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.

Putting Reading First?

When the history books are closed, we will find that Reading First improved the reading skills of U.S. students.  It is based on solid research.  It is proven success in schools and classrooms across the nation.  And there is clear data a scientifically based approach to reading skill acquisition rooted in phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension is the most effective way — without question — to teach kids to read.

So how can a program with so many successful attributes be in danger of failing?  When it is unable to translate that effectiveness into a public perception of support.  Recent reports from the IG and GAO have pointed to potential implementation problems and concerns about the perceptions of possible conflicts of interest.  Such worries put RF under a real microscope.  It calls for greater scrutiny and adhering to a higher bar of both achievement and standards of quality.  So what comes next?

The Associated Press provides the facts:

Full disclosure, I am one of the individuals quoted in this article.  And I feel strongly about the public perception of this revelation.  At the end of the day, few people care that RMC Research secured a small portion of the RF assessment contract.  Even fewer choose to understand the process by which contractors and subcontractors (such as RMC) secure such contracts from the federal government.  But for an organization, like RMC, committed to seeing Reading First succeed, this sends the WRONG message, arming RF and scientifically based reading critics with the ammo they need to continue to question the program as a whole.

Federal contracting is best explained by the federal government.  But what lessons can we learn from the facts uncovered by the AP?:

* Independent third party means independent third party.  No one is questioning RMC’s ability to assess a federal education program.  But independent third party assessment means just that.  Contractors involved in the planning, implementation, training, and technical assistance of a program should not assume a role to evaluate the success of that same program.  How can we trust the impartiality of a contractor who was previously paid to help build what they are now evaluating?
* Scientists have forgotten the science.  NCLB was passed on the presumption that education research needs to undergo the same protocols and be held to the same standards as that which passes through NIH.  Can anyone point to an NIH grant program where the same contractor was paid to develop a clinical study, then paid again to evaluate their own work?
* Size doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter if the contract was for $1.5 million, $15 million, or $15.  When a program is as scrutinized as RF is, third-party assessment needs to be as clean as the newborn snow.  Such a relationship just makes it too easy to feel like the wolf is guarding the RF henhouse.
* Set high expectations … and exceed them.  There is an axiom in business that you want to underpromise and overdeliver.  When it comes to RF, we now need to both overpromise and overdeliver.  If implemented effectively and with fidelity, RF will improve reading skills for virtually every student in the country.  That is now the expectation, and it can’t get any higher.  Now we need to exceed that.  That happens by demonstrating measurable results, being able to replicate those results, and having decisionmakers embrace them and put them into place in other schools and other districts.  That is the only way RF will truly change the fabric of our nation’s education system.  That only happens if we all trust the data and those delivering it to us.

For years, we have said the success of RF lies in the hands of those school administrators, teachers, and parents who were putting it to use on the front lines.  The focus was on communicating with those audiences.  How do we get them to embrace RF?  How do we get them to recognize the need?  And, most importantly, how do we get them to put it into practice?  

Today, though, the success of RF lies squarely on the shoulders of Margaret Spellings.  The IG, the GAO, and the media have given educators plenty of reasons to question Reading First.  We don’t trust our decisionmakers, and without trust, we aren’t willing to put our own necks on the line to change.  For the average educator, it is now easier to protect the status quo, and believe that RF will go with the way of the dodo, replaced by the next latest and greatest.

So it is up to Spellings and her team to change that public perception — a tall order to say the least.  But it is achievable through three key steps:
* Take responsibility for the past. President Truman had the buck stopping with him. Spellings must do the same.  She should accept personal responsibility for all the mistakes and misperceptions of the past six years.  With that responsibility, she has learned a great deal, and is taking all steps possible to improve the law and help our nation’s teachers and students.
* Speak … and act with authority.  This is more than apologizing or discussing the issue at a conference.  For years now, Spellings and her team have acted out of a defensive posture.  It is almost as if they hope any mention of RF will just go away.  Instead, they need to embrace the law.  In those schools where it is implemented with fidelity, we are seeing demonstrable improvements.  Now is the time to be bold.  Embrace RF and its original goals.  Demand expansion.  Demand greater accountability.  Show that the U.S. Department of Education is a partner in this effort, not simply the wielder of the stick.
* Move the discussion out of DC and into our schools.  Goodbye, SW DC, hello Main Street USA.  Get into the field and learn (and promote) how it is working, where it is working, and who is responsible.  Success is because of educators in the field.  Share the credit with those on the ground.  Doing so is like throwing a pebble into a lake.  The impact will ripple out, ultimately hitting all shores.  That is how RF, and NCLB, can have a lasting impact on our schools and really establish a legacy for this Administration.

Conflicts of interest, debates on contractors and subcontractors, and technical assistance instructions are the insidest of inside baseball.  It is time for Reading First to move onto a different field, and play the game that was meant to be played.  The law was written because of a national commitment to ensure every child learns to read, and every student had access to proven-effective instruction.  Let’s remember that.  Reading First is a simple message — its about students, and its about results.

Education Campaigning, Democratic Style

Unlike their Republican competitors, Democrats have been campaigning on education issues for decades.  Building off of Tip O’Neill’s adage that all politics was local, the Democrats have long focused on their local schools and their local school districts.  And with the local teachers unions offering organizational support, telephone banks, and scads of votes, campaigning on education issues has been a no brainer.

Certainly, the Democratic field will soon be deferring to the NEA and AFT on their education platforms.  As we saw in Education Week a few weeks ago, today’s Dem contenders have to go back 10 or 20 years to cite their commitment to education, and that’s even with Hillary and Obama sitting on the Senate Education Committee.  But if they are going to break through the white noise of typical union ed policy, they need to be bold and connect with those on the front lines, not their DC representatives.

For the record, I am the son of a long-time NEA school teacher.  In 1990, my mother walked the picket lines in West Virginia for two weeks.  And I never saw her prouder of being a teacher than during that 11-day exercise of civic duties.

And I know, as a former political operative, the value the NEA and AFT can play for a political candidate, particularly one on a national stage.  So I ask the Democratic field — Hillary and Obama, Edwards and Richardson, and the rest of the pack — to be strong, be valiant and stand up for education reform, not just for union education.

To that end, Eduflack has a five-point plan for our Democratic presidential candidates to frame education as a key component of their campaigns.  For most, they can’t speak of their work at the school district or state level.  But all can talk about education improvement for all.

1.  We all must commit to improve our schools.  We cannot and should not simply protect the status quo.  That means having hard coversations with the teachers unions and pushing them and school administrators to make hard decisions.  Sacrifices today can yield improvements tomorrow. 

2. Additional funding does not directly result in improved achievement.  For every carrot, there is a stick.  If we are to increase NCLB spending (and we should, particularly to get effective teachers in the classroom), we need to ensure that such funding increases are focused on proven programs, improved assessments, and effective interventions.  As a nation, we will pay more if we see the results.

3. National standards level the playing field.  Regardless of who controls Congress or the White House, no one should be afraid of national education standards.  Such standards offer a promise of equity in all of our schools.  For those traditional blue states, and the urban centers located in them, national standards ensure that all students, regardless of their hometown, race, or socioeconomic status, are taught and measured compared to every other student in the country.  That equal field only helps when it comes to college, to jobs, and to life.

4. The time has come for Democrats to push the unions.  Can anyone honestly say that our schools wouldn’t benefit from teacher improvement.  HQT provisions in NCLB are fine, but the NCLB Commission got it right — we need to focus on effective teachers, not just qualified ones.  Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs out there, but intellectually and emotionally.  We need to do everything possible to support those teachers on the front lines.  But we also need to recognize that not everyone is cut out for the challenge.  Our schools need an assessment/improvement/mentoring model for all teachers.  Good teachers will thrive.  Those not destined to teach can move on with their professional lives.

5. Education reform is a shared responsibility.  Meaningful change is not just left to the teachers or the national education organizations.  Just as Hillary Clinton wrote about it taking a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to educate one.  Improving our schools requires teamwork.  Teachers and parents, business and community leaders, local, state, and federal officials all play a role in identifying, implementing, and assessing meaningful, results-based reform.  Shared responsibility results in shared success.

Education is an easy topic for today’s Democratic candidates.  But now is not the time to sing exclusively from the union hymnals.  Democrats were a key part in getting NCLB implemented across the country, and Democratic presidential candidates can continue the push for results-based education reform by building on the foundations of NCLB and pushing for shared responsibility, shared desire to improve, and a shared commitment to increase funding for our schools … as long as it is spent on proven programs, training, and intervention.

Education Campaigning, Republican Style

For those Republican candidates currently pursuing the GOP presidential nominations, education seems to be the farthest thing from their campaign stump speech.  For decades, GOPers chose not to campaign on education (with President George W. Bush being the long exception), believing it was an issue that always should be left to local decisionmakers and subject to local control.

But poll after poll shows that education is a top concern for just about everyone — soccer mom, purple stater, etc.  So in our post-NCLB era, how exactly does a legitimate Republican candidate talk about education.  Rudy can discuss his management of the New York Public Schools.  Huckabee can talk about improving education in Arkansas, as Romney can in Massachusetts.  But for many candidates, legislative votes don’t translate into a policy platform.  And with Republicans turning on NCLB, it is important to have strong rhetoric that matches voter sentiment on education reform.

For that reason, Eduflack is offering its top five recommendations to Republican presidential hopefuls.  Backed by the overall belief that NONE should back away from NCLB, here are five ways for Guliani, McCain, Romney, Huckabee, and the rest to frame their education policy thinking:

1.  National standards benefit the nation.  Such standards don’t mean we are denying local control.  They empower our local districts to remain competitive in their state, across the nation, and throughout the world.  National standards, both for students and teachers, are the only way today’s students can succeed in tomorrow’s global economy.

2. Invest in education R&D.  We all understand the value of investing in medical or technology R&D.  Now is the time to invest in research focused on improving our schools and educational quality in our classrooms.  Such investment is key to triggering true innovation at the state or national level, leading to improved economies, better jobs, and better lives.

3. Respect the practitioners.  It is easy for some to say our schools have failed because our teachers have failed.  If any Republican wants to engender change in our schools, they need to respect the teachers delivering the curriculum.  They are on the front lines.  Without their support, reform will fall flat, destined for a garbage heap of good but failed ideas.

4. Don’t fear additional spending.  NCLB scared off many a Republican, particularly with increased federal education spending.  The feds are still only responsible for about 8 cents of every dollar spent on public K-12 education.  Additional funding is good for the system, as long as we are spending it on research-proven instruction and improvements we know will boost student achievement.

5. Focus on what works.  For decades, our schools have been bombarded with the latest in snakeoils and silver bullets.  Today’s educators want to see what works in schools like theirs, with kids lke theirs.  NCLB is all about replicable school reforms.  Now is the time to spotlight what is going right in your hometown or your home state, and use it as the model for why we need to continue federal education reforms.  Many of today’s improvements are directly tied to NCLB efforts.  Take credit for it.

These may be common sense, they may be simple, but they are effective.  By connecting with teachers and parents, focusing on the positives, the successes and the future, and demonstrating respect for those we are asking more of, a candidate can truly win minds and influence voters.  It is simple politics, but one with a high upside.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

When politicians, policymakers, and researchers are looking to make a point with regard to education reform, they almost uniformly point to statistics. I’m just as guilty of that, counseling that one needs to demonstrate measurable student improvement, while putting a real student and community face on those gains. We need to see who’s benefiting, not just that there are scientifically significant gains in scores.

This past week, we’ve witnessed two examples of the dangers of statistics as a rhetorical tool. The first comes in the NYT, in Schemo’s article that somehow claims Madison, WI students are better off by being denied research-based instruction. In it, the reporter throws around statistics claiming that student reading scores have dramatically improved after stripping the schools of feared phonics and scientifically based reading.

But a flurry of activity over the weekend indicates that the NYT’s numbers simply don’t add up. This can best be read on “D-Ed Reckoning”, where a further review of the data shows that Madison may indeed be suffering for failing to provide its students with research-proven reading instruction.

On the flip side, critics are attacking President Bush for his selective use of NAEP scores to demonstrate that Reading First is working. After years of critics calling for proof that RF works, they now say the NAEP data is attributed to other factors, because it is too soon to see the effects of RF on today’s elementary school students.

Through my informal educational research education, I know that you need to allow for up to five years to start seeing demonstrable, measurable improvement as a result of an instructional change. Improvement doesn’t happen overnight. But you can see signs of it almost instantaneously, the result of changes in behavior and changes in classroom attitude.

More importantly, though, I know that statistics are best serves as a “proof” of your message, not as the message itself. For instance: Reading First works. We know it works because we are seeing the improvement in classrooms across the nation. In schools large and small. Rich and poor. Black, Hispanic and white. And we know that a stronger adherance to research-proven methods is the only way to close the gap for those kids struggling to read at grade level. That’s the message.

How do we prove it? We have decades of scientific research to demonstrate effectiveness. We have classrooms, schools, and districts that have effectively used it. And we have NAEP and statewide data that demonstrate the improvements. Again, NAEP is a proof point, not the message itself. That’s where the President failed. By using NAEP as the message, we trigger a debate of the efficacy of data itself. Instead, he should be connecting the message with the people — the kids, parents, and teachers — he needs to carry RF forward.

As for the NYT, I’ll leave it to others to ascribe motives to their mis-reading of the Madison data. We all know data can often be shaped and pulled and prodded to meet our own political or rhetorical needs. What a shame that Madison students are being used as pawns in the reading wars. They deserve proven reading instruction. It’s a shame many of them can’t read the NYT piece about their own schools.

(Originally posted March 12, 2007)