A Coalition of the Willing

As the new Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos possesses an incredible – and rare – opportunity to truly transform public education. Returning decisionmaking to states and localities. Empowering parents to get more involved in decisionmaking. New ways to better use existing federal dollars. The bully pulpit. All are valuable tools in reshaping the next generation of K-12 education.

If we have learned anything from education policy transformations, it is that the best of intents will fail if those idea come via fiat instead of through collaboration. How many times have we seen the latest and greatest of policies never fulfill their potential because educators, parents, or both weren’t part of the process that brought proposal to policy?

Real, lasting reform demands a coalition of the willing. It requires all corners to come together and buy into the goal – improving student learning and boosting student success – and work together to achieve it. And while it is impossible to have all sides agree on all details, at least if it is meaningful change, all sides are working as they best can to achieve, not undermine, that ultimate goal.

We can often forget that in education and education reform. The coalition of the willing is forgotten in the pursuit of being the smartest person in the room, and then assuming all will just follow. We fail to see that by not having teachers buy into the process, and instead have them see improvement as something happening to them, it becomes near impossible for them to embrace the change, own the change, and ultimately be responsible for the improved outcomes on the other side.

Sure, one can tinker in operational issues without having the teachers’ involvement, but it is impossible to have real impact on the teaching and learning in the classroom without having educators – and parents – at the table helping plot the course to a shared destination.

Despite all of the vitriol and all of the negativity directed at her in recent months, DeVos now has an opportunity to assemble that coalition of the willing. While many may be concerned by her laser-like focus on school choice, few can question DeVos’ lifelong commitment to provide better, stronger opportunities to kids, particularly for students in need. And few can question her embrace of parents in educational decisionmaking. That provides something to build on.

If we can all agree on that ultimate goal: a strong education for all kids – regardless of race, family income, or zip code – maybe, just maybe, we can agree to try to work together on how we get there.

The next move belongs to the new Education Secretary. She has the opportunity to reach out and bring together a coalition that, while unsure, is willing to try. DeVos has the chance to extend an olive branch and work with parents and teachers to plot that new course. And they have a chance to accept it.

In the process, DeVos has the ability to both empower teachers and better involve families. She has the ability to truly transform teaching and learning for all, instead of just tinkering around the edges.

The big question now is whether the EdSec will take that chance. It is incredibly easy to talk to one’s friends on agreed upon issues. Impact only comes by engaging with your perceived opponents to find some common ground to make the positive changes that could impact generations of learners.

 

Where is Fatherhood?

When it comes to fatherhood, where are we exactly? Where are we on work/life balance? Where are we on the different types of dads, including part-time ones? Where are we when it comes to traditional gender roles? Where are we?

A lot of questions, and all requiring long, complicated answers from sociologists, answers that likely result in far more additional questions than they do in conclusions. Yet it is a topic that we tried to tackle today at the Dad 2.0 Summit in San Diego.

I was fortunate to be joined in this discussion by Brian Heilman of Promundo, Eric Snow of WatchDOGS, and Jonathan Stern of fatherly. We were also incredibly lucky to have such a terrific crowd that offered thought-provoking questions and personal experiences to spur the conversation.

This was my first time out at Dad 2.0. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but was eager to hear how my own view of fatherhood fit in with some of these national discussions. From the get go, I was amazed by the energy, the passion, and the positivity of the 500 or so folks (can’t say men as there were a number of women in attendance this weekend as well). 

It was incredibly valuable to hear about WatchDOGS and its work to get fathers more involved in their kids’ schools. I’m always shocked when I hear about schools celebrating and throwing parties just because a dad was volunteering that day. It’s like a dad in a public school is akin to finding that rainbow unicorn.

My role, aside from serving as some comic relief, quickly came into sight for me. I am a father, yes. But I am a white father of Latino kids, seeking to make sure their heritage remains an important part of their lives. I am a working dad doing everything possible to share the responsibilities on the home front. I am a feminist dad, committed to ensuring my daughter (and my son) can do and be just about anything that she wants to do. And I am an activist dad, determined that as great as it is to talk and discuss many of the issues found at Dad 2.0, it is far more important to take action and have clear goals that demonstrate the progress a modern fatherhood movement can make.

Not surprisingly, I also think I am the only dad in a crowd of hundreds who goes with his daughter to the salon every month for pedicures, complete with full polish.

A big thank you to the sponsors who make events like this possible. It’s terrific to realize that products you use every day are supportive of some of the social issues you care about. So thanks in particular to Dove Men Care (@DoveMenCare, #RealStrength), Facebook (@Facebook, #FBDad), and Russell Athletic (#Dadlete).

Kudos to Dad 2.0 for putting together such an incredible event. This newbie is excited for what is to come. 

A Steady Hand for Trump EdSec

Last month, Eduflack wrote about his dream, that the next U.S. President would select a family advocate as the next Education Secretary. Now that the election dust has settled and we start to see the names being put forward as possible EdSecs in President-elect Trump’s administration, I become a realist. We may not get a parental engagement beacon as EdSec, but I can still hope for a new assistant secretary for family and community engagement, can’t I?

So it begs the question, who will become the next EdSec? The current parlor games have “sexy” candidates like Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz or former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee dominating headlines. School choice advocates like Betsy DeVos and Jeanne Allen are also frequently mentioned. Former state chiefs like Gerard Robinson (of VA and FL) and Tony Bennett (IN and FL) also gain mention. In fact, of all those who have been mentioned, only surgeon Ben Carson seems to have taken himself out of the running.

What do we make of all this? If we look to when Trump selected a vice president, most folks were willing to bet that either New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich were jockeying for the number two slot. It wasn’t until the final hours that some started seeing Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as a possibility.

We know that Donald Trump likes to be the big dog. That means an EdSec who dominates the spotlight (and the media coverage) is likely not what he is looking for. We know he believes in state and local control, so a DC power broker seems unlikely. And we know that education is not likely a top concern of the Trump administration, so ED needs a steady hand that understands policy, can work with the Hill, and can get things done without too much drama.

Or more simply, ED needs an adult who both understands how a bureaucracy like the Education Department operates, who knows how to get the most out of all the career employees embedded over on Maryland Avenue, yet understands how and why to continue to push decisions and actions to the states.

With all that, the Eduflack shortlist for EdSec includes:

Bill Evers – Evers is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He was assistant secretary of education for policy in the George W. Bush administration. Evers served on several academic standards commissions in California and is a former elected board of education member and charter school board member.

Bill Hansen – Currently the President and CEO of USA Funds, Hansen was the deputy secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration. He brings significant private sector education experience, while serving on state education commissions in Virginia. Hansen brings a mix of both K-12 and higher education experience.

Hanna Skandera – Skandera has severed as New Mexico’s Secretary of Education since 2010. She was previously Florida’s deputy commissioner of education, undersecretary of education in California, and as a senior policy advisor and deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education.

While I could keep going, listing a number of congressmen, governors, university presidents, and corporate executives, I couldn’t say any of them would be better choices than one of these three. Each are steeped in K-12 and higher education knowledge. Each understand the federal/state/local balance. And each is a workhorse, unlikely to upstage the boss on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Who am I missing?

BAM! Listen Up!

Over at BAM Education Radio, I’m the guest on two recent shows that look at the intersection between politics, rhetoric, and the classroom.

Most recently, I guested on Jon Harper’s show, My Bad, where we talked about being biased and judgmental, and how we can move beyond that to actually achieve some real progress. I reflected on my time serving on a local school board, and entering discussions with some preconceived notions about some of the constituencies I represented.

I also joined Brad Gustafson and Ben Gilpin on TweetED, where we spoke specifically about how to deal with politics in the classroom, whether that politics is brought in by the teacher, the student, or the parent.

Both are great shows (and are great because of their respective hosts, not because of their poor choice in guests). But give them a listen and a like. You won’t be disappointed.

 

A Family Engagement Advocate for EdSec!

Last week, Education Week published an interesting look ahead at what could be when a new Education Secretary is selected. In her piece, the always terrific Alyson Klein asks what might be if Hillary Clinton bucked tradition and selected, as her next U.S. secretary of education, an individual coming from the higher education side of the realm.

Historically, we are used to EdSecs coming from the K-12 perspective. That’s definitely true of the past four, with Rod Paige, Margaret Spellings, Arne Duncan, and the current EdSec John King all cutting their teeth on the mean streets of K-12. Before that, we had governors like Dick Riley and Lamar Alexander, who brought a policy perspective but whose educational lens — due to the nature of a state chief exec — was far more primary/secondary ed than higher education.

Sure, it is fun to throw out names and rank this state chief over that urban superintendent over this university president over that former governor or congressman, to talk about who the unions will give an approval to versus who some of the big money reform donors can live with. It can even be interesting to envision what an EdSec with a higher ed focus might bring to the bully pulpit when it comes to topics like student loans, for-profit education, and even the threatened reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

But what if maybe, just maybe, we went in a different direction? What if instead of looking at the two sides of the coin — P-12 and higher ed — we instead looked at the ridged edge that brings the heads and tails together? What if we took the cabinet search in a completely different direction, and instead looked for a parent voice, a family engagement advocate who could talk with some authority on the full continuum, from early childhood education through adult professional learning and all points in between?

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on the value of high-quality early childhood and the linkages between health and education …

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on K-12 issues well beyond “the test” and instead key in on what students should know and be able to do to succeed and how families can be a part of the learning process along with educators …

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on higher education issues, bringing real-life experiences to fights over student loans, free college, and gainful employment …

Imagine a family engagement voice who could lead on the role continuing education plays after finishing formal P-16 pathways, or about the importance of career and technical education, or about how education and labor can work together to address workforce readiness issues …

There is a reason groups like the National Assessment Governing Board insist of having specific parent voices on their boards. Parent and family advocates bring a particular focus to a range of education policy issues. They can be the link between practitioner and policymaker. And they can ensure the work focuses on both the inputs and the outcomes, with every action focused on how it impacts the learner.

Sure, we’ve had discreet projects like the Parent Information Resource Centers (PIRCs) that sought to give voice to such parents. And sure, a new EdSec could always appoint a special advisor for family engagement. But such an appointment can be empty. Without a formal voice, and without a formal budget, those special advisors can be hamstrung from bringing the best of ideas into practice.

So let’s forget this East Coast/West Coast style battle of K-12 and higher ed. Instead, let’s look to place the first honest-to-goodness parent advocate in the biggest chair on 400 Maryland Avenue. Let’s give the rostrum to a family voice who can work with teacher and policymaker alike, one who can see that P, K-12, and higher ed are deeply connected and should never be separated.

And if we can’t have such an EdSec, and we have to fall back on tradition, can that new EdSec at least create a new Assistant Secretary for Family Engagement position? Please? Pretty please?

 

The Trump-ization of Local Edu-Politics

When Eduflack first ran for local school board six years ago, I remember questioning my own sanity. I spent countless hours knocking on doors, wanting to talk education policy with voters who just weren’t looking for such deep dives. Instead, they just wanted the promise that our schools would stay as strong as they had been, that taxes wouldn’t grow astronomically, and that their kids would continue to have the same opportunities that students before them did. They wanted soundbite politics, like they got in other political campaigns.

As a member of the Falls Church (VA) Public Schools Board, I served as both vice chair and chairman. I spent almost as much time working with the public and the schools as I did in my day job. Much of that time was spent talking with families about their own experiences and challenges. And much of it was informing the community of the limited role of a local school board – to approve an annual budget, to hire a superintendent (if necessary), and to review the performance of said superintendent each year. Many failed to realize that a good school board member was one who let the superintendent, the administrators, the principals, and the teachers do their respective jobs. It was to provide the resources to those entrusted with our kids; it wasn’t to micromanage every action, every decision, and every thought that occurred in the district.

I was reminded of this last week in seeing the horrible actions coming out of Bridgeport, CT, where an exemplary superintendent by just about all measures resigned from a challenging urban district. There, the supe didn’t resign because she received a better job elsewhere, or because she struggled managing the budget, or even because of test scores or student behavior issues. No, she resigned because of the school board. One particular board member, actually. There, a member of the board of education dramatically overstepped her role, and  allegedly made it her mission to regularly harass and malign a superintendent who was doing a strong job. Playing the role of the bully, the school board member has now dealt a painful blow to every child and every teacher in that district.

I’d like to chalk it up to a once-in-a-blue-moon experience, but I hear too many stories of school board members who fail to understand their roles, seeing the board as an opportunity to stick it to a supe they disagree with or dislike, or general seeing board service as a stepping stone to world domination. In many of these instances, we see local school board races now taking on the tone, tenor, and vitriol of a Donald Trump presidential campaign, with those seeking a school board seat hurling insults, falsehoods, and blame, all in the hope of securing a job that pays nothing and demands long, thankless hours.

In fact, I’m seeing such a Trump-istation of local edu-politics in my own local school district in New Jersey. Earlier this year, Eduflack wrote about the growing discord in my community on the future of our highly rated public schools. That community infighting has now spilled into next month’s school board election, with some candidates doing their very best to “make WW-P schools great again.”

Most communities would celebrate being a high-ranking school district, particularly in a competitive state like New Jersey. According to the most recent high school ratings in NJ Monthly, our community’s two high schools are ranked number 2 and number 9 in the state. Yet we have two candidates, running as a ticket for school board, condemning the current district leadership for “lowered educational standards and learning.” As an “example” of such mismanagement, they note that “High School South was always ranked in the top 10 high schools in NJ. Now South is ranked 35.”

It’s a terrific soundbite for two candidates seeking to run as change agents and against the system. It’s also a soundbite that warrants four Pinocchios by any political fact checker. That 35th-ranked high school is actually the ninth best high school in the state. But we shouldn’t let the facts get in the way, should we?

This Trumpian duo is also quick to attack “teacher resignations,” noting that educators leaving the job are a reflection that “teachers are unhappy, and leaving in droves.” Of course, these highly educated individuals don’t note how many of those teacher resignations are actually retirements, earned by teachers after decades of service. And they certainly don’t note that many teachers postponed retirement after the collapse of markets (and retirement plans) in 2008, and that we just happen to see the markets now back up to pre-2008 levels. Such distinctions just muddy a good “damn the establishment” talking point.

Sadly, the campaign has also taken on the tenor of a Trump rally, as the two look to scapegoat and blame others for perceived wrongs. The superintendent is to blame for focusing on social-emotional learning and the whole child, and is regularly attacked because he — <shudder> — actually hires administrators to help manage a complex district. The state is to blame for taking away “final exams,” (yes, they are actually campaigning to “restore final exams.”) Technology is blamed for many of our ills, with the added wrinkle of the candidates wanting to “focus on children as individual learners,” but failing to note the very reason technology is used as part of a strong personalized learning program in a district like ours.

The most egregious of the attacks and scapegoating is directed at supposed bleeding heart parents who are concerned about the mental health and general well being of their kids and of students throughout the district. These candidates and those who stand up for him actually have attacked the notion AP classes should be available to all those who wish to do the work. Instead, they say it should just be for the elite of the elite.  The candidates accuse misguided parents for watering down the AP program and costing kids like theirs a chance to get into Harvard or Princeton. The candidates allege that our community has so destroyed the value of AP classes that’s 80 percent of the district’s students are in honors language arts classes, when the actual number is half that (just 40 percent). I guess it is just far easier to attack “those kids” who are devaluing honors classes and denying “our kids” what is rightfully theirs.

Typically, Eduflack chooses to stay out of such local education politics, wanting to keep my views to myself. It’s a tough job serving on a local school board. Those who choose to pursue such public service have to do it eyes wide open, for the right reasons. They have to do so seeking to speak for the community and do whatever is necessary to support a superintendent and all of those who work for the school district. And they have to do so fully not understanding what is — and what is not — the appropriate role for a school board member.

So it is unfortunate when one sees the negativity, blame, and vitriol playing out on the national presidential campaign stage seep into the local edu-politics in a community that would be the envy of most cities and towns across the United States. It is sad to see candidates put forward incomplete stories, whispered innuendo, and downright falsehoods to try to justify a narrative of a school system in crisis. And it is disheartening to see individuals try to heighten an “us versus them” thinking in a community where all should be focused on our kids, what we do well, and how we can do it even better TOGETHER.

Hopefully, such political shenanigans are an anomaly. Hopefully, we see that positivity trumps negativity and that a “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy beats out “they are out to deny us what is ours” approach. Hopefully, we put the interests of kids above the personal grievances and petty politics of the adults in the room. Hopefully.

But the recent actions in Bridgeport tell us that “hopefully” isn’t a synonym for likely. Sadly, we may soon see many more Donald Trumps in waiting using local school boards to practice the politics of blame, negativity, hatred, and lies to forward their own personal agendas. And it will be great superintendents, exemplary educators, and our own kids who will ultimately pay the price.

The New PDK Poll is Here, the New #PDKPoll is Here!

Last week, the good folks at PDK released the results of the 48th Annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. So what do we think?

The most interesting number each year is how we grade public schools. In 1974, 48% of Americans gave their local schools an A or B grade. Today … 48% are still giving As and Bs to their local schools. The grade for our nation’s schools as a whole doesn’t fair nearly as well, with only 24% giving As and Bs to the nation, but that’s on par with grades over the past three or so decades. (Good thing ESSA is handing over authority from the federal to the localities, huh?)

On the purpose of education, 45% of those surveyed say the purpose is to prepare students academically, 26% say its to prepare students to be good citizens, and 25% say its to prepare students for work. So despite recent-year pushbacks, it seems school ensuring all kids are “college and career ready” is winning the day.

When evaluating the public schools, parents offer a significantly higher opinion on what’s happening than non-parents. Whether its providing factual evidence (47-37), preparing students to work well in groups (43-33), or enhancing critical thinking (36-28), those adults closer to the learners in the classroom are far more likely to say local public schools are doing extremely or very well.

When it comes to learning standards, only 7% think standards are too high, while 43% say current standards are too low. Interestingly, “too low” scores high with urban residents, adults in households earning more than $100,000 a year, and Republicans/conservatives.

Those surveyed still see “lack of financial support” the top problem facing local public schools, coming in at 19%. That’s more than double “lack of discipline” or “concerns about quality,” and almost three times the number who worry about the “quality of teachers.”

Continuing on the money trend, there were a few head scratchers. Of those who were confident higher taxes will help schools improve, nearly 30% said they oppose raising such taxes. And of those not confident higher taxes can result in school improvement, more than a third (35%) said they would support increased property taxes for the purpose. And if those taxes are raised, 34% of all those surveyed want to see it go to teachers.

When presented with an “either/or” decision on ideas to improve the schools, those surveyed:

  • Overwhelming supported more career-technical or skill based classes (68%) over more honors classes (20%)
  • Leaned toward raising teacher salaries (50%) over hiring more teachers (40%), even though smaller classes beat larger classes 51-40
  • Emphasizing more “traditional teaching” and using more technology battled to a draw, 43 all

The full survey results, found here, are definitely worth the read. Of particular interest for all should be a deep dive into thoughts on parent/school communications.

What does this all tell us? The public’s perceptions of public schools, both locally and nationally, aren’t as bad as many have made them out to be in recent years. Like our collective test scores on NAEP and international benchmarks, it seems our views — good or bad — about the schools have largely stagnated. Even with all of the ugliness in recent years about Common Core and testing, things are pretty much holding constant.

More importantly, we see those closer to the classroom — the parents — have more positive views on what is happening. And those parents are eager and hungry for additional information and greater interaction with their public schools.

While there is a lot to parse here, and many will cherrypick those data points that prove their own beliefs (or disprove the thoughts of those they rail against), the PDK poll provides an important foundation for discussion on where we are, where we are headed, and where we want to be.

(Full disclosure, Eduflack served, proudly, as a member of the PDK Poll Advisory Board this year.)