Notes from the 2006 Education/Workforce Summit
It was a strong event, featuring an all-star lineup of speakers providing information and insight on the issues facing workforce development (primarily, but not exclusively, in the K-16 system) and the steps that some are taking to address it. I’m not going to provide a complete recap, but wanted to pass along some highlights.
No Child Left Behind
NCLB is up for reauthorization next year; we heard from Margaret Spellings on desired changes to the law, and then from a panel of insiders on the law’s prospects for passage.
Secretary Spellings made her position clear: not only will she not back down on the key provisions of NCLB, but she intends to push for enhancements to the law. (This is encouraging news to the business community, which agrees with the concept of accountability for our schools.) Certainly there are areas that need to be tweaked, such as defining a “Highly Qualified Teacher” (moving from measuring inputs to outcomes, as detailed later in this post) and clearing up the Reading First mess. However, the principles of accountability and disaggregation of data stand, and she intends to push for assessments at two more grades in high school; the introduction of consumer-driven evaluation of higher education, along the lines of affordability, preparation, transparency, and accountability; and increased work in areas like science, which she mentioned would soon see a national panel akin to the one that focused on reading and is now focusing on math.
A few hours after Spellings’ Plenary session, the Chamber assembled a panel of staffers and aides to discuss NCLB’s prospects for reauthorization. The consensus among the group was that NCLB had, and continues to have, a bipartisan group of supporters, and that NCLB has bright prospects regardless of who wins the House and/or Senate. However, given the number of other key issues that will need to be address in 2007, some education-related but most not, plus the implications of a building 2008 presidential contest, supporters will need to move the bill through early in order to realistically expect its timely reauthorization.
Beyond this strong focus on NCLB, however, the Summit didn’t seem to center on any major themes: instead, it covered a wide range of issues and ideas without going into great depth on any of them. Some of the issues covered include:
Use of data – One positive trend was the continued use of data: if I had a nickel for every time a presenter said that “our data shows that….”, I’d have – well, I don’t know, but I’d have a lot of nickels at least. People – at least people at the conference – are moving from vague statements about education to gathering data to define the scope and the characteristics of the problems we face. This realization was a highlight of the summit.
Teacher quality – There was a fair amount of focus on the issue of teacher quality, which is good given the near-universal recognition of the importance of good teachers in driving student achievement. But what I heard was less comforting: we know startlingly little about what makes for a good teacher. We know a few things that don’t seem to matter, such as a degree in teaching (as compared to Teach For America or alternate pathways for mid-career professionals), number of years spent teaching, or certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. But on the other hand, we haven’t been able to isolate the characteristics of teachers that correlate with strong student achievement. People are focusing more on this – but you’ve got to wonder why we don’t know this already, given how long education has been around and how important a teacher is to the equation.
Evaluation – Among corporate-sponsored and foundation initiatives, there’s still a great deal of work to be done in the area of evaluation. I still hear far too many people saying “we don’t evaluate our program,” or worse yet, “the kids really liked it” (worse because you’ve substituted a meaningless metric for one that would matter, thereby justifying a program that may in reality offer no lasting value).
Desired outcomes should be defined before a program is developed; evaluation mechanisms should be built in as the program is being outlined; and hard data should be gathered and used not only to point to a program’s efficacy in relevant areas, but as a diagnostic tool to allow for ongoing improvements.
Inputs versus outcomes – Historically, we’ve evaluated many aspects of the education system according to inputs: teacher qualifications, for example, have been measured according to college degree(s), GPA, certifications, professional development, and years spent teaching. However, at least among presenters at the conference, the conversation is beginning to turn toward outputs – a welcome change, and one long overdue. It’s all well and good to have a degree in education, but if that degree doesn’t make you a better teacher, as measured in student achievement, what good is it – and why should we maintain artificial barriers (“input” requirements) if they don’t result in increased outcomes?
Sustainability – This is a critical area to consider, both for the continuation of programs and for ongoing stakeholder engagement. I spoke with educators and foundation people who struggled with grants that only maintained programs for a limited time – at the end of a grant cycle, programs often disappear for lack of new funding, even if those programs demonstrated an impact. I also spoke with people who achieved sustainability at a small scale, but as programs grew their resources could not keep pace, thereby limiting their ultimate impact.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, I heard from business coalitions who struggled with long-term engagement of the business community. Business leaders would get involved, and then over the course of time either disengaged, moved, or retired, and the idea of maintaining a long-term commitment, or recruiting a new generation of supporters, is a real challenge.
Stakeholder knowledge – The public knows very little about public education. A survey I saw a few months ago (the PDK/Gallup survey) showed that parents not only claim to know little about NCLB (perhaps understandable, given the scope of the law), but were unclear on even basic concepts such as charter schools. The Hart/Winston survey highlighted at the Chamber event showed a similar lack of understanding, with the public realizing that public education is in trouble, but having no idea what could be done to address it.
Demographic trends – There are some scary demographic trends afoot. First, the population is aging, which means an older voting public – one that won’t be so receptive to tax increases and bond issuances to support schools, especially since fewer and fewer have direct connections to schools. Furthermore, the older, majority-white retiring population has less of a connection to the soon-to-be-majority minority youth in our schools, again decreasing the likelihood of their feeling a connection and a commitment to public education. And let’s not forget that we’ve historically had a much harder time educating minority youth (as evidenced by differences in NAEP scores) – and now they’ll make up a larger percentage of the school population at a time when increased funding is likely not forthcoming. Quite a picture.
Coalition building – One interesting point that came out was the superficial nature of coalition building among reformers. Michael Cohen of Achieve, for example, noted that it was relatively easy to bring the very top people in a state to the table to agree on a course of action – however, there are great difficulties in deepening and broadening such a group to enable real and sustained reforms at all levels.
While not as cohesive as last year’s BEN Summit, this year’s Education and Workforce Summit was still a valuable experience, both for the opportunity to hear from some of the leaders in business-driven education reform, and for the chance to talk with people from a range of backgrounds – chamber leaders, businesspeople, educators, and more – to solicit their thoughts and trade war stories. If they hold a 2007 event, I would recommend it.