Is Education Level, Alma Mater the Measures of Ability?

My grandfather was a high school dropout. After ending his formal education, he joined the U.S. Army. The Army taught him how to drive a truck and how to repair them. After his service to our country, he put those skills to work, taking care of my grandmother and their five children. His 10th grade education and the skills he obtained allowed him to pay the mortgage, cloth and feed his family, and generally love the middle class American dream. Sure, money was always tight, but they found a way.

My grandfather took great pride in not trusting “college boys.” When my mother brought home my dad, a 24-year-old doctoral student, for the first time, my grandfather couldn’t fathom how one could be 24-years old and still in college. My grandfather had obtained his education though his life experiences, and education on the streets (and highways).

Coming out of the 2016 elections, I’ve often thought about my grandfather and what he would have thought about this election. He was a loyal Teamster, and often voted as the union leadership instructed their truckers. In all likelihood, he would have been part of Trump’s America, embracing an outsider, someone who would stick it to the man, and someone would pledged a commitment to hard work and the good ol’ days. He would have pointed to Trump’s successes as a businessman, particularly his ability to get things done, to complete projects on time, and the perception that Trump was always getting the better end of the deals he negotiated.

I also thought about my grandfather in reading Shaun King’s latest for the New York Daily News. In it, King laments how we are likely facing the least-educated presidential administration in recent times. Donald Trump will be the first president in more than two decades to “only hold a bachelor’s degree.” He is nominating potential cabinet members who also hold only lowly bachelor’s degrees as their highest educational attainment. And even worse, some of those attended non-Ivy League colleges!

King longs (channeling a Ta-Nehisi Coates interview on the topic) for a cabinet of Nobel Laureates and Ivy League Ph.Ds. We all have our vision of who makes the best leaders. But when one sees educational attainment (including from which institution obtained) as the ultimate measure of ability and success, aren’t we again projecting a sense of entitlement? And in the process, aren’t we discounting the skills and abilities of some to fit the preferences and prejudices of others?

There is no Ivy League Ph.D. program, law school or MBA coursework, that prepares one to be president (or even a Cabinet secretary). A former Nobel laureate Energy Secretary may go down in history as one of the worst at the position. In fact, one could argue such academic accomplishments (and the Ivy towers that come with them) ensure that individuals are not prepared for effectively leading large bureaucracies or owning the bully pulpits that come with being a politician on the national stage.

Many have taken school choice advocate Betsy DeVos’ nomination as Education Secretary as a sign of what is wrong with the system. As King and many others have noted, DeVos “only” holds a bachelor’s degree from Calvin College. She’s also been attacked for having never worked as a public school teacher or for having never worked in K-12 in general (among other criticisms).

But many of the same people who criticize DeVos for her lack of education pedigree are the same who were uber-critical of Rod Paige when he was named EdSec in 2001. Dr. Paige held a doctorate. He had been a K-12 teacher (though in a subject that many dismissed), a school superintendent, and had worked in higher education. We dismissed those experiences as well, saying he shouldn’t be the EdSec, because we didn’t like the schools he attended or the subjects he taught. He didn’t fit the pre-conceived perceptions that many had for an EdSec.

I’d remind folks that those who think teaching experience is a pre-requisite for being EdSec, such a filter would have denied us EdSec Richard Riley, perhaps the most successful Secretary since the creation of the Department in the Carter Administration. And for those who think an advanced degree is a requirement for becoming president, it would have kept us from Presidents Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan (just to name a few).

What is of even greater concern is the focus on where the degrees of nominees may be from. We discount Trump’s B.A. from a lesser Ivy like UPenn, and folks are having a field day with DeVos’ Calvin College. Here in America, we tell our kids that a college education is the most important investment they can make. Almost as frequently, we tell them where they attend doesn’t matter (as long as it is accredited) as long as they work hard and earn their degree.

But the scorn that is now being displayed for the Trump administration on its attainment levels and alma maters tell a very different story. We are telling our kids that if they only get a bachelor’s degree, they can’t be a true success (I guess we will forget Bill Gates dropping out of school and such). And we’re telling them that that undergraduate degree from an affordable state college isn’t worth as much as one from an elite private school charging $75,000 a year. 

Even worse, we are telling our kids that one’s success is measured by the letters after their name and the public recognition of the college bumper sticker on their car, not by what they have achieved in their lives.

Sure, I know that isn’t what King is intending to say. But it is how it can come across to so many. We should measure our leaders (and everyone else) by what they know and are able to do. It should be about earning success and demonstrating achievement. A graduate degree can be one measure of that. So can military service. So can experience building a non-profit organization or serving as a community leader. So can a whole lot of things that just aren’t measured by a sheepskin.

What Edu-Reporting Can Learn from the 2016 Campaign

What [the election] means for us is both calling out racism when we see it, and also speaking to people who don’t necessarily see common ground with each other. I don’t know that we weren’t doing that before, but going forward we are intending on making sure our language is as honest and accurate as possible, and holding people accountable.

– Hechinger Report’s Sarah Garland, in Alexander Russo’s Make [Education] Reporting Great Again

Revisiting Four Key EduConcerns for a New Presidential Administration

Back in January, Eduflack wrote for Education Post on the four key education concerns the few dozen folks seeking the presidency need to consider. More than 10 months later, these four issues were barely touched in the 2016 campaign at almost every level. But they remain essential, particularly as President-elect Trump begins to shape his education policy and chooses a leader to head his U.S. Department of Education.

The four areas I continue to hope we focus on include:

  1. The proper federal/state role when it comes to education policy;
  2. 21st century education and real 21st century learning;
  3. Accountability, and how to effectively hold education institutions, particularly colleges and universities, accountable; and
  4. The future of teacher education.

In each of these areas, I pose a number of questions that we must consider. Each question was relevant at the start of the calendar year. Each is relevant today. And each will be even more relevant at the start of a new administration and a new Congress.

I just hope someone (or someones) is starting to explore answers and responses.

 

 

A Steady Hand for Trump EdSec

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

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

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

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

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

With all that, the Eduflack shortlist for EdSec includes:

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

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

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

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

Who am I missing?

BAM! Listen Up!

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

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

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

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

 

A Family Engagement Advocate for EdSec!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Trump-ization of Local Edu-Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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