Posts filed under ‘ESEA-NCLB’

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

Privacy and Data Solutions in Education – Part 2 of 2

Big data in education must be just as big on security. Everything from children’s journals to administrators’ meeting notes can turn up on Google Docs or Facebook. These may seem like great platforms for trying out 21st century tools. However, the long range plans must include tight security as we take very privileged information and make it broadly available…on a need-know-basis?!?

The future for education data is bright. We are just beginning to realize the potential for developing integrated systems that are student-centered and can bring together student funding and outcomes…which can then be reconciled with delivery system and educator effectiveness. Whew! But can this brave new world accommodate the privacy requirements for all the players?

Consider that…

  • The New York Times has published test performance data that might have been better kept in NYC DOE teachers’ human resource files.
  • Children who are not old enough to join Facebook or understand their ever-changing privacy rules are active on the site through their classroom pages and may be revealing too much about themselves in journals or personal essays.
  • Confidential memos have been leaked and shared for sport and maximum exposure.
  • Risqué videos and inappropriate photos of teenagers have trended on Twitter with record speed.

Everyone is in the media and social networks, but it is not clear who is in charge or what the rules should be. Privacy has become a thing of the past…at least for the present.

In a period of rapid technological change, it is all a person can do to stay current. Being open to new technology is a requirement for today’s professional, but the blurring of boundaries between public and private personas challenges even the savviest users. Bringing social networks into the classroom and school community has unleashed the potential for innovation in communication and collaboration. But it has brought with it loss of control over content.

Platforms offered by Facebook, Google, or Pinterest allow us to experiment with shared portfolios of content from a variety of media. Concepts for limiting access to information exist in theory, but most privacy shields have been proven to be flawed. For the moment, anything posted on an Internet site carries risk of exposure. Does that mean we should stop experimenting with new apps? No…because the milieu will define important ways that we can integrate data in the future.

Education data banks will need to accommodate all media types, but they also must be exclusive for participation. Essentially, the old privacy rights need to be engineering into new Intranet systems. For example,

  • Children need to be shielded from personal exposure to people beyond their immediate families or the school community.
  • Only students, their parents, and relevant teachers and administrators should have access to certain student information.
  • Every staff member has the right to privacy in employment records and personal information.
  • Student outcomes, teacher performance, and education effectiveness data may be intertwined for quality assurance internally, but the identities of the participants can never be revealed in public records.

We have a major opportunity to become far better informed as decision-makers in education. But as the song says, some things are private.

January 10, 2013 at 1:36 PM Leave a comment

Privacy and Data Solutions in Education – Part 1 of 2

Fully integrated systems in education hold incredible potential to combine a variety of types of data and media from finance, human resources, and education operations…organized around students. Once this very big picture was in place, truly mission-driven education services could become a reality. But do we have the courage to abandon our regulatory model?

Let’s make our education information systems a do-over. Start with student funding and build a zero-based budget from there. Financial statements aggregate from student education centers up. District services would be driven by demand and economy.

Then build student records that combine data fields, documents, and audio-visual inputs. A continuum of real and metaphorical snapshots of the whole child would emerge over the course of his or her education.  It would comprise the usual demographic data, formal assessments, and grades. However, portfolios also could be included with key samples of student work as evidence of academic and psychosocial benchmarks, distinctive strengths, or leaning style profiles. Special education or English language learner files could be included as well.

Every educator would have a consolidated record. It could capture the teacher or administrator’s personnel data and link it to evidence on dimensions such as student progress, videos of practice activities, or feedback from students, parents, and colleagues. Professionalism and dimensions of leadership could be captured as well.

Each player would have a good picture of current achievement levels in addition to a longitudinal progress report. Beyond the individual, finance and performance analysis would inform system leaders as they refined the education delivery system for efficiency and effectiveness. Continuous quality improvement would not only be possible – it should become mandatory – for the people and the system.

Clearly today’s regulatory model is not working. But are we ready to give up bad data, scapegoating, and plausible deniability for real information that allows us to grow?

January 10, 2013 at 11:45 AM 1 comment

Hurricanes, Waivers, and 5% Solutions

Today’s solutions are laying the groundwork for tomorrow’s problems…that look a lot like yesteryear. Left to their own momentum, many of the ideas currently trending in education networks will lead to churning at the bottom, separate but not nearly equal public education, and loss of class mobility for all but minority superstars…who probably could have made it on their own merit.

Sometimes management talent is best reflected in unnatural acts of leadership when problems assume the guise of the obvious. Clear vision and grit are needed to save the day when momentum builds around flawed ideas. Otherwise, we are quite likely to preserve the status quo or worse, even as we flatter ourselves as seasoned change agents for the good.

Consider some of the current thinking in education policy…

  • The system is too big to fix…we need to focus on the bottom 5%
  • Katrina forced NOLA schools to be reinvented…let’s blow through [insert urban district] like a force of nature and just take out the weakest structures.
  • Good schools are getting failing grades…NCLB must be broken.

Who is going to tell us if we are wrong?

Revival of an old trick…concentrating resources in the lowest performing schools

Solutions have to start somewhere, so why not at the bottom? What could be wrong with that? Actually, it has long been the habit of school districts to focus on underperforming schools. They throw scarce resources at the worst schools, observe some good results, celebrate victory…and myopically pull the resources out from under the schools with fledgling programs for success. Because there is a new school at the bottom and resources need to be redeployed to save it. That is the type of churning that got us where we are today.

Maybe the problem is that we do not have a good way to get access to existing resources. Special money for special problems gets spun cyclically around the anointed problem children in the system, but we manage the vast majority of education dollars in a black box of regulatory accounting. About 59% of our money goes to “instruction,” and many districts are trying to decentralize more of that and create flexibility for school leaders. However, there is no standard for tracking what’s in that pool of money, nor do we have the information to assess the other 41% beyond regulatory compliance with federal spending policies. We need to build data and dollars around the mission of educating all children.

Hurricane treatment of chaotic divisions within urban school systems

New Orleans may have had some of the worst schools in the nation prior to Hurricane Katrina. The need to rapidly replace the entire infrastructure in the troubled 9th Ward created an opportunity to incubate charter school notions in the real world. The jury is still out on this experiment, but early successes have turned NOLA charters into the new magic pill.

Now DC schools are under the microscope, and Washington Post columnist Jay Matthews is suggesting the emergence of a NOLA-like mixed Charter-District plan that could be extended to DC and other urban areas. This so-called hurricane treatment generates disruptive overhauling of whole regions of a troubled school district, essentially abandoning failure mills and replacing them with presumptively successful charters. Meanwhile, district schools in affluent neighborhoods would be left alone.

The long-term problem is systemic. The hurricane strategy sets up parallel school systems that may not ultimately deliver equity in education. And the better schools that are spared the metaphorical hurricane are no longer urgently encouraged to be inclusive of children whose parents wish to opt out of replacement schools. Nor are they as apt to worry about marginalizing their own special populations, even to the point of sending some of them back into the storm.

Welcome back Separate-but-[not] Equal? No way! A better asset-based solution would keep whatever strong elements existed within turnaround schools. An empowered administrator would set up a team balanced with instructional leadership and parent representation. Teachers would be responsive to both, and they would be involved in self-assessment, goal-setting, and review annually. Every member of the team must count. This is a full-on marathon, not a sprint for the most fleet-footed favorites.

If schools were considered too far gone to recover, a creative solution would be to reorganize and realign elementary schools. Two cohorts of preK-8 students could be combined, matching pairs of high and low-performing schools. The blended schools would then be reorganized into separate preK-3 and grade 4-8 schools. The staff at each school would be collectively accountable for their respective grade 3 or grade 8 final benchmarks. Intensive professional development in the appropriate age cluster would be required for each school’s staff.

NCLB waivers that enable benign neglect in elite schools

NCLB is not as broken as some would have you believe. Poor grades for subgroup failures at elite schools have been cited as a hallmark of NCLB’s shortcomings. In fact, the inclusiveness of the best schools is an important feature of NCLB that supports families trying to give their children access to a brighter future. Many less affluent families moving to towns with better schools have found their children marginalized in special programs and falling further behind their peers in the new schools.

With waivers in place, states are less likely to notice as “the soft bigotry of lowered expectations” continues to be tolerated in middle and upper class communities. Parents can move to a better place, but their children still may be denied an educational springboard to class mobility.

The real solution is to keep the rigor of subgroup analysis within NCLB. Ethnic or income-based bias within seemingly good schools is not good enough. Districts must be accountable for all of their students. Painful self-assessment and corrective action is not just for big city schools. Creation of a success cycle for underserved populations within any district must be a priority.

December 5, 2012 at 4:30 PM Leave a comment

The NCLB Waiver Fix

NCLB waivers allow States to create modified goals for achievement. However, it appears many State and Federal education leaders have missed the point. State level goals that institutionalize an achievement gap among different populations of students cannot be defended. Each state must set a target for baseline achievement for all populations by some date, which is no longer 2014. How each district deals with its own history and revises its benchmarks is a State matter.

NCLB achievement goals were set to define the lowest common denominator among students.  Any State-level regulator who proposes discrimination in goal-setting either is unclear on the concept or views its populations of students to be structurally unequal. Marginalizing students and under-serving them is not the American way. All students must pass the hurdle of a single “lowest common denominator.”

State-level goals that vary by demographic pool fail at two levels:

  • They institutionalize demographic achievement gaps, which is unconstitutional.
  • They reset the lowest common denominator within populations at some weighted average of past achievement across districts, thereby actually lowering the target for districts which have been making higher than average progress.

States that have received NCLB waivers should have latitude in how they deal with individual districts. However, the only demonstrable district targets should be (1) the redefined timetable for baseline proficiency for ALL populations, and (2) the benchmarks for accelerated progress toward baseline proficiency within any population that has fallen behind under NCLB.

Secretary Duncan has said that district-level NCLB waivers do not make sense. I, on the other hand, think that the district is the only place where variances should be tolerated even temporarily. Perhaps our point of agreement is that the State should be allowed input into resetting the NCLB timeline under Federal oversight. Then, it is the State’s prerogative to define a process that ensures realignment of individual district goals with that vision.

And, btw, don’t forget to keep going all you overachievers out there!

November 20, 2012 at 9:45 AM Leave a comment

New PreK-12 Education Priorities for the Returning Obama Administration

The Common Core State Standards, NCLB waivers, and Race to the Top initiatives have altered the landscape in education in the absence of an NCLB rewrite. On this day of reflection after Election 2012, I offer a few thoughts on resetting policy priorities until ESEA renewal becomes feasible.

Entering the 2nd term, in my humble opinion, the Obama Administration could benefit from raising the priority of three issues in PreK-12 education…

  • Decision architecture for education finance, reporting, and analysis
  • Federal support for government employee pension reform
  • Incentives/accountabilities for grade level proficiency for students in general or special education and students who are English language learners

Decision Architecture

The Race to the Top program (RttT) has instructed states and districts to design new approaches to student funding, teacher effectiveness, and student outcomes. Having completed the idea generation phase for reinvention of the decision architecture within education authorities, it is time to draw expertise from beyond traditional regulatory compliance models. Educators need to learn from non-education sources with more expertise in aligning information and analyses to the mission of educating children efficiently and effectively.

The finished products should draw on the best of the general industry models and those presented by RttT exemplars. They should include a standard for financial reporting that is student-centered as well as data elements to be automated in support of teacher effectiveness and student outcome reports.

Pension Reform

Government employee pensions are straining fiscal resources while yielding inequitable benefits for plan participants and limiting their career mobility. Current retirees and vested employees need security with their defined-benefit pensions. Separately, the wisdom of continuing to underwrite such pensions in the future needs to be assessed. However, any introduction of defined-contribution pensions for new or unvested employees would result in eventual bankruptcy for legacy plans.

The Federal role in the issue could be one of mitigating the financial crisis in pension funding. Changes to the tax code could lower the effective cost of borrowing for sponsors to meet pension obligations. In addition, elimination of the Social Security opt-out would extend the safety net for employees switching to higher risk, defined-contribution pension plans. A prior post discussing this issue can be found here.

Grade Level Proficiency

When redefining the data elements needed for measuring student outcomes, Federal regulators will need to keep in mind new targets and deadlines for general grade-level proficiency among PreK-12 students. Longitudinal tracking across content areas will need to be enhanced significantly, especially to ensure that students receiving services in Special Ed or ELL programs are demonstrating accelerated progress in response to accommodations and modifications.

This shift in emphasis should create incentives to move beyond regulatory compliance to demonstration of real benefits for students, a continuation of the work announced in an Education Department notice available here.

Other items on the Federal agenda

Meanwhile, teacher preparation does not need to be such a high priority on the Federal agenda. Educators are being trained under a variety of conditions ranging from rigorous 5­-year programs that combine baccalaureate and master’s degrees to boot camp immersion programs or online courses with limited apprenticeships. Aggressive evaluation of the most highly structured programs exclusively is both unfair and at risk of overestimating the state of the art in actual practice. In addition, success has been seen with many teacher prep models, raising doubt that the problem lies with the pipeline of new teachers.

Rather, a crucial lapse in quality arises because individual schools and districts show uneven results with their ability to keep teachers in top form professionally throughout their careers. That is a local problem that is being addressed retrospectively through the teacher evaluation process. Prospectively, Federal regulators should consider grants for demonstration projects to introduce general management and human resource expertise from general industry into education leadership development.

November 7, 2012 at 2:46 PM Leave a comment

Test Results as the Floor and the Ceiling for Learning…

Comment Submitted in Response to John Merrow’s 17 Sept 2012 blog entry, Blended Learning – But to What End?

Thank you for a wonderfully cogent set of caveats with regard to blended learning. While I share your view, the issue of achieving basic literacy and numeracy as the floor and the ceiling is a problem I would love to have. Frankly, we have so many children who cannot get their footing on that floor that I side with the folks who would seek that goal by any means necessary.

Testing can never hope to make promises beyond ensuring the basic toolkit for knowledge acquisition. As educators, we should take every child beyond the basics. And that is where the multiple measures of teacher effectiveness come into play.

Suppose, for example, we could say that all children would be empowered with enough basic knowledge and skill to pursue grade level challenges as active thinkers by 2019. That would mean every child entering 6th grade or lower today would be truly prepared for college and life through a mixture of remediation and accelerated progress.

Such an accomplishment would break the failure mentality of educators, which I consider to be a major part of the problem. In addition, it would take enough time that our innovators should have come up with solutions to the very good concern you have voiced…that of raising the ceiling toward infinity.

I would like to add a link addressing this issue in the context of benchmarks…

September 27, 2012 at 6:20 AM Leave a comment

Summary of Reform Ideas

The following outline summarizes the SchoolsRetooled thinking on K-12 reform as of this morning.

Current situation: 3-tiered system…

  • Excellent school districts with some subgroup failure
  • Average school districts with some quality issues and recent AYP failures
  • Troubled school districts with persistent underachievement

All would benefit from some national/state/local improvements…

  • No-fault reform – any reform contingent upon incumbents and/or blame is faulty in and of itself
  • Better data standards for…
    • Funding formulas and financial statements
    • Student outcomes
    • Teacher effectiveness
  • Incentives to address pension fund issues leading to…
    • Solvency for traditional pension beneficiaries
    • Portability for non-vested employees
  • Resetting NCLB accountabilities targeting…
    • Near universal proficiency in ELA and Math beginning with 2019 graduates
    • Sliding scale for classes of 2013-2018
  • Reorganization of schools…
    • Realignment of school grade clusters to mission and benchmarks…
      • PreK-3rd grade (free public PreK for at-risk students)
      • 4th – 8th grade
      • 9th – 12th grade
    • Redefinition of leadership hierarchy with…
      • General manager leading each organization
      • Balance of instructional leadership and parent/community leadership at the next level of management
      • Teachers and support staff assigned to small learning families with administrative assistants as needed
    • Restructured incentives for professional growth…
      • Annual self-assessment, goal-setting, and evidence-based review
      • Review team including supervisor(s), peers, students, and parents
      • Bonus pools for interdependent staff and leaders
  • New incentives for Students with Special Needs, English Language Learners, and other subgroups for accelerated progress toward grade-level proficiency
  • Advancement of pedagogy to…
    • Realize new potential with technology
    • Maximize student access to personalized learning…matching style, overcoming obstacles
    • Combine memory banking and critical thinking for synthetic and deconstructive problem-solving

September 26, 2012 at 8:00 AM Leave a comment

Are You As Smart as a 10th Grader?

Every college student needs to be able to say “Yes” to that question. And that’s all any college-readiness testing is trying to demonstrate at the most basic level.

To graduate from high school more than two years behind in grade-level basics in math and literacy is to face the adult world with limitations. It starts with early elementary school when children cannot read well and do simple arithmetic by the end of 3rd grade. It continues if students do not have mastery of concrete math and literacy skills by 8th grade.

Standardized achievement tests used for accountability in elementary and secondary education do not seek the top…they measure the firmness of the foundation skills upon which to build knowledge at the next higher level of thinking. Teaching to those tests will never be acceptable, and those who feel compelled to do so must question why.

Where did the children’s learning of the basics breakdown? Why would you be teaching concrete learning to teenagers? Something is wrong in that picture. You may find yourself teaching skills needed to pass the test, but what you are really doing is remedial instruction during class time. How about organizing extended day time for remedial classes so we can get back to teaching the full curriculum at each grade level? Because just getting rid of the test will not make the children better prepared for life.

September 6, 2012 at 6:41 AM Leave a comment

Why Good Business Applies to Government Infrastructure – NOT Services

In a political economy based on capitalism and democracy, the role of government is to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Socially, government must take care of people who fall out of the system due to market failures. Fiscally, it should be a crime to wastefully spend the money set aside for those who are under-served. Unfortunately, politicians who want to run the government like a business seem to undermine its infrastructure with privatization while setting up tax-funded social services for effective profit-takers without manifest need. This is the worst of both worlds.

Political extremism cannot solve problems for a nation. This is true with either party. In times of partisan gridlock, Democrats try to be fiscally and socially liberal while Republicans try to be fiscally and socially conservative. There is no common ground, and the problems for America’s neediest citizens remain unsolved.

The summer of 2012 has left me nostalgic for the mid-90s…when the Bill, Bob, and Newt Show offered a spectacle for the press that kept everyone abuzz while they quietly did the good work of government. While politically and ideologically diverse, our government leaders found middle ground in fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. They knew who they were serving and tried to meet their needs prudently. By the end of the decade politics had sadly run amok, but Bill Clinton left office with the US enjoying peace and prosperity. I wish the latter for Barrack Obama and the nation in 2016.

The Republican Party has just ended its national convention, where the party faithful have reveled in partisanship during a week that has turned ugly more than once. Their platform reforms government by privatizing its functions rather than using their business sense to reinvent the existing infrastructure.  Further, they have redesigned the system to offer better access to government services to the rich than the poor. All this is funded mysteriously while further benefiting the wealthiest citizens with tax breaks. This would result in a dreadful breakdown of the role of government.

If only the political conservatives understood how to apply their business acumen to make government work more efficiently for the under-served rather than denying them services. And that those who thrive in the market can and should take care of themselves.

August 31, 2012 at 9:53 AM Leave a comment

What’s the Worst that Could Happen?

NCLB has a presumption-of-guilt clause that allows dismissal of up to 50% of the teaching staff without due process in persistently failing schools. Across the US, teachers are walking around with targets on their backs and many are undermining themselves in response. Genuine concerns about being tossed from the group, losing one’s job, and forfeiting pension potential are driving conformity among teachers and stifling their natural creativity. Teachers may be turning their worst fears into self-fulfilling prophecies as their schools fail to show improvement. It’s time for counter-intuitive leadership.

Sometimes it helps to face one’s worst fears. Let’s say it happens…most of the staff is laid off at the end of the year. How can teachers get ready for the job market after an epic failure and turn that into success? Ironically, this is a case in which readiness might be a good dose of preventive medicine.

In any school under NCLB sanctions, every teacher would benefit from a glimpse into the world of out-placement. He or she should draft a resume, envision the next job, and write their own best letter of recommendation for securing that position. The next step would be to reflect on these three components of career planning. Is the resume a composite for a model practice? Is that next job a realistic expectation? Does that letter of recommendation ring true? If the answer to any of these questions is negative, it’s time to develop a game plan for personal growth.

Leaders in this situation must have faith in their staff’s resilience and use honesty as a tool of benevolence. By recognizing each person as an individual and becoming an advocate against that worst fear, the leader becomes a partner for success. In addition, difficult conversations happen while there is still time for action. Supervision is directed toward facilitation of each teacher’s transformation into that exemplary job candidate.

Of course, the goal behind this exercise is to activate a vision of excellence for each teacher and create a spirit of renewal for him or her in the classroom. However, the school leader takes the intermediate step of listening to the staff, allowing them to mourn the loss of stability, and bolstering their confidence for taking personal risks to succeed. Ultimately, that self-centered reflection should turn the teacher away from inner fears and toward to a more student-centered practice.

I believe in portable pensions and career mobility for teachers, but they are not the reality today. All the same, teachers need to be liberated from their sense of impossibilities in their classrooms, in their schools, and in their careers. Often it is what is getting in the way of their visions for greatness in their students.

August 17, 2012 at 8:31 AM Leave a comment

Sliding Scale Accountability

Too little too late…schools systems have acceded defeat in their efforts to adequately educate all children by 2014. But that does not mean we should give up in every grade. A sliding scale system of accountabilities could keep our eyes on the prize. So let’s try again for 2019 and ask schools to get it right for students who are rising 6th graders or younger.

We may not be able to achieve the goal of NCLB for 2014. However, the class of 2019 is entering 6th grade this fall. There is still time for them to achieve proficiency in math and literacy and be college ready by 2019. Indeed, the ideal of proficiency should be kept alive for every child in school today with six or more years of elementary and secondary education left to go.

Growth models for student achievement have become popular as RttT is extended to districts and states rush to meet their obligations implied in their earlier applications. However, most of these models just kick to can out and postpone universal achievement for the children to the next generation or later. This is not good enough.

We need to put a stake in the ground again and say, “This stops here.” Educators are not likely to get their students ready for college if they are thoroughly unprepared when entering high school. The climb is too steep. However, schools that are struggling need to show they can win the battle with children who are entering middle school. And they need to keep trying to do their best with high schoolers.

A sliding scale system for accountabilities would reassign the goals originally set for 2014 as the goal for 2019. Then the goals for AYP could be reset according to a sliding scale for the graduating classes of 2013 through 2018. Any thoughts?

August 14, 2012 at 10:38 AM Leave a comment

Failure…is not the data’s fault (Part 2 of 2)

Data is here to stay, and even hard-core test deniers are tiptoeing into the next phase. “Let’s trade a new list of details for those high stakes tests. Yeah…that’s the ticket”. No way! Clearly, we do not have adequate data, and that’s never the time to start throwing any of it away. Yet, as we move from denial into bargaining…can resolution be far behind?

Embracing student data can be a little like the grieving process. Achievement tests offer one approach to threshold data points – those which capture the minimum acceptable competency levels in a content area – but they can be rejected as inadequate on many counts. However, that does not eliminate their relevance, regardless of how much better that might feel. It just means we need more data.

Even educators who feel victimized by fallout from test scores are grudgingly coming to grips with the fact that data-driven instruction is here to stay. They continue to attack the tests with a vengeance in hopes of discarding their own failing report cards. But, their new tactic is elimination of achievement tests in exchange for other details and benchmarks. Indeed, the opponents of high stakes tests are tripping over one another as they rush to offer alternative data sources that offer a more complete picture of the child…all of which seem to draw the same conclusion. The kids are alright, and so are we.

What’s missing here is the notion, once again, that we can have it both ways. Remember, in many ways we are still in the brainstorming phase for database needs; nothing gets thrown away.

In many public schools, benchmark tests barely cause a ripple in school operations. Students in high-performing cohorts take the tests and move on; students in special populations may struggle, but only a handful of students raise serious concern. Ironically, these institutions also tend to be the ones that have more highly developed approaches to the whole child. They can afford to move beyond basic competencies and pursue higher order needs with their students. Still, subgroup failures persist.

When threshold scores on tests are not achieved, there is a necessary emphasis on sources of failure. Minimum expectations must be met, because the children will not excel at the next level unless they have a secure set of foundation skills. That is why achievement gaps tend to widen over time. However, understanding the children better will help us to serve them better. We just have to accept the test scores as part of the picture of the whole child at any given time over a longitudinal trajectory. And we have to support the growth of that child…including progress toward grade level proficiency in the basics.

Inequity in educational opportunity tends to track with income inequity. It will never be fair. Urban and suburban educators share concern for students of poverty as well as students with special needs and new English language learners. These educators come together and commiserate over the weaknesses of their special populations, ultimately challenging the relevance of tests for them. However, they could benefit more from sharing their strengths.

Many high-performing schools have an edge in programs for the whole child, but they give up too quickly on their marginalized student subgroups. Struggling systems tend to understand students who are at-risk and help them overcome obstacles daily, but they have so many students in need that they have a hard time getting to the whole child. How about a joining forces for the good…to share the secrets to their successes and set a standard for excellence in educating the whole child in every population. And dream and scheme for the day when even poor kids just take the test – no sweat – and move on.

August 12, 2012 at 12:34 PM Leave a comment

Failure…is not the data’s fault (Part 1 of 2)

When students do well in a school system, the system tends to work well; when students fail, the system breaks down. While there is a chicken-and-egg thing going on here, there also is a game of dodge ball that undermines problem-solving efforts. Dumping an unhealthy dose of blame on the schools with disappointing test results only intensifies that dysfunctional behavior. But making the data go away is not the solution; rather, we need a safe harbor for teachers even as they rush to learn to play by new rules.

Test obsession would seem to be the root of all evil. Results-orientation and accountability have not been nurtured in education historically; in fact, rigid standards have been declared antithetical to a milieu with safe harbors for children. However, it is the grown-ups in the education system who go more than a little batty when there is bad news, and the test data would seem to be the messenger. Get rid of it, and we can all go back to behaving like the professionals we know we are. Huh?

This logic has obvious flaws but seems to play well in a school culture that traditionally has rewarded success and offered excuses for failure. When the children were successful, the adults had their ego needs met and could go about the process of nurturing one another in an exemplary fashion. When the children failed, the scene looked more like the end of Casablanca: the usual suspects were rounded up, there was an inquiry, and the victims remained dead. Terminations happened, but the insiders to the culture developed an invisible hand that could deliver a failed teacher on an “as needed” basis. This latter case was part of failure cycle that tolerated passive aggressive leadership and cemented unofficial hierarchies among teachers.

NCLB challenged that culture, eliminating the protective cloak of the cognoscenti in troubled schools, who could no longer shield more than half the staff, and introducing the notion that successful schools could no longer get away with marginalizing their less successful populations. That alone was enough to wreak havoc on the social systems within schools; however, the legends of bad teachers became one of the hottest topics in politics and popular culture. Throngs of political leaders, parents, and education reformers organized around various themes of vigilante justice on behalf of the children. They were going to find those bad teachers and get rid of them.

School leadership programs changed in response to the new world order, reducing the emphasis on administration and focusing on instructional leadership. Using a distributed leadership model, new principals were trained to focus on data-driven instruction and use of a team of lead teachers to share in the administration of content areas and dissemination of best practices. Unfortunately, this approach was not terribly successful in driving structural change or accelerating student achievement. Perhaps, the new approach was too close to the existing informal leadership model, essentially formalizing some of the unofficial roles and even empowering the old-school bullies in some cases. Teachers walked around with targets on their backs, and relationships with students, parents, and colleagues became strained.

Outside of the system, charter schools were created to compete with traditional public schools and serve as incubators for new ideas. Outsourcing of teachers happened through alternative recruitment and boot-camp prep programs. Technology was brought into play to supplement and/or replace direct instruction. Each approach has contributed to the body of knowledge in education. However, none offered a rapid, scalable and resilient solution to reform within the existing public school system.

What a mess…all caused by those darned test results. Enter the defenders…new vigilantes going after the testing advocates, the test makers, and even the tests themselves.

To be continued…

July 13, 2012 at 1:07 PM Leave a comment

No-Fault Reform – a Prerequisite for Sustainable Progress

The bully-and-blame game is the cancer within our education system. It is invasive and thrives under conditions of failure. The only way to win that game is to be in charge, so the fight for the upper hand with the pointer finger will always supersede the mission of educating children. Such power struggles can only be resolved when the need for blame is taken out of the formula.

Scapegoating is antithetical to true leadership. It is the process whereby one stays on top by pushing others down. This is a non-starter for progress. Sadly, a common phenomenon within education is to end each discussion of a problem once the team determines whose fault it is…and, of course, that culprit is always someone else.

Functional behavior models teach us that any behavior that persists, regardless of its prima fascia dysfunctionality, actually serves a function within its milieu. Within schools, obsession with fault-finding has become an established feature of the system wherever there is persistent failure. We feel better when “It’s not our fault,” even though we have taken the short-cut to “It can’t be fixed.” The path out of this toxic culture is to generate conditions of success.

Creating a success may seem like an artificial concept or a pipe dream. However there are a few ways to focus on system reform in education without requiring a change in the players or personification of the problem. Among these…

  • Provide sound data, real information that replaces rumors and truisms with facts.
  • Reorganize resources around critical benchmarks to support their success. (A quick plug for my current favorite…a separate PreK-3 lower elementary school focusing on literacy and basic numeracy)
  • Create funding formulas and financial statements that allow for transparency in spending and performance. Document the matching of resources with need among the children and empower the schools with discretionary spending.
  • Put all the players in the same merit compensation pool so they share in the perks related to achieving their goals and can never be paid for undermining one another.
  • Abandon the value-laden “best practices” label in pedagogy in a system that is undergoing technological change and suffers from a dearth of real information. Change requires taking risks with new methods. We can figure out what really worked once we have achieved more than tenuous results.
  • Break the firing-and-rehiring cycle with a system of baseline funding for districts that reduces or eliminates temporary lays-offs…LIFO matters less when you don’t binge and purge with each academic session.

Our current reform logic presumes people are at fault, overvalues new (young) people, and equates fitness for the job with unsustainable martyrdom for the cause. Each group of new recruits is bolstered with the knowledge that they are the heroes who will save the system, the natural enemies of their dumb, fat, and happy veteran colleagues. We have to get over ourselves and see the real deal. It’s the system…and it will continue to break people until it gets fixed.

June 12, 2012 at 9:31 AM Leave a comment

Bridging the Gap…A Roadmap to Tomorrow

Play it again…this time we are going to get it right. Let’s put that stake back in the ground and make a promise to the current kindergarten class that they will be the new “no excuses” cohort. For them, there will be no achievement gap. And, because we are smarter this time around, we know we can focus on them without forgetting their older or younger brothers and sisters.

The Kindergarten-Grade Three Cluster – New World Order

Today, make the declaration for all entering kindergarten students who may be at risk that, “This ends here!”  They will become the universal “no excuses” cohort across the nation for whom there will be no achievement gap.

Establish an elementary school grade cluster of K-3 with an administrative leader and dedicated team who are charged with establishing proficiency in basic literacy and numeracy by the end of grade three.

Define benchmarks for progress toward that goal and tracking systems for the whole child. Ensure alignment vertically and assign accountability clearly for academic and psychosocial SMART goals.

Plan proactively, but assess progress and remediate as necessary. Create a planning cycle of continuous plan adjustments and growth.

Offer extended day programs for play, academic support, and social skill building.

Grades Four through Eight – Catch-Up Time

Analyze data from the lower elementary grades to identify students with special needs or risk factors. Pursue academic accommodations in the general education setting. Supplement content courses with special skill-building sessions to bring entering students to a common level of proficiency.

Engage all of the children in the dialogue about their learning. Set goals with them and have them chart their own progress. Accentuate their physical, intellectual, and psychosocial growth in anticipation of puberty. Intend their self-awareness as higher level learners in upper elementary grades – especially prior to onset of puberty.

Continue to plan, defining benchmarks and accountabilities, ensuring vertical alignment, and measuring progress.

Create extended day programs that offer options for skills laboratories, homework support, and extracurricular activities. Identify students with special strengths or talents for deeper engagement and development, e.g., STEM, writing, art, or music.

High School – Rushing Toward Readiness

Engage students immediately in academics with a vision for college and career readiness. Quickly assess entering students for academic progress to date and offer remediation to bring students to a common skill base. Offer extended learning opportunities to make advanced placement accessible to a broader number of students.

Open, or continue, the dialogue with the students about their individual growth plans and goals. Integrate personal interests and objectives into discretionary assignments.

Challenge, challenge, challenge…in preparation for college.

April 24, 2012 at 8:33 AM Leave a comment

NCLB 50% Rule Needs a Fix

NCLB broken? Not AYP – the children cannot wait until 2055 for a growth model to see results. It’s the presumption of guilt that misses the mark. Where’s the proof that 50% of the teachers are at fault?

 Schools need to turn around any of the following…

  • Large numbers of students not achieving proficiency in math and literacy
  • Subgroup achievement gaps
  • Low graduation rates
  • Poor attendance

There should be no argument that any of these indicators of failure require immediate intervention and persistent management until successfully resolved. Wildly successful schools for the privileged included. The fact that many children benefit from a school’s services does not discount the evidence of a corrupt system if it fails to include specific populations. The latter group cannot be marginalized and underserved. This is America.

That said, Americans also benefit from the presumption of innocence in the eyes of the law. Unfortunately, blame-gamers and union-busters had their way with the wording of the NCLB legislation. Teachers protected by seniority rules and union membership were presumed to be the guilty parties in the under-educating of our children. Accordingly, turnaround status for a school entitled its leadership to terminate up to 50% of the teachers. Pick 50%…any 50%…and the hands of the failed leader would be untied and success would ensue.

Teachers are very important, and every child deserves to benefit from the best instruction available. However, educators have failed to document what good teaching looks like, provide meaningful evaluations and feedback, or match motivation to the mission. It is wrong to target teachers at the whim of administrators who are postponing their own accountability. Objectivity and mutual goals must be cornerstones of education reform.

So, let’s fix this 50% rule and get on with the process of evaluating and motivating teachers with the managerial excellence we are capable of delivering.


April 3, 2012 at 7:58 AM Leave a comment

Reinventing Schools – Without Charter District Conversion

Incredible work has been done in New Orleans and elsewhere demonstrating how charter schools can reinvent public education. Decentralized funding and managerial autonomy were two factors that proved essential to that success. Reformers are clamoring to duplicate the model of charter school funding and governance in wholly charter districts. The question arises – does this mean that every school in a district has to be a do-over?

After Katrina, the New Orleans schools were in shambles. Replacement charter schools seized the opportunity to implement education reforms. The experiment has resulted in strong achievement for the students. Rarely do such opportunities present themselves outside of war zones or natural disasters. So, how can the essence of this demonstration project be duplicated in other regions?

The process of breaking up every school in a district has a cost that does not need to be incurred. However, any program designed for successful dissemination of innovation in school funding and governance must be implemented thoughtfully. The dialogue could be developed around two essential questions…

  • How can a district achieve an orderly transition through gradual release of money and power to trained school managers with the least disruption to the children as their achievement grows.
  • What does the training for these new school leaders need to entail?

Drawing on strengths yet addressing urgent need would suggest a combination of breaking up the worst schools while implementing new management innovations in the best district schools. The former must achieve change as quickly as possible; the latter presumably have the organizational vitality to thrive under conditions of change.

In the short run, the answer to the second question seems moot. The time for change is now. Turnaround teams and managers of change demonstrate a special kind of leadership. Transition teams from outside of education need to be inducted into the industry quickly as partners in the process. At the same time, traditional school leaders would benefit from general management training and greater community engagement.

In the long run, however, a new model of school leadership will emerge that has a general manager running the overall organization, and instructional leaders and community liaisons managing collections of small learning communities. Each will demonstrate excellence in his or her discipline. As the model evolves, overlapping training would allow career mobility across the education complex.

February 10, 2012 at 8:03 AM Leave a comment

Seven Keys to Education Reform

This brief explores key levers of change to eliminate the data limitations, institutional myopia, bureaucratization, and mismatch between mission and incentives that interfere with sustainable reform of elementary and secondary education in the US.

Download PDF – click title below

Seven Keys to Education Reform

Cover letter enclosed in mailings….

Education reform is among the highest priorities in the nation. At the heart of the problem is a system that suffers from data limitations, institutional myopia, bureaucratization, and a mismatch between mission and incentives. The toxic culture that is a product of this environment obscures the vision for 21st century educational excellence. Restoration of the vitality of existing institutions is a crucial building block for the future.

The enclosed document, Seven Keys to Education Reform, offers insight into strategic adjustments to the levers of change for sustainable improvements in the U.S. education system. Predicated on system reform, this no-fault approach calls for an end to the search for culprits among educators. Rather than pursue divisive policies, the Seven Keys remove obstacles to professional growth and collaboration while providing an infrastructure that quietly functions in the background, no longer distracting teachers and instructional leaders from their core mission of educating children.

We appreciate your consideration of this point of view and welcome comments.

January 13, 2012 at 2:36 PM 3 comments

Age Discrimination Is Not Just Illegal – It is Wrong

In America, it is illegal to discriminate against employees on the basis of race, gender, religion,… or AGE! However, the last attribute is the one I have found missing most often from explicit lists in anti-discrimination policies of public school districts. And the rhetoric in the field suggests that this omission is not accidental.  

I’ve had it. The excerpt below came from a New York Magazine article about a principal in an elite public school in the Bronx, but it could have arisen just about anywhere in education…

“She devised a two-part strategy: Those new teachers who couldn’t or wouldn’t teach her way would not get tenure; the older, set-in-their-ways teachers would retire sooner or later, making room for young ones she could train herself (Reidy generally hires new, unmolded teachers, not experienced teachers who have earned tenure elsewhere). *

Not only does it espouse a pedagogical one-way street, it also embodies the age bias that has become an accepted part of the landscape.

As an industry, we have become complacent about laying the blame for problems in education on people who, upon reaching a fairly early middle age, have failed to die…or at least go away quietly. A system of tenure combined with a pension trap may engender stagnation on the job for some; however, the presumption of ineffectiveness based on a demographic attribute is prejudicial and, frankly, ignorant. Further, an incentive system that fails to facilitate frequent self-assessment, goal-setting, and review over the entire course of a career is the real culprit, to the extent that teachers are complicit in disappointing results.

Age bias hurts everyone and should offend everyone, not become a policy initiative. From a legal point of view, the statement cited above offers prima facie evidence of discrimination. In addition, it bolsters a naive approach to leadership that ignores the combined values of diversity and authentic staff development in the vitality of any organization. Preference for young employees overlooks the value added by age and experience. It deprives younger staff of natural mentors. It eliminates institutional memory. And it has no end game for employees. Being young-at-heart has no value – one simply must not get old.

Finally, if age bias is not effectively remedied by the leadership in education, school districts will get exactly what they deserve…an age discrimination case in the courts which forever protects every charlatan who happens to be an older adult along with all those dedicated teachers of a certain age who continue to devote their lives to the education of children despite the insidious prejudice they face every day. And it should, because they all deserve equal protection under the law and the full benefits of the American constitution.


December 29, 2011 at 12:19 PM Leave a comment

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