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.    

“Read”ing All About It

Today, the final shoe dropped on the Reading First era.  The Institute of Education Sciences released the final version of the Reading First Impact Study.  A surprise to no one, the final impact study came to the same conclusions as the interim study.  The summary of summaries, RF schools aren’t doing a better job of making student reading proficient, compared with non-RF schools.

The full story can be found here at Education Week — www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/11/18/14read.h28.html?tmp=1344181825  
When the interim study came out, many, including Eduflack, pointed out the vast flaws in the study’s methodology, chief among them being the issue of contamination, or the impact of RF programs and materials on non-RF schools.  Back in September, the Reading First Federal Advisory Committee issued its review of the interim study, calling for some wholesale changes before the final report was issued.  Unfortunately, little, if any, of the recommendations coming from the Advisory Committee were addressed in the final Study.
I’ve been mulling the issue all day.  As a surprise to many an Eduflack reader, I am not here to once again defend the goals of Reading First and point to the data that demonstrates that scientifically based reading is having an effect on schools, both those receiving RF funds and those that do not.  In the simplest of terms, been there, done that.  I’m a pragmatist.  I know that RF is dead.  It was dead the day the IG report came out almost two years ago, and the find shovels of dirt were thrown on the program with the release of this Impact Study.
And no, we are not here to eulogize RF, to discuss its merits, or to hash out why it failed to meet its promise or fulfill its mission.  Such tasks are best left to the think tanks and the academicians who can give a careful eye to how the research translated into practice, how effective that practice was, and how effective the measurement and feedback of the program was across its lifetime.
The question should not be what happened.  Instead, we must ask what comes next.  How do we move on from here?
The legacy of RF leaves us with three key buckets of policy we must consider — research to practice, a federal reading program, and IES.
At its heart, RF was a thorough attempt to move research into practice.  It was the development part of the R&D equation, an opportunity to take decades of research on literacy and reading acquisition skills and put it to use in the classroom.  How is the research applied to core materials, such as textbooks?  How is the research applied to teacher development, both pre-service and in-service?  How is the research embedded in instruction and in key interventions designed to get all kids reading?  And how does the federal government effectively do it all, guiding SEAs, impacting LEAs, and doing it all without endorsing specific commercial products or approaches?  
On some of these issues, RF provided a blueprint for success.  On others, it provided a clear portrait of federal failure.  Through it all, RF raised the profile of research in the instructional process, better equipped classroom practitioners to deal with education research, and increased the profile of data-based decisionmaking.  All of those are pluses for school improvement efforts moving forward.
Now onto stream two — a federal reading program.  For decades, the federal government has enhanced literacy instruction for K-12 students.  Before RF, we had the Reading Excellence Act. Before REA we had other federal programs.  That commitment is not going to disappear.  Long after RF is forgotten, there will still be dedicated federal investment in reading instruction. The question before us, now, is how do we do it.  How do we transform Early Reading First into a meaningful component of early childhood education efforts?  How do we enhance instruction for struggling readers, particularly in the early grades?  How do we promote literacy skills across the curriculum, using science and social studies in particular to boost reading skills for all?  What do we do for struggling readers in our high schools, those who have fallen through the cracks?  Now is the time to apply lessons learned and build a new federal reading program that delivers instruction to the kids who need it, that provides content-based PD to the teachers in need, and that boosts student achievement and closes the achievement gap for all students, from our urban centers to our rural schools.
And finally, IES.  The RF experiment has clearly demonstrated that IES is not functioning as it was intended.  Was IES tasked with determining the effectiveness of RF or the effectiveness of RF funding?  Has it providing findings that aid in the improvement of federal reading instruction?  is it serving the public good by providing clear research findings that are received, understood, and applied by practitioners in the field?  At the end of the day, IES needs to better serve the consumer — the schools, their teachers, and the students they serve.  It needs to  do a better job engaging the entire community, and not simply serve as a lifeline between educational researchers.  If anything, the RF experience has provided us a starting point for improving IES (and the What Works Clearinghouse) and transforming it into the R&D arm of the U.S. Department of Education, with the D being just as important as the R.
Will we take advantage of these lessons and build some real improvements?  That question will remain unanswered for some time now.  But now is the time we start talking about how we move forward and build on the RF experience.  A new program will rise from the RF ashes.  It falls to the program’s most ardent supporters and most critical adversaries to ensure that what comes remains solidly focused on a singular goal — empowering all kids with the reading skills they need to achieve and getting all kids reading at grade level as soon as possible (and maintaining it).    

Re-Prioritizing the U.S. Department of Education

As President-Elect Obama and his Administration-in-waiting begin working through the transition, they have a terrific opportunity to shape the direction of future policy and future successes.  With each new administration, particularly with a change in party leadership, there is the opportunity to reorganize Cabinet departments, the chance to emphasize new priorities and to turn back the efforts of previous administrations.  While Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution cautions against overhauls and reorganizations at the start of an Administration, now is definitely the time to look at a new organization for the U.S. Department of Education.

In the coming weeks, the Obama transition team will begin reading through the ED transition notebooks, interview staff (particularly the career staff), and quickly making staffing decisions, from EdSec down to a slew of congressionally-approved assistant secretaries.  This is a lot of work, and it will be happening simultaneously in all agencies.  But the amount of work should not keep us from thinking about education — and education improvement — a little differently.
For the most part, the Bush Administration took on the structure that Clinton EdSec Richard Riley left behind.  But if recent years and new thinking are any indication, an Obama Administration may need a very different framework to focus on the issues emphasized on the stump, in policy platforms, and by its strongest advocates.
So how do we do it?  Never shy about such things, Eduflack has a few ideas for the new Obama Administration:
The New Approaches
* Office of Early Childhood Education — Obama has really driven home the importance of early childhood education and its ability to prepare all students — particularly those from at risk families — for the instructional, social, and emotional challenges of elementary school.  The creation of this office systematizes that commitment.  And if you really want to be bold, move Head Start over from HHS and put it under ED, and this new office’s, purview.  While early childhood has long been the official territory of HHS, ED has always had a chip in the game, and Obama’s priorities could settle the issue once and for all whether early childhood ed is just Head Start or a broader academic preparedness scope.
* Office of Elementary Education — For quite some time, we have had an Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.  It is time to separate the two.  The Office of Elementary Education would focus on the foundations of education success, particularly reading and math.  With a K-8 focus, this office would emphasize the early building blocks of successful learning (reflecting much of the research we now know), while providing some new-found emphasis on the middle grades.  We at least need someone who will continue to promote the National Math Panel findings, particularly if we expect STEM to drive secondary ed policy.
* Office of Secondary Education and 21st Century Skills — Nationally, we have made a major investment in improving high schools, making them more rigorous, and providing all students the pathways to educational and life successes.  This office would focus on high school improvement, early colleges, and the transition from secondary to postsecondary.  Bolder still would be a deputy assistant secretary for STEM education, to ensure science-tech-engineering-math instruction is embedded in all our secondary school improvements.
* Office of Teacher Advancement — Obama has made a major commitment to recruiting, retaining, and rewarding teachers.  We should focus an office on the teacher, including teacher training and pre-service education, in-service professional development, teacher incentives, alternative routes for teachers, and overall educator quality.
* Office of Assessment and Accountability — Yes, I know we have an Institute of Education Sciences.  We’ll address that later.  ED needs an office that works directly with SEAs and LEAs on assessment issues, how we measure student achievement, how we address the issue of multiple measures, and how we ensure our schools and our government are accountable and focusing on the instruction and the supports that make a true difference.  And I wouldn’t mind if this office took a close look at the notion of national education standards.
* Office of School Options — During Obama’s time in Chicago, he was involved in the charter school movement.  He has also acknowledged charters as a piece of the education improvement puzzle.  This office would seek to de-politicize the issue, focusing on effective infrastructure, supports, and accountability in school options, particularly charter schools and virtual schools.  Within this office, ED should also include after-school, or out-of-school-time, programs, as such OST efforts are now a bastion for academic supports, social supports, the arts and other opportunities designed to fill the current learning gaps.
* Office of Family and Community Engagement — As I detailed in my open letter to the President-Elect earlier this week, there is a need and a hunger for an office focused on better involving parents and families in the education improvement process.  We need to better inform families, better encourage families to pursue options, and better prepare families to be a part of the solution. (http://blog.eduflack.com/2008/11/05/an-open-letter-to-presidentelect-barack-obama.aspx)
* Office of Educational Entrepreneurship and Innovation — I’ll admit it, I’ll buy into Andy Rotherham’s vision for converting OII into an incubator for new ideas and new opportunities.  Call it entrepreneurship, call it venture capitalism, even call it pubic/private partnerships if it feels easier, but it is a needed component to education improvement in the 21st century.
Not all of these may be (or should be) assistant secretary-level offices, but they should merit consideration somewhere in the grid.
The Conversions  
In addition to these new approaches, there are also a number of current offices that could use some assistance and  fresh outlook on the education landscape:
* Office of Communication and Outreach — This is obviously an office near and dear to Eduflack’s heart.  For too long, OCO has been viewed as a reactive office, one that regularly issues press releases, fields FOIA requests, and decides which media calls will be returned by whom.  Moving forward, the office needs to jump on the latter part of its name, and transform into an office of public engagement.  Utilize the vast social network built by the Obama campaign.  Broaden the reach to stakeholders.  Be proactive in pushing policy issues and promoting successes.  Set the terms and drive the story.  Doesn’t get more simple than that.
* Institute of Education Sciences — IES was created to be our nation’s home for education R&D.  Unfortunately,
there is still a great deal of work that needs to be done to meet that goal.  IES needs to broaden its mission beyond the WWC and become a true clearinghouse for quality research and a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for what works.  More importantly, it needs to expand the dialogue beyond the researchers and effectively communicate the education sciences to practitioners, advocates, and others in the field.
* Office of English Language Acquisition — OELA, and its previous personalities, has almost been a red-headed stepchild in ED for quite some time.  But as our nation’s demographics continue to shift, ELL and ESL issues become more and more important to closing the achievement gap and providing opportunity to all students.  Focusing on inclusiveness, partnership development, stakeholder engagement, and integration with other offices (particularly elementary ed), OELA can be the lever for improvement many want it to be.
* Office of Federal Student Aid — I’ll admit, I am a little out of my element here.  But with the economic issues we are facing as a nation, ED is going to have to spend more time and intellectual capital on helping students and their families better understand the funding options for postsecondary education.  Simplifying the FASA, ensuring students understand accreditation, articulation of credits between institutions (and between high schools and colleges), and other issues that factor into our ability to pay for college.
I can go on, but I will leave it at that.  Obviously, many core offices will likely remain in place — General Counsel, Inspector General, Civil Rights, Leg Affairs, etc.  Some will say the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development — could be folded into the core responsibilities of a top three ED official.  And offices like Vocational and Adult Education may be past rescuing and just need to be left alone.  Regardless, there are clearly a lot of options for those thinking the big thoughts in the transition.
Yes, the Obama campaign was based on hope and change.  When it comes to the U.S. Department of Education, it may also be a time for similar hope and change.  Clearly, our educational priorities and needs have shifted over the last decade, as we focus on teacher development, 21st century skills, STEM, and the P-20 education continuum.  A new approach, with new foci, serves as a strong rhetorical tool to make clear what the Obama Administration will hold dear.  And such rhetoric is all the more important when current economic concerns make it difficult to fund new policy ideas straight out of the gate.  

An Open Letter to President-Elect Barack Obama

Dear President-Elect Obama,

Congratulations on your impressive victory last evening.  For the past two years, you have spoken to the nation about the need for hope, the need to dream, and the need to do things differently.  Your message of change is not only one that should take hold of government itself, but it is also one that should serve as the cornerstone of your education policy.  You now have a mandate for real change, with the Congress and the national will to support it.
Throughout the campaign, you focused on five key education issues: 1) early childhood education; 2) general K-12, 3) teacher recruitment and training; 4) affordability of higher education; and 5) parental involvement. These issues now serve as the tent posts of your federal education policy.  And they play an equally important role in shaping your U.S. Department of Education.
Now is not the time to retreat to the educational status quo of a Democratic president.  Now is not the time to put power in the hands of those seeking to protect and conserve what was, or those who are troubled by the notion of innovation or new approaches.  And now is certainly not the time to refight the NCLB fight, throwing punches that should have been thrown six years ago.
Instead, now is the time to be bold and audacious, as you have called for so many times before.  Now is the time to be innovative and offer new ideas for the problems that have ailed our public schools for decades now. Now is the time to build a non-partisan approach based on what is needed, what is sought, and what works.  Now is indeed a time for change, and you need to use education to drive that change.  The status quoers or the defenders of policies part don’t fit with your message.  This is time for powerful rhetoric, deep thinking, and meaningful change and innovation.
I will leave it to you and your transition team to determine who the next EdSec will be.  If recent history is any indication, the Clinton model works well.  Find a strong administrator — a governor type — who understands the issues and knows how to effectively use knowledgeable staff.  The Mike Easleys or the Janet Napolitanos or even the Phil Bredensens of the world deserve a close look.  Sure, your selection will be based in part on who is selected for other Cabinet posts, as you seek the right racial, gender, and geographic balance of the Cabinet.  But these sorts of governors have the political experience, management background, and general understanding needed to move the issue forward.
Those jobs further down the line in the Department of Education are the jobs that are essential.  Who will be driving policy?  Who will implement the policy?  Who will collect the data?  Who will analyze it?  Who will market and sell all of it to the stakeholders that are needed to move change?  The assistant secretaries you appoint will be the linchpins of your education policy success. Don’t make these patronage jobs.  Don’t use these to reward friends or organizational friends of the campaign.  Get out into the field and find the best people for the jobs.  Of particular importance, at least in Eduflack’s eyes, is finding the right people to head the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Office of Innovation and Improvement, the Office of English Language Acquisition (particularly since the Hispanic community was such an important demographic in your victory), and the Institute of Education Sciences.  Find the true leaders, the true innovators, and the true thinkers to head these offices and drive policy.
Now that we’ve gotten the administrative piece out of the way, let’s focus for a second on actual policies.  In your policy platforms, you’ve identified a number of issues and areas that you want to focus on, both in terms of rhetorical and financial muscle. Many of these are specific programs, whether they be the continuation of the old or the creation of the new.  These are good ideas — some great, but as your education transition team moves forward, I ask that you make sure a number of issues get their fair shake:
* STEM — We all know that science-tech-engineering-math is a hot topic these days.  But it is also a substantive topic.  Education doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  STEM provides you a tangible program to effectively link instruction to our future economic needs.  It tells kids they are career ready.  It tells employers we have a viable pipeline in the workforce.  And it tells the nation we are doing what it takes to align education with the economy.  STEM is your low-hanging fruit, and you can make some immediate gains by focusing on this policy priority, using education as an economic driver in all states.
* Reading — I have reluctantly accepted that Reading First is dead.  But for decades, the federal government has funded programs to boost reading achievement, particularly among minority and low-income populations.  We need to continue that commitment, and Title I doesn’t get the job done.  For all of its flaws, RF has left a legacy of evidence-based instruction and ensuring we are doing what is proven effective.  Let’s use that to build a new, better reading approach.  Scientifically based reading is in place in every Title I district across the country.  Now is not the time to change horses.  Now is the time to build on successes, showing all families — from those in our urban centers to those in our most rural of communities — that we are committed to making sure every child is reading proficient and reading successful.
* Education Research — Staying on the topic, we need to continue federal efforts to support high-quality K-12 research.  We need to do a better job of collecting long-term measurements of student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and the like.  And we need to do a better job of analyzing the data we collect. Now is the time to use IES to further shape education R&D in the United States.  That shaping requires a true innovator at the helm, with a good sense of research and a better sense of innovation and experimenting on what is new and possible.  Few see it, but the IES appointment will speak volumes as to the possibility of new ideas and new educational exploration for the next four years.
* Teachers — Supporting teachers is more than just supporting the teachers unions.  You’ve demonstrated that understanding in your support to merit pay.  Continue to display that independence.  Merit pay, for instance, is a terrific tool to implementing best practice in the schools, sharing best practices among educators, and incentivizing closing the achievement gap and boosting student achievement without the strict use of the ED stick.  If you need help with this, just give a ring over to your advisor Jon Schnur and ask him about New Leaders for New Schools’ lessons learned through the EPIC program.
* Innovation — All of the great education ideas have not been thought of yet.  You need to find ways to invest in experimentation and invest in what is possible and what is promising.  That is why OII was originally conceived. Take a look at advisor Andy Rotherham’s (and Sara Mead’s) study for Brookings on the future of education innovation, and start exploring the ways to use OII as a venture capital fund for new ideas and as an incubator for promising practices.  We should even elevate OII to full assistant secretary status.
* Accountability — Some think you will throw accountability out the window when you take office.  Eduflack knows better.  From your work in Chicago, you understand the importance of measuring the effectiveness of our reforms.  You know we need to see real results if we are to continue real work.  We not only need to keep measuring student achievement, but we need to do a better job of applying the data to policy dec
isions, spending decisions, and instructional decisions.  More importantly, we just need to plain know that what we are doing works, and it works in schools like mine, in classes like mine, with kids like mine.  There is nothing wrong with accountability if it is a shared responsibility, shared by government, schools, teachers, parents, and the students themselves.
* Choice — Forget about vouchers, the future of education choice is charters and virtual education.  There is a fine line between offering choices to families in need and stripping resources from the public schools.  You need to find it. Charter enrollment in our urban centers is at all time highs.  Find ways to further encourage it, while requiring higher quality and greater oversight.  Virtual education, such as that mandated by Florida, is the future, and needs to be further explored to expand learning opportunities, particularly in our urban and rural schools.  Options are key if we are to give every child a chance at opportunity.
* Parental Involvement — Now for my big idea.  I propose you actually establish an Office of Family and Community Engagement, an authorized body at the Assistant Secretary level that can get information into the hands of those who need it most.  The most recent regs from ED show that the current infrastructure isn’t getting it done.  If you’re serious about greater family involvement, turning off the TVs, and such, make the commitment to Family Engagement (and we do have to think beyond the traditional mother/father nuclear parent family structure). EdTrust has today’s student attaining education at lower rates than their parents. That is a travesty.  And the responsibility falls on the family.  Parents are our first, and most durable, of teachers.  Equip them with information, help them build the paths and help them paint the picture of the value and need for education.  Create this new office, have it collaborate with OESE, OCO, and others, and see the impact of effectively collaborating with families and the community at large on education improvement.
Throughout the campaign, you demonstrated a keen understanding for the intersection between policy and communication.   That understanding must be applied to your education work as well.  On the whole, your predecessor did a poor job when it came to communicating, even with regard to some good policies.  Their thinking seemed to be people will realize this is good policy, and if they don’t we’ll make them because we are the federal government. That won’t work for you.  You need to effectively sell your policies, and you need to sell them to a broad cross-section of audiences.  You need stakeholder buy-in from the beginning, and that buy-in comes from more than just the usual suspects.  Through a well-though-out, sustained public engagement plan, you can not only educate Americans on why education is important, you can actually change their thoughts and behaviors when it comes to the above issues and so many others.  And if you aren’t sure how, just give me a call.
I realize, from recent media interviews, that education is not going to be a top three issue for your Administration.  That is understandable.  I was heartened to see it comes into the top five.  That just means there is more heavy lifting for your Department of Education and for those inside it to do more and make more change with less of the presidential bully pulpit.  We share a common goal — a high quality education for all children.  Now we just need to build the team and execute the plan to move that goal into reality.  You have that chance.  Please take full advantage of it.  Yes, you — and we — can.
Patrick R. Riccards (aka Eduflack)

What Works for the WWC

Last week, This Week in Education revealed that Russ Whitehurst was leaving the Institute of Education Sciences.  That should come as no surprise, as Whitehurst’s congressionally appointed term expires in November 2008, and he has made clear he was not seeking reappointment.  TWIE’s announcement was followed by Fordham Flypaper’s news that Whitehurst was moving over to Brookings’ Brown Center for Education Policy, presumably to fill the very capable shoes of the departing Tom Loveless.

Interestingly, no one in DC education policy circles seems to be talking about what comes next for IES.  Who will serve as the next director?  What will the priorities be?  Heck, we don’t even know where an Obama or McCain administration stands on IES, its mission, and its programs.  One thing seems certain, though, the future of the Institute won’t be determined until well after the next president is sworn into office. 
The defining experiment of IES has been the What Works Clearinghouse.  Released six years ago with much fanfare, the WWC was intended to be a Consumer’s Reports of sorts for education practitioners.  It was to sort through all of the education research data, determine what works, and provide guidance to school district officials, building leaders, and teachers on what was most effective and how education dollars should be spent.
A noble goal, and a much needed role in today’s education universe. Unfortunately, a funny thing happened on the way to implementation.  WWC became a methodological monster.  In its zeal to distinguish itself from the past work of the U.S. Department of Education’s former Office of Education Research and Improvement, WWC laid out strict and complicated criteria for every piece of research it would examine.  The result?  Most research was kicked out during the initial stages, found to lack the methodological rigor WWC called for.  For these studies, we never got to the issue of effectiveness or impact because they lacked effective control groups or didn’t form the proper study structures, as called for by WWC and its advisors.
Over the years, we have accepted the WWC process as fact.  Some organizations have pleaded mea culpa, asking WWC for advice on what to do.  Others have carefully constructed a single study to meet WWC criteria so they could claim approval (while claiming their competitors were rejected).  And still others refused to acknowledge the value and authority of WWC, and continued to do things their way, stating that their research was true, clear, and effective.
In recent months, WWC has drawn some real attention, mostly for its negative findings on the instructional impact of reading programs Open Court and Reading Mastery. For those watching WWC all these years, we just chalked it up to WWC being WWC.  Eduflack was of similar mind, reminding individuals that, at the end of the day, decisionmakers at the district or school level are simply not making decisions based on WWC findings.  While it may have been the intention, WWC is now merely a forum for researchers to try and outresearch each other, for methodological masters to do their jousting and determine who the true jedi was.  Despite the best of intentions and the most noblest of needs, WWC had become irrelevant.
Then an interesting document crossed my desk.  Under the headline “Machinations of the What Works Clearinghouse,” Zig Englemann provides a terrific analysis on the WWC’s decisions regarding Reading Mastery.  The headline?  “What Works Clearinghouse is so irreparably biased that it would have to be thoroughly reoriented and reorganized under different management rules to perform the function of providing reliable, accurate information about what works.”
With regard to Reading Mastery, Englemann points to the fact that there are more than 90 research studies on the program (and its predecessor DISTAR Reading), with most of these studies appearing in “refereed journals.”  Yet WWC found that “no studies of Reading Mastery that fell within the scope of the Beginning Reading review meet WWC evidence standards.”
Honestly, Eduflack is just plain tired of hearing that no studies fell within the scope.  For years, I defended WWC and IES, seeing both as necessary components to strengthening the research base of the education field.  When Mathematica announced that it was reopening and re-examining the Beginning Reading field — a prior review that had caused much heartburn across the reading community — I was heartened that change may be in the works.  But my atypical optimism has quickly been replaced by my real and necessary skepticism.  Englemann is right, we need to build a new, better, and more effective IES before it dies from within.
Englemann does a terrific job in looking at the WWC methodology, identifying the problems in techniques, approaches, and analyses undertaken by WWC (who knew that research conducted prior to 1985 didn’t count, even if it met every methodological standard laid out by WWC and its methodological advisors).  I would highly recommend the study for all those seeking to better understand how good research has been deemed outside the federal scope these past few years.
But yelling into the wind only gets us so far.  For the record, I still believe in the mission and goals of WWC, and I particularly believe in the mission, goals, and objectives of IES.  We need a strong, independent voice in the federal government that can tell us what works and can point us to valuable research on improving practice and instruction.  We need a voice that ensures what is proven effective is what is being practiced.  We need the evidence, plain and simple.
Now is a unique time for IES and the Board that oversees it.  Currently, a number of board member nominations are pending before Congress.  Clearly, a search for a new IES director must be underway.  So what’s the message IES and its Board should be spending in the near future?
* The voice of the practitioner is just as important as the voice of the researcher.  Methodology is important, but it is no more important that ensuring an intervention works in a school like mine, in a class like mine, with kids like mine.
* We cannot exclusively value process over results.  Again, the methodology is important, but so are outcomes.  Which is more valuable to our schools — methodologically strong programs with middling results or middling methodology with extremely strong results?  Yes, we want strong methodology and results, but if I have to choose, I want to invest in what works and what’s working on a large scale.
* We need to broaden the audience.  IES should be playing to a wide range of stakeholders, and not merely the research community and the education publishers it happens to review at a given time.  It should be a resource for teachers, school leaders, and policymakers.  To do that, we need to simplify the message and broaden the appeal.
* IES can become a Consumer Reports for the education sector.  But to do so, it needs to change its thinking and approach.  It needs to be user friendly.  It needs to be collaborative.  And it needs to think more broadly about the impact it is having, not just on research but on education and the community at large.
* IES needs to inspire and lead.  This isn’t just about being the stick to ED’s funding carrot.  It isn’t just about good, methodologically sound research.  IES needs to invest the time and effort into educating stakeholders as to why scientifically-sound education is important.  Why do we care about methodology?  What are the benefits to scientifically based instruction?  And what can I do to get the science into my kids’ schools?  It needs to demonstrate how education sciences improves student achievement and boost student options for both school and
Recent attempts by IES and WWC to quickly turn around focused research reports are a good first step. But if the Institute is going to build its legacy, it needs to focus on building both public awareness for its mission and objectives and establishing public support and enthusiasm for achieving those goals.  It’s not a simple process, but it is doable.  And it is necessary for IES to survive and thrive.
Regardless of who is EdSec come January, IES should be a priority for either administration.  It possesses enormous potential and opportunity.  Hopefully, someone will remember that and we can build on its best qualities, learn from its worst, and do what is right by states, districts, schools, and students.