Apologies for my truancy

My deepest apologies to Eduflack readers for not being active here in the past few weeks.  As I noted last year, dear ol’ Eduflack has been involved in some long-form content creation (meaning book writing).  It took up many months of my time last year (thus the hiatus) and has come back to require my attention over the past few weeks.

The great news is I’ll be able to announce the completion of a very personal and I think important book next week.  As one reviewer already put it, the book “ROCKS!”  So February is going to be a rockin’ good month, with this new book from Yacker Media.
I look forward to sharing the news with y’all next week or so, and will work to share free Kindle copies of the book with loyal Eduflack readers as soon as allowable.
I’m also in the process of wrapping up the second edition of the Why Kids Can’t Read: Challenging the Status Quo in education book that Rowman & Littlefield Education will be publishing later this year.  Back in 2005-06, I was a contributing author to the project.  For this edition, I am the lead editor, working in partnership with longtime colleagues and mentors Reid Lyon and Phyllis Blaunstein.  
Why Kids Can’t Read is an important story, particularly as we see that nearly 40 percent of the world’s school-age children are unable to read proficiently.  The first edition of the book, out in 2006, looked at the wealth of research we have on literacy instruction and how best to teach our kids to read, while offering practical guidance for parents for how to ensure that “what works” is what is being used in their child’s classrooms.  The second edition builds on that work, incorporating recent developments such as Race to the Top and Common Core State Standards into this important discussion.
So thanks for your patience.  Eduflack will be back to its regular schedule in the coming weeks. Happy reading (post-announcement, I hope!).

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.

Real Reform in the CT

For many, the notion of meaningful education reform in a blue state with strong teachers unions and a general resistance to change is a thing of folly.  In a state known as “The Land of Steady Habits,” can reform really take hold?

After watching the past few months up in Connecticut, the answer is a resounding yes.  Governor Dannel Malloy has demonstrated the sort of leadership we all seek from our officials, standing strong, fighting for what he believes in, and never wavering from his promise of doing right by the kids and families of Connecticut.
Malloy’s efforts, coupled with the hard work and fire demonstrated by Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, legislative leadership, teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards, the business community, parents, and the community at large, have now resulted into a significant step forward for school improvement in Connecticut.
Rather than biting off a small piece now and saving more reforms for later, Malloy et al went at the heart of the issue.  The path wasn’t easy, most suggested it was too difficult to complete, but when the dust settles on Connecticut’s 2012 legislative session, the state will have adopted a comprehensive reform package with the power to have real impact and help provide all students access to great public schools.
Dear ol’ Eduflack goes into greater detail on the landmark deal for Connecticut over at 50CAN’s Great Big Blog, but the highlights of the legislation that passed the Connecticut Senate by a vote of 28-7 and the House by a unanimous 149-0 decision include:

    • A new educator evaluation system, to be piloted in 10 districts this year, that makes student learning outcomes the most important element of teacher and principal evaluation
    • That teacher tenure be earned based on effectiveness
    • A streamlined dismissal process for chronically ineffective teachers
    • A Commissioner’s Network for the state’s lowest-performing schools, providing the leadership, structure, funding, flexibility, and accountability to bring real change to those buildings and students who need it most
    • An evidence-based approach to teaching children to read, providing the instruction, measurement, and accountability to get all kids reading at grade level by fourth grade
    • Conditional funding for the state’s lowest-performing school districts, offering additional dollars for the implementation of real reforms
    • A Common Chart of Accounts so, once and for all, all Connecticut public schools account for their spending in a consistent, transparent way
    • Closer to real equity for Connecticut’s charter school students, providing the largest increase in per-pupil expenditure for charter schools in the state’s history
    • Additional state-authorized charter schools, including those that serve ELL populations, and providing financial incentives to create locally authorized charters

The significance of these ideas, all part of one comprehensive education reform package, cannot be overstated.  While some may want to play down the importance of these efforts or claim that they turned back fictitious reforms never in the bill, these are real gains worthy of real reflection.
Governor Malloy declared 2012 “The Year for Education Reform” in Connecticut.  Malloy and legislative leadership are to be credited for delivering on legislation that shakes Connecticut’s public schools out of the status quo muck and puts them on the path to 21st century excellence.  
Now the hard work begins.  Just because this is the year for education reform does not mean it is the only year for reform.  Now CT must enact these efforts with fidelity.  Now CT must begin to build on these reforms and identify additional changes necessary to improve instruction and learning in all public schools.  And now CT must deliver on its promise to do right by its kids, all of its kids.
As Leo McGarry once said on West Wing, “We play the full nine innings at this level.”  Nothing could be truer for education reform in Connecticut.  The Nutmeg State is now in the game.  It has taken its first cuts from the batter’s box.  But we have many more innings to go before the win.  But this is a helluva way to approach those early innings.

Happy Birthday, Nicklebee!

Yes, we are now smack in the middle of celebrating the 10th anniversary of our beloved No Child Left Behind.  As we should expect from something that has been on the “out” list the past three or five seasons, many of the birthday wishes are focusing on the failures or shortfalls of the law.  Yes, shocker!

So over at the National Journal Education Experts Blog, Eduflack focuses on some of the strengths of the law — those positive specifics that we must continue to improve and build on.  Accountability.  A strong focus on achievement gaps.  A commitment to evidence-based decision making.  Choice.  All made enormous steps forward in the NCLB era, and all are essential if we are to improve public education in the post-NCLB era.  After all:
At the end of the day, NCLB will best be remembered as an unfinished legacy, one with great promise, but real challenges in delivering on those promises. But we cannot deny that NCLB succeeded in moving K-12 education away from a discussion of process and inputs (as it had been for so many iterations of ESEA before it) and towards a focus on outcomes. We have started to see students and families as the customers in the process, with providers (the public school system) improving the quality of their product. And now, parents can look at test scores and other achievement measures to determine the return on investment for their local education dollar.

The Perfect and the Good

For much of the last week, Eduflack has been down in New Orleans, living the edu-life.  First stop was the Education Writers Association (EWA), followed by a multi-day play at the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

(As an aside, EWA has to be my favorite conference of the year.  I have to attend A LOT of education events each year, and I thoroughly enjoy EWA.  It is a fantastic opportunity for me to get to know a lot of the reporters and bloggers I know virtually, and I always get a kick when some of the associates consider me a “journalist” because of this little blog.)
At any rate, there was clearly a catch phrase at EWA this year from the policymakers and talking heads trying to influence reporter-think.  “Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”  While I would argue that none of us in attendance are exactly a 21st century Voltaire, it was an interesting observation heard over multiple days.
EdSec Arne Duncan used it in reference to ESEA reauthorization.  Again stating his belief that we will have reauth done before the start of the school year (and more importantly, noting that we NEED to have it done be by the end of the summer), Duncan made clear that ESEA won’t be perfect (he didn’t quite make Margaret Spellings’ 99.94% pure remarks).  But real improvements must be made to the current law.  We know what those improvements are.  We have some agreement on those improvements.  So let’s move forward now down the good path, knowing ESEA will never be perfect for all comers.
The battle between the perfect and the good was also made with regard to teachers and value-added evaluation.  In discussing the great siege on Los Angeles teachers in 2010 (the LA Times is releasing version two of its teacher database in the next week or two) and similar pending efforts in NYC, the general sense was that revealing such data is a “good thing,” albeit an imperfect thing. 
And similar remarks made testing and assessment blush, particularly on issues like common standards and adequately and fairly measuring student achievement across the nation and around the world.
It is all a subtle shift in rhetoric, but an important one for the school improvement debate.  For about a decade now, we were certain in what we needed to do.  NCLB was perfect (or 99.94% so).  RF was perfect.  SBR was perfect.  AYP was perfect.  And even now, CCSSI is perfect.  But with all of this perfection, we’ve seen little growth in student achievement and little agreement on the paths we should head, the speed we should take, and the ultimate destination we should seek.
So now we are focusing on common sense progress.  What incremental steps can we take?  What promising practices can we follow?  What gets us half of the way forward?  Instead of throwing that Hail Mary we’ve all sought in education for decades, we have made the decided shift to a “three yards and a cloud of dust” approach lately.  (Sorry, Mr. Duncan, they can’t all be basketball metaphors.)
Such a rhetorical adjustment has both its pluses and its negatives.  It is harder for the opposition to remain strong when they aren’t fighting an “all or nothing” approach.  It is more difficult to stand against forward progress, even if it is slow.  But it is also more difficult rally strong support.  For supporters, who wants to go slow or compromise or wait patiently?
Will the education community’s embrace of Voltaire win the day?  The challenge EdSec Duncan and his supporters in the ed space have is a matter of priority.  Championing the good is a fine strategy if we can identity primary and secondary needs at this point.  But with ESEA, a range of funding issues from RttT to SIG, common core standards, revisions to AYP, teacher performance and incentive issues, and a host of other topics, something has to give.  In the pursuit of the good, we have to recognize that even good can be subjective.  We’ll never be perfect, but we still need to determine those one or two issues on which we can be really good this year.

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.  

Swingin’ for the ESEA Fences

In yesterday’s initial analysis of the US Department of Education’s ESEA reauthorization blueprint, I noted I was “whelmed” by the plan as a whole.  (And for the record, I am a strong proponent of using the word whelmed.  If I can be overwhelmed and underwhelmed, I certainly can be whelmed.  It’s not like having to choose between North and South Dakota.)  Since then, I’ve received a number of questions as to why, particularly since so many people seem to see this as a strong step forward in improving No Child Left Behind.

My biggest issue with the blueprint is there is no big, stinkin’, knock-you-off your-seat big idea offered.  When we were introduced to the wonderful world of NCLB a little over nine years ago (can we all believe it has been that long?), we were immediately embraced by some huge ideas that almost immediately changed the education policy landscape.  Before the ink was even dry on the legislative drafts, we all knew what Annual Yearly Progress was (and the potential dangers it offered).  The term “scientifically based research” was quickly added to the vocabulary of wonk and practitioner alike.  And Reading First was a new program where the Administration was putting their proverbial money where their mouths were.  These were all but twinkles in Sandy’s, Margaret’s BethAnn’s, and Reid’s eyes before the reauthorization process began.

But this time around, we have no great new big idea YET.  Part of the problem is that the Duncan regime has been hard at work on ed policy for the past 14 or 15 months, moving ideas well before they moved this blueprint for ESEA reauthorization.  So what were once big ideas — Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, common core standards — are now ingrained as part of the ed reform status quo these days.  We are looking to codify that which we have debated for more than a year now.  We expected all of that in this blueprint, thus it is hardly something designed to knock us off our barstools.

The teacher quality component, which could have provided some real fodder for a sock-knocking idea, seems to be a finetuning and improving over NCLB’s Highly Qualified Teacher effort, former EdSec Margaret Spellings’ Teacher Incentive Fund, and the teacher requirements included in RttT.  Even in addressing the persistent problem with low-performing schools, this blueprint simply evolves from NCLB’s two-tiered evaluation with a new three-tiered system, as reported here by Greg Toppo.  And while that extra tier may really help at addressing those 5,000 lowest-performing schools, it hardly wins hearts and minds.

To be fair, Eduflack realizes you don’t always need some new shiny toy or a jaw-dropping new idea to move forward solid legislation.  In fact, in a perfect world, I would hope we’d never need such gimmicks.  But with short attention spans and even shorter understanding curves, one often needs that hook, that big idea, to help gain attention and start winning over the necessary converts.  When ESEA was reauthorized back in 2001 (and signed into law in early 2002), we not only gave it a new name (NCLB ), but we offered some new ideas and programs to show this was not your father’s version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Working from the existing blueprint, Eduflack sees a few potentials for both some smallball ideas as well as some bases-clearing longballs.  What am I thinking?

* Immediately include strong pieces of congressional legislation in the plan.  I’m thinking things like U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s (WA) LEARN Act focused on K-12 reading instruction, Chairman George Miller’s (CA) plan for high school improvement, or even the recent legislation offered by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (RI) and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (CO) establishing a federal definition for teacher professional development.

* Get personal on teacher quality.  Teacher quality is now clearly a central point of the debate, with even Obama calling out the teacher education sector for not living up to expectations.  So let’s get personal here.  As part of your data system work, ensure that we are able to track teachers (both leaders and laggards) back to their originating program, be it a college of education or an alt cert program.  Then be prepared to name names when it comes to those institutions that are not delivering the long-term results sought under the new law. 

* Invest in parents.  The day after Obama was elected, Eduflack opined that the EdSec should establish a family engagement office (at the assistant secretary level) so that the Administration could focus on the role of families in school improvement.  To date, the Administration has talked a good game.  But with the pending elimination of Parent Information Resource Center (PIRC) grants, there is a gaping hole for engaging families.  NCLB tried to do this, with mixed results.  Building off of the Obama campaign’s success in 2008 and recent activities around healthcare reform, one can build a strong, effective multi-touch effort to really involve parents and families in school turnaround and improvement efforts.

* Kill the bubble sheet.  Under ESEA reauthorization, this administration has the power to do away with the dreaded “bubble sheet test.”  Proudly proclaim that new assessments coming out of common core standards will be required to be smart computer-based exams.  Bring testing into the 21st century while allowing for a more-comprehensive assessment than can be captured by guessing which one of five bubbles may be the most correct.

* Require online learning.  I applaud the commitment to improving high schools and working to boost graduation rates.  Let’s add a little 21st century relevancy here.  Learning from states like Florida and Alabama, let’s require that, by 2020, every student in the United States must take at least one virtual course in order to graduate from high school.  Not only does it introduce more relevant coursework into the classroom, it clearly promotes that learning happens beyond what happens between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. behind the traditional schoolhouse doors.

Those are just five ideas to get the discussion started.  The legislative pieces could be endorsed by EdSec Duncan during Wednesday’s hearings.  Teacher quality could be done this summer when NCATE’s anticipated report is released.  A Family Engagement Office could be started immediately.  And killing the bubble sheet and folding virtual education into state requirements can be done now as stimulus money is used to invest in a range of ed reform ideas.  Regardless, we should be taking this opportunity to continue to move forward big, bold thoughts.  Real ed improvement can’t be limited by those ideas moved during year one.  Not to mix my sports metaphors, but this game goes at least four quarters.  We need to maximize all opportunities.