Posts filed under ‘Issues and Ideas’

Common Core Not So Hot of an Issue

The heated debate that is being waged over the Common Core is neither. Yes, it is July, which renders any environment a bit sultry…but the Common Core has slipped under the heading of safe binary disputes over pedagogy. These discussions are not a problem; the natural tension between standards and curriculum is a functional cornerstone of what should be a dynamic equilibrium in education. Feel free to jump in at any point. Just try not to ignore the real problems that should be at the top of the list.

I just read a cogent piece on literacy instruction and curriculum development by Kathleen Porter-Magee in the Education Gadfly; however, its inherent reason survived its goal of perpetuating the current obsession with the Common Core. The main objective seemed to be that some standards are good and others are bad, and that the bad ones are more likely to come from the Common Core. Standards that lead to manifestation within the context of a curriculum, as in the math example, are good. Standards that manifest in applied problem-solving are bad, as in the literacy example, because educators try to teach a generic skill before context.

Generic skills must become known as such before applied problem solving can happen across any curriculum. However, the skills themselves often need a context in order to be learned at the start. But then again…don’t forget style variations among students. Not everyone excels in linear thinking. Ms. Magee makes a number of fine points, but the Common Core is not essential to her argument. Instead, it does make for a strong case for a wider bandwidth in pedagogy. The students only win when the educators agree to disagree and accept more than one approach to learning at any given time.

Now, back to the Common Core…and the Gadfly’s Twitter summary that “this too shall pass.” The Common Core is a crucial element of our nation’s education system, but not because of its skills concentration. Rather it is the interstate portability of education that is at stake. The Common Core can and should be tweaked endlessly in a continuous quality improvement effort. Of greater importance, perhaps, is the notion that education as an institution can withstand any external forces of change.

Educators are resilient under conditions of siege, which is the way any change is perceived. And the industry can set up a failure with great reliability. The Common Core resistance suggests that, like No Child Left Behind, it was destined for failure from the start within this context. This is why neither can be left as an artifact of history. We are denying access to a high quality education to a large number of American children, and they are trapped in their geography. These changes must happen in spite of the resistance. The education community must learn a new skill, to rally around success with the same facility they exercise to create a failure.

July 24, 2014 at 8:27 AM Leave a comment

How to Create a Legacy in Education…for New and Returning Mayors

Yesterday we honored our nation’s democracy as voters in state and local elections across the country. As we congratulate new or returning mayors, why not set aside politics and offer a few guidelines for education leadership? 

1.  Align schools to mission and benchmarks…

  • PreK through 3rd grade
  • Grades 4 through 8
  • Grades 9 through 12

2.  Manage education for balance between supply and demand…

  • Students organized around equitable access to education and bridges to their communities
  • Academics organized around student needs and  instructional effectiveness

3.  Streamline business functions around the mission of education…

  • Student-centered funding and resource allocation – school as locus of control
  • Information systems that integrate finance, teacher effectiveness, and student outcomes
  • Matching of support services to student needs

4.  Develop results-oriented approach to services for outliers in the system…

  • Accelerated progress toward grade-level proficiency in Special Education
  • Two-pronged approach to ELL with growth in literacy in 1st language translating into more rapid assimilation into English language content
  • Level playing field in academics for students at risk

5.  Reward leadership that…

  • Achieves successful student outcomes
  • Values continuous growth for professional staff
  • Attracts voluntary enrollment
  • Is responsive to all community constituencies
  • Monitors key indicators of student satisfaction, service delivery, culture, and safety to anticipate disequilibrium and address it proactively
  • Allocates resources effectively and efficiently

6.  Seek alignment with evolving standards of information and technology to…

  • Get the best data on student outcomes, teacher effectiveness, financial management
  • Transcend the evolution from traditional media to digital tools for learning, communicating, and managing educational efforts
  • Create a vision for achievement that relegates regulatory compliance to the lowest common denominator among educators

With achievement of each of these strategies, mayors could spend more time creating a legacy in education and far less time dealing with NCLB failures, Parent Trigger campaigns, union battles, or random disruptions to the business of running their cities or towns.

November 6, 2013 at 2:43 PM Leave a comment

Teaching to the Test…Financially

Children who perform well with access to a standards-based curriculum in the classroom also tend to do well on standardized tests in the same content area. Teachers who worry about test scores generally learn that they do not need to tailor instruction to the test. However, an insidious form of teaching to the test happens at the school-wide resource allocation level. And limitations in financial reporting allow administrators to fly under the radar with this practice.

There is no uniform chart of accounts for general education at the Federal level. Only a handful of states utilize such accounting standards within their borders. Accordingly, there is no objective or normative data available for resource allocation within the largest category of spending on education each year.

Intuitively, we suspect that school leaders intensified investments in math and literacy after the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Logically, this would have necessitated a shift in resources away from science, social studies, and elective courses. But we do not know how prevalent this practice might have been. We only know that US standings in science deteriorated globally over the same period. We cannot locate the smoking gun in the absence of detailed financial reporting.

The President has called for Federal incentives to improve STEM education. This will involve grant funding with some degree of regulatory tracking. However, total spending may actually become more obscure without consolidation of the dollars allocated between general and special funds and itemized accounts within categories. How new spending levels compare with historical patterns will remain unknown.

As I have stated previously, we would benefit from a more detailed standard chart of accounts at the Federal level. As the funding source, the US government plays a relatively small role in general education. However, as the data driver for the nation, federal regulators would do well to establish standards for record keeping that would allow periodic assessment of resource allocation.

Local education spending is highly flexible across academic content areas, and this may not be a problem. However, decision-makers need to own their choices in state and local reporting. And they need to be able to analyze student outcomes within the context of their spending patterns. This is unlikely to happen under the current data rules.

October 16, 2013 at 1:09 PM Leave a comment

Informed Policy for Efficient and Effective Public Education

School finance, student outcomes, and teacher effectiveness are inextricably linked. Unfortunately, the state of the art in data is woefully inadequate in each area. We cannot fund the mission of education, validate teacher effectiveness, or ensure desired student outcomes for an efficient and efficacious public education system without better information. And we certainly should not attempt to reinvent the system while remaining uninformed.

Consider that current policy rhetoric in public education would suggest that we…

  • Cut education spending, switch to block grant funding, and/or increase spending equitably instead of funding competitive performance-based grants.
  • Economize via ageism to cut older, higher-paid veteran educators from staff saving on salaries and breaking pension promises, increase salaries of effective teachers to $150,000 a year, and/or create compensation based on salary and merit pay for performance.
  • Fund enhanced services for gifted students and others who “want to learn,” provide combined education and social services for whole-child care, and/or shift money out of troubled districts and into charter schools or private alternatives…all while creating equity.
  • Improve teacher prep by hamstringing traditional programs with even more regulations, exempting fly-by-night schools and boot camps to keep them fleet-footed. And so on…

The absence of cognitive dissonance among policy makers is worrisome, given the logical inconsistencies among strategies, often within the same camp. Even more troubling is that we cannot reasonably assess any of these options given the current state of the art in real information. Regardless of one’s policy position, there is no clear path to valid analysis.

We currently fund bureaucracies with oblique formulas and regionally variable equity. There is no uniform chart of accounts that allows comparative analysis of long or short-term investments in educational programs from a financial perspective. Nor do we gain much insight into success or failure. For instance, we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on Special Education, yet we account for eligibility for services, not results. We may choose to highlight STEM education, but there is no data that captures comparative STEM spending or outcomes.

Technological change has created opportunities from simple paper reduction to virtual instruction. And, unlike incompatible policy-making, we actually can standardize and individualize our services to students at the same time. Beyond pedagogy, our information support for operational effectiveness is within reach with updated business systems. However, transitions with technology are costly. Again, we need a way to look at the people and the money.

Data standards and analytical tools need to be built into our new systems that allow us to be informed as we make choices to invest in productive capacity for learning as well as making sound decisions to subsidize whole child support in special cases.

May 8, 2013 at 3:10 PM Leave a comment

Anti-Testing Activism Is Destroying Evidence

Testing for compliance with NCLB is meant to reassure regulators that we are delivering on 14th amendment rights of our students for that personal property that is education. Period. We owe it to the students. Hiding the evidence that some of the kids are not given that which is due them is a cover-up. And part of what is hidden under that cloak is a secret belief among educators that all children are not equal in their most basic potential.

Educators who rally against achievement tests probably to not think they are obstructing justice. In fact, they may be wonderful teachers of social justice, environmental justice, or economic justice. But their efforts to obscure this measure of educational justice are out of synch. Kids who cannot pass the tests have been cheated out of some piece of their property rights for an equitable education.

Achievement tests set lower limits for adequacy of education in terms of literacy and mathematical ability. We still need to work harder to prove to ourselves and to the children that they have the intellectual ability to match their peers in the classroom and in life. Those who are afraid the children cannot pass the test guarantee that those same children are less likely to find out how great their accomplishments in life might be.

Hiding the evidence does not negate the charges levied against us…nor does it save the children from paying the price for life.

May 1, 2013 at 10:52 AM Leave a comment

False Dichotomy – Testing vs. Search for Excellence

All children should be prepared to pursue lifelong learning with a solid foundation of knowledge and understanding. They also benefit from a strong sense of their own potential for high achievement. These are highly interdependent constructs. Future accomplishments rely on prior knowledge. They are never mutually exclusive options for educators.

Any performance measure, such as an NCLB proficiency test, that begins with, “All students must…” sets a MINIMUM standard by definition. It is not meant to measure how high student achievement can go. It merely sets a standard for documenting baseline skills that are prerequisites to advancing to the next level of education. Students will vary in their accomplishments; however, none of them can be expected to advance without proficiency in the basics.

Proponents of various approaches to pedagogy often set up a false dichotomy, seeking to show that their methods far outshine those of “teaching to the test,” some going as far as demanding elimination of standardized tests. They incorrectly presume that accountability testing limits the scope of their practice. In reality, if their collective practices are working, over time their students will happily join the ranks of proficient children who just take the test and move on. No sweat.

Our children need access to a broad range of instructional techniques to meet their diverse learning styles. Bring them on! Tell us about your methods and hold onto those lofty goals. Show us how to use them, and help us to know who benefits the most from them. But please…check the teaching-to-the-test straw man at the door. It’s irrelevant.

May 1, 2013 at 10:35 AM Leave a comment

Amoral Politician’s Dream…Privatizing Education

What could be better for conservatives than creating non-government jobs that drive up government spending through private mismanagement that you can blame on progressives until you can dream up your next flax-spinning scheme? Um…how about investing our nation’s savings in factors of real economic development? No…alchemy makes better campaign rhetoric, and it’s all about getting re-elected in the midterms.

I took a couple of weeks off Twitter only to return the same old…with a new spin. Deregulation of private charters – when the numbers don’t look good; getting rid of the tests – when educators get caught cheating on them; and direct funding of students – only if they go to private schools. This future vision plays right into the hands of an opportunistic and amoral conservative political bloc.

Privatization of government services has emerged again as the perennial antidote to deficit spending. Whenever our nation’s economy seems hopelessly mired in the trough of a business cycle, conservative politicians seem to turn a blind eye to economic development, their alleged forte. They choose, instead, to look for opportunities to appear to create private-sector jobs by churning pre-existing government jobs into their own.

The key to privatization is that it sounds like it might be a good idea. First, you demonize union workers. Then you cite the evils of government spending. Finally, you turn to technological innovation as the new magic pill. Who better to turn this situation around than an entrepreneur from the private sector?

The flaw in the plan? It calls for investing private money that only sustains profit growth through excessive government spending. There is no real end game for investors. It is a short-term fix for the appearance of economic growth. And it has a real economic opportunity cost. If our “job creators” can’t do any better than this, things might just be worse than we thought…and that’s no April Fool.

April 1, 2013 at 9:46 AM Leave a comment

Rhode Island…the Little State That Could

Rhode Island has created what should be a national model for education accounting and data collection. Minor enhancements may be needed to aggregate information on virtual schooling among expenditures and to link city and town accounts for capital assets and pension liabilities. But the lion’s share of the work has already been done in Providence.

In 2004, the late Representative Paul Crowley, Senate President Paiva Weed, and Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Hanna Gallo collaborated to sponsor a better vision for education finance in Rhode Island. The result was a gargantuan effort to address the needs for transparency, uniformity, comparability, and accountability to mission in education spending. The system continues to evolve in its third year of full implementation under Commissioner Deborah Gist. But the Rhode Island Department of Education’s Uniform Chart of Accounts already could serve as a national model for K-12 finance data.

The US spends about $500 billion annually on education without matching the money to the mission of educating children. While the federal government only contributes about 10% of the funding, with state and local governments splitting the other 90%, financial reporting is only standardized with regard to a small number of federal regulatory line items.

The federal role in public education includes…

  • National data standards
  • Common Core standards for interstate portability of education
  • Management of “market” imperfections
    • Food and transportation for the poor
    • Disability benefits
    • Incubation of innovation
  • Funding adjustments for equity via specific grants

Autonomous state education authorities (SEAs) offer half the funding and carry the weight of decision support for the mission of educating the children. However, their informational common denominator is compliance data for federal reporting. Accordingly, most comparative analyses can go no further than aggregate data on general education, special student services, food, and transportation. Action items have been elusive; inefficiencies have been funded without intent or natural correction.

When Rhode Island began its data project, only six states – most notably New Mexico – had made substantive progress toward uniformity in financial data collection within their borders. Rhode Islanders gathered an extensive team of stakeholders. Together, they studied these exemplars of unified charts of accounts against their own needs for comparative analyses of local education authorities (LEAs) as well as internal assessment of the effectiveness of their spending patterns. The team paid close attention to every detail in analytics and created an incredibly robust decision architecture that addresses issues of money, mission, and regulatory compliance.

Two areas for development that I could see…

  • Virtual education resources have grown in unforeseeable ways as materials and delivery sites for education services. They need to be integrated into the system in multiple dimensions.
  • Balance sheet items concerning major assets, such as school buildings, and liabilities, such as unfunded pension obligations, need to be consolidated into school finance at least for analyses and decision-making. These line items do not have a consistent place in school or district finance, often falling under local government authority and residing in their accounting structure. However, complete understanding of these components of investment and their impact on scarce resources to support the mission of educating the children cannot be overlooked.

In addition, I am a believer in student-centered finance that goes beyond weighted funding to include direct linkage of expenses for case management. But that may be a generation away. In the meantime, hats off to Rhode Island.

Now can this best practice get shared…immediately?

February 27, 2013 at 11:51 AM Leave a comment

Child Find as the Catalyst for Success in STEM and PreK

Never watch the State of the Union speech in your cranky pants – not just good advice for John Boehner. As an urban educator, I thought I was looking forward to the President’s address with a positive attitude. But I kept going negative…Universal pre-kindergarten? Wasteful and wrong. STEM competition in high school? Too little too late. Then I realized there was a missing link. Child Find will be the key to success with either initiative.

My preferred approach to pre-kindergarten is to dedicate free public access to children who are at-risk. I truly believe that universal access will dilute the child-find efforts of the program, and that the most-needy children will continue to fall through the cracks. That’s where they live and where their parents are trying to eke out a life for them. Comfortable families already preparing their children for school will get a free ride, less fortunate children will continue to be left behind, and deficit spending will result in a net loss to the system.

That said, the child-find clause in any PreK legislation must have some real teeth in it. Our vulnerable populations must be served first.

Similarly, I worried about the President’s competition for high school STEM programs because so many talented children in troubled schools would have lost their way long before then. Efforts to set up springboards for STEM education in high school would be hamstrung with the need for re-engagement and remediation programs before accelerated STEM instruction could begin.

However, there are many emerging STEM programs that target older elementary and middle school children. In a better world, many more of these children will be found as they enter adolescence. Their interests and abilities will be nurtured through opportunities for exploration and placement in programs that offer appropriate stimulation and challenge. But where, in this new world order, would there be enough seats for all of them in high school? More on that in my next post…

February 13, 2013 at 10:25 AM Leave a comment

From Ivory Tower to Real World Practice

Policy wonks and academics have envisioned grand schemes for the future. However, they have not gone the distance to chart the course for achieving and maintaining those realities. I think that’s where the rest of us come in.

Recently, I attended an Askwith Forum at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. The panelists reconvened to summarize their visions for K-12 education after the reformation. The conversation included innovations in teacher prep and professionalism as well as unbundling the job of teaching and the training of leaders in the brave new world of technology and structural change for schooling and, preferably, learning. The brain trust included leaders of the education reform movement, distinguished faculty, and a recent past state education chief. They offered a clear vision for a functionally discordant future…one that could and should evolve out of the natural absence of consensus.

It was a wonderful display of wisdom, save two profound voids. The first was exposed in the form of a giant blank box on the screen that represented the infrastructure to support the collective vision. The second was the absence of an explanation for how to achieve a transformation of leadership and learning without blowing the whole thing up. I had a few thoughts.

On the infrastructure thing, I harken back to my prescription for a functional machine outlined in Seven Keys to Education Reform. Since publication in 2011, it has grown in relevance as the dialogue on education reform has progressed. Further, education reform needs to be reclaimed from policy conservatives with a singular vision that is not scalable or even viable. Their Phoenix leaves too many children in the ashes. It is time to change the conversation.

I believe in a strong centrist vision that can work through reinvention of the underpinnings of public education. But we must be ready to proceed with implementation of…

  • The systems integration project that will create a new standard for data as well as a viable platform for exploiting technology in pedagogy.
  • The pension reform that will create portability as well as solvency.
  • The incentive systems that link to educational outcomes, educator effectiveness, and accelerated longitudinal progress.
  • The leadership model that expands the role to encompass management expertise from other fields.
  • The vision for equity that does not discriminate on the basis of age, ethnicity, income, religion, gender, or any other demographic factor.

February 7, 2013 at 9:19 AM Leave a comment

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