Chiefs, Change, Cheers?

Nearly a decade ago, a new organization of chief state school officers was charting new ground.  The Education Leaders Council (ELC) was THE hip group to belong to.  NCLB was the freshly minted law of the land.  Chiefs, influencers, and vendors wanted to be part of the ELC posse, seeing the group as the drivers of NCLB in key states.  And many were believing ELC would overtake the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) as the state supe organization of choice, becoming the state ed policy voice in the country.  Five short years later, ELC was no longer.

Late last year, five up-and-coming, reform-minded chief state school officers announced the launch of “Chiefs for Change,” a group designed to push state-level policy issues from the state supe level.  The founding members were Florida’s Eric Smith, Indiana’s Tony Bennett, Louisiana’s Paul Pastorek, Rhode Island’s Deborah Gist, and Virginia’s Gerard Robinson.  Since establishing the group, Smith has announced he is stepping down from his post as Florida’s top education voice.
Last week, five new members were named to the state ed policy reform cabal.  The new five are Maine’s Stephen Bowen, New Jersey’s Chris Cerf, New Mexico’s Hanna Skandera, Oklahoma’s Janet Barresi, and Tennessee’s Kevin Huffman.
Chiefs for Change is promising to be very much a policy-driving organization, far more so than CCSSO.  Its nine and a half members (including Smith) are committed to finding a common voice on issues like teacher evaluation and testing.  They clearly will offer some rhetorical hand grenades when it comes to ESEA reauthorization.  So where will they come down on the issues?
While many are quick to say the group is non-partisan (or at least bi-partisan), take a look at the roster.  Of the 10 members, nine represent states helmed by Republican governors, and one (RI) now represents an independent governor.  One can also find deep roots to both the Jeb Bush family tree of ed reformers, as well as to the formal “Education Reform” community.  And there are a number of states represented who now have ties to Michelle Rhee and her relatively new “StudentsFirst” organization.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  It is still too early to tell.  Twenty percent of the nation’s chief state school officers have decided to join together to offer a louder, more coordinated voice on education policy.  Those chiefs sing from the same hymnal on many of the key policy issues of the day.  Some states (Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, Indiana) are now seen as major ed reform states.  Others (Virginia, New Jersey, Maine) can best be called defenders of the status quo, at least historically.  All (except for Indiana and Louisiana) are working with governors in the first halves of their terms, meaning they may have real time to bring real change. 
What’s left to be seen is HOW Chiefs for Change plans to operate.  In deconstructing ELC, one of its challenges is it tried to out-CCSSO CCSSO, building a similar model, similar management structure, and similar expectations.  Instead of being a nimble rump group focused on change, it almost tried to build CCSSO 2.0.  And we clearly didn’t need a newer version of the established organization.
So the question before Chiefs is how it functions.  If it throws aside process in favor of results, it has potential.  If it is designed to serve as an advocacy soapbox for reform-minded supes, it brings promise.  And if it is willing to take provocative stances on complex and controversial policy issues, it could signal progress.
At this point, Chiefs for Change doesn’t need to look to recruit new members or scope out locations for its 2012 annual conference.  It has critical mass, and it has some forward-looking chiefs who know how to use 21st century communications tools to replace those by-gone days of three-day conferences.  Instead, Chiefs for Change needs its nail its version of 95 Theses to the schoolhouse door.  And it needs to do so now, before ESEA is rewritten.  
We all recognize that the states are where ed policy action is happening.  The feds have played their hand, and are now looking for some additional dollars to buy back into the game.  Statehouses now have the power, and state chiefs are holding all the cards.  If we are going to see real movement in the area of school improvement, we need a real call to action at the state level.  Chiefs for Change could be that vehicle, if it learns from the past and engages for the future.

A Tea Party Comes to Education?

Today, the 112th Congress officially takes its seat.  Anyone who watched the November elections realizes that a major change in philosophy takes the gavel in Washington, riding on the momentum of the “Tea Party” movement.

Sure, we pretty much have no idea how that wave is going to affect education policy on Capitol Hill.  During the campaign, those Tea Party candidates spoke little, if at all, about education.  We know they’d prefer to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education, but we really don’t know where they stand on ESEA reauthorization, turnaround schools, charters, and all of the other topics that seem to freeze up the Congress.
But all of the analysis pieces on how the Tea Party movement will affect government in general has Eduflack thinking.  What would happen if we applied the Tea Party philosophy to education?  No, I’m not talking about federal education policy, but rather the K-12 education space in general.  Perhaps it would look a little like this:
Fiscal Responsibility (Funding) — “We are simply paying too much on public education.  The federal government keeps taking more and more from our paychecks to pay for expensive programs like Race to the Top and i3, and the states are taking more and more in property taxes to cover the rest.  We need to be smarter with how we spend our education dollars.  Why is it some of our best school districts can educate kids at $10,000 a head, while our worst-performing districts are spending close to twice that?  It just doesn’t make sense.  We need to get back to basics, focus on the core needs of our kids, and ensure we are receiving return on investment for our education dollars.  It is time to do more with less.”
Limited Government (Control) — “The federal government needs to get out of our classrooms.  No one knows what our kids need best than our local community.  We elect our local school boards to look after our interests.  They know us.  We know them.  And they held accountable for their actions.  The feds care about our money, our localities care about our kids.  We must restore local control to our schools, telling the feds to keep their noses out of how we spend our money, how we teach our kids, how we test our kids, and how we know when we are doing a good job.  Our schools, our rules.”
Free Markets (Choice) — “We need to restore power to individual parents and individual families.  As the individual is the one funding our schools, the individual should have the power to decide how those dollars are spent.  if your neighborhood schools aren’t doing the job, you should have the right to take your child — and your dollars — and go to a school that meets your needs.  Speaking through the pocketbook is the only way to get those broken schools to fix themselves, and it is the only way to ensure our kids get the education they need.  We should not just accept what we have been given.  We need to encourage choice and competition, letting the schools and the teachers who have failed us be cycled out of the system for good.”
Personal Responsibility (Parents) — “For too long we have trusted government to do what is right for our kids.  As a result, our schools are failing and our kids are uncompetitive.  It is time to take that responsibility back.  The US Department of Education isn’t going to fix our schools.  The state isn’t going to fix our schools.  Parents are going to fix our schools.  It is time for all parents to rise up and demand better.  It is time to get in schools, demand answers, and refuse to leave until those answers are put into practice.  These are our schools, and we need to retake ownership of them.”
Maybe it is just me, but aren’t we already sitting down to a tea party in K-12 education?  We are making hard choices, asking our schools to do more with less and questioning high per-pupil expenditures in struggling urban districts.  There is a growing chorus (led by the new chairman of the House Education Committee, John Kline) to restore more local control to education, taking away much of the power shift resulting from NCLB.  We’ve long talked about school choice, with the current turnaround schools effort likely leading to a greater call.  And even President Obama has been talking for the past few years on parental responsibility and how families need to take more active, hands on, and impactful roles if their kids are to be college and career ready.
Is Michelle Rhee’s Students First education’s Tea Party Patriots?  Is 50-CAN or DFER’s “Ticket to Teach” the edu-Tea Party Express?  Only time will tell …

Putting Students First

Today, Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of DC Public Schools, officially unveiled Rhee 2.0.  A cover story for Newsweek (no broom this time) and an Oprah segment was the perfect intro for Students First, a new 501(c)(4) led by Rhee to “to build a national movement to defend the interests of children in public education and pursue transformative reform, so that America has the best education system in the world.”

The new org breaks down its target audiences to Educators, Parents, Students, and “Everyone Else.”  It’s committed to “great teachers,” “great schools,” and “effective use of public dollars.”  

The latest embodiment of the Rhee brand also offers up four core beliefs (apparently her PR people never explained you offer things in series’ of three or five, never four).  The four beliefs:

* Great teachers can make a tremendous difference for students of every background; all children deserve outstanding teachers.

* Attending a great school should be a matter of fact, not luck; every family should be able to choose an excellent school.

* Public dollars belong where they make the biggest difference—on effective instructional programs; we must fight ineffective practices and bureaucracy.

* Parent and family involvement is key to increased student achievement, but the entire community must be engaged in the effort to improve our schools.

Most interesting in all of this, though, is the underlying structure.  Right now, the org is an advocacy group of one — Rhee.  It sets an audacious goal of raising $1 billion to create “a movement to transform public education.”  The goal seems to be to work with states and school districts across the nation on real reform efforts.  But the group seeks to garner its funding through a combination of corporate and philanthropic support, small donors, membership dues, and merchandise sales (someone needs to tell Rhee how successful the retail sales effort worked for the Stand Up effort back in 2005).

There are many unanswered questions here.  In launching such an effort, Rhee clearly has some significant seed money to launch this effort.  You don’t announce such a fundraising drive unless you already have significant commitment to back up the promise.  So Eduflack suspects there has to be tens of millions of dollars already committed to the effort.

So who will join with Rhee, staff wise?  What organizations will Students First officially partner with?  What SEAs and LEAs will be first on the client list?  Besides the $1 billion what are the measures of success?  Where will the group be located?  Will it have local chapters (like the successful DFER?)  What groups will she take on (besides the unions)?  How soon before she goes after federal funding (any subcontracting opps in RttT, i3, TIF, or SIG, anyone)?

Eduflack is always heartened by efforts that try to amplify the voice of parents and students in the school improvement process.  Too often, we exclude these key stakeholders, leaving them to simply accept what those who “know better” decide needs to be done. As a result, we have a self-fulfilling circle of status quo, where little changes and those end users — the families and students — are left to just deal with the fact the more things change, the more they stay the same … at least with student achievement numbers and a persistent achievement gap.

It is a little surprising that Rhee doesn’t want to get into the ESEA reauthorization mix, but it is a good thing.  Even if she threw the full weight of her group into reauth, she would never get the full credit for the changes she could ultimately be responsible for.  So now is the time for an agenda.  How will we measure the success of Students First in six months?  In a year?  What are the key policy issues she will focus on?  And how will they translate those policy issues into real advocacy felt at the state or local level?

As Eduflack has noted many times, PR is easy.  The cover of Newsweek just gets the ball bouncing.  Now comes the hard work for Rhee, and an opportunity to demonstrate she understands the true power of advocacy and meaningful public engagement.  First, help better diagnose the problems in public education in a way that all stakeholder audiences understand.  Then make clear there are real, workable solutions to those problems.  And wrap up by showing that Students First and its network are the holders
of the best, most actionable solutions to those problems.  

Rhee does that, and this new group of hers can launch a national movement.  Without it, we may have yet another in a long range of non-profits with noble goals, respected ambitions, and nothing left to show for it but a depleted checkbook and a lot of unfulfilled buzz.  There is already too much of that in ed reform, we don’t need any more.


Say It Ain’t So, Joel!

Breaking edu-news out of New York City.  NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has resigned, after eight years of helming the nation’s largest public school system.  And never one to miss a beat, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already named Klein’s permanent replacement — Cathie Black, the chairwoman of Hearst magazines and the publisher of USA Today.

In the coming days, we will surely see a great deal written on Klein’s edu-legacy in the city that never sleeps.  There is little doubt that Klein has had a real and lasting impact on NYC and its schools.  Under his watch, NYC schools have improved, student test scores are up, and graduation rates are on the rise.  Klein tackled every challenge Bloomberg put before him, and he became one of the true leaders of the education reform/school improvement movement.  Yes, he has plenty of critics.  But you don’t bring change and you don’t break the status quo without attracting some enemies and some opposition along the way.  
By bringing in another “non-educator” in Black, Bloomberg is clearly hoping to catch lightening in a bottle for the second time in a row.  It is far too early to know what Black stands for and what her agenda will be.  All we can hope is that she builds on Klein’s successes while learning from his shortcomings (particularly his ability to effectively collaborate and engage with parents and the community at large).
Today’s announcement has far greater impact on school reform in general.  Next fall, we are looking at new superintendents (or chancellors) in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Washington DC, and Newark (just to name a few).  Some think a new supe in Atlanta is on its way.  That is a lot of change in some of our largest and most influential school districts.
We already know that LA is likely replacing its supe with a seasoned educator in John Deasy.  NYC is going the other route, with a seasoned business mind.  So how will mayoral control districts like DC, Chicago, and Newark break when the music stops and a new supe is placed in the big desk?
Now is the true measure to see the future of urban school reform.  Is Joel Klein the model, as DC tried with Michelle Rhee?  Do these districts in need go with educators who can work with strong teachers unions?  Or maybe this gives the Broad Foundation a real opportunity transform the urban school landscape?
And to think we used to worry about whether a potential supe candidate had the proper administrator credential in a given state …

Wither DCPS?

It doesn’t get more definitive than this.  After calling Vincent Gray’s DC mayoral win on Tuesday “devastating for the schoolchildren of Washington, DC,” DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has all but announced she will resign as head of our nation’s capital’s public schools (and likely be gone well before the end of the this academic year).  

So what comes next for a school district that seems to change superintendents as frequently as some kids change their underwear?  Yet another schools chief is likely to roll into town (and it could be a retread of someone who has already been in DC), offering yet another approach to school improvement, spending the next few years rearranging the deck chairs.

In a front page story in today’s Washington Post, Bill Turque offers up four possible successors to Rhee.  Two would offer us our Back to the Future moment, with the possibility of either current Detroit education czar Robert Bobb or outgoing Newark (NJ) superintendent Cliff Janey returning to DC.  Also on Turque’s short list, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the current academic chief in Detroit, or Deborah Gist, current Rhode Island education commissioner and former DC state supe.

For the record, Eduflack loves Gist.  What she has done in Rhode Island this past year is nothing short of remarkable.  She’s completely overhauled the way the state approaches public education — from instruction to teacher quality to data and all points in between.  Gist guided the state to a big Race to the Top win a few weeks ago.  Yes, she is facing a new governor come January (and possibly one who has not endorsed the RttT plan), but if she decides to leave Providence, I’m hoping it is to bring her vision to another state in need of forward movement and real improvement. 

Janey may be a good man and a fine superintendent, but bringing him back to DC sends the wrong message on the direction of DCPS.  Make no mistake, Janey deserves some of the credit for the student test score gains enjoyed under Rhee.  And yes, he has a lot of friends here (including the incoming mayor and the teachers’ union).  But for those looking closely at DC’s next K-12 move, Janey reflects, rhetorically, a step backward, not a step forward.  It may be an unfair characterization, but how can we say DC schools are better off going where they were five years ago?

That leaves us with the two candidates from the Motor City left on Turque’s short list.  First things first, Detroit needs to name one of these two its superintendent … and fast.  Bobb has done remarkable things in Detroit under very difficult circumstances.  And in a desire to bring improvement, he has been open to just about any good idea in the city.  He needs to be given time to see those ideas through, and he needs to be given the full authority over both finances and instruction a real superintendent deserves.  So it Detroit is forced to pick, and either Bobb or Byrd-Bennett would be strong choices, does DC really want to settle for the candidate Detroit didn’t want?

So where does that leave us?  Over the last few days, the future of DCPS has focused on the traditional.  Eduflack has heard names like Rudy Crew (formerly of NYC and Miami-Dade), Arlene Ackerman (currently of Philly and formerly of San Fran and DC), and others who seem to take the tour of the great urban schools circuit.  But is that what DC needs?  Is DC simply looking for a steady hand who understands the job of superintendent, or does it need someone who will think differently and not know what isn’t allowed?

After the Rhee experiment, Tuesday’s victorious parties are not going to be in any mood to find another outside-the-box candidate.  As much as a district like DC would benefit from a leader like Rhee or NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, that just isn’t in the cards.  We are likely looking for candidates who are all too familiar with the urban supe musical chairs game.  It makes for an easy decision for Gray and company, but it may not be the best thing for DC’s school children.

So who will it be?  Janey?  Crew?  Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall?  Out west, the biggest supe search is currently Clark County, NV, or the Las Vegas Schools.  Yesterday, they named their three finalists — Colorado Education Commissioner Dwight Jones, Dallas ISD Superintenden Michael Hinojosa, and Lee County (FL) Supe James Browder.  Do we get one of the two that fail to hit it big in Sin City?  Only time will tell …

The Drumbeat for Mayoral Control

Do mayors run better urban school systems?  That is the question the Wall Street Journal asked yesterday as it used Rochester (NY) Mayor’s Robert Duffy’s bid to take over his struggling city schools as a launching pad to discuss the merits of mayoral control.

Duffy is lobbying the New York Legislature to take over his schools, seeking to dissolve the current elected school board and replace it with a board appointed by himself and the city council.  The pressing demand?  The need to close failing schools and reopen new ones better aligned with student needs and learning expectations.

For those that read the WSJ’s education coverage, this is a regular drumbeat.  Back in March of 2009, the Journal wrote (and Eduflack opined on) an interesting piece on the growing embrace of mayoral control, riffing off of the notion that President Obama and EdSec Arne Duncan were advocating for mayoral takeovers in order to implement their aggressive school improvement plans.  As it did 17 months ago, the Wall Street Journal cites successes in New York, Boston, and Washington DC to make its case for giving the keys to the schools to the municipal leader.

Interestingly, yesterday’s article by Joy Ressmovits seems to note there has been no mad rush to add to the powers of our nation’s mayors.  Despite last year’s declarations, we are not seeing huge numbers of urban districts turning to mayoral control.  Despite efforts in cities like Detroit and Milwaukee, such moves seem to be the exception, not the rule.


First, there is no clear “mayoral control” model for which one can buy the playbook and just implement the plan.  In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg had a particular plan in place, and he and Chancellor Joel Klein have implemented it step by step.  In our nation’s capital, Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee have tried to crib from NYC and build a NYCDOE South in DC.  But leaders in Boston have behaved very differently, both in leadership style and in organization.  The same can be said for Chicago.

Second, because there is no one-size-fits-all model, there is no guarantee of success.  Just look at Cleveland, where student performance on NAEP has actually declined since the mayor’s office took control of the schools.  Or look at NYC, where despite an historic increase in test scores, many still believe that the current regime isn’t working, even seizing on the recent realignment of the state assessment to discredit recent gains.  And in DC, after two years of real gains, this year’s scores seem to have flatlined some. 

Third, there are real political ramifications for taking over the schools.  Case in point here is Washington, DC, where Fenty is in the re-election fight of his life this fall.  One of the central issues to the campaign?  Control of the schools.  Fenty’s chief opponent, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, has made major issue of how the DC Schools are run.  So much so, in fact, that he has strongly suggested one of his first orders of business when elected mayor would be the removal of Rhee as schools chancellor.  Who would have thought a superintendent would be a major campaign issue for an urban mayor? 

If we just look at the NAEP, clearly mayoral control is not the answer to school success.  The top districts (including Charlotte, NC and Austin, TX) on the NAEP TUDA are those run by school boards.  Mayoral control superstars like NYC and Boston are still posting scores below the national NAEP average (though above the large city average).

In hearing Mayor (and hopeful NY LG) Duffy tell his tale, one has to believe there has to be a middle ground.  Can’t we adequately deal with failing schools without needing to seize control of the district?  Can’t school boards be held to the same accountability as we expect of the superintendent and the principals?  Aren’t there incentives (beyond the current federal dollars) to get school districts to make the necessary changes to turn around histories of failure?  Aren’t there ways to bring in the reforms Duffy seeks without having to go to the state legislature and ask for the nuclear option to deal with the schools?  And as we assess our ability to turn around struggling districts, what measures should we use, besides NAEP, to determine success?

Lots of questions.  But who has the answers? 

Private Dollars and Public Education

For years now, we have heard how school districts simply don’t have the necessary funds to operate as we expect.  Just in recent weeks, we’ve had education advocates lobby for $23 billion in federal funding to help pay teacher salaries, asking for outside assistance to avoid major cuts to their payrolls and their educator forces.  And while this $23 billion for edujobs has gotten stymied in Congress, it hasn’t been because folks feel it is inappropriate for anyone other than the school district to pay for teacher salaries.

So why the double standard when it comes to the District of Columbia Public Schools and Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s plans for financial incentives and pay raises for teachers who excel in the classroom?  Over in today’s Washington Post, Bill Turque offers up another strong piece on the evolution of teaching in our nation’s capital, this time focusing on efforts by the DC Office of Campaign Finance to investigate charges that the philanthropic support behind the new teacher pay pact somehow violates the law.

Let’s pause to take a look at the basic facts.  Rhee has pushed for nearly three years to enact her vision to boost student acheivement and teacher quality in DC Schools, offering up a new approach to scrap traditional teacher tenure and reward educators based on performance.  To accomplish this, she secured $64.5 million from private foundations, including Broad, Walton, Robertson, and Arnold.  Knowing the politics of our little city by the swamp, these generour philanthropic donors included language in their agreements that they could pull back the $64.5 million if Rhee is no longer with DCPS.  The Cliff Notes version here — these foundations are investing in Rhee and her vision of teacher quality.  If Rhee isn’t here to shepherd the project, the donors reserve the right to re-evaluate their financial commitment to the District.

Accusers say this is a violation of the law, and that such wiggle langauge does nothing more than protect Rhee in the event of a change in mayoral leadership.  The Chancellor, the allegations go, personally benefits because she agreed to such “leadership clauses.”

Over on WaPo’s editorial pages, the newspaper rightfully questions why such an investigation is even being pursued.  As WaPo notes, Rhee raised millions from credible philanthropic organizations, all with a significant track record in public education and school improvement. 

It all makes Eduflack wonder, if Rhee had gone to these foundations, hat in hand, because she needed $60 million to avoid laying off hundreds of teachers, would there be the same outrage?  If the Chancellor were coming forward and saying she can’t make due with her available resources and needs real help to shore up her basic operating budget, would there be the same concern?  Or is this simply an issue of using a little inginuity to break the status quo, and the status quoers being upset about it?

From the cheap seats, it seems that Rhee is using philanthropic support exactly as it is intended.  DCPS operations continue to get funded through the traditional mixes of federal, state, and local funding (though a little less traditional in DC’s case).  Rather than cut those core services and programs, Rhee has secured outside funding to implement an innovative (or not so innovative, depending on your perspective) program intended to boost student achievement and teacher quality.  If it works, terrific.  If it doesn’t, it is largely the outside funders who fail to gain return on their investment.

In return, those philanthropic causes want to see some conditions on their contributions.  They aren’t handing over tens of millions of dollars blind.  They want oversight and assurances.  They want guarantees.  And they want some stability in management to make sure years aren’t wasted or programmatic goals don’t change mid-stream.  All seems perfectly reasonable.

Without question, there are a significant number of individuals — inside DC, in the eduaction community, etc. — who simply don’t like DCPS’s new teacher pact.  They will play whatever cards they can to try and delay and derail the deal, particularly knowing that this year’s campaign for DC mayor could result in new leadership, both for the city and for DCPS.  But this investigation seems silly, even for DC politics.

It does raise a very important point, though.  We are at a time when more private sector and philanthropic money is going into public K-12 education than ever before.  From the Gates Foundation to the matches sought by the pending federal Investing in Innovation grants, public/private partnerships and third-party financial support is becoming more and more the norm these days.  Yet much of these deals seem to still happen behind closed doors.  We learn of private support, but we often don’t know the dollar figures involved or the conditions attached, as we do with the current DCPS deal.

It seems we need some additional sunshine on the process.  A common database where philanthropic donations over a certain threshold are reported and cataloged.  A place where we can see who is giving money (and for what and with what conditions) and who is receiving it.  A clearinghouse where we can both see the inputs of such public/private school improvement efforts, as well as the documented outcomes of such investments.  A way to see what is working and replicate it, using these philanthropic supports to guide systemic reforms later on.

I recognize that folks are tired of reporting and accountability, but if we are to truly learn from these sorts of public/private investments, a little sunshine and accountability can be an enormous help.  And it may even maximize such outside investments, allowing us to see real, long-term results.