A Tea Party Comes to Education?

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

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

Father, father, father …

In our nation’s capital yesterday, President Barack Obama reissued his call to get fathers more involved in their children’s lives.  Calling for “responsible fatherhood,” the President noted that fathers (Eduflack included) need to be part of their kids’ lives “not just with words, but with deeds.”

USA Today’s Greg Toppo has the full story on the event here.  What’s most interesting are the stats that Toppo offers up from the U.S. Census.  About one in three children lived away from their biological fathers last year, and that number leaps to almost two in three (64 percent) for African-American children.
Why is this an issue for Eduflack?  Allow me to get on my soapbox for a moment.  If we are serious about improving our public schools, particularly for historically disadvantaged students, we need to better engage in the homes.  If we are going to improve student proficiency scores, we need parents keeping tabs on what is happening in the classroom and making sure homework is done.  If we are going to improve graduation rates, we need parents who are prioritizing that diploma.  And if we are going to move more first-generation students onto college, we need parents who nag and prioritize and push their kids to achieve.
So when Obama talks about getting fathers more involved in their children’s lives, he is also talking about getting them more involved in their kids’ schools.  He’s reminding them that good fathers can be in the PTA.  They can chaperone class trips.  They can pick the kids up at school.  They can actually know their kids’ teachers and other parents in the classroom.  They can talk with their kids about school, and life.
Back in November 2008, Eduflack offered up some education reccs to then President-elect Obama.  The “big idea” of the day was focused on parental involvement, building off of the similar father encouragement efforts the President is still offering today.  At the time, I wrote:

I propose you actually establish an Office of Family and Community Engagement, an authorized body at the Assistant Secretary level that can get information into the hands of those who need it most.  The most recent regs from ED show that the current infrastructure isn’t getting it done.  If you’re serious about greater family involvement, turning off the TVs, and such, make the commitment to Family Engagement (and we do have to think beyond the traditional mother/father nuclear parent family structure). EdTrust has today’s student attaining education at lower rates than their parents. That is a travesty.  And the responsibility falls on the family.  Parents are our first, and most durable, of teachers.  Equip them with information, help them build the paths and help them paint the picture of the value and need for education.  Create this new office, have it collaborate with OESE, OCO, and others, and see the impact of effectively collaborating with families and the community at large on education improvement.

So how about it?  Obama is absolutely correct.  It falls on all of us fathers to be a bigger and better part of our children’s lives.  But we can’t ignore the fact that some kids will never experience the benefits of having their biological fathers around them.  That’s why we need to focus on family and community engagement.  Buying into the notion that it takes a community to raise a child, we need to engage all parental units into tuning in to the education needs facing their family, boosting interest, involvement, dialogue, and results.  The U.S. Department of Education has focused on family engagement before.  Now is the time to go all in and note that family engagement is just as important to classroom success as many of the content areas on which ED currently focuses.
Can anyone really question that Race to the Top and I3 have a higher chance of success if families are engaged in the process and invested in the outcomes?  What about ESEA?  Clearly, the families of today’s students can help prioritizing key issues, hold policymakers accountable, and ensure that our expected results are not forgotten once the ink on the reauthorization has dried.
An Office of Family and Community Engagement fits with Obama’s call to fathers yesterday.  And it works with EdSec Duncan’s speech to the National PTA earlier this month.  And it aligns with the goals and priorities both have offered for our national education agenda.  So if not now, when?  And if not now, why?  The time, the demand, and the attention is there.

Reading Between the SOTU Lines

Earlier today, Eduflack was hopeful that P-12 education would garner three or four paragraphs in the State of the Union, just enough space to lay out a bold call to action and a focus on real, lasting change.  As the final speech was delivered this evening, P-12 got little more than a paragraph (while higher education and student loans got far greater attention).

Following is the full text of the SOTU P-12 focus:

“This year, we have broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools. The idea here is simple: instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform – reform that raises student achievement, inspires students to excel in math and science, and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to inner-cities. In the 21st century, one of the best anti-poverty programs is a world-class education. In this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than their potential.

When we renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we will work with Congress to expand these reforms to all fifty states. Still, in this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job. I urge the Senate to follow the House and pass a bill that will revitalize our community colleges, which are a career pathway to the children of so many working families.”

Personally, Eduflack really likes that first paragraph (and will note that I made some similar recommendations in my previous post.  But there isn’t a lot to analyze here.  No mention of early childhood education.  No mention of Race to the Top or i3 or common core standards.  And we don’t even know that reforms we are expanding to all 50 states under ESEA reauthorization.  And we didn’t even go as far as to say, when we renew ESEA this year.  All we know is that school is important, community colleges are equally important, and we need to take steps to make postsecondary education more affordable and manageable.  

So what does this mean for ESEA reauthorization in 2010?  Hopefully, no one is holding their breath or has big money wagered for a quick bill.  President Obama made clear that a jobs bill is priority number one.  Then we need to get healthcare finished.  And if we can get to education, it is focused on student loans and affordability.  We only have so many months and so many priorities, and tonight’s speech makes clear that reworking ESEA is not a top priority right now.

Eduflack supposes it makes sense.  EdSec Arne Duncan and company can focus on Race and i3, using some of his executive powers to tweak portions of NCLB to make it a little easier to work with.  But at the end of the day, I suppose we are generally happy with the current parameters of NCLB, or at least can live with it for now.  Sure, there is that $1 billion performance bonus for getting ESEA passed (akin to paying our kids for earning straight As I suppose), but it looks like the 2010 era of reform without an overhaul to our national K-12 law.  I could be wrong, but I suspect I’m not.

Some Ed Thoughts on the SOTU

Tonight is the State of the Union address.  Across the nation, folks are looking at this speech to either make or break President Obama’s Administration (no pressure there).  And while Eduflack continues to hear those in the education community expect that education reform will be front and center in tonight’s speech, I have my doubts.  With an hour-long time slot likely to be interrupted by applause (and hopefully no more “you lies”), there is a lot to talk about.  We have wars and national security.  Jobs and the economy.  Healthcare and Haiti.  At best, I suspect education will get a few paragraphs about two-thirds of the way through the address.

So what do we do with those few paragraphs?  We’ve already heard that Obama intends to freeze all discretionary non-security funding for the next three years.  And while many say there is wiggle room to exempt some of our new education funding streams, we need to be practical.  Any mention of education, no matter how small and large, is not likely to be about dollars.  It is going to be about vision, hope, and promise.  If past Administrations are any indication, staff is scurrying today to make final edits to the draft, ensuring that it reflects the latest news and the most promising ideas.
Eduflack can’t let such a time pass without offering a few of his own thoughts on the “education section” for tonight.  If I had my speechwriting shingle hanging in the West Wing these days, hears what deal ol’ Eduflack would be looking to get on the teleprompter for this evening:
“My fellow Americans, I know these are uncertain times wrought with worry and concern.  The value of our homes continues to slide.  For those fortunate enough to hold a job, wages are stagnant and benefits have likely been reduced.  For families who have weathered the economic rollercoaster of the past few years, many still wait for that steady climb back up, hoping beyond hope that the pains we, as a community, are struggling with now will not be felt by our children in years to come.
In times like this, it is often easy to overlook the most important asset Americans possess.  It is not real estate or 401Ks or any such material goods.  No, the greatest asset the United States offers is a strong public education.  It is a promise we make to all people, whether they be descendants of those who came over on the Mayflower or those just arriving on a boat from Haiti in the past weeks.  A strong education is with us for ever.  It continues to appreciate and gain value.  It is portable, and comes with us from job to job and residence to residence.  And it, more than anything else, is key to the opportunity and hope we promise each new generation.  Those with a strong educational foundation are on the path to success.  There is no question about it.
During the past year, my Administration has taken great steps to ensure that more students receive access to a truly strong public education.  States across the nation have improved their laws and enacted new policies to ensure more students gain access to an effective and equitable education.  Through Race to the Top, our nation is now focused on issues such as teacher quality and turning around low-performing schools.  The bold steps taken by state legislatures around the nation to address our educational priorities are to be applauded.  Ultimately, the success of Race to the Top is not be measured by the handful of states that win federal grants, but rather by the millions of American students who will now have better schools and more opportunities because of the commitments made by states and school districts over the past nine months.
With such a focus on Race to the Top and its grant program, let me make one thing abundantly clear.  Money alone does not improve our school systems.  More dollars do not guarantee that a student is taught by an effective teacher or does not have to attend a drop-out factory.  Even today, we see communities with some of the highest per-pupil expenditures with the lowest test scores, and towns with low expenditures turning out some of the most promising results.  Increased spending does not directly result in improved quality.  If we are truly committed to improving all of our public schools and giving all students, particularly those from historically disadvantaged groups, the chance to live the American dream, we must change our approach to and our expectations of public education.  I am not here today to announce new funding programs for education, no.  Instead, I am here to secure a national commitment to the issues that have a direct impact on whether our school systems can truly improve over the long term.  We need to invest our intellectual capital in school improvement, and not just our financial capital.
First, in the economically uncertain times, we must ensure that all students see the need for and the relevance of a strong education.  We must strengthen the linkages between school today and jobs tomorrow.  We must demonstrate how the classes taken today lead to the jobs of tomorrow.  And we must make clear that dropping out is never an option, no matter the situation.  In New York City, for instance, Chancellor Joel Klein has made real progress in improving the city’s high school graduation rates, and has done so while closing the graduation gaps between white and African-American and white and Hispanic students.  Those are the sorts of efforts all of our cities should be modeling.  Last year, we committed to having the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by the year 2020.  We cannot get there if one-third of our students continue to drop out of high school and never have that option of college.  We must make clear that a high school diploma is the first step to true citizenship.  And it falls to every parent, every local business, every community leader, and every house of worship to make sure our kids value their education and gain that necessary diploma.  
Second, we must redouble our efforts to provide both a high-quality and an equitable education to all students.  For decades now, we have talked about the achievement gap while pumping more money into failing school systems.  In that time, we have done little to close the chasm between the haves and have nots.  Access to AP classes or veteran teachers should not be determined by one’s zip code or the color of one’s skin.  We need to take immediate steps to get our best teachers in the classrooms that need them the most.  We need to ensure that Title I and other funds from state and local governments are going to ensure that historically disadvantaged students have up-to-date textbooks and the latest instructional materials.  And we need to invest in early childhood education, particularly in our urban centers, so all students are equipped with the foundational skills to maximize their public educations.
Third, we must be committed to both high-quality teachers and high-quality teaching.  There are few jobs as challenging as teaching, and there are few that have the impact of educating young people.  Neither our schools nor our children can succeed without a well trained, well supported, and effective teacher standing in front of their classroom.  We need to make sure that every teacher goes through a rigorous training program that includes both clinical training and the demonstration of content knowledge.  We need to make sure that every one of our teachers gets the ongoing support, training, and mentoring to succeed in their classrooms.  We need to reward effective teaching, while having our exemplary teachers assist and support those who are struggl
ing.  We need to give our educators all of the tools for success, knowing that not everyone is cut out to be a teacher.  But if we expect our teachers to be held accountable for student achievement in their classrooms, we need to equip them with the skills and knowledge to manage their classes and deal with the challenges that cannot be planned for in a workshop, an institute, or a textbook.  We need to empower and cultivate our teachers, much like the TAP program in my hometown of Chicago does.
And finally we have the issue of accountability.  Let there be no mistake, my Administration is committed to educational accountability.  Working with Secretary Arne Duncan, I have made clear that we expect all students to learn.  We expect that learning to be measured.  I know that many of you have had concerns with accountability measures in the past.  Those worries were well-founded, but they do not justify scrapping our commitment to assessment and measurement.  Ultimately, our problems are with unequal measures of accountability.  Today, I am happy to report that our states are hard at work identifying common core standards for all grades.  Soon, proficiency in eighth grade math will mean the same thing in Massachusetts, Alabama, Wisconsin, and California.  We can, will, and must hold our teachers, schools, states, and even the federal government accountable for the quality and effectiveness of public education.  The task before us now is to improve on our current accountability measures, so they more accurately measure the effectiveness of our systems.  We need to do a better job of testing students, a better job of measuring what they are learning, and a better job of applying those results to improve classroom practice.  But we need accountability.  On this issue I will not bend.”
God bless and good night.

Rethinking Learning … Then What?

While it may be the hip and hot thing to do, Eduflack is not going to spend the majority of today’s blog talking about this afternoon’s Presidential address to students.  After reviewing the text of the speech, one lesson learned from my K-12 education comes to mind — Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.  While it is unknown if the final remarks circulated today were the intended remarks, what POTUS will say to students in Arlington, Virginia today really is much ado about nothing.  Read the remarks, and you will see a sprinkle of previous lines given by the President to civil rights organizations, with a heavy dose of the type of rhetoric often found in a mayor’s State of the City or a superintendent’s State of the Schools address.  Stay in school  Work hard.  Wash your hands.  Eat your vegetables.  You can find the full speech here, but those worried about indoctrination should have greater worries about the latest infomercial or news segment on Fox or MSNBC than today’s remarks.

No, I’m more intrigued by some of the other actions swirling in the edusphere.  Over at USA Today, today’s he said/she said is on Race to the Top and the need for innovation in the schools.  As expected USA Today speaks for the reformers, those supporting the current agenda moved forward by EdSec Arne Duncan and the team at the U.S. Department of Education.  Speaking for the loyal opposition is Marty Hittelman, the president of the California Federation of Teachers.  We’ve all read about the teachers’ concerns with RttT (particularly the National Education Association’s strong “comments” regarding the RttT draft guidance).  Much of the content of Hittelman’s piece , found here, should surprise no one.  But the most interesting line is one we have all suspected, but no one has been willing to say in public — “our opposition to ‘Race to the Top.'”  For the record, Hittelman has made clear that the California Federation of Teachers is opposed to Race to the Top.  Now we finally have a game, where major groups are starting to pick sides.  (It of course makes it a little easier to be opposed to RttT when it is clear your state won’t receive it, but you watch you top elected officials scramble to enact “reforms” to align with what ED is looking for in the law.)
For weeks now, Eduflack has been calling for the loyal opposition to come out of hiding and have their voices heard in this great debate over reform and innovation in public education.  I believed the initial salvo, launched by EdTrust, DFER, EEP, and CAP, was a good first start.  CFT’s remarks in this morning’s USA Today move the ball further down the hill.  And this morning we have a new public information campaign designed to poke fist-sized holes in ED’s plans over accountability and student achievement.
Today, the Forum for Democracy and Education, among others, launched a new campaign called “Rethink Learning Now.”  Backers of the effort call it a “national grassroots campaign to change the direction of public education reform — from a focus on testing to a focus on learning.”  To support the effort, the Forum is collecting “learning stories” from leaders across the country, seeking tales of those learning experiences that have shaped one’s lives.  The point is to demonstrate that real learning is not measured by the score on a state assessment, it comes from those qualitative and intangible moments where one discovers the motivation for learning and education, beyond just quantitative achievement.  The campaign’s website can be found here, complete with the EdSec’s learning story.
Rethink Learning focuses on three key buckets — learning, teaching, and fairness.  The motives behind the three are simple.  Learning cannot be measured simply by student performance on state assessments.  Teaching cannot be measured simply by crosswalking teachers with those same student test scores.  And as long as we have the resource gaps between the haves and have nots, we can never truly deliver high-quality teaching and learning to all students.
I will give it to the Rethink Learning Now folks.  Their TV commercials are top notch.  This AM, CNN previewed one commercial in particular.  In it, a tween goes on about how states are now using third grade student test scores to determine potential incarceration rates, then following the path to talk about how we are spending more on prisons than we are in schools.  The visuals of the bright-faced kids in orange prison jumpsuits drives the message home, and speaks to the President’s message about the need to stay in school and the EdSec’s recent bemoaning of our national 30 percent high school dropout rate.  For an attention-getter, the Forum has hit a home run here.
But the nagging question is what do we do with this?  Once all of the learning stories are collected, once we have shocked those suburban parents who will watch such commercials on CNN, once we have driven a self-selected group of individuals to visit the Rethink Learning website and enter their contact information, what do we do with it?  Do we declare mission accomplished because we have hit a certain number of visitors?  Do we bask in the glow of folks seeing some edgy commercials?  Do we celebrate some of the celebrities who have shared their stories, thus giving the campaign an A for effort?  Or do we expect more?
Those who have read Eduflack for a while know that I am a disciple of the Yankelovich school of public engagement.  it isn’t enough to simply inform individuals about an issue, as Rethink Learning Now is doing.  That is merely the first step to a more complex engagement effort.  Informing is the easy part.  You then need to move on to building commitment for a solution and mobilizing around a particular action.
Building commitment is more than just building an email list.  It is gaining proactive participation and support for a particular solution.  And mobilization comes when we get those stakeholders to say and do whatever is necessary to bring about change.  So the question before Rethink Learning is what is the ask?  
Do we want to join with the California Federation of Teachers to fight federal provisions that say a good teacher is measured by how well his or her student does on the state exam?  Do we want to join with the Broader Bolder Approach to Education and oppose the general education accountability framework in general?  Do we want to join with the Opportunity to Learn folks in the name of multiple measures and equity of resources?  Is it a little of each, or is it a new path that the Rethink Learning organizers are planning for down the road?
Regardless, Rethink Education and its backers need to have us stand for something, and not just argue against something.  It is no longer enough to say that state assessments are unfair or that we need to look at the whole child to get a full measure of the quality of education.  It is no longer enough to say that there are too many intangibles to teaching that we can’t effective measure good instruction.  And it certainly is no longer enough to say we need a different approach, particularly if we aren’t willing to offer up the specifics of that approach.
Rethink Learning should get credit for breaking through the white noise and having its voice heard at a time when most are only listening to the folks at ED.  But now is the time to maximize that opportunity.  If folks are listening, they need to hear what is worthwhile.  They need a real call to action, a direction, a goal.
 They need to know what they are working toward, how to measure success, and when we will be able to declare mission accomplished.  Otherwise, this is just the latest in grassroots campaigns that mean well, but have no lasting impact on the education infrastructure. 
The next decade of public education reform is being determined right now, as we sort out RttT, i3, and then ESEA reauthorization.  We’ve got group after group talking, with many afraid to offend the power structure and even more trying to be everything to everyone.  What we need is a voice what can harness the power of the naysayers and backbenchers and offer a unified alternative to what is moving forward.  And in the immortal words of Elvis Presley, we are in desperate need of a little less conversation and a little more action.  Please.

Presidential Commencement in the Desert

In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of discussion and debate about President Obama’s decision to speak at graduation festivities at the University of Notre Dame.  But little had been said about yesterday’s presidential commencement address at Arizona State University.  Yes, there was some initial discussion about ASU’s decision not to award Obama the traditional honorary degree (apparently, ASU’s policy is that one is recognized for their full lifetime body of work, and the President of the United States still has to prove himself and still has other career chapters ahead of him), but that’s been about it.  But few are discussing what’s behind the curtain on last night’s address in Tempe.

As to be expected, the President did a fine rhetorical job in the desert.  He used the moment to inspire, urging students to pursue their passions and make a difference.  He made light of the honorary degree scuffle.  And he did what one would expect from a President in what will become the core of a relatively standard graduation address he will deliver two to three times a year, for the next four to eight years.  USA Today has a good article on the graduation here,  The Arizona Republic provides us the local view here.
We expect such speeches to be motivational, and not wake-up calls.  We want to applaud achievements, inspiring graduates to make a difference in their communities, not dwell on the fact that so few of those ASU grads are now leaving campus with actual jobs in hand.  We don’t want to talk about the economic realities around us, particularly with so many people leaving the last four, five, or six years of college with five or sic figures of debt to worry about in a time where job prospects for new college grads are at some of their weakest levels.
But one does have to wonder how Arizona State University was selected as Obama’s only address to a public university this spring, and the first time a sitting president has ever participated in ASU’s commencement ceremony.  The decision is particularly vexing when we look at the Administration’s rhetoric on student achievement and performance, and take a second look at the Grand Canyon State and the Sun Devils in particular.
The general consensus among educators is the eighth grade NAEP reading score is the best harbinger of student success.  It provides a better longitudinal view that the fourth grade scores, and it provides a more complete picture than the scores of 17-year-olds, particularly recognizing that so many students have dropped out of high school before taking those 11th grade NAEP reading exams.  Knowing that the vast majority of ASU students are coming from the state of Arizona, how do Arizonans do on 8th grade NAEP reading?  Only 24 percent of Arizona 8th graders score proficient or better on our Nation’s Report Card when it comes to reading.  That’s good enough to rank 42nd out of 50 states.  Hardly the beacon of college preparatory hope we would want to honor with the merriment of commencement commencing.  
But the numbers are even more startling when one looks at the success of ASU students, at least in terms of their ability to earn that sheepskin in the first place.  We often talk about the high school graduation rates, the need to measure success based on a four-year yardstick (one’s ability to graduate high school four years after starting ninth grade).  We then joke about the five- or six-year plan that many postsecondary students choose to employ during their college years.  Surely, just about anyone can earn that diploma after spending six years in search of 120 credits, right?
Actually, no.  The folks over at Education Trust has spent a lot of time and effort taking a look the postsecondary numbers through their College Results initiative.  They even break down the numbers so one can compare a school like ASU with other peer institutions (as, to be fair, not everyone is competing with Princeton or Stanford).  What did EdTrust find?  In its peer group, Arizona State is the largest institution, in terms of enrollment, yet it has the lowest six-year graduation rate.  Only 56 percent of ASU students graduate six years after enrolling.  Even more disturbing, only 46 percent of minority students end up leaving ASU with that diploma.
When you disaggregate the numbers even further, you see that half of Hispanic students who enroll at ASU graduate within six years.  For African Americans, that number drops to 42 percent.  For Native Americans, an important population in Arizona, the figure is a disappointing 25 percent.  
So when Eduflack looks at these numbers, one has to ask, from a purely spotlight perspective, why ASU and not Louisiana State University (57% grad overall and 51% minority grad), or University of Central Florida (58% and 53%, respectively), or Michigan State (with a 74% overall grad rate and 54% African American and Native American grad rates and 58% Hispanic)?  It is even more puzzling when you see Florida and Michigan, at least, also outperforming Arizona on that important NAEP measure.
I don’t doubt there were good reasons to head to Tempe this week.  Nor do I want to deny the more than half of students who have persevered for the last four to six years and earned their degree from hearing the President and reflecting and rejoicing in their accomplishment.  They earned a college degree, and that should be applauded, regardless of the circumstances around them.
But in this era of economic worry and global competitiveness, this time of student achievement and school innovation, the President missed a golden opportunity to talk about those who were not let into the party.  He missed the chance to talk about the 76 percent of Arizonans who are not provided an equal chance to graduate from high school or attend institutions like Arizona State because they cannot read at a proficient level.  He missed the opportunity to call on the state and the institution to do something about the 44 percent of students, and the 54 percent of minority students, who don’t make it to the final ceremony.  He missed the chance to celebrate those who have achieved, but remind all of those who were left behind and urge us all to redouble our commitment to reducing the pool of close but no cigars.
Earlier this year, President Obama pledged that, by 2020, the United States would have the highest percentage of college graduates on the planet.  We don’t get there when only six in 10 college freshmen are holding a degree six years later.  And we certainly can’t get there when only four in 10 of historically disadvantaged students are earning the honor.
No, we don’t want to use these commencement addresses to bum out the graduates or bring the crowds down.  It should be a time for optimism, recognition, and congratulation.  But such presidential addresses must be delivered in the context of the world around us.  Let Obama applaud the students at Arizona State and Notre Dame.  But let’s have EdSec Duncan and the team on Maryland Avenue point out the miles we have to go on the issue of postsecondary degree attainment.  Use these addresses to issue a call to arms among both our secondary and postsecondary institutions that they can, should, and must do a better job.  
Fifty-six percent grad rate is a starting point, not an end point.  Schools like ASU should be our reclamation projects, nor our exemplars of best practice.  No offense to Arizo
na State, you just get the spotlight because you won the White House lottery this year.  Next year, such concerns can be raised about future institutions.  But when you get the President speaking about hope and opportunity for your graduates, one has to take a close took at those who failed to don the cap and gown, why they weren’t in the stadium last evening, and what that means for ASU, Arizona, and the nation.  
We know our 21st century economy is going to be driven largely by those holding postsecondary credentials.  Seems we need to hold those postsecondary institutions accountable.  After years of taking student tuition and indulging students on the five- or six-year plan, what are they doing to get all students — particularly those from minority, low-income, or first-generation college going families — across the finish line?  What are institutions like ASU doing to help meet the President’s 2020 degree goal?  And what are we doing if they don’t, or can’t, provide real answers to the question?

A Farewell to Niffle?

This morning, the Obama Administration released its plans for the FY2010 budget.  Most in the education community have been taken by some of the big items found on the education side of the ledger.  Cuts to Title I.  Significant investments in early childhood education.  Reductions in education technology.  But it was a $6 million line item that caught the eye of Eduflack.

When we’re talking about billions of education dollars, it is hard to get worked up over a couple of million bucks.  In the grand scheme of things, few are going to truly weep over the potential elimination of the National Institute for Literacy.  Other than a small, but loyal, following in the adult literacy community, there are few that even keep track of what NIFL is up to these days.  But the zeroing out of the NIFL budget in the president’s plans speak loudly and clearly.
For years now, NIFL was struggling to figure out what it wanted to be when it grew up.  Originally, NIFL was developed to focus on adult literacy issues.  According to its own materials:
The National Institute for Literacy was established in 1991 by the National Literacy Act (NLA) and reauthorized by the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) in 1998. In creating the Institute, the U.S. Congress recognized that building a competitive workforce required a concerted effort to improve adults’ basic skills. Congress tasked the Institute with initiating a coordinated, interagency effort to strengthen and expand adult literacy services. Both laws positioned the Institute as a national leader on adult literacy, a central source of knowledge about research, practice, and policy, and a catalyst for innovation.
A bold mission statement, yes, but some can and do question whether NIFL has actually acted as this rhetoric describes.  After 17 years of operation, how many seriously view it as a central source of knowledge about research or as a catalyst for innovation?  I’m not seeing many hands raised.
In 2002, NIFL took a turn from its core mission to focus on scientifically based reading research and the reading priorities found in No Child Left Behind and Reading First.  The organization focused on research projects, reports, technical assistance, professional development, and even advocacy for K-12 reading instruction.  Eduflack was fortunate enough to lead a communications effort for NIFL’s Partnership for Reading, a collaborative across multiple government agencies to emphasize the importance of scientifically based reading to policymakers, teachers, and families.
At the time, many of NIFL’s early fans and friends thought the NCLB work took away from the Institute’s core mission and unique value proposition.  They thought it distracted NIFL from the business of dealing with literacy issues for those who have left school, including new immigrants and those who were incarcerated.  They thought it was the U.S. Department of Education hijacking a needed lever for helping those adults and non-students who had fallen through the literacy cracks.
Others, Eduflack included, saw reading instruction in the early grades as a necessary, non-negotiable mission for NIFL.  While it may not have been a focus in the early years, one could not dispute that focusing on reading skills with our youngest learners has real and strong impact on our adolescent and adult learners.  The Reading Excellence Act (during the Clinton Administration) opened the door to this focus on the elementary grades.  NCLB merely brightened the spotlight and raised the stakes.
Personally, I like NIFL.  I have respect for the people who have worked there, those who have advised it, and those who have and still do sit on its board.  But the future of NIFL has long been a struggle.  Many felt that adult literacy issues are better served by ED’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education.  And when it came to K-12, there was far more power and effort being exerted by the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education and even the Reading First office. 
How much impact can $6 million have, particularly when $3 million of it was being spent on the operational costs of the Institute itself?  We’ve heard for years that NIFL was launching a National Reading Panel, Part 2, but it has never come to fruition.  We’ve had multi-year NIFL research panels undertake work, only to have their final reports blocked by the Institute of Education Studies from final publication.  We had listserves taken down because they were far too critical.  And we had non-governmental groups like the National Center for Family Literacy do a more effective job in actually promoting change and improvement in the literacy community.
Am I sad to see the “Going Out of Business” sign potentially hung on NIFL’s doors?  No, not particularly.  The same issues can be better handled by others.  What I am sad about is the great potential NIFL has had, particularly over the last decade, and its inability to capitalize on that potential.  The organization was almost afraid to take a leadership position in a field where it had every right and responsibility to lead.  It favored inaction over action. It feared rocking the boat or drawing attention.  It wanted to go about its business, without truly integrating and interacting with those government offices and individuals who could help take the $6 million investment in NIFL and exponentially increase the impact of the investment.  No wonder the Obama Administration failed to see the value.
Years ago, Congress debated whether to reauthorize NIFL or not, questioning whether the Institute was a necessary cog in our education improvement efforts.  It was written into NCLB to prove its necessity.  Now, seven years later, we see that NIFL is expendable.  Our focus should not be on saving the Institute, that exercise was undertaken years ago.  Instead, we must now look to how the valuable activities and programs managed by NIFL are continued by others.  What do OVAE and OESE take over?  What moves over to IES?  What goes to NCFL and other non-profits?  
We still have much work to do if we are to improve literacy rates and reading proficiency in this country, from our youngest learners to our most experienced workers.  If not NIFL, someone must step in and lead on this issue.  The stakes are too high not to.

Presidential STEM

For those who thought STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) education was going to get swept away in the educational tsunamis of economic stimulus, core curriculum debates, student performance concerns, and a new national emphasis on achievement and innovation, guess again.  Speaking before the National Academy of Sciences this morning, President Barack Obama spoke of the future of science and innovation the United States.  And a good portion of it focused on education … STEM education.

I’ll let the President speak for himself here.  Lots of interesting information, particularly the shout-out to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  As I’ve noted previously, I’ve been working with the Pennsylvania STEM Initiative and the public/private partnership in the Keystone State that is driving the terrific STEM progress Gov. Ed Rendell and company is leading.  So this is a nice hat tip for the PA STEM Initiative and for other NGA STEM states that are investing in statewide, systemic STEM efforts.
So humming “Hail to the Chief,” here is a segment of the President’s STEM remarks this morning:

Fifth, since we know that the progress and prosperity of future generations will depend on what we do now to educate the next generation, today I am announcing a renewed commitment to education in mathematics and science.  

Through this commitment, American students will move from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math over the next decade. For we know that the nation that out-educates us today – will out-compete us tomorrow.

We cannot start soon enough. We know that the quality of math and science teachers is the most influential single factor in determining whether or a student will succeed or fail in these subjects. Yet, in high school, more than twenty percent of students in math and more than sixty percent of students in chemistry and physics are taught by teachers without expertise in these fields. And this problem is only going to get worse; there is a projected shortfall of more than 280,000 math and science teachers across the country by 2015.

That is why I am announcing today that states making strong commitments and progress in math and science education will be eligible to compete later this fall for additional funds under the Secretary of Education’s $5 billion Race to the Top program.

I am challenging states to dramatically improve achievement in math and science by raising standards, modernizing science labs, upgrading curriculum, and forging partnerships to improve the use of science and technology in our classrooms.  And I am challenging states to enhance teacher preparation and training, and to attract new and qualified math and science teachers to better engage students and reinvigorate these subjects in our schools.

In this endeavor, and others, we will work to support inventive approaches.  Let’s create systems that retain and reward effective teachers, and let’s create new pathways for experienced professionals to enter the classroom.  There are, right now, chemists who could teach chemistry; physicists who could teach physics; statisticians who could teach mathematics.  But we need to create a way to bring the expertise and the enthusiasm of these folks – folks like you – into the classroom.

There are states, for example, doing innovative work. I am pleased to announce that Governor Ed Rendell will lead an effort with the National Governors Association to increase the number of states that are making science, technology, engineering and mathematics education a top priority.  Six states are currently participating in the initiative, including Pennsylvania, which has launched an effective program to ensure that his state has the skilled workforce in place to draw the jobs of the 21st century. I’d want every state participate.

But our work does not end with a high school diploma.  For decades, we led the world in educational attainment, and as a consequence we led the world in economic growth. The G.I. Bill, for example, helped send a generation to college. But in this new economy, we’ve come to trail other nations in graduation rates, in educational achievement, and in the production of scientists and engineers.

That’s why my administration has set a goal that will greatly enhance our ability to compete for the high-wage, high-tech jobs of the 21st century – and to foster the next generation of scientists and engineers. In the next decade – by 2020 – America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. And we’ve provided tax credits and grants to make a college education more affordable.

My budget also triples the number of National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships. This program was created as part of the Space Race five decades ago. In the decades since, it’s remained largely the same size – even as the numbers of students who seek these fellowships has skyrocketed. We ought to be supporting these young people who are pursuing scientific careers, not putting obstacles in their path.

This is how we will lead the world in new discoveries in this new century. But it will take far more than the work of government. It will take all of us. It will take all of you.

And so today I want to challenge you to use your love and knowledge of science to spark the same sense of wonder and excitement in a new generation.

America’s young people will rise to the challenge if given the opportunity – if called upon to join a cause larger than themselves. And we’ve got evidence. The average age in NASA’s mission control during the Apollo 17 mission was just 26. I know that young people today are ready to tackle the grand challenges of this century

So I want to persuade you to spend time in the classroom, talking – and showing –young people what it is that your work can mean, and what it means to you. Encourage your university to participate in pr
ograms to allow students to get a degree in scientific fields and a teaching certificate at the same time. Think about new and creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering, like science festivals, robotics competitions, and fairs that encourage young people to create, build, and invent – to be makers of things.

And I want you to know that I’m going to be working along side you. I’m going to participate in a public awareness and outreach campaign to encourage students to consider careers in science, mathematics, and engineering – because our future depends on it.

And the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation will be launching a joint initiative to inspire tens of thousands of American students to pursue careers in science, engineering and entrepreneurship related to clean energy.

It will support an educational campaign to capture the imagination of young people who can help us meet the energy challenge. It will create research opportunities for undergraduates and educational opportunities for women and minorities who too often have been underrepresented in scientific and technological fields – but are no less capable of inventing the solutions that will help us grow our economy and save our planet. And it will support fellowships, interdisciplinary graduate programs, and partnerships between academic institutions and innovative companies to prepare a generation of Americans to meet this generational challenge.”

Couldn’t have written it any better myself, Mr. President.  Hopefully, policymakers, educators, and industry leaders will all take note, lending their endorsement and intellectual and financial support to moving STEM efforts forward.  STEM is the perfect intersection of educational and economic opportunities.  And I may be biased, but the work being done by Gov. Rendell and the Pennsylvania STEM Initiative is the perfect model of promising practice for states and communities to embrace, bringing the public and private sector together for a common goal and a common dream.

Reading Between, Through, and All Around the Lines

It is always interesting how people see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear.  We all latch onto particular issues or ideas, believing that was the intent of a speech, a news story, or a television program.  Some would say that the measure of a truly good advocacy speech is the speaker allows all audiences to find a little something in the text that rallies them to action, an idea or phrase that makes them believe the speaker understands their concerns and is doing something to solve the problem.

Case in point — President Obama’s lauded education speech delivered yesterday at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.  USA Today led with the headline that Obama called for longer school days and longer school years.  The Washington Post saw it as a critique of our current state of schools, a rebuke that called for rewarding good teachers, getting rid of bad teachers, and putting more money into the system.  Education Week saw the call for teacher standards and tougher academic requirements.  The U.S. House of Representatives’ top education Republican, Buck McKeon, saw it as an indictment of the education establishment and status quo.  The U.S. Senate’s top Republican, Lamar Alexander, saw it as a call to arms for merit pay.  NEA’s president saw it as rewarding teachers who were successful with children, but according to the Politics K-12 blog didn’t see anything in the speech about merit pay.  The charter school folks were thrilled with what they saw as an endorsement of expansion of charter schools.  Higher ed officials saw their concerns returning to the forefront.  Even voucher advocates had to have a good feeling for a while, until the U.S. Senate ended the DC voucher program late last night.  
The full text of the speech can be found here, so you can come to your own conclusions — <a href="http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-of-the-President-to-the-Hispanic-Chamber-of-Commerce/.
Personally, Eduflack saw the speech as laying out two very important trains of thought for future activity, particularly the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (which some still hope will happen later this year).  First, it made clear that the status quo will not stand, and we need real solutions from a wide variety of sources if we are to truly improve our schools.  More importantly, though, it was the start of a clarion call for national standards.  With its focus on student achievement, school improvement, measuring teacher effectiveness, and ensuring our schools are preparing all students for the opportunities of the 21st century, the next logical step is national standards (that, and going along with NGA and CCSSO’s ideas on international benchmarking).
This was an important moment because it amplified the federal voice on education policy.  For months now, we have clearly heard EdSec Arne Duncan and his plans for the future.  The president’s address raised the ante, demonstrating that school improvement is a top priority, even in this economy.  And doing it before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce signaled that this is not an issue that will be solved by the education establishment alone.
With all good policy addresses, the devil is in the details.  There were a number of good lines, a lot of good promises, and heaps of great rhetoric in the speech.  We expect no less from President Obama.  The real challenge, though, is how that rhetoric is transformed into policies and initiatives.  How will the Secretary’s Innovation Fund take shape?  How will we measure success in the Race to the Top fund?  What specific new programs will we put in place to close the achievement gap?  How will we hold our SEAs more accountable for all of the economic stimulus funds headed into the states?  How will we use the Teacher Incentive Fund to truly reward and incentivize good instruction?  How will we address college costs in more ways than simply making more dollars available to aspiring students?  How will we measure student achievement, particularly if we are to move beyond one “bubble test?”  And yes, Eduflack fans, how are we to equip all students with proven instruction, particularly in the subject of reading?
For now, the folks down on Maryland Avenue are still busily working on the guidance and regs that are to accompany the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, determining the RFP process for the Race to the Top and trying to figure out how to disperse 40 some odd billion dollars to states without a system in place to cut some checks.  And then they need to focus on staffing, actually getting senior leadership in place to administer our existing federal education infrastructure.
Currently, the EdSec is riding a wave of popularity from the stimulus money and a current national focus on public education.  That wave can soon top off, though, if it isn’t backed up by new ideas, new policies, and new initiatives that move us from idea to action.  We need specifics to rally behind, specifics that call key stakeholders to action and can be put into place in ways that demonstrate real results out of the box.  Good speeches come and go.  Strong programs that improve the way our schools operate and our children learn last forever (or at least until the next administration).
Otherwise, it is just empty rhetoric at a time when we need real action.  The stimulus money was a start, but as every ED official reminds us, that is just a temporary, one-time thing.  It is time for ED to put its long-term policy stake in the ground, moving from words to action.

Presidential Rhetoric, Education-Style

The education game is on.  During last evening’s Presidential Address to Congress, President Obama dedicated significant time in his hour-long speech to the issue of education.  Such a commitment is typically unheard of in typical State of the Union addresses.  Often, a president will throw in a few sentences about education, one about the importance of teachers, one about the value of a college education, and then he will move onto to other issues more adept at capturing the hearts and minds of the American people.

Yes, Obama had a lot to say last night.  The economy, home ownership, energy, national security, healthcare.  All got their due.  And education was right in there as an A-list issue.  Clearly, the President sees the clear connect between an improved K-16 education system and an improved economy, how a strong education leads to good jobs and meaningful contribution.  He sees the next generation of the American workforce will require new levels of knowledge and skills that the generations before them never envisioned.  If anything, he made a clear and compassionate case for 21st century skills.
The full transcript from last night’s speech can be found here, though it is a much more impressive watch than it is a read: <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/documents/obama_address_022409.html?hpid=topnews
Of course, a significant potion of last night’s education segment was dedicated to higher education.  That should surprise no one.  For the past two years, Obama has spoken of postsecondary education as a primary pathway to life success.  He has pledged to get more kids to go to college, help them pay for it, and then use their talents in the community well after they earned that degree.  And in times of economic trouble, nothing hits the heart better than improving one’s lot in life through learning.  Challenging every American to seek at least one more year of education, whether it be in college or a vocational program, was a bold statement.  Stating that dropping out is never an option is always a crowd-pleaser.  And setting a goal of repositioning the United States as the nation with the highest percentage of postsecondary degree holders by 2020 is an interesting idea (though I’m curious to see how we are defining degrees and how we are equating simply earning the degree with effectively putting it to use).
A few points — some policy, some rhetoric — truly grabbed Eduflack’s attention.
On the policy front, the President made strong commitments to both charter schools and performance pay for teachers.  The latter should be no surprise.  Obama has long advocated for incentive pay, even during a tough primary knowing it may have cost him the support of teachers (or at least the teachers’ unions).  He hasn’t forgotten how important it can be to incentivize educators, particularly those in hard-to-staff communities facing real academic challenges.  By boosting funding for the Teacher Incentive Fund in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he has signaled that performance pay (and possibly differentiated pay scales) are on the horizon.  Perhaps he may even lean to newly minted U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado for some ideas on how to take Denver’s ProComp model to national scale.
On charters, the President put charter schools firmly in the center of his education improvement agenda.  Although he provided no specific details, just by singling them out he built a bridge to an important education community and showed his design for change, innovation, and improvement in our public schools.  It is almost hard to believe that a president or two ago, a Democrat couldn’t even utter the word charter without getting the ire of the education establishment.  For Eduflack, the question for the future is whether the Administration — particularly through the Office of Innovation and Improvement and the newly created Innovation Fund — will broadly define charter schools or whether they will take the new world view pushed by Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, limiting our commitment to charters to those that are run by not-for-profit organizations.
The final policy piece?  A renewed commitment to early childhood education.  The President made clear that student learning starts “from the day they are born to the day they begin a career,” and we need to redouble our efforts to deliver real instruction and real learning to children well before they hit kindergarten.  That got applause from Eduflack, but we probably need to retool the statement to address the reality that education continues well beyond the start of a career.  Just ask all of those most recently in the workforce who we are asking to retool, or those teachers for whom we are rightfully investing in improved, content-based professional development.  Learning should be a lifelong pursuit.
And the rhetoric?  As many pundits have already proclaimed, President Obama is clearly a master of the television medium.  He knows how to deliver a speech, and knows how to do it well with real impact.  In the education portion of our program, that was most clear in his articulation of the role of parents.  Again, this has been a key component of his stump speech, and a topic touched on during the Democratic Convention last summer.  He made crystal the job of educating our students is not just left to teachers, and that parents play an equally important role by being involved, taking an interest, and leading by example.  I still believe there is a real need for an Office of Family Involvement over at the U.S. Department of Education, an infrastructure that can harness the power of a wide range of communities and focus on how the home can supplement what is happening in the classroom.  If not an assistant secretary office someone at OESE, OPEPD, or OII needs to take it on as a priority cause.
In his remarks, it is also clear that Obama (and his speechwriters) are clear in their vision and passion for how one talks about higher education and its impact on the individual and the community.  What was interesting, though, is that the speechwriters still seem to be seeking and searching for that same confident voice on K-12 education.  Yes, there were applause line for things like charter schools and dropping out is never an option, but the passion and connectivity was lacking, at least compared with other sections of the speech.Obama didn’t sell the K-12 ideas as well as he did higher education or energy.  Maybe he wanted to stay away from NCLB, maybe he wants to give EdSec Arne Duncan a full latitude in establishing the agenda, or maybe he is still waiting to find that balance between the tried-and-true and innovation (or the status quoers and the reformers, as some prefer).  Over time, we have to hope that the K-12 section, particularly with regard to elementary grades and instructional building blocks becomes clear and a true rallying cry for school improvement.  To truly sell the vision, he needs to speak with confidence and authority on some of the details, particularly as it relates to instructional innovation.
What was missing?  In his discussion of how we can effectively use our educational infrastructure to improve our economy, I wish there was clear, specific mention of STEM education. When done well, STEM education is about well more than just 21st century skills.  It is exactly about equipping all students with the math, science, and technology knowledgebase they need to contribute to the economy and fill the very jobs Obama is looking to create.
I had also hoped to hear a call for national standards.  In talking about global economic competition, we not only need clear national academic standards, but we probably need to tie those to intern
ational benchmarks (as NGA, CCSSO, and Achieve have recently called for).  The Administration has been dipping its toe into the national standards pool, and the financial commitment to improve state data systems is a good step forward.  But the rhetorical nod to a single expectation for student achievement in the United States would have been a powerful, defining statement.
What fell flat?  The attempt to brand this new approach to P-16 as a “complete and competitive education.”  While I appreciate the attempt, I don’t think the concept holds the rhetorical power we both seek and need.  The Administration is looking for a way to improve on No Child Left Behind, both as a policy and as a rhetorical statement.  It may be a punchline to jokes now, but the phrase “no child left behind” wielded enormous power in the early days of the law. It meant something, particularly when combined with lines about the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Lines like “dropping out of high school is no longer an option” are good initial steps.  But we still need to capture an umbrella brand and a bumper sticker phrase to define what this new era of innovative public education really stands for.  Complete and competitive are nice attributes, but they aren’t the headline.  It may just be window dressing to some, but how we talk about federal policy and the labels we ascribe to it can be just as important — even more so — than what’s under the hood.  Obama captured much of the nation with his rhetoric of “Yes, we can.”  Now we need to move that into a “yes, we can educate all” mentality.