How Quickly We Forget

We all remember that George H.W. Bush (the First) was supposed to an education president.  Convening an education summit at Eduflack’s alma mater, Bush brought governors, business leaders, and other influencers together to focus on how to improve American education as we headed into the 21st century.

Then there is Bush II, and his legacy of No Child Left Behind.  Like it or not, NCLB will be remembered as the federal government’s largest investment in public education to date, and praised (or demonized) for its focus on research and results-based education.

What about that president in between?  You know, that guy named Clinton.  Sure, as governor of Arkansas, he was one of the primary leaders at Bush I’s U.Va. summit.  But when we think of President Bill Clinton’s domestic policy successes, education doesn’t leap to mind.  Instead, we think of a strong economy, a balanced budget, community policing, and other such programs.

So what about President 42 and education?  Eduflack was down in Little Rock, Arkansas this week, and had to make a stop at the Clinton Presidential Library.  I’m just a sucker for presidential libraries, dating back to my father’s involvement in the development of the JFK Library in Boston.

At the Clinton Center, they’ve focused on eight or so key issues that defined the Clinton Administration … and one of those issues is education.  (In fact, the education alcove is larger than the section dedicated to the role of Vice President Al Gore in the eight-year administration.)

Clinton’s impact on education is defined broadly.  A commitment to lifetime learning.  Investments in Head Start and Healthy Start.  Goals 2000 standards.  School choice (with a big ole spotlight on a Checker Finn book).  Hiring 100,000 new teachers.  Providing 1.3 million children with a safe place after school hours.  Wiring 98 percent of our nation’s classrooms with the Internet.  Providing two years of college education to all students.  School to work.  Adult education.

I know, I know.  It reads more like a grocery list that core accomplishments.  Some are quantifiable, others can only be quantified by how many dollars were spent.  Some are narrowly defined, others broadly.  So it raises the larger question: What was the true impact of President Clinton’s education agenda?

Eduflack is treading on dangerous ground here, knowing that Eduwife worked at the U.S. Department of Education in mid-1990s and did tremendous work there, particularly in the area of parental involvement.  But we have to ask the question, why have we quickly forgotten so many of these Clinton era education initiatives?

Some of it, we just take for granted.  Of course our classrooms are wired.  We forget that when Clinton took office in 1993, there were only 170 total Web sites on the planet.  Today, some of us will visit 170 sites in the course of a work day.

Some just didn’t leave an impact.  We may have hired 100,000 new teachers during the Clinton years, but we still bemoan the great teacher shortages in our schools.  We may have sought to provide two years of college education to all high school graduates, but college costs continue to skyrocket and college readiness and college attainment numbers have flatlined.  If everyone got those two years, would the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have to make the investments it is making to get kids through high school and into postsecondary education?

And some we just don’t appreciate.  Clinton supported school choice, and did so at a time when the teachers unions (those folks who helped him get elected in the first place) were strongly opposed to any change from the status quo.  We take school choice and charters for granted now, but that was a major step for Clinton to take at the time.  And it paved the way for W’s voucher program and the expansion of school choice under NCLB.

But Goals 2000 is perhaps the most interesting, and most neglected, piece of the Clinton education portfolio.  When he left office, 49 states had bought into Goals 2000.  The program stood as a real, concrete first step toward national education standards.  What had long been a third rail in education policy had been doggedly pursued by Richard Riley, Mike Cohen, and others, with tangible successes.  Without it, who knows if we would even be talking about a national standard for Algebra II (as Achieve has put in place) or comprehensive standards as discussed by NGA, CCSSO, and others.

Ultimately, though, the easiest answer to why so much has been forgotten is impact.  As we look at the Clinton agenda, we lose track of many of these initiatives because they seem to place process over results.  Yes, the issues and the dollars behind them are impressive.  But how has it improved student achievement?  How did it boost teacher quality?  How did it truly impact K-12 classrooms in schools across the nation?

Instead of answering these questions, we simply moved on.  We set aside Goals 2000 and Clinton-era school choice and such so we could focus on NCLB, Reading First, and HQT.  Out with the old, in with the new.  Instead of building on successes and momentum, the Clinton/Riley agenda was put in storage, waiting to be rediscovered by historians in the decades to come.
Not every president is going to be an education president.  And not every president should be.  The needs and focus of the nation change from administration to administration.  But if we are going to urge our schools to direct their attentions to long-term improvements and longitudinal evaluations, maybe we should consider the same in our federal policies.  No, we shouldn’t accept previous efforts blindly, without questioning them or looking for ways to improve them.  But with changes in administration — whether it be at the school, district, state, or federal level — shouldn’t we build on the forward progress and financial investments of our predecessors? 

Droppin’ Out

Eduflack is shocked, shocked, to hear that there is no U.S. participation in the upcoming 12th grade TIMSS.  That’s the big news that Newsweek “broke” late last week (  Influencers like Ed in ’08 have commented on it this week.

Of course, Eduflack reflected on the implications of the United States dropping out of TIMSS two months ago (, following a Sarah Sparks article on the issue in Education Daily in early June.  We said it then, and we’ll say it now — It sends the wrong message at the wrong time. 

At a time when we are talking about increased rigor in the schools and the ability to compete for jobs across the world, comparing our science and math abilities to like-minded students in China, India, and Germany is a needed tool.  

I’d like to believe NCES and NSF and others that we don’t want to compete against a B-list international pool and that our educational resources, both financial and human, are better spent in other areas.  But at a time where we are all abuzz about student achievement and multiple measures and global competitiveness, it is the wrong message to just say “no” and close the door.  If not TIMSS, offer a better solution.  Any alternative will do. 

Playing Politics with Reading First

For years, Eduflack worked for members of the Senate and House Appropriations Committees.  Having seen the annual appropriations process unfold year after year, I had come to the belief that, for the most part, politics had to sit outside the Appropriations Committee’s door.

That is, until this afternoon.  David Hoff has a good synopsis on (  The root of Eduflack’s ire.  The U.S. House of Representatives is calling for a 60% cut in Reading First funding for FY2008.

We won’t get into the politics of all this, other than to say that one should be careful with the political symbolism they seek to use, as it may actually become reality.  But the spending games raise an important communication issue — the need to be proactive and define the game.

You’ve heard it here before.  For years now, critics have defined Reading First.  At first, they attacked the personalities behind the law and preached fear about introducing proven instructional approaches to our classrooms.  Over the last year, they have attacked (and rightfully so) the problems with RF implementation, implying that such issues demonstrate that the law doesn’t work.

To the contrary, we have begun seeing significant evidence that Reading First and scientifically based reading research work, and works well.  You can see it in the data released by Spellings before her visit to Capitol Hill.  you can see it in this week’s CEP report.  And you can see it in countless school districts across the nation that have implemented the program with fidelity and have reaped the benefit in terms of student performance.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the message getting out there.  And that’s a cryin’ shame.  To all but the die-hard true believers, RF is a program of conflicts of interest, decrees from on high, and IG reports.  Those exceptions to good work have now become the rule.

Don’t believe it?  Just look at how House Appropriations Chairman David Obey couches the massive cut to a program that works — “This [Reading First] cut will not be restored until we have a full appreciation of the shenanigans that have been going on.”

Doesn’t matter if the program works.  Doesn’t matter if we see student achievement gains, improved teaching, enthusiastic learners, and kids who are reading.  RF is now defined by “shenanigans,” and that’s about as far off message as one can get.

So what can Spellings and her crew do about it?  I refer you back to a previous posting.  Let’s make it positive.  Let’s make it results-based.  Let’s make it personal.

As an aside, the one positive result, though, of today’s Hill hearing may be its ability to bring parties who have previously been at war with each other together for a common good.  We’ve long talked about the need to build a team of advocates, names that will resonate with key audiences and expand support and enthusiasm for the message and the desired action.  And the larger the tent of advocates, the more effective the communication and the reform.

Those advocates speaking out against the proposed RF cuts demonstrate the program (and scientifically based education in general) has to be working.  In just a few short hours, we have seen individuals who ordinarily wouldn’t share an elevator sharing a common desire to protect RF.  Margaret Spellings (through a spokesperson).  The International Reading Association.  Bob Slavin.  They may have different goals, different views, and different intentions, but they share the view that you don’t cancel the game because you’ve had problems with the turnstiles.  “Shenanigans” around the fringes simply isn’t a reason to deny millions of American students the resources and funding they need to learn to read and to succeed. 

While SFA and IRA and ED and everyone in between may be coming from different perspectives, they all seem to share in the goal that research-proven reading is necessary if our students and schools are to succeed.

I may have just seen a razorback fly by my window, but if RF is able to be bring those disparate, yet passionate, education advocates together, it must be doing something right.

Beating a (Near) Dead Horse

It’s been a heckuva week for No Child Left Behind.  Exhibit One is Alfie Kohn’s Opposing View in the May 31 USA Today ( calling for the immediate demolition of NCLB.  His reasoning — an emphasis on testing and a flawed study by the Teacher Network that Eduflack had some real issues with the first time around (

This sort of attack has been waged on NCLB since its inception, and this is hardly Kohn’s first foray into the debate.  Perhaps one of the most prominent opponents of testing, he has railed the law for the past five years in his crusade against strict accountability, perpetuating the myth that NCLB was created as some sort of conspiracy to privatize our nation’s public schools.  While he spins a gripping tale, Kohn is hardly an impartial observer in this fight. 

Exhibit Two is the recent survey from Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University earlier this week stating that a majority of Americans want to either revise or eliminate NCLB. (

This should be no surprise to anyone.  Do what our friends at This Week in Education did and take a look at media coverage of NCLB.  It is virtually all negative.  States suing the federal government.  Scandals and congressional hearings on potential conflicts of interest.  State and local officials bemoaning AYP and student achievement goals.  Urban legends of teachers being fired en masse because they fail to meet NCLB standards.  If that’s all you see, even the most ardent of NCLB supporters would grow sour on the law.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  The largest problem that NCLB reauthorization faces is one of PR and marketing.  Secretary Spellings and President Bush have let the opponents of NCLB dictate the terms of the debate for far too long.  As a result, NCLB is tagged with all negatives — anti-teacher, unfunded mandate, conflicts of interest, too strictly enforced, and requiring too much from our teachers, schools, and kids.  I can probably count on one hand the number of news articles from the past few months that focused on some of the positives — increased student performance, quality teachers in the classroom, effective instruction, and a level educational playing field.

NCLB is not going to win by playing defense.  Opposition to the law is growing because we are giving supporters nothing to hold onto.  We are failing to provide a rock-solid foundation of mission and results on which to stand.  We simply aren’t giving NCLB supporters the results they need to be proud of the law and its results.

What is there to be proud of?  What should advocates be talking about?
* Decision-making is now supposed to be based on the research.  Only proven-effective methods of instruction should be used in our classrooms.  We do what works.  No exceptions.
* Our teachers are set up for success.  We now make sure that teachers have the background knowledge, pedagogy, and skill to lead a classroom.  Those that don’t have access to huge pools of professional development funding.  As a result, teachers are both qualified and effective.
* Student achievement is on the rise.  We are just now starting to see the effects of Reading First and SBRR.  And in those schools and districts where it has been implemented with fidelity, we can see gains in student reading scores.  Students can learn to read with effective, proven instruction.
* Data collection is a priority.  We can’t improve without good numbers highlighting our strengths and weaknesses.  NCLB has ensured that schools, districts, and states are now collecting the data we need to effectively assess instruction.  We’re effectively disaggregating that data.  And we’re now able to apply the proper interventions to further improve instruction in our schools.
* We simply expect more.  For decades, we have taught to the lowest common denominator, worried that we were asking or expecting too much from our teachers and our students.  Today, we have raised expectations.  We talk about rigor and achievement.  And as a result, we give virtually every student an opportunity to succeed in both school and in life.

If we really want to shift the debate on NCLB, and begin talking about the issues that are truly important to the success of our schools and our nation, we should focus on the 800-pound gorilla in the room — national standards.  Yes, it will raise the ire of those on both the left and the right.  But at the end of the day, state growth models state-by-state negotiations of standards simply aren’t going to cut it.  If the United States is to truly compete — both educationally and academically — with the likes of China, India, and rising countries in the Middle East — we need to adopt serious national standards or benchmarks.  It is the only way we can ensure that the brand — American education — means the same in rural Alabama, South Central LA, Washington, DC, and the North Shore of Massachusetts.

Let’s see a presidential candidate, any presidential candidate, take that issue on.  Break from the educational norms and expectations and start speaking on a bold idea that could make a real difference.  Go on, I dare ya!

Open Our Borders, Open Our Schools?

When Eduflack was launched, I made clear the intent was to look at how effectively we are communicating education reform.  But from time to time, issues come up where I just have to throw out a thought or hurl out a question.  And this past week has been one of those times.  I ask the question, someone knowledgeable, please provide the answer.

“With the expected passage of President Bush’s new immigration reform bill, what impact will the new law have on ELL education in the United States?  And how does this fit in with the goals and expectations of NCLB, particularly as it faces reauthorization?”

I, for one, think ELL is one of those important issues that has gotten lost in current federal policy, particularly as it relates to Reading First.  But I open up my doors, and my pages, to anyone who would like a chance on the soapbox here.  I yield the floor.

Rediscovering NCLB

Finally, President Bush has rediscovered NCLB.  I’ve long said NCLB could be a key part of Bush’s domestic policy legacy — but for that to happen, advocates of the law need to talk about the impact NCLB is having on communities across the nation, and how students will gain the tools they need to compete in the global workplace as a result.

WTOP has the story —  What does it all mean?  Yesterday’s actions hold hope that the President has learned three key communications lessons:

* Power of third parties — Yesterday’s event demonstrates the impact third-party voices can have on the process.  It is one thing for the government to tell us their law is working.  It is something entirely different for leaders in the business, education, and civil rights communities to extoll the virtues of education reform.  If parents and teachers are to believe NCLB is working, they need to hear from folks like Philadelphia Schools CEO Paul Vallas and the CEO of Prudential Financial.  They need to hear from those actually implementing the laws … or those reaping the benefits.

* Frame the discussion — For years, critics have attacked NCLB for its unreasonable levels of accountability and for the fear-inducing battle cry that the law simply leads to “teaching to the test.”  Such attacks have put NCLB supporters on the defensive, somehow apologizing for setting high expectations and expecting schools to meet those expectations.  Yesterday, the President clearly articulated the need for accountability, the impact of accountability, and the value of accountability.  By reframing the discussion, he now forces critics to explain why we shouldn’t hold our schools accountable for effectively teaching our students.  Success isn’t an accident.  It is the result of measurable change, demonstrable improvement, and being held accountable for both.

* Respect your stakeholders — It was an interesting panel of voices supporting the president.  The business community.  In-the-field educators and administrators.  Parent advocates.  School choice supporters.  What does this say?  Clearly, the President may now realize truly implementing NCLB requires a big tent.  It is not enough to decree change from Washington.  We have to engage those audiences who need to act, helping 1) raise their awareness on the need for reform, 2) show what actions they need to take to enact reform, and 3) demonstrate the impact reform will have on them and their constituencies.

At the end of the day, strengthening NCLB will be all about relevance.  How will greater accountability or national standards benefit local communities, educators, or families?  How does NCLB (and its reauthorization) impact me directly?  By raising the bar, will my kids raise their achievement?  Will they raise their access to opportunity?  Will they raise their ability to compete and succeed, both in school and in life?  

President Bush took a strong step forward with this new approach to discussing NCLB.  Let’s hope he follows through.  Effectively using third parties, reframing the debate, and including stakeholders are key components to communicating the need and impact of NCLB.  But such usage must become a way of life, not a one-time, one-day attempt to get back into the game.

NCLB 2.0

What does the future hold for NCLB?  The magic 8 ball is telling far too many people to ask again later, but over the weekend, the NYT offered its analysis on the tough road to reauthorization.  The song being sung is not a new one, but those in the chorus seem to continue to grow.

Here’s the story …

But what does it all tell us?  Can opposition from both the left and right really signal the end to NCLB?  Three simple facts for us all to consider (or remember):

* First, NCLB is simply the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  NCLB is the wrapping and marketing strategy put around the reauthorization in 2002.  NCLB is going nowhere.  ESEA will be reauthorized.  NCLB will fight another day.
* Second, NCLB and local control are not mutually exclusive.  Localities should still control what happens in their schools, but the feds need to hold them accountable.
* Third, and perhaps most significant, the U.S. Department of Education and NCLB supporters are still letting the opposition define the debate.  The NYT does an excellent job pointing out NCLB’s shortcomings and where pockets of resistance are coming from.  What is missing, though, is how those critics would improve the law (other than “give us the money and don’t ask us about it after we cash the check”).

It isn’t a popular position these days, but I am a big supporter of NCLB.  And I believe in the law for a few simple reasons.  It assures an effective education to ALL students, particularly those who can most benefit from proven-effective instruction.  It calls for federal education dollars to be spent on instructional practices that are proven effective, and not on the latest silver bullets.  And it puts students first — forcing us to think about education reform in terms of how it boosts student achievement and prepares all kids for the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century.

Most importantly, it works.  Take Reading First.  If we look at those districts that have implemented SBRR with fidelity and are effectively measuring its impact, we see it works.  It works with students in urban, suburban, and rural schools.  It works with white, Black, and Latino students.  It just works all around.

So what do NCLB supporters do with all this?  How do we build a better NCLB?  And more importantly, how do we talk about a better NCLB?  If the Department of Education is looking to shore up the status quo, it will fall to other voices — including early advocates like Senator Kennedy and Congressman Miller — to step up and truly advocate for the law.  As is typical for me, I’ve got three key reccs:

* Be bold.  Many critics want to tinker around the edges, rearranging components with the hopes of offending fewer constituents than we are offending today.  Reauthorization should be about improvement.  Meaningful improvement requires bold action and bold words.  Let’s increase NCLB funding to greatly enhance accountability and assessment measures at the state and local level, not weaken accountability.  Let’s strengthen HQT, adding measures of effectiveness, not lessen our expectations of teachers.    

* Be visionary.  Reauthorization allows us to build on the strong foundations of the original NCLB.  How do we make it even stronger?  What areas require enhancement?  Build on Early Reading First and Reading First to extend through adolescence.  Address the unaddressed issues of ELL.  Provide real, tangible, actionable school choice for those who need it, and take revolutionary action to fix those schools too many students are leaving.  Propose something, anything, that will change the world and improve public education for each and every student in the nation.

* Be unapologetic.  NCLB works.  It is proven effective.  Let’s strengthen the law, not weaken it.  Let’s enhance accountability, not provide more loopholes.  Let’s raise hope, not lower expectations.  We should not apologize for expecting much from our teachers, from our schools, and from our students.  We should demand more public education, not less.  Instead of letting critics set the terms of debate, advocates should make clear what NCLB stands for, why it is important, and how we make it even better, both short term and long term.

We can all agree there is room for improvement in NCLB.  If we are to strengthen the law, we need to enhance and expand on the good parts, fix those that are lagging behind, and inspire more parents, teachers, students, and community leaders to do whatever is necessary to wholeheartedly move NCLB’s rhetoric and legislative language into true, effective practice.