Civics Falling by the Wayside?

Yes, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is absolutely correct. Civics education, in general, is falling by the wayside, and it is happening at a time when civics ed is more important than ever.

But before we rush to fill the gaps, we need to be mindful about today’s students, how they learn, and what interests them. The answer isn’t just more textbooks, read longer and louder. No, the true answer is experience-based learning, active education, and other such activities they engage and encourage students to pursue more.

We explore this topic on the latest episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network. Give it a listen!

Do We NEED a Teacher in Chief?

In her pursuit of the White House and the teachers unions endorsements to get there, US Senator Elizabeth Warren recently pledged that, when elected, she would insist that her US Education Secretary would be a union teacher.

It makes for good politics with union teachers, but is such a pledge good policy? Are the skills needed to be an effective educator the same skills needed to successfully manage a multi billion dollar federal agency that has the highest percentage of political appointments in the government?

We explore this topic on the most recent episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network, noting that one of the most effective EdSecs in history (Dick Riley) was not a teacher, while one of the most disappointing EdSecs (Rod Paige) brought just the experience Senator Warren is promising. Give us a listen!

Federally Subsidized Teachers?

There is little question that public school teachers deserve to be paid better than most are. After all, the job is more demanding than it has ever been, and we are asking more and more of educators each and every year.

Today, we expect teachers to be instructors, counselors, nurses, and psychometricians. And we do so as we increase classroom sizes and cut back on other school supports.

So it is no surprise that when someone like US Senator and presidential aspirant Kampala Harris calls for significant teacher pay raises funded by billions in new federal funding, we take notice.

But before we go embracing the latest plan, let’s consider it for a second. For decades, we have insisted that education policy was to be made at the state and local level, now we want greater federal involvement. And at a time when the US Congress has never been more dysfunctional, we now want teacher pay to be part of the annual federal budget process?

We explore these questions on the latest episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network. Give it a listen!

Basic Skills for Teachers?

For years (and years and years) now, we have been hearing horror stories about the teacher pipeline and an inability to get good educators in the classroom, particularly in those classrooms that need them the most.

There are almost a many ideas for addressing the pipeline issue as there are Democrats seeking the 2020 presidential nomination. Dear ol’ Eduflack has been involved on several of them, including the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship program, an effort that had transformed teacher preparation in six states and at 31 universities, and the creation of a new, competency-based graduate school of education focused on teaching mastery.

With efforts like these, the focus has been raising standards, hiking expectations, and ensuring aspiring teachers are spending as much time as possible in k-12 classrooms. At no point did we consider eliminating accountability or dropping the bar.

Yet that seems to be what Florida is currently looking at, as the state legislature explores eliminating the basic skills test for teachers to be. <insert shaking head and face palm here>

As Jeffrey Solochek reports in today’s Tampa Times:

Patrick Riccards, chief strategy officer for the New Jersey-based Woodrow Wilson Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers several teaching fellowships, found it ironic that Florida would consider lowering its criteria to become a teacher at the same time it touts its efforts to fill classrooms with the “best and brightest.”

In Texas, he said, some teacher preparation programs have become adept at reducing expectations as a way to find more educators. The problem, Riccards said, is those new teachers don’t always last very long. 

Then schools have to go look again.

Teachers want to be treated as professionals, he added. Not passing a basic skills test doesn’t seem to match up with that goal.

Give the full article a read. And let’s share a collective weep for the future of teacher education in the Sunshine State.

A New Era of Teacher Activism?

For the past year, we have watched state after state, city after city, address teacher strikes. Originally, these labor actions were about increasing school resources – boosting teacher pay, reducing class sizes, and ensuring counselors and nurses were available in the schools.

But lately, we are seeing a new side to such strikes. Teachers in West Virginia struck last year to boost pay and benefits. Last month, they took to the state Capitol to protest proposed state policies, including expansion of public charter schools.

So one has to ask, are we entering a new era when it comes to teachers activism? Dear ol’ Eduflack explores the topic on the latest episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network.

Click here to give it a listen.

Reading Should Be a Civil, Constitutional Right

Twenty years ago, I formally enlisted in the “Reading Wars.” As one of the original staffers of the National Reading Panel, I really had no idea what I was getting into. Entering the process, literacy instruction seemed pretty simple to me. I thought English teachers knew how to teach kids to read. It went without saying that those proven-effective methods were what we were using in the classroom.

Boy, was I wrong. I quickly learned that what were scientifically proven instructional methods were often ignored, replaced by an embrace of an unproven philosophy of “whole language.” Ed schools were often preparing prospective teachers in the philosophy as their professors were the advocates of such a belief. Misguided philosophy was trumping fact when it came to literacy instruction.

The National Reading Panel culled through decades of research to determine the most effective methods for teaching young children to read. The Panel’s report became the research cornerstone for the Reading First program, a multi-billion-dollar federal investment in K-12 literacy instruction. This research-based emphasis resulted in an uptick in student literacy rates … until the Reading First program ended as No Child Left Behind faced increased attacks. As a result, reading instruction started returning to where it once was, well-intentioned philosophy over research-based practice.

While some thought of Reading First as a “drill and kill” approach to literacy, the program was addressing its goals. The National Reading Panel had noted that more than a third of fourth graders were unable to read at grade level. Those struggling readers were largely students of color attending high-need schools. And at the time, many of them were on the path to attend high schools affectionately referred to as “drop-out factories.” By refusing to use what we knew worked in teaching young kids to read, we were failing those students for a lifetime. By embracing scientifically based reading instruction, we were strengthening the academic paths for every child to have a chance at success.

I fought those Reading Wars for a decade, and have the intellectual battle scars to show for it. Advocating for better instructional materials. Building new graduate schools of education that were research based. Empowering parents to demand what works in their kids’ classrooms. Highlighting the differences between proven instruction and philosophy. And yes, promoting the notion that literacy skills are indeed a civil right.

After all of those years and all of those fights, I had hoped that things had finally changed. While the dollars from Reading First have long dried up, the impact the policies left on instructional materials and instructional materials lasted. Or so I thought, until reading of a recent court case in Michigan.

In Motown, Detroit Public Schools students have filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the state was denying them their constitutional right to learn. In hearing the case, a federal judge earlier this summer asked and answered an important question: “But the Court is faced with a discrete question: does the Due Process Clause demand that a State affirmatively provide each child with a defined, minimum level of education by which the child can attain literacy? The answer to the question is no.”

The judge based the argument on the fact that the Constitution does not actually include the words “education” or “school.” As a result, while the students’ argument may be morally persuasive, the legal argument just isn’t there. In response, the students’ lawyers are now charging that the failure to teach students to read in essence prevents students from pursuing their constitutional rights, including the right to vote or the right to participate in the civic process.

It is offensive that so many students today complete public school lacking the necessary literacy skills to succeed. It is offensive that government – be it legislatures or the courts – don’t see the lack of student reading resources as the crisis it truly is. And at a time when most states require students be educated (with some states demanding they remain in school until their 18th birthday) that we are unable to provide students the literacy skills they need, deserve, and demand.

Two decades ago, we were fighting the Reading Wars to determine whether whole language or a phonics-based approach was the most effective instructional strategy. Sadly, today we are now fighting over whether young people even have a right to literacy skills and the very basics in public education.

Decades of research is clear on what is most effective when it comes to teaching most young people to read. We know what works, and we have the data to prove it. A former mentor of mine once declared that it was “educational malpractice” for our schools not to use scientifically-based reading instruction in the classroom. He was ridiculed for using such language, but he was correct, then and now.

When our fourth graders can’t read, it is near impossible for them to learn content when they hit middle and high school. When they graduate functionally illiterate in this digital, information age, it is near impossible for them to get a good job or truly participate in the great American citizenry. When we fail to teach our young people to read, we are literally denying them their rightful place in our democratic republic.

Literacy skills are indeed a civil right. And as we pay federal, state, and local taxes each year to fund our local schools, effectively teaching reading should be a constitutional right as well.

(This essay also appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)

 

 

Why I’m Running for School Board … Again

Nearly a decade ago, I decided to run to serve on my local school board. With two young children not yet in the local schools, I wanted to use my day job focusing on school improvement to ensure that my children had the best possible public education.

That year, the voters of Falls Church, Virginia elected me to serve on the board overseeing one of the the top school districts in the nation. The work was substantial. We had to restore funding to a school system that was hit hard by the recession. We had to improve school quality, particularly with regard to online courses, in a high-achieving school district. We had to continue to ensure that every student in our community was able to take AP and IB classes — and exams — without needing to pay for it themselves. We had to increase teacher salaries during tough budgetary times. And if that wasn’t enough, we needed to launch a major capital effort — including securing federal funding to expand our middle school — while hiring a new superintendent in the middle of it all.

I was honored to work alongside the teachers, administrators, community leaders, families, and board members who made our little city the success story it was. I was fortunate to be able to serve as both vice chair and chairman of our school board. Despite all of the countless hours, the tough political battles, and the continual searches for hard-to-find educational dollars, the hardest part of the work for me was when I had to leave the board after relocating out of state for a new job opportunity.

Since my service, I have been fond of saying how serving on a local board of education was one of the toughest challenges I’ve every faced. When asked about future service, I’ve regularly said I had no intention of ever returning to such a position. After all, these days I take great pride in my work as an assistant coach on my daughter’s competitive cheer squad. That’s how I enjoy spending my fall nights now.

A few weeks ago, I began reflecting on the state of my current school community, a high-achieving school district in New Jersey. The challenges and opportunities before the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District are not unique. It’s about balancing the needs of academic achievement with those of the whole child. It is about rewarding and empowering educators when more and more demands are placed on them. It’s about properly involving parents in educational decisions. And its about ensuring all students are gaining the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in their careers and lives.

So it is with renewed enthusiasm that I decided to run for a seat on our local board of education, filing my candidacy papers yesterday afternoon. Like most of the families in my community, mine moved to WW-P because of the quality of the public schools. I believe that our schools are very good … and can be even better. And I believe that my skill sets and past experiences provide me a unique position to lead that push for improvement.

As a former school board chairman for a district similar to my current community, I understand how to deal with a growing student population in smartly, ensuring that building construction and expansion is done in a financially sound way, meeting the needs without saddling the community for decades to come. I also recognize the importance of setting clear goals that are shared with the community, while holding the superintendent and all school district officials accountable for achieving those goals.

As a voice for school improvement, I understand the importance of strong inputs in our schools, and equally understand how outcomes are the ultimate measure of a school, a district, and a community.

As someone who has worked in education policy for two decades, I understand the importance of scientifically based research in school decision making, of understanding the value of assessments and the student data they derive, of how to select the best literacy programs for an ever-changing student population, and of how to ensure that technology in the classroom is used in the most effective way possible.

As a special education parent, I understand the importance of educators and parents working together, forming a team of individuals with the best interests of the student at heart.

This year, I will be the father of two middle schoolers — a seventh grader and a sixth grader. It would be far easier for me, both personally and professionally, to sit on the local schools’ sidelines, offering my thoughts via Facebook debates and the occasional blog post. It would be easier for me to focus on my professional life, my family, and my extremely limited cheer coaching abilities. But life isn’t always easy.

My children are now in the second half of their k-12 experiences. It can’t be about what is easy for me, and instead needs to be about what is best for my kids and for the many like them in the classroom. If I can help improve our schools and the pathways available to my children and their friends, then I need to take the opportunity. I cannot simply hope or wish or complain that things should be done differently. I have to step up and try to do them.

I do so recognizing that I am largely an unknown newbie in our community. Most know nothing about my work leading the National Reading Panel or the Pennsylvania STEM Initiative. They don’t know I have helped build two new graduate schools of education to better prepare teachers. They are unaware that I’ve worked to improve teacher education in five states — including New Jersey — or helped lead the most substantial education reform initiative in Connecticut’s history. They don’t know that this son of a high school teacher and a college president has spent the past 20 years fighting each and every day to improve educational access, quality, and outcomes. And that’s OK.

Over the next three months, I will spend much of my time talking to my neighbors about my background and my vision for our local schools. I will hopefully spend far more time listening than I will talking. And I will try and emphasize the importance of transparency, accountability, and community in our local schools.

If I can use the coming months to help focus on these issues and raise the level of educational discourse in our community, then I will consider it a big win. The bigger win is having my kids see me campaign hard, learning the same lessons that my educator parents instilled in me. That nothing is more important than a good education.