Ed Policy Whiplash

We continue to shift our battle lines when it comes to education policy. Do we let the federal government or the state’s drive the K-12 train? Do we want common standards and expectations? Are the regs laid out by ESSA and other federal laws intended to be the floor or the ceiling when it comes to policy direction?

It’s all enough to give the education community a bad case of policy whiplash.

Over at the BAM! Radio Network, we explore this schizophrenia and look at how we set appropriate expectations – and appropriate outrage – in such a policy context. Give it a listen!

Improving High School, #HighSchool Graduation

Last month, the issues in DC Public Schools brought down its relatively new schools chancellor. This week, The Washington Post is reporting the graduation scandal now poses a clear and present danger for many DC students who have long thought that they would be graduating from high school this spring.

The District of Columbia isn’t the first school district to recognize its path to a high school diploma may indeed be broken. For decades now, we have heard of both dropout factories and those districts that responded by treating diplomas as nothing more than certificates of attendance, recognizing those who stuck with school for 12 or 13 years, 180 days or so each year.

In response, the Fordham Institute has focused its annual #Wonkathon on whether high school graduation requirements need to change to make the diploma more relevant. A number of smart people — including Peter Cunningham, Michael Petrilli, and Peter Greene — have already responded.

Of course, dear ol’ Eduflack couldn’t pass up the chance to suggest we need to a completely different frame for the high school school experience, once that emphasizes mastery of content and an ability to apply what is supposedly learned, rather than just rewarding students for “time served” in the classroom. As I write:

Today, we remain caught up on what is taught and how it is taught, not necessarily what is learned and how it is put to use. The student population today is nowhere close to being as homogenous as it was when the Carnegie Unit was adopted. In any given classroom, we have students of different backgrounds, different language abilities, different learning challenges, different preferred learning styles—different everything. A student adept at Algebra II shouldn’t need to sit through the class for 180 days because others don’t grasp the concepts. A student with a deep understanding of American history shouldn’t be asked to sit through the basics yet again because it is expected in ninth grade. Once a learner is able to demonstrate a mastery of the content and is able to apply that content in an appropriate manner, he or she should be able to move on to the next content area. Mastery-based high school allows us to prioritize the LEARNER in a way most high schools today simply do not.

I hope you will give all the entries a read. It is an important issue that warrants real discussion, disagreement, and action.


Schools and Guns

Across the nation, students are preparing to exercise their First Amendment rights in support of the students in Parkland, Florida and their response to school shootings and gun violence. Just this morning, Eduflack received his notice from his local school district in New Jersey on how my son’s middle school (sixth grade) and daughter’s elementary school (fifth grade) will acknowledge the March 14th National School Walkout. (The edu-son will march, the edu-daughter will engage in age-appropriate activities focused on “kindness and peace.”)

For the past two weeks, I’ve used my platform over on the BAM! Radio Network to talk about the issues of guns, schools, and kids. I hope you’ll give both a listen.

In the first episode, we explore how it is well past time to declare that gun violence is a public health crisis in our schools … and in our communities.

In the second, we look at what a sad commentary it is that we are now talking about financially incentivizing teachers to be armed and weapons-trained in the classroom, particularly after doing away with so many incentives (like National Board certification) that recognized teaching excellence in those same schools.

The issue may drop off the front pages to make room for other, sexier political stories, but until the laws change — and until school shooters aren’t turned into cults of personality by the media — the issues will keep coming back.

Let’s see what comes from the National School Walkout. Perhaps these kids can lead in a way their elected leaders cannot.


“Will the last teacher to leave West Virginia please turn out the lights?”

“Will the last teacher to leave West Virginia please turn out the lights?”

Nearly 30 years ago, one of my teachers held that very handwritten sign. She, along with my mother and dozens of other educators from my high school were picketing in Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia as part of a statewide teachers strike. The sign became iconic, running on the front page of newspapers across the state and the nation.

In 1990, those teachers were striking because of poor teacher benefits and worse pay. West Virginia was paying its public school educators less than 48 other states. The situation became so bad that unions in all 55 counties in the state organized a work stoppage. After two weeks, a true-blue legislature and a Democratic governor finally saw things the way those teachers wanted them to. Benefits were improved, and West Virginia committed to raising teacher salaries to the middle of the pack when it came to state averages.

Fast forward to 2018, and we are seeing the same scenario play out in a state that has largely become a microcosm for America. The state is gripped by opioids. The jobs of the old, industrial economy are drying up. West Virginia’s legislature is now shockingly red. The state is now led by a Republican governor (though one who was just elected as a Democrat in 2016). But again, West Virginia’s teachers are almost the lowest paid in the nation.

Currently, the minimum salary for a public school teacher in West Virginia is $26,000. To put more simply, if one accounts just for student days – overlooking required teacher work days, evenings, weekends, summers, and all of the other times teachers actually work – the minimum teacher salary is about $14 an hour. Or about what teachers in the Northern Panhandle would make in Pittsburgh or those in the Eastern Panhandle would make in the DC suburbs if they gave up teaching and became baristas at Starbuck’s.

During the 1990 strike, I was all too aware that teachers in my high school needed to hold second jobs in order to make ends meet. It was a frequent sight to see a teacher working as a bartender or waiter at a local restaurant or as a desk clerk at one of the nearby motels. During the strike, it would have been very easy for these teachers to turn to their second jobs, pick up additional hours, and ensure that they would make the rent or car payments that week. But they didn’t. Each and every day, they were out there on the picket lines. They were marching for their profession. And they were ensuring the entire community saw them.

That year, those teachers won because they had public support. Yes, the closure of schools is always an inconvenience for families in the community. But each day, parents and children brought the teachers water and soda and food. Neighbors honked their car horns in support. And even when the handful of teachers who refused to strike told students their records would be noted and student activities would be pulled if we failed to cross the picket line, not one student went into the schools during those weeks.

Fast forward to 2018, and we see a different story. The state legislature is now advancing a package for teachers that would boost teacher pay by about 4 percent over the next several years, far from the jump their fellow educators saw three decades ago. Public support for union strikes, even in strong union states like West Virginia, is not nearly as strong as it once was. And with the Supreme Court now considering the Janus case, labor unions and their memberships are likely to be weakened even more.

It’s quite sad that, at a time when we all recognize that a strong education is key to success in the digital, information economy, we still have to fight to ensure that educators are paid like the high-stakes professionals that they are. It is sadder that we, as a nation, are now talking about bonuses to teachers who come into the classroom armed, but still can’t pay many of them a living wage. And it is even sadder when teachers need to technically break the law and engage in a statewide work stoppage to gain the respect and recognition that they well deserve.

As a child, I romanticized my grandfather and his Teamsters jacket. I imagined he received it as a reward for backing Jimmy Hoffa and his agenda to play rough with short-haul trucking companies. To me, the Teamsters were a true union’s union.

Then I watched my mom and many of my high school teachers walk the picket lines, putting their livelihoods on the line. I saw them walking for what they believed in. And I saw the community stand behind them. I saw that light. So did many others.

Today is school day number four of the 2018 West Virginia teachers strike, and the request asked 28 years ago may still be pertinent. WV Gov. Jim Justice and the legislature will see that light too, and show teachers across the state the respect they deserve.  Otherwise, they may indeed be turning off the lights for West Virginia’s students.

Of Vocational Schools, Career Tech, and Learners

Years ago, I worked for an education entrepreneur who drilled in me the notion that American high schools were fundamentally broken, built for an era that was long gone. Today, we know that postsecondary education – in some form – is a non-negotiable. For one to have a successful career, to be able to take care of a family and keep a roof over their heads, a high school degree alone was no longer sufficient. High schools needed to become passageways to the successful pursuit of postsecondary education.

It wasn’t always this way. One can look back to the post-World War II era and see a time when only a third of high schoolers went on to college. A third of students graduated from high school to directly enter the workforce or pursue military service. And yes, a third would fail to earn a high school diploma, but still were able to obtain and keep employment.

Recently, President Donald J. Trump spoke longingly on those good ol’ days, noting how America’s future economic success may very well lie with a return to vocational schools. And while most do not use the term anymore, he may indeed be correct. It’s tough to deny that career and technical education is more important than ever. But it is careerteched that is vastly different than the shop class that President Trump may remember from high schools of decades past and is calling for. And it is at a time when we now look to community colleges to provide much of what those good ol’ voke ed schools used to offer.

It’s career and technical education that today is largely delivered by community colleges, either to recent high school graduates seeking that non-negotiable postsecondary education or to career changers needing to update their skills and knowledge to compete in a digital, information economy. It’s for those who recognize that the future economy demands a strong blend of all of the educational buzzwords we’ve heard over the past decade or two, whether it be STEM, 21st century skills, or the like.

It is also a reminder that the education offered and the students pursuing it are not nearly as homogenous as we’d like to believe. Sure, we all have this picture of the “typical” college student pursuing a “typical” liberal arts education at a “typical” four-year college. But there is nothing typical about students today, their aspirations, or the pathways one takes to get there. Nothing typical about the K-12 experience, and certainly nothing typical about the postsecondary experience.

I was reminded of this, yet again, this morning when watching Good Morning America. As a transition, Robin Roberts spoke briefly with student representatives from the Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America, or FCCLA. It was an organization that the edu-wife, the product of a private high school in New England, was completely unfamiliar with. And she works in education.

But as the product of Jefferson (County Consolidated) High School in Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia, I knew the organization well. Or rather I knew the organization as it once was known, the Future Homemakers of America. In my high school, FHA was a more popular student group than the Future Business Leaders of America. It was almost as strong a student organization as our Future Farmers of America contingent, which spent every fall missing classes to make apple butter out in the high school parking lot.

In my day, our county high school had about 1,200 students in total. About a third of our high school graduates went on to college. We weren’t a large enough school district to have a fully functioning vocational high school or career/technical education program. At the time, we didn’t even have a community college in our part of West Virginia (my father, when he was president of Shepherd University, actually created the community college that is now the state’s largest and most successful, to meet the growing demands).

So career and technical education was largely supported by clubs like FFA, FHA, and FBLA. Such organizations supplemented what was learned in the classroom. They provided much of the “vocational” training that President Trump now seeks, and did so largely because of teachers who were willing to give their time and knowledge to do so.

In the nearly three decades since I graduated from Jefferson High, those organizations have adjusted their approach and their services to their members. They’ve continued to serve as a gateway for so many seeking postsecondary career and technical education. And they’ve turned out generations of individuals with the skills, knowledge, and passions to pursue a wide range of careers.

When we debate the successes or failures of K-12 education, it is easy to get bogged down in test scores and growth measures. It is easy to focus on those learners who beat the odds to get accepted into a dozen Ivy League schools. And its easy to point out how much that used to fall to K-12, from remediation to career and technical ed, has now been pushed onto our local community colleges.

It is far harder for us to recognize, acknowledge, and celebrate the ways communities do come together to provide for their students. It harder to see the value in the student who will soon run his family’s farm also knowing how to code (and knowing the comedies and tragedies of Shakespeare).

Preparing for a strong economic future does not mean needing to return to the bricks-and-mortar good ol’ days of voke ed. Instead, it means recognizing the importance of instilling a wide range of skills, knowledge, and ability with today’s learners, and recognizing that such lessons can – and should – be taught beyond the traditional classroom in the little red schoolhouse. And it means seeing how community colleges and clubs and OST programs can contribute.

(A version of this post also appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)

Investing in the Future of #TeacherEd

As a community, we spend so much time thinking and talking about what the schools, classrooms, and students of tomorrow may look like, but we often overlook an essential component to the equation. What will the teacher education of the future look like, the educator prep necessary to ensure we have the classroom leaders for such future K-12 environments.

For the past four years, dear ol’ Eduflack has been privileged to be part of the development of the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning, and initiative of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and MIT to completely reinvent teacher preparation and education schools in general.

Last week, the good folks over at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announced their significant support for the WW Academy and its efforts. Benjamin Herold over at Education Week referenced it as CZI investing in “personalized learning for the whole educator.” Caitlin Reilly noted that “teaching K-12 is brutally hard” and this was one of the ways CZI was “offering support.”

No matter how one cuts it, I’m incredibly honored to be a very small piece of the initiative and to have the support of innovators like those at CZI. Chan Zuckerberg joins with notables such as the Bezos Family Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, Amgen Foundation, Simons Foundation, and Nellie Mae Education Foundation in believing in the WW Academy’s mission of transforming the preparation of the nation’s teachers and school leaders.


I say it far too often, but change is hard. Changing systems is even harder. These organizations, and the many other partners who have joined with the WW Foundation and MIT in this effort, see that as an opportunity, not an obstacle.

The future of teacher education is now!