An “Alternative” View of Trump’s Edu-Remarks

Sure, we never expect to hear much about education during a presidential inaugural address, and last week’s speech certainly didn’t change that. Yes, President Donald Trump did offer a small tip of a cap to education issues, but just in passing.

What if those remarks he delivered, though, could have a different meaning than how so many have taken the edu-speak? What if we could envision an “alternate” meaning for what was said?

Over at BAM! Radio Network, the latest edition of #TrumpED explores that very question. Give it a listen here. You might be surprised.

Some Chamber Education

For the past two years, the education community has been all abuzz about the role of reform organizations in the process.  What are TFA and NLNS saying?  What are Gates and Broad trying to do?  What about that DFER and 50CAN expansion?  We hang on every word, analyze every check, and scrutinize every action.  Good or bad (depending on your perspective), these reform groups have become our own education reality TV programming.

It gets so intense that we almost forget about those groups that were pushing “reform” before reform was cool.  But many of those organizations have not yet ridden off into the sunset.  Today’s exhibit A — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
For years, the Chamber has been promoting college and career readiness through its Institute for a Competitive Workforce (which, interestingly, is now championing early childhood education).  Its Leaders and Laggards analysis, particularly 2007’s on school effectiveness, has a been a useful tool.  The Chamber even has former EdSec Margaret Spellings as a senior advisor and president of its U.S. Forum for Policy Innovation. 
But this little history lesson isn’t the focus of Eduflack’s attention.  Instead, I was drawn in by the Chamber’s advertising in this week’s Roll Call newspaper, the back page of the newspaper, no less.
The full-page ad offers the header, “Congress, Don’t Fail on Education Reform.”  Building off of the photo of a confused kindergartner, the Chamber offers some chronological stats.  For 2021, “By the time he reaches the ninth grade, he could be part of the 70% of middle school students who score below grade level in reading and math.”  For 2025, “If he makes it to high school, he may be one of the 1.3 million American students who drop out of high school.  And for 2027, “If he gets to college, he may be among the 40% of students who will be required to enroll in remedial courses.”
The call to action has three components to it.  “Congress, act now to: Hold our nation’s schools accountable; Promote effective teachers; and Provide choices to parents.”
Yes, we’ve heard these statistics before (and often from Spellings and company when they ran Maryland Avenue).  The call to action could be from either the NCLB era or from EdSec Duncan’s own ESEA blueprint.  So let’s go a little deeper into the rhetoric.
The ad closes with two additional sentences of text.  “Now is not the time to retreat from our national commitment to the success of every child.  If we don’t address our broken education system today, then our kids and our nation will pay the price.”
A little old school, a little new school (or a little Texas, a little Chicago, if you prefer).  The first sentence, a clear defense of NCLB and its role in putting us on the path to success.  The latter, borrowed from President Obama and his call for change.  Which leads to the confusion.  So now is not the time to retreat from our broken education system?  If not now, when?  And if not now, why not?
In many ways, the Chamber’s latest advertising campaign is but a microcosm of our current struggles in school improvement.  We need to build on the successes of the past, while casting aside the reforms that didn’t work.  We need to display a sense of urgency for change, but need to do so in a way tips a hat to those doing well.  And we need to do it all in an environment where the average person, even the average congressman, believes the average school district and average school building is doing just fine.
As always, the devil is in the details.  Whose version of accountability should Congress follow?  Which definition of effective teachers?  And what “choices” do we want to provide to parents?  Where Congress (and governors and state legislators) turn for answers is the next great education policy battleground.  Will anyone besides the “reformy” groups step forward and offer some substantive, even if unpopular, policy reccs to address such issues?  Only time will tell …
 

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.
  

Spellings Resurfaces on NAEP

In this morning’s Washington Post, former EdSec Margaret Spellings takes her stab at NAEP analysis.  No real surprises here.  She points to the effectiveness of No Child Left Behind, citing progress not just for elementary school students but for middle school students as well.  She notes that we expected such results, and should embrace the accountability that led to them.

Interestingly, she points to (and takes credit for) elementary school gains over the past nine years.  As No Child Left Behind wasn’t signed into law until 2002, and its policies really didn’t affect schools, at the earliest, until 2003, does that mean she is giving the Clinton Administration partial credit for NCLB-era gains?  Does that mean that the Reading Excellence Act deserves some of the credit for Reading First’s gains?  Does that mean our modern-day accountability movement began before she took position at the White House?
Spellings also points to the “troubling story” of our high school achievement.  One could ask what her Administration did to help address this high school crisis, when it was focusing almost exclusively on elementary schools, but that would just be Eduflack being critical and cynical again.  But a lot more could have been done over the past four years to improve high school instruction beyond non-reg regs introduced in December to hold all states to a four-year graduation rate measurement.  But that’s a different battle for a different day.
She also rails against calls for international benchmarking and increased and improved resources for our schools.  Her preference — simply staying the course on current NCLB standards and accountability and holding firm on the goal of 100 percent student learning proficiency in reading, math, and science by 2014.
Not sure what Spellings is adding to the debate, particularly since EdSec Arne Duncan is essentially staying the course with regard to NCLB standards and accountability (at least for now).  Yes, this is partially a legacy-building exercise.  As was typical during her four years, Spellings is focused on low-performing schools and the institutions that deliver public instruction.  But in this new era, the focus is not on the what (school themselves) but on the who (teachers and students).
Eduflack is just a tad disappointed to see Spellings equating the call for increased resources with delaying accountability.  If we are as concerned with the achievement gap as Spellings purports, we have to see that increased resources for historically disadvantaged groups leads to student achievement gains. We have to see that education investments today have lasting economic impacts tomorrow.  And with the train already leaving the station on increasing spending and resources, our focus should be on how those new dollars are spent and the ROI for such spending.  

Hiding High School Graduation Standards?

In case you missed it (and you likely did, based on timing), the U.S. Department of Education finally released its non-regulatory guidance regarding a uniform national high school graduation rate.  Readers may recall that EdSec Spellings announced the federal government’s intent to adopt the four-year graduation rate established years ago by the National Governors Association, agreed to by all 50 states soon after, and adopted by many states already.  Well, on Christmas Eve’s Eve, ED decided to offer some of the specifics around the new grad rate.

The highlights, according to ED itself:
* Defines the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate, the extended-year adjusted cohort graduation rate, and the transitional graduation rates that are allowable until States must implement the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate
* Guides States in setting a single graduation rate goal and annual graduation rate targets
* Outlines requirements for reporting graduation rates
* Answers questions about how States include the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate and any extended-year adjusted cohort graduation rate in AYP determinations, including the use of disaggregated rates for student subgroups
* Explains how a State must revise its Consolidated State Application Accountability Workbook to include certain information and submit its revisions to the Department for technical assistance and peer review
* Clarifies the timeline for implementing the new graduation rate provisions, as well as the process for how a State that cannot meet the deadlines outlined in the final regulations may request, from the Secretary, an extension of time to meet the requirements.
Thanks to the FritzWire for drawing attention to the announcement.  The full non-regs can be found at: www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/guid/hsgrguidance.pdf
Don’t get Eduflack wrong.  I’m thrilled ED has gone and endorsed the NGA formula.  They should have done so years ago.  I also recognize that ED is using an awful lot of words and “non-regulatory” language to describe what should be a simple concept.  At the end of the day, the federal government is saying a high school graduation rate is measured based on how many ninth graders complete their secondary school education four years later.  Obvious exceptions are made for transfers and deaths and such, but high school is a four-year experience, and the measurement is a four-year yardstick.
No, what troubles me is the timing.  At no time in our nation’s history is a secondary (and some form of postsecondary) education as important and necessary as it is today.  Under virtually no circumstances should we say it is acceptable for any student to drop out of high school.  Dropping out simply is not a viable option.  This new formula is a big deal, with major implications for the states and for the nation.  We need an accurate count of how many kids are graduating high school on time (and then we need to determine why the rest are not).  So why dump it during a holiday week when no one is paying attention?
Years ago, Eduflack was doing crisis communications work for a manufacturing company.  We had a big story coming out, a story we didn’t want to see in print.  We couldn’t control the story, but we did have some control over the timing.  Through some creative issue management, the article ran in a major daily newspaper the Sunday following Thanksgiving.  Few read the story.  The issue was forgotten before the post-holiday work week had ramped up.  It died a quick death in the natural news cycle.  The lesson here — there are good times to release important news, and good times to bury news of concern.  Thirty-six hours before Christmas simply isn’t the time to garner the attention of the populace, or even just the education policy chattering class.
And that’s a cryin’ shame.  The move to establish a common high school graduation rate is an important step forward in the discussion of national standards and student equity.  It puts all high school schools on a level playing field, letting parents, policymakers, and decisionmakers truly see what schools are doing their jobs, where the true dropout factories are, and who is hiding behind a mound of disaggregated data.
I’ve been hard on the EdSec for sitting out much of 2008, shying away from the controversial issues and losing grasp of what could have been a positive legacy of education improvement for this Administration.  Her announcement earlier this year to embrace a universal high school graduation rate was a moment of strength and of power.  Unfortunately, the potential has again been squandered, lost amid a pile of Christmas wrappings and end-of-the-year lists of who’s hot and who’s not.  If this guidance couldn’t be released in early December, it should have been held for the new year.  It should have been released when education reporters were in the office, ed bloggers were updating their postings, and policy websites were getting their usual traffic.
A Christmas Eve’s Eve dump does a disservice to those states who have already adopted the universal grad rate, and paid the price because it dropped their numbers virtually overnight.  It does a disservice to those who have been fighting for high school improvement and for national performance standards.  And it does a disservice to ED and the EdSec, who again score well on intent but struggle with the execution.
Is it too much to ask for ED to maximize the bully pulpit it possesses?  Is it too much to think major policy issues and efforts to improve our schools deserve the spotlight, and not simply a midnight release as the last person turns out the lights over at Maryland Avenue?        

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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.

Is Reading First Dead or Not?

Not much more than a month ago, it seemed the entire education community had written Reading First off for dead.  Congress has zero-funded the law.  The U.S. Department of Education was doing little, if anything, to do something about it.  IES had released an interim study questioning the program’s effectiveness.  All seemed relatively lost.

Yes, there was a small chorus of sane voices out there, trying to save this important program.  Sol Stern led a charge.  USA Today strongly weighed in.  Fordham Foundation provided intellectual heft.  Even little ol’ Eduflack got in more than its cent and a half.
Yet most have been planning for RF’s funeral.  Facts are facts, and the facts for RF were just not looking good.  Despite the need for scientifically based reading, despite the impact it has had on student achievement over the past five years, the simple fact was that RF was being zeroed out.  Those schools looking to implement SBRR would need to do so on their own, finding the necessary resources to fund programs that work (without the help from the feds).
The start of the school year may have shifted a little bit of thinking, though.  Tomorrow, EdSec Margaret Spellings will be in Des Moines, Iowa for a day o’ Reading First.  She’ll be touring RF classrooms at George Washington Carver Community School, and then will participate in a roundtable discussion with the superintendent and RF teachers.
More important, though, was the report issued late last month by the Reading First Federal Advisory Committee.  This advisory committee — led by Katherine Mitchell, the former Assistant State Superintendent in Alabama — issued its report as a direct response to the RF interim study released earlier this year by IES.  In their report, the Advisory Committee points to the interim study’s fundamental flaws (most of them methodological, which should be a surprise coming from IES).  More importantly, the committee states that the data found in the IES study is insufficient to make the claim that RF is ineffective.  The advisory committee’s ultimate conclusion — the Congress and ED should not make any long-term decisions on RF until better, more comprehensive data is collected.  They aren’t saying the IES study is wrong, they are just saying the data is insufficient to make any meaningful conclusions.
Of course, this study has gotten little (just about NO) attention from the media.  IES’s interim study was a dagger into RF’s heart, offering the media an entertaining Shakespearean education reform tragedy.  It made from great news, as IES (the office created, in many eyes, to build up SBRR and RF) was ultimately inflicting the wound.  It fell to alternate media, such as the blogosphere, to identify the flaws in the interim study.  It will likely fall to them once more.
So what comes next?  Despite the wishes of the chattering class, RF is likely to get level-funded for one more year.  As Congress fails to pass a new Labor/HHS/Education appropriations bill before the end of the month, Congress will simply move into CR mode, meaning that the new budget will simply be a carbon copy of the old budget. So RF programs will collect another year of federal funding, some $350 million or so.  One more year of life.  One more year of opportunity.
Why is this important?  It gives RF (and more importantly, SBRR) supporters a final year to ensure that the legacy of RF is not abandoned when the federal implementation funding dries up.  In a year when the White House, ED, and a number of state departments of education will change hands, those who have benefited from RF’s beacon will need to figure some things out.  How do we keep what works in the classroom?  How do we ensure our schools continue to prioritize scientifically based reading research?  How do we distinguish between good and bad research?  How do we empower teachers with research-based instruction?  How do we get all kids reading?
A lot of questions, yes.  But a lot of questions with clear answers.  We may need a change of vocabulary, but the core principles on which RF was built remain more important than ever.