It’s Common Core-tastic!?

As the great Yogi Berra is reported as saying, it’s like deja vu all over again!  

This past weekend, dear ol’ Eduflack was out in San Francisco for the ASCD Annual Conference.  On Saturday, I had the privilege of addressing more than 100 folks who came out on a monsoon-like Saturday morning to learn more about how to build, execute, and measure a successful public engagement campaign in the education space.  A good time, I hope, was had by all.
After the conclusion of that merriment, Eduflack wandered over to the exhibit hall to see what companies, non-profits, IHEs, and government agencies thought ASCD attendees would be most interested in.  It was a full hall, comprised of many of the same organizations that make the rounds during the spring education conferences.
But the one thing that caught my eye was how many booths and vendors bore the supposed blessing of the Common Core State Standards Initiative.  We had “Common Core approved” and “Common Core certified.”  For those not quite willing to go out on the limb, we had even had quite a few “Common Core aligned.”  The label could be found on curriculum and supplemental materials, professional development and assessment tools.  It seemed to be applicable for everything short of the tote bags and candy giveaways.
Yes, I realize that most states have signed onto Common Core and are currently in the process figuring out how to move that adoption to implementation.  Yes, I realize the embrace of Common Core was a requirement of Race to the Top and is likely to play a role in ESEA reauthorization.  And yes, I realize the importance of having a one national yardstick by which we measure all U.S. students.
But we also have to be clear here.  States are adopting relatively general standards in just two subject areas.  We have no curriculum to go with those standards yet.  We have no tests to go with the standards yet.  We have no textbooks or workbooks or cookbooks that go with those standards yet.  in fact, we don’t even have the full standards yet, as all states have the ability to add 15 percent of their own priority standards to the common ELA and math standards currently in play.
So it just seems far too premature for us to be peddling the “Common Core approved” when we still don’t know what Common Core looks like in the schools and THERE IS NO ONE TO APPROVE ANYTHING ON BEHALF OF COMMON CORE!  No one is certifying or approving on behalf of CCSSI.  At a time when states and districts are worried about Common Core (and many at ASCD were), we have vendors marketing their wares to those concerns, promising the magical elixirs that will fix everything.
And that’s where the deja vu comes into play.  It was only seven or eight years ago when we saw the exact same scene unfold around scientifically based research.  In 2002, 2003, 2004, just about anyone who was anyone at an education conference was selling an SBR-based product that was aligned with NCLB.  Didn’t matter if it was true or not, everyone was scientifically based.  Everyone had an evidence-based core.  You could talk to a dozen reading programs on conference row in 2003, and they were all SBR.  Ask them what their research was, and most handed the same document to you — the National Reading Panel report (or the NCLB legislation itself).
The problem here is that people understood the expectation (everything needed to be scientifically based) but they didn’t understand (or didn’t care) what that meant.  The type of research required under the law took four or five years to develop, and the sales cycle didn’t allow for that sort of time.  So take the NRP report, slap a focus group or two together, put together some bar graphs, and there was your research base.  Add a colorful “checklist” aligning your product with the NRP and you were really excelling.
(As an aside, perhaps my favorite vendor at ASCD this weekend was one peddling a product labeled as “scientifically researched based.”  I don’t know what scientifically research is, but I’m guessing that extra “ly” makes the research extra good.)
Here we go again.  We all saw how successful it was to sell vapor and snake oil as SBR in the last decade.  It cost us another generation of students.  It killed a potentially strong program in Reading First and wasted millions (if not billions) of dollars in the process, as we couldn’t distinguish between the real deal and the posers.  
Before we rush to reach for the Common Core label, can we just take a moment to actually digest CCSSI?  Can we let states ID their 15 percent add on?  Can we see how districts apply it to instructional expectations?  Can we see how the assessment consortia begin developing their products?  And can we see, please, if these standards actually move into the classroom or if they just hang out there as a good idea that we agree to, but don’t actually implement?
Of course, there is one difference between SBR and CCSSI.  WIth SBR, the federal government established a new pot of money, $1 billion a year under RF, to help fund the acquisition of those new SBR products and services.  With Common Core, there doesn’t appear to be any new money.  Perhaps, as districts and states are spending their own funds from existing obligations and aren’t playing with house money, that they will scrutinize their purchases a little more, ensuring they are buying the real deal.  
There are some great products and services out there that do match up well with Common Core and can help districts and schools meet their current and future obligations.  But anyone can slap a label on a product.  It is up to educators to discern the strong from the squishy.  

We Need a National Curriculum!

First it was common core standards.  Then common core assessments.  Today, the Al Shanker Institute started talking about common core curriculum.  But instead of calling for a true national curriculum, the logical next step in the common core movement, they call for curriculum, defined as a “sequential set of guidelines in the core academic disciplines.”  is it too bold to ask for someone, anyone to come out and call for a national curriculum?

That is the question I explore this week over at the Education Debate, asking about A Common Curriculum?  Check it out.  

Eduflack for Senate?

For the past three years, Eduflack has touted the role the states (and localities) play in true school improvement.  As “interesting” as the federal role is with its carrot/stick approach, the real work is happening at the SEA/LEA level.  That was the case during the NCLB era, and it is certainly the case as we move into the College- and Career-Readiness Act era (OK, we need a catchy acronym for what EdSec Duncan and company are dreaming up for ESEA.)  Real change, real improvement, and real decisions are ultimately found in our state capitals.

This is even true in Eduflack’s home state of Virginia.  This year’s legislative session was an ongoing battle of priority between K-12 education (and to a lesser degree higher ed) and transportation.  Do we focus on roads or schools?  Add in the Old Dominion’s continued refusal to sign onto the Common Core standards, our inability to fund all-day kindergarten, our continued struggle with the role of charter schools in the state, and the highs and lows demonstrated in measures such as Quality Counts, and one can see that Virginia could be ground zero for a statewide effort to improve public education for all students.  Yet Virginia is rarely seen as a “reform” state.  In fact, most advocates and school improvement voices stay away from Virginia, concerned our state is not “open” to the sort of changes necessary to offer a lasting improvement that can narrow the achievement gap and provide real opportunities to students, particularly those from historically disadvantaged groups.
So why the background on Virginia and its commitment (or not) to public education?  Indulge me a little.  Historically, Eduflack likes to stay away from the personal on this blog (with the exception of bragging on my two perfect, incredible children).  I try not to write about my work on my local school board.  I try to stay away from detailing my day job and the organizations I do business with professionally.  Separating that side of Eduflack’s life from the opining and ranting on this platform just seems the prudent thing to do.  But today will be an exception.
On Friday, Eduflack’s state senator announced her retirement, after nearly four decades in public service.  This year, the residents of Arlington, Fairfax, and Falls Church will elect a new state senator to send to Richmond.  And dear ol’ Eduflack, apparently, is on the list of potential candidates to replace her.
Why do I post this here?  Simply as a matter of full disclosure.  The thought of serving in the Virginia State Senate never crossed my mind until I was approached this week.  I’m happy with my life.  I enjoy my work.  I love serving on the school board.  And I treasure every moment I get with my incredible wife and my perfect children.  Why in the world would I want to upset that balance?
At the same time, I can’t shake why I am motivated to do what I do in the first place.  Back in the fall of 2008, when I was bringing my daughter (the future governor of Virginia, and likely the first Latina woman governor of the Commonwealth) home from Guatemala, I wrote on my educational hopes for her and why I’m in this game in the first place.  Nearly two and a half years later, those concerns haven’t lessened.  If anything, they’ve grown stronger.
So those voices in my head ask a very simple question (simple to ask, not to answer).  is it better to focus on the local, ensuring my own children have the very best public education available in the Commonwealth?  Or is it better to fight for those conditions for all kids in Virginia?  And if the latter, can the Virginia State Senate really focus on public education (early childhood, K-12, and higher ed) in the sort of way where those conditions can take hold just as easily in Petersburg as they can in Arlington?
No wrong answers here.  Just pesky voices.

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 …

Acting on Common Standards

Two-thirds of states have now signed onto the Common Core State Standards Initiative, pledging to adopt the K-12 English/language arts and math standards framework officially released in final form by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers back in June.

Without doubt, CCSSI is a necessary step forward in our national school improvement effort.  One, singular set of academic standards is a non-negotiable if we are to truly improve our performance on national assessments such as NAEP and if we are to make ourselves more competitive on international benchmarks such as PISA and TIMSS.  CCSS offer the promise that, in the near future, we will actually know the answer to the question, what should a fourth grader know when it comes to math?  Or what does it mean to be ELA proficient in the 7th grade.  Doesn’t matter what state or district a student is in (unless they happen to reside in Texas or Virginia), standards will soon actually be standard.

As states are moving to formally adopt the CCSS, the federal government is already beginning the process of developing the assessments that will accompany such standards.  In the coming weeks, we should hear about hundreds of millions of dollars being sent to various consortia to develop a standard assessment to go with the standards.  But an important question remains.  How do we move these K-12 standards frameworks into real instruction?   

Often, school improvement efforts get bogged down in this question.  We offer up a “great idea” but have little notion of how to operationalize it.  So those great ideas wither on the vine.  We all sign onto the concept, but we never fully put it into practice.

Last week, a comprehensive set of K-12 ELA “curriculum maps” were released for public review and comment.  The maps are a product of Common Core (which despite the name is not actually a part of or affiliated with CCSSI).  According to the folks at Common Core (a group Eduflack has been fortunate to work with):

Common Core’s Curriculum Maps in English Language Arts were written by public school teachers for public school teachers. The maps translate the new Common Core State Standards for Kindergarten through 12th grade into unit maps that teachers can use to plan their year, craft their own more detailed curriculum, and create lesson plans. The maps are flexible and adaptable, yet they address every standard in the CCSS. Any teacher, school, or district that chooses to follow the Common Core maps can be confident that they are adhering to the standards. Even the topics the maps introduce grow out of and expand upon the “exemplar” texts recommended in the CCSS. And because they are free the maps will save school districts millions in curriculum development costs. The draft maps are available for public comment until September 17.

There has been a great deal swirling around the blogsphere the past week on these Curriculum Maps.  One thing seems certain.  Like CCSSI itself, these Maps are a necessary first step toward moving the standards into real instruction.  Do they answer each and every question one has about implementing CCSS?  Of course not.  But it does put us on a real path toward teaching English according to what is expected from CCSS.  And it does so on a platform that was constructed on the standards themselves (rather than being tailored from old, existing materials or simply claiming alignment even if one is not there).

Perhaps most importantly, though, is that these standards were “written by public school teachers for public school teachers.”  We’ve been hearing a great deal, of late, about how most education improvement efforts seem to exclude teachers from the process.  We bring them the final product, asking them to implement, but we don’t give them any practical input into the development.  These Common Core Curriculum Maps seem different.  Educators developed and reviewed these drafts.  Teachers are now being asked to provide public comment and input on the drafts.  And those teacher inputs will be factored in before the Maps go final later this fall.

Such maps only live up to their potential, though, if folks provide valuable feedback and actionable recommendations.  Both the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation processes were strengthened because of a robust public comment period.  Same goes for the Common Core State Standards themselves, which went through comprehensive review and public comment before we saw the final product in early June. 

So for all of those who worry how to implement the standards, now is the time to offer public comment.  For all of those who worry that teachers have been ignored in the school reform process, now is the time to offer public comment.  For all of those who have first-hand, real classroom experience to provide, now is the time to offer public comment.  And for those who want to improve both teaching and learning, particularly in ELA, now is the time to offer public comment.

As the first to market, these Common Core Curriculum Maps have the potential of wielding significant impact on the future of instruction in our public school classrooms.  If we are going to start from the strongest footing possible, we need teachers and administrators and policymakers and the like to take the time to review the maps and offer their views on how to strengthen the recommendations and improve the tools that will be provided the educators throughout the nation.

Testing Throwdown in NYC

When are lower student achievement scores a good thing?  That seems to be the question thrown about up in New York City this past week, where Big Apple officials have been grappling with the reality that city students’ performance on the state’s math and reading proficiency tests fell after a newer (and harder) exam was put into place.

As always, it is most fun to read the evolution of such stories in the New York Post, which first reported on the plunge, and then editotrialized on the issue twice — first on Thursday praising the new “truth-telling” and then again today, condemning the United Federation of Teachers for jumping on the test score drop to “discredit all education standards.”  

It should be no secret that state standards — and the tests that measure those standards — have been a problem for some time.  Since the introduction of NCLB, we’ve witnessed states lowering their standards so that they could continue to demonstrate “adequate yearly progress,” regularly reducing the bar so the number of students hitting proficient increased year after year after year.  In this educational shell game, it meant reducing the standards again and again to keep up.

The NY Post refers to the problem as “junk tests” but the real issue seems to be the standards behind them.  Tests are only as good as what we are expected to measure.  Garbage in, garbage out.  Did anyone really believe that more than three-quarters of NY students were proficient in reading and math?  Of course not.  But New York State’s definition of proficient and a common sense definition of the same are quite different.  How else do you explain such strong proficiency numbers at a time when half of students require remediation?

One can’t fault the NYC DOE for playing the hands it has been dealt.  When taking the old state proficiency exam, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein posted some long-term gains.  Year on year, test scores increased.  That is progress.  Now that they have a new test aligned to new standards, the game starts anew.  These scores serve as the year one baseline.  Next year, we expect to see gains.  And the year after that, more of the same.  Rince and repeat.

But those looking to discredit the improvements in NYC based on this one test are going to be sorely mistaken.  Just take a look at the other measures around us.  On the NAEP exam, the Nation’s Report Card which offers one standard measure for all students across the nation, NYC has seen gains in student achievement (while the rest of New York state has remained flat).  And as Eduflack wrote earlier this year, Chancellor Klein has shown real improvement on high school graduation rates.  So at a time when the teachers’ unions are calling for multiple measures to evaluate teachers, we are seeing that multiple measures support claims of NYC schools improvement.

Ultimately, while this makes for some lovely rhetorical skirmishes in the city that never sleeps, it doesn’t negate a very simple truth.  Over the last decade, NYC schools have come a long way.  But they still have a long way to go.  At no point do I remember hearing Klein declare mission accomplished.  Progress has been made, but there is still much to do, particularly in addressing achievement gap issues in New York.  The new test provides a clearer, stronger view of the challenges before NY educators.  And the pending adoption and implementation of Common Core standards offers a clearer picture of where one has to go.  

Instead of using the latest round of test scores to throw recent reforms out the window, improvements on measures such as NAEP and grad rates should show what is possible, and the growing need to redouble current reform efforts.  If anything, these scores demonstrate that more must be done.  

Measuring Up to Common Core

In recent months, we have been hearing a great deal about how individual states’ academic standards measure up to the Common Core.  Both Texas and Virginia have proudly proclaimed that their state standards are far superior to the proposed shared standards, and as a result they have refused to pursue Race to the Top and to sign onto Common Core Standards.  When California agreed to Common Core in principle last year, it did so only after proclaiming that the Golden State had the best standards in the union, and Common Core could cut out the middle man and just adopt California standards.  And this week in Massachusetts, many are trying to delay the adoption of Common Core, believing that the Bay State’s standards are better than where NGA and CCSSO landed earlier this year.

Well now the Fordham Institute has weighed in, offering up a state-by-state analysis of how current state standards measure up to the Common Core.  And what do they say?

* Overall, the math Common Core is stronger than the ELA Common Core.  With math, 39 states’ standards are inferior.  With reading, 37 states’ standards are inferior (but three are superior).
* Texas scores an A- compared to the reading Common Core, but only a C on math.
* Virginia scores a B+ on math and a C on ELA
* Massachusetts posts an A- on math and a B+ on ELA

Some of the more “interesting” findings:
* Washington, DC scores an A for both its current ELA and math standards.  Who knew that Michelle Rhee and company could claim they have the best standards in the nation, better than Massachusetts  or the rest?
* Indiana and California also scored As in both categories.  So according to Fordham, Cali, DC, and Indiana are the tops.  How many would get that right on Jeopardy?
* And some of the laggards?  Montana earned dual Fs.  Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Wisconsin earned and F and a D each.  Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Rhode Island come in with Ds.  See any surprises in those lists?

How about our two Race to the Top Phase I winners?  Tennessee picked up an A- on ELA and a C on math.  Delaware an F on ELA and an B on math.

What does all of this tell us?  We still have a lot of work to do.  I don’t think that anyone truly believes that the strongest academic standards in the nation belong to Washington, DC.  Nor do we see the worst standards coming from states in New England or the Northeast.  

Fordham is offering up a great deal of food for thought here.  If anything, it shows why we need that common yardstick by which to measure student performance for all.  But I suspect this is just the first in a long list of analyses, points, crosspoints, and other discussions of standards, common standards, and what is to come.

“Much Superior” Virginia?

For weeks now, we have been hearing about states that have decided they will not pursue Race to the Top, Part II.  Over at Politics K-12 , Michele McNeil has a dozen or so states that either have decided not to apply or are dangerously close to not applying before next Tuesday’s drop-dead date for the final taste of the $4 billion pot.

This shouldn’t be surprising.  More than 40 states put in hundreds upon hundreds of hours of work and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants to prepare their Phase I apps.  Two states, Delaware and Tennessee, won in the early round.  Those remaining states were left with detailed judges’ scores to help guide a redo due June 1.  But some states simply don’t have the stomach for it, offering a host of reasons not to pursue.

Perhaps one of the most interesting reasons for declining was offered yesterday by Eduflack’s home state of Virginia.  According to the Washington Post, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is not entering the Race because of the Common Core Standards.  The chief executive of the Old Dominion claims that Virginia’s current academic standards are “much superior” and he doesn’t see the need of tinkering with 15 years of work to establish the current Standards of Learning.

I understand a state like Massachusetts, which is known for having some of the top performance standards in the nation to be wary of common core, but Virginia, really?  When discussions turn to state standards and the leaders and laggards, one really hears about Virginia’s SOLs being at the top of the class.  

Earlier this month, Eduflack wrote about the dangers of states that have reduced their standards to show performance gains on AYP.  Unfortunately, we see far too many states that tout impressive records of student acheivement on their state exams and measured against their state standards, only to see that performance plummet when compared to a common yardstick like NAEP.

So let’s take another look at the data offered by Gary Phillips, a vice president at American Institutes for Research and the former acting commissioner at NCES.  How does Virginia stack up?  According to the SOLs, 82 percent of fourth graders in Virginia were proficient in math.  But when we look at the NAEP scores, that number drops to the low 40s.  It is even worse for eighth grade math, where the SOLs put proficiency at 79, but NAEP puts it under 40.

Why is this important?  The NAEP is a common measure.  It lets Virginia see where it stacks up compared to other states.  And the numbers there are startling.  In fourth grade, we are in the middle of the pack, far behind states like Massachusetts, South Carolina, Missouri, Washington, Vermont, and New Hampshire.  By eighth grade, Virginia is near the bottom of the pack in such performance, only posting better numbers that seven states.

Is that really “much superior?”  Are we really declaring “mission accomplished” when we are mediocre at fourth grade and drop to the bottom quartile by eighth grade?  The bar we’ve set on academic standards is … at least we are better than Oklahoma?

A College Degree for Every Child?

By now, most in national education policy circles realize we are transitioning from the era of AYP to the era of college/career ready.  Instead of using middle school reading and math proficiency as our yardstick, we will soon be using the college- and career-ready common core standards to determine if states, districts, and schools are truly making progress toward student achievement.

Over at National Journal’s Education Experts Blog, they’ve been spending the week discussing EdSec Arne Duncan’s Blueprint for ESEA Reauthorization.  Lots of interesting opinion here, from Sandy Kress’ significant disappointment to Michael Lomax’ support to real concerns about the “5 percent rule” to a general feeling that lack of details is a good thing in planning legislative policy.

But this morning, your NJ ring leader Eliza Kligman broke a bit from protocol and posted an anonymous comment from a reader in South Carolina.  (For those who don’t realize the participant list for the Education Experts Blog is a virtual who’s who.  There are MANY in the chattering class who desperately want to be added to the list, but haven’t yet.  And to focus on these experts, National Journal doesn’t allow readers to post comments to the blog.  A general concept that usually means the kiss of death for a blog, but seems to work for National Journal.)

But I digress.  This reader raised an important question with regard to the next generation of ESEA and our intent of getting every child in the United States “college ready.”  In fact, the comment is a little more pointed, with the reader stating, “if everyone is highly technically trained or college educated who is going to check out my groceries, cut down the dead tree in my back yard, tow my car when it breaks down, or take my money when I buy gas at the convenience store?  If you think the illegal alien problem is bad now, just wait until all of us middle class soon-to-be-elderly are told we have to pay highly skilled wages tot he guy who cuts our grass.”

While SC is mixing and matching a wide range of policy issues that shouldn’t be joined together (such as who is worthy of earning highly skilled wages and the immigration issue), he does start to touch on an interesting point.  But Eduflack would ask a more important question — does being college ready mean that every student should actually attend college?

In today’s global economy, just about everyone who holds a full-time job likely needs the sort of knowledge and skills that would be deemed “college- and career-ready.”  That guy fixing his car is most likely ASE certified and needs to be well versed in computers, math, and other subjects to successfully repair what are now four-wheeled computers with AC and a killer sound system.  The guy cutting the tree now needs to know ecology and life sciences and hopefully some math to generate accurate invoices.  And regardless of the job, we want everyone to be literate with some level of social skill.  So the fear expressed by SC and many, many others is a bit of a straw man.

It opens the larger question, though.  As a nation, though, we have set a national goal to have the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by the year 2020.  Why?  Is it more important for someone to hold a diploma or a good-paying job?  What is the measure of a successful nation?  A strong economy?  A robust workforce?  Or the total worth of outstanding student loans?

I don’t mean to be negative here, but Eduflack has long believed we are selling students a bill of goods by telling them everyone should go to college.  First off, when we say college, most mean four-year degrees (and that’s even how that national goal is being measured).  But what about the knowledge and skills that are earned through community college programs and career and technical education programs?   What about military service, where four years of Army training may be far more beneficial than a BA in the liberal arts?  What about those whose passion is pursuing a trade, or the true entrepreneurs who are itching to open a business and pursue their passion?  Are all of those pursuits worth less because they don’t come attached to a four-year degree?

When Eduflack got into this discussion a few years ago, it generated an ongoing offline debate with a liberal arts professor from a college in the Pacific Northwest.  He regularly called me a complete idiot, saying I completely missed the point.  The role of college, he would say, is not to prepare kids for career, it was to broaden their minds and open them up to new experiences.

The ESEA Blueprint is correct is seeking to ensure that all those who graduate from U.S. high schools are ready for either college or career.  But we need to have a much deeper discussion of who should go to college, why they should pursue postsecondary education, and what the expected return on investment is for such a pursuit.  In an era where an aspiring college student can drop more than $200,000 to earn a BA from a private liberal arts institution, ROI becomes an important topic — for lenders, potential employers, and the students themselves.

Finally, an ESEA Blueprint from the Feds

After months of anticipation, we finally have the official blueprint for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act form the Obama Administration.  The plan was teased in some news articles yesterday (Saturday) morning and was previewed during President Barack Obama’s weekly radio address on Saturday morning.  The official plan, found here, was officially released on Saturday evening at 8 p.m.

At first glance, I found the plan to be whelming.  On the whole, I thought it was entirely solid and relatively thoughtful.  But as I read it (and it shows you what type of life Eduflack lives when he spends his Saturday night reading the Administration’s ESEA blueprint, but for what is was worth, I was also watching West Virginia University beat Georgetown), I was surprised by how little I was surprised with.  As we used to write about two years ago, this was clearly NCLB 2.0.  Much of the last iteration of ESEA remains intact.  Some needed improvements are being made.  And the priorities emphasized in Race to the Top are being codified, hopefully, into the new law.
The highlights?  The plan is grouped under five key principles (not to be confused with ED’s four pillars).  The principles include: college and career-ready students, great teachers and leaders, raise the bar and reward excellence, equity and opportunity, and promote innovation.  These principles break into the following tasks:
  • College and Career-Ready Students — Raising standards for all students, better assessments, a complete education (meaning a well-rounded curriculum beyond the common core standards)
  • Great Teachers and Leaders in Every School — Effective teachers and principals, our best teachers and leaders where they are needed the most, and strengthening teacher and leadership preparation and recruitment.
  • Equity and Opportunity for All Students — Rigorous and fair accountability for all students, meeting the needs of diverse learners, and greater equity.
  • Raise the Bar and Reward Excellence — Fostering a Race to the Top, supporting effective school choice, and promoting a culture of college readiness and success.
  • Promoting Innovation and Continuous Improvement — Fostering innovation and accelerating success, supporting recognizing and rewarding local innovations, and supporting student success.
See, nothing that exactly shakes the K-12 education earth.  As I read the blueprint, I am seeing much of the original intent of NCLB, mixed in with the goals of RttT, a heavy, heavy influence of common core standards, and a strong dash of the principles advocated through the Schott Foundation’s recent Opportunity to Learn (OTL) campaign (primarily the equity planks).  A little something here for everyone, but not enough that any one party is quite swooning at this point.
I’ll be honest, the timing of this release as Eduflack completely puzzled.  This blueprint was released as if ED was trying to dump it so no one noticed it.  In PR, the general rule is you never release something of importance over a weekend.  And you certainly don’t do it at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night.  Many of the leading reporters got an advance briefing of the blueprint (as evidenced by The Washington Post coverage here, which notes an expected 16 percent spending increase in the federal education budget), but it is clear from the early comments that this release was not maximizing the interest in the topic.  We have 16 states coming over to ED this week to plead their case for RttT, with this blueprint now stepping on that significant reform story.  Yes, Duncan is slated to speak before the Senate HELP Committee this Wednesday, but with all of Washington focused on healthcare reform, this blueprint is likely to go undernoticed in the coming days and weeks.
But from the look and feel of the blueprint, it is clear that neither Capitol Hill nor the media is in the intended target here.  Since the beginning of the calendar year, we have been hearing how Assistant ED Secretary Carmel Martin was preparing an ESEA blueprint for legislators on the Hill.  But this document, from its design to its word choices to its bulleted focus of key concepts, is designed to deliver talking points and marching orders to the education blob.  This “blueprint” is designed to move the discussion at member organizations, forums about town, and cocktail parties and gab sessions.  In that way, it isn’t so much a blueprint as it is framing document for debate.
A few things are crystal clear.  One, EdSec Arne Duncan is going all in when it comes to common core standards.  The execution of this blueprint requires the adoption of the proposed standards across the country.  Anything short of 80 percent adoption within the year is going to severely hamstring much of what is proposed in this plan.
Two, those who were expecting accountability (and AYP) to be weakened are going to be severely disappointed.  Yes, we no longer use the term AYP.  But accountability remains alive and well in this document.  Localities are not being granted the flexibility many had hoped they may receive.  And while we are changing some of the rubrics (again, aligning them with those core standards) it is clear that continued improvement of student achievement remains the name of the game.  Even more so when it now appears that states, districts, schools, and teachers will be judged by how good a job they do getting more kids to graduate from high school.
Three, the teachers unions have been put on notice.  Obama’s remarks last week about the situation in Rhode Island were quite an intentional statement against the teaching status quo.  This blueprint strengthens the call for closing low-performing schools, addressing teachers who aren’t making the cut, and holding school districts, administrators, and teachers far more accountable for student achievement than even NCLB did.
Four, rural education is not going to be happy.  After seeking to improve its lot under NCLB, rural ed is almost an afterthought in this blueprint, inserted in a list of specialty audiences AFTER Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native Education interests.  Hardly the sort of focus that Senate HELP Committee Ranking Member Mike Enzi (WY) and House Education Committee Ranking Member John Kline (MN) are hoping to see.  And Eduflack would quibble with what is labeled as “A New Approach,” as many of these bullet items do indeed read like the rhetoric surrounding NCLB intentions back in 2001 and 2002.  But looking to bullet out the takeaways (and distinguish between new and continued approaches) is always useful to those who will be asked to opine on this blueprint now and in the future.
And what’s missing?  No real discussion of anticipated plans of eliminating the current Title II (focused on teachers) and replacing it with new language aligned with the last year’s activities (though I suspect that’s what the effective teachers section is intended to address).  No real emphasis on plans to eliminate traditional, guaranteed block grants and replace them with competitive grant programs a la RttT and i3, particularly at the school district level.  And most importantly, no crosswalk of dollars with priorities.  WaPo may be pointing to a major spending increase under the reauthorization, but it simply isn’t part of the plan that has
been shared with the at large chattering class.  We’re being asked to buy into big ideas, with specific dollars, programs, and line items available on a need-to-know basis at a later date.
So what now?  From early reports, AASA (which was a strong opponent to NCL seems happy.  Teachers unions are upset.  And most simply didn’t realize this was dropped late last night (and announced proudly on Facebook for those who are Fans of the US Department of Education).  While this gives both the House and Senate committees additional information to consider as they hold their ESEA hearings, it is clear that Chairman George Miller (CA) is moving forward with his own plans, and this blueprint may very well be tossed onto the pile with other recommendations coming in to Miller from across the sector.  
Timing?  Eduflack loves those cock-eyed optimists who are still talking about reauthorization by this summer.  It ain’t happening.  If the intent is to re-bucket ESEA around this proposed blueprint, we are looking at spring 2011 at the earliest, assuming we don’t have significant shifts in congressional makeup this November.  But at least it gives us more to talk about than just RttT!