The DeHavilland Blog

Friday, October 27, 2006

The education revolution America needs

Good editorial in the Washington Post today from Eugene Hickok on the limits of NCLB - or any federal law, for that matter - in driving real education reform. Read it here.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The biggest secret in education

Have you ever heard of Project Follow Through? Most people haven't, despite the fact that it was the largest-scale and most expensive education study ever conducted, costing more than $1 billion and involving more than 20,000 children.

PFT was initiated by President Lyndon Johnson as part of his "war on poverty", and was designed to see how educators could sustain and build on the advances made by young children in Head Start programs. The program tested multiple approaches to reading instruction, and generated clear evidence as to the efficacy of some programs over others.

Sounds great, right? A large-scale, longitudinal research study that offered unambiguous and actionable results. So why doesn't anyone know about PFT - and why do we still have such a hard time teaching kids to read?

The problem is that the research outcomes contradicted the popular thinking at the time. PFT found that Direct Instruction, a scripted approach focusing on synthetic phonics, blew other reading instruction models (predominately constructivist models - whole language, etc.) out of the water. But because that approach was/is unpopular among many people in the education establishment (the argument I've heard is that it limits the freedom and discretion of the teacher), it has been ignored, and attempts have been made to discredit the results.

I'm not an education researcher, so I don't intend to dive into a comparison of the various approaches or the outcomes of this massive initiative. But I would suggest to anyone interested in education reform that they read up on Project Follow Through (try here, here, here, and here), and ask yourselves two questions: why the results of this project were buried and ignored, and what you can learn from that episode when you think about reforming education.

Unclear on the concept

I came across a post on one of the premiere education blogs, The Education Wonks, that perpetuates incorrect information on a basic tool in education reform: the charter school. Highlighting a news article that, in their words, highlights a victory for those who want to use public funding to support privately-operated charter schools, they write:

If a private school gets public money, does that mean that those institutions (as is the case with traditional public schools) must teach all children? Or can they exclude those children who are behavior problems or have learning disabilities? (As is the case with traditional private schools.)

Food for thought.

I don't think they're trying to intentionally mislead (although that was my first impulse, as my comment on their site indicates). I've found them to be honest and fair-minded over time, and can't see them trying to deceive their readers.

But the fact is, charters are public schools, and continued efforts to characterize them as an evil scheme to pull badly needed resources away from public education are unfair and incorrect.

What's discouraging to me is that reformers have done such a poor communications job that even opinion leaders like The Education Wonks are unclear on a basic concept like charter schools. The public is similarly misinformed, as seen by this from the 2006 PDK/Gallup survey:

Although charter schools are public schools, many people do not think of them as such, because they operate outside the traditional K-12 structure. The two charter questions in this year's poll explore public support for the idea of charter schools and public understanding of the nature of such schools. The second question is new and was asked because public comments on charters often reflect a lack of understanding of the concept.

Findings. Public approval of charter schools has climbed from 42% in 2000 to 53% in 2006. This finding must be weighed against responses indicating that the concept is not clearly understood. Here are some comparisons:
  • 39% of respondents say charter schools are public schools; 53% say they are not (fact: they are public schools).
  • 50% say charters are free to teach religion; 34% say they are not (fact: they are not).
  • 60% say charters can charge tuition; 29% say they cannot (fact: they cannot).
  • 58% say charters can base student selection on ability; 29% say they cannot (fact: they cannot).
Conclusion VIII. Those who would implement the charter school concept should ensure that the public has a clear understanding of the nature of such schools.

The takeaway: we will never be able to reform education if our communication efforts are so weak that even education insiders don't know what we're doing, let alone the public.

(Extra credit: if you want to educate yourself on the basics of charter schools, this Wikipedia entry is a good start. Would you be surprised to learn that charters were the brainchild of the head of the American Federation of Teachers?)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Tips for a better parent-school relationship

Jay Mathews of the Washington Post has been tackling some key education issues lately. His latest article is on improving parent-school relations - read it here.

Update: Courtesy of The Chalkboard, here's a story of how not to engage parents: strapping one to a gurney and sending her to a psych ward.

Interview on Edspresso

The good folks at Edspresso asked me a few questions on stakeholder engagement and education reform; you can read the interview here.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Getting parents on board

When we talk about education reform, we usually do so in the context of education as a closed system: if we can just improve the curriculum (or the teachers, or the technology, or the facilities, or the use of time, or the facilities...), we can create better-educated kids.

But education is not a closed system: there are external factors that strongly influence our outcomes, and those need to be factored into any formula for effective change. One issue is parental support for improved outcomes.

In the recent Hart/Winston survey for ETS, parents are calling for real reform. A few items that parents say they would support:

  • increase expectations for parental involvement with their children’s education (93% favor)
  • challenge and inspire students at high risk of dropping out by increasing resources, lowering class sizes, and raising expectations (88% favor)
  • develop more academically rigorous standards for high schools with greater emphasis on college preparatory classes (87% favor)
  • increase the number of students pursuing careers in math and science by attracting more math and science teachers through a variety of financial and in-kind incentives, such as loan forgiveness and housing vouchers (85% favor)
  • require students to pass statewide graduation tests ensuring they have mastered the core subject areas (81% favor)

However, when you talk to people involved in reform, there are real questions - justifiable questions, in my opinion - as to how strong that support is. Parents can call for higher expectations - but what happens when schools actually follow through, and Johnny starts getting Cs and Ds instead of As and Bs? Are those parents going to push Johnny harder? Or are they going to push back against the school? I've heard anecdotal reports of the latter, but haven't seen or heard anything that supports the former.

One solution is outreach to parents - break out of the inside-education discussions and start engaging and educating parents and other stakeholders. Help them understand what's required in today's economy, and enlist their support in building - and supporting - a system that delivers it.

This is something they're attempting in Arkansas - encouraging parents to support their attempts to increase rigor. Synopsis below courtesy of NASSMC:

News Brief #3752
Category: Public Understanding & Engagement
TITLE: “Arkansas Media Campaign: Students Need Tougher Classes”

The Arkansas Department of Education has launched a media campaign designed to convince parents that students ought to be taking tougher courses.

The state’s Smart Core curriculum requires students to take four years of mathematics and English, and three years of science and social studies. But 10 percent of parents have opted to put their children in a less rigorous program, and state officials say that figure is too high.

“We have large groups of kids who, because of where they live or how much money their family has, are not enrolled in the same rigorous classes or facing the same high expectations from their teachers,” said Governor Mike Huckabee.

The campaign’s radio spots will send the message to parents that today’s work world is “not the world they graduated in,” said Julie Johnson Thompson, a department spokeswoman. The television spots target middle and high school students.

SOURCE: Education Week, 11 October 2006 (p. 21)

The NASSMC Briefing Service (NBS) is supported in part by the National Science Teachers Association, International Technology Education Association, Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education, and National Science Resources Center. Briefs reflect only the opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the source articles. Click to SUBSCRIBE, COMMENT, or FIND archived NBS briefs. Click for information about NASSMC. Permission is granted to re-distribute NBS briefs in unmodified form, including header and footer.

There are other examples of this kind of outreach, but they amount to a trickle of information when what's needed is a deluge. If we're going to reform education, it's going to have to involve external forces (parents and businesspeople among others) - it's time to build those bridges.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Blogroll added

It's long overdue, but I've finally added a list of my favorite blogs (see Blogroll to the right of this post). They may represent different perspectives on education, but they're all produced by smart, witty, levelheaded, and insightful people who care about education. Visiting these blogs is as stimulating as a cocktail party without the stress of figuring out which finger foods are safe to eat.


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Notes from the 2006 Education/Workforce Summit

I spent the last half of last week in Dallas, attending the US Chamber’s Education and Workforce Summit. This event was originally supposed to be the second annual summit of the Business Education Network (see my white paper on their first summit here); however, after that group was rolled into the Chamber’s new Institute for a Competitive Workforce, the summit made a similar transition.

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.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Live from Dallas...

I'm attending the US Chamber's Education and Workforce Summit in Dallas, TX through Friday, and have been soaking up lots of good information and thinking from a heavyweight roster.

I'm debating whether or not to try and unload thoughts here at the end of each day - hard to provide a coherent synopsis without taking some time to integrate what I've heard, and there are some great evening events I'd hate to miss. (Hmmmm - conference awards dinner, or sit in the room and write? Go to the Texas State Fair, or sit in the room and write?)

If the inspiration hits me, I'll post more later tonight, but it may well end up as a single, end of conference summary, or even as a new white paper (like the one from last year's Business Education Network Summit, found here).

Sunday, October 01, 2006

View from the top

Public Agenda just released the latest in a series of surveys on public education, this one reporting on the perceptions of principals and superintendents toward public education. It’s a stunning read.

Apparently, while the rest of us are concerned about the state of public education, the people in charge think things are going quite well. Some highlights:

  • 93% of superintendents, and 80% of principals, think public schools offer a better education than in the past, and most (86% and 82%) think the material is harder.
  • Despite the call from the business community for a great focus on science/math, 59% of superintendents and 66% say that the statement “kids are not taught enough science and math” is not a serious problem in their schools.
  • 77% of superintendents and 79% of principals say that the statement “academic standards are too low, and kids are not expected to learn enough” is not a serious problem in their schools.
  • 51% of superintendents say that local schools are excellent; 43% say they are good.
  • Only 27% of superintendents, compared with 62% of teachers, say it’s a serious problem that too many students get passed through the system without learning.
  • 76% of superintendents and 59% of principals, compared with 33% of high school teachers, say that students graduating from middle school have the reading, writing, and math skills needed to succeed in high school.

There’s much more in the report – if you want to fully enter a state of disbelief, it’s worth reading the entire thing. But the selected results above should be enough to point out that there’s something very, very wrong here.