Free College, With Caveats

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama announced his plans to provide all “hard working” students with two years of free community college. But such a grand promise comes with a great number of questions, questions that we just aren’t getting a lot of answers to at this point.

Over at Education World, Eduflack opines on some of the many questions that come out of a promise to free college. Impact on dual-enrollment programs and proprietary colleges? Improved quality of community college programs? Impact on Pell? Future of competency-based education? And are we putting the emphasis on the right higher ed items?

As I write at Education World:

Will this be another good idea that only gets tossed aside because it lacks the funding and the changes it calls for are too hard (or too ambiguous) for institutions and policymakers to take on? Or is it just the innovation needed to begin to shake up higher education policy and place greater power and focus on the students, and not just on the institutions?

Give it a read. And please, offer answers if you have any …

Local Districts, Standardized Testing

Last evening, the White House released a statement from President Obama on efforts from CCSSO and CGCS to cut back on unnecessary testing and the dreaded test-prep focus so many fear is taking over our classrooms.

Where I’m scratching my head is trying to see what the “news” is. The full statement is below. The so-called directive to EdSec Arne Duncan seems to be an effort that the EdSec has focused on for years now. That parents have more info on student learning. That classroom time is used well. That assessments play a part, but not the whole part, of teacher eval.

Perhaps Eduflack is missing something. Maybe this action is worthy of presidential proclamation. But from the cheap seats, this reads far more like “stay the course” than “let’s break new ground.”

Here’s the full statement. You tell me ….

Over the past five years, my Administration has worked with states to remove obstacles created by unworkable requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. While the goals behind No Child Left Behind – promoting school accountability and closing the achievement gap – were admirable, in too many cases the law created conditions that failed to give our young people the fair shot at success they deserve. Too many states felt they had no choice but to lower their standards and emphasize punishing failure more than rewarding success. Too many teachers felt they had no choice but to teach to the test.

That’s why my Administration has given states that have set higher, more honest standards the flexibility to meet them. In that spirit of flexibility, I welcome today’s announcement from the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools that state education chiefs and district superintendents will work together to cut back on unnecessary testing and test preparation, while promoting the smarter use of tests that measure real student learning. I have directed Secretary Duncan to support states and school districts in the effort to improve assessment of student learning so that parents and teachers have the information they need, that classroom time is used wisely, and assessments are one part of fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools.

In the 21st century economy, a world-class education is more important than ever. We should be preparing every child for success, because the countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow. Our nation’s schools are on the right track: Our high school graduation rate is at its highest in our history, the dropout rate is the lowest on record, and more of our young people are earning college degrees than ever before. I’m determined to support our nation’s educators and families as they work to set high expectations for our students and for the schools in which they learn.

The New PDK Survey Is Here, The New PDK Survey Is Here

In the immortal words of Steve Martin from the movie, The Jerk, “The new phone books are here! The new phone books are here!” Only instead of talking the latest white and yellow pages, where the inclusion of our name shows we are somebody, we are talking about this year’s PDK/Gallup Poll, which validates all we’ve been thinking, hearing, and saying these past 12 months on the shifts in public education.

What do this year’s results tell us? A quick sampling:

  • Overall, only slightly more than a quarter surveyed (27%) give President Obama a grade of “A” or “B” for his performance in support of public schools. That’s down nearly 15 points from three years ago.
  • We have more fait in our local school systems. Half gave their local schools an “A” or a “B.” But when asked about our nation’s schools as a whole, only 17% give similar grades to ‘Merica.
  • As we hear more about the “federal role” in education, the public is starting to absorb it. More than half (56%) said their local school board should have the greatest influence on what is being taught (a big surprise to this former school board chairman who found that the vast majority wanted the school board out of such decisions, and to just focus on the basics like funding). Only 15% though the federal government should have the most influence (and we would ask who actually thinks the feds have much influence at all, let alone the most, on what happens in our local schools.)
  • More than half (54%) do not think standardized tests are helpful to teachers (though I am guessing they are talking about high-stakes, summative tests, and not the formative or interim assessments that even teachers say they want).
  • On the controversial issue of Common Core State Standards, 81% of those surveyed have heard of CCSS, up from about two-thirds last year. And six in 10 say they oppose CCSS. The biggest reason? Standards limit the flexibility of teachers ot teach what they think is best (not the testing issue we hear so much about).
  • And in those further depressing stats, only 30% were familiar with PISA. Only half believe that American students perform below the level of other students around the globe.

What do we take away from all of this? To be kind, we don’t know what we don’t know. Public school performance and President Obama’s education positions have been relatively unchanged in recent years, yet we see huge swings in what we think of both of those today. At a time when most school board meetings go unattended and few can even name who sits on their local board of ed, we now place the greatest trust (and presumed power) in the hands of those unsung officials. We lack an understanding of assessment literacy, and are now equating everything we’ve heard about “high-stakes testing” to anything that bears the name “test.”

And let’s not forget that, while we may have these positions, they still aren’t strong enough for us to act on them. Education policy remains one of those issues that we are all concerned with, until it is time to head into the voting places. We may believe our nation’s schools are headed into the crapper, but we still elect the same federal, state, and local policymakers to oversee those schools. And while we may be concerned about teachers not being able to teach what they think is best under CCSS, other surveys show we are enthusiastic in taking away their tenure and job protections, the very things that may allow them the power to actually do what they think is best in the classroom.

Yet the PDK poll is an important measure for understanding the populace’s temperature on these issues. While we are unlikely to act on them, we are seeing a steady shift that shows we are more cynical when it comes to public education in the United States. We are lest trusting. We remain fairly uninformed. And we seem content in carrying on as is.

Sigh …

 

Education: Dem Convention Edition 2012

Earlier, Eduflack highlighted the strong edu-language uttered at the Republican National Convention by folks such as Jeb Bush and Condi Rice.  Today, we look at the Democratic response, provided at this week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC.

Interestingly, until last evening, the edu-talk just wasn’t that strong.  Most of it centered around dollars, and what would happen to everything from preK funding to Pell under a Romney/Ryan administration.  A few speakers — including San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro — spoke eloquently on the personal importance of a strong education.  But there was little policy discussion — until President Barack Obama himself spoke last evening.

You can choose a future where more Americans have the chance to gain the skills they need to compete, no matter how old they are or how much money they have. Education was the gateway to opportunity for me. It was the gateway for Michelle. And now more than ever, it is the gateway to a middle-class life.

For the first time in a generation, nearly every state has answered our call to raise their standards for teaching and learning. Some of the worst schools in the country have made real gains in math and reading. Millions of students are paying less for college today because we finally took on a system that wasted billions of taxpayer dollars on banks and lenders.

And now you have a choice_ we can gut education, or we can decide that in the United States of America, no child should have her dreams deferred because of a crowded classroom or a crumbling school. No family should have to set aside a college acceptance letter because they don’t have the money. No company should have to look for workers in China because they couldn’t find any with the right skills here at home.

Government has a role in this. But teachers must inspire; principals must lead; parents must instill a thirst for learning, and students, you’ve got to do the work. And together, I promise you_ we can out-educate and out-compete any country on Earth. Help me recruit 100,000 math and science teachers in the next ten years, and improve early childhood education. Help give 2 million workers the chance to learn skills at their community college that will lead directly to a job. Help us work with colleges and universities to cut in half the growth of tuition costs over the next 10 years. We can meet that goal together. You can choose that future for America.

And with that, the Gentleman from Illinois drops the edu-microphone …

“Teachers Matter”

Last evening, President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union Address to Congress and the nation.  The speech focused on the four pillars the President and his team see as necessary for turning around the United States and strengthening our community and our economy.  No surprise for those following the pre-game shows, education stood as one of those four pillars.

Five paragraphs committed to education.  One pointing out our states and districts are cutting education budgets when we should be strengthening them.  One on the importance of teachers.  One on high school dropouts.  Two on higher education and how we fund a college education.  (We have a sixth if you include the President’s call to do something to help hard-working students who are not yet citizens.)
So let’s go ahead and dissect what the President offered up last evening.
“Teachers matter.”
Absolutely.  No question about it.  We cannot and should not reform our K-12 educational systems without educators.  Teachers (and I would add, principals) are the single-greatest factor in education improvement.  They need to be at the table as we work toward the improved educational offerings the President and so many other dream of.
“So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal.  Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones.”
Sign me up.  As the son of two educators, the last thing I want to do is bash a teacher (I’ll get in trouble with my mom if I do).  As I’ve said many times on this blog, teaching — particularly in this day and age — is one of the most difficult professions out there.  Most people aren’t cut out to do it, or at least do it well.  We need to make sure our precious tax dollars are being directed at recruiting, retaining, and supporting great teachers.  We should reward classroom excellence with merit pay and other acknowledgements.  But the President is also right in noting we cannot defend the status quo.  We can no longer debate whether reform is necessary.  Reform is necessary.  The discussion must now shift to how we change how we teach, not whether we change.
“In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”
Yes, yes, yes.  Great educators know how to help virtually all kids learn.  They know to tailor their instruction based on data and other research points.  We should be encouraging that and empowering teachers to do so each and every day.  But we can’t lose sight of that last clause (and many may have missed it last night over the cheap applause line of not teaching to the test).  We must “replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”  In our quest for a great educator in every classroom, we must also realize not everyone is cut out to teach.  We need serious educator evaluation systems that ensure everyone is evaluated, everyone is evaluated every year, and those evaluations are based primarily on student learning.  And, like it or not, student performance tests still remain the greatest measure we have for student learning.  So if we can’t get struggling educators the professional development and support necessary to excel in the classroom, we need to be prepared to transition them out of the school.       
And lastly, President Obama’s “bold” call to action to ensure every student is college and career ready.
“I call on every State to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn eighteen.” 
And here we have the President’s big educational swing and a miss.  This is a process goal, not an outcomes goal.  Based on AYP figures and recent on school improvement and turnaround, we know that far too many kids — particularly those from historically disadvantaged populations — are attending failing schools.  This is particularly true of secondary school students.  
Why force a student to stay in a school that has long been branded a “drop-out factory?”  Why keep a kid in school until he is 18 when he only reading at the grade level of an eight-year-old?  Why stick around for a high school diploma when it also requires massive remediation to attend a postsecondary institution?
No, the call should not be to require students to stick around a bad situation, giving us nothing more than a process win.  Instead, we should be focused on improving the outcomes of high school.  How do we demonstrate the relevance of a high school curriculum?  How do we engage kids?  How do we provide choices for a meaningful high school education?  How do we show the college and career paths that come from earning that diploma?  How do we make kids see they want to stick around, and don’t have to be mandated to do so?
At this point in time, we all realize that a high school diploma is the bare minimum to participate in our economy and our society.  For most, some form of postsecondary education is also necessary.  Until we improve the quality and direction of our high schools — and help kids see that dropping out is never a viable option — that mandatory diploma will be nothing more than a certificate of attendance.  We need to make a diploma something all kids covet … not a mandatory experience like going to the dentist.
 

The NEA Post-Mortem

Now that the the National Education Association has wrapped up its 90th Representative Assembly, there are some interesting head scratchers that come out of the NEA Convention.  In a meeting that is part union hall, part political convention, and part educator rally, the NEA moved forward a few ideas and notions that better help us see why it can be so difficult to figure out where public education is and should be headed in this country:

* NEA moved to condemn, but not call for the ouster of, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan (most notably for his support of teacher firings in Rhode Island and presumably for his defense of the tying student performance data to teachers in Los Angeles), yet then turned around and endorsed President Barack Obama for 2012.  If there was ever a cabinet secretary in tune with his president, it is Duncan.  So are we truly upset with Duncan or truly content with Obama’s leadership?  And if it is the latter, are we endorsing his work in issues like the economy and healthcare, and setting aside concerns with his Administration’s education policies?  And was endorsing Obama in 2011 an apology for waiting so long to endorse him in 2008?
* NEA officially placed Teach for America on its public enemies list.  For years, union leaders have tried to discount the role that TFA does or should play in public education.  In recent years, union cities like Boston have complained about TFA teachers taking away previously union jobs.  So now the NEA has a policy stance that matches its rhetoric regarding the TFA movement.  But what about those TFA teachers who are members of their local unions?  How do they show up at the next union ice cream social?
* NEA approved the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, with one important caveat.  Yes, the NEA said, student test scores should be one of the elements used to determine the effectiveness of a teacher.  The catch?  NEA says that there are no current student tests that meet the standard for the tests allowed under the new NEA policy.  Essentially, we will gladly be measured by student test scores assuming the test meets our criteria.  But since no current tests do (and we assume the new ones being developed through RttT Assessment grants won’t either), I guess you just can’t use test scores to evaluate teachers.  Take that LA and NYC!
* Interestingly, President Obama did not attend.  Instead, NEA had Vice President Joe Biden.  Always a good draw for a union event, Biden seemed to deliver as folks expected him to, positioning education as political issue (Democrats get it right, and Republicans get it wrong), throwing some red meat (GOP healthcare vouchers are no different than school vouchers),  Even more curious, Biden said that the education debate was one about “economic opportunity and concentration of wealth.”  Silly me, here I thought it was about providing all children, regardless of race, socioeconomic status or geography, with a top-notch public education.
Special thanks to Stephen Sawchuk for providing the play-by-play on the NEA for Education Week.  Sawchuk’s coverage over at Teacher Beat provided terrific insight into what was happening in Chicago.  It was almost as if I could hear the “Brother” this and “Sister” that right on the Assembly floor.  I can’t wait for AFT!

The CR Ain’t All Bad …

Last week, Eduflack detailed the long and distinguished list of “losers” in the FY2011 Continuing Resolution and the ongoing budget fight between the White House and Congress.  All those billions that both sides had to cut needed to come from somewhere and, unfortunately, education was unable to avoid the knife.

Fortunately, President Obama made it easy for those looking to nip and tuck from the ED budget.  In the previous two budget cycles, Obama offered up lists of programs to either be eliminated or consolidated in the ED budget.  Those programs eliminated were often cited for a lack of efficacy.  Those consolidated into a potential competitive grant program were victims of a new world order when competition is king, and the dollars for a competitive process needed to come from somewhere.  So if the President wasn’t going to protect specific education programs in his own budget, it made them easy pickin’s for an opposition Congress.
But it seems there was a bit of good edu-news in the CR after all.  Yes, we saw increased in Race to the Top ($700 million), Investing in Innovation ($150 million), and Promise Neighborhoods ($20 million more).  But there was also some interesting policy language inserted into the CR.
While campaigning in 2008, Obama often spoke of the importance of early childhood education.  Good ECE and good parenting were the cornerstone to his child development plans.  But that rhetoric never seemed to translate into real policies.  Parental engagement continues to lag, despite both authority and funding under NCLB.  And although ECE offered real promise in 2008, the realities of state budget cuts have stymied expansion plans, with ED and HHS relatively unsure of who should actually take control of moving strong, evidence-based ECE into practice.  At least until last week, say the experts.
Buried in the wording regarding the additional $700 million for RttT is language that adds a new priority to ED’s prized RttT.  ED, along with early childhood education advocates, are touting the addition of “Improving Early Childhood Care and Education” as a RttT priority and something Race dollars can now fund.  (Always the skeptic, Eduflack must admit that I’m still not completely sure how this differs from the original Priority 3: Invitational Priority — Innovations for Improving Early Learning Outcomes, but I must just be hung up on the language of the language.)
This is potentially a major step forward for ECE in two ways.  First, it opens up new funding streams.  While it doesn’t provide specific, dedicated ED funds for ECE, it does confirm that RttT dollars can be spent on early childhood education.  ECE can now be a fundable component of those grants seeking a piece of the $700 million in extra pie.  And one could even make the case of adding ECE efforts to the current RttT winners’ effort.
More importantly, though, the language addition signals a general commitment — from both the Administration and the Congress — that early childhood education is a key component of the educational continuum.  We turn around low-performing schools, in part, by better preparing kids for school in the first place.  We address the dropout and remediation problems by ensuring that kindergartners are not starting the formal learning process a year or two behind some of their classmates.  We make a difference by providing instructional building blocks early and often, finally declaring that ECE, if done correctly, is more than just babysitting on the cream and the clear.
While there is still much work to be done to build up our national commitment to high-quality early childhood education, the new RttT language is definitely a start.  Add some significant dedicated funding, and we might really have something here.
  
UPDATE: So sometimes a priority just isn’t a priority.  Per my confusion about Priority 3: Invitational Priority versus this new priority in the CR.  As it has been explained to me, the Priority 3 is the “absolute, competitive and invitational priorities” in the original RttT applications.  The new priority, on improving early childhood care and education, added a new priority to the RttT authorization statute.  So early childhood now joins 1) maintenance of effort; 2) achieving equity in teacher distribution; 3) improving collection and use of data; 4) standards and assessment; and 5) supporting struggling schools.