Standards or Curriculum, Curriculum or Standards?

Over at ASCDedge (a professional networking community managed by, of course, ASCD), Steven Weber reflects on recent Education Week coverage on the topic of Common Core State Standards and how it relates to curriculum.  One of the key questions Weber asks those in “the community” is “Do you think that the Common Core State Standards are curriculum or do you believe there is a distinct difference between standards and curriculum?”

When I was out at ASCD last week, I heard some very similar concerns from educators across the country.  Lots of teachers freaked out by CCSSI because they believe it is the “new curriculum” to go with the new world order likely coming through the reauthorization of ESEA.
If one ventures over to the CCSSI website, it is nearly impossible to even find the word “curriculum.”  In describing what CCSSI is, the good folks at National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are pretty darned clear about what common standards are, and curriculum ain’t it.  Just take a look at the description:

The standards are informed by the highest, most effective models from states across the country and countries around the world, and provide teachers and parents with a common understanding of what students are expected to learn. Consistent standards will provide appropriate benchmarks for all students, regardless of where they live.

These standards define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs. The standards:

    • Are aligned with college and work expectations;
    • Are clear, understandable and consistent;
    • Include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills;
    • Build upon strengths and lessons of current state standards;
    • Are informed by other top performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society; and
    • Are evidence-based.

Lots on skill.  Lots on standards.  Nothing about curriculum.  The closest we have is they are built upon current state standards, which in theory tie to current state curriculum.  But is there anyone who believes that the hodgepodge of current state standards is very definition of a model curriculum?
So why the confusion and the concern?  First and foremost, it is driven by a lack of information.  CCSSI was released nearly a year ago, and virtually every state in the union has signed onto the movement.  But beyond those policymakers who put their states into the CCSSI camp and those consultants who wrote Race to the Top applications pledging to follow the Common Standards, few actually know what this means.  We’ve signed on to CCSSI, the thought process goes, so now what?
In the absence of information, we make it up.  We know CCSSI isn’t assessment and tests, because we have federally funded tests aligned with CCSSI currently under development.  But the feds don’t develop curriculum.   So we have a choice.  Vendors claiming their products are the CCSSI curriculum or the notion that CCSSI is the curriculum itself.  And while many vendors may be quick to claim CCSSI alignment, no one has yet been bold enough to claim they are the embodiment of the curriculum itself.  The only remaining choice, then, is that the standards must be the curriculum.  After all, what value is the alignment of product if it isn’t aligned to both the standard and the curriculum?
We all know that moving the concept of common core state standards into practice is going to take time.  We have standards.  We are developing tests.  It is now likely going to take us a few years to develop a curriculum (particularly with the 15% add ons most states will take advantage of) and then create the professional developments and supports to go with it.  Yet here we stand, expecting all of this to take hold in a matter of months, rather than the years it typically takes the education community to get up to speed.
Before we rush to accept national standards as a new curriculum, it seems we need to ask ourselves one important question.  Do national standards mean a national curriculum, or is curriculum best left to localities and teachers to determine?  Seems CCSSI is all about providing us one universal yardstick, but it should be left up to the user to determine how to hit a given mark.

Changes to the “Race” Track?

Are there changes underfoot for the Race to the Top?  When the $4.35 billion grant program was first conceived, some senior personnel at the U.S. Department of Education hypothesized that awards may only go to a handful of states, maybe only four or five.  Since then, those “in the know” have come around to expect that 10-15 states would ultimately be named “Race” states, a belief only further strengthened by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s recent support of 15 states in their RttT applications.

Those looking to handicap the RttT field have committed the 15 Gates “favorite children” to memory.  Currently, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas are benefiting from the full and unfettered support of the Gates Foundation, including $250,000 grants to fund Gates-approved consultants to put in the nearly 900 manhours expected from a successful Race application.  In addition to the funding, these top 15 also receive the unofficial endorsement of Gates, seen by many as the quickest path to RttT success (except for the Lone Star State, which few expect to make the final cut).
But a funny thing happened on the way to finalizing the RttT RFP.  Over at EdWeek’s Politics K-12 blog, Michele McNeil has a significantly important development in the Race to the Top.  The Cliff Notes version — Gates is now looking to extend some form of RttT technical assistance to any and all states that can answer eight ed reform questions correctly.  Pass the filter on topics such as core standards, alternative certification, and the firewall, and you too can benefit from the benefits of Gates.  The full story is here.
Why is this development significant?  Two important reasons.  According to McNeil, this expansion of Gates assistance is due, in large part, to the urgings of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.  Since the start of the Duncan regime at ED, NGA and CCSSO have been two of the leading forces in education improvement.  The two groups are credited with helping secure the cornucopia of new funding made available through the economic stimulus bill, including RttT and the upcoming Investing in Innovation program.  More important, NGA and CCSSO are the drivers behind the core standards effort, a top priority for the Administration (at least in terms of education) and a non-negotiable for RttT applicants.
NGA and CCSSO were clearly advocating for the other 35 members of their organizations (the remaining states), and that advocacy was heard loud and clear by Gates.  So for those who questions the position of strength both state-focused organizations are operating under, it doesn’t get much stronger than having ED and Gates both adjust their strategies based on your requests and concerns.
And the second?  For weeks now, Eduflack has been hearing that there is a growing drumbeat for RttT scope expansion.  While there may not be additional dollars, more and more voices are clamoring for a greater sense of “sharing the wealth.”  For those 35 states perceived as on the outside looking in, they’d rather have a half-share of RttT than a full share of nothing.  And as ED tries to make wholesale improvements to our nation’s education system, it is far easier to do so with a RttT lever in 35 states than it is in 12.  So the gossip is likely true, and the intended number of RttT states is going to at least double before all is said and done this time next year, when Phase Two RttT awards are determined.
What does it all mean?  When all is said and done, we’re likely looking at 35-40 RttT states, not 10-15.  And we may even be seeing some exceptions or waivers made for high-profile states that don’t meet requirements around firewalls and charter caps.  Smaller checks for everyone, I’m afraid, but a larger cohort to actually deliver results and move the ball forward on ED’s priorities.
But it makes the entire RttT review process all the more curious.  Most states are scurrying to get their apps in as part of Phase One, figuring it increases the chances of winning an award.  After all, no one wants to be left without a chair when the music stops.  But what if we’re working like college admissions, where early decision applicants (Phase One) who don’t make the first cut get put into the general apps pool with the regular decision applicants (Phase Two)?  While there obviously won’t be time for Phase One applicants to revise and resubmit their applications for Phase Two, do circumstances change when ED is trying to fill out that final list of 40?  Do expectations and standards drop in Phase Two, after the truly Gates-supported states have had the first bite of the apple?  Only time will tell.

Grad Rates in the City of Angels

Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times included the boastful headline, “Dropout Rate Declines Almost 17% in L.A. Schools.”  Officials at Los Angeles Unified School District crowed that the latest data demonstrated “the results of three years of work.”  Part of the credit goes to duplicate student records which accounted for extra enrollees who never saw graduation.  But part of the credit also goes to specific interventions put to use by LAUSD to ID and work with at-risk students.

Overall, the drop-out rate for the 2007-08 school year was 26.4 percent in the City of Angels, down from 31.7 percent a year ago.  The LA Times reports that it was one of the largest improvements in the Golden State here.

I don’t want to take anything away from the educators out in Los Angeles.  I applaud them for recognizing the long-term problems caused by the city’s drop-out factories and a history that only had two of every three high schoolers graduating.  They should be encouraged by these first year numbers, spurred on to believe that major improvement is possible when one dedicates the time and resources to it.  But it send a dangerous signal when we are slapping each other on the backs and declaring mission accomplished because of one year of promising data.
It all begs an important question — how do you recognize progress while recognizing that the end result is still far in the offing?  How do we applaud the first sprint in what is going to be a marathon race?  And how do we “prove” our work is genuine?
Don’t get me wrong, reducing the drop-out rate by 5.3 percent is recognition-worthy.  But in doing so, we lose sight of the fact that more than 25 percent of LAUSD students are not graduating from high school.  If we do a deeper dive into the numbers, I’m sure we will find that a vast majority of those drop-outs come from historically disadvantaged homes.  They are kids from black, Hispanic, and low-income families who most benefit from a high school diploma, but are least likely to earn one.
Readers of the LA Times should be horrified that a quarter of students are dropping out long after they are pleased with a 5.3 percent reduction in the number of drop outs.  The true test will be next year and the year after that, once those phantom registrations are off the books.  Does the drop-out rate continue to fall, or does it remain steady, cemented in the notion that our urban high schools are regularly failing anywhere from a quarter to a half of all students?
Good data collection is a first step.  The LA Times notes that the drop-out rate is calculated based on four years of data, but does not track individuals.  It also doesn’t track those students who leave one LAUSD high school for another school.  Why not?  How can a state or school district effectively track graduation rates if the data is not linked to individual students?  In an era where most realize we can manipulate data points to say just about anything,  But grad rates that are “estimations” and guesstimates shouldn’t be allowed in today’s era of data quality and data systems, particularly in a district like Los Angeles where money is scarce, the stakes are high, and principal (and superintendent) jobs are on the line based on student performance measures … including graduation numbers.
Calculating a graduation rate should be an easy thing.  Back in 2005, all 50 states, including California signed onto the National Governors Association’s common graduation rate formula.  Last year, the U.S. Department of Education passed Christmas Eve regs requiring states to adhere to that formula.  Yet we only see a fraction of those 50 states put the formula into practice.  And many of those states — including Michigan and North Carolina — had to deal with a perceived “increase” in drop outs because they were calculating the graduation rate effectively for the first time.
It is relatively easy math.  Take your number of ninth graders, subtracting those students who transferred out or otherwise may have left the school district.  Then look at the number of kids who graduate four years later.  Divide the latter by the former, and you have the graduation rate.  Subtract that rate from 100, and you have the drop-out rate.  It doesn’t take high school calculus to determine the percentage of graduates — and drop outs — in a given state or a given school district.
In its pursuit of Race to the Top dollars, California officials (including the Governator) are claiming that they can effectively track student achievement data with individual teacher records.  School districts like Long Beach claim they are already doing so.  But how can we expect a state like California to effectively use individual student data to incentivize individual educators when it still struggles to accurately calculate graduation rates in districts like Los Angeles?  If LAUSD is still “estimating” grad rates, do we really expect them to manage a RttT grant that financially rewards teachers for the achievement of their students?  It seems like we need to learn how to walk before we can run this latest race. 

Sunshine on Core Standards

In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of discussion about the core standards movement and how “public” the development of these national standards will truly be.  Those who see such standards as a needed pathway to lead us to real, tangible improvement and focus on quality believe the process is just underway.  Those who see monsters under the bed and hear things that go bump in the night are certain that the deck is already stacked, the standards are already written, and we’re merely going through the motions.  

If core standards are like most education “movements” in Washington, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Yesterday, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers announced a new website for information on all things related to core standards —  The new site provides a few pieces of interesting information, including a tentative development schedule and those involved with its development.
Currently, the Common Core Standards Initiative (as dubbed by NGA and CCSSO) is sticking by its story that college- and career-ready standards will be completed by the end of the month, by July 2009.  Such an aggressive timeline may lend a little credibility to the notion that these standards are already in the can, pulled mainly from work already done by Achieve, College Board, ACT, and others.  More interestingly, the Initiative is also promising grade-by-grade standards work will be completed by the end of the calendar year, or by December 2009.
In looking at the members of both the Work Groups and the Feedback Groups, one thing is clear.  Grade-by-grade standards will be limited to English-Language Arts and mathematics.  By the end of the year, we will not have grade-by-grade standards for science, social studies, foreign languages, arts, or any of the other subjects that our K-12 students are currently engaging in.  How do we know?  Both the Work Groups and the Feedback Groups are divided into two camps — mathematics and ELA.  Eduflack can’t imagine that the math groups will be working on science standards, or the ELA groups will be working on social studies expectations.  So for now, our core standards are designed to model our current AYP efforts.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Moving AYP beyond grades three through eight into a full K-12 education continuum is an important thing.  But if we are going to truly get buy-in for the core standards (and more importantly, get states to adopt them and the common assessments that will need to be developed with them), we need to hit all of the key subject areas.  In Eduflack’s home state of Virginia, for instance, we can’t have core standards for math and reading, but then offer the state’s SOL for social studies.  It just doesn’t make sense for the long term.  The minds behind the Core Standards Initiative understand that, but we are still waiting for the explanations and the timetables that will align with all of the other academic subjects our students learn.
It seems most of the heavy lifting will be done by the Work Groups.  So who is on these groups?  A run-through of the rosters (available on the website) shows teams consisting primarily of staff from Achieve, College Board, and ACT.  Student Achievement Partners made the cut, and America’s Choice has a few slots in there (which may also speak to why outgoing Arkansas Schools Chief Ken James is headed to America’s Choice), and there is an academic or two added to each for good measure.
The feedback groups represent a strong list of academics and researchers who know the literature and the research base behind the subject matter.  The ELA Feedback Group, for instance, has two members of the National Reading Panel, as well as the chair of NRC’s reading research effort. 
Folks are going to read into this announcement what they want to.  Some will continue to question the sunshine put on the process and whether the “education blob,” particularly the content-area organizations, will have a real role in the development of the proposed standards.  Others will question whether their is a particular political slant to the approach.  And still others will beat the drum that classroom educators, the ones who will ultimately need to teach to these standards, are not represented at all.
Regardless, it is a first step.  The second step is seeing the work product that will be released at the end of the month.  But soon, we’ll be expecting to hear how the Initiative is going to address subject areas beyond math and reading.  Soon, we’ll want to hear how these standards will be incorporated into current and future curriculum.  And real soon, we’ll need to start discussing how one assesses student proficiency of these standards.  A long to-do list, particularly in light of potential ESEA reauthorization this fall.  Time will tell ….

A True “Opportunity Equation”

In recent months, we have significantly raised the stakes when it comes to education improvement.  The economic stimulus bill makes clear that the success of our economy depends on the improvement of our schools.  The Data Quality Campaign (along with additional stimulus dollars) have focused on the need to improve data collection at the state level.  The recent release of NAEP long-term data pointed to the push for continued accountability.  And the most recent announcement of progress in the national standards movement — namely the National Governors Association/Council of Chief State School Officers push — have only increased the volume.

But what, exactly, are we improving?  A little more than a month ago, President Barack Obama spotlighted the need to redouble our commitment to science-technology-engineering-mathematics, or STEM, education.  Today, the Carnegie Corporation of New York-Institute for Advanced Study Commission on Mathematics and Science Education amplified the instructional content call even further.  In releasing The Opportunity Equation: Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship and the Global Economy, Carnegie provided a useful blueprint for moving our rhetorical commitment to improvement and STEM education into actionable items, issuing a true call to action to policymakers and educators committed to improving our nation and our economy by strengthening our academic offerings.
Specifically, Opportunity Equation issued a clarion call on four key issues:
* The need for higher levels of mathematics and science learning for all American students
* Common standards in math and science that are fewer, clearer, and higher, couple with aligned assessments
* Improved teaching and professional learning, supported by better schools and system management
* New designs for schools and systems to deliver math and science learning more effectively
Surely we have seen reports like these before.  Many issue broad platitudes.  Others are chock full of process, with little in terms of outcome.  And others still simply preach in a vacuum, demonstrating a glaring lack of understanding about our schools, particularly those students that need STEM the most.  So what makes Carnegie’s report so different than those that have come before it?
First, Opportunity Equation clearly identifies those stakeholders most important to STEM education and assigns them specific responsibilities in the improvement effort.  Throughout its report, Carnegie lays out the action stems that the federal government, states, schools and school districts, colleges and universities, unions, businesses, nonprofit organization, and philanthropy must play.  School improvement is a team game, and Carnegie has drawn up specific plays so that every stakeholder — particularly teachers and schools — has a chance to get on the court at some point during the game.
Second, it combines the requisite inputs with the necessary outcomes.  Too often, reports like this are forced to either embrace the status quo, essentially serving as a consensus document designed to make all parties happy.  Such papers focus on inputs, talking about what is possible, but ignore the outcomes that are necessary to measure true improvement.  Carnegie makes clear that process is important.  But it makes clearer that the best intentions in the world are meaningless if we aren’t delivering measurable results on the back end.  Student results, data, measurement, and accountability are key components to the Carnegie plan.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Carnegie recognizes that STEM education is for all students, and that all students should be held to higher, clearer standards (with similar accountability).  For years now, Eduflack has heard many an educator and policymaker push back that STEM education isn’t for everyone.  Our future rocket scientists and brain surgeons may benefit from STEM, but it is unnecessary for the “average” student.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Every student benefits from STEM education, particularly if that student is interested in going on to postsecondary education or holding a job after finishing their schooling.  Carnegie puts this fact front and center.  Effective STEM instruction is not about cherry-picking.  It is about a rising tide lifting all boats, providing all students — particularly those who have been left behind or neglected in the past — with the skills and instruction they need to achieve in the 21st century global classroom and workplace.
Opportunity Equation also demonstrates a nimbleness that we rarely see in studies of this sort.  The report boasts a Who’s Who on its roster of Commission members.  Usually, such a roll call means this report was in the can for months, undergoing proofing and design and gut checks to make sure all were comfortable with the language.  But Carnegie has done two things here to dispel the pattern.  First, its four priorities align with the four policy pillars put forward by EdSec Arne Duncan and the US Department of Education.  Second, Opportunity Equation calls on stakeholders to endorse the NGA/CCSSO Common Standards effort, and effort that just went public a little more than a week ago.  Relevancy is always a good thing.
In Opportunity Equation, Carnegie Corporation has clearly informed audiences on what is necessary to improve math and science instruction in the United States, building a stronger pipeline for both the economy and the community.  As Eduflack has lectured far too often, that is merely step one of effective public engagement.  Now that the inform stage is completed, it now falls to Carnegie and its supporters to build commitment to the model laid out by Carnegie and then mobilize stakeholders around the specific actions called for in the report.  
Carnegie offers yet another GPS unit for guiding us through the complexities of school improvement toward a final destination of a STEM-literate society equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary for academic and life success.  It is now up to the wide range of stakeholders (those identified by Carnegie) to actually plug the unit in and let it guide us.  Opportunity Equation provides those turn-by-turn directions to get us to the results we seek.  We just need to follow the guidance.

Lessons Learned from Ed in 08

Paraphrasing from Major League’s legendary Harry Doyle, in case you haven’t noticed, and judging by the attention we haven’t, Strong American Schools has managed to win a few ball games, at least according to SAS.

Two years ago, the Gates and Broad Foundations announced a $60 million initiative designed to make education a major focus of the 2008 presidential campaigns.  Launched under the dual banner of the parent Strong American Schools organization and its Ed in 08 campaign, SAS issued a simple goal — “Use the presidential race to highlight the crisis in American public schools.”
It did so by issuing three key “pillars:” 1) common education standards; 2) an effective teacher in every classroom; and 3) extended learning time for students.
Yesterday, SAS offered up its summary report on the success of its two-year effort tilting at educational windmills.  After both the Democratic and Republic primaries showed little interest in education issues, and then as the bottom fell out of the economy during the general election, SAS never quite got the traction and influence it sought.  Then again, neither did similar efforts to highlight the crisis in healthcare, the environment, and a host of other issues.
None of us are foolish enough to believe that the 2008 presidential campaign was decided (or even debated) on education issues.  Both sides offered up comprehensive education plans.  Eduflack summarized the two here last fall.  Good ideas across the P-16 education continuum.  Now President Obama is being held accountable for promises on preK, teacher quality, incentive pay, and affordable college.  He’s also raised the ante by throwing a spotlight on STEM education, charter schools, and increasing the number of college graduates by 2020.
So what impact did Ed in 08 have on the current state of educational affairs?  How has ARRA and the presidential budget been shaped by the tens of millions of dollars spent by Ed in 08?  Honestly, we still don’t know.  When we look at the SAS successes, they don’t crosswalk cleanly with current policy or promises such as common standards.
According to Strong American Schools, its accomplishments were many, including:
* Obama supported (and continues to support) all three of the campaign’s policy pillars.  John McCain supported two.
* Ed in 08 had “significant input” on the education efforts of John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani.
* Changed the debate on performance pay
* Made education a bipartisan issue
* Produced more than 150 pages of research and policy materials
* Created an 86-page Policy Toolkit
* Commemorated the 25th anniversary of A Nation at Risk with a research update
* Published an examination of the cost of college remediation
* Created a network of 200 organizers and advisors across the country
* Received thousands of media hits
* Used the Internet and other new media tools to engage the public
These “wins” are a mixed bag.  Some are clearly process issues.  Some are stretches (did Ed in 08 change the debate on performance pay, or was that the result of a combination of programs such as Denver’s ProComp and Obama taking a tough stand on incentive pay early in the process?).  Some are just puzzling, such as education being a bipartisan issue (both sides have made education an issue for decades, they just do so from different perspectives).  
What is most interesting in the SAS summary report is the explanation of the obstacles, those challenges that prevented Ed in 08 from achieving its bold objectives.  These challenges include:
* Structure, as a not-for-profit, some activities were restricted, including claims that staff members could not take a position on any legislation, could not directly question candidates, nor could compare candidates’ platforms to SAS recommendations
* The media, and its failure to cover a sustained debate on education and its inability to “push policymakers to consider the failures of our current education system”
* The teachers unions, protecting “the interests of their members” even if it conflicted with reforms
As for structure, wasn’t it up to Broad and Gates to establish the most effective structure possible to achieve the goal?  If SAS was structurally prohibited from advocating for specific policies and holding candidates accountable, shouldn’t it have been built to allow for true advocacy?  Why build a ship that we can’t sail?
As for the media, did we really see the role of media, particularly that of the education media, to “push policymakers?”  If Ed in 08 can’t advocate an agenda, did we really expect reporters to do so?
And as for the unions, did we expect them to do anything other than protect their constituency, the group they are created to protect?
SAS should be given credit for better organizing new media and social networking outlets around education issues.  Their blogger summit in the spring of 2008 is but one example of this.  The drumbeat picked up by Richard Whitmire and others to keep the spotlight on education issues is another.  So there are successes.
More importantly, though, SAS has helped provide a blueprint that future advocacy efforts can learn from.  As part of its final report, SAS is handing the baton off to the Education Equality Project, looking to Joel Klein, Al Sharpton, and company to carry the torch on the issues of standards, teacher quality, and extended learning.  It could have also claimed credit for the current common standards movement, as Roy Romer’s clarion call for national standards and how to get there looks dangerously similar to what NGA, CCSSO, and other are engaging in right now.
So as groups like EEP, Broader and Bolder, Opportunity to Learn, Extended Day, and others look to build advocacy efforts around national education policy, reauthorization, and related issues, they should look closely at SAS.  What can they build on and improve?  What can they learn from and avoid?  What can they throw cold water on?  What can they aspire to?  What’s possible?  What’s a pipe dream?  
Personally, I think SAS was a good idea that was never fully realized.  It didn’t live up to the hype nor to the potential.  But that doesn’t it mean it couldn’t.  The model can work, with the right tweaks and the proper attention. Education advocacy is a must these days.  For all those looking to get in the game, let’s take a close look at Strong American Schools, learning from its forward steps and its missteps.  Rather than starting new each and every day, we need to build on those that come before us.  That’s the only way that real, lasting educational improvement can come.

What Does Common Standards Mean to a State?

For those wondering exactly what today’s announcement that 46 states and the District of Columbia signed on to the National Governors Association’s and the Council of Chief State School Officers’ effort to develop comprehensive common education standards (or national standards for those unafraid to exert the federal role in public education improvement), take a minute to check under the hood of this national standards ride we are about to buy, California style.

Penned by Cali Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Board of Ed Prez Ted Mitchell, and State Supe Jack O’Connell, the Golden State has put its name on the dotted line to “develop common core standards” and “participate in the international benchmarking efforts.”  No surprise, California seems to believe its current standards are likely the bar by which national standards should be measured, making clear the state “cannot commit to adopting [common standards] until we have determined that they meet or exceed our own.” 
The California brain trust has a few other ideas for those leading the common standards effort back in our nation’s capital.  Check out the full letter here: California Common Standards Letter
If this is the sort of non-commitment commitment we’re starting off with, we still have a few steps to go before we are asking our states and districts to actually adopt a common set of national K-12 education standards, complete with the assessments and accountability that need to accompany them.  Miles and miles to go, my friends, but we are taking steps forward.  

The Slow March Toward National Standards

For months now, the education chattering class has been talking about the behind-the-scenes efforts by the US Department of Education to craft national education standards.  We’ve heard that Achieve was slated to deliver draft math and reading standards to Maryland Avenue by early summer, with plans for a thorough and robust debate leading up the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

In this morning’s Washington Post, Maria Glod reports that 46 states and the District of Columbia have signed onto the K-12 national education standards movement, offering “an unprecedented step toward a uniform definition of success in American Schools.”  The full story can be found here.   
The thinking here is a simple one.  In this era of AYP, it only makes sense that we have a single yardstick by which to measure student achievement, starting with math and reading.  For years now, we’ve heard how students are knocking it out of the park when it comes to state assessments (just look at elementary reading in Mississippi), but then we fail to see the progress when it comes to annual NAEP scores.  The common thinking is that some states have dropped their bars so low in order to demonstrate student achievement and student growth that some state tests have become complete irrelevant in determining actual student achievement and success.
So now National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers have brought together most of the states to help develop these common standards for academic performance.  Most states have already anted in.  The only holdouts, according to WaPo, are Texas, Alaska, Missouri, and South Carolina.  Their reason?  These Republican-controlled states are touting the need for local control of the schools, and national standards run contrary to local decisionmakers determining what is best for their local residents.
The current plan is to roll out “readiness standards” in July, benchmarks for high school graduates in reading and math.  Then folks would build out the grade-by-grade needs to reach those readiness standards.  It is important to note that the 46+ states have simply agreed to the process.  They would then need to agree to, adopt, fund, and implement the standards once they are developed.  So we are still a good ways away from national standards even being close to national policy.  Why?
First, every expert, quasi-expert, and member of the chattering class is going to want to get in on this discussion.  Everyone has ideas as to what should be in national standards.  Every political and ideological group will want to get in on the process, running the risk of taking a bold move and watering it down so much to appease all of the audiences that believe they should have a seat at the table.
Second, many will raise concerns that we are only addressing math and reading.  LIke AYP, this push is focusing on the corest of the core subjects.  But can we really have a true national standards system without addressing science, social studies, and foreign language?  In a month when NAEP is actually releasing national art education data (scheduled for June 15), can we settle for just reading and math?  Many an expert or an expert in training will call for a comprehensive system that addresses all academic subjects, worried that an initial focus on math and reading means we only value the two subjects and will only hold states and schools accountable on these two measures (much like we have with AYP).
Third, we need to give standards real teeth.  In many ways, national standards serve as a wish list for public education in the United States.  To put real power behind it, we need to develop and implement actual tests aligned with those standards.  Such tests seem to be the third rail of public education.  We fret about the costs, we worry about the quantitative and qualitative, and we struggle with the notion we are implementing another “high-stakes” test on our kids.  The end result?  We could end up with a lovely policy document outlining our national education expectations, but lacking a tangible way to transform that policy into instructional reality with real measurement and accountability.  National standards only work if we have one strong test that is implemented and enforced EQUALLY by all of the states.
Fourth, states actually need to agree to the final documents … and put them into practice.  In 2005, all 50 states agreed to common high school graduation standards, shepherded through the process by NGA.  At the time, every governor in the country agreed to a measure that called for grad rates to be calculated as the number of ninth graders who secure a diploma four years later.  We’re now four years later, and the majority of states have failed to actually implement the formula.  (In part because those who have have experienced a drop in their statewide grad rates.)  Former EdSec Margaret Spellings tried to institute the new grad rate through federal regulation, but the current talk about town is that EdSec Duncan will be turning back Spellings’ Christmas Eve Eve decision, leaving grad rate determination to the states.  So even if every governor in the country agrees to the idea of standards in principle, they all need to sign off on the final decisions and actually move them into practice, replacing the patchwork of states standards of various strengths and scopes with one common national standard.
Currently, the Nation’s Report Card — or NAEP — is the closest thing we have to national standards.  But as we take a look at the NAEP results, we see many a disturbing data set that must be addressed in developing national standards.  It stands to reason that NAEP measures for reading and math proficiency would be pretty close to national standards in the same subjects.  So what does it mean when slightly more than half of all U.S. fourth graders can score proficient or better on the NAEP reading exam?  What does it mean when only about a third of eighth graders are score proficient or better, and the best state in the union is clocking in at 43 percent proficiency on eighth grade reading?  And what do we do about the persistent achievement gap, particularly the 20-plus year problem we see in 11th grade math and reading?  How do we make sure that all students — even those from historically disadvantaged groups — are performing against the national standards and achieving?  When we set national standards, the goal needs to be all students hitting the mark.  We cannot and must not settle for a system where the majority of kids fail to achieve proficiency, and we still see that as a sign of a successful public school system.
Yes, Eduflack is a pessimist by nature.  But I also believe that today’s NGA/CCSSO announcement is a positive step forward.  In today’s transient society, with students changing schools and states as families change and jobs shift, we need some guarantees that a fifth grade education is the same, regardless of area code.  We need some promise that a high school diploma means the same thing, regardless of Zip code.  This is a non-negotiable if we are to prepare all students for the opportunities before them, particularly if we are looking for them to hold their own on international benchmarks such as TIMSS and PISA.
Obviously, the devil is in the details.  We need to get all states to overcome the notion of local control and embrace the guidance and framework of national standards.  We need to construct effective tests that move those standards into practice.  We need to move beyond just math and reading and ensure that all academic (and even those some would deem non-academic) are measured as well.  We need to give equal billing t
o elementary, middle, and secondary learning standards.  And we need to ensure that if all students are to be held to the same national standard, they all need to have equal access to the same educational resources.  That means national standards, if you will, when it comes to early childhood education, high-quality teachers, and other such measures.
But we are moving forward.  We just have to keep that momentum going, transforming challenges into opportunities and not allowing roadblocks to divert our attention (and subvert our public will) in the process.  If we believe that every student in the United States requires a high-quality, effective education, we need to measure every student with the same yardstick.  Quality and effectiveness should be universal, not subjective based on state borders.  National standards starts making that goal a reality.

Who’s Speaking for the States at ED?

In what seems like a little-publicized announcement of a major appointment, EdSec Arne Duncan has selected Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, superintendent of Pomona (CA) Unified School District to be the U.S. Department of Education’s new assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.  The choice seems to be a solid one for ED, the good doctor is a former bilingual classroom teacher, middle school assistant principal, elementary school principal, and former school district director of instruction of elementary and middle schools.  She is also a Broad Superintendents Academy alum.

Her focus on middle schools, in particular, gives Eduflack a great deal of hope.  Often, OESE focuses exclusively on elementary instruction.  To date, we’ve seen a great number of appointments at ED focused on secondary issues such as STEM and college readiness.  So an assistant secretary with a strong background in the middle grades offers some real hope to those of us who realize that improving high school graduation rates and college-going rates is a task best completed in middle school.  (In fact, once a student gets to high school, the die is usually already cast.)
But the announcement, in the context of other ED appointments, does cause Eduflack (and I’m sure many others) a great deal of pause.  As we’ve hashed and rehashed many times over, the economic stimulus package placed a great deal of responsibility and influence with our states and our state education agencies.  The State Fiscal Stabilization Fund is dispersed entirely through the SEAs.  The same will be true of the soon-to-be-rolled-out Race to the Top Fund.  In fact, much of the EdSec’s plans to improve chronically underperforming schools rests in SEAs doing new things through the Race to the Top.
And then we get into issues like state data systems, increased accountability measures, continued AYP focus, and a stronger reliance on Title I and IDEA distribution streams to drive school improvement.  All run through the states.  All require a keen understanding of how to effectively use the power of the SEA (and how to avoid the pitfalls and roadblocks that often stymie states from exactly real, lasting improvements in our schools).
No question about it.  The future of public education in the United States rests, in large part, with state decisionmakers.  Collectively, governors, state legislators, and chief state school officers will be the drivers of improvement or the obstacles to it, serving as the defenders of the status quo.  Regardless, states will be driving, navigating, and even filling the tank.
Despite this realization, there seems to be few, if any, experienced voices for the states in the U.S. Department of Education.  We have a number of superintendents and those who have worked for the LEAs.  We have higher education pros, particularly those representing the community colleges.  We have strong players who have come from Capitol Hill, think tanks and advocacy organizations, and leading philanthropies.  But who is speaking for the states, at least as a voice of experience?
Currently, that responsibility seems to be a one-woman-band of sorts.  Judy Wurtzel, formerly of the Aspen Institute and the Learning First Alliance, has been running point, providing technical assistance to the states on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (and has recently announced she is remaining at ED).  But where is the breadth and depth when it comes to those who understand the complexities of state education policy or those who are familiar with how states effectively disperse federal dollars (particularly Title I dollars) to local districts?
In recent months, we have heard a great deal about those external organizations who hold significant influence with the EdSec and leaders at ED.  Tops among them seem to the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.  Both orgs understand the challenges of the SEAs and how federal policy gets translated by the states and implemented by the localities.  They know how to hold those in the education chain accountable, both for how money is spent and how students perform.  Yet we have no former chief state school officers working out of ED.  We have no governors or top education aides to the governors.  The closest we have seem to be state legislators who are working as deputy assistant secretaries or special assistants.
Hopefully, CCSSO and NGA will remain close behind the throne, ensuring that the states have strong advocates, both in terms of the stimulus and upcoming ESEA reauthorization.  Without a strong advocate for the states, and a strong understanding for how those SEAs operate, the transition from federal policy to local implementation can be a difficult one.  We need strong hands at the state level, setting policy, building budgets, and driving change.  But we also need strong voices at ED ensuring those hands are getting the resources necessary to do what we are demanding.
We can’t make lasting student achievement gains and school transformations on a school-by-school, district-by-district basis only.  Real improvement happens at the state level, with best practice rippling across the state quickly and efficiently.  Someone needs to make sure that voice is heard as federal education policy debates move forward.  As we address accountability, data systems, Title I, and other such issues, state buy-in and state support is key.  We need to ensure that voice is heard, and heard clearly, at the federal table.  If that isn’t going to happen from the inside, it falls to those outside groups to speak loudly for their members.  Not to put added pressure on Gene Wilhoit and Dane Linn, but it really is game on now.

Saying No in the Last Frontier

Perhaps it is the old Capitol Hill rat in me, but Eduflack finds it fascinating to watch some Republican governors perform these painful Kabuki dances to refuse portions of the economic stimulus package.  I sort of understand Louisiana’s concerns regarding unemployment funds and the required changes ARRA money would demand of state unemployment laws.  After all, no one want to make legal changes that will require state fiscal obligations well after the federal dollars are gone.

I find it more difficult for South Carolina to consider refusing the education stimulus dollars wholesale, putting the jobs of 4,000 teachers in the Palmetto State at risk.  The political cynic in me has to believe that SC Gov. Mark Sanford is simply using the issue to gain some better negotiating ground with the state teachers’ union on larger issues.
But I am really scratching my head trying to figure out what goes into the thinking process of Alaska Gov. — and once and future GOP superstar — Sarah Palin.  Or maybe there is nothing going through that pretty little head at all.  For those who missed it, this week Palin announced that Alaska will NOT be taking the Title I and IDEA funds made available through the economic stimulus package.
That’s right.  Alaska will be refusing the automatic increases in Title I and special education dollars that are being readied for immediate delivery to the states.  No to dollars that will be distributed through existing funding structures with no real new regulations or requirements of them.  No to dollars to fund federal education programs that are mandated by law and required by statute.  After all, it is not like Alaska can all of a sudden decide it is not going to abide by the IDEA laws and refuse special education services to students in need.
What is even more entertaining is the reasoning that the good governor of the Last Frontier provided.  Following is a statement from the Governor’s official website:
“The law requires me to certify that the requests I forward for legislative approval will meet the requirements of the ARRA to create jobs and promote economic growth,” Governor Palin said. “Legitimately, I can only certify capital projects that are job-ready. Alaska has seen unprecedented increases in the level of state funding for education because that is our priority. I don’t want to automatically increase federal funding for education program growth, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, at a time when Alaska can’t afford to sustain that increase.” “Simply expanding state government under this federal stimulus package creates an unrealistic expectation that the state will continue these programs when the federal funds are no longer available,” said Governor Palin. “Our nation is already over $11 trillion in debt; we can’t keep digging this hole.”

It is nice to know that Palin takes the whole notion of “shovel-ready” seriously when it comes to economic stimulus money.  But when it comes to statements like this, it seems the good governor is shoveling a little more than just snow.  Title I money is to ensure that students in the lowest of low-income communities have the resources necessary to access a high-quality education.  Surely, Alaska has low-income communities and students in need.  IDEA is intended to meet the needs of special needs students, those with legally recognized disabilities who may need special assistance or specific education interventions to maximize their learning opportunities.  I have to believe there is a special education population in Alaska (and a true cynic would point out that Palin’s youngest child would be classified in the IDEA population when he hits the public schools in a few years).
Palin’s entire argument against additional federal education funding is that, as the chief fiscal steward for Alaska, she can only take stimulus money that creates jobs and promotes economic growth.  Perhaps she needs to pay a little more attention to the content at those National Governors Association meetings she’s supposed to attend twice a year.  For a governor, education is the primary level for creating jobs and promoting economic growth.  Strong schools produce a pipeline of future workers prepared for the job opportunities of the future.  Students with a strong core education knowledgebase and 21st century skills are the ultimate catalysts for economic growth and opportunity.  At a time when so many governors are seeking to enhance their K-12 education options and provide more opportunity for students, Palin seems to be turning back the clock, hoping that minimizing the breadth and depth of public education is in the best interests of the next generation of Alaskans.
When the federal government announced $25 billion in additional, immediate funding for Title I and IDEA, the beauty of the plan was that there were no new substantial strings or bureaucracy attached.  Money would flow through existing funding streams, to current Title I and IDEA schools.  No new applications, no new formulas, no new requirements.  The dollars are intended to give a booster shot to existing Title I and special education classrooms, giving them a needed boost as the school districts around them are struggling.
Such funding is not an expansion of state government, nor will refusing the funding do anything to reduce the federal debt.  The money is obligated.  Refusing it does nothing other than punishing those students who need a helping hand the most.  How can one oppose additional resources to provide low-income students new learning materials?  How can one oppose additional investment in special education classrooms, particularly if it doesn’t come out of your own pocket?  And how can one say economic stimulus funds are only to go to capital expenditure projects, particularly after all of the guidance and language coming out of the US Department of Education talks about the need to invest in instructional materials, technology, teacher supports and such geared primarily at boosting student achievement.
Maybe Palin’s got it all figured out, and has a special plan to have all her schools meet AYP and have every student grade level proficient without needing additional dollars.  Maybe she already has the full confidence that all Alaska students — particularly those in Title I and sped classrooms — already have the plans and pathways in place to obtain the skills and knowledge to perform in the 21st century economy and secure the new jobs that are yet to be created.  Maybe she has a model for school improvement we’re just not aware of, and public education in Alaska is in great shape and good hands.
Or maybe she is just planning on using economic stimulus dollars to build weekend cabins for the caribou, believing they create jobs (at least for those building such cabins) and promote economic growth (establishing a tourist industry for the caribou, once we figure out how to tap into their economy).
Regardless, Palin’s decision is yet another display of trying to win political points at the expense of at-risk students.  Like every state in the union, Alaska has real needs when it comes to sustaining and improving K-12 public education.  Saying no to such education dollars to win kudos from conservatives or to better position oneself for higher aspirations in 2012 is just downright irresponsible.  Every Alaskan parent, every Alaskan student, every Alaskan business, and every Alaskan teacher should be offended by Palin’s line in the snow.  And every Title I classroom and special education program in the remaining 49 should li
ne up to ask for Alaska’s share of the economic stimulus fund.  
If they don’t want to improve educational opportunity in Title I and special education classrooms up in the Last Frontier, there are plenty of other responsible governors and schools superintendents who can make strong use of such an investment, and can even do so with job creation and economic growth in mind.  Even in Alaska, those education pathways can be bridges to economic and workforce success, particularly for at-risk students.  Otherwise, Alaska and Gov. Palin are simply building educational bridges to nowhere, failing to use all the resources available to them and failing to equip all students with access to the learning opportunities they both need and deserve.