Student Testing V. Student Portfolios, Caught on Flypaper

We’re all eagerly awaiting the showdown up at Teachers College this evening between the McCain Campaign’s Lisa Graham Keegan and the Obama campaign’s Linda Darling-Hammond.  And we can all watch it live on the Web, courtesy of Education Week.

Until this morning, I thought the most intriguing question may be how Hammond’s opposition to ideas like Teach for America fits into Obama’s platform of innovation and new ideas to bring more effective teachers into the classroom.  Then I read Mike Petrilli’s post over at Flypaper.
It is worth checking out —  Apparently, on the Diane Rehm Show this morning, an Obama campaign surrogate touted the idea that an Obama U.S. Department of Education may revert back to the idea of “portfolios” to measure student achievement.  As Petrilli notes, this is indeed news.  Retreads of failed experiments are certainly not innovations in education improvement.
And we thought the education portion of the presidential exam would be boring.

The Rumble Up at TC

Last week, we had a presidential debate that spent a good 10 minutes focused on education policy and the future of education reform at the presidential level.  This past weekend, Eduflack has been watching the Obama television commercials (broadcast in Virginia/DC) focused on education, touting both early childhood education and the need to invest in recruiting and rewarding teachers.  So what comes next in education policy?

For those seeking the next phase in the presidential education debate, turn your attention up to Teachers College at Columbia University.  Tomorrow evening, McCain Advisor Lisa Graham Keegan, the former Superintendent of Public Instruction in Arizona, and Obama Advisor Linda Darling-Hammond, the current Stanford University professor, will square off to promote and defend their candidates’ education policies.  While this isn’t likely to have some of the same fireworks as a Keegan/Jon Schnur debate (particularly like the one at the Aspen Institute National Education Summit), it should provide plenty of red meat on real education improvements.
Education Week will be webcasting the event live.  The debate begins at 7:00 p.m.  Go to and find the upper right corner banner on the event to register.  It should be weill worth the time investment.
(Hat tip to Fritz Edelstein and the Fritzwire for reminding me of the webcast.)

Education Chicken and Egg at the Presidential Debate

I don’t know about you, but Eduflack was quite surprised to see the final 10 minutes or so of this evening’s presidential debate being devoted to the issue of education.  Kudos must first go to CBS’ Bob Schieffer for asking the right question.  It wasn’t about NCLB or teachers unions or any of the traditional hot-button issues.  Instead, Schieffer asked about the United States spending more per capita on education than any other nation, yet being outperformed by many of our international counterparts.

The initial responses from both candidates should be of no surprise.  Both Barack Obama and John McCain stuck to their campaign’s educational talking points.  For Obama, it was all about early childhood education, teachers, and affordability of higher education (and a tip of the hat to the Illinois senator for calling out parents as part of both the problem and the solution).  For McCain, it was charters, vouchers, and expanded opportunity.
Also of no surprise, neither candidate really addressed the question.  Sure, Obama focused on the need for greater investment in education and the notion that NCLB was severely underfunded.  And McCain called for greater dollars for vouchers, pointing to the DC voucher program as a shining success.
But back to the original question.  What Schieffer was really asking, or should have been asking, is whether greater investment in the schools results in greater achievement, or whether greater achievement gets rewarded with greater investment.  It is the ultimate educational chicken and egg question.
We know that some of our best-funded school districts, at least in terms of per pupil spending, are some of our lowest performers.  Will more dollars turn them around?  Unlikely.  It may help bring some better teachers into the classroom, but real turnaround requires a change in culture and a change in approach.  Both are free, its the implementation that costs money.
I’d like to believe we should reward achievement and encourage innovation.  We invest in what works.  We help fund those programs that can make a difference and boost student achievement.  We reward those schools and those teachers who are boosting student performance.  We should place results first and foremost.  That’s the answer so many families should be hearing.

McCain v. Obama: The Thrilla for the Schoolhouse

Over the past two days, Eduflack has taken a close look at the educational platforms offered up by the two presidential campaigns.  Again, the ground rules were simple.  We looked at the campaigns’ plans as identified, laid out, and described on both candidates’ official websites.  No cheating from the speeches made by Lisa Keegan or Jon Schnur or other surrogates.  No interpreting what a few throw-away lines from the conventions meant.  Not even a few glimpses into both senators’ voting records in the congress these past four years (the time they were together).  No, we are here to measure vetted, official plan against vetted official plan.

The 10,000-Foot View
Just like the two campaigns, the two education platforms couldn’t be more different, particularly in terms of their rhetoric and the framing of the issues.  Yes, they both focused on the issues of early ed, K-12, and higher education.  But that’s a given.  Beyond that, their foci are quite different.  McCain’s plan is a running mantra of accountability and choice.  Obama’s is one of programs, resources, and opportunities.  McCain’s takeaway is one of improvement, where Obama is focused on the problems.  Interestingly, McCain seems more focused on change, while Obama seems keyed in on conserving what we already have in place.
The Buzz Words
Eduflack wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t focus on the words being used by the candidates and the power behind the rhetoric.  So let’s take a look at the hot words lists for each candidate:
* McCain — Standards, accountability, quality, empower, excellence, parents, effectiveness, choice
* Obama — High quality, opportunity, teachers, programs, support, reward
Areas of Agreement
Both campaigns recognize the need for a strong early childhood education program and both want to improve and simplify the financial aid process for those going to college.  Both recognize that NCLB needs work.  Obama seeks to improve and better fund it, McCain wants to build on its lessons.  Both support charter schools, and both want greater accountability for these school choice options.
Issues of Importance
Obama and McCain clearly come to the table with a different view of the federal role in education.  Again, Obama’s platform focuses on strengthening and improving funding for a number of existing federal programs, while adding funding and support for more efforts.  McCain is focused on innovation and local empowerment, almost re-embracing the old-school GOP role of locally controlled education.
What issues stand out for the two candidates?
* McCain — School-based decisionmaking, parental involvement, school choice, alternative certification, merit pay, virtual learning, higher standards, greater accountability
* Obama — Head Start and Early Head Start, math/science education, dropout prevention, afterschool programs, ELL, teacher recruitment and retention (and merit pay, albeit to a lesser degree than we hear on the stump), and college opportunities   
Again, McCain is talking ideas, Obama is speaking programs. It is an important distinction, particularly when we don’t know who will be calling the policy shots from either the Domestic Policy Council or the EdSec’s office.  So the devil is in the details.
Areas of Disagreement
It’s funny, but these are less areas of disagreement than they are issues of priority.  McCain and Obama simply aren’t focusing on many of the same issues.  Their degrees of importance really define the differences.  
On early childhood education, McCain is focused on Centers for Excellence, improving Head Start on a state-by-state basis.  He also emphasizes the need for standards and quality for our youngest learners. Obama believes early education is about getting as many kids as possible into programs.  Obama focuses on quadrupling the funding for Early Head Start, a program that McCain doesn’t even mention.
On K-12, McCain focuses on options, choice (charters and vouchers), and doing what it takes to boost student achievement (particularly principal empowerment).  Obama focuses on the programs that make our schools run — math/science, dropout prevention, afterschool, and college credits.   Obama also mentions charter schools, but his focus is on closing those that are low performing.
On teachers, the biggest difference is prominence.  Obama provides teachers with their own policy category; McCain embeds them in his K-12 platform.  For Obama, it is all about recruiting, training, retaining, and rewarding. For McCain, it is an issue of alternative certification (which Obama never mentions), incentive pay, and professional development.
On higher education, Obama wants new tax breaks, while McCain wants more research and simplified tax benefits.  McCain also emphasizes the need for information, particularly to parents (while Obama seems to avoid parents all together in his education platform).  Both want to fix the “broken” system of student lending, though.
By focusing so heavily on programs, Obama essentially calls for increased federal spending for education.  He pledges sizable funding increases for Early Head Start, NCLB, the Federal Charter School Program, dropout prevention, 21st Century Learning Centers, GEAR UP, TRIO, and Upward Bound.  He would also create a number of new federal initiatives, including Early Learning Challenge Grants, Make College a Reality, Teacher Service Scholarships, and the American Opportunity Tax Credit.  In today’s economic climate, this is a bold statement.  Paying for these programs either means eliminating current programs that don’t work (see Mike Petrilli’s suggestions at for a good start) or it means increasing the annual appropriation for the U.S. Department of Education.  Based on current politics, I’d say the latter is a near impossibility.
On the McCain side, the Republican nominee focuses on some new programs as well — including Centers for Excellence for Head Start, a grant program for online education opportunities, and Digital Passport Scholarships.  He also calls for funding for teacher merit pay, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, and increased monies for Enhancing Education Through Technology.  Still a nice Christmas list, but far more affordable than his Democratic counterpart.
What’s Missing
You know me, I always like to dwell on the negative.  So I immediately jump to the issues that didn’t make the cut in developing the platform.  Neither candidate speaks to the idea of national education standards.  There is almost no discussion of student testing and the measurement of student performance.  Data and research-based practice and decisionmaking can’t be found here.  And while Obama mentions math and science, neither candidate focuses on STEM education, what Eduflack sees as a key to truly linking education, the economy, and our national strength.
Added to the list, McCain avoids ELL (strange for a senator from Arizona), high school dropouts, afterschool, and t
eacher education in general.  Obama avoids discussions of reading/literacy, alternative certification, online learning, and parental involvement.
So Now What?
Eduflack is not going to be so audacious as to make an endorsement of a presidential candidate based on his education platform.  (Those who know me well know where I stand.  And at the end of the day, my opinion is going to be a fairly uncommon one.  Having worked on the Hill for Democratic stalwarts like Robert Byrd and Bill Bradley and then spending so much time advocating for NCLB, Reading First, and accountability, there are few in the Eduflack mold.)  And who cares who I pick?  This above breakdown is to help others take their education priorities and see which candidate better addresses them in the official platform.
If these past 18 months are any indication, education is not a priority for either candidate.  It isn’t what they are out there stumping on, and it is not the red meat the voters want to hear or seem concerned about.  And anyone who has been in this town for more than a few weeks knows that a policy paper is barely worth the paper on which it is printed.
What this does, though, is it makes clear to Eduflack where the priorities are and what emphasis we should see, education wise, should candidate M or candidate O take the oath on a cold January day.  What does Eduflack see?
A McCain Department of Education is one of accountability, standards, and innovation.  Data-driven decisionmaking.  School choice opportunities.  A heavy emphasis on the role of technology, particularly in terms of online learning.  McCain also sees his ultimate customer as the parent, giving them a seat at the table in charting their child’s educational path.
No surprise, then, when we see some of the names on the “finalist” list for McCain EdSec — Lisa Keegan, New Orleans Supe Paul Vallas, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty at the top.  (I know some add former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift to the short list, but I fail to see how someone who called for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education a decade ago is really the choice to head that same department today).   All steady, experienced hands to steer the ship.
An Obama Department of Education, though, would have a much different feel.  It almost seems more like a foundation, with a great number of programs running to achieve a common goal.  An Obama ED is one of teacher education, universal preK, increased supports, and improved paths to postsecondary education.  Obama’s ultimate customer — the teacher, without whom most reforms will fail before the get off the ground.
And the tea leaves on an Obama EdSec?  We have the usual suspects, the programmatic heads such as former NC Gov. Jim Hunt.  But we also have out-of-the-box names like New Leaders for New Schools founder Jon Schnur.  The future direction of Obama ed may very well hinge on the leadership qualities he seeks from an EdSec. 
There you have it, the education presidential campaign gospel according to Eduflack.  Let the reflections, debates, and attacks begin.

The McCain Education Platform

My friends (sorry, can’t resist), despite popular opinion, U.S. Sen. John McCain does indeed have a comprehensive education platform, and it is a plan that clearly reflects the collective experiences and perspectives of the senior staffers advising the McCain-Palin campaign on education policy.

The Bumper Sticker
McCain-Palin’s education platform operates under a simple mission — “Excellence, Choice, and Competition in American Education.”  It pledges to four key educational points:
* American education must be worthy of the promise we make to our children and ourselves
* We are a nation committed to equal opportunity, and there is no equal opportunity without equal access to excellent education
* We must fight for the ability of all students to have access to all schools of demonstrated excellence, including their own homes
* We must place parents and children at the center of the educational process, empowering parents to greatly expanding their ability to choose a school for their children.
The Plan
The McCain-Palin campaign breaks its education platform into three key areas — early childhood education, strengthening America’s schools, and higher education policy.  The latter two were actually offered as media releases during the summer (though I don’t remember reading much, if any, about either of them).
Early Childhood Education
The early childhood component is focused on the notion that we must “make certain students are ready to learn.”  With an emphasis on a range of high-quality programs that focus on educational foundations in reading, math, social, and emotional skills.  The further highlights:
* Centers for Excellence in Head Start — Ensuring that all Head Start centers have quality instructors, are accountable to parents, and focus on outcomes instead of just processes.  The federal director of Head Start would choose at least one Center in each state, and the state’s governor would nominate potential choices.  Such centers would be expected to expand their services to reach more students, doing so with an extra $200,000 in funding from the feds.  For these centers, the name of the game is results, with a demand for clear goals, clear objectives, and even clearer effective practice.
* Measurable Standards — Every federally funded early childhood program should be held to measurable standards, quality measures that “should be centered on the child and outcome-based.”
* Quality Instruction — Early childhood education is about preparing students for K-12 instruction.  Every early ed instruction should have strong preparation with “an emphasis on performance and outcomes as measured by student development.”  All federally funded preK programs would be required to offer a “comprehensive approach to learning that covers all significant areas of school readiness, notably literacy/language development, as well as math readiness and key motor and social skills.”
* Healthy Children — Advocating partnership grants for early screening programs for hearing, vision, and immunization needs of preschoolers.
* Parental Education and Involvement — McCain-Palin would ensure federal programs focus on educating parents how to prepare their kids for a “productive educational experience.”  Parents would be schooled in reading and numbers skills, nutrition, and general health issues.
Strengthening America’s Schools
Focusing on opportunities and a quality education for all students, the McCain-Palin plan focuses on empowering parents, teachers, and leaders while taking a swipe at the traditional educational bureaucracy.
McCain’s K-12 policy is comprised of four key principles:
* Enact meaningful reform to education
* Provide for equality of choice
* Empower parents
* Empower teachers
More specifics then come in the dozen or so specific policies McCain offers to support these principles:
* Build on the lessons of NCLB, continuing the national emphasis on standards and accountability
* Provide effective education leadership, particularly rewarding achievement
* Ensure children have quality teachers, accomplished by:

– Encouraging alternative certification methods that open the door for highly motivated teachers to enter the field
– Providing bonuses for teachers who locate in underperforming schools and demonstrate strong leadership as measured by student improvement
– Providing funding for needed professional teacher development

* Empowering school principals with greater control over spending, focusing principal decisions on doing what is necessary to raise student achievement
* Making real the promise of NCLB by giving parents greater choice, choice over how school money is being spent
* Expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, better known as DC’s voucher system
* Ensuring children struggling to meet state standards will have immediate access to high-quality tutoring programs, made available from the LEAs, the feds, or private providers
* Expanding virtual learning by reforming the “Enhancing Education Through Technology Program,” providing $500 million to develop virtual K-12 schools
* Allocating $250 million through a competitive grant program to support states that commit to expanding online education opportunities, offering a path for states to establish virtual math and science academies
* Offering $250 million for Digital Passport Scholarships to help students pay for online tutors to enroll in virtual schools, offering competitive funds to provide low-income students greater access to a range of courses and programs needed to maximize opportunity
Higher Education Policy
Focusing on innovation, the reduction of regulatory barriers, and a shared need that our economic strength depends on strong postsecondary education, the McCain-Palin team calls for the following in higher education policy:
* Improve information for parents, particularly institutional i
nformation on postsecondary choices
* Simplify higher education tax benefits, connecting a lower tax burden to greater pursuit of higher education
* Simplify federal financial aid, consolidating the financial aid process
* Improve research by eliminating earmarks, tying the campaign’s signature anti-pork barrel spending to boosting the funds available for federally funded research programs
* Fix the student lending programs, expanding capacity and demanding high levels of lender activity.
The Takeaway
There you have it.  The full McCain-Palin education platform, as presented on the official McCain-Palin campaign website.  Six total pages of text.  So what’s Eduflack’s takeaway?
* A strong focus on accountability and standards
* Emphasis on core instructional approaches and needs
* Recognition that improvement comes with parents, kids, and teachers working together
* Significant focus on innovations, specifically virtual education, alternative certification, and school choice
* An effort to place results over process
* An attempt to learn from and move beyond NCLB, not fix the federal law
What’s missing?  Discussions of issues such as ELL/ESL, student testing, national standards, STEM education, high school dropout rates, and teacher education.  But we can surmise from the policy ideas above where the McCain administration would stand on some, if not all of these issues.
So there you have it, the McCain-Palin education platform, in a handy email/pocket-sized guide.  Senator Obama, you’re up tomorrow. 

Let the Debate Begin

As promised yesterday, today we begin the presidential education debate.  First, a few of the ground rules.  To compare the two campaigns’ education platforms, we will be looking at campaign websites only.  Good friend and new media guru Geoff Livingston has said if you aren’t on the Web, you might as well be dead.  The Internet is now our go-to source for information and data; it is where we turn when we need to learn something.  So we’re just looking at what each candidate has put up on their official website.  If it isn’t important enough to post on the Web, then it needn’t be part of this debate.  So stump speeches, surrogate talking points, and the rest are important, so if you have them, submit them as comments and I’ll post them immediately.

Today, we will look at U.S. Sen. John McCain’s platform.  Tomorrow, it will be U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s turn.  Both of these looks will be factual only, with a tick-by-tick look at the issues and policies of importance.  Friday, we’ll put our analyst/critic/agitator hat back on and see where the commonalities and differences lie, along with what issues are most important to education reformers.
Let the games begin!

Educating Ourselves on the Candidates’ Education Platforms

I admit it, I am a gadget freak.  When the latest cell phone (I use a second generation iPhone) or laptop (currently working off the MacBook Air with the SSD) or TV comes out, I usually want it.  Eduwife has to talk me off the ledge, as we discuss whether I really need it and whether Eduson has a high chance of breaking it should I get it (for the record, he has broken three of my cell phones in the last year and a half, including that first-generation iPhone just last month).

I’m intrigued by technology.  With the iPhone, Apple has a terrific feature called the App Store, where you can add all sorts of random, odd, and useful functions to your phone.  I’ve got my EBay app (I’m an addict), Facebook (equally addictive), a Spanish phrase book, and both a slots and a blackjack game.
But I was really caught when I saw that one of the top downloaded applications for iPhone was one for Obama ’08.  It is intended to help those far younger and far more technologically savvy than I use their phones to get together, canvas together, and generally support the campaign together.  A support group for the true believers.
I was taken, though, with how clearly the Obama iPhone app laid out the policy platforms for Obama-Biden.  And it got me thinking.  We sit around and complain about how little education is being covered in this campaign, practically wetting ourselves when Gov, Sarah Palin mentioned education as an issue in last week’s vice presidential debate.  We reflect on and over-analyze a few throw-away lines at both of the conventions and on a policy speech issued by Obama in America’s heartland last month.  But where do the two candidates really stand on education issues?  What will their federal education agenda look like come winter of 2009?
So I’m going to veer off my regular course a little, set aside the opinion, and do a little relaying of facts.  Working from the websites (the prime communication vehicle for most orgs and individuals these days) of the two campaigns, we’re going to take a peek at their full education platforms.  Tomorrow, we’ll spotlight the education plans from Sen. John McCain.  Thursday, we’ll take a look at what Sen. Barack Obama has to offer.  Then on Friday, I’ll get back on my soapbox and opine away on who gets us where we need to go on education improvement.
Now’s the time to get your points in.  Want to make sure I pay attention to a particular idea?  Worried that a key policy isn’t fully articulated on the web?  Just want to get the right words in?  I’m just an email away —  Once my missives are posted, everyone is free to rip into me for being wrong, off course, a Kool-aid drinker, or a Pollyanna.  Don’t worry, you can’t be a good flack without the thickest of thick skin.