School Board Elections Shouldn’t be MMA

Over at Hechinger Report, I have a new commentary on how our local school board races can often reflect the worst of our national political discourse … and how that can do a true disservice to the kids and communities our school boards are seeking to serve.

While the job of a school board member isn’t necessarily to serve as a rubber stamp for a superintendent, it is a job that requires working with a disparate electorate. It requires finding common ground with everyone from a headstrong superintendent to the most vocal of activist parents.

One simply cannot begin that service through a political campaign of blame, scare tactics, or fear. And it cannot be done by pitting one part of the community against the other in the hopes of cobbling together enough of the community to secure the necessary votes to win.

I hope you’ll give it a read. It becomes an important topic of discussion as more control is returned to the localities.



I’m Not Lazy, I’m …

Loyal Eduflack readers may have noticed that posts aren’t coming as frequently as they typically do. That’s not because I don’t love you any more. No, I’m posting less because my meager editorial skills are currently focused elsewhere. 

I have a book manuscript on the evolution of not-for-profit communications due to my publisher in just two months. So the next eight weeks are crunch time for wrapping that up. 

I’ll still try to post here. But if you see longer lags than usual, now you know why. It’s not you, it’s me. 

Teaching and Respect for the Profession

If more parents understood what serious teaching looked like, what would they do instead? Maybe, at parties, they’d talk to teachers about their craft. They might ask to sit in on classes instead of just coming to concerts and games. And if they understood what their children would miss, they might not want them to be late for school.

From Amanda Ripley’s tremendous article in Washingtonian, Stop Talking About Teachers As If They’re Missionaries

In Search of That School Choice Unicorn

As most realize, this week is National School Choice Week. By organizers’ count, there will be more than 16,000 events this week across the country, with more than 230 local or state officials recognizing the event and wearing the trademark yellow scarves all in the name of choice.

Dear ol’ Eduflack was over on KNX 1070 NewsRadio in Los Angeles to discuss what school choice really meant. There, producers wanted to dig a little deeper than the traditional talking points, and try to learn what school choice really means for California families.

Surprisingly, California already seems to be close to an ideal when it comes to choice. Nearly one in four school-aged children is already enjoying school choice, with 9 percent going to private schools, 8 percent attending public charters, 5 percent going to magnets, and almost three percent choosing the homeschool option. It’s a relative cornucopia of K-12 school pathways. It’s a quarter of students (and their families) opting out of the traditional public school pathways and choosing another route seen as best for them and their young learners.

But questions from the show’s hosts demonstrate how school choice has become a quest for that edu-unicorn. That parents are choosing charter schools because it guarantees a better education, a better chance at graduation, and a better chance of getting into a good college. That families are choosing private schools because the teachers are just plain better there. That homeschooling ensures the most successful path of them all.

I’ll admit, charter schools are not at the top of the list of edu-topics Eduflack likes to talk about. In the current rhetorical frame, we forget that charters were originally intended as incubators to help improve the traditional public schools (and thus education for all students, and not just the select number who get into charters). We forget that parents originally chose charters because they were the “safer” option, and keeping kids safe was the top priority. We overlook that for every terrific charter school – like those in Democracy Prep – we also have a number of lousy charters. And we can’t miss that many charters promised to build a better mousetrap under the available frames, only to come back and tell voters that the only way they get those results is through a major influx of new tax dollars (despite never saying they needed to match traditional publics dollar for dollar to deliver the promised results).

So I took my time on KNX to correct a few things:

  • The research is mixed on the academic differences between charter schools and traditional publics. There are some studies that show a real difference, some that don’t. The ultimate answer lies in the specific charter school and its specific successes, not in it simply being a charter school.
  • Yes, charters do a good job graduating kids and moving them on to college. This is particularly true when one compares inner-city charters with the public high schools we used to call “drop-out factories.”
  • Private schools are indeed an option. But few families can afford to send their kids to the top private schools, even when vouchers were in place (and they never were in Cali). Even with vouchers, choice usually resulted in attendance at Catholic schools, not the top-tier privates attended by the children of presidents, governors, and senators. And those Catholic schools can also be hit or miss.
  • Before choosing a private school, parents need to realize that they are already paying for the traditional public schools and the charter schools already in their communities. Without vouchers, they get none of those tax dollars back, and then have to pay for private schools out of pocket, meaning they are paying twice for the same K-12 education.
  • Homeschooling is indeed a viable choice, but families must be realistic about what it entails. Homeschoolers will still be competing with other students when it comes to college admission. They largely still have to take the same standardized tests to get there. So it falls to parents to both develop and administer a high-quality instructional program that moves students successfully down those paths.

I don’t offer these points to discourage anyone. Eduflack did so to make sure that we see the whole picture when discussing our kids’ education and the options available to them. A great education can be had from even the most struggling of traditional public schools. A great charter school doesn’t necessarily work for every child. And writing a check to a private school doesn’t guarantee a good education at all.

Parents need to be educated consumers when it comes to their children’s education. They need to understand data about enrollment and student retention and student performance. They need to understand what is expected from educators in the school and how they are supported. They need to know what tests are taken AND how assessment data is used as part of the teaching process. And they need to determine what is most important to them – the general safety of their child, increased odds of getting into college, a diverse curriculum filled with art and non-core subjects, a disciplinarian approach that emphasizes respect, or something completely different.

We can’t find all of these items in one school. As parents, all we can do is search for the best learning options for our own kids. And we must recognize that the edu-unicorn — that one school that offers everything we every dreamed of and more — likely isn’t out there. School choice is about prioritization. Of all the factors, which is most important to the family? If we can’t have everything, what is the non-negotiable?

School Choice Week is ultimately about learning. It is about understanding the options and really knowing what each of those options mean when it comes to our kids and to our families. It doesn’t mean we need to make a new choice or choose a new path. It means we need to be vigilant about knowing what is available to our kids and what is best for their behaviors, learning styles, and long-term goals.



Do We Care About Education in the Prez Race?

A few weeks ago, Eduflack penned a piece for Education Post on how the presidential candidates from both parties are not talking about education issues (beyond some of the red meat on Common Core and college affordability), but probably should. Specifically, I urged a deeper discussion on issues like accountability, teacher education, and the federal/state role in education.

Earlier this week, ASCD released its weekly EdPulse poll, this time focused on what edu-issues ASCD readers wanted to see presidential candidates focus on. No surprise, college affordability came in first place with 26 percent. Student testing was a close second at 24 percent, and the new ESEA was at 23 percent (particularly interesting because we still don’t quite know what is in the new law). Following up the rear were teacher evaluations (7 percent), Common Core (4 percent), and charter schools (3 percent).

We can talk about the need for presidential candidates to talk about education, but the simple fact is the American voter doesn’t vote based on education issues. For decades, education has been an “also ran” when it comes to campaign policy issues. And nowhere is this clearer than in the most recent piece from the incomparable Rick Hess.

Over at Ed Week, Hess takes an interesting look at how public concern for education issues stacked up in presidential years 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012. In looking at the numbers, we see that education was the strongest issue in 2000. It should be of no surprise, then, that we elected (or the Supreme Court selected, based on your perspective) a president who honestly and enthusiastically focused on education issues.

Then we see the nosedive. A huge drop off in 2004, when NCLB rules the roost and people understood what presidential interest in education looked like at a policy level. Four years later didn’t fare much better, despite the efforts of Ed in ’08. And not much change in 2012 either.

Even in today in 2016, with all of the worries about Common Core and testing and college costs and federal oversteps and all of the things that go bump in the edu-night, education interest in the presidential campaigns is shaping up to be only about a third the priority it was in 2000.

It’s a sad fact … and sadly predictable. We will rally around a candidate who wants to build a giant wall around the country or some other ridiculous idea, but we won’t give a second thought to a candidate who makes public education a cornerstone of a campaign.

If the voters don’t prioritize education at the ballot boxes, we can’t expect candidates to give a damn.


Moldy Classrooms and Charter Hatred

Today, Eduflack is going back to the very roots of this blog, when we first wrote on the intersection of education and communications. Where we looked at how effective (or ineffective) we were in talking about and advocating for real school improvement.

In recent weeks, Eduflack has been absolutely sickened to see the articles about the facilities atrocities at the Detroit Public Schools. One can see a Detroit educator offer a guided tour of the problems here.  One can read more about it here in a great Medium piece.

No educator should have to teach in conditions like this. No students can be expected to learn in conditions like this. And in a city that has some of the highest per-pupil expenditures in the nation, it is just unconscionable that this is considered by some as an acceptable 21st century teaching and learning environment.

So it is understandable when we hear of massive teacher “sick outs” in Detroit, where schools are forced to close because not enough teachers come in and subs either can’t be found or can’t be paid. It is even more understandable when one learns that teaching in modern-day Detroit can mean missed paychecks and no job security (despite a collectively bargained contract). The only way many educators can ensure their voices are heard with regard to teaching conditions is by exercising their First Amendment rights – speaking out and then assembling anywhere but their place of employment.

But those well-meaning educators and the demands to fix some deplorable learning conditions are done a grave disservice when the protests are lumped into the white noise of the current education debates.

Yesterday, as 85 Detroit schools were closed by sick-out at a time when President Barack Obama was visiting the Motor City, a teacher and teacher activist was asked about the educator protests. Instead of talking about crumbling buildings or overstaffed classrooms, issues that any parent would immediately embrace, he had to make it political. Instead, of facilities, this was about taking on the Governor and trying to block charter schools.

Or more specifically, ““We have got to stop this whole business by [Governor] Snyder, which is an attempt just further the charters and further, really, the destruction of education in the city.”

And with that, it becomes just another day in edu-politics. Instead of maintaining the moral high ground, of protesting moldy classrooms, unsafe buildings, and killer drinking water, this becomes just another attempt to stick a thumb in the eye of charter schools and those families that have found a better path through school choice.

That’s a cryin’ shame. In 2012, we saw the Chicago public stand with Chicago teachers in what was an ugly city-wide strike. There, the teachers held the high ground and had public sympathy with them. And they received many of the concessions they were looking for.

For a moment, Detroit was on a similar path. What parent wants to send a child to a school where you can see more mold than drywall? Who wants their kids learning in a building where vermin race through the halls? Even parents frustrated with schools being closed at a late date and having to scramble for childcare could sympathize with those teachers because of those conditions.

Then some activist teachers had to get greedy. They had to play the charter schools card. And it a city where public school enrollment had dramatically shrunk over the past decade, and where charter enrollments have increased, that was the wrong card to play. As empathetic parents were horrified by school conditions, those same parents were then again told they were wrong for seeking a better path for their kids and hoping they get of the charter wait lists.

Another example of losing the rhetorical high ground in an attempt to score a cheap political hit that only muddied the debate you were already winning.



Doing What “Works” In the Classroom

Last week, educators across Florida went to the state capitol in what has become a common refrain. Florida teachers demanded more respect for their profession. They asked for a reduction in testing and its emphasis. They took on the perceived “profiteering” in public education, whether it be seen in charter school operators or textbook publishers.

There is no question that the education profession has been under attack for many years, and there is similarly no question that educators deserve greater respect than they largely get. Teaching is an incredibly difficult job, and it has only gotten more challenging in recent years. We look to teachers to be everything from guidance counselors to social workers to parole officers, and then we expect them to get every child under their care into Harvard. (sure, a little hyperbole, but what would an education debate be without it?)

Eduflack was struck, though, by a comment made by a Florida school district’s head of employee relations. Obviously responding to a question about why 3,000 teachers descended on Tallahassee to speak their minds, this school official said, teachers “want to get back to doing things in the classroom that they know work.”

This is a common refrain in the post-NCLB world. But what does it really mean? Does it mean we want to empower teachers to do what is most effective in teaching the kids in their care? Or does it mean to let teachers do what they want, when levels of accountability were low?

“Doing the things that they know works” would seem a tip of the hat to research-based instruction, where we have qualitative data showing the instruction boosts student learning. It speaks to longitudinal studies that seek to pinpoint what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to instructional practice. And it is almost lifted directly from the NCLB law itself, particularly as we talked about scientifically based reading when it came to Reading First and the creation of the What Works Clearinghouse over at IES.

If that’s what going back to doing what teachers know works, then sign me up now. Give me a placard and a megaphone and let me shout loud and proud for using evidence-based instruction in the classroom.

But please don’t tell me it is code for letting us go back to the way things used to be in the 1990s, when it was the Wild West when it came to both instructional practice, student expectations, and accountability. Please don’t suggest we go back to the good ol’ days when inputs ruled the day and outcomes were horrible things that were just whispered about.

When a third of fourth graders are unable to read at grade level, we don’t know what works (and if we do, we certainly aren’t using it). When that same percentage of fourth graders are unable to earn a college diploma eight years later, we sure don’t know what works.

Yes, we need to empower teachers. They need to be equipped with the skills, knowledge, and pedagogy to succeed in the classroom. They need to be supported – by financial and human resource – to lead their classrooms and reach their students. They need to be give real-time student data (and know what to do with it) so they can adjust and tailor instruction to meet the needs of this year’s class of students.

Yes, all educators should be using what works in their classrooms. Alas, we still have a long way to go before we can agree on what those research-effective practices are, and where evidence trumps philosophy.