Is Opinion Research?

For nearly a decade now, “research” has been the buzz word in education reform.  It comes in many flavors, and it usually comes with a number of adjectives — scientifically based, high quality, effective, squishy, and such.  And by now we all know that “scientifically based research” is in the NCLB law more than 100 times.

With all of the talk about research, we know there is good research and there is not so good research.  We have action research passed off as longitudinal.  We have customer satisfaction studies passed off as randomized trials. We have people mis-using, mis-appropriating, and downright abusing the word “research.”

Through it all (at least for the past seven years or so), the U.S. Department of Education was supposed to be the arbiter between good and bad research.  IES was founded to serve as the final, most official word on what constitutes good education research.  Dollars have been realigned.  Programs have been thoroughly examined.  Priorities have been shaken up.

So where does it all leave us?  In this morning’s Washington Post, EdSec Margaret Spellings launches a passionate defense of the DC voucher program.  (Personally, I’m still waiting for such a defense of Reading First, a program helping millions upon millions of more students in schools beyond our nation’s capital, but what can you do?)

It should come as no surprise that Spellings sought to use research to demonstrate the effectiveness and the need for the DC voucher program.  Without doubt, vouchers have had a real impact on the District of Columbia.  It has reinforced the importance of education with many families.  It has opened doors of schools previously closed off to DC residents.  It has forced DC public schools and charters to do a better job, as they seek to keep DC students (and the dollars associated with their enrollment) in the DCPS coffers.  And, of course, we are starting to see the impact vouchers are having on student achievement among students who previously attended the most struggling of struggling schools.

Spellings points out all of this in her detailing of the research validating the voucher program.  But there is one “research” point Spellings uses that just has Eduflack scratching his head.  From the EdSec’s piece — “The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) found that parents of scholarship children express confidence that they will be better educated and even safer in their new schools.”
Such a statement is downright funny, and quite a bit concerning.  In all of the discussions about scientifically based research, high-quality research, the medical model, double-blind studies, control groups, and the like, I don’t remember public opinion surveys meeting the IES standard for high-quality research.  Parents feel better about their children because of vouchers?  That’s a reason to direct millions in federal funding to the program? 

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for public opinion polling and the value of such surveys (along with the focus groups and other qualitative research that helps educate them).  But it is one of the last things that should be used to validate a program or drive government spending on educational priorities.

If DC is to keep vouchers, it should keep them because it is driving improvement in student performance and is giving a real chance to kids previously in hopeless situations.  It should be saved with real data that bears a resemblance to the scientifically based research we demand of the our programs and that we expect our SEAs and LEAs to use in decisionmaking.  It should be actionable research, with a clear methodology that can be replicated.
Otherwise, we’re just wrapping up opinion in a research wrapper.  That may be good enough for some for-profit education companies and others trying to turn a quick buck on available federal resources, but it shouldn’t make the cut for the government — particularly the branch of ED that is in charge of high-quality research.  Ed reform should be more than a finger-in-the-wind experiment.  And Spellings and IES should know that by now.

Punishing Those We Should Be Helping

Last year, Congress slashed funding for Reading First, citing the Inspector General’s report on the program and concerns from critics about the management of the program and its “political priorities.”  At the time, folks in the know saw it as a warning shot.  Popular thinking was that the 65% cut would be restored at the end of the day, once EdSec Margaret Spellings issued a mea culpa and promised to run a tighter ship.  After all, even House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey’s home district in Wisconsin saw demonstrable gains because of Reading First.  Clearly, he wasn’t going to deny his own schools, would he?

Of course, the funding was never restored, and RF is now a funding shell of its former shelf.  That was bad news for the program, but worse news for the countless schools across the nation that boosted student reading achievement because of RF support and programs.  Now, we’re moving into disaster.

Last week, House appropriators moved to eliminate the Reading First program entirely.  They want to zero out the program, putting an end to what was a signature component of NCLB.  One can’t blame, them, really.  The program has been a high-profile effort of the Administration.  There is plenty of blame to go around on the stumbling blocks and problems that arose during its early implementation.  And after the release of the IG report, the Department has done little — if anything — to promote the law, perhaps fearing greater attention or critique.  It’s become the bastard stepchild of NCLB.

Let’s forget — for a second — that RF works.  Let’s forget the data released last week — prepared by American Institutes for Research for the U.S. Department of Education — that shows the effectiveness of the program.  Forget that RF increased reading comprehension proficiency for first graders in 44 of 50 SEAs.  Forget that it boosted reading success of second graders in nearly 4 out of 5 SEAs.  Forget that third graders in 70% of reporting SEAs saw test scores increase.  And forget the similar positive impact it is having on both English Language Learners and students with disabilities.  Forget all of it.  

Forgetting it all is the only way one can justify action to eliminate the program.  Student proficiency increasing in first, second, and third grades (the very grades targeted by RF)?  Interventions that work with all students, including ELL students?  Funds for results-based teacher professional development?  Real interventions that work with virtually all students?  No, we don’t need any of that.

Yes, Spellings deserved (and deserves) to have her wrist slapped.  The problems with the implementation of RF happened under her watch, first as quarterback over at DPC and then over at the building of little red schoolhouses.  The proverbial buck has to stop somewhere, and it should be at her desk.  She has to take responsibility.  More importantly, she has to fix it.  The data is clear — the program works.  She needs to whatever it takes to keep the mission, vision, and goals of this necessary law in place.  She’s been fighting to save NCLB for the past year, demonstrating flexibility to bring more states and their politicians into the fold.  She should be doing the same thing for RF.

If she can’t, then she’s just letting Congress punish the wrong people.  When House and Senate leaders choose to zero out RF, the only people they are punishing are the teachers and students who depend on the funding and who are making demonstrable gains because of the guidance and support it provides.  They’re hurting those elementary school students who now finally gaining the reading skills they need to succeed in both school and life.  And they are penalizing those schools that have made a success of RF, despite the problems at the national level.

I’m all for strong rhetoric with real teeth.  Congress should demand more accountability for RF and NCLB programs.  They should expect the problems highlighted in the IG report to be remedied.  And they should use the stick when the carrot isn’t working.  But they also need to remember why we committed $1 billion a year to effectively teach reading.  They need to look at both the letter and intent of the RF law, and ensure it is implemented with fidelity.  They need to fulfill their commitment to our schools and beginning readers across the nation.

It’s easy to throw up our hands, get out the red pens, and draw and X through RF.  It’s far, far harder to teach kids to read.  If Reading First works (and even the recent Center on Education Policy data shows it does), we need to support it, not sentence it to a slow, political death.  Otherwise, we’re just punishing those kids that are picking up their first book … or it may be their last. 

ED’s Back in the Game

In the hit baseball movie “Major League,” the Indians’ supposed slugger — Pedro Serrano — has a problem.  He “hit straight ball very much,” but he just can’t seem to hit a curveball.  The problem comes to a climax in the bottom of the eighth inning of a one-game playoff to decide whether the Indians or Yankees win the division.  The Tribe is down by two runs, Pedro is up with a runner on first.

All season, the slugger had been praying to his voodoo god — Joboo — to help him hit the curve.  Nothing works.  Finally, with two strikes, Pedro steps out of the batters box, and speaks to Joboo for a final time.  “I go to you, I stick up for you,” Pedro says.  “If you no help me now, then [forget] you Joboo.  I do it myself.”   He then goes on to tie the game with a rocket home run, and the Indians win in the bottom of the ninth.  All because of Pedro.

Anyone who knows Eduflack knows he is a die-hard baseball fan (Go, Mets!) and an education reform advocate.  The two share a great number of characteristics.  We usually swing for the fences, and we often fail.  And we are considered an all-start if we can manage to succeed a third of the time.

These commonalities were even more clear yesterday, when Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced her proposed regulations to strengthen NCLB.  Essentially, Spellings has assumed the role of Pedro Serrano (which is not so bad since he goes on to become U.S. President David Palmer on “24”).  For years, the field has been throwing a number of NCLB curveballs at Spellings.  She’s fouled many off.  She’s swung and missed on quite a few.  And up until her last at bat, she hasn’t made good contact on any pitch that wasn’t straight and easy down the plate.

Yes, she’s embraced NCLB.  She’s defended the law.  She’s believed in it.  But she left it to others to improve.  The Miller/McKeon draft was a deep fly ball that landed foul.  Kennedy’s revision of NCLB still hasn’t made it into the game.  And there’s Spellings insisting the NCLB was going to win it come the end of the game.

She started making contact earlier this spring, when she announced her flexibility measures in Minnesota.  This week, she finally parked one of those curveballs over the leftfield wall.  Just as everyone had written NCLB off as dead, just as we had declared that the status quo would win at the end, Spellings has tied up the game and left NCLB in a position to win in the final inning.

Some of her proposed regulations look remarkably similar to ideas floated by Buck McKeon and others.  That’s a good thing.  She’s learned from both her friends and opponents, and has demonstrated she is listening.  Her performance yesterday focused on the issues we wanted to hear.  Flexibility on AYP.  Strengthening school restructuring.  Establishing the NGA’s universal high school graduation rate.  Strengthening parental engagement.  All individuals hits.  Combined, they can win the game.

Of course, Spellings is now playing in a hostile park.  She’s not only facing tough critics from legislators and the education blob, she’s also hearing it from the crowd as many hope for a swing and a miss.  But she’s now showing she has the potential to knock in the winning run. 

How?  She needs to build public support for these administrative changes.  She needs to demonstrate a commitment to improving the law, not just protect it.  She needs to show that she is collaborating, both with her friends and enemies, to make the law better.  And she needs to communicate, communicate, communicate with any and all who may be involved in the implementation.

“Major League” is but a movie. Spellings is playing in real life.  And this isn’t just a one-game playoff.  These changes are for her legacy and for the domestic policy legacy of this Administration.  But that doesn’t mean she can’t have that Hollywood ending, and leave ED with a new, stronger NCLB.

Eight-Dollar Words

Secretary Spellings’ big national NCLB policy announcement came yesterday in Minnesota.  And the closely guarded secret was exactly what Alexander Russo and others thought it would be — greater flexibility in determining student achievement and AYP.

We all know it was an important step, and one that was a long time in coming.  The Commonwealth of Virginia is aggressively looking at pulling out of NCLB over the issue, willing to refuse its federal education dollars because of issues involving AYP and ELL students (among others).  For years now, the states have been clamoring for additional flexibility, noting unique demographic and data circumstances in their states.

Such flexibility is not an excuse for avoiding federal requirements, rather it is a recognition that some states have to take different paths to reach proficiency and to get every student achieving.  While we’re all heading to the same ultimate goal, it may take some longer and it may require more work and more innovation from others.

The U.S. Department of Education should be commended for finally offering this lifeline to those states trying to do the right thing when it comes to AYP.  And we likely have groups like CCSSO for helping push it forward.  Now, the spotlight will be placed on which 10 states will gain this newly found flexibility (and from the speakers list yesterday, it seems Minnesota and South Dakota are likely to be in the pool.  And Spellings also singled out Maryland, North Dakota, Louisiana, and Massachusetts.  Here’s hoping that Eduflack’s home state of Virginia makes the cut as well.

But in all of the excitement of a major education policy announcement, I can’t help but notice the need by some to secure a triple-word score on the announcement.  For years now, the talk has been on flexibility.  Yet if we look at all of the headlines from the “official” documents coming out of the Minnesota announcement, we’ve decided to rebrand flexibility as a “differentiated accountability pilot.”

If the goal is to win over the research professors in our schools of education and public policy, then the rebrand is genius.  But if our intent is to demonstrate that ED is listening, and has answered the call for greater flexibility, we are falling a little flat.

Over the past few years, one of the greatest criticisms of this Department of Education (and this Administration) is that it is inflexible.  It is their way or the highway.  And that has been particularly true of NCLB.  It is enforced the way those on the seventh floor intend it to, and there is little (if any) room for interpretation or flexibility.  That is why you have seen so many states (along with ed organizations like AASA, NEA, and the others) grouse about the law and its implementation for the last seven years.

We blunt that criticism by showing we are flexible.  We scream from the rooftops of our ability to recognize and adapt to the needs of our constituencies.  At this stage of the game, we should become virtual Gumbies of public policy, doing whatever it takes to reauthorize the law and recommit to boosting achievement in all students.  These last 10 months are all about legacy, after all.

Instead, we fly such flexibility under the banner of “differentiated accountability pilot.”  After reaching for our latest copy of Webster, we may figure out that ED is demonstrating flexibility.  Or we may just move on, seeing it as just the latest in policyspeak and education gobbledygook.  Worse, we may think there is something unknown and hidden in such a complicated term, fearing there is an enforcement shoe to drop that we don’t see or don’t understand.

Don’t get me wrong.  A differentiated accountability pilot is a good step, particularly if ED selects the right states — those who need the flexibility the most and those who can demonstrate that, with a little help, improved achievement is just around the corner.  But we should look to use common-sense words to describe complex issues. 

We don’t need eight-dollar words when a 50-cent one will do.  The name of the game here is flexibility.  Hopefully, educators and policymakers will overlook our Scrabble-speak and recognize the opportunity and possibility behind the actions.  After all, this is what they’ve been calling for for years.

Wither NCLB?

It has been a rough couple of weeks for our federal elementary and secondary education act.  During a recent road tour, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings speculated that it is unlikely that NCLB will be reauthorized this calendar year.  We’re still waiting on Ted Kennedy’s new version of the law.  Buck McKeon is just as skeptical as Spellings about the 2008 future of new legislation.  The future ain’t too bright in our nation’s capital.

It’s been just as interesting in the states.  Most of us know about the long-pending NCLB lawsuit waged by the National Education Association and many states.  Now we have new action and new rhetoric in the Mid-Atlantic adding to NCLB’s poor grades.

In Virginia, the state’s legislature this weekend voted to mandate that the Virginia Board of Education explore opting out of NCLB.  Citing concerns about ELL students and exceptions (or the lack thereof) made for Virginia students with regard to AYP. It’s a bold move.  Pulling out of NCLB would cost the Old Dominion millions upon millions of dollars.  And that comes at a time when Gov. Tim Kaine is pushing hard to add universal preK, expand high school pathways, and boost the state’s college-going rates.  With such aspirations, it says a lot that Virginia officials are saying it is worth more to refuse the NCLB check from the feds than it is to pay for all of the mandates that come with the law.

Across the border, West Virginia educators told Spellings that NCLB’s mandates are crushing teacher morale.  Standardized tests and the scripted curriculums that come with them are destroying the teaching profession.  We’ve heard about teaching to the test for years now and its impact on students, but Mountaineer teachers gave Spellings an earful on its long-term impact for teachers.

So what does this all mean?  For years now, Eduflack has been saying that reauthorization of NCLB (with improvements) only comes when Main Street USA buys into it.  Credit to Spellings for trying to do just that, but it may be a day late and a dollar short.  The time to promote the value and impact of NCLB was two or three years ago, when its impact was just coming to light.  Instead, the U.S. Department of Education froze, fearful of IG investigations and such.  For the past 18 months, NCLB opposition has been banging and banging and banging away on the law, throwing a bright light on every flaw, blemish, and problem.  And that light hasn’t dimmed,

Whatever the name, whatever the logo, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act needs to be reauthorized.  Isn’t it time we look at the good of NCLB and preserve those benefits, while identifying the shortcomings and building real, meaningful solutions that can make up those gaps and improve the law?

NCLB or its offspring should be seen as a benefit for states, not as an overwhelming obstacle that hinders states from boosting student achievement across all demographics.  With its investment in PD, it should be seen as a boon for teachers, not a destroyer of morale.  It should be about what the feds can do to improve state and local public education.  And at the end of it all, isn’t it supposed to be about student learning?

Reading First: Congressional Punching Bag?

Reading skills are non-negotiables when it comes to student achievement.  If you can’t read at grade level by fourth grade, academic struggles start to expand exponentially.  Kids start falling behind in math, social studies, science, and every subject in between.  You can’t learn if you can’t read.  And you certainly can’t succeed without reading.

Sure, we all know this.  And Eduflack has written until he has been blue in the knuckles about the fact that Reading First works.  Putting research-proven instruction in the classroom works.  And successful implementation of SBRR boosts student achievement.  No ifs, ands, or buts.

That’s why it is so disheartening to see members of Congress — our elected representatives — to continue to use Reading First as a PR punching bag.  Need to make a rhetorical point?  Attack RF.  Need to gain PR attention?  Attack RF.  Want to secure some extra federal dollars for the folks back home?  Attack RF.

In previous postings, I’ve commended Secretary Spellings for pointing out the error in Chairman Obey’s RF-slashing ways, reminding him of how much he would cost the good people of Wisconsin.  Madame Secretary, it’s now time to step up and remind the good people of your home state of the same.  The Texas Congressional delegation has come out swinging.

Late last week, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas got an amendment passed in the House that cuts nearly $50 million more from Reading First.  Not huge money, no, but a symbolic stroke that sends the wrong message to her constituents in the greater Dallas Metroplex.  In Dallas, reading must no longer be fundamental.

Johnson’s reasoning — she wanted level funding for the Safe Schools and Citizenship Education program.  Read her press release ( and she is proud of the new funding she has secured, in an attempt to restore level funding for social skills training.  But notice she never says what pot of money she is taking from?  Don’t want to tell those kids or their parents in Dallas or DeSoto that you’ve just taken away money for that reading coach, huh?

I don’t doubt that it is important to teach kids that drugs are wrong.  But isn’t it more important for kids to be able to read the brochures and websites promoting safe schools?  Shouldn’t a child be able to read a label to know its drugs, and not candy?  Of course.

As Congress looks to reauthorize NCLB, I’ve got a novel approach to NCLB PR and marketing.  Let’s focus on the positive.  Let’s talk about results.  Let’s key in on replicable programs that can be implemented in schools and classrooms around the nation.  It’s time to let Reading First stand on its achievement merits, and not on its administrative mis-steps.

It may very well be important to level fund safe schools.  But what message do you send to schools, advocates, and the education community when you are doing it at the expense of a program that has already been slashed nearly 40 percent?  And when you do it from a program that is proven effective? 

There’s $63 billion currently in the proposed Education budget.  How many of those dollars are earmarked for programs that are proven to work?  How many of those dollars are going to programs that are essential building blocks for every child, in every school, in every community across the country?  Reading First needs to stop being a rhetorical punching bag for the doubters and the critics.  It is time for RF to hit back.

Opting Out, TIMSS Style

We need to better prepare our students to compete on the world economy.  Such is the driving mantra behind current pushes to improve our high schools and strengthen the links between secondary and postsecondary education.  Our students need the skills to succeed, they need the math, science, and problem-solving skills to hold their own against other students around the world.  They need the skills to gain good jobs in the United States.  And they need strong math and science skills to ensure such jobs remain here in the United States.  Math and science skills are necessary to keeping our economy strong and our future generations employed.  All strong rhetoric, all believed by Main Street USA, and all pretty damned true.

That’s why Eduflack was a little disappointed to read a piece by Sarah D. Sparks in Education Daily a little more than a week ago, which reported that the United States will not participate in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, for physics and calculus.

Eduflack waited to comment on this development to see how those who truly understand the policy implications reacted.  And the response was as surprising as the announcement — deafening silence.

Why is the U.S. Department opting out of TIMSS?  Two simple reasons.  The first is cost.  The second is lack of students.  What is the United States lacking?  Apparently, we don’t have a few million dollars to conduct the study and we don’t have the 16,000 students needed to comprise an effective sample size.

Yes, such reasoning seems quite questionable, particularly with everything we know about NCLB funding, the demand for greater assessments, and the rapid increase in science and math instruction thanks to programs like STEM, early colleges, and similar high school reforms.

At a time when the international team is looking to go head-to-head with the United States, we choose to sit on the bench.  At a time when we tell our kids that they need to gain math and science skills to succeed in both college and career, we send then to the showers before they even have a chance to pitch the first inning.  And at a time when we should be doing all we can to post impressive stats and demonstrate we are the world leaders, instead we choose to hide behind the stats on the back of our bubblegum cards, those numbers that defined us in years past.

But what, exactly, does this announcement say about us?  Instead of dwelling on what we cannot do or where we see the failings, Eduflack offers up some talking points for Secretary Spellings on this important topic.

* Ensuring that our high school students are truly prepared to compete in the global economy must become a fiscal priority for us.  We are, rightfully so, pouring billions and billions into elementary- and middle-school improvements and testing (including TIMSS for fourth and eighth graders), but the current federal commitment to high schools is but a fraction.  We need to educate and train our students, particularly those in high school, in math and science, and we need to effectively assess those skills.
* We need to applaud those school districts that are taking the responsibility to prepare all students for the future.  Early colleges and dual-enrollment offerings.  AP and IB programs.  STEM education.  All of these are important steps our schools, districts, and states are taking to ready our kids for the challenges and opportunities of the future.
* The United States stands as the true home for innovation.  And we’re willing to make the investment to keep it that way.  Our future is too important not to equip our students with the math, science, and problem-solving skills needed to achieve, both in school and in life.

Yes, TIMSS is merely one measure of our effectiveness.  It is a tool, like other assessments, to ensure we are on the right track.  And it is one of the few we have to effectively measure our abilities versus our trading partners and our economic competitors around the globe.  Not participating in the study reads like we are worried about our ability to compete and our ability to excel.  If we aren’t ready for the big leagues, then we need to get back into training and prepare ourselves for true competition.  You can’t win the big game of life if you’re unwilling to step onto the field. 


Getting Lost in the NCLB Wilderness

Is it possible to say all of the right things, but still fail in effectively communicating?  It may sound hard, but it is quite easy.  Don’t believe Eduflack?  Just check out President Bush’s remarks to the 2007 Presidential Scholars yesterday.

The President picked a good venue for his remarks — a room full of high-achieving high school students.  He brought with him ED Secretary Spellings, along with Republican members of Congress key to NCLB reauthorization.  And he had a clear messaging platform — NCLB’s goals, what NCLB has achieved to date, and vision for NCLB 2.0.

And that messaging was strong. 
* NCLB is bipartisan. 
* “The federal government should expect results  in return for the money it spends.”
* “The only way to determine whether a child is reading at grade level is to have accountability in our school systems.”
* “We’re making good progress.”
* “Our ability to compete in the 21st century depends upon educating children”
* “If a child needs extra help, there’s going to be money available to help that child.”
* “Strengthen math and science”
* “Extra funding for under-performing schools.”
* “We believe in local control of schools, you reform them, you fix them.”

Bush addressed his remarks to the students, their parents, and their teachers.  He spoke of believing in students, supporting teachers, and improving our schools.  The President was passionate about an issue he cared about (particularly when talking about the impact of SBRR on reading scores).  And that’s where he should have stopped. 

A broad audience.  A relatively light and easy event.  The President should have called it a day, and walked off the mound leaving the crowd with the broad rhetorical strokes that define the benefits of NCLB.  Had he done so, it would have been a win.  A strong “A” from the teachers in the crowd.

Instead, he kept speaking.  Using his bully pulpit, he decided to further define NCLB in terms of school choice and vouchers.  Important issues, yes.  Volatile components of NCLB, for sure.  But completely inappropriate for the audience, the venue, or the ultimate end game.  Yes, it is important for the President to appease a key audience (his conservative base), particularly as Republicans are quickly jumping off the NCLB ship.  But you need to address such concerns directly with the audience that holds them.  By spending a third of his time focused on issues that appeal to a small, but vocal, segment of the education universe, he muddled his message and chipped away at his clear framing of the value of NCLB.

And the result of the tip of the hat to his conservative base?  Nil.  The criticisms of big government and the federalization of education still rang out in The Washington Post’s coverage of it.  A golden opportunity to focus on the positive impact and long-term gains as a result of NCLB, yet the President still only scores the gentleman’s “C” for execution.

Happy Birthday

There’s no getting around the subject.  This week is NCLB’s sixth birthday.  What exactly do we get a law that seems to have both everything and nothing?  How do we celebrate a law that has a strong and loyal opposition that is desperately hoping a seventh birthday is not in the future? 

For the father of NCLB, President George W. Bush, it was all about deep dish pizza and a visit to the Windy City.  For the law’s author, Senator Ted Kennedy, it was about promises of NCLB offspring, a new law with better funding that can be offered as part of reauthorization.  And for its godmother, Ed Secretary Margaret Spellings, it was the promise of action without reauthorization (a “we don’t need no stinkin’ badges moment, if you will).

What has been most interesting about this year’s “celebration” has been the unified critical view of NCLB.  The message from the loyal opposition has clear.  NCLB is bad because of tough assessments of students and of schools.

Even if we are to eulogize NCLB tomorrow, do we really believe that measurement and evaluation is what is wrong with our K-12 system?  Shouldn’t we have the strongest possible understanding of how our students are achieving?  Shouldn’t we know what they know, building on their strengths and attending to their weaknesses? 

Likewise, shouldn’t we know how our schools are doing?  As taxpayers, we want to know that our property tax dollars are being well-spent.  As parents, we want to know that our school is as good (if not better) than others in the area.  And as a community, we want assurances that our school system is education our students and preparing them for a high-paying, high-skills job once they leave the schoolhouse doors for the last time.

Regardless of political party, educational philosophy, or general approach to life, we all have to agree that information is power.  Data on student, teacher, and school performance provide us key information.  Sure, we don’t have to use that information in a punitive manner.  School data can be used to redirect funding or teacher resources, rather than just to identify failing schools.  It can be used to identify what works, and not just as fodder to attack what doesn’t.  It can be used as a learning tool and as an instructional foundation.

If we’ve learned anything over these past six years, it’s that we need more information and more data about our schools, not less.  We need to know what works and what doesn’t.  We need to know who’s achieving and who’s not.  And most importantly, we need to know how to measure both.  If data is king, we need to make sure our schools are true royalty, and not merely court jesters feeling around in a darkened corner.

To Veto is to Improve

I’d like to think that everything I’ve learned about the legislative process, I learned from Saturday morning cartoons (and those five years working on Capitol Hill, I guess).  Just about everyone from my generation should know how a bill becomes a law, even if it is just from remembering Schoolhouse Rock.  But where is our song about the meaning of vetoing one’s signature domestic policy bill?

For those who missed it, President Bush, at his year-end briefing yesterday, tossed the biggest rhetorical softball possible to his critics and to those on the NCLB fence.  The President states that if he gets an NCLB reauthorization that weakens the law, he would veto it.

We may talk about lines in the sand, but Bush has now drawn a rhetorical Grand Canyon.  As other policymakers are debating multiple measures and increased funding and escape clauses, the President stands clear and emphatic in his position.  It’s improvement, or it is nothing at all.

This is an extremely bold stance from a lame duck president with low national approval rankings and little record on education these past couple of years.  And it is just the sort of bold statement the President needed to make if he is to save the one potential legacy piece of his domestic agenda.

With such a strong statement (albeit in a relatively throw-away media session), 2008 could be an interesting one, if we can get NCLB to the front of the policy agenda.  Why?

* Senator Kennedy continues to explore reforms to NCLB, and it is clear the law will change.  The big question is whether the law is strengthened, the law is watered down, or the law is tabled until a new president can put his imprint on the nation’s K-12 law.

* Advocates of the law have regained their stride.  For much of the year, NCLB critics have dominated the debate.  But we are starting to see cracks.  Earlier this week, Governors Thompson and Barnes of Aspen’s NCLB Commission had their oped on the law printed in The Washington Times.  Ed in 08 continues to push on the hows and whys presidential candidates should stand up to strengthen our nation’s commitment to K-12. 

* Recent NAEP and PISA scores have many talking about how we continue to improve the quality and measurement of education.  There is a growing hunger for proven, long-term improvement.

For years, Eduflack has opined on how NCLB could serve as President Bush’s true domestic policy legacy.  The changes he has made in how we teach, how we use research, what we expect of our teachers, and how we measure our schools will be with us for a long time.  The federal dollars spent on K-12 have never been higher.  And he has given federal education issues a singular voice under the banner of 2008.  Like it or not, the relationship between the federal government to K-12 public education is vastly different today compared to 2001.  And that relationship shows a vision from which Bush and his education team have never wavered, no matter the criticism, attack, or obstacle.

But if the President wants that legacy, if he wants an NCLB reauthorization he can sign, he needs to be both bold and proactive moving forward.  Now is the time for Bush (and Spellings) to step forward and clearly articulate those improvements they would agree to and those improvements that result in a better, stronger NCLB.

Like what?
* Provide schools and districts more flexibility to meet AYP, assuming their actions follow the spirit of the law
* Demand full funding for Reading First, while offering stringent oversight protections to ensure the funds are being used only on “gold standard” interventions with unquestioned research
* Take states to task for weakening their state standards just so they can claim proficiency on state tests
* Amend the HQT provisions to include provisions for effective teaching
* Ensure that real educators, policymakers, and the business community are involved in implementing NCLB 2.0 and evaluating its effectiveness
* Remind us of the primary audience for NCLB.  Yes, teachers and counselors and researchers are important.  But our primary focus is the student — how do we use the law to ensure all students are provided a high-quality education that prepares them for the high-skill, high-wage jobs of the 21st century.

I’m just an eduflack.  I’m sure there are a number of other ways we can strengthen the law, doing so in a way that will gain the President’s signature and the education community’s endorsement.  Mr. President, consider it my Christmas present to you.  No need for a thank you card, and no reason to consider returning it.