Powerful Rhetoric on Vouchers

For years now, vouchers have been a highly controversial topic in education reform.  Proponents see vouchers as a way to deal with failing schools, giving families a chance for a better education and increased opportunity.  Opponents see it as taking funds from our public schools, further reducing the dollars available for struggling schools to right their ships.

As a nation, we’ve seen pockets of success on the voucher movement.  Cities like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, DC have staked much of their reform on the program.  And Florida has implemented several statewide voucher systems, including one for special education.  We’ve seen initial success, to a degree, while many continue to wait to see the long-term impact.

While the wait continues, the language continues to evolve.  Vouchers evolved into school choice.  Such language moved the discussion from one of finances to one of family choice.  After all, what could be more important than a family deciding what school was best for their child, and then sending them there.

During last night’s State of the Union address, we saw the language evolve even further.  President Bush has long been a supporter of vouchers.  His Administration pushed hard to get the Washington DC voucher program into place in during his first term.  Initial research shows that the DC program has had a positive impact from the start.  In fact, so many inner-city students were choosing to use their vouchers to attend DC Catholic schools that the Archdiocese is now looking to convert a significant number of those schools into charters to allow even more students to be educated at the school of their choice.

So how does the President build on his initial DC voucher investment?  First, he calls for $300 million to expand school choice across the nation.  Then, he crowns the initiative with a new name — Pell Grants for Kids.

The President’s words are worth revisiting, as they set a new tone and new playing field for the debate on school choice.  Even the most liberal of Democrats are firm supporters of the original Pell Grants, designed to help low-income students attend college.  How, then, can they oppose the idea of Pell Grants for Kids, a scholarship program that lets low-income families send their kids to good schools?  It was a bold move, and a bold choice of words, since one can’t imagine that former U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell would ever put his name on an educational program from this President.  Yet, somehow, it all works.

Let’s look at the President’s actual remarks:

“We must also do more to help children when their schools do not measure up. Thanks to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships you approved, more than 2,600 of the poorest children in our nation’s capital have found new hope at a faith-based or other nonpublic schools.

Sadly, these schools are disappearing at an alarming rate in many of America’s inner cities. So I will convene a White House summit aimed at strengthening these lifelines of learning.


And to open the doors of these schools to more children, I ask you to support a new $300 million program called Pell Grants for Kids. We have seen how Pell Grants help low-income college students realize their full potential.


Together, we’ve expanded the size and reach of these grants. Now let us apply the same spirit to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools.” 

Over the next few days, we’ll hear how the President played small ball in his SOTU, discussing manageable ideas without swinging for a “we will land on the moon” moment.  And we all expected very little in terms of education policy in the speech.  Yes, he called for the reauthorization of NCLB, touting its results to date and its bipartisan foundations.  But the true education moment was the announcement of Pell Grants for Kids.  Who is opposed to liberating poor children trapped in failing schools?  Who doesn’t want kids to realize their full potential?  Who doesn’t want to support opportunity and hope?

Voucher opponents will likely come out swinging against the proposal, citing flaws in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program and again bemoaning taking money from well-meaning public schools and handing it to faith-based and nonpublic schools.  But Bush’s words shift this from a policy debate of voucher advocates and opponents to a discussion of families and community leaders of options and pathways to help low-income students in struggling schools.  It moves this from inside baseball to a game the whole community can play in.

We’ll have to wait and see if “Pell Grants for Kids” sticks as a brand and a call to arms for vouchers in 2008.  But it definitely has potential.   

Telling a Good Story

We’re all familiar with the phrase, “if it bleeds, it leads.”  The thought behind it is if something horrible happens (particularly something horrible with great art), then it is front-page worthy.  A tragedy makes great news.  Scandal makes great copy.  An official getting caught doing something wrong is a great news hook.

Over at This Week in Education, Alexander Russo has a list of the education-related news stories from the past month (
http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/thisweekineducation/upload/2007/05/big_stories_of_the_month/May%202007%20News%20%26%20TWIE%20Posts.doc)  It should come as no surprise that this list is full of scandal, wrongdoing, and general negativity.  NCLB reauthorization and Capitol Hill hearings figure prominently, as do schools closing, programs being abandoned, and teachers being fired.  There are some exceptions, but pointing out the failings in our education system seems to be driving education coverage as a whole.  And Eduflack is just as guilty.

Are there no “good” stories out there on education reform?  I’ll be honest, I’ve been struggling for the last week to find some examples of reform done good anywhere.  Maybe it is the end of the school year.  Maybe folks have tired of education issues for now.  Maybe the current NCLB struggles have sucked all of the oxygen out of the room.  But I am desparate for a good story.

Why should we care?  Don’t we have an obligation to seek the truth?  With taxpayer dollars going into education reform, isn’t it a moral imperative that keep a watchful eye on the field and point out where we take a wrong step or where we may be headed down a rabbit hole we simply cannot emerge from?

At the end of the day, communications is good storytelling.  You need a protagonist.  You need a challenge he is trying to overcome.  You need obstables that may prevent him from succeeding.  And then you need SUCCESS.  Take a look at any good children’s book or Disney movie, and you’ll see those steps are the key to telling any good story.  Likewise, they are the key to effectively communicating education reform.

I’ll beat the dead horse.  Let’s take Reading First as our example.  The U.S. Department of Education can clamor about longitudinal research statistics and disagregated data until they are blue in the face.  The most successful RF story is one President Bush told several years ago at a town hall meeting at NIH.  He introduced a teacher from the South.  Her class was struggling.  Virtually no students were reading at grade level.  School district was poor.  Students weren’t necessarily getting the encouragement and support they needed from home.  But this teacher was determined they would read.  She implemented scientifically based reading instruction, knowing the research showed it would work with kids like hers.  She provided one-to-one interventions when necessary.  Over time, she started to see the results.  Soon, all of her kids were reading.  They had found a passion for learning.  They had an opportunity to succeed in both school and life.  The could achieve … thanks to Reading First and scientifically based reading.

Sure, it may be a little sappy. But personalization and storytelling make it compelling.  And it talks about complex policy in a way the average American can understand.  And it stays positive.  There may be challenges.  There may be obstacles.  But our protagonist perseveres.  That’s successful communication, and that’s a story many of us would want to read each morning with our coffee (or Diet Coke).



 

Opting Out, TIMSS Style

We need to better prepare our students to compete on the world economy.  Such is the driving mantra behind current pushes to improve our high schools and strengthen the links between secondary and postsecondary education.  Our students need the skills to succeed, they need the math, science, and problem-solving skills to hold their own against other students around the world.  They need the skills to gain good jobs in the United States.  And they need strong math and science skills to ensure such jobs remain here in the United States.  Math and science skills are necessary to keeping our economy strong and our future generations employed.  All strong rhetoric, all believed by Main Street USA, and all pretty damned true.

That’s why Eduflack was a little disappointed to read a piece by Sarah D. Sparks in Education Daily a little more than a week ago, which reported that the United States will not participate in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, for physics and calculus.

Eduflack waited to comment on this development to see how those who truly understand the policy implications reacted.  And the response was as surprising as the announcement — deafening silence.

Why is the U.S. Department opting out of TIMSS?  Two simple reasons.  The first is cost.  The second is lack of students.  What is the United States lacking?  Apparently, we don’t have a few million dollars to conduct the study and we don’t have the 16,000 students needed to comprise an effective sample size.

Yes, such reasoning seems quite questionable, particularly with everything we know about NCLB funding, the demand for greater assessments, and the rapid increase in science and math instruction thanks to programs like STEM, early colleges, and similar high school reforms.

At a time when the international team is looking to go head-to-head with the United States, we choose to sit on the bench.  At a time when we tell our kids that they need to gain math and science skills to succeed in both college and career, we send then to the showers before they even have a chance to pitch the first inning.  And at a time when we should be doing all we can to post impressive stats and demonstrate we are the world leaders, instead we choose to hide behind the stats on the back of our bubblegum cards, those numbers that defined us in years past.

But what, exactly, does this announcement say about us?  Instead of dwelling on what we cannot do or where we see the failings, Eduflack offers up some talking points for Secretary Spellings on this important topic.

* Ensuring that our high school students are truly prepared to compete in the global economy must become a fiscal priority for us.  We are, rightfully so, pouring billions and billions into elementary- and middle-school improvements and testing (including TIMSS for fourth and eighth graders), but the current federal commitment to high schools is but a fraction.  We need to educate and train our students, particularly those in high school, in math and science, and we need to effectively assess those skills.
* We need to applaud those school districts that are taking the responsibility to prepare all students for the future.  Early colleges and dual-enrollment offerings.  AP and IB programs.  STEM education.  All of these are important steps our schools, districts, and states are taking to ready our kids for the challenges and opportunities of the future.
* The United States stands as the true home for innovation.  And we’re willing to make the investment to keep it that way.  Our future is too important not to equip our students with the math, science, and problem-solving skills needed to achieve, both in school and in life.

Yes, TIMSS is merely one measure of our effectiveness.  It is a tool, like other assessments, to ensure we are on the right track.  And it is one of the few we have to effectively measure our abilities versus our trading partners and our economic competitors around the globe.  Not participating in the study reads like we are worried about our ability to compete and our ability to excel.  If we aren’t ready for the big leagues, then we need to get back into training and prepare ourselves for true competition.  You can’t win the big game of life if you’re unwilling to step onto the field. 


  

Getting Lost in the NCLB Wilderness

Is it possible to say all of the right things, but still fail in effectively communicating?  It may sound hard, but it is quite easy.  Don’t believe Eduflack?  Just check out President Bush’s remarks to the 2007 Presidential Scholars yesterday.

The President picked a good venue for his remarks — a room full of high-achieving high school students.  He brought with him ED Secretary Spellings, along with Republican members of Congress key to NCLB reauthorization.  And he had a clear messaging platform — NCLB’s goals, what NCLB has achieved to date, and vision for NCLB 2.0.

And that messaging was strong. 
* NCLB is bipartisan. 
* “The federal government should expect results  in return for the money it spends.”
* “The only way to determine whether a child is reading at grade level is to have accountability in our school systems.”
* “We’re making good progress.”
* “Our ability to compete in the 21st century depends upon educating children”
* “If a child needs extra help, there’s going to be money available to help that child.”
* “Strengthen math and science”
* “Extra funding for under-performing schools.”
* “We believe in local control of schools, you reform them, you fix them.”

Bush addressed his remarks to the students, their parents, and their teachers.  He spoke of believing in students, supporting teachers, and improving our schools.  The President was passionate about an issue he cared about (particularly when talking about the impact of SBRR on reading scores).  And that’s where he should have stopped. 

A broad audience.  A relatively light and easy event.  The President should have called it a day, and walked off the mound leaving the crowd with the broad rhetorical strokes that define the benefits of NCLB.  Had he done so, it would have been a win.  A strong “A” from the teachers in the crowd.

Instead, he kept speaking.  Using his bully pulpit, he decided to further define NCLB in terms of school choice and vouchers.  Important issues, yes.  Volatile components of NCLB, for sure.  But completely inappropriate for the audience, the venue, or the ultimate end game.  Yes, it is important for the President to appease a key audience (his conservative base), particularly as Republicans are quickly jumping off the NCLB ship.  But you need to address such concerns directly with the audience that holds them.  By spending a third of his time focused on issues that appeal to a small, but vocal, segment of the education universe, he muddled his message and chipped away at his clear framing of the value of NCLB.

And the result of the tip of the hat to his conservative base?  Nil.  The criticisms of big government and the federalization of education still rang out in The Washington Post’s coverage of it.  A golden opportunity to focus on the positive impact and long-term gains as a result of NCLB, yet the President still only scores the gentleman’s “C” for execution.

Speaking Locally, Thinking Nationally

To put it mildly, it’s no secret that state legislatures and local governments have been resistant to NCLB, particularly its accountability provisions.  The reason is fairly simple.  K-12 education has long been perceived as a local issue.  Local school boards make curricular decisions, state legislatures set funding priorities, and all are focused on the educational needs at the very local of levels.

It’s only been in recent years that the federal role in K-12 has gained a spotlight.  NCLB moved the feds from the role of funder to the role of active participant.  Sure, the feds provide less than 10% of the money spent on education in this country.  But it carries a big stick.  NCLB provides a lot of new money if you’re willing to play ball, and poses the threat of pulling funding if you don’t play by the rules.

So yesterday’s vote at the National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual conference should come as no surprise.  NCSL members rejected national education standards, even voluntary ones.  Education Week has the story, as disappointing as it is.  http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2007/08/06/45ncsl_web.h26.html

We all know the great Tip O’Neill adage that all politics is local.  That was surely the case for NCSL.  In carefully chosen language, they embraced the notion of “rigorous state standards” and “individual state refinement of standards.”  This should be no surprise.  When you are a member of a state legislature, you want to keep the power in your hands.  You want to be the one to write the standards, fund the standards, and evaluate the standards.  It’s your best chance to control the outcomes, particularly if you are to be held accountable by your constituency.

No, Eduflack isn’t going to fault NCSL for defending its turf and speaking strongly on a key issue.  For that they should be applauded.  But I will take issue with, yet again, the attack on NCLB as a justification for the such a policy stance.  So I issue a rhetorical challenge to all, stand up for what you believe in, without needing to tear down or tear into NCLB.  It’s a great communications bogeyman, sure, but NCLB is not responsible for all that ills our schools, despite the urban legend.

Yes, we all know there is room for improvement in NCLB.  We all know that many states have felt the financial sting of meeting the accountability standards in the law, with some seeing it as an unfunded mandate.  But you also can’t ignore that Reading First has given the states more than $5 billion in additional funding to date to implement SBRR.  And a quarter of that — more than $1 billion — was intended for stronger, more relevant teacher professional development.

Like it or not, local control is quickly intersecting with national expectations.  Blame the “world is flat” economy, blame NAFTA, blame the little that has been done since we discovered we were a “Nation at Risk.”  If we expect our kids to thrive once they leave the schoolhouse doors for the last time, living up to the expectations and standards of the local community is no longer enough.

Today’s students are being asked to compete with students across the state, across the nation, and around the world.  Employers are looking for core competencies in all of their corporate locations.  They expect employees in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Phoenix, Hartford, and even Bangalore to bring the same skills and the same abilities.  Our institutions of higher education are usually screening applicants with one master rubric.  National standards (even the voluntary ones) are coming.

My K-12 years were spent in public schools in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, and West Virginia.  Did I notice the differences?  You bet.  Did I feel one state’s education was stronger than another’s?  Of course.

More and more, we are becoming a transient society.  Unlike generations past (even mine), it is now a rarity for a student to finish high school with the same cohort of students he or she started kindergarten with.  A little sad, sure, but it is the reality.  Whether NCLB is on the books or not, national education standards are an important tool in our changing education system and our evolving economy.  They are the great equalizer, ensuring that a public education is worth the same in Alabama as it is in Oregon, the same in Nevada as it is in New York.

If we want a public education to mean something again, we need to restore its value and we need to quantify its impact.  The era where one could say, “well it is good enough for <insert state here>” is over.  This should be the new frontier, where we demonstrate that students in our state are outperforming those in our neighboring states.  The only way that works is when we measure with the same ruler.  Groups like NCSL should be a key part of the dialogue to choose the right national ruler; they shouldn’t be hiding it from those who really need a good measure.
  

Happy Birthday

There’s no getting around the subject.  This week is NCLB’s sixth birthday.  What exactly do we get a law that seems to have both everything and nothing?  How do we celebrate a law that has a strong and loyal opposition that is desperately hoping a seventh birthday is not in the future? 

For the father of NCLB, President George W. Bush, it was all about deep dish pizza and a visit to the Windy City.  For the law’s author, Senator Ted Kennedy, it was about promises of NCLB offspring, a new law with better funding that can be offered as part of reauthorization.  And for its godmother, Ed Secretary Margaret Spellings, it was the promise of action without reauthorization (a “we don’t need no stinkin’ badges moment, if you will).

What has been most interesting about this year’s “celebration” has been the unified critical view of NCLB.  The message from the loyal opposition has clear.  NCLB is bad because of tough assessments of students and of schools.

Even if we are to eulogize NCLB tomorrow, do we really believe that measurement and evaluation is what is wrong with our K-12 system?  Shouldn’t we have the strongest possible understanding of how our students are achieving?  Shouldn’t we know what they know, building on their strengths and attending to their weaknesses? 

Likewise, shouldn’t we know how our schools are doing?  As taxpayers, we want to know that our property tax dollars are being well-spent.  As parents, we want to know that our school is as good (if not better) than others in the area.  And as a community, we want assurances that our school system is education our students and preparing them for a high-paying, high-skills job once they leave the schoolhouse doors for the last time.

Regardless of political party, educational philosophy, or general approach to life, we all have to agree that information is power.  Data on student, teacher, and school performance provide us key information.  Sure, we don’t have to use that information in a punitive manner.  School data can be used to redirect funding or teacher resources, rather than just to identify failing schools.  It can be used to identify what works, and not just as fodder to attack what doesn’t.  It can be used as a learning tool and as an instructional foundation.

If we’ve learned anything over these past six years, it’s that we need more information and more data about our schools, not less.  We need to know what works and what doesn’t.  We need to know who’s achieving and who’s not.  And most importantly, we need to know how to measure both.  If data is king, we need to make sure our schools are true royalty, and not merely court jesters feeling around in a darkened corner.

To Veto is to Improve

I’d like to think that everything I’ve learned about the legislative process, I learned from Saturday morning cartoons (and those five years working on Capitol Hill, I guess).  Just about everyone from my generation should know how a bill becomes a law, even if it is just from remembering Schoolhouse Rock.  But where is our song about the meaning of vetoing one’s signature domestic policy bill?

For those who missed it, President Bush, at his year-end briefing yesterday, tossed the biggest rhetorical softball possible to his critics and to those on the NCLB fence.  The President states that if he gets an NCLB reauthorization that weakens the law, he would veto it.

We may talk about lines in the sand, but Bush has now drawn a rhetorical Grand Canyon.  As other policymakers are debating multiple measures and increased funding and escape clauses, the President stands clear and emphatic in his position.  It’s improvement, or it is nothing at all.

This is an extremely bold stance from a lame duck president with low national approval rankings and little record on education these past couple of years.  And it is just the sort of bold statement the President needed to make if he is to save the one potential legacy piece of his domestic agenda.

With such a strong statement (albeit in a relatively throw-away media session), 2008 could be an interesting one, if we can get NCLB to the front of the policy agenda.  Why?

* Senator Kennedy continues to explore reforms to NCLB, and it is clear the law will change.  The big question is whether the law is strengthened, the law is watered down, or the law is tabled until a new president can put his imprint on the nation’s K-12 law.

* Advocates of the law have regained their stride.  For much of the year, NCLB critics have dominated the debate.  But we are starting to see cracks.  Earlier this week, Governors Thompson and Barnes of Aspen’s NCLB Commission had their oped on the law printed in The Washington Times.  Ed in 08 continues to push on the hows and whys presidential candidates should stand up to strengthen our nation’s commitment to K-12. 

* Recent NAEP and PISA scores have many talking about how we continue to improve the quality and measurement of education.  There is a growing hunger for proven, long-term improvement.

For years, Eduflack has opined on how NCLB could serve as President Bush’s true domestic policy legacy.  The changes he has made in how we teach, how we use research, what we expect of our teachers, and how we measure our schools will be with us for a long time.  The federal dollars spent on K-12 have never been higher.  And he has given federal education issues a singular voice under the banner of 2008.  Like it or not, the relationship between the federal government to K-12 public education is vastly different today compared to 2001.  And that relationship shows a vision from which Bush and his education team have never wavered, no matter the criticism, attack, or obstacle.

But if the President wants that legacy, if he wants an NCLB reauthorization he can sign, he needs to be both bold and proactive moving forward.  Now is the time for Bush (and Spellings) to step forward and clearly articulate those improvements they would agree to and those improvements that result in a better, stronger NCLB.

Like what?
* Provide schools and districts more flexibility to meet AYP, assuming their actions follow the spirit of the law
* Demand full funding for Reading First, while offering stringent oversight protections to ensure the funds are being used only on “gold standard” interventions with unquestioned research
* Take states to task for weakening their state standards just so they can claim proficiency on state tests
* Amend the HQT provisions to include provisions for effective teaching
* Ensure that real educators, policymakers, and the business community are involved in implementing NCLB 2.0 and evaluating its effectiveness
* Remind us of the primary audience for NCLB.  Yes, teachers and counselors and researchers are important.  But our primary focus is the student — how do we use the law to ensure all students are provided a high-quality education that prepares them for the high-skill, high-wage jobs of the 21st century.

I’m just an eduflack.  I’m sure there are a number of other ways we can strengthen the law, doing so in a way that will gain the President’s signature and the education community’s endorsement.  Mr. President, consider it my Christmas present to you.  No need for a thank you card, and no reason to consider returning it.