seed money.
Good research and documentation is hard, and it doesn’t come cheap.  For months, we’ve been hearing that RttT is all about quality, not quantity.  The same needs to be true for i3.  The focus should be on providing a select group of school districts with the money to truly ramp up and further test a specific intervention that is boosting student performance and closing the achievement gap.  If we want these funds to have a real, true, and lasting impact, we need to spend wisely on the lowest-hanging fruit, investing in those ideas that have the greatest possible return on investment and using those results to inspire other districts to follow suit. 

Community Investment in Education

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

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

Reading First, Last, and Forever

Sometimes, it is just tiring being Eduflack, particularly when it comes to the area of reading instruction.  Time and again, I’ve pledged that I’ve written my last post on Reading First.  Between the IES study and Congress’ dismissal, RF has been written off for dead more times than a cat on her ninth life.  It seems the final nail in the coffin has been hammered time and again over the last year or two.

But then along come a series of actions that just make you see that while the Reading First brand may be dead and buried, its impact and its infrastructure are not going anywhere.  The bright spot is Understanding Reading First, a new white paper from MDRC.  The piece is worth a quick read.  No, there is no groundbreaking data or unread news in the document.  But it is a strong summation of RF, its foundations, and some of the results.
And read in the current context, it also shows that scientifically based reading research may indeed have a longer shelf life than any of us, including those stalwart supporters, ever thought was possible.  Thanks to the economic stimulus money in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, states and school districts are now discovering they can use their newfound education riches to extend RF-based programs for another year or two.  In fact, some could say the spending on reading coaches, scientifically based instructional materials, and professional development for reading teachers is exactly what ARRA is intended for.
Then we have the data, including the state research that has come from bellwether states like California, Texas, Ohio, and others demonstrating the positive impact that RF has had on student achievement.  Couple that with last fall’s RF study from the US Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (OPEPD) and there is more than enough strong data to show that the original IES study was flawed and one has to look at its nil finding with skeptical eyes.
Now we can mix in the K-12 reading instruction bill that has been circulating around town, which I am still trying to brand “Yes, We Can Read.”  Thanks to key education groups and key congressional leaders, we are actually working on a literacy bill that will build on RF’s elementary school focus and offer a reading continuum from preschool through high school graduation.  Even more important, the draft language being circulated around Washington, DC reflects a strong crosswalk with the SBRR language in the original Reading First.  An expansion here, some rewording there, but the intent and the embrace of the research is still there.
Hopefully, Understanding Reading First will get more attention and play than those that came before it, particularly the OPEPD study.  There is a growing pool of research demonstrating that RF worked, particularly when you factor in the positive impact it has had on schools and classrooms that didn’t receive specific dollars for Reading First programs.  Across the nation, all schools adopted scientifically based reading instruction and materials.  All teachers were trained in the research methods.  And virtually all kids benefited from it.  And for those who don’t want to listen to the state data, the NAEP results, or the results of other such assessments, MDRC reminds us of that once again.

A Farewell to Niffle?

This morning, the Obama Administration released its plans for the FY2010 budget.  Most in the education community have been taken by some of the big items found on the education side of the ledger.  Cuts to Title I.  Significant investments in early childhood education.  Reductions in education technology.  But it was a $6 million line item that caught the eye of Eduflack.

When we’re talking about billions of education dollars, it is hard to get worked up over a couple of million bucks.  In the grand scheme of things, few are going to truly weep over the potential elimination of the National Institute for Literacy.  Other than a small, but loyal, following in the adult literacy community, there are few that even keep track of what NIFL is up to these days.  But the zeroing out of the NIFL budget in the president’s plans speak loudly and clearly.
For years now, NIFL was struggling to figure out what it wanted to be when it grew up.  Originally, NIFL was developed to focus on adult literacy issues.  According to its own materials:
The National Institute for Literacy was established in 1991 by the National Literacy Act (NLA) and reauthorized by the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) in 1998. In creating the Institute, the U.S. Congress recognized that building a competitive workforce required a concerted effort to improve adults’ basic skills. Congress tasked the Institute with initiating a coordinated, interagency effort to strengthen and expand adult literacy services. Both laws positioned the Institute as a national leader on adult literacy, a central source of knowledge about research, practice, and policy, and a catalyst for innovation.
A bold mission statement, yes, but some can and do question whether NIFL has actually acted as this rhetoric describes.  After 17 years of operation, how many seriously view it as a central source of knowledge about research or as a catalyst for innovation?  I’m not seeing many hands raised.
In 2002, NIFL took a turn from its core mission to focus on scientifically based reading research and the reading priorities found in No Child Left Behind and Reading First.  The organization focused on research projects, reports, technical assistance, professional development, and even advocacy for K-12 reading instruction.  Eduflack was fortunate enough to lead a communications effort for NIFL’s Partnership for Reading, a collaborative across multiple government agencies to emphasize the importance of scientifically based reading to policymakers, teachers, and families.
At the time, many of NIFL’s early fans and friends thought the NCLB work took away from the Institute’s core mission and unique value proposition.  They thought it distracted NIFL from the business of dealing with literacy issues for those who have left school, including new immigrants and those who were incarcerated.  They thought it was the U.S. Department of Education hijacking a needed lever for helping those adults and non-students who had fallen through the literacy cracks.
Others, Eduflack included, saw reading instruction in the early grades as a necessary, non-negotiable mission for NIFL.  While it may not have been a focus in the early years, one could not dispute that focusing on reading skills with our youngest learners has real and strong impact on our adolescent and adult learners.  The Reading Excellence Act (during the Clinton Administration) opened the door to this focus on the elementary grades.  NCLB merely brightened the spotlight and raised the stakes.
Personally, I like NIFL.  I have respect for the people who have worked there, those who have advised it, and those who have and still do sit on its board.  But the future of NIFL has long been a struggle.  Many felt that adult literacy issues are better served by ED’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education.  And when it came to K-12, there was far more power and effort being exerted by the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education and even the Reading First office. 
How much impact can $6 million have, particularly when $3 million of it was being spent on the operational costs of the Institute itself?  We’ve heard for years that NIFL was launching a National Reading Panel, Part 2, but it has never come to fruition.  We’ve had multi-year NIFL research panels undertake work, only to have their final reports blocked by the Institute of Education Studies from final publication.  We had listserves taken down because they were far too critical.  And we had non-governmental groups like the National Center for Family Literacy do a more effective job in actually promoting change and improvement in the literacy community.
Am I sad to see the “Going Out of Business” sign potentially hung on NIFL’s doors?  No, not particularly.  The same issues can be better handled by others.  What I am sad about is the great potential NIFL has had, particularly over the last decade, and its inability to capitalize on that potential.  The organization was almost afraid to take a leadership position in a field where it had every right and responsibility to lead.  It favored inaction over action. It feared rocking the boat or drawing attention.  It wanted to go about its business, without truly integrating and interacting with those government offices and individuals who could help take the $6 million investment in NIFL and exponentially increase the impact of the investment.  No wonder the Obama Administration failed to see the value.
Years ago, Congress debated whether to reauthorize NIFL or not, questioning whether the Institute was a necessary cog in our education improvement efforts.  It was written into NCLB to prove its necessity.  Now, seven years later, we see that NIFL is expendable.  Our focus should not be on saving the Institute, that exercise was undertaken years ago.  Instead, we must now look to how the valuable activities and programs managed by NIFL are continued by others.  What do OVAE and OESE take over?  What moves over to IES?  What goes to NCFL and other non-profits?  
We still have much work to do if we are to improve literacy rates and reading proficiency in this country, from our youngest learners to our most experienced workers.  If not NIFL, someone must step in and lead on this issue.  The stakes are too high not to.

The Data Is Always Bigger in Texas

At the start of the year, Eduflack made a couple of promises.  I would seek to throw the spotlight on positive stories that were not getting the attention they deserved.  I would look to education policy stories outside of Washington, DC.  And I would continue to my Don Quixote-like obsession with continuing to push the notion that evidence-based reading instruction works, and that it can be proven in state after state.

A few weeks ago, we talked about the exemplary results out in California, where student reading scores have significantly risen after the adoption of scientifically based reading instruction under Reading First.  This follows similar data from states from Idaho to Ohio, where we’ve seen tangible, significant impact of SBRR on student achievement.  Now we set our sights on the Lone Star State, where reading score on the state’s TAKS exam again show that evidence-based reading works if our goal is to boost student reading proficiency and achievement.
The data is clear.  Looking at 2003 data (pre-RF) and 2008 data (the supposed end of RF), third graders in RF schools who passed the TAKS reading section rose 14 percent, from 77 percent to 91 percent.  That compares to 4 percent gains for both all students and for those in non-RF classrooms.
For Hispanic students, the overall state gain was 6 percent, but Hispanic students in RF schools posted a whopping 15 percent gain.  African-American third graders did even better under RF, posting a 4 percent gain overall, but a 16 percent gain in RF classes.  Among economically disadvantaged students, those in RF classrooms saw 15 percent reading passage gains.  And limited English proficient students in RF schools saw an incredible 19 percent gain in their reading proficiency, according to TAKS.
All of this is from data available from the Texas Education Agency.  All of this flies in the face of the urban legend that Reading First had little, if any, impact on student reading proficiency.  All of it shows that evidence-based reading instruction just plain works.  Yet none of this has made its way into the policy debate.
If you talk to education reformers today, they’ll tell you the most significant challenge educators face today is closing the achievement gap.  The differences in performance between white and African-American students, between white and Hispanic students, and between rich and poor students should be a national embarrassment.  We are selling all students on the notion that they need a high school diploma and some form of postsecondary education in order to succeed in life.  But at the same time, we want to ignore that so many students are struggling to be reading proficient by the end of the third grade and will never have the literacy skills to succeed in college.
Those in the classroom will tell you that struggling fourth grade readers have a near impossible task of catching up over the remainder of their academic career.  Where they need more time and more intensity in their reading practice and instruction, they get less as they start to study other academic subjects.  Then they fall behind in social studies and science and even math because they lack the literacy skills needed to perform at grade level in other subjects.
That is why SBRR is so important, and that is why Eduflack continues to tilt at windmills here.  Forget what the IES Impact Study may have said.  It looked at a very small group of schools using a research model that can’t be replicated (as we don’t know the handful of schools that were studied).  Let’s turn our attention to what matters — student achievement.
Like it or not, the best measure we now have for student achievement is the state assessment.  In state after state, that state assessment is showing that student reading achievement is on the rise, markedly so since the introduction of RF in 2003.  Texas is just the latest collection of data points.  We’re seeing it in state after state.
What makes Texas’ data that much more interesting is the clear picture it paints with regard to SBRR and its ability to close the achievement gap.  Doing what is proven effective in literacy instruction, teachers in the Lone Star State dramatically improved student reading achievement for African-American, Hispanic, and poor students.  Students are learning, students are reading, and the major variable between 2003 and 2008 was the introduction (and requirement) of evidence-based instruction, materials, interventions, and professional development.
It all begs the question — how much more state-level data is necessary before the naysayers and the doomsdayers admit that evidence-based reading instruction works, that we can show it works, and that we can replicate its successes in schools and classrooms where too many children are still left behind?  We can get every child reading.  We just need to stay the course, and get real, proven approaches and materials into more classrooms, empower more teachers with the PD and support they need to use it, and effectively measure ongoing student progress (while offering specific interventions when needed).
If SBRR is working and proven effective deep in the heart of Texas (along with California, Ohio, and elsewhere), how can we think of putting on the brakes and denying these kids who are demonstrating real improvement?  

Trust Us, We’re With DCPS

Data can be a dangerous weapon.  In public education, we use it to validate ideas, attack initiatives we are unsure of, and guide spending and policy decisions.  Over the last decade, we’ve seen a massive transformation on data and research — what counts and what doesn’t, what’s good and what’s bad, what’s evidence-based and what’s purely squishy.  Through it all, though, we clearly know that data is an important component to an effective argument.

Along the way, we have picked up a few key pointers.  There is a difference between quantitative and qualitative research, with the former a stronger measure of effectiveness.  A medical model with control groups is the ideal, but is also impossible to achieve in the schools, as no student or no class wants to be the one that receives no instruction at all, limited to sit there like a bump on a log as every other child learns.  And methodology and documentation is king, particularly so others can scrutinize the process and replicate the research study to quiet the doubting Thomases.
When the National Reading Panel released its Teaching Children to Read report, it generated a firestorm of reaction and overreaction.  Many questioned the personalities involved.  Others scrutinized the methodology, and some the findings themselves.  So it fell to Rutgers University Professor Greg Camilli to replicate the research.  He applied a broader, more appeasing methodology, and found the same essential results as the NRP.  So the research debate ended (and the field focused on fights over personalities and implementation.)
When the Institute for Education Sciences released its Reading First Impact Study last year, it was seen as the final nail in the RF coffin.  Here was the gold standard in research models — IES — finding that there was no measurable impact of the high profile reading initiative.  But those who take a closer look at the research saw real problems in the methodology.  First, the study did not take the issue of “contamination” into question, all but saying that students in RF schools received different instruction, different textbooks, and differently trained and supported teachers than those in non-RF schools.  We know that is not the case.  But even more damning is that the Impact Study looked at a relatively small sample size to reach its conclusions, and did so in a way that the research can never be replicated.  There is no public record of what actual schools were studied.  And there is little hope that such information could ever be obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.  So hundreds of millions of dollars in education policy has been decided by a study with questionable methodology that can never be validated and replicated by another researcher, as the field scrambles to try and validate (or invalidate) the findings.
Why all of this background?  To show that the quality of research and the transparency of the process is key.  We trust that the evidence will guide us to strong policy and funding decisions.  We look for the data, believing the numbers will serve as a compass pointing toward student achievement.  And despite Mark Twain’s warnings about statistics, we still hold them to be a primary driver in our decisionmaking.  Citing data and research studies is often the final piece to closing a deal in education improvement these days.
Which is why the most recent pronouncement coming out of Washington, DC Public Schools is all the more problematic.  By now, most know of the battle between DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee and the American Federation of Teachers over the issues of tenure and teacher pay.  For more than a year now, Rhee has been pushing the notion of dramatically increasing salaries for effective teachers (assuming the give up tenure) and has secured outside, private funding to accomplish the pay raises.  Critics have attacked her for many reasons, one of which is the sustainability of such pay raises.  What happens when the outside foundations or corporate sponsors move on to the next issue?  How will DCPS be able to sustain the new, higher pay structure?
On a radio program yesterday, Rhee stated she had a research report from an economic consultant showing that the plan can indeed be sustained.  But she won’t name the consultant.  And she won’t release the report.  She wants us simply to take her word that she can make up the supposed $100 million pledge to DCPS for pay raises if need be, while waiving an unnamed report from an unnamed researcher to prove her point.
The full story can be found in this morning’s Washington Post — www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/02/AR2009030202785.html?hpid=moreheadlines  
Let me say for the record that Eduflack believes that Rhee’s teacher pay structure can indeed be sustained.  Quite honestly, she has no choice.  If she signs a contact with the Washington Teachers Union outlining a pay structure that will offer $135,000 salaries to non-tenured teachers, she needs to honor the CBA, regardless of changes in her financial pipeline.  A deal is a deal.  (Though Eduflack seriously doubts that AFT will ever agree to the deal, at least as it has been presented to date.)  She’s resourceful and will find the funds from other donors, or from within the DCPS budget itself if necessary.
But waiving around an unnamed research study that supposedly proves your point, no questions asked, but refusing to provide details, identifiers, or even the study itself is just amateur grandstanding.  The “I have in my hand” approach asks us to trust Rhee when, quite frankly, she hasn’t earned the trust of those she is seeking to reach.
If Rhee wants to show her teacher pay plan is sustainable, she needs to release her research study know and get it into the hands of every member of the city council and every leader at WTU and AFT.  And she needs to get its toplines to every single teacher in DCPS.  She should be making the data case now.  If she has the research, post it online, distribute it at DCPS headquarters, heck, hand it out to everyone coming to visit the Lincoln Memorial.  Get the data out there, let it speak for itself, and let your opponents see the true strength of your argument.
Trying to sidestep a major question like sustainability with a “Trust me, I’m with the government” approach just doesn’t cut it in the new era of 21st century school improvement.  Our schools, educators, and students have been sold a lot of vapor in recent years.  Victory comes to those who can prove their point, and have the data to back it up.  Until Rhee releases this economic study on the sustainability of her pay proposal, she can’t win the day.

What’s Next for Federal Reading?

For decades now, the federal government has made teaching children to read a national priority.  Reading First is just the latest iteration of this commitment.  The Reading Excellence Act came before it, with other federal efforts before REA.  That’s why Eduflack is always surprised when he hears from reading advocates who are gravely concerned that federal investment in reading instruction will grind to a halt this year when RF ends.

Let’s be perfectly clear.  Reading First is dead.  There is no political will to continue this program, particularly with the baggage it carries.  RF has been tarred, feathered, and paraded through the town square as an example of poor government implementation and of questionable outcomes at best.  But that doesn’t mean the program, at least as it was originally envisioned in 2001, does not offer some strong instructional components upon which a better, stronger, more effective reading effort can be constructed.
To get us started, we need to drop Reading First from our vocabulary.  Call it “Yes We Can Read,” “And Reading For All,” “Literacy for America,” or anything else that will capture the hearts and minds of countless schools and families looking for literacy skills to improve their lots in life and close the achievement gaps in their schools.  (And while we are on the topic, no one in the Administration should utter the words No Child Left Behind or NCLB from this point forward.  That was the old regime.  As we focus on reauthorization and improving the law, let’s stick to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, until we come up with a stronger brand for our overall federal education policy.)
So how do we do it?  What are the core components of “Yes We Can Read” that redouble our national commitment to ensuring every student is equipped with the literacy skills to read at grade level, particularly by fourth grade?  How do we ensure that every child –regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or neighborhood — becomes a skilled, able reader?
Working from the strongest and best of RF — those components that have reading teachers, state RF directors, and a host of other stakeholders excited about reading instruction and certain that they are making the reading gains originally intended — we can build that better reading program by focusing on five key components:
1) Continue the commitment to scientifically based reading.  RF turned a new page on education research, how it is defined, and how it is applied.  It is important that any new education programs continue to rely on science as part of its policy.  We need to make sure we are doing what is proven effective.  If we expect to demonstrate return on investment, we must ensure our federal dollars are being spent on efforts that work.  That means demonstrating a strong scientific base.  We cannot lose sight of that.  But we must also broaden our view of that proven research base.  To date, we’ve been governing under rule of the National Reading Panel report.  That is a strong start.  But there is more to SBRR than just the NRP.  The National Research Council’s Reading Difficulties report, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Reading Next study, the AFT’s Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, and even the recent National Early Literacy Panel findings all contribute to the scientifically based reading base we must build upon.  If it is good, replicable research, we must include it into the equation.
2) We need to broaden our spectrum.  RF was built as an elementary school reading program, believing we could catch all kids and get them reading proficient by fourth grade.  Today, more than a third of our fourth graders are still reading below grade level.  We have millions of kids in danger of falling through the cracks.  Our federal reading program must be a P-12 reading initiative.  We need to start with the best of what was found in Early Reading First, ensuring our early childhood education efforts are empowering our students with early literacy skills.  We continue that through the elementary grades.  And then we move it through the middle grades and our secondary schools.  If reading is a lifelong pursuit, our federal reading efforts must continue across the educational continuum.  This is particularly true as we look to international benchmarks and state exit and graduation exams as the marks of success.
3) Federal dollars need to be focused on two key components — instructional materials and professional development.  We’ve wasted the past six years fighting over commercial products and which one of those is on a so-called golden list.  This is supposed to be about getting what is proven effective into the hands of good teachers.  The name on the box doesn’t matter.  We need to find a better way to make sure that good research is getting into the classroom.  Too many people took advantage of the intent of SBRR, selling research vapor and serving as 21st century RF profiteers.  Moving forward, it should be about content and proof, not branding.
We forget that 25 percent of the more than $1 billion spent on RF was intended for teacher professional development.   We also forget that effective instruction begins and ends with effective teaching.  Our teachers need to be empowered to improve literacy instruction in our schools.  They need to better understand the research and put it to use in their classrooms, using that knowledge to provide the specific interventions necessary to get all children reading.  We must recognize that such professional development should reach more than just the traditional ELA teacher in our elementary grades.  Every teacher across the continuum is, in essence, a reading teacher.  How do we help math and science and social studies teachers reinforce our reading priorities in their classrooms?  In many ways, research-based pre-service and in-service professional development is the single most important component to any future reading instruction effort.  We need to train, equip, and support our teachers in both the broader and the finer points of literacy.
4) We need to factor ELL and ESL into the equation.  At the end of the day, reading skills are reading skills, whether they are acquired in English or in your native Spanish, Hmong, or other language.  We teach all children to read, and then we convert those skills into English as needed.  With a growing immigrant population and school districts that are now home to 100+ native languages spoken in their hallways, we need to instill literacy skills in all students and then look for ways to transfer those skills to the English language.  Reading is reading.  Phonemic awareness and fluency and comprehension are universal, regardless of the language you may be starting in or what is spoken or read at home.
5) We need to better measure the impact of our efforts.  RF has been bottlenecked the past year over measures of efficacy.  The recent Institute of Education Sciences study on Reading First is seen by many as a repudiation of the program.  Unfortunately, it is not a study of SBRR, it is a study on the effectiveness of program spending.  As we’ve written about many times before, IES failed to take into account the issue of contamination, meaning that the study was built on the notion that only those schools receiving RF funds were implementing RF programs and SBRR, so we compared RF schools with non-RF schools to see the difference.  We know that to be a false comparison.  Publishers changed their textbooks to meet RF standards, and those new books were sold to all schools, not just RF schools.  PD programs were redeveloped to address RF expectations, and that PD was offered to all teachers, not just those in RF districts.  RF permeated all schools in the nation, whether they received a federal check or not.
A programmatic study, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (OPEPD) took this contamination issue into account, and its fall 2008 evaluation report identified real success in our federal reading initiative.
Regardless of one’s loyalties to IES or OPEPD, the next generation of federal reading needs to include clear measurements and clear assessment tools to identify our progress and determine true ROI.  How do we measure our success?  What tools, beyond the state exams, should be considered?  How do we quantify good reading PD?  How do we demonstrate that the good works performed by teachers, teacher educators, reading specialists, families, and CBOs is not for naught?  Good programs must be measured.  Great programs must be assessed, reviewed, improved, and strengthened over time.  
These five components provide us the foundations for a federal reading initiative that addresses the real-world needs of our classrooms today.  They recognize the need for federal funds, particularly at a time when state and local budgets are strained beyond belief.  They recognize the central role of the teacher, as an educator, researcher, and student.  And they recognize the ultimate end game we all are playing — to get every student reading proficient, ensuring they have the skills and abilities necessary to achieve in school and in society.
Even when we talk about 21st century skills or STEM skills, literacy remains key.  Nothing is possible if our students can’t read.  They can’t do advanced math.  They can’t study the sciences. They can’t explore our civilizations or our history.  They can’t even fully participate in the school chorus.  Reading is the heart and soul of the American public education system.  Now is the time to come together, tap available resources, and redouble our national commitment to getting each and every child to read.  It is the only way we close the achievement gap, boost student achievement, and improve graduation rates.  It all begins with reading.  And effective reading begins now.

From Under the Eduflack Tree

I admit it, Eduflack is a sucker for Christmas.  As a kid, I used to stay up all night, just waiting for Christmas morning to come.  Now, there is nothing I like more than giving gifts to the Edu-family.  Each year, I tend to go a little overboard, receiving more than my share of reprimands from Eduwife for my “generosity.”  This season is sure to be no different.

The good thing about the blogsphere is that words are (virtually) free.  So I can’t help but offer up a few virtual gifts or best wishes for the holidays for those who were good little boys and girls this past year.
To EdSec in-waiting Arne Duncan and the incoming U.S. Department of Education, an Office of Communications and Outreach that is proactive and engaging.  Now is the time to seize the bully pulpit, engage key stakeholders, and promote the need for school improvement and the avenues by which we achieve it.  That doesn’t get done through press conferences and reports.  Duncan and ED need to get innovative, using new communication vehicles, new communication channels, and new ideas to build an army of support for real, meaningful school improvement.
To the Institute of Education Sciences, a new director with a sharper mission about engaging practitioners and policymakers on research.  IES is meant to be the R&D arm of the U.S. Department of Education.  We don’t need more discussion between researchers, debating which ivory tower is more effective on which research issue.  IES should build a national dialogue on education research, committing itself to providing data (and how to use it) to the practitioners in the field.  Don’t settle for anything less than becoming the Consumer Reports or the Good Housekeeping seal for education research.
To DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, a velvet glove.  I appreciate her take-no-prisoners approach to improving education in our nation’s capital, and I applaud her willingness to buck the status quo and do whatever she sees necessary.  But she can’t neglect what she’ll be left with when the dust settles.  It is fine to demand more from your teachers.  But you need to treat them with general respect, rather than tagging them all as the lowest common denominator.  Win over the teachers (and the teachers union), and you’ll have the hearts and minds of the schools and the city itself.
To Randi Weingarten and the AFT, an unprecedented opportunity.  The Obama Administration has made clear that teachers — particularly their training, recruitment, and retention — is at the top of the education improvement wish list.  If that’s to happen, teachers need a clear, powerful voice to break through the white noise and effectively advocate for good teachers and good teaching.  AFT is nimble enough, reform-minded enough, and innovative enough to be that voice.  The coming year provides a unique opportunity to remind all stakeholders that there is no more important investment than that of effective classroom instruction.  And it all starts with the teacher.  Someone needs to give those teachers a voice during such a debate, and that someone is the AFT.  Seize the opportunity.
To the National Governors Association’s Dane Linn and his Education Division, the spotlight.  In many ways, NGA is the workhorse of education improvement organizations.  They are in the mix on most major issues.  They give and receive grants.  And they provide great intellectual leadership on key issues, including high school reform, STEM, literacy, national standards, and the like.  But they often get the backseat when it comes to media attention and recognition beyond those in the know.  Eduflack always favors the workhorse over the showhorse, but NGA has earned its ring of roses these days.
To the next education governor, a bold plan.  Virtually every governor declares him or herself as the next education governor.  Behind this rhetoric is often little follow through.  By now, we should realize that the truly great education improvements are not going to happen at the federal level.  They are going to occur at the state level, led by governors who see how improved P-20 education leads to improved economic opportunity.  Those governors who effectively connect educational pathways to economic prosperity will be the ones who persevere the current economic situation and leave a lasting mark on their schools.
To Kati Haycock and Education Trust, a continued drumbeat.  Many believe that EdTrust hitched its star onto No Child Left Behind, and that such a move would ultimately come with a price.  As we prepare to move into NCLB 2.0, reauthorization, and a new Administration, EdTrust is in the catbird seat when it comes to advocating for student achievement and school improvement.  Haycock and company have long focused on the end game of the students.  NCLB was a means for that.  It wasn’t an end to it.  Continue to keep an eye on the end result, and EdTrust will continue to drive this debate.
To the U.S. Congress, a reauthorized NCLB.  There is no need to put off what needs to be done now.  NCLB needs improvement.  Senator Kennedy, Congressman Miller, Congressman McKeon, and others have put forward ideas for improving the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  EdSec Designate Duncan wants a federal law of his own, one that reflects his goals and the priorities of the Obama Administration.  Let’s reauthorize the law now, proudly proclaiming a national commitment to improved student achievement, improved teaching, improved data collection, and the supports needed to deliver all of the above.
To STEM advocates, a moment in the spotlight.  Those who read Eduflack know I am a strong advocate for science-technology-engineering-math education efforts.  STEM is a complex topic with the potential for real impact on our schools and our economy.  It isn’t just for rocket scientists and brain surgeons.  As more and more states ramp up STEM efforts and more non-profits support STEM initiatives, I wish them the headlines and communication channels to ensure their good work gets the good attention it deserves.  Without the right advocacy and the right communications, the STEM star may soon burn out, before it has fulfilled its true potential.
To the education advocacy community, a better appreciation for effective communication.  For far too many, effective communication is a one-way activity, where we share information with others and hope they put it to use.  You’ve heard it hear before, but information-sharing is merely the first step to effective communication.  Our goal should not be to simply inform.  Our goal is to change thinking and change public behavior.  That means communications efforts that focus on stakeholder engagement and real measures of success. A clip packet is not a measure of effective communication.
To the education blog community, some ideas to go along with our rocks.  It is very easy to shout against the wind or to throw rocks against that which we don’t like.  Eduflack has been blogging for almost two years now, and I’m constantly amazed by the number of people who look to the education blogs for information and how ideas quickly circulate through education’s online community.  We need to use that power for good.  Yes, it is important to be a watchdog and to keep those in power in check.  But we also need to use these forums for good — for sharing information, offering up solutions, and spotlighting best practices and the good in school improvement.  I can promise you it’ll be one of my New Year’s resolutions.  I hope others will join me.
My scroll of gifts is curling over.  I hope stockings are filled for the advocates of scientifically based reading and early childhood education and ELL and national standards and real school innovations.  I hope the agitators and the improvers and t
he innovators receive the best of holiday tidings.  And I hope the status quoers see a guiding light this holiday season, recognizing that our schools need real improvement, and that we should stop at nothing until every fourth grader is reading at grade level, every student is graduating high school and is graduating college ready, and every teacher has the training and ongoing support necessary to deliver the high-quality education every student needs and deserves.  ‘Tis the season, after all.

Looking Ahead to 2009 Priorities

The holiday season and the end of a year usually triggers one of two behaviors in people.  The first is to be reflective on the last year, taking the time to evaluate our successes and failures.  Over at the Curriculum Matters blog (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/), Kathleen Manzo points out that is exactly what the U.S. Department of Education is doing, with EdSec Spellings and company offering up a swan song of NCLB highlights.  And while I share Manzo’s few that many will quibble with NCLB raising student achievement scores and closing the achievement gap, it is an important list to take a look at.

The second approach, though, is the one taken today by USA Today in its dueling editorials.  Focusing today’s debate on education, the nation’s newspaper offers four “low-cost ways to fix the schools.”  It is a great read, particularly since it is likely RIchard Whitmire’s swan song over at USA Today.  blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2008/12/our-view-on-edu.html#more  
For more than a month now, Eduflack has been pointing out that the new Obama-Duncan education team is not going to have buckets of new education dollars to play with.  They are going to need to re-allocate existing funds, restructure current programs, and ensure that today’s dollars are delivering real return on investment.  Along those lines, what does USA Today propose?
* Renew No Child Left Behind
* Target preschool money toward quality improvements
* Boost high-performing charter schools
* Extend accountability to higher education
It is an interesting wish list.  Senator Kennedy has called for NCLB reauthorization, and incoming EdSec Arne Duncan is on record as a fan of the law.  So it is safe to assume that reauthorization is coming, with some improvements to the existing law.  The reauthorization is likely to be revenue neutral, but it will redeclare our priorities for the coming years.  It is the strongest stick in Duncan’s upcoming rhetorical arsenal.
Preschool builds on a strong tenet of the Obama campaign, with his ongoing call to invest $10 billion in early childhood education.  Yes, the focus should be on quality.  And those quality improvements should be about academic enhancements and instructional building blocks.  If we really want to be bold, the first step should be moving Head Start (and its budget) from HHS over to ED.  Many states have started the universal preK push.  With state budgets now facing devastating cuts, the feds are going to need to fortify the dams on early childhood ed, ensuring that recent gains aren’t erased because of short-term cash crunches.  The long-term effects are just too important.  
And of course higher education needs greater accountability.  Not only should it be accountable to the government (federal and state) and regulatory bodies, but it should be truly accountable to its customers — the students — ensuring they have clear data on both how their tuition dollars are spent and the return on investment for them in the classroom and beyond.
The charter school piece is an interesting one.  We know charters are working in Chicago, and we know there are promising models — such as KIPP and Green Dot.  But if a Republican president and a Republican Congress weren’t able to redouble federal support for charters, do we expect it from a Democratic Congress?  Ideas such as Andy Rotherham’s reconstitution of OII may help move this idea forward incrementally, but charters are going to become a very “interesting” issue in the coming years, replacing vouchers as the line in the sand between reformers and status quoers.  And it is all going to come down to research and which side is the more effective advocate.
I would recommend a few other “low-cost ideas,” particularly those streams of thought that just ensure we are spending current money wisely.  The first is Title II.  This incoming Administration has declared 2009 as the unofficial year of the teacher.  We need to make sure that Title II dollars are going to effective professional development, that it is ongoing and job-embedded.  That PD is tied to classroom instruction and demonstrable student improvement.  That our teachers are getting the tools and knowledgebase they need to both meet growing expectations and truly succeed.  We need to make sure that teacher dollars are getting to actual teachers, and aren’t being used to fund bureaucracies or ineffective programs.
The second is research.  Lost in the last six months is the fate of the Institute for Education Sciences and where the U.S. Department of Education’s R&D arm is headed.  IES has a healthy budget.  It is invested in major projects like WWC that have promise, but need a lot of help.  If anything, IES needs a re-tooling.  It needs to better focus on the end user (decisionmakers and educators) and not worry so much about the research community.  It needs to translate the data so it is put into practice into the classroom.  It needs to inform instruction, and successfully communicate its findings and its recommendations to every public school and every classroom in the United States.  And that can be done under existing structure and existing resources.
Once he arrives at Maryland Avenue, Duncan is going to have to lay out a clear vision of where this EdSec is heading on a host of issues.  NCLB, early childhood education, and charter schools will be chief among them.  Many will look at how this K-12 educator will address issues of postsecondary education.  What will be interesting is what ELSE he focuses on.  What does he make a priority that isn’t on the radar?  Will it be research?  Will it be ELL?  Will it be non-IHE training programs?  Will it be family engagement?  Will it be STEM?  I’m hoping the answer is yes to all those questions, and those answers come with an integrated plan showing how they all tie together and how ED is going to build public and stakeholder support for each now, with a financial ask coming a year from now.  I can dream, can’t I?  It is Christmas time, after all.