A Texas-Sized Step Back on Edu-Thinking

Earlier this month, the Texas Young Republicans passed a resolution adopting a two-page platform and recommending the Republican Party of Texas endorse it whole cloth in 2016. Why is this important? Well, the two-page platform included some specific language regarding education policy (in the non-Common Core-adopting Texas).

The Texas Young GOPers stated:

We believe that all children should have access to quality education. Parents have the primary right and responsibility to educate their children, and we support their right to choose public, private, charter, or home education. We support the distribution of educational funds in a manner that they follow the student to any school, whether public, private, charter or home school. We reject federal imposition of educational standards and the tying of federal education funding to adopting federally mandated standards.

Reads like the flag and apple pie, huh? Setting aside the problem of using the Oxford comma at the beginning, and then forgetting the serial comma in the second set of school descriptors, let’s take a look at the statement.

Sentence one, I’m with ya. Every child should have access to quality education. I’ll do you one better, Young Texans, every child should have access to quality public education. And high-quality public education at that.

I’m also with you on parents having the right and responsibility to educate their kids. I didn’t realize that such parental rights were under siege. If anything, the main issue seems to be what we do when parents do not exercise said right, and their kids’ education is then solely the responsibility of teachers. We should be focusing more on getting parents more involved in what happens in our schools.

Then we shift into the “money follows the child” philosophy, with an added wrinkle. Not only are we calling for equal funds to go to charters (school choice) and privates (vouchers, or school choice on steroids, depending on your perspective), but we are now saying that money should follow the home schooler? Are we suggesting that each parent who decided to home school is now entitled to a $10k or $20k tax rebate (per child), for keeping them out of the public schools altogether?

And we finally get the horcrux that continues to dog just about every education discussion. The notion that the evils of everything public education lies embedded in Common Core State Standards. Forget that Texas had no issue rejecting the “imposition of federal standards” in the first place. Forget that most states who put the standards in place didn’t get a federal dime to do so (while they may have hoped to, there were far more Race to the Top losers than there were winners). Yes, now is the time to take a strong stand on a policy decision that was made four years ago (in terms of initial adoption of the standards and tying $$ to them).

At some point, we — and that includes those young Republican Texans writing political platforms — just need to acknowledge that the vast majority of states have adopted CCSS. They decided, for a range of reasons, that these standards were better than the hodgepodge of crappy standards each individual state had developed and adjusted and weakened over the years. They did so by their own free will, and did so (presumably) because they saw it as a positive step for their state, public schools, and communities. We need to see it isn’t a bad thing that many students will be held to higher standards than their older siblings, and we should embrace it.

Most importantly, we need to see it is imprudent to try and undo a policy decision that was made eons ago (politically) and that, instead, we should focus our attentions and energies on ensuring that said standards are implemented well and done so with fidelity. That we focus on the best in terms of instructional materials and PD. That we move forward with efforts to improve those standards and make them stronger and better over time (particularly with regard to early childhood and the math). That we use this as a foundation to build a stronger public education system for ALL students, and not as a “last stand” for those looking to reopen the battles of the past.

I yield the soapbox, and suspect I won’t be asked to speak at the Texas GOP convention in 2016 …

Parent Survey (or Statistics are Dangerous)

We began the week reflecting on an AP poll on parent sentiments about public education.  As we roll into hump day, we now have the 2013 edition of the Gallup/PDK poll of “what Americans said about the public schools.

This year’s Gallup/PDK highlights:
* As we’ve heard for decades, most Americans give the public schools a “C” grade, but give their own schools an “A” or “B”
* 62 percent of parents have never heard of Common Core State Standards
* 36 percent believe increased testing has hurt school performance, 22 percent say it has helped, and 41 percent said it makes no diff at all
* 58 percent oppose using standardized test scores in teacher evals, up from 47 percent in last year’s survey
* 52 percent said teachers have a right to strike (yes, that really is a question PDK asked)
* 88 percent say their child is safe when they are in school
* 66 percent favor educating children whose parents are in the United States illegally
* Only 29 percent favor sending kids to private schools at public school expense
Overall, the survey results aren’t that big a surprise.  They seem to jive with what PDK reports annually in this survey, and they aren’t too big a deviation from what AP released earlier in the week.
What’s disappointing is how PDK decided to present this year.  One would think that a semi-intelligent human being could take a look at polling toplines and understand that when only 22 percent say high stakes testing helps school performance, the majority doesn’t believe it to be so.  Unfortunately, PDK dumbed it down a step further, putting out a “highlights” document that makes sweeping statements without providing any statistical backup,  While one can track down the supports, it is definitely a dangerous document in the hands of the wrong folks.
Some of these self-proclaimed “highlights include:
  • Common Core – “Most Americans don’t know about the Common Core and those who do don’t understand it.”
  • Standardized Tests – “The significant increase in testing in the past decade has either hurt or made no difference in improving schools.”
  • Charter Schools – “Charter schools probably offer a better education than traditional schools.”
  • Online Learning – “High school students should be able to earn college credits via the Internet while attending high school.”
  • Biggest Problem – “Lack of financial support continues to be the biggest problem facing public schools.”
Let’s just take the last item.  Per-pupil public school funding is at its highest rates ever in the history of United States public education.  Do we honestly believe that is the biggest problem facing the schools?  More so than the obscene achievement gap?  More so than a third of all fourth graders unable to read on grade level?  More so than our inability to address the needs of a growing ELL population in our classrooms?  More so than ensuring that good teachers remain in the classroom and get the support and respect they need?
They again, sometimes poll results are just poll results.  But looking at the latest PDK release, Eduflack is left with two thoughts.
“A little information is a dangerous thing.” Albert Einstein
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Mark Twain

“No Criticism is Too Vicious and Too Fact-Free”

Earlier this week, CBS Radio star and White House expert Mark Knoller (@markknoller for you Twitter followers) noted that former President Bill Clinton, while at a political event, said “‘no criticism is too vicious and too fact-free’ for opponents to use against Pres Obama.”

It was one of the few times, particularly lately, when Eduflack really paused to reflect on something I had seen on Twitter.  Regardless of whether it applies to the Obama-Romney showdown this fall, one thing is true.  President Clinton’s statement definitely applies when one looks at education reform.
Yes, there is no criticism too vicious or too fact-free for opponents to use against education reform.  Or perhaps, to be a little more generous and to paraphrase a line from Seinfeld, when it comes to defending the status quo, it isn’t a lie if you believe it to be true.
Don’t believe it?  Take a look at the opinions and vitriol that follow education reform across the nation.  In state after state, those who defend the status quo issue the same lines and look like carbon copies of other status quoers.  
If one is for greater accountability, then one is pro-bubble sheets and only teaching to the test.
If one supports public school choice, then one is stealing dollars from our community schools.
If one demands increased parental involvement and parental rights, then one is anti-teacher.
If one calls for teacher evaluations, then one is anti-collective bargaining.
If one provides philanthropic support to improve public schools, then one must be a profiteer looking to make personal fortunes off public education.
If one highlights the achievement gap and the disparities in both quality and outcome for Black and Latino students, then one must be a race-baiter.
If one asks for public school improvement, then one must be trying to privatize the schools and enact a voucher system.
If one believes we can do better and wears the tag of education reformer proudly, then one must be an anti-teacher, anti-union, anti-public school Republican looking to take over the system.
Sadly, there are no attacks that are too vicious or too devoid of fact for the defenders of the status quo.  In our modern era of campaign politics, it is all about trying to tear down the opponents.  It isn’t about policies.  It isn’t about facts.  And it certainly isn’t about the students.  It is about protecting what one has, no matter how ineffective the system may be.
And what of the reformers?  They simply have to stand and take the attacks and the vitriol, no matter how ridiculous.  Try to confront it, and you merely encourage those status quo defenders.  Try to set the record straight, and any egregious statement you don’t address is automatically accepted as gospel.  
In politics, we keep talking about the need for an end to negative politics and a new era of debate and collaboration.  The same can be said of education reform.  This should no longer be an argument of who is anti-teacher, who is anti-accountability, and who defines what as a true public school.  Instead, we should be focusing on both identifying the problem and offering real solutions.
Defending the way we have always done things because that is how we have always done things is not a solution.  Now is the time for ideas, for promising practice, and for real solutions.  Now is the time for a debate robust in facts, not a time for fact-free attacks.

Vouching for DC Students

By now, the funeral procession for the DC school voucher program has been winding its was through the city streets.  Long a target of the status quo, the DC Scholarship Opportunity Program has been criticized for many things, chief among them for taking money from well-deserving DC public schools and handing it over to local private schools.  As of late, it has faced fire over its effectiveness, with opponents alleging that student achievement had not improved as a result of a change in environment and the empowerment of choice.

When it was introduced at the start of the NCLB era, the model was pretty simple.  DC public schools were failing a significant number of the very students it was designed to serve, to help, and to provide with the knowledge they needed to succeed.  Despite the rich network of public charter schools across the District, federal officials decided to introduce the voucher model, allowing families of children in truly failing schools to send their children to private schools in the area.  Private schools would agree to accept the “vouchers” in exchange for school tuition.  The plan was modeled after successful efforts in places like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida.
Competition for the voucher program was fierce from the very start.  Families lined up 10-deep for the access to these vouchers, all looking to provide their kids a better choice and better options.  Interestingly, vouchers provided no more than $7,500 a year in tuition, fees, and expenses for private schools, less than 50 percent of what DCPS spends to educate its students in the public schools, even in the worst of its failing schools.
Critics have been chipping away at the program from the start.  When initial data showing promising results was released by researchers a few years, ago, we attacked it for being incomplete or not providing a full picture of the situation.  We’ve painted a picture that there has been a mass exodus from DCPS into Gonzaga, Sidwell Friends, and Georgetown Prep, where wealthy schools are getting wealthier off the backs of DCPS and DC taxpayers.  (Let’s forget that most voucher students were not going to these “blue chip” privates and all privates were taking a significant cut in their tuition to admit voucher students.)  Most recently, the dealt the death blow to the voucher effort in DC, getting funding stripped from the federal appropriations bill last month.  For all practical purposes, DC Vouchers is now dead as a doornail, even with more than 1,700 DC students taking advantage of the program.
What’s interesting, then, is the report that came out of the U.S. Department of Education yesterday afternoon.  Despite all of the chatter about the failure of the DC Scholarship Opportunity Program, an ED study determined that voucher students outperformed their public school counterparts on reading proficiency.  The full story can be found here at The Washington Post.
House of Representatives Republican Educator-in-Chief Buck McKeon has used the IES research to demonstrate that the voucher program works and demands it be continued.  Senator Joe Lieberman, who oversees the District in our senior legislative body, is talking about holding further hearings on the issue.  It begs the question, is the great DC voucher experiment as dead as it appeared just a week ago?
This has long been an issue of federal voices deciding what is best for the residents of Washington, DC.  The program was initiated by a zealous Bush Administration and Republicans in Congress who wanted to prove that vouchers were the solution to failing public schools.  The program has faced relentless attack from equally zealous Democrats in Congress (along with the national teachers’ unions) who believed it was robbing the public schools of needed financial resources and was undermining the very foundations of public education.
What about the residents of DC?  What about the very families who have been impacted (or who have chosen not to be) by the DC Voucher program?  One can look at the demand for the limited slots and say there is local public desire for the program. One can look at the qualitative surveys over the years, showing support for the program and satisfaction with its outcomes.  One can even look at recent efforts by the Washington Archdiocese to convert many of its Catholic schools (those where so many DC residents were attending through their vouchers) into public charter schools to ensure that those kids currently in the pipeline were not kicked out of their learning environments when the voucher program came to an end later this year.
WaPo’s Colbert King takes the issue even further this AM, calling on District leaders to make the ultimate decision on the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program’s fate.  What a novel concept.  Instead of seeking the permission and dollars of federal officials, Mayor Fenty, the DC Council, and other local leaders should talk to the community and determine if DC Vouchers are in the best interests of the city.  Imagine that.  Local officials making local education decisions, policies, and funding choices that affect local residents.  It’s almost as if one could build a governmental structure around such a silly idea.
But back to the key issue, the research.  IES has determined that DC voucher students are outperforming the public school peers when it comes reading scores.  Overall, the study found that voucher students were nearly four months ahead of non-voucher students when it came to reading skill.  Those students moving from the lowest-performing public schools did not show that level of reading gain.  And there appeared to be no difference in math proficiency.
Seems that such data requires more than a Friday afternoon media release, with the hopes that few notice it in our rush to celebrate the Palm Sunday weekend (or Eduflack’s birthday, whichever holiday you prefer).  Fridays are notorious for dumping information and data you hope will get short shrift from the media or will get overlooked entirely.  One has to ask if this data was available a few weeks ago when Congress was inflicting its death blow on DC vouchers.  If so, why wasn’t it discussed then?  And now that we do have it, how closely will we look at it?  Does the research model stand up to scrutiny, or does it have its failings like so many recent IES studies?  Do we have some real information here that needs to factor into education policy in our nation’s capital and throughout the country?
At the end of the day, what are we left with?  Is there public demand for vouchers in DC?  Absolutely.  Has the program been implemented effectively?  It appears so.  Is the program working?  It seems so.  Is the program a political atomic bomb?  Absolutely.
It seems, in this era of innovation and demands for improved student achievement, we need every opportunity and every good idea we can find.  If vouchers are showing promise in DC, shouldn’t we let the District decide if they continue the program, allowing us to see if that promise transforms into best practice?  And at some point, shouldn’t those decisions be made by the citizens the program is designed to affect, instead of by representatives who will never receive a single vote from a single resident of the District of Columbia?
Let’s take EdSec Arne Duncan at his word and that he does not want to end the voucher program for any student that is currently participating in it.  Even if we don’t add new students to the program, it seems there is a lot we can learn by supporting those already in the syst
em.  And we haven’t even touched on the positive impact we could have on those kids whose lives have been changed by providing them the opportunity to leave failing schools.  The choice itself has given them hope, a chance at opportunity, and a worldview that education can impact their lives.  That’s a return on investment we all should seek.

Re-Skilling Our Students

More than a year ago, Eduflack opined on the very real problem of our schools “deskilling” our students.  What does this mean?  In an era where most kids are multitasking, multimedia fiends, we take away the multimedia learning, strip away the collaboration and student interaction, and place them into a learning environment with rows of desks and educators who read to them from traditional textbooks.  In doing so, we are stripping students of the 21st century skills they need to compete, forcing them into a 19th century learning continuum.

Fortunately, many schools and districts have stepped up to align current learning with the current student.  Look at the virtual education movement, where students offered access to high-quality, relevant instruction through and medium and in a venue they are comfortable in.  Look at new charter schools, those with strong oversight and infrastructure designed to meet the needs of today’s communities.  Look at those traditional school districts and states that are integrating technology in the classroom, adopting STEM education programs, or improving the overall rigor and relevance of what is happening in the schools.
When we talk about technology in the classroom and the concerns of deskilling students, discussion often turns to the teacher.  Over the years, I’ve heard that teachers aren’t comfortable with technology.  Teacher ed programs didn’t prepare educators for such developments.  I’ve even heard you won’t truly move into the digital world of public education until the retirement exodus we’re all waiting for happens. 
At the same time, I’ve heard that technology can’t truly permeate the classroom because of the students as well.  As the legend goes, today’s urban students, today’s rural students, and today’s African-American and Hispanic students simply don’t have access to computers to the Internet.  Despite the data from groups like Project Tomorrow that demonstrate virtually all students have access, we like to believe it is still the issue of have/have nots that we experienced a decade ago.
I have just one word in response — hogwash.
Earlier this week, a new survey from Cable in the Classroom crossed my virtual desk, and it provided some fascinating data points.  More than 75% of K-12 teachers either assign homework that requires Internet use or know teachers that do.  More than four in 10 students (and six in 10 high schoolers) are producing their own videos as part of the classroom process.  And this doesn’t even account for the vast numbers of teachers who make homework assignments available online for parents and students to see, as well as those educators who offer email addresses to provide students with additional help and guidance and parents with an additional lifeline to the classroom.
As we look at education improvement and 21st century opportunities, we all know that technology is king.  Tomorrow’s jobs require a technology-literate workforce.  Kids have abandoned the libraries for the Internet.  They are interested in video production and interactive learning and digital opportunities.  At the same time,  we worry about student engagement in the classroom and keeping kids interested enough in learning to keep them in school for a high school diploma or beyond.  There has to be a way to marry the two.
The data recently offered by Cable in the Classroom, coupled by the annual data offered by Project Tomorrow, demonstrate that the sea change is starting to happen.  We are engaging students in the ways they want to learn, and not in the ways their grandparents learned.  We are recognizing the worry of deskilling our students in school before needing to reskill them when they enter postsecondary education or the workforce.
The challenge before us is keeping up with the evolving trends.  Years ago, Eduflack judged a video production competition for a career academy in Texas, and was amazed by the effort and quality of work offered by the students.  In Michigan, students produced the videos the state department of education is now using to promote stricter high school graduation requirements in the state.  And district after district are turning to students to help build online presence and social networking opportunities for the learning process.  
That is all yesterday’s cutting edge, and may now be as new as a VHS tape.  If we are to ensure the value of a public education and to guarantee such education leads to the pathways of 21st century opportunity, we need to continue to innovate, experiment, and engage in the classroom.  Our future depends on it.    

Riding NCLB Off Into the Sunset

At high noon today, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings officially announced her “final regulations” to strengthen No Child Left Behind.  Speaking to a wide range of stakeholders in South Carolina, Spellings focused on issues like high school graduation rates, improved accountability, better parental notification of supplemental services, and greater school choice.

Of course, Eduflack has a lot of thoughts on a lot of this.  But I am most taken by the banner under which this announcement has been made.  These are the “final regulations to strengthen No Child Left Behind.”  If the future of NCLB was left to question in anyone’s mind, the EdSec answered that today.  Today is NCLB’s last gunfight in the ed reform corral.  After all of the talk of reauthorization and improvements to the law, these final regs make clear that, regardless of the political future at ED, NCLB is done.  A new law will rule the land, replacing, and not simply improving or supplementing what was one of the few positive domestic policy legacies of the Bush Administration.
But if we dig deeper here, where is the news?  In terms of high school graduation rates, Spellings is simply validating the process the National Governors Association began a few years ago.  NGA has already secured all 50 states’ agreement to common graduation rate based on the number of ninth graders who graduate high school four years later.  Sixteen states have this common formula in place already, and most of the others are in process.  These regs may “establish a uniform graduation rate” but we all need to realize such a rate has already been established and agreed to by all, and adopted by many.  
As for the rest, Eduflack completely agrees that all parents should have access to information on the supplemental education services and the school choice options available to them.  I was under the impression that was a core plank of NCLB from the start, and had been in place for more than six years now.  Has it really taken us six years to realize and require that parents get clear and timely notice of their options?  If so, where is all of the money that has been poured into SES since its establishment in 2002?
And finally, we have accountability.  Months ago, ED finally demonstrated some flexibility in the establishment of its growth model pilot project, allowing some states a little give when it comes to achieving AYP.  The pilot announcement had real value when announced, both in terms of policy and rhetoric.  So codifying the pilot in these new regs is a good thing.  In fact, it may be the strongest part of the EdSec’s announcement today.
It’s not all bad, though.  For a law that was originally criticized for focusing only on elementary education, these new regs codify the importance of high schools and the growing need to attend to dismal graduation rates.  With both presidential candidates embracing school choice, it is important to get credit for making vouchers and charters a foundation of NCLB.  With concerns about AYP and federal rigidity, it is important to remind all of the flexibility displayed by ED through its pilot effort.  And probably more important than any, today’s announcement reminds all those involved of the importance of parents in the educational process, ensuring we are getting them good information fast so they can make knowledge-based decisions on their kids’ educational paths.  But these new regulations are rhetorical devices, and have little to do with policy or real school improvement.
During my time in Texas, I often heard of the “all hat, no cattle” syndrome.  The New Yorker in me prefers “all sizzle, no steak.”  Regardless, these new regs — greatly hyped for the past week — provide little that is new, little that is innovative, and little that improves.  They are almost a set of defeatist treatises, a reminder to many of the original intent of NCLB (an intent that has, in part, gone unfulfilled) without seeking to make any new changes or new improvements as the law winds down.
Personally, I prefer the westerns where the protagonist fades to black in a blaze of glory, fighting until the bitter end to protect the town and defend its future.  I’ve never been one for the “Shane” ending, with the hero riding off into the sunset, slumped over in a sense of defeat and even death.  Today’s announcement was definitely a sunset ride.  
    

The Future of Charter Schools?

With both presidential candidates discussing school choice as a plank in their educational platforms, it is only natural to start thinking about the role of charter schools in the coming years.  It is no secret that charters were vigorously fought by the educational establishment for many years, seen as a vehicle for taking money from the old-school publics and “diluting” the school district’s mission.  As years have gone by, we’ve seen many charters do extremely well (and some still very poorly), as the model has moved into the mainstream and status quoers’ ire has instead been directed at vouchers and similar programs.

Earlier this week, Eduflack was discussing the future of charter schools with a colleague, and the discussion took an interesting turn.  What model would a future president embrace?  Would the charter school movement still be dominated by “mom-and-pop” schools, the sort that defined the poor quality at the start of the movement but have been able to turn themselves around with quality management and strict performance rubrics?  Would we turn to a not-for-profit model, leading the way for continued national scalability of programs such as Green Dot and KIPP?  Or would there be an opening for for-profit providers, as those corporations formerly referred to as EMOs take center stage once again.
Personally, Eduflack believes that choice number two is the likely path of choice, regardless of who is running the U.S. Department of Education.  Providers like Green Dot and KIPP can demonstrate results and produce data, some almost providing the sort of longitudinal studies we’ve long been looking for on student performance.  They also allow implementation at scale, providing a common level of quality and a common measure of achievement from school to school, whether it be across the city, across the state, or across the nation.  And at the end of the day, the education establishment still doesn’t feel comfortable turning over the future of their schools to for-profit providers.  Sure, we’ll procure services or programs, but we aren’t ready to hand over the keys and the alarm codes to a “money-making” corporation.  (We can debate this argument at another date.)
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education released a new report on quality charter schools.  www.ed.gov/admins/comm/choice/csforum/report.html  In its expected call for greater innovation in our nation’s public school infrastructure, the policy document lays out six key principles for quality charter schools:
* Charter schools achieve excellence early in their operations
* Charter schools improve their performance year in and year out
* Charter schools that achieve consistently strong results can expand and replicate
* Charter schools have access to robust infrastructure to help students and teachers succeed
* Authorizers address chronic underperformance by closing the school and opening superior options swiftly
* Charter schools strengthen all corners of public education by sharing successful practices and fostering choice and competition among the schools
These principles are dead on, not only for charter schools but for all public schools.  Shouldn’t all our schools achieve excellence?  Shouldn’t all improve year in and year out?  Shouldn’t we replicate best practices at all schools?  Shouldn’t all have a robust infrastructure?  Shouldn’t we do something about chronic underperformance at all schools?  These should principles should be nailed to the schoolhouse doors of every school in the United States, not just our charters.  These should be shared national goals, embraced by every principal and every superintendent across this land.
Even after all this time, we still see public charter schools as completely separate entities from our public school systems.  In cities like Washington, New Orleans, Cleveland, New York, Chicago, etc. charters are a major part of the public instruction infrastructure.  Yet we put them in their own bucket, separated from the very schools they are intended to supplement and divided from the school districts they are intended to improve.  We set academic standards for charters that are far higher than those set for old-school publics, yet expect them to achieve it with far fewer resources.  We want them to do more, but we want them to do it quietly where few will actually notice.
In many ways, quality charters can serve as incubators for best practice in our school districts.  They allow us to strengthen administrative functions and oversights.  They allow us to set tough standards and chart the path to reach them.  They allow us to innovate, both in terms of instruction and social structures.  And they allow us to break the notion that we can’t expect more, and we should be satisfied with the status quo.
Last week, the Brookings Institution released a new paper from Andrew Rotherham and Sara Mead on the federal role of supporting innovation in education.  www.brookings.edu/reports/2008/1016_education_mead_rotherham.aspx  As I read this paper, I can see the opportunity for high-quality charter providers, those who can demonstrate their results and hold the opportunity to replicate their successes in new schools or in new communities.  A chance for charters (along with highly successful traditional publics) to spotlight their best practices and use them to improve quality throughout our national school framework.  If that isn’t how we should be spending federal educational R&D funds, I don’t know how else we should. 
Just imagine — federal investment in proven innovations that establish strong, well-managed schools, boost student achievement, and model best practices?  Doesn’t matter if it is a public school, a charter school, or a finishing school, that’s an investment we all benefit from.