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.

Education Chicken and Egg at the Presidential Debate

I don’t know about you, but Eduflack was quite surprised to see the final 10 minutes or so of this evening’s presidential debate being devoted to the issue of education.  Kudos must first go to CBS’ Bob Schieffer for asking the right question.  It wasn’t about NCLB or teachers unions or any of the traditional hot-button issues.  Instead, Schieffer asked about the United States spending more per capita on education than any other nation, yet being outperformed by many of our international counterparts.

The initial responses from both candidates should be of no surprise.  Both Barack Obama and John McCain stuck to their campaign’s educational talking points.  For Obama, it was all about early childhood education, teachers, and affordability of higher education (and a tip of the hat to the Illinois senator for calling out parents as part of both the problem and the solution).  For McCain, it was charters, vouchers, and expanded opportunity.
Also of no surprise, neither candidate really addressed the question.  Sure, Obama focused on the need for greater investment in education and the notion that NCLB was severely underfunded.  And McCain called for greater dollars for vouchers, pointing to the DC voucher program as a shining success.
But back to the original question.  What Schieffer was really asking, or should have been asking, is whether greater investment in the schools results in greater achievement, or whether greater achievement gets rewarded with greater investment.  It is the ultimate educational chicken and egg question.
We know that some of our best-funded school districts, at least in terms of per pupil spending, are some of our lowest performers.  Will more dollars turn them around?  Unlikely.  It may help bring some better teachers into the classroom, but real turnaround requires a change in culture and a change in approach.  Both are free, its the implementation that costs money.
I’d like to believe we should reward achievement and encourage innovation.  We invest in what works.  We help fund those programs that can make a difference and boost student achievement.  We reward those schools and those teachers who are boosting student performance.  We should place results first and foremost.  That’s the answer so many families should be hearing.

McCain v. Obama: The Thrilla for the Schoolhouse

Over the past two days, Eduflack has taken a close look at the educational platforms offered up by the two presidential campaigns.  Again, the ground rules were simple.  We looked at the campaigns’ plans as identified, laid out, and described on both candidates’ official websites.  No cheating from the speeches made by Lisa Keegan or Jon Schnur or other surrogates.  No interpreting what a few throw-away lines from the conventions meant.  Not even a few glimpses into both senators’ voting records in the congress these past four years (the time they were together).  No, we are here to measure vetted, official plan against vetted official plan.

The 10,000-Foot View
Just like the two campaigns, the two education platforms couldn’t be more different, particularly in terms of their rhetoric and the framing of the issues.  Yes, they both focused on the issues of early ed, K-12, and higher education.  But that’s a given.  Beyond that, their foci are quite different.  McCain’s plan is a running mantra of accountability and choice.  Obama’s is one of programs, resources, and opportunities.  McCain’s takeaway is one of improvement, where Obama is focused on the problems.  Interestingly, McCain seems more focused on change, while Obama seems keyed in on conserving what we already have in place.
The Buzz Words
Eduflack wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t focus on the words being used by the candidates and the power behind the rhetoric.  So let’s take a look at the hot words lists for each candidate:
* McCain — Standards, accountability, quality, empower, excellence, parents, effectiveness, choice
* Obama — High quality, opportunity, teachers, programs, support, reward
Areas of Agreement
Both campaigns recognize the need for a strong early childhood education program and both want to improve and simplify the financial aid process for those going to college.  Both recognize that NCLB needs work.  Obama seeks to improve and better fund it, McCain wants to build on its lessons.  Both support charter schools, and both want greater accountability for these school choice options.
Issues of Importance
Obama and McCain clearly come to the table with a different view of the federal role in education.  Again, Obama’s platform focuses on strengthening and improving funding for a number of existing federal programs, while adding funding and support for more efforts.  McCain is focused on innovation and local empowerment, almost re-embracing the old-school GOP role of locally controlled education.
What issues stand out for the two candidates?
* McCain — School-based decisionmaking, parental involvement, school choice, alternative certification, merit pay, virtual learning, higher standards, greater accountability
* Obama — Head Start and Early Head Start, math/science education, dropout prevention, afterschool programs, ELL, teacher recruitment and retention (and merit pay, albeit to a lesser degree than we hear on the stump), and college opportunities   
Again, McCain is talking ideas, Obama is speaking programs. It is an important distinction, particularly when we don’t know who will be calling the policy shots from either the Domestic Policy Council or the EdSec’s office.  So the devil is in the details.
Areas of Disagreement
It’s funny, but these are less areas of disagreement than they are issues of priority.  McCain and Obama simply aren’t focusing on many of the same issues.  Their degrees of importance really define the differences.  
On early childhood education, McCain is focused on Centers for Excellence, improving Head Start on a state-by-state basis.  He also emphasizes the need for standards and quality for our youngest learners. Obama believes early education is about getting as many kids as possible into programs.  Obama focuses on quadrupling the funding for Early Head Start, a program that McCain doesn’t even mention.
On K-12, McCain focuses on options, choice (charters and vouchers), and doing what it takes to boost student achievement (particularly principal empowerment).  Obama focuses on the programs that make our schools run — math/science, dropout prevention, afterschool, and college credits.   Obama also mentions charter schools, but his focus is on closing those that are low performing.
On teachers, the biggest difference is prominence.  Obama provides teachers with their own policy category; McCain embeds them in his K-12 platform.  For Obama, it is all about recruiting, training, retaining, and rewarding. For McCain, it is an issue of alternative certification (which Obama never mentions), incentive pay, and professional development.
On higher education, Obama wants new tax breaks, while McCain wants more research and simplified tax benefits.  McCain also emphasizes the need for information, particularly to parents (while Obama seems to avoid parents all together in his education platform).  Both want to fix the “broken” system of student lending, though.
By focusing so heavily on programs, Obama essentially calls for increased federal spending for education.  He pledges sizable funding increases for Early Head Start, NCLB, the Federal Charter School Program, dropout prevention, 21st Century Learning Centers, GEAR UP, TRIO, and Upward Bound.  He would also create a number of new federal initiatives, including Early Learning Challenge Grants, Make College a Reality, Teacher Service Scholarships, and the American Opportunity Tax Credit.  In today’s economic climate, this is a bold statement.  Paying for these programs either means eliminating current programs that don’t work (see Mike Petrilli’s suggestions at www.edexcellence.net/flypaper for a good start) or it means increasing the annual appropriation for the U.S. Department of Education.  Based on current politics, I’d say the latter is a near impossibility.
On the McCain side, the Republican nominee focuses on some new programs as well — including Centers for Excellence for Head Start, a grant program for online education opportunities, and Digital Passport Scholarships.  He also calls for funding for teacher merit pay, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, and increased monies for Enhancing Education Through Technology.  Still a nice Christmas list, but far more affordable than his Democratic counterpart.
What’s Missing
You know me, I always like to dwell on the negative.  So I immediately jump to the issues that didn’t make the cut in developing the platform.  Neither candidate speaks to the idea of national education standards.  There is almost no discussion of student testing and the measurement of student performance.  Data and research-based practice and decisionmaking can’t be found here.  And while Obama mentions math and science, neither candidate focuses on STEM education, what Eduflack sees as a key to truly linking education, the economy, and our national strength.
Added to the list, McCain avoids ELL (strange for a senator from Arizona), high school dropouts, afterschool, and t
eacher education in general.  Obama avoids discussions of reading/literacy, alternative certification, online learning, and parental involvement.
So Now What?
Eduflack is not going to be so audacious as to make an endorsement of a presidential candidate based on his education platform.  (Those who know me well know where I stand.  And at the end of the day, my opinion is going to be a fairly uncommon one.  Having worked on the Hill for Democratic stalwarts like Robert Byrd and Bill Bradley and then spending so much time advocating for NCLB, Reading First, and accountability, there are few in the Eduflack mold.)  And who cares who I pick?  This above breakdown is to help others take their education priorities and see which candidate better addresses them in the official platform.
If these past 18 months are any indication, education is not a priority for either candidate.  It isn’t what they are out there stumping on, and it is not the red meat the voters want to hear or seem concerned about.  And anyone who has been in this town for more than a few weeks knows that a policy paper is barely worth the paper on which it is printed.
What this does, though, is it makes clear to Eduflack where the priorities are and what emphasis we should see, education wise, should candidate M or candidate O take the oath on a cold January day.  What does Eduflack see?
A McCain Department of Education is one of accountability, standards, and innovation.  Data-driven decisionmaking.  School choice opportunities.  A heavy emphasis on the role of technology, particularly in terms of online learning.  McCain also sees his ultimate customer as the parent, giving them a seat at the table in charting their child’s educational path.
No surprise, then, when we see some of the names on the “finalist” list for McCain EdSec — Lisa Keegan, New Orleans Supe Paul Vallas, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty at the top.  (I know some add former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift to the short list, but I fail to see how someone who called for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education a decade ago is really the choice to head that same department today).   All steady, experienced hands to steer the ship.
An Obama Department of Education, though, would have a much different feel.  It almost seems more like a foundation, with a great number of programs running to achieve a common goal.  An Obama ED is one of teacher education, universal preK, increased supports, and improved paths to postsecondary education.  Obama’s ultimate customer — the teacher, without whom most reforms will fail before the get off the ground.
And the tea leaves on an Obama EdSec?  We have the usual suspects, the programmatic heads such as former NC Gov. Jim Hunt.  But we also have out-of-the-box names like New Leaders for New Schools founder Jon Schnur.  The future direction of Obama ed may very well hinge on the leadership qualities he seeks from an EdSec. 
There you have it, the education presidential campaign gospel according to Eduflack.  Let the reflections, debates, and attacks begin.

The McCain Education Platform

My friends (sorry, can’t resist), despite popular opinion, U.S. Sen. John McCain does indeed have a comprehensive education platform, and it is a plan that clearly reflects the collective experiences and perspectives of the senior staffers advising the McCain-Palin campaign on education policy.

The Bumper Sticker
McCain-Palin’s education platform operates under a simple mission — “Excellence, Choice, and Competition in American Education.”  It pledges to four key educational points:
* American education must be worthy of the promise we make to our children and ourselves
* We are a nation committed to equal opportunity, and there is no equal opportunity without equal access to excellent education
* We must fight for the ability of all students to have access to all schools of demonstrated excellence, including their own homes
* We must place parents and children at the center of the educational process, empowering parents to greatly expanding their ability to choose a school for their children.
The Plan
The McCain-Palin campaign breaks its education platform into three key areas — early childhood education, strengthening America’s schools, and higher education policy.  The latter two were actually offered as media releases during the summer (though I don’t remember reading much, if any, about either of them).
Early Childhood Education
The early childhood component is focused on the notion that we must “make certain students are ready to learn.”  With an emphasis on a range of high-quality programs that focus on educational foundations in reading, math, social, and emotional skills.  The further highlights:
* Centers for Excellence in Head Start — Ensuring that all Head Start centers have quality instructors, are accountable to parents, and focus on outcomes instead of just processes.  The federal director of Head Start would choose at least one Center in each state, and the state’s governor would nominate potential choices.  Such centers would be expected to expand their services to reach more students, doing so with an extra $200,000 in funding from the feds.  For these centers, the name of the game is results, with a demand for clear goals, clear objectives, and even clearer effective practice.
* Measurable Standards — Every federally funded early childhood program should be held to measurable standards, quality measures that “should be centered on the child and outcome-based.”
* Quality Instruction — Early childhood education is about preparing students for K-12 instruction.  Every early ed instruction should have strong preparation with “an emphasis on performance and outcomes as measured by student development.”  All federally funded preK programs would be required to offer a “comprehensive approach to learning that covers all significant areas of school readiness, notably literacy/language development, as well as math readiness and key motor and social skills.”
* Healthy Children — Advocating partnership grants for early screening programs for hearing, vision, and immunization needs of preschoolers.
* Parental Education and Involvement — McCain-Palin would ensure federal programs focus on educating parents how to prepare their kids for a “productive educational experience.”  Parents would be schooled in reading and numbers skills, nutrition, and general health issues.
Strengthening America’s Schools
Focusing on opportunities and a quality education for all students, the McCain-Palin plan focuses on empowering parents, teachers, and leaders while taking a swipe at the traditional educational bureaucracy.
McCain’s K-12 policy is comprised of four key principles:
* Enact meaningful reform to education
* Provide for equality of choice
* Empower parents
* Empower teachers
More specifics then come in the dozen or so specific policies McCain offers to support these principles:
* Build on the lessons of NCLB, continuing the national emphasis on standards and accountability
* Provide effective education leadership, particularly rewarding achievement
* Ensure children have quality teachers, accomplished by:

– Encouraging alternative certification methods that open the door for highly motivated teachers to enter the field
– Providing bonuses for teachers who locate in underperforming schools and demonstrate strong leadership as measured by student improvement
– Providing funding for needed professional teacher development

* Empowering school principals with greater control over spending, focusing principal decisions on doing what is necessary to raise student achievement
* Making real the promise of NCLB by giving parents greater choice, choice over how school money is being spent
* Expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, better known as DC’s voucher system
* Ensuring children struggling to meet state standards will have immediate access to high-quality tutoring programs, made available from the LEAs, the feds, or private providers
* Expanding virtual learning by reforming the “Enhancing Education Through Technology Program,” providing $500 million to develop virtual K-12 schools
* Allocating $250 million through a competitive grant program to support states that commit to expanding online education opportunities, offering a path for states to establish virtual math and science academies
* Offering $250 million for Digital Passport Scholarships to help students pay for online tutors to enroll in virtual schools, offering competitive funds to provide low-income students greater access to a range of courses and programs needed to maximize opportunity
Higher Education Policy
Focusing on innovation, the reduction of regulatory barriers, and a shared need that our economic strength depends on strong postsecondary education, the McCain-Palin team calls for the following in higher education policy:
* Improve information for parents, particularly institutional i
nformation on postsecondary choices
* Simplify higher education tax benefits, connecting a lower tax burden to greater pursuit of higher education
* Simplify federal financial aid, consolidating the financial aid process
* Improve research by eliminating earmarks, tying the campaign’s signature anti-pork barrel spending to boosting the funds available for federally funded research programs
* Fix the student lending programs, expanding capacity and demanding high levels of lender activity.
The Takeaway
There you have it.  The full McCain-Palin education platform, as presented on the official McCain-Palin campaign website.  Six total pages of text.  So what’s Eduflack’s takeaway?
* A strong focus on accountability and standards
* Emphasis on core instructional approaches and needs
* Recognition that improvement comes with parents, kids, and teachers working together
* Significant focus on innovations, specifically virtual education, alternative certification, and school choice
* An effort to place results over process
* An attempt to learn from and move beyond NCLB, not fix the federal law
What’s missing?  Discussions of issues such as ELL/ESL, student testing, national standards, STEM education, high school dropout rates, and teacher education.  But we can surmise from the policy ideas above where the McCain administration would stand on some, if not all of these issues.
So there you have it, the McCain-Palin education platform, in a handy email/pocket-sized guide.  Senator Obama, you’re up tomorrow. 

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.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/07/AR2008070702216.html  (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.

The Future of Urban Education?

Here in our nation’s capital, many are abuzz about our visit from Pope Benedict XVI.  It isn’t often that a U.S. city gets a visit from his Holiness.  And this is this Pope’s first visit to the United States.

With so many U.S. Catholics descending on Washington, DC and New York City as part of the visit, it is no wonder that talk about Catholic issues has been on the rise.  What is particularly interesting is that much of that talk has focused on the future of Catholic schools here in the good ole U.S. of A.

For years, Catholic schools were seen as a beacon of hope in urban public districts that folks had long given up on.  Parents, regardless of their own religious affiliation, would save their pennies to send their kids to Catholic schools.  Here in DC, when the voucher program was adopted five or so years ago, DC Catholic schools were the ones who felt the brunt of new enrollments (and who accepted new students for the cost of the voucher, regardless of what the sticker price of the education may have been).

Recognizing this, the Fordham Foundation has released a new study on the future of America’s urban Catholic schools.  If you haven’t seen it already, it is worth a look — http://www.edexcellence.net/foundation/publication/.cfm?id=383.  And as usual, Mike Petrilli’s discussion of the report and the general topic in The Washington Post and other media has been an interesting one.

The interesting sidecar to that report is what is going on here with Catholic schools in Washington.  Due to vouchers and other actors, DC’s Catholic schools have been asked to educate more and more students with fewer and fewer resources.  The number of Catholic students enrolling in the schools is dwindling, and DC parishioners are being asked to shoulder the costs of providing a Catholic education to a growing number of non-Catholics.

As a result, the DC Archdiocese is working to transform many of its Catholic schools into public charter schools.  If the plan works, the schools would receive appropriate funding from the District and the schools would remain open and could continue to serve a growing population seeking its services.  Teachers and classroom rules would remain the same.  Yes, it means that the traditional religious instruction provided by those schools would need to be removed.  And we would have to hope that such a removal would not affect the overall impact of instruction.  Simply put, it is a bold move by the Archdiocese, as it seeks to provide high-quality, effective education to all those who want it.

It does beg the question as to the true future of urban education.  If DC is successful, it could serve as a model for inner-city Catholic schools across the nation.  Running a school system is expensive, and it is a lot to ask parishioners to pay an increasing tab for students who may never join the Church and may never become members of the Catholic community.  But does Catholic school lose something when you remove the Catholic?

The Fordham folks are correct in noting urban Catholic schools are doing a lot of good when it comes to education.  As a nation, we want to support school success in all of its forms, knowing we can learn from all forms and all offerings.  But Eduflack has to ask, is the future of urban education one of Catholic education or charter school education?

We just may have to wait to see how DC turns out to know for sure.  If we can figure out a way to keep Catholic school instruction, discipline, and outcomes, but deliver it in a public or public charter shell, we may just have a winning combination for communities in need. 

And those seeking Catholic education can always turn to CCD like so many of us.

Powerful Rhetoric on Vouchers

For years now, vouchers have been a highly controversial topic in education reform.  Proponents see vouchers as a way to deal with failing schools, giving families a chance for a better education and increased opportunity.  Opponents see it as taking funds from our public schools, further reducing the dollars available for struggling schools to right their ships.

As a nation, we’ve seen pockets of success on the voucher movement.  Cities like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, DC have staked much of their reform on the program.  And Florida has implemented several statewide voucher systems, including one for special education.  We’ve seen initial success, to a degree, while many continue to wait to see the long-term impact.

While the wait continues, the language continues to evolve.  Vouchers evolved into school choice.  Such language moved the discussion from one of finances to one of family choice.  After all, what could be more important than a family deciding what school was best for their child, and then sending them there.

During last night’s State of the Union address, we saw the language evolve even further.  President Bush has long been a supporter of vouchers.  His Administration pushed hard to get the Washington DC voucher program into place in during his first term.  Initial research shows that the DC program has had a positive impact from the start.  In fact, so many inner-city students were choosing to use their vouchers to attend DC Catholic schools that the Archdiocese is now looking to convert a significant number of those schools into charters to allow even more students to be educated at the school of their choice.

So how does the President build on his initial DC voucher investment?  First, he calls for $300 million to expand school choice across the nation.  Then, he crowns the initiative with a new name — Pell Grants for Kids.

The President’s words are worth revisiting, as they set a new tone and new playing field for the debate on school choice.  Even the most liberal of Democrats are firm supporters of the original Pell Grants, designed to help low-income students attend college.  How, then, can they oppose the idea of Pell Grants for Kids, a scholarship program that lets low-income families send their kids to good schools?  It was a bold move, and a bold choice of words, since one can’t imagine that former U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell would ever put his name on an educational program from this President.  Yet, somehow, it all works.

Let’s look at the President’s actual remarks:

“We must also do more to help children when their schools do not measure up. Thanks to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships you approved, more than 2,600 of the poorest children in our nation’s capital have found new hope at a faith-based or other nonpublic schools.

Sadly, these schools are disappearing at an alarming rate in many of America’s inner cities. So I will convene a White House summit aimed at strengthening these lifelines of learning.

And to open the doors of these schools to more children, I ask you to support a new $300 million program called Pell Grants for Kids. We have seen how Pell Grants help low-income college students realize their full potential.

Together, we’ve expanded the size and reach of these grants. Now let us apply the same spirit to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools.” 

Over the next few days, we’ll hear how the President played small ball in his SOTU, discussing manageable ideas without swinging for a “we will land on the moon” moment.  And we all expected very little in terms of education policy in the speech.  Yes, he called for the reauthorization of NCLB, touting its results to date and its bipartisan foundations.  But the true education moment was the announcement of Pell Grants for Kids.  Who is opposed to liberating poor children trapped in failing schools?  Who doesn’t want kids to realize their full potential?  Who doesn’t want to support opportunity and hope?

Voucher opponents will likely come out swinging against the proposal, citing flaws in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program and again bemoaning taking money from well-meaning public schools and handing it to faith-based and nonpublic schools.  But Bush’s words shift this from a policy debate of voucher advocates and opponents to a discussion of families and community leaders of options and pathways to help low-income students in struggling schools.  It moves this from inside baseball to a game the whole community can play in.

We’ll have to wait and see if “Pell Grants for Kids” sticks as a brand and a call to arms for vouchers in 2008.  But it definitely has potential.