Golden Reading Results in the Golden State

For the past few weeks, Eduflack has been heartened to hear that the Obama Administration and EdSec Duncan are behind a continued federal commitment to reading instruction.  Yes, we all know that there were severe implementation problems with Reading First, and that such problems have led many a RF critic to demand the defunding of the program and the dismantling of our promise to do what works when it comes to reading, empowering every child with the gift of literacy.

Anyone who has read this blog for more than a week or two knows about my commitment to scientifically based reading.  A few weeks ago, I laid out a basic plan for how the Obama Administration can use the best of Reading First, while learning from its failures, to build a better federal reading effort.  You can see the full thought here — blog.eduflack.com/2009/01/27/whats-next-for-federal-reading.aspx  
I’ve spent much of the past three years or so talking about the need to save RF.  Many times, I’m asked why.  Look at the IG investigation, I’m told.  Look at the IES study.  Look at the fights scientifically based reading research has caused.  Why would we want to save this?  For one simple reason.  It works.  And our kids are too important not to invest in what is proven effective and not to ensure that our teachers are using the very best instructional methods and have access to the most effective PD (rather than the hot flavor of the month or what a salesman is selling on that particular day).
Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education released a study that showed the effectiveness of Reading First.  Contrary to the IES study, this Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (OPEPD) study demonstrated real results of evidence-based reading in RF and non-RF classrooms alike.  We’ve talked about the data in Idaho and Ohio and other states that have benefited from an influx of federal reading money and a commitment to proven-effective instruction and professional development.  Now we have even more to talk about.
For those doubting Thomases out there, take a look at the latest research out of the great state of California.  Released more than a month ago, the California Reading First Year 6 Evaluation Report hasn’t gotten much attention (particularly here in our nation’s capital).  But it is worthy of the spotlight.
This is not just a water droplet in the great pool that is education improvement.  This study looks at data involving 157,951 students; 16,442 teachers, coaches, and administrators, 850 schools, and 110 school districts across California.  What did the good researchers out on the West Coast find?  Among the conclusions:  
1) Reading First has had a significant impact on student achievement in California.
2) The Reading First effect is meaningful.
3) Reading growth remains significant.
4) The Reading First effect generalizes across student performance levels.
5) Reading First significantly impacts grades 4 and 5 performance.
6) The Reading First effect generalizes to English learners.
7) Implementation of Reading First principles remains adequate but could be higher.
8) Principal participation and teacher program evaluations are strong predictors of achievement.
9) The Reading First program has led to the development of a sustainable, well-integrated structure and process of providing reading/language arts instruction in California.
10) Most special education teachers use their district’s adopted reading/language arts curriculum.
11) Schools have not yet begun to implement Response-to-Intervention (RtI)
The full report can be found here: www.eddata.com/resources/publications/RF_Evaluation_2007-2008.pdf       

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So why is this important, other than the obvious that with so much RF money spent in California that it is good to see it has been put to good use and has provided?  It provides us with some valuable lessons as we consider how to build the next generation of federal reading instruction efforts.
First, evidence-based instruction works.  It has had an impact across California on virtually all student demographics, including special education and ELLs.  And despite the findings of IES, it is effective with the later elementary grades (as evidenced by its impact on California fourth and fifth graders).
Second, we have clear room for implementation improvement.  California achieved these results while acknowledging that fidelity to the principles could be better.  One can only imagine the true, measured impact if every one of those 850 schools had adopted RF completely and with absolute fidelity.
Third, educators are the key to effectiveness.  Principal and teacher involvement is a predictor of achievement.  There was a reason that up to 25 percent of RF money was intended for professional development.  It was to ensure those involved teachers put the full power of the research to use in their classrooms.  When they do, the results follow.
Fourth, RtI — seen by many an education profiteer as the next great profit center — still has not taken hold in California.  And if it hasn’t taken hold in Cali, it will be slow to truly go to scale across the nation.
Finally, we need federally supported reading instruction based on the core principles of proven research and effective, content-based professional development.  OPEPD showed us that the heart of RF was having a lasting, positive impact on our schools, whether they receive RF money or not.  Data from states like Ohio and now California show the power that evidence-based reading can have on student achievement.  Now is the time to build on those successes, documenting best practice, continuing to train teachers, and getting our classrooms the instructional materials and resources they need to teach reading effectively.
Yes, Reading First is dead (and deservedly so because of its implementation problems, perceptions of programmatic favoritism, and the opportunity for profiteers to sell snake oil under the guise of research).  But now is the time to open up that last will and testament, see what the law has left for policymakers (federal and state), teachers, and students, and use that inheritance to build a better, stronger, more effective program for our nation’s classrooms.  Our work is not done until every child is reading at grade level.  And we still have a long way to go before we get there.  Thankfully, California and others are leaving us the trail markers to help us get to our ultimate destination.

Trying to Win the Hearts and Minds of DC Teachers

The fight over the future of Washington, DC’s public schools continues.  For more than a year now, DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee has worked to secure buy-in for a new plan to incentivize teachers, all but eliminating the traditional tenure system that has long dominated our K-12 systems and replace it with a new meritocracy that increases teachers pay, but has been tagged with taking away their job security and current collective bargaining protections.

The battle has reached the stage when AFT President Randi Weingarten (she being the president of the NATIONAL American Federation of Teachers, not the DC chapter) has stepped in to serve as the primary spokesperson for DC teachers in this debate.
In this morning’s pages of The Washington Post, Rhee issues the latest volley in the ongoing tennis match regarding the future of DCPS teachers.  The op-ed is most cogent and compelling explanation of Rhee’s plans yet, and can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/08/AR2009020801711.html  
In her piece, Rhee seeks, rhetorically, to do two things.  First, she clearly aligns her long-term goals with DCPS to the long-term education goals of the Obama Administration.  She breaks her teacher plan down into five key areas — individual choice (teacher empowerment), measuring excellence (multiple measures of school performance), growth model for achievement (teachers aren’t expected to do everything and show success in one academic year), protection from arbitrary firings (saving teachers from principal firings), and professional development and support.  Essentially, if you like the President’s plans for education spending on the campaign trail and in the economic stimulus package, you should love what Rhee is attempting.
Second, Rhee is trying to portray herself as the true protector of the DC teacher.  Month after month, we have heard how DCPS is arbitrarily firing principals and teachers as part of its long-term plan (such stories may be unfair, but they are now a regular part of the dialogue).  She boldly proclaims that her plan is designed to protect teachers from such firings, stating that too many DC teachers are living in fear of being fired by their principals for non-performance reasons.  This was a new concern for me.
The piece is well written and chock full of informational nuggets.  But it begs one large question for Eduflack — who is the intended audience?  Clearly, this was not written for the DCPS teacher.  The content and tone is written as if Rhee is trying to explain the deeply rooted beliefs of DCPS educators to others.  So who is it for?  Is this truly a volley over to Weingarten, awaiting her return?  If so, this volley is likely to be returned with a decisive forehand, speaking on behalf of the “real” DCPS teacher.  Is it intended for the national education blob, carving out a new view on a stalled staffing plan?  Or is it a reminder to the DC policy community that Rhee is indeed relevant in this new administration, even with a new “top superintendent” at the helm over on Maryland Avenue?
Time will tell about the effectiveness of this latest missive.  Rhee still has miles to go if she is going to win over the hearts and minds of her teachers.  Focusing on teacher empowerment, professional development, and the need for longitudinal measures of teacher effectiveness is a good way to start.  Trying to position the elimination of tenure as a way to prevent arbitrary firings by principals, though is a head-scratcher.  At this point, I have to believe DC’s teachers trust their principals more than their central office.
But Rhee has laid out new parameters by which to measure and reward teacher performance.  This is more than just a score on the annual high-stakes test.  She’s planning on multiple uses for good data, including teacher achievement and educator needs.  That may be just what urban school districts need, particularly as the feds look to new data systems and multiple evaluation measures.
The ball is now in AFT’s court.  Weingarten can gently return the volley, seeking to build a dialogue on what beliefs she and Rhee hold in common, or she can return the ball down DCPS’ throat, putting teachers and their protection first and foremost.  Game on!

A “Develop”ing Interest in Teachers

“We must do more with the talent we have,” said NSDC Executive Director Stephanie Hirsh.  “Nothing is more important than teacher quality,” EdSec Arne Duncan said.  “We must close the yawning achieving gap in this country,” said Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond.  With the statements of all three, we were off to the races on the issue of teacher quality and professional development this morning.

The setting was a briefing hosted by the National Staff Development Council, unveiling their most recent research (led by Darling-Hammond and her School Redesign Network) on the state of teacher development.  The takeaway was simple.  The current state of teacher professional development is severely lacking, particularly as federal and state requirements and expectations continue to grow.  Earth-shattering, no.  But the findings serve as a strong insight into what may be coming down the pike.
If anything, the past era in federal education policy has been one about research.  The need for data.  The definition of good data (and of bad).  And the most stringent of means by which to go about collecting it.  The new era seems to be one of successfully applying that research so it gets to the rank-and-file policymaker and practitioner.  What do we do with data once we have it?  How do we use it to effectively close the achievement gap?  How do we use it to improve student and teacher performance?  How do we use it to grow, to improve, and to generally do better?
Yes, the research data was mostly qualitative.  Yes, we still have a lot of unanswered questions about the correlations between strong teacher PD and student achievement.  But NSDC provided some interesting points to get this new discussion on teacher development started, and they were points heard by the EdSec, by CCSSO chief Gene Wilhoit, and by the many who are looking for details into how to train, retain, and support good teachers in every classroom.
The full report can be found at www.nsdc.org/stateproflearning.cfm.  The highlights, at least according to Eduflack, include:
* “Drive-by” or “dump-and-run” professional development doesn’t cut it, at least not in this time of accountability.  Meaningful PD must be ongoing, content-based, and embedded as part of the learning day.
* According to the data we do have, the right PD can improve student achievement.  
* That said, we need to improve the linkages between teaching and student learning.
* We need experimental research into teacher professional development, particularly in subjects other than math and science.
* Our students are slipping in international measures, in part, because of our professional development opportunities.  Our competitors — particularly those in Southeast Asia — are just investing more time, effort, money, and thought into high-quality PD that has a direct impact on student learning and performance.  They are taking advantage of our water-treading for the past decade.
* We need to increase both the quantity and the quality of PD offered to teachers, particularly those who are entering the profession.
* At the end of the day, improved professional development (particularly in-service) is key to achieving our educational goals.
Information is nice, using it effectively is even better.  As CCSSO’s Wilhoit pointed out, the challenge we face is how do we move from good ideas to better practice?  Particularly as it relates to state policy, how do we take these data points and build a better teacher development and support network, a network offering the ongoing PD, measuring its effectiveness, and ensuring that all teachers are getting the support and professional learning opportunities they need to do their jobs well?
Some good ideas were offered by the experts this morning, including:
* We need to create levers and investments in Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education act to support the features of effective professional development
* We need to invest in rigorous studies of professional learning in relation to student achievement.
* We need to participate in OECD studies of teaching, teacher development, and student learning.
As always, Eduflack has a few other ideas to add to the mix:
* When it comes to PD, all means all.  All teachers (and principals for that matter) need ongoing, content-based, job-embedded professional learning opportunities.  No exceptions.
* We need to align learning goals (as measured by state assessments) with teaching goals.  Every teacher should not only know what is expected of their classes on the state tests, but they should be given the tools and training to deliver.
* Every teacher in the United States should receive specific, content-based PD in reading instruction.  Reading is an issue that affects every teacher, whether you are ELA, math, social studies, or science.  With more than a third of fourth graders still reading below grade level, every teacher needs the knowledgebase to provide the interventions needed to get students reading and engage them in the written word outside of English class.
* We need to incentivize best teaching, through general performance pay provisions and federal efforts such as the Teacher Incentive Fund.  As part of such efforts, we need to document, share, and learn from best practice.  Those schools that are exceeding AYP expectations (particularly those rewarded for it) should be mentoring those schools that are struggling at it.  Such a learning loop should be required as part of any incentive program.
*  And while we are collaborating, we need to use what we know about social networking and online communities to build virtual networks for teachers to share and learn.  How do rural teachers gain best practices from other rural teachers?  What can urban teachers in Detroit learn from their brethren in Atlanta or Los Angeles?  How do we capture best practices so that we can literally see it (via video) happen in classes like ours with kids like ours?  As the teaching profession grows younger and more technologically savvy, such online communities are going to be core to professional learning and development.  Such social networking is the only way we can deliver high-quality, impactful PD at scale to all teachers, urban, suburban, and rural (particularly with our incoming federal investment in school technology).
* We need to focus high-quality PD on those who need it most, particularly schools in urban areas and teachers of ELLs and special education students.  They are the teachers who have fallen through the cracks the most severely, and they are the ones who can most benefit from it today.
* Such PD activities are a shared responsibility.  The feds set the priorities and lay out some of the funding to make it happen.  The states take those priorities and develop specific programs that align with federal expectations yet specifically meet state standards.  Then the districts become the implementers supreme, delivering the right programs to the all teachers, while feeding content and outcomes back to other districts, the state, and the feds to create an ongoing feedback and improvement loop for PD.
No, this isn’t rocket science.  We all know that a well-trained, well-supported, empowered teacher will be more effective than a have not.  We know that ongoing, content-based PD can have a direct impact on teacher quality and student achievement.  We know teaching can’t improve through a drive-by workshop at the start of the school year or a half-day seminar offered twice a year following a half day of teaching.  We know we can do it, we know some are doing it, we just need to figure out how to package it and deliver it to all.  
When it comes to PD, so much time is focused on the pre-service side of the coin, ensuring that every teacher entering the classroom is highly qualified and certified to teach the subject matter.  Two important traits, yes.  But the hard word begins after the certificate is awarded and the classrooms are assigned.  NCLB talked about and offered funding for PD (heck, up to 25% of the billions spent on Reading First was intended for content-based professional development), but little was done to ensure the funds were spent right, the programs delivered correctly, and the outcomes documented effectively.  High marks for intent, low marks for follow through.
EdSec Duncan, along with his colleagues on Maryland Avenue and the crew down on Pennsylvania Avenue, has made it crystal clear that teachers are the gateway to school improvement (and to our general economic and social strength).  “We must dramatically increase our investment in teachers, and do it systemically,” Duncan said today.  Amen.  We also must make sure that investment is delivering real return on investment.  That means doing the scientific research to demonstrate the real linkages between PD and student achievement.  That means content-based PD that is delivered in the appropriate context to meet the needs of today’s teachers.  And that means empowering teachers so they are leading in their classroom.
A new era is here indeed.  We just need to ensure we maximize the opportunities, transform good ideas into great policies, and ensure we are having a real, measurable impact.
   

Keepin’ Tuesday Interesting

The education headlines continue to pile in today, and most of them aren’t focused on nominations at the U.S. Department of Education nor the education implications of the economic stimulus bill.  Some ideas to consider:

Further Proof We Need National Education Standards
Over in Kentucky, legislators are looking to rewrite the state’s reading and math school standards, seeking to improve student proficiency by reducing the number of state standards they are held to.  A noble intent, particularly when it is intended to address remedial needs in postsecondary education, but by now, you’d think every state would understand core academic standards.  Our focus should be on delivering the proven-effective instruction in math and science and equipping teachers with the materials and supports they need to get the job done.  This seems like a side step when so many are calling for a large step forward.
Refocusing on Teaching
By now, we all should recognize the importance of the classroom teacher in school improvement and the need to provide those teachers ongoing, content-focused professional development.  And with expectations for our schools, teachers, and students growing higher and higher, one would think PD would gain greater attention from the education system.  But in Iowa, teachers are struggling to find the time they need for professional development.
A Little College Help
We often hear how the job of K-12 education is complete once graduation day finally arrives.  Over in Indianapolis, though, educators seem to take their commitment to boost the college-going rate just a little more seriously.  Imagine, high schools providing guidance counselors to recent high school graduates, to help them adjust to the challenges and rigors of postsecondary education.  It’s true, at least for those who attended Indianapolis Metropolitan High School.
Learnin’ the Language
While the focus on school improvement grows larger and larger with each passing week, there is still little discussion about the issue of English Language Learners.  Seems the National Association of Bilingual Education, through its former ED James Lyons, is trying to change that, talking up the need for greater ELL focus in national education policy.
Wire Me Up
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 25 percent of adults in the United States do not use the Internet.  While we expect the vast majority of those individuals are older Americans, one has to ask, how many parents of school-aged children are disconnected at home?

What’s Next for Federal Reading?

For decades now, the federal government has made teaching children to read a national priority.  Reading First is just the latest iteration of this commitment.  The Reading Excellence Act came before it, with other federal efforts before REA.  That’s why Eduflack is always surprised when he hears from reading advocates who are gravely concerned that federal investment in reading instruction will grind to a halt this year when RF ends.

Let’s be perfectly clear.  Reading First is dead.  There is no political will to continue this program, particularly with the baggage it carries.  RF has been tarred, feathered, and paraded through the town square as an example of poor government implementation and of questionable outcomes at best.  But that doesn’t mean the program, at least as it was originally envisioned in 2001, does not offer some strong instructional components upon which a better, stronger, more effective reading effort can be constructed.
To get us started, we need to drop Reading First from our vocabulary.  Call it “Yes We Can Read,” “And Reading For All,” “Literacy for America,” or anything else that will capture the hearts and minds of countless schools and families looking for literacy skills to improve their lots in life and close the achievement gaps in their schools.  (And while we are on the topic, no one in the Administration should utter the words No Child Left Behind or NCLB from this point forward.  That was the old regime.  As we focus on reauthorization and improving the law, let’s stick to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, until we come up with a stronger brand for our overall federal education policy.)
So how do we do it?  What are the core components of “Yes We Can Read” that redouble our national commitment to ensuring every student is equipped with the literacy skills to read at grade level, particularly by fourth grade?  How do we ensure that every child –regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or neighborhood — becomes a skilled, able reader?
Working from the strongest and best of RF — those components that have reading teachers, state RF directors, and a host of other stakeholders excited about reading instruction and certain that they are making the reading gains originally intended — we can build that better reading program by focusing on five key components:
1) Continue the commitment to scientifically based reading.  RF turned a new page on education research, how it is defined, and how it is applied.  It is important that any new education programs continue to rely on science as part of its policy.  We need to make sure we are doing what is proven effective.  If we expect to demonstrate return on investment, we must ensure our federal dollars are being spent on efforts that work.  That means demonstrating a strong scientific base.  We cannot lose sight of that.  But we must also broaden our view of that proven research base.  To date, we’ve been governing under rule of the National Reading Panel report.  That is a strong start.  But there is more to SBRR than just the NRP.  The National Research Council’s Reading Difficulties report, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Reading Next study, the AFT’s Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, and even the recent National Early Literacy Panel findings all contribute to the scientifically based reading base we must build upon.  If it is good, replicable research, we must include it into the equation.
2) We need to broaden our spectrum.  RF was built as an elementary school reading program, believing we could catch all kids and get them reading proficient by fourth grade.  Today, more than a third of our fourth graders are still reading below grade level.  We have millions of kids in danger of falling through the cracks.  Our federal reading program must be a P-12 reading initiative.  We need to start with the best of what was found in Early Reading First, ensuring our early childhood education efforts are empowering our students with early literacy skills.  We continue that through the elementary grades.  And then we move it through the middle grades and our secondary schools.  If reading is a lifelong pursuit, our federal reading efforts must continue across the educational continuum.  This is particularly true as we look to international benchmarks and state exit and graduation exams as the marks of success.
3) Federal dollars need to be focused on two key components — instructional materials and professional development.  We’ve wasted the past six years fighting over commercial products and which one of those is on a so-called golden list.  This is supposed to be about getting what is proven effective into the hands of good teachers.  The name on the box doesn’t matter.  We need to find a better way to make sure that good research is getting into the classroom.  Too many people took advantage of the intent of SBRR, selling research vapor and serving as 21st century RF profiteers.  Moving forward, it should be about content and proof, not branding.
We forget that 25 percent of the more than $1 billion spent on RF was intended for teacher professional development.   We also forget that effective instruction begins and ends with effective teaching.  Our teachers need to be empowered to improve literacy instruction in our schools.  They need to better understand the research and put it to use in their classrooms, using that knowledge to provide the specific interventions necessary to get all children reading.  We must recognize that such professional development should reach more than just the traditional ELA teacher in our elementary grades.  Every teacher across the continuum is, in essence, a reading teacher.  How do we help math and science and social studies teachers reinforce our reading priorities in their classrooms?  In many ways, research-based pre-service and in-service professional development is the single most important component to any future reading instruction effort.  We need to train, equip, and support our teachers in both the broader and the finer points of literacy.
4) We need to factor ELL and ESL into the equation.  At the end of the day, reading skills are reading skills, whether they are acquired in English or in your native Spanish, Hmong, or other language.  We teach all children to read, and then we convert those skills into English as needed.  With a growing immigrant population and school districts that are now home to 100+ native languages spoken in their hallways, we need to instill literacy skills in all students and then look for ways to transfer those skills to the English language.  Reading is reading.  Phonemic awareness and fluency and comprehension are universal, regardless of the language you may be starting in or what is spoken or read at home.
5) We need to better measure the impact of our efforts.  RF has been bottlenecked the past year over measures of efficacy.  The recent Institute of Education Sciences study on Reading First is seen by many as a repudiation of the program.  Unfortunately, it is not a study of SBRR, it is a study on the effectiveness of program spending.  As we’ve written about many times before, IES failed to take into account the issue of contamination, meaning that the study was built on the notion that only those schools receiving RF funds were implementing RF programs and SBRR, so we compared RF schools with non-RF schools to see the difference.  We know that to be a false comparison.  Publishers changed their textbooks to meet RF standards, and those new books were sold to all schools, not just RF schools.  PD programs were redeveloped to address RF expectations, and that PD was offered to all teachers, not just those in RF districts.  RF permeated all schools in the nation, whether they received a federal check or not.
A programmatic study, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (OPEPD) took this contamination issue into account, and its fall 2008 evaluation report identified real success in our federal reading initiative.
Regardless of one’s loyalties to IES or OPEPD, the next generation of federal reading needs to include clear measurements and clear assessment tools to identify our progress and determine true ROI.  How do we measure our success?  What tools, beyond the state exams, should be considered?  How do we quantify good reading PD?  How do we demonstrate that the good works performed by teachers, teacher educators, reading specialists, families, and CBOs is not for naught?  Good programs must be measured.  Great programs must be assessed, reviewed, improved, and strengthened over time.  
These five components provide us the foundations for a federal reading initiative that addresses the real-world needs of our classrooms today.  They recognize the need for federal funds, particularly at a time when state and local budgets are strained beyond belief.  They recognize the central role of the teacher, as an educator, researcher, and student.  And they recognize the ultimate end game we all are playing — to get every student reading proficient, ensuring they have the skills and abilities necessary to achieve in school and in society.
Even when we talk about 21st century skills or STEM skills, literacy remains key.  Nothing is possible if our students can’t read.  They can’t do advanced math.  They can’t study the sciences. They can’t explore our civilizations or our history.  They can’t even fully participate in the school chorus.  Reading is the heart and soul of the American public education system.  Now is the time to come together, tap available resources, and redouble our national commitment to getting each and every child to read.  It is the only way we close the achievement gap, boost student achievement, and improve graduation rates.  It all begins with reading.  And effective reading begins now.

Turning Economic Lemons Into STEM Lemonade

Many were greatly surprised yesterday when Microsoft announced it was laying off 5,000 employees across the United States.  Microsoft is one of those companies that we have long viewed as invulnerable.  It was a company on a relatively upward trajectory from the start, weathering the dot-com bomb of 2000, the resurgence of Apple and the Mac, legal issues both home and in the European Union, and even trivial issues like the public rejection of its latest operating system.

So when layoffs were announced yesterday, it was a big statement.  Those who thought the economy had turned the corner and was ready for recovery are now reconsidering their optimism.  While the Microsoft downsizing is likely to have a lasting impact on the technology sector, it provides a real opportunity for public education.  Among those employees soon to depart the software giant are individuals expert in math, science, technology, and engineering, just the sort of content background and training our public schools — particularly our high schools — are in desperate need of.
For decades now, we have bemoaned the national shortage of qualified science and math teachers, particularly in our urban areas and in our secondary schools.  The current emphasis on 21st century skills and STEM education only amplifies the shortage.  In recent years, we’ve even added the need for “real life” experience to the discussion, believing that boosting student interest in math and the sciences is assisted by educators who are both teachers and practitioners.
Late last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (yes, the same Bill Gates who founded Microsoft and turned it into the economic giant it became) announced that human capital and strengthening our teacher pool was a priority.  Rightfully so.  Real, lasting education improvement begins with talented, effective teachers.  Without strong math and science teachers in our classrooms — those who understand the content, the pedagogy, and the real-life context — reforms are half-hearted at best.
So why can’t we bring together the Gates Foundation’s vision (and financial commitment) to strengthening and supporting teachers with a new pipeline of knowledgeable STEM practitioners and find a way to get those displaced workers (as well as those from other tech sector companies) out of the boardroom and into the classroom?  Why can’t we use everything we know about pre-service teacher training, necessary pedagogy, and mid-career teacher transitions and build a comprehensive STEM teacher training program that trains tech workers and connects they with communities and school districts in dire need of effective STEM educators?
Such an effort wouldn’t be a first.  Back in 2005, IBM announced it was transitioning a portion of its workforce into K-12 education.  They established relationships with institutions of higher education in key IBM communities to develop mid-career teacher training programs.  They applied the IBM training model to teacher development.  They looked to break new ground in mid-career transition.
Now we have an opportunity for the Gates Foundation, the National Math and Science Initiative, or a host of other organizations to come together and build a better mid-career transition mousetrap.  Yes, we would need to make sure the right workers are entering the program (not everyone is up to the challenge of teaching, and not everyone – no matter how much content knowledge they possess – can teach it).  Yes, we would need to ensure that any training program is research-based and deeply rooted in the pedagogy.  We can’t do drive-by teacher training.  And yes, we know that this doesn’t solve the larger issue of effective math and science teachers in every classroom, particularly those in our at-risk communities.  But it is a start, and a good one.
In STEM programs across the nation, states and school districts are seeking to achieve a number of goals.  First is to boost student interest in the STEM subjects.  Second is to get more students to take STEM classes and pursue STEM degrees.  Third is often how to get those with STEM degrees back into the classroom to teach in those schools where they gained their STEM passions.  These goals take time.  But getting top engineers and video game designers and mathematicians  into the classroom to display their personal passions each and every school day is a good start to building student interest.  With the proper trainings and support, they could become effective STEM teachers equipping a generation of students with the skills and knowledgebase they need to navigate our future challenges and opportunities. 
Now is the time turn some of those economic lemons and turning them into some STEM instruction lemonade.  And the Gates Foundation can do it by first taking care of its own.  Talk about win-win.

The Future of Urban School District Leaders

At yesterday’s EdSec confirmation hearings, senator after senator went out of their way to praise the selection of Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan and how terrific it will be to have a real urban educator at the helm of the U.S. Department of Education.  At the beginning of the year, many folks (Eduflack included) praised the selection of Denver Public Schools chief Michael Bennet for the open U.S. Senate seat from Colorado, again applauding the notion that a true-blue educator would be involved in authorizing and appropriating federal education dollars.

As a friend pointed out this afternoon, though, all this talk about our top urban superintendents moving up to new, more powerful political jobs raises one large unanswered (and often unasked) question.  What is the impact on our urban districts?  At a time when our school districts are facing greater demands on their resources, higher expectations on their performance, shrinking budgets from their cities and states, and a more demanding economy into which their most successful students are now entering, what happens to those districts that lose great leaders?
This isn’t just a federal issue, either.  our states are seeing massive turnover in the chief state school officer positions.  For each of those open state chiefs, there are likely superintendents in that state (as well as those from others) who pique the interests of politicians, policymakers, and educators.
But let’s get back to our urban districts.  Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver.  All are facing brand new superintendents at their most important moments.  Same is true for districts like Prince Georges County in Maryland.  Other districts — Boston, Philadelphia, Newark, and the like, have supes in their first years.  It’s getting to the point where DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, on the job for a year and a half now, is quickly become a grizzled veteran in world of urban superintendents.
Yes, ED is fortunate to soon have Duncan at the helm, where he can bring his Chicago experiences and insights to bear on the national scene.  We can look at the improvements and the innovations and the ideas that have percolated in Chicago (and other cities) and paint them with a larger brush and allow them to have larger impact.  But as ED begins to fill out its other positions, how many cities will lose their top school administrator for the greater good?  I assume that a supe or a chief state school officer will take over at the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, but what about the other openings in ED’s Duncan era?
It raises a lot of questions in Eduflack’s mind.  Does one have to run a major urban school district to lead school improvement at the national level?  What about our rural school districts?  Who speaks for the small communities or the K-8 school districts when the focus is on urban turnaround?  How important is it for a senior-level ED appointee to have real K-12 classroom instruction experience?  How much of such experience is enough?  What’s the necessary balance between pedagogy and innovation at ED?  Does K-12 or higher ed experience truly matter when it comes to the knock-around political world that is Washington? 
We all know heading one of the larger school districts in the nation is a difficult job.  The stakes are high.  Turnover is frequent.  Districts churn through leaders, with many top districts recycling many of the same leaders again and again.  So how does one protect the gains in such districts, while preventing the brain drain that comes with turnover and current upward mobility?  And more importantly, what are groups like the Council of Great City Schools and AASA doing to ensure that incoming superintendents — in both our most urban and most rural districts — have the professional development tools, support, and guidance necessary to keep improvements moving forward and bringing about the sort of change that so many communities are crying out for?
 
Maybe Duncan is already thinking of that, and is going to adopt a superintendent-in-residence program at ED to help ensure that school administrators have the access to best practice that we are constantly trying to deliver to both principals and teachers.  Or maybe we figure that urban districts always manage to figure it out, and between CGCS and the Broad Foundation, we’ll keep those top jobs staffed, so no need to worry.
And while we’re off the topic, allow me this little rant.  By now, many have seen the screaming Internet messages warning that all of the top jobs at ED are going to go to educational innovators and free thinkers, and not those with distinct classroom pedagogical training or instructional experience.  I don’t want to address such rumors here because I don’t think they are worth the electronic ink.  And anyway, Sherman Dorn does a far better job discussing the silly fears than I ever could — www.shermandorn.com/mt/archives/002872.html  But I do want to address the larger issue.   What ED needs now, what ED always needs, is a team that is committed to school improvement and is committed to the child.  That commitment takes many forms.  We see it in classroom and district educators.  We see it in education researchers who have committed themselves to spotlighting best practice.  And we see it in innovators, idea-makers, and policy minds who look for new ways to solve the problems that ail our schools.  Before we condemn picks for jobs at ED, we should let President-elect Obama and EdSec in-waiting Duncan actually make the picks.  There may just be a method to their madness.  And we may be surprised how the individuals, the personalities, and the backgrounds selected complement each other and form a wide net of experience and action designed to real school improvement.  At the end of the day, we have to believe that Obama and Duncan (and their surrogates) are seeking to improve public education through ED, and not harm it.  So let’s let them give it a try.
I’ll step down from the soapbox and relinquish the rostrum.  More questions than I have answers today, I’m afraid.  But sometimes such questions result in really interesting answers and insights down the road.