Doing What “Works” In the Classroom

Last week, educators across Florida went to the state capitol in what has become a common refrain. Florida teachers demanded more respect for their profession. They asked for a reduction in testing and its emphasis. They took on the perceived “profiteering” in public education, whether it be seen in charter school operators or textbook publishers.

There is no question that the education profession has been under attack for many years, and there is similarly no question that educators deserve greater respect than they largely get. Teaching is an incredibly difficult job, and it has only gotten more challenging in recent years. We look to teachers to be everything from guidance counselors to social workers to parole officers, and then we expect them to get every child under their care into Harvard. (sure, a little hyperbole, but what would an education debate be without it?)

Eduflack was struck, though, by a comment made by a Florida school district’s head of employee relations. Obviously responding to a question about why 3,000 teachers descended on Tallahassee to speak their minds, this school official said, teachers “want to get back to doing things in the classroom that they know work.”

This is a common refrain in the post-NCLB world. But what does it really mean? Does it mean we want to empower teachers to do what is most effective in teaching the kids in their care? Or does it mean to let teachers do what they want, when levels of accountability were low?

“Doing the things that they know works” would seem a tip of the hat to research-based instruction, where we have qualitative data showing the instruction boosts student learning. It speaks to longitudinal studies that seek to pinpoint what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to instructional practice. And it is almost lifted directly from the NCLB law itself, particularly as we talked about scientifically based reading when it came to Reading First and the creation of the What Works Clearinghouse over at IES.

If that’s what going back to doing what teachers know works, then sign me up now. Give me a placard and a megaphone and let me shout loud and proud for using evidence-based instruction in the classroom.

But please don’t tell me it is code for letting us go back to the way things used to be in the 1990s, when it was the Wild West when it came to both instructional practice, student expectations, and accountability. Please don’t suggest we go back to the good ol’ days when inputs ruled the day and outcomes were horrible things that were just whispered about.

When a third of fourth graders are unable to read at grade level, we don’t know what works (and if we do, we certainly aren’t using it). When that same percentage of fourth graders are unable to earn a college diploma eight years later, we sure don’t know what works.

Yes, we need to empower teachers. They need to be equipped with the skills, knowledge, and pedagogy to succeed in the classroom. They need to be supported – by financial and human resource – to lead their classrooms and reach their students. They need to be give real-time student data (and know what to do with it) so they can adjust and tailor instruction to meet the needs of this year’s class of students.

Yes, all educators should be using what works in their classrooms. Alas, we still have a long way to go before we can agree on what those research-effective practices are, and where evidence trumps philosophy.

 

Does Accountability “Eradicate Goodness?”

As a nation, No Child Left Behind has been the law for more than 13 years now. Good, bad, and ugly (and with the occasional waiver from any of the three), NCLB governs K-12 education in the United States.

Listen to any of those who were responsible for bringing it into law, or those who were responsible for implementing the law, and you’ll hear one of the most important components was “accountability.” NCLB was designed to hold states, districts, schools, teachers, and students themselves for learning. Test scores determined if adequate progress was being made. If it wasn’t, then federal dollars were at risk and great public shame could come to those put on the “list” for failing to make AYP.

We all recognize that, at some point in the near future, NCLB will be replaced with some variation of the current “Every Child Achieves” bill that is currently working its way through Congress. A great many legislators, organizations, individuals, advocates, agitators, and the like are all look to make the changes that help them the most or reflect their own dreams and desires for federal K-12 governance.

And we will see change. We likely will see a number of changes. We will likely see changes that aren’t even warranted (or may not be demanded). But one thing should be clear. We aren’t going to see federal law do away with accountability.

I understand there are a great number of people who want to accountability go the way of the dodo. Those that want to see all the sticks replaced with carrots and federal law governed by the philosophy that we are all a success and we’ve earned trophies just for participating in the schooling process.

But results count. There are clear benchmarks of what students should know and be able to do at the conclusion of each grade. There are clear expectations of what it means to finish the fourth grade or to graduate from high school. And when students enter fourth grade unable to read at grade level or head into 12th grade functionally illiterate, someone needs to be held accountable. The state. The district. The school. And the student himself.

So it a cryin’ shame when we see folks who should know better thinking that a redo of the ESEA law can and should mean the total elimination of any and all accountability. Particularly when they frame it as, “Doing anything punitive in nature eradicates what goodness is going to come out of this bill.”

For those keeping track, those are the words of Sheila Cohen, the president of the Connecticut Education Association. They were spoken, as captured by the Connecticut Mirror, in response to U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy siding with civil rights groups who want to see accountability provisions remain in the federal law, including the NAACP.

“The principle of accountability is not negotiable to us,” said Leslie Proll, director of the Washington office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “This was the raison d’etre of the original act. Educational systems must be held responsible for narrowing and eliminating gaps in opportunity and achievement for students of color.”

Proll is right on point here. Educational systems must be held responsible. They must be responsible for both the inputs and the outcomes. They must both admit there are serious concerns when it comes to achievement and opportunity gaps AND that we need to everything possible to close those gaps. And no, simply blaming “poverty” is not going to get us there.

There cannot be accountability without some sort of punitive action. Otherwise, there simply is no accountability. Are we to simply say, borrowing from the old Robin Williams routine, “improve the schools, or we’ll ask you to improve them again?” Decades have shown us it just doesn’t work that way.

Instead of believing that something punitive eradicates all that is good in nature, perhaps we should borrow a little from Newton’s third law of physics. For every act of accountability, there is an equal and opposite act of achievement. That the possibility of a negative impact will actually lead our schools to make the requisite change to close those persistent gaps that need to be closed.

Edu-Deja Vu All Over Again?

Nearly 20 years ago, Eduflack remembers working on Capitol Hill and in political campaigns when the “hot” thing was calling for the dissolution of the U.S. Department of Education. The Contract with America was the law of the land. A new Republican Congress was seeking to scale back, make cuts, and return more money and power to the American people. Big government was a dirty word (or a dirty two words).

If I were 150 pounds heavier and had hair again, I’d swear I was back in the mid-1990s. Catching up on some evening reading last night, I saw a post from New Hampshire Public Radio detailing U.S. Senator Rand Paul’s visit to the Granite State. We all know why the junior senator from Kentucky is visiting the first presidential primary state in the union. He has his eyes on a bigger prize that being an elected representative for just the people of the Bluegrass State.

According to NHPR, Paul visited a Manchester charter school and called for “a rollback of common core, the repeal of no child left behind, and the elimination of the department of education.”

I won’t ask why NHPR chose to decapitalize Common Core, NCLB, or the U.S. Department of Education. That’s an English lesson for another day.

And I won’t ask how, or better, why, a Libertarian candidate for President of the United States would be take a position that the President should take a leading position in demanding governors take specific action with regard to state law (i.e. Common Core).

But I will ask why we are back on the refrain that the republic will be saved, achievement gaps will be closed, and all will be well with American society if only we could get rid of that pesky U.S. Department of Education. When every national survey shows education is NOT an issue that folks cast their national election (Congress, president) votes on, why do we continue to go after the folks on Maryland Avenue?

I get that bureaucracy isn’t popular, and Feds are an easy target. And I can appreciate trying to tap into “testing rage” by blaming the federal government and its call for accountability when it comes to educating ALL students. But is this really where we want to plant to the great change, the great libertarian, the great states’ rights, the great power of the people flag?

Even more importantly, do we want an education system without a U.S. Department of Education? One where:

  • Student loans are run and administered by banks, rather than by the U.S. Department of Education
  • There are no national safeguards to ensure special education rights are protected for all who qualify
  • Civil rights protections for students, particularly those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, will vary greatly
  • A third grade education in Massachusetts is the equivalent of a seventh grade education in Mississippi
  • There are no national incubators for education research and innovation, as we can find in the RELs and through IES
  • There is no real oversight of diploma mills taking students’ money and issuing worthless college degrees
  • Equity and opportunity shifts from every student graduating college and career ready to students in many states having equal access to lousy public schools

Let’s remember, the Feds are still responsible for less than one thin dime for every dollar spent on public education, Some may dislike ED’s growing use of the bully pulpit or of competitive grant programs, but true power still rests with the states. And none of us should forget it.

Could we get by without a U.S. Department of Education? Probably. But do we just want to get by? Probably not.

It’s frustrating that we can’t have meaningful national discussions of education on the campaign trail. And it is plum irritating that we are resorting back to this red meat, half-thought rhetorical throwback. Voters, particularly families, deserve better.

Duncan: ESEA “Outmoded and Broken”

For those keeping score, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was slated for reauthorization in early 2007.  These acts are supposed to be reupped every five years.  And like clockwork, we tend to forget about the clock and leave existing laws in place long after their expiration date.

The five-year cycle allows us to recognize that the work changes around us.  The K-12 education space is vastly different today than it was when the law was written in 2001.  From the stronger role of technology in the classroom to the growing needs of addressing a growing ELL population, circumstances change.  The Federal law governing our public schools should change as well.
But it has now been a dozen years since the current law was written.  We should be preparing for our second revision, and not still waiting for a re-up that is more than six years past due.  But we wait.
A few years ago, Eduflack opined that EdSec Arne Duncan didn’t need reauthorization.  That the Administration could and would adjust Federal education law through the introduction of new programs (like Race to the Top) and through greater flexibility to NCLB (as we’ve seen with the NCLB waivers and the waiver waivers).  And to date, Duncan and company have done a good job playing the hand they’ve been dealt, recognizing that Congress was not looking for another major bipartisan lift on education policy, so one just lives with the law that brought ’em.
Sure, we’ve seen both the House and the Senate debate and even pass some reauthorization legislation.  But the differences between the two chambers has been significant.  And there seems be a lack of urgency in either side of the Hill to really move major legislation that will improve educational outcomes and opportunities for our kids.
Today, though, Duncan took to the pages of The Washington Post to call for a refocus on ESEA and a demand for its reauthorization.  Taking aim at a recent House bill out of sync with Obama/Duncan priorities, the EdSec is using his bully pulpit to refocus the spotlight on our need for ESEA reauthorization.
Some of the highlights include:
The vision of American education that President Obama and I share starts in the classroom – with fully engaged students, creative and inspiring teachers, and the support and resources needed to get every child prepared for college and career.  Students in our poorest communities should enjoy learning opportunities like those in our wealthiest communities.  Zip code, race, disability and family income should not limit students’ opportunities or reduce expectations for them  The progress of U.S. students should remain transparent.

Washington’s role is to protect children at risk and promote opportunity for all.  The federal government is not, and will never be, in the business of telling states or schools what or how to teach.  But it cannot shirk its role of ensuring that schools and students meet the high bar that prepares them for the real world.  History shows that, without some kind of accountability, states and districts do not always need the needs of the most vulnerable students.
He continues:
In the months ahead, I will ask Congress to listen to those doing the real work of education change.  Principals, teachers, governors, state education chiefs, superintendents, parents and students themselves know what is and isn’t working. They can guide us to a better law.

Lawmakers in both chambers and parties should agree on a bill that raises the bar, protects children, supports and improves effective teaching and school leadership, and provides flexibility and supports good work at the state and local level.  We should give them the resources and the flexibility and make sure we all are accountable for the job we are doing on behalf of our children.

We are fighting not just for a strong education system but also for our country.  A good law is part of that fight.
Kudos for Duncan and the folks down on New Jersey Avenue for seeking to regain congressional attention on ESEA reauthorization.  But will it help?  With issues like accountability, testing, and Common Core State Standards under attack from both the left and the right, it seems unlikely that Congress will find the gumption to take a meaningful stand and do the right thing here.  But we can hope, can’t we?

Wow, We Did Put Reading First After All

Five or eight years ago, after Reading First (and NCLB ) had been the law of the land, districts were implementing scientifically based reading research, and publishers were revising their curricular materials to meet the new rigor of RF, we started to see an uptick in student reading performance.  Test scores were on the rise, and they were on the rise for all students.

At the time, RF haters declared that any bump in student achievement was the result of kinder, gentler instructional policies implemented in the mid-1990s.  There simply was no way we could see the results of Reading First in a matter of years.
A few years after that, we again saw modest upticks in student reading performance for all demographics.  This time, the haters declared that it was further proof that RF was a failure, as it hadn’t closed the achievement gaps yet.  Forget that we saw increases for Black, Latino, and white students.  RF was about closing the gaps, not boosting the performance.
So what is going to be the argument this week?  The latest NAEP scores are out, and what do we see?  Reading performance for both 9 and 13 year olds is up.  For those students who have only been taught reading in the public schools since RF has been the law of the land, we are seeing an improvement in reading scores.  And we are seeing the gaps close.  The Washington Post and USA Today have the full story in today’s editions.
Without question, there are a lot of people who opposed directing the public schools to teach young children to read through methods that were proven effective.  People resisted doing what works when it comes to literacy.  But these latest numbers from The Nation’s Report Card don’t lie.  Like it or not, Reading First worked.  As a result of ensuring that curriculum and PD and instructional materials and assessments and interventions were all tied to proven research and were all based on what was most effective in teaching children to read, we are seeing improvement in student reading performance.  And we are seeing it across all demographics, as we actually begin to narrow our horrific achievement gaps.
Do we still have a lot of work to do to eliminate those gaps and get the third of fourth graders unable to read at grade level up to par?  Absolutely.  But clearly, we are headed in the right direction.  Educators across the nation have invested the time and resources to utilizing the proven effective and getting kids reading.  And out nation’s middle schoolers are now better for it.
Haters will continue to hate, and point out that RF is essentially dead and classrooms have moved on from it.  But we can’t deny that SBRR (until Common Core comes on line) continues to drive the development of instructional materials, the supports offered teachers, and the standards we set for our schools.  And that these students — today’s third and seventh graders — are the products of the NCLB environment and an SBRR focus.  
Who’da thunk?  We actually did put reading first, and we are no seeing the results of all of that hard work.

From AYP to a 15% Solution?

Despite the national pastime of griping about No Child Left Behind and its Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) accountability measures, there hasn’t been nearly the attention placed on the NCLB waivers being granted by the U.S. Department of Education.

Perhaps it is because such issues are incredibly complex and can be really confusing.  Perhaps it is because it is deep in the weeds, interesting to only the wonkiest of wonks.  Or perhaps we just figure accountability is accountability is accountability and we’ll just keep doing what we are doing until we get our hand slapped.
This week, National Journal and its Experts Blog decides to step into the scrum and offer a week-long discussion on the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to NCLB waivers.
A post from dear ol’ Eduflack is up there now.  I keyed in on the provisions that focus on the bottom 15 percent of schools, noting that Connecticut opted instead to follow a continuum model based on absolute performance.  Why is that so important?  As I wrote:

Our nation’s performance struggles, though, do not reside solely in those bottom 15 percent of schools. That is why Connecticut is following an absolute performance model, and not the 15-percent path. In Connecticut, virtually all of our public schools have room for improvement. Low-income students. Latino students. African-American students. ELL students. White students. Virtually all of our disaggregated groups, even those in our wealthiest communities, show a need for improvement.

As a nation, we do not want to give the impression that we do not need to worry about 85 percent of our schools. It portrays the achievement gap issue or the student performance issue as one that only impacts our lowest performing 15 percent of schools, making it a niche issue and not one that should concern each and every parent, teacher, community leader, and policymaker across the state. We must all accept that 85 percent of our schools are not doing great, and that most schools can and should improve.

Equally important, Eduflack notes:
When nearly 40 percent of students can’t read at grade level by fourth grade, it isn’t a 15 percent issue. When a third of students drop out of high school, it isn’t a 15 percent issue. When 70 percent of Connecticut’s public high school graduates require remedial education in college, it isn’t a 15 percent issue.
  
Definitely an interesting topic that isn’t garnering the attention it deserves.  Happy reading!

Migrating from AYP

Virtually every state in the union is working to get out from under No Child Left Behind and its measure of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).  Thanks to the U.S. Department’s efforts to offer “NCLB waivers” most states have submitted applications to do just that, veer away from the AYP standard established a decade ago and chart a new path that still demonstrates forward progress.

Over at Education Week, Andrew Ujifusa has a piece outlining the plans many states are crafting for their post-NCLB existences.  From letter grades to stars, many states are looking for new ways to demonstrate progress to both policymakers and parents, in a way that put there districts and schools in the best light possible.
Take, for instance, the plan offered up by Ohio.  According to Education Week, Ohio’s plan is as follows:
  • A-F letter-grading system, based on 4 points. A school with 3.67 points or more earns an A, and a school getting 0.67 points or below earns an F.
  • A school cannot earn an A on the “achievement and graduation gap” portion of its score if one of four groups (all students, white non-Hispanic students, disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities) earns a C, D, or F.
  • Based on 2011 data, under the new A-F system, 24.8 percent of 3,103 traditional public schools (charters not included) would have earned A’s, 33.2 percent would have earned B’s, and 23.9 percent would have earned C’s.

Will it work?  Most states will likely win their NCLB waiver requests, thus giving these states and others the ability to enact their versions of AYP 2.0.  But how many years will it take before we know if this latest version of accountability works or not?