Charting a Path to National Standards

Many an education blogger is suffering through a sagging jaw this morning over yesterday’s Gates Foundation convening.  On the whole, the Gates meeting was a reiteration of the Foundation’s mission, pledging to strengthen high school and get more students college ready.  As Eduflack hoped for yesterday, the issue of teacher quality has been added to the agenda.  But for the most part, the Gates Foundation is standing pat.  See the full story at Education Week —  

What has those jaws dropping and the eyes bugging is the notion of national standards.  As part of yesterday’s discussion, the Gates Foundation said it was going to develop national education standards and, as part of it, develop national exams that aligned with those standards.
Some are frightened by the notion that Gates is now setting policy, rather than engaging in improving practice.  Personally, I see the announcement on national standards as a bold move that is long overdue.  Without question, we are a country in need of national standards.  Too many states adjust their levels of proficiency on a yearly basis to ensure they meet AYP provisions.  As a result, reading proficiency in Mississippi isn’t the same as reading proficiency in Massachusetts, and while the data tells us those fourth graders in Mississippi are far stronger readers than those in the Boston area, we know that not to be the case.  The result?  We are unable to truly point to gaps in learning across the states, leading to slipping performance on international measures such as TIMSS and PISA.
National learning standards are a primary issue for Eduflack.  Personally, I spent my childhood moving from state to state, the son in a higher education administration equivalent of a military family.  I saw duplication in learning moving from seventh grade in New Jersey to eighth grade in New Mexico.  And I saw a massive slippage in requirements going from a 10th grader in New Mexico to an 11th grader in West Virginia.  Every step of the way, I had to fight against the need to repeat courses because I took them during the “wrong” academic year.  And I’ve long wondered why my life science in Massachusetts didn’t meet my biology in New Jersey.  
For many, this is rarely an issue.  But as we grow into a more and more transient population, a patchwork of curricula, a mis-match of standards, and an overall lack of educational leadership simply won’t stand.  Algebra II proficiency should be Algebra II proficiency,regardless of the state in which you live.  Fourth grade reading proficiency is fourth grade reading proficiency, regardless of which state history you are studying in middle school.  And high school proficiency is high school proficiency, with no employers caring that Michigan has a different perception of standards that Georgia or New York.
For the past 18 months, the Gates Foundation has invested heavily into the Ed in 08 effort.  As part of his stumping, Ed in 08 Chair Roy Romer regularly spoke of the need for national standards.  His solution?  Gather together six of the strongest education governors, lock them in a room, and have them develop a standard all six of their states can stand by.  Put those standards into practice in those half-dozen states.  Show they work.  Then have the remainder of the governors do the same in their states once we see the success.  Boom — national standards.  Created from the bottom up, but one standard that stands firm for all, no matter where you receive your mail.
At this point, the U.S. Department of Education’s “brand” is at a relative low.  ED doesn’t have the strength or the buy-in to move national standards into practice.  It requires an outside agent of change to move the ball forward.  Action taken today by Gates makes it easier for other groups or even ED itself to take the ball in for the final touchdown down the field.  Consider it the ole “three yards and a cloud of dust” philosophy.  Gates is now willing to take the ball, and run it up the gut of the education establishment.  And there are few in a position to stop them at the line of scrimmage.
Yes, it means Gates is now wading into the elementary and middle grades, a playground with few Gates resources and few Gates flags in the ground.  Will some fear Gates will try to strong arm their grantees or potential grantees into accepting these standards?  Sure.  But even if they did, that doesn’t get us anywhere close to national standards.  Should we worry about a non-government entity drafting student exams?  Of course.  We would never let third parties, unaffiliated with state or federal government to develop, say, entrance exams to college, would we College Board and ACT?
If not Gates, then who?  We’ve been talking national standards for decades now, and no one has stepped up to put their ideas up on the chalk board and let them stand the scrutiny of the industry.  The Gates Foundation has made a bold promise here.  With such promises come real action.  The final solution may not look anything like what Gates is proposing, or it may be an offshoot of a great idea coming out Seattle.  Regardless, the Gates commitment means the attention of others.  It means the commitment of others.  And it means a greater level of interest and concern for the construct of a meaningful national education standard.  That is a win-win for all involved.
Me, I’m not worried about this notion that Bill Gates is trying to be the “U.S. Superintendent of Education,” as one blogger recently put it.  If the man can eradicate malaria in Africa, certainly he can assemble a team to build a meaningful, clear, valuable national education standard and an assessment by which to measure every student against it.  He does that, and it means far more than any high school reformed and any small school constructed.  

We Are Agitators, Not Advocates

We’ve reached halftime at the Aspen Institute’s National Education Summit.  So far, the sessions have been interesting … and a little surprising.  What’s surprising?  No one is calling for the abolition of No Child Left Behind.  Even on a panel with two superintendents and the new president of the AFT, no one called for NCLB’s demise.  In fact, everyone seemed to believe the law has had a positive impact on education in the United States.  Why aren’t these folks talking to Congress?

But this is clearly not a conference on NCLB.  If the morning sessions are any indication, the future of education is about one thing and one thing only — accountability.  Perhaps EdSec Margaret Spellings is correct that accountability is going to be the lasting legacy of the NCLB era.  Today, everyone is talking about accountability, and everyone is talking about it in positive and glowing terms.
Some of the highlights from this morning:
* Spellings is reporting that test scores are up, the achievement gap is closing, and we are making great progress, particularly when it comes to math instruction.  EdSec also used the forum to promote her notion of Key Educational Indicators, her banking-industry metaphor for improving education (though the timing of modeling yourself after banking today is a little iffy.  I’d even prefer Tommy Thompson’s comparison to evaluating nursing homes).  What are those Indicators you may ask?  Simple measures — effective educators, reliable data, proven strategies.
* Ed in O8’s Roy Romer used his time at the rostrum to focus on his group’s new study on remedial education in postsecondary education, reporting one in three college-going high school grads needs remedial ed.  An important statistic, yes, but Eduflack thinks we should first figure out how to eliminate the 35% or so high school drop out rate, before focusing on those who made it through the system (even if it was a mediocre system at best)
* NPR/Fox commentator Juan Williams surprised the room by stating one of the biggest issues facing public education is the need (or the requirement) that we must be willing to challenge the unions.
* NYCPS’ Joel Klein has apparently heard one too many times that you can’t fix education until you fix poverty.  He countered with the mirror.  You can fix poverty once you fix education.  He also served as the chief voice for national education standards.
Surprisingly, Roy Romer seems to now be backing off his support for national standards.  A year ago, the former Colorado governor laid out what Eduflack thought was a terrific plan for using the nation’s top education governors to develop national education standards that could be adopted by all states.  Today, Romer said national standards just weren’t doable.  Instead, he proposed states developing their own standards that aligned with international standards, with the feds rewarding them for basing benchmarks on things like PISA.  An interesting idea, yes, but isn’t it more important to have the United States develop a single standard that matches up with PISA or TIMSS, and not that Arizona and Virginia have figured out how to do it by themselves, leaving the other 48 behind?  If national standards are not doable, tell us why and let’s task some folks to solve the problem.  Surrender isn’t the option, particularly on national standards.
The morning closed with an interesting discussion that focused, in part, on staff development.  Prince George’s County (MD) superintendent John Deasy focused on the concept that “teaching matters.”  Atlanta supe Beverly Hall called for professional development to be job embedded, and not simply an add-on offered one morning a month (Are you listing National Staff Development Council?  Hall is singing your song.)  Even Ed Trust’s Kati Haycock got in the act, suggesting that our schools need more programs like Core Knowledge if we are to really close that achievement gap and boost student achievement.
The takeaways?  No fireworks.  The Mayflower Hotel is hosting a room full of power players with the ability to enact real change.  They spent the morning listening and gathering information.  This was not about posturing or getting your slogan mentioned (since there are no open mikes for statements or questions) or showing you are the smartest person in the room.  Instead, this was about hearing and really understanding.  It was about making sure your view (and your motivation) for education reform is motivated by the same issues as your colleague across the table.  It is about making sure we’re all working together to solve the same problem and seeing success in the same way.
The event is being billed as “An Urgent Call.”  What is clear, though, is that there is still an absence of a national sense of urgency for the issue, particularly with those who aren’t running school districts, organizations, or corporations.  We still believe our individual school is doing a great job, regardless of the available data.  We still believe our students can compete, despite our slippage in international competition.  And we still think our kids are ready for the future, despite the growing dropout rate and increased remediation rate.  Clearly, we need an urgent call to Main Street, USA … and we need it now.
For years, Eduflack has talked about the need for public engagement and advocacy, particularly when it comes to the issue of school improvement.  But EdSec Spellings had it right when she said we should not settle for being advocates.  Instead, we should be agitators.  We’ve advocated for reform for decades.  Maybe the only way to really make a difference — to close the achievement gap, to boost student achievement in national and international measures, to measurably improve and support teaching, to broaden school choice and school opportunities — we really need to agitate.  I’m ready.  I’m Eduflack, and I’m an agitator.

Some Ed Reccs for Senator Obama

Now that he is all but the official Democratic presidential nominee, it is time for Senator Barack Obama to start putting out some real ideas — real policies — that complement his vision for the future.  For most Democrats, that means a clear education policy, one that goes from pre-natal to geriatric.

Unfortunately, Obama’s message of hope and opportunity doesn’t quite jive with the education (particularly K-12) mantras of hopelessness and obstacles.  How do we restore hope for education reform in an industry that has been paralyzed by the fear of change?

More than a year ago, Eduflack offered some recommendations to the Democratic candidates running for president on how they can focus on education.  Since then, we’ve seen Ed in 08 and others try to do the same.  What’s funny is how wrong I was in March of 2007.  I thought it was a gimme that the Democrats would focus on education, seeing it as a great equalizer and a bridge to a stronger economy and better jobs.  How wrong I was!  Even the talking snowman has gotten more media play than the party’s education ideas.

But let’s take a second to look back on Eduflack’s specific recommendations, knowing full well they are just as strong and pertinent today as they were a year ago:

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

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

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

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

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

I maintain that all of these are still cogent, winning issues for Obama.  Case in point, Obama’s previous endorsement of teacher merit pay.  It is a strong idea, and one that can have an immediate impact on teacher and instructional quality in the schools.  It is an idea that resonates with most parents, and means something to local decisionmakers.  And it is a concept that the unions — particularly the NEA — greatly oppose.  We all recognize that Obama and the teachers unions are allies.  But performance pay can be one of those flag-in-the-sand moments that demonstrates Obama’s independence and the priority of kids in his education policy.

But it all seems to loop back around to national standards.  The National Governors Association and CCSSO have long been champions of a the concept.  This week, the National Association of Secondary School Principals threw its collective weight behind the issue as well.  And Obama endorser Roy Romer has been carrying the banner for it over at Ed in 08. 

Imagine the rhetorical impact national standards could have coming out of Obama’s mouth.  The opportunity that all U.S. students, regardless of their home state, are learning and achieving together.  The belief that the nation is stronger academically, and can measure it, because of national standards.  The elimination of have and have not states, knowing that a kid in Alabama is getting the same education as a kid in Connecticut.  Imagine.

Senator Obama, it is quite easy for you to write off education policy as part of your stump speech this all.  You’ll have the endorsement of the unions.  Education has never been a strong policy concern of Senator McCain’s.  And the anti-NCLB crowds will crow a vote for a Dem is a vote against NCLB.

But as you have all year, you have the opportunity to tell us what you stand for, and not just what you speak against.  If your recent anti-NCLB remarks are coming from the heart, tell us what you will do to fix the law.  If you are concerned about high-stakes testing, let Romer and company develop a national standard that lessens the stress on our student test takers.  But please, please, please, do and stand for something.

We’ve spend far too much time in recent years talking about what’s wrong and what we’re opposed to.  We need more people — particularly our leaders — telling us what they stand for in education reform.

Bloggin’ with Ed in 08

Most folks who read the education blogs know that today was Ed in 08’s big education blogger’s summit.  The crowd seemed to be an interesting mix of both bloggers and ed policy folks (particularly those with education orgs that either deal with the tech issue or have a strong online presence).  At first blush, the cynic in me says the primary focus of the summit was to get Ed in 08’s name in a significant number of blogs all at the same time.  But after a few hours of reflection, I can also see some real benefits.

What has stuck most with Eduflack is the opening speech by Ed in 08 head Roy Romer.  Forget debate questions or campaign commercials or grassroots organizing or even a movie about two million minutes.  The most intriguing — and most valuable — contribution that Ed in 08 is now making is Romer’s continued push for national standards.  This is the third time I’ve heard Romer touting the Ed in 08 line.  Each time, after delivering the stump speech, he focuses on the long-term value of national standards and his dream of locking up a dozen or so well-meaning governors, have them identify standards that tie to international assessments, and then send us on our way to better performance.  I thought it was a good idea when I first heard him lay it out last fall at Jobs for the Future’s conference.  And it is even a better idea today.

So why does the issue of national standards fail to gain the attention it deserves?  It should be a campaign issue, it’s not.  It should be a national policy discussion, it’s not.  It should be a primary goal of the education blob and those in the blob’s shadow, it’s not. 

It’s as if we seem to think our traditional of local education control means we can’t have national standards.  Such thinking is just lazy.  Groups like NGA and CCSSO have had the courage to talk about a common set of U.S. learning standards.  More need to follow that lead. 

If it is the only thing that Romer and company do from this point forward with Gates’ and Broad’s money, it will be well worth it.  National standards deserve a national debate.  We should all be for high expectations, global competition, and improved skills.  A national dialogue provides us the rhetoric to discuss such goals.  And Eduflack is ready to sign up as a town crier on the issue today.

What else came out of the blogger summit?  I personally loved Romer’s stat that the average American student is a year or a year and a half behind their international peers in math instruction.  We hate to hear it, but we know it is true.  And I am still scratching my head on having Newt Gingrich as the keynoter for an ed event focused on national policies.  It was only a decade ago that Gingrich and his team was calling for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education.

Alexander Russo tried to push his panel on the issue of merit pay, but few wanted to bite.  It was good to hear the AFT say that merit pay is a local issue, to be embraced in local CBAs.  Let’s just hope the locals know that.

The hot issues seem to be preK and assessments (high-stakes, differentiated, multiples, take your pick and political line).  No buzz at all for high school reform, despite the ducats coming from Gates.  And with all our lip service to the P-16 education continuum, higher ed is still the gawky girl at the ed dance, with no one paying her much attention either.

And big surprise, few seem to see a future for NCLB.  Some, like Ed Trust’s Amy Wilkins, want to see the law strengthened and more strongly enforced.  But the majority seemed to lean toward “improving” by weakening and adding Elasticman-level flexibility.

More later this week on the notion of changing the structure of the school day.  It is an intriguing issue that could have some legs.

A “Broader Yardstick”

Yesterday’s Washington Post continued the public debate on how we measure the efficacy of our public schools.  Under a headline of “Calls Grow for a Broader Yardstick for Schools,” the Post’s Maria Glod fan the flames of high-stakes testing and NCLB mandates.  But if we peel back the clamoring and positioning, what is the Post really poking at?

Eduflack will try to look past the American Society of Civil Engineers’ calls for national science testing.  Last I saw, science was one of the three subjects NCLB is slated to test, with those fourth through eighth grade exams coming online shortly.  There’s one demand that has already been met.

So let’s look at the broader picture.  NEA’s Reg Weaver is right when he says student success should be more than just one test score.  And CCSSO’s Michael Casserly is dead-on when he states that different audiences have different answers to the question of how to best measure our K-12 schools.  But instead of looking at “multiple measures” and examining how one state’s proficiency measures stand up to another’s, there has to be a simple way.  Oh, wait, there is — national standards.

If we look at the hand-ringing in the Post piece and in public and private discussions these past few years about accountability and the measurement of student, teacher, and school achievement, there is rarely discussion of national standards.  It’s as if it is the third rail of education reform (or maybe the 3 1/3 rail, after teacher accountability).  We’re afraid to talk about national standards, not knowing what might be behind the curtain if we allow that show to truly take the stage.

But isn’t national standards the rhetorical solution to all of these criticisms?
* It offers a bold solution that demonstrates that we, as a nation, are committed to strengthening our schools and ensuring our students have the skills they need to succeed in the workplace and the community
* It provides a strong fix to the notion that some states may be lowering their standards to appear proficient
* It states that every child, regardless of their home town or economic standing, has the right to a strong, proven effective public education
* It brings equality to our expectations and measurement of classroom teachers, whether they be in urban, suburban or rural settings
* It may just be the only “fair” approach to measuring our schools – with one common yardstick

Earlier this year, Gov. Roy Romer — now heading Strong American Schools — suggested we bring together many of the nation’s top governors and let them hatch the plan for adopting national education standards.  Eduflack said it then, and he’ll say it again, it is a visionary approach that may be just what the ed reform community is in search of.

Most still bristle at the notion of national education standards.  We reflect on the belief that education is a local issue, left to town councils and local selectmen.  While that may have been true a century or so ago, results from NAEP and PISA tell us a very different story.  If we are to maintain a thriving economy, if we are to be home to the world’s top industry and innovative thinking, we need to get serious about how we measure our successes.  It just doesn’t get more serious that national standards.   

The Next Great “Ed” Reform Idea

NCLB may be now, with reauthorization and merit pay being leading topics of education cocktail parties.  But as Eduflack friend and online marketing guru Geoff Livingston says, now is gone.  Now is what has happened.  We need to focus on what is to happen.  If the last few weeks has been any indication, the future of education reform could center around two key words — national standards.

For decades, almost no one wanted to touch the issue of national standards.  It was almost the third rail of public education.  It was an affront to local control.  It stood against hundreds of years of American educational tradition.  National standards was a dead-end issue before the words ever fully left the lips of the most eager reformer.

But not any more.  In recent days, we’ve heard from a varied chorus led by Diane Ravitch and DC area superintendents calling for some form of national standards.  And now, we get to enjoy a passionate solo from Roy Romer, chairman of Ed in 08.

At Jobs for the Future’s Double the Numbers 2007 Conference Thursday, Romer asked the question — Why are we, as a nation, not focused on what we can to improve public education?  If we truly want to improve our schools, Romer contends, we need to change the national discussion.  We need each and every citizen to declare, “I want my child to be ready for life.  I want them to have the opportunity for a good college and a good career.”

Amen.  For months now, we’ve been waiting on some bold statements to come from Strong American Schools and Ed in 08.  And bold may not even be strong enough for Romer’s call to action.  I might even call it visionary.

For those who missed it, Romer too has issued the call for national standards.  The former “education” governor of Colorado, the former superintendent of LAUSD, even took it a step further.  According to Romer, the time has come for a collection of leading states to come together and write common education standards.  He issued the call to “education” governors to be proactive, and create the measurements by which our nation’s schools should be evaluated.  Those founding states would all adhere to the common standard.  The remainder of states would soon follow.  And national standards are born.


That one standard, then, would benchmark with standards in countries across the world.  Finally, we would truly know how our students compare with learners across the world.  And the feds role in all of this — to pay for the test.  States set a national measurement and hold themselves to it, and the folks back in Washington write the check.  Sounds simple enough to actually work.   

The result — true consumer protection in American public education.  We have our standards.  We know what we’re doing.  And we know where we stand.  Doesn’t matter if a parent or student is in Seattle, Dubuque, Huntsville, or Boston.  Achievement is achievement, regardless of state border or school district boundary.

Some may be uncomfortable with this discussion, but it is just the sort of issue the education community should be talking about.  Worried about high stakes testing?  Make sure the national standard is one that measures true knowledge.  Concerned we need more stringent accountability measures?  Focus on a standard that truly means something, and doesn’t just speak to the common denominator.

If Romer and Ed in 08 want to really leave their mark on the upcoming presidential elections, this may very well be the way to do so.  We shouldn’t just talk about education, we should be talking about how to improve it.  True national school improvement requires more than asking a question on a YouTube debate or getting an oped printed.  It comes from changing the national discussion.  Only then can we really start identifying and adopting the sorts of solutions that can fix the problem … for good.