Wow, We Did Put Reading First After All

Five or eight years ago, after Reading First (and NCLB ) had been the law of the land, districts were implementing scientifically based reading research, and publishers were revising their curricular materials to meet the new rigor of RF, we started to see an uptick in student reading performance.  Test scores were on the rise, and they were on the rise for all students.

At the time, RF haters declared that any bump in student achievement was the result of kinder, gentler instructional policies implemented in the mid-1990s.  There simply was no way we could see the results of Reading First in a matter of years.
A few years after that, we again saw modest upticks in student reading performance for all demographics.  This time, the haters declared that it was further proof that RF was a failure, as it hadn’t closed the achievement gaps yet.  Forget that we saw increases for Black, Latino, and white students.  RF was about closing the gaps, not boosting the performance.
So what is going to be the argument this week?  The latest NAEP scores are out, and what do we see?  Reading performance for both 9 and 13 year olds is up.  For those students who have only been taught reading in the public schools since RF has been the law of the land, we are seeing an improvement in reading scores.  And we are seeing the gaps close.  The Washington Post and USA Today have the full story in today’s editions.
Without question, there are a lot of people who opposed directing the public schools to teach young children to read through methods that were proven effective.  People resisted doing what works when it comes to literacy.  But these latest numbers from The Nation’s Report Card don’t lie.  Like it or not, Reading First worked.  As a result of ensuring that curriculum and PD and instructional materials and assessments and interventions were all tied to proven research and were all based on what was most effective in teaching children to read, we are seeing improvement in student reading performance.  And we are seeing it across all demographics, as we actually begin to narrow our horrific achievement gaps.
Do we still have a lot of work to do to eliminate those gaps and get the third of fourth graders unable to read at grade level up to par?  Absolutely.  But clearly, we are headed in the right direction.  Educators across the nation have invested the time and resources to utilizing the proven effective and getting kids reading.  And out nation’s middle schoolers are now better for it.
Haters will continue to hate, and point out that RF is essentially dead and classrooms have moved on from it.  But we can’t deny that SBRR (until Common Core comes on line) continues to drive the development of instructional materials, the supports offered teachers, and the standards we set for our schools.  And that these students — today’s third and seventh graders — are the products of the NCLB environment and an SBRR focus.  
Who’da thunk?  We actually did put reading first, and we are no seeing the results of all of that hard work.

It’s Common Core-tastic!?

As the great Yogi Berra is reported as saying, it’s like deja vu all over again!  

This past weekend, dear ol’ Eduflack was out in San Francisco for the ASCD Annual Conference.  On Saturday, I had the privilege of addressing more than 100 folks who came out on a monsoon-like Saturday morning to learn more about how to build, execute, and measure a successful public engagement campaign in the education space.  A good time, I hope, was had by all.
After the conclusion of that merriment, Eduflack wandered over to the exhibit hall to see what companies, non-profits, IHEs, and government agencies thought ASCD attendees would be most interested in.  It was a full hall, comprised of many of the same organizations that make the rounds during the spring education conferences.
But the one thing that caught my eye was how many booths and vendors bore the supposed blessing of the Common Core State Standards Initiative.  We had “Common Core approved” and “Common Core certified.”  For those not quite willing to go out on the limb, we had even had quite a few “Common Core aligned.”  The label could be found on curriculum and supplemental materials, professional development and assessment tools.  It seemed to be applicable for everything short of the tote bags and candy giveaways.
Yes, I realize that most states have signed onto Common Core and are currently in the process figuring out how to move that adoption to implementation.  Yes, I realize the embrace of Common Core was a requirement of Race to the Top and is likely to play a role in ESEA reauthorization.  And yes, I realize the importance of having a one national yardstick by which we measure all U.S. students.
But we also have to be clear here.  States are adopting relatively general standards in just two subject areas.  We have no curriculum to go with those standards yet.  We have no tests to go with the standards yet.  We have no textbooks or workbooks or cookbooks that go with those standards yet.  in fact, we don’t even have the full standards yet, as all states have the ability to add 15 percent of their own priority standards to the common ELA and math standards currently in play.
So it just seems far too premature for us to be peddling the “Common Core approved” when we still don’t know what Common Core looks like in the schools and THERE IS NO ONE TO APPROVE ANYTHING ON BEHALF OF COMMON CORE!  No one is certifying or approving on behalf of CCSSI.  At a time when states and districts are worried about Common Core (and many at ASCD were), we have vendors marketing their wares to those concerns, promising the magical elixirs that will fix everything.
And that’s where the deja vu comes into play.  It was only seven or eight years ago when we saw the exact same scene unfold around scientifically based research.  In 2002, 2003, 2004, just about anyone who was anyone at an education conference was selling an SBR-based product that was aligned with NCLB.  Didn’t matter if it was true or not, everyone was scientifically based.  Everyone had an evidence-based core.  You could talk to a dozen reading programs on conference row in 2003, and they were all SBR.  Ask them what their research was, and most handed the same document to you — the National Reading Panel report (or the NCLB legislation itself).
The problem here is that people understood the expectation (everything needed to be scientifically based) but they didn’t understand (or didn’t care) what that meant.  The type of research required under the law took four or five years to develop, and the sales cycle didn’t allow for that sort of time.  So take the NRP report, slap a focus group or two together, put together some bar graphs, and there was your research base.  Add a colorful “checklist” aligning your product with the NRP and you were really excelling.
(As an aside, perhaps my favorite vendor at ASCD this weekend was one peddling a product labeled as “scientifically researched based.”  I don’t know what scientifically research is, but I’m guessing that extra “ly” makes the research extra good.)
Here we go again.  We all saw how successful it was to sell vapor and snake oil as SBR in the last decade.  It cost us another generation of students.  It killed a potentially strong program in Reading First and wasted millions (if not billions) of dollars in the process, as we couldn’t distinguish between the real deal and the posers.  
Before we rush to reach for the Common Core label, can we just take a moment to actually digest CCSSI?  Can we let states ID their 15 percent add on?  Can we see how districts apply it to instructional expectations?  Can we see how the assessment consortia begin developing their products?  And can we see, please, if these standards actually move into the classroom or if they just hang out there as a good idea that we agree to, but don’t actually implement?
Of course, there is one difference between SBR and CCSSI.  WIth SBR, the federal government established a new pot of money, $1 billion a year under RF, to help fund the acquisition of those new SBR products and services.  With Common Core, there doesn’t appear to be any new money.  Perhaps, as districts and states are spending their own funds from existing obligations and aren’t playing with house money, that they will scrutinize their purchases a little more, ensuring they are buying the real deal.  
There are some great products and services out there that do match up well with Common Core and can help districts and schools meet their current and future obligations.  But anyone can slap a label on a product.  It is up to educators to discern the strong from the squishy.  

Some Resolutions for 2011

Another year about to go down in the history books.  Are we any closer to truly improving our public schools?  For every likely step forward we may have taken in 2010, it seems to be met with a similar step back.  For every rhetorical push ahead, we had a very real headwind blocking progress. 

So as we head into 2011, your friendly neighborhood Eduflack offers up a few “resolutions” for all on the education reform boat to consider as we start a new year.  We need to come to accept the following:
1.  True reform does not happen at the federal level.  The federal government is an important lever in the school improvement process, offering some necessary financial resources and some bully pulpit language to inspire reform.  But true improvement happens at the state and local levels.  It is about what our SEAs and LEAs do with those resources and whether they embrace the call from the bully pulpit.  Just as all politics is local, so too is all education reform.  Why do you think groups like DFER are so keen on launching new statewide efforts, like the new one in California?
2.  ESEA reauthorization really doesn’t matter.  As much as we want to fret about when ESEA is going to be reauthorized and what will and won’t be included, it doesn’t have much impact on the game at hand.  At the end of the day, EdSec Duncan could work from the current NCLB, make a few tweaks, and be just fine for the next few years.  Those thinking a major sea change is coming with reauth will be sadly mistaken.  If we see reauth this year (put at about 60 percent), expect it to simply be a kinder, gentler NCLB.  Nothing more.
3. Education technology matters.  For years now, we’ve placed ed tech in the perifery when it comes to school improvement, trying to define it as simply the adoption of a particular piece of hardware.  Ed tech needs to be at the center of 21st century school improvement.  It is important to instruction and student achievement, teacher quality, and all-around turnaround efforts.  If we are to realize its impact, we need to ensure it is a non-negotiable in the process.
4. We cannot forget about reading instruction.  Nine years ago, Reading First was born, emphasizing the importance of literacy instruction in the elementary grades.  We cannot boost student test scores and we cannot ensure that all kids are college and career ready if everyone isn’t reading at grade level.  RF taught us a great deal on how to teach reading (and how not to advocate it politically).  Building on those lessons, we need to redouble our efforts to get each and every child reading proficient.  And that now includes focusing on middle and high schools, where too many students have fallen between the cracks.
5. Superintendents matter.  Many of our largest and most influential school districts will experience change at the top this coming year.  These new leaders can’t forget that the role of instructional leader is essential to their success.  Shaking things up is good.  Sweeping out the old is fine.  Doing things differently is great.  But at the end of the day, being a superintendent is all about teaching and learning and measurement.  Magazine covers are nice, but rising test scores are far more rewarding.
6. We still need to figure out what teacher quality is.  Is it just student test scores?  Does it include preservice education requirements beyond HQT provisions?  Are their qualitative factors?  Can we accept a “we’ll know it when we see it” definition?  With increased focus continuing to be placed on the topic of teacher quality, we need a true defition and a true measurement to really launch a meaningful discussion.  We’ve spent too much time talking about what it isn’t or what it shouldn’t be.  It is time to determine what it is.
7. Research remains king.  In 2010, we spent a great deal of money on school reforms and improvement ideas.  Most of these dollars were an investment in hope.  Now it is time to verify.  We need to determine what is working and what is not.  We need to know not just that the money is being spent (as ED typically sees evaluation) but instead need to know what it is being spent on and what is showing promise of success.  We need to redouble our investments in evaluation.  Other sectors have made real advances because of investments in R&D.  It is about time for education to do the same.
8. We need to learn how to use social media in education.  It is quite disheartening to see that states like Virginia are exploring banning teachers from using tools like Facebook with their students.  It is also a little frustrating to see that media like Twitter are still being used for one-way communications.  We need to see more engagement and dialogue through our social media.  An example?  How about more Twitter debates like those between @DianeRavitch and @MichaelPetrilli ?
And as we look forward to the new year, some predictions on what is hot and what is not for 2011.
HOT — Accountability (and its flexibility).  Assessments.  International benchmarking.  Rural education.  Alternative certification.  Special education.  Competitive grants.  Local control.  School improvement.  Local elected school boards.  Online education.
NOT —  Charter schools.  Early childhood education.  21st century skills.  STEM.  ELL.  Education schools.  RttT/i3.  Education reform (yeah, you heard me).  Teachers unions.  Mayoral control.  AYP.  Early colleges.  Edujobs.
Happy new year!  


Over the weekend, Darrell Issa (CA), the incoming chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, made clear that investigations are a-coming to our nation’s capital in 2011.  The new GOP majority in the US House of Representatives plans to investigate the Obama Administration on a host of policy and political issues, all in the name of transparency and accountability.

What does all this mean for education?  Possibly quite a bit.  We still have many people about town licking their wounds from the investigations into the NCLB-era Reading First program.  So what could Issa and the “Investigations Committee” have up their sleeve for education in the coming Congress?

Stimulus Funding — According to the US Department of Education, $89 billion has been provided through the Recovery Act for education, saving an estimated 300,000 education jobs.  How has that money actually been spent?  Why is so much of the available education stimulus funding still untapped?  Are states spending the dollars, or holding them back for a rainy day?  How real are those job estimates?  The Stimulus may be a bigger topic for for Issa and company, but how billions of dollars has been spent by the K-12 establishment is likely to be a storyline.

Race to the Top — By now, we all know about the $4 billion spent on RttT.  So let’s look into the Round 1 scoring and the discrepencies across review panels.  What about the huge differences in Round 2 scores before and after oral defense?  How hard were states’ arms twisted to change laws and adopt policies in order to qualify for money they never got?  And then, more importantly, how is the money being spent?  What vendors are now raking in the big RttT bucks?   It may be greatly unfair, but many a pundit and so-called policy maven will expect to see tangible results in Tennessee and Delaware next year, only a year after winning the grant.  If we don’t see marked improvement …

Investing in Innovation — The i3 program brings many of the same questions coming to Race.  Why were so many school districts unsuccessful in winning, while advocacy groups and “friends of the program” won big?  What about discrepencies across the different review panels?   

Edujobs — Just because so many folks seem to dislike the program, it would make a great investigation, particularly since many school districts are holding the money back for next school year or the following.  Did it actually save a job for the 2010-11 school year?  And at what cost?

General Favoritism — This was the great hook of the RF debacle.  The Bush Administration allegedly steering contracts, funding, attention, and well wishes to their closest friends and family in the reading community.  What goes around, comes around, I fear.  Imagine those hearings to see what orgs are sitting at the table to write the education stimulus and ESEA reauth?  Who helped develop criteria for RttT, i3, and other programs?  What orgs are now reaping the benefits of their “help” on moving education improvement forward?  And who is in the pipe to benefit from proposed funding consolidation and competitive grants, as proposed in the president’s budget?

Are such investigations fair?  Hardly.  But that doesn’t mean they won’t happen.  Education is one of those interesting policy topics, where everyone believes they know best.  We all went to school, after all, and thus our ideas are the most important.  Over the past 18 months, we’ve spent a great deal of education dollars.  There have been real winners and real losers.  And if the House GOP is serious about reducing federal spending and federal power, going after federal education can be a powerful rhetorical device. 

So what’ll it be, Mr. Issa?  Is federal education on the hit list, somewhere between healthcare reform and cap and trade? 

Turning This Race Into a Relay

A year ago, many words and many more column inches were committed to ensure that any and all realized that education funding coming through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was a one-time deal.  States were originally discouraged from using State Fiscal Stabilization Fund dollars to pay teachers’ salaries, out of fear that that account will disappear as quickly as it appeared, thus leaving states looking for new funding to pay for essential educational services in two short years.

We may forget it now, but new competitive grant programs — Race to the Top and i3 chief among them — were part of the original ARRA funding.  We allocated $650 million to fund efforts to invest through innovation in our local school districts.  And we originally set aside $4.35 billion (now down to $4 billion, as $350 million has been pulled out specifically for data systems) to provide a select group of states big dollars to fund big changes in standards, teacher quality, school turnaround, and charters.

Today, the terms and conditions associated with RttT appeared to change.  This morning, President Obama announced his intention to seek an additional $1.35 billion in funding for the next generation of Race to the Top.  The preview story can be found in The Washington Post here, and Michele McNeil has the after-announcement reporting over at EdWeek here.   

Both pre- and post-coverage leaves us with some sketchy details.  Apparently, the intent is to provide additional Race funding for states, while also making dollars available to some school districts.  The LEA component makes sense, particularly if states like California and New York are unable to put forward a truly competitive RttT application.  This way, districts like Long Beach Unified and NYC can be rewarded for both their past efforts and future plans (fulfilling the RttT mission), while providing a path for future school districts to follow.

The state dollars become more interesting.  Is the intent to expand programs in worthy states, answering the call from states like Colorado who believe their alloted range of available dollars is too small to manage their ambitious plans?  Or is the intent to add another three or four states to the Race, expanding the total number of states and giving some the chance to revise their laws and their applications after the first two batches are released?  Eduflack has to believe the intent is the latter.  In fact, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the terms of a Phase 3 Race grant reduced the need to demonstrate “past achievement” and instead provided smaller total grants to those states who have made real changes to be Race compliant and forward thinking.

We’ve heard a lot about Race being the single-largest discretionary program in the history of the U.S. Department of Education.  Now, the President will request this additional $1.35 billion in his February budget.  And with that request, we should expect to soon see an annual budget line item for Race, with dollars either adding states or expanding programs along the way.  Next year, Race will likely be added to ESEA reauthorization (as Reading First was to NCLB , making the policy (and the dollars) part of the federal code for the next five to eight years.  And then we’ve gone from a one-time booster shot for innovation toward an annual vaccination against the status quo and the fear of change.

Don’t believe Eduflack?  Just take a look at the words of House Education Chairman George Miller, who told EdWeek, “By continuing Race to the Top, the federal government shows it can be a partner in reform and work to uphold the integrity of the program so that these resources are used as intended and help leverage change.”  This isn’t an in-and-out engagement as originally believed.  We are launching educational nation-building.

And while we anticipate the details and the specifics of this extension (along with waiting with baited breath to see the 30 or so RttT apps that will arrive at Maryland Avenue today, and the 10-12 states that will win this first Race by September), one thing remains certain.  As the lifespan of RttT is extended, there will be a far greater emphasis on demonstrating success and tracking return on investment.  The mission will not be accomplished just because the money was distributed and we all feel better about ourselves as a result.  SEAs and LEAs will need to demonstrate, by preponderance of the evidence, that RttT boosted learning, increased student achievement, closed the achievement gap, and improved the quality and effectiveness of teaching, particularly in historically disadvantaged communities.

By many calculations, Reading First (the previously largest discretionary program in ED history) failed at truly documenting the cause/effect of RF dollars and student test scores.  We now need to learn from what worked and didn’t with regard to RF assessment and accountability and build a better mousetrap for Race.  Four years from now, we don’t want to be left having spent $6 billion on RttT reforms, but no irrefutable way to measure the true effectiveness of the program. Ultimately, when it comes to RttT assessment, it must be trust … but verify.

Beginning of End for ESEA Reauth?

If one talks to those on Maryland Avenue, there has been a relatively steadfast belief that the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) would be coming in the first half of 2010.  Staff have been busy at work on the planning pieces.  Most have been assuming that the framework developed for Race to the Top, particularly the four key pillars, would stand as the foundations of ESEA.  And they’ve even been talking about dropping legislation after the start of the new year, with a goal of completing reauthorization before the summer recess.

But then we ran into major public comment with RttT, delaying the release of the final RFP by a month or two.  We’re now facing a similar push on common core standards, with the full K-12 draft standards now expected by the end of 2009, and moving to the states for implementation by mid-2010.  Layer onto that i3 and other such pieces, and one has to ask if we have the stomach for ESEA reauthorization, with everything else, ed reform wise, that is happening.
Recent pieces of information seem to signal that the timetable for ESEA may now be pushed back.  Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (WA) introduced the LEARN Act, the logical successor to NCLB’s Reading First Initiative.  While LEARN could easily be folded into reauthorization, it is beginning the process as a stand-alone bill, and could become law well before NCLB is every replaced.
Today, U.S. Rep. George Miller (CA), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced the Graduation for All Act of 2009, an impressive piece of legislation that focuses on boosting high school graduation rates and improving the secondary school experience.  Some are even calling it the “S” component of ESEA.  The full description of the legislation can be found here.  While Graduation for All could be seen as the first component of ESEA to move forward, it is easily a signal that revamping NCLB may not be a major priority after all for the coming year, and the good chairman wants to move forward on one of the most pressing education concerns facing K-12, and an issue that is not directly addressed in RttT or i3.
But perhaps the most interesting news impacting ESEA is the headline delivered by Alexander Russo on his This Week in Education blog this morning.  According to Russo (and found here), Alice Cain is leaving the House Education and Labor Committee to join the Hope Street Group and lead its new teacher quality efforts.  While that is terrific news for Hope Street, it leaves a gaping hole on Chairman Miller’s committee staff.  Cain is the go-to staffer on all things K-12 and was seen by many as the quarterback for ESEA reauthorization.  Miller is clearly calling the shots on congressional reauth, and Cain was the person to run the plays for him.  It’ll be tough for Miller to fill her shoes, and quickly, as so many of the best congressional staffers have already moved to ED or the White House, and her departure may very well be a signal that reauthorization isn’t coming as quickly as many of us thought or hoped for.
Regardless, it is all still a guessing game.  But right now, that Magic 8 Ball is telling us “don’t count on it.”

Reading Gaining Speed as Fed Priority?

With all of the talk about RttT, school turnarounds, and the like, we haven’t spent much time at all talking about core instructional issues.  As many schools continue to struggle reaching AYP and demonstrating the sort of student achievement we all expect (and that the federal law still demands), we just haven’t been focusing on the curricular foundations that help us get to our intended destination.  This is particularly true of reading instruction, which has been a red-headed stepchild in federal education policy for the past few years (ever since Congress defunded the Reading First program short of its intended completion date).

For the past year, those in DC who pay attention to reading instruction issues have been hearing grumblings about the next generations of Reading First, a new federal policy that would provide comprehensive reading instruction across grades kindergarten through 12.  We’ve seen working drafts circulated about town talking about a more “comprehensive” approach to reading, a greater emphasis on teaching techniques (and less so on instructional materials), and the possibility of a new definition of “scientifically based,” the one term that came to define RF, for good or bad.
But all has been quiet on the reading front for the past six months or so.  The closest we’ve gotten to talk about reading has been discussions of common core standards.  But after six years of making reading instruction in the elementary grades priority number one in school improvement, we’ve all but forgotten about reading.  (OK, most have forgotten.  Some of us have continued to tilt at windmills in search RF, the next generation.)
Now we finally have our answer.  Yesterday, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (WA) introduced the Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation Act, or LEARN.  The bill summary looks remarkably similar to the working drafts being circulated around town earlier this year by folks like the Alliance for Excellent Education, the International Reading Association and others.  Among LEARN’s highlights:
* $2.35 billion in total funding for K-12 literacy instruction, with at least 10 percent going to early childhood education, 40 percent going to K-5 (RF’s sweet spot), and at least 40 percent going to grades 6-12.
* A new rigorous national evaluation of the programs being funded through LEARN (with a particular note of “stringent conflict of interest restrictions for the program’s peer review process,” a direct response to IG investigation into RF)
* A focus on state-based literacy programs (again similar to RF), focusing on leadership teams, a state literacy plan, subgrants to LEAs, focus on struggling schools, and attention to pre-service literacy instruction.  Interestingly, LEARN also includes language to help fund those districts doing well in reading, so they can continue improvements.
The bill summary offered by Senator Murray’s office also sets forward four key goals.  LEARN is intended to “support the creation of local high-quality literacy programs in schools by:

a) providing high-quality professional development for instructional staff that is job-embedded, ongoing, and research-based, providing teachers with expertise in literacy instruction appropriate to specific grade levels, analyzing data to improve student learning, and effective implementation of literacy instruction strategies; 
b) providing students with explicit, systematic, and developmentally appropriate instruction in reading and writing, including but not limited to vocabulary development, phonemic awareness, 
reading comprehension, and the use of diverse texts; 
c) utilizing diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments to inform and improve instruction and student learning at all age levels; and 
d) supporting schoolwide literacy programs and additional literacy supports to address the specific learning needs of struggling readers and writers, including English language learners and students with disabilities.” 

A similar bill is expected to be offered in the U.S. House of Representatives.  RIght now, LEARN is slated to move forward as an independent piece of legislation, not attached as part of ESEA reauthorization or any other similar bill.  Of course, if ESEA reauth does move quickly early next year (a hope Eduflack is quickly losing confidence in) it could easily be rolled into the larger bill.
So what are we to make of all this?  There is much good here, and much still to be determined, including:
* LEARN re-declares a federal commitment to reading instruction, putting billions more into supporting the advances made by many states and school districts under RF;
* It extends our commitment to reading beyond the previous grades K-4 to K-12, ensuring that all of those children who benefited from RF investments in recent years are now seeing similar commitments in middle and high school;
* It recognizes that reading instruction in those middle and secondary grades is essential to our national goals around high school graduation and college-going, and emphasizes that literacy instruction must continue throughout one’s academic career;
LEARN continues to emphasize the importance of professional development, an often overlooked piece of RF (where the law called for up to 25 percent of RF’s $6 billion be directed to PD and teacher training);
* It actually doubles down on the importance of professional development by specifically focusing on the pre-service needs of preparing teachers to teach reading; and
* It continues our emphasis on explicit, systematic, and developmentally appropriate instruction in reading.
And what remains TBD here?
* First and foremost, the money.  RF focused $6 billion on the elementary grades, and many are still questioning the effectiveness of the program and its impact.  As we expand the program to include early childhood education (likely swallowing what was Early Reading First), elementary grades (the old Reading First), and middle and high school grades (currently funded by the meager Struggling Readers program), we are now doing for more in federal reading instruction with significantly less money.  Does the proposed funding get the job done, or does it merely set things in motion, leaving it to SEAs and LEAs to find new funds to enact the comprehensive reading efforts needed.  It is frightening to say, but $2.35 billion, particularly if distributed K-12 to all 50 states, likely won’t be enough.
* It talks about instruction beyond vocabulary and phonemic awareness, but doesn’t specify a specific definition.  Some will read this as a repudiation of RF.  Others can see it as a continuation of those priorities, where phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension were the intended foci.  Both sides in the reading wars will be fighting to “redefine” what LEARN’s instruction is intended to focus on.
* It calls for diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments at all age levels.  An essential piece to education reform in the current era, without doubt.  But do we have such tests?  RF was limited by state assessments in grades 3-8, yes.  But after spending the past decade in the so-called “high stakes testing” era, do we have research-based, accepted diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments that can be used immediately in grades k-12?  Or a better question, do we have such assessments that all parties will agree on and use correctly?
* While there is mention of “research-based,” how will that be defined?  Clearly, the previous SBRR definition is going to be rewritten.  So how do we capture “research-based,” and how do we do it so that it means something, and isn’t merely a consensus definition that is acceptable by all, but loved by none?
* While I understand the reasons behind it, can we successfully use LEARN money to both raise reading achievement in struggling schools while incentivizing high-performing schools to continue their investment in results-based reading instruction?
* Most importantly, what are the intended outcomes?  If all of the points identified in Murray’s summary of LEARN are followed and followed with fidelity, what should we expect to see at the end of three or four years?
These are all questions that Murray and other legislators will be able to answer in the coming months as LEARN moves through the process.  Regardless, LEARN is a good next step for our federal reading instruction efforts.  Will make RF advocates happy?  No.  Will it satisfy RF critics?  Based on the summary, absolutely not.  But it may just have the right combination to continue to improve the acquisition of reading skills among students in grades K-12, while continuing to equip all teachers with the literacy instruction skills they need to lead a successful classroom.  It continues to focus on doing what works in the classroom, pursuing paths that are supported by the research and demonstrate effectiveness.  And it recognizes that school and student success hinges on a child’s ability to read at grade level, regardless of what grade they are in.
In an era where nearly two-thirds of all of our nation’s eighth graders are unable to score proficient or better on the eighth grade reading NAEP, LEARN is clearly much needed legislation.  Here’s hoping it doesn’t get lost in the push for Racing, Innovation, and such.  This is too important an issue not to be at center stage for school improvement efforts.

“A Time to Act”

This morning, the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy releases its much-anticipated “Time to Act: An Agenda for Advancing Adolescent Literacy for College and Career Success.”  For those who have been playing in the literacy game for the past decade or two, we know it has been a game played primarily on the elementary school playgrounds.  Get a student reading proficient by fourth grade, and we have success.  If they don’t make the cut, we hope they will catch up in the later grades, when there are more demands on their literacy skills and less time spent specifically focusing on reading proficiency (particularly reading comprehension, the Holy Grail of reading instruction).  The full report can be found here.

We like talking about teaching young children to read.  But we find it incredibly difficult to wrap our hands around once they hit those ‘tween years.  Other than the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Reading Next report, few have focused on the issue of adolescent literacy.  And even fewer have done it with the passion and pointedness that Carnegie has now done.
Back in the winter, President Obama pledged that the United States would have the highest percentage of college graduates by the year 2020.  We’ve sold virtually every student on the promise that a postsecondary degree equals career success.  School districts across the nation have enacted reform plans to improve high school graduation rates, moving more and more kids to college.  But it is all meaningless if those high school grads don’t possess the learning skills necessary to succeed.  Those students who struggle for reading proficiency in fourth grade rarely find that magic elixir in middle or high school.  They don’t catch up, literacy wise, they fall further and further behind.  And then we wonder why half of those going on to college have to take remedial reading or math courses just to keep up in college-level courses.
Nationally, the statistics haven’t been pretty.  According to NAEP scores, 8th and 12th grade reading proficiency has remained relatively stagnant for decades now.  And they are stagnated on numbers that aren’t very pretty, particularly for historically disadvantaged students.  Clearly, the status quo won’t hold if we are to live up to the promises of college graduation, innovation, races to the top, and opportunity for all.
In Time to Act, Carnegie lays out clear action steps for educators and school leaders to take if they are to improve adolescent literacy and ensure that their students are indeed prepared for college-level work.  But in this era of education reform and intervention, perhaps the most interesting recommendations are the challenges that Carnegie puts forward for federal and state policymakers.
For federal policymakers, the first order of business is to get their hands dirty and get involved in adolescent literacy instruction.  To help them prioritize, Carnegie offers the following reccs: 1) increase Title I support for middle and high schools; 2) adopt the common standards we’ve all be talking about; 3) look at linking NAEP to international literacy tests like PISA and PIRLS; 4) develop middle and high school literacy demonstration sites in high-poverty areas; 5) support states in the development of P-12 literacy plans; 6) develop early warning systems for middle school students; 7) increase funding for the National Writing Project and Struggling Readers program; and 8) increase funding for adolescent literacy research.
Those at the state level aren’t spared any responsibility.  The charge to state leaders includes: 1) aligning state reading standards to other national and international benchmarks, including NAEP; 2) revise teacher certification and professional development standards; 3) define and provide the means for districts to identify and intervene when they see struggling readers; 4) require credit-bearing reading intervention classes for students who are two or more years behind grade level; 5) build the right statewide data systems that will collect comprehensive P-12 literacy data; 6) track RTI efforts; and 7) institutionalize those adolescent reading efforts that have been piloted in recent years.
For some, these federal and state recommendations may seem common sense.  But sometimes (or most of the time) we have to remind ourselves of what we know and why we know it.  Carnegie has done just that, synthesizing the data and providing a clear path to stakeholders as to how we can improve reading proficiency among middle and high school students.  This isn’t just an effort to take what we know about K-4 literacy and applying those lessons to middle and secondary schools.  Carnegie offers a real look at the adolescent literacy field.  And they do so at just the right time.
In all of our zeal and concern over Race to the Top, the soon-to-be-revealed Investing in Innovation Fund, and core standards, we seem to have forgotten that there is a new reading instruction bill circulating around Capitol Hill.  Building off the successes of Reading First, this new bill (Yes, We Can Read, if you will) is being developed to place a far greater emphasis on both adolescent literacy and teacher training and PD in reading instruction.  Couple that with current ED activities around standards and data systems, and we can see how close we can get to Carnegie’s vision for advancing adolescent literacy.  This think piece has a real chance of becoming an actual action statement.  
That would be a real accomplishment, particularly in this environment.  If Carnegie and its advocates can find a way to keep the Time to Act drum beating well beyond today’s report release, we could actually see this research transformed into policy.  It offers a strong enhancement to the current draft of the reading bill, while offering specific action steps that are both realistic and cost-manageable.  Now all they need is a drummer … or an entire corps.

Largest ED Discretionary Program in History?

This afternoon, the U.S. Department of Education hosted a webinar as follow-up to last Friday’s festivities on Race to the Top, the Innovation Fund, and the host of other additional funding programs made possible through a generous grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  The call served as a recap of the paperwork released on Friday, emphasizing the need for partnership, the importance of innovation, and the dollars and timelines associated with both.

As to be expected, individuals and organizations were already trying to see where they fit and what opportunities would be available specifically to them.  What about really small LEAs?  Does my planned charter school qualify?  Is there money for wind power in RTT? (The third question was indeed a serious one.)
A few interesting points came out of the responses.  For now, ED says it does not intend to eliminate SES (or at least replace it with ARRA funds).  We’ve been hearing for nearly a year now that SES may be eliminated as part of ESEA reauthorization, but if that’s the plan over on Maryland Avenue, they played it close to the vest today.
We also heard Deputy ED Secretary Tony Miller endorse extended day and extended school year programs.  When asked if RTT funds could be used for extended-day efforts, Miller can an enthusiastic affirmative, and even pointed to statewide efforts in Massachusetts as example of how state RTT dollars could be used effectively.
But I was most intrigued by the answer to a question regarding the timelines for programs and how long each stream of funding would last.  When the discussion turned to RTT, Miller and company noted that Race to the Top funding was operating under a four-year plan.  So $4.5 billion, available to states over four years.  That comes out to $1.125 billion a year to me (although I learned my math before core standards were developed).
For some time, we have been hearing that Race to the Top was the single largest education discretionary spending program in the history of the United States.  Friday, officials and dignitaries discussed all of the many uses for RTT, including STEM, alternative certification, charter schools, and the like (windmills did not make the cut).  That’s a lot of potential silos being funded with the RTT stream of dollars.  Clearly, ED has not indicated how many states will receive RTT funds.  If it is six to eight states, as many expect, that is a huge boon to reform efforts in those states.  If most states get the dollars, as may be politically expedient, that check is looking a little smaller than the Publishers Clearinghouse checks so many are now expecting.
But this afternoon’s discussion has deal ole Eduflack thinking.  Is Race to the Top really the single largest education discretionary program in the history of man?  As I remember it, in 2002, Reading First became law.  As it was originally written, it was a 5-year, $6 billion program.  Yes, all 50 states were expected to receive it, but the plan was approximately $1.2 billion a year for one single stream of educational improvement — reading instruction.  Had the law been maximized, up to 25 percent of that was to go to high-quality professional development for teachers (so nearly $1.5 billion for teacher training and supports).  
Why do I raise the RF issue now?  In continued reading of RTT, the draft language seems to be all things to all people.  It is designed as a consensus program so that each person along the way can hang their pet program or favorite issue on the reform tree.  Governor gets his issue.  State superintendent gets his.  State board of education gets its favorite.  Even the head of the state teachers union (if applicable) gets the final OK, meaning they get some quid for their pro quo.  At the end of the day, the applications are likely going to be a patchwork of different things intended to improve in some places, reward in others, and placate in still others.
If that is how things roll out, and the majority of states receive RTT funds, then how do we ensure that we are really putting the dollars on the specific interventions and action items that will boost student achievement and close the achievement gap?  We struggled in tracking federal effectiveness in RF (with some reporter friends reminding me that ED still hasn’t accounted for how those dollars were actually spent) and that was just focused on a singular issue of reading instruction in grades 3-8?  How do we track, measure, and report progress and effectiveness of a host of issues that may be uncommon across states?  How do we make sure that states are truly using the dollars to race to the top, and aren’t simply stuck in neutral with a gear shift that’s a little too loose?
The clock is ticking on the 30-day review period for RTT.  Do I think the scope will narrow?  No.  But the criteria for evaluating state applications and awarding grants could do the trick.

Reading First, Last, and Forever

Sometimes, it is just tiring being Eduflack, particularly when it comes to the area of reading instruction.  Time and again, I’ve pledged that I’ve written my last post on Reading First.  Between the IES study and Congress’ dismissal, RF has been written off for dead more times than a cat on her ninth life.  It seems the final nail in the coffin has been hammered time and again over the last year or two.

But then along come a series of actions that just make you see that while the Reading First brand may be dead and buried, its impact and its infrastructure are not going anywhere.  The bright spot is Understanding Reading First, a new white paper from MDRC.  The piece is worth a quick read.  No, there is no groundbreaking data or unread news in the document.  But it is a strong summation of RF, its foundations, and some of the results.
And read in the current context, it also shows that scientifically based reading research may indeed have a longer shelf life than any of us, including those stalwart supporters, ever thought was possible.  Thanks to the economic stimulus money in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, states and school districts are now discovering they can use their newfound education riches to extend RF-based programs for another year or two.  In fact, some could say the spending on reading coaches, scientifically based instructional materials, and professional development for reading teachers is exactly what ARRA is intended for.
Then we have the data, including the state research that has come from bellwether states like California, Texas, Ohio, and others demonstrating the positive impact that RF has had on student achievement.  Couple that with last fall’s RF study from the US Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (OPEPD) and there is more than enough strong data to show that the original IES study was flawed and one has to look at its nil finding with skeptical eyes.
Now we can mix in the K-12 reading instruction bill that has been circulating around town, which I am still trying to brand “Yes, We Can Read.”  Thanks to key education groups and key congressional leaders, we are actually working on a literacy bill that will build on RF’s elementary school focus and offer a reading continuum from preschool through high school graduation.  Even more important, the draft language being circulated around Washington, DC reflects a strong crosswalk with the SBRR language in the original Reading First.  An expansion here, some rewording there, but the intent and the embrace of the research is still there.
Hopefully, Understanding Reading First will get more attention and play than those that came before it, particularly the OPEPD study.  There is a growing pool of research demonstrating that RF worked, particularly when you factor in the positive impact it has had on schools and classrooms that didn’t receive specific dollars for Reading First programs.  Across the nation, all schools adopted scientifically based reading instruction and materials.  All teachers were trained in the research methods.  And virtually all kids benefited from it.  And for those who don’t want to listen to the state data, the NAEP results, or the results of other such assessments, MDRC reminds us of that once again.