Friday, July 31, 2009

You Can't Always Get What You Want

From Guest Blogger Candice DePrang

President Barack Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan unveiled the guidelines for Race to the Top, a 4.3 billion dollar competitive grant program for states. The Department of Education wants to make certain that states not only create climates conducive to reform, but also craft long term plans for executing priorities highlighted by the Department. Within their plans, applicants must demonstrate a commitment to: implementing standards and assessments, improving teacher effectiveness, and achieving equity in teacher distribution, improving collection of use data, and supporting struggling schools.

Opening the process to the public, the Secretary has allowed commentators thirty days to submit feedback and suggest specific changes. The conversations stemming from this guidance, have been heated, “I can’t believe he only cited…” or “How can he expect…” The conference calls here can be heard through closed doors, and the blog responses are rife with criticism.

Arguably, the Secretary and his staff overlooked many other aspects that might reform education such as making traditional pathways to teaching and leadership more rigorous and selective, and ensuring that applications and innovation are based on research. Thus, thoughtful, specific language must be given back to the Department to refine these areas in order to maximize the effectiveness of the grants.

However, a few aspects of the Secretary’s approach stand out as novel, and should encourage, though not pacify, groups that find the guidance less than perfect.

1. The Secretary listens. His listening and learning tour illuminates incredible work in community colleges, charter schools, and other institutions around the country committed to improvement. In these forums he listens to needs, concerns, and questions, and solicits ideas. Race to the Top is a forum for those new ideas, and the guidance is open to the public, with requests from the Department for actual language alterations.

2. There is not one answer. The Department of Education’s four reform areas provide a missional focus and frame work for improvement, but improvement under the guidance is flexible, it's not the one-size-fits-all mentality. For example, administrations can retain great teachers through innovative methods, and can hire new teachers through varying avenues, as long as they do it. Additionally, there is no prescription for turning around struggling schools, only a mandate that we must try everything we know, and innovate where don't know so that the gap does not persist.

3. Collaboration is Key. Race to the Top guidance pushes states to work together to make assessments that align to national standards. Uniting a multitude of backgrounds and perspectives could produce an assessment that challenges students, engages their sense of inquiry, and provides qualitative data, too, with which to drive instruction in the classroom. Also, perhaps more significantly, states and districts must work together to craft proposals. The proposed priority for vertical alignment across P-20 also ensures that elementary, middle, high schools, and even higher-ed collaborate so students are successful at each stage.

When crafting No Child Left Behind, the previous White House staff closed the doors for commentary. Now, the Department of Education is willing to listen and change based on feedback. This is our opportunity to constructively propose ideas that we know work so national education policy takes an approach from the ground up.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Enter the Knowledge Garage

Yo, peeps. Get on over to the Knowledge Garage for some very interesting chats and readings and things connected to the Knowledge and Innovation summit in New Mexico in August. Hot stuff!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"If It's not broke don't fix it"....

....taken one step further might be, “If it works well, scale it up.” Not a bad idea for Governor Patrick to consider as his authority over public schools expands this fall.

In January of this year, a Harvard/MIT study for the Boston Foundation explored the success of “readiness schools”– a blend of union teachers and curriculum autonomy – and charter schools. The research found, that while “readiness schools” made some academic gains, there was little difference between this program and gains in traditional public schools.

The study also concluded that “the effect of a single year spent in a charter school was equivalent to half of the black-white achievement gap. Performance in English Language Arts also significantly increased for charter middle school students, though less dramatically. Charter students also showed stronger performance scores in high school, in English Language Arts, math, writing topic development, and writing composition.”

Now that Governor Patrick will seek legislative approval to take over 30 of the state’s worst schools and implement the readiness school model, it’s worth asking: why water down these charters and implement a less effective approach?

Charters are not the panacea, and simply lifting the caps won’t better serve Massachusetts students. But why not do what works?

Scaling up these highly effective schools and providing incentive to bring back the founders (they can now be found in New York, where the education climate is much more receptive to innovative school practices), is an alternative to Governor Patrick’s readiness schools, and a step towards the transformation needed to ensure every child’s access to an excellent education.

Investing in incremental change will result in incremental progress. Investing in a highly effective charter school with demonstrated strong performance will close the achievement gap.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Lost in Translation

by Guest Blogger Candice DePrang

Yesterday, the Department issued draft guidance regarding waiver requests under Title I, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Guidance. This topic may not spark celebration and the document may not find itself on your bedside table. Often guidance is described as confusing, sometimes not helpful at all, like a different language…But, teachers, schools, and the research community can get excited about this:

If [State] is granted the requested waiver, [State] will implement the waiver only with respect to an LEA that provides assurances that:
(1) It will comply with all of the statutory and regulatory requirements regarding the provision of SES with respect to its regular FY 2009 Title I, Part A allocation; and
(2) It will comply with all other Title I, Part A statutory and regulatory requirements (to the extent they are not waived), including the requirements in sections 1114 and 1115 of the ESEA to have schoolwide and targeted assistance programs that “use effective methods and instructional strategies that are based on scientifically based research.”

Translation? LEAS must use strategies that work.

It’s a breath of fresh air for teachers, usually coerced into using a new frame work for this or an instructional fad to address that.

It’s encouraging for administrations, weary of consultants that present, like salespeople, the silver bullet that will strengthen their scores.

It’s support for education labs that identify issues in schools preventing students from making the greatest possible academic gains. After conducting in-depth studies, researchers then disseminate the information back to the schools with strategies proven to work. Or, they discover that some approaches are not effective, and can shift their focus.

Regardless, the meaning of the guidance is this: effective methods of teaching and learning proven by research will make their ways into classrooms that need it the most.

Now you don’t need to drag out your dictionary.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Gimme Three Steps...

….Gimme three steps, mister, gimme three steps towards the core, standards that is.

As the national debate for common standards among states heats up, one state is already taking a few steps ahead.

REL West at WestEd released a study yesterday reviewing professional teaching standards in six states according to structure, target audience, and the extent to which the standards address the needs and learning styles of students.

“The state has appointed an advisory panel… to ensure that the new standards are consistent with current research, the best understanding of effective teaching practices, and California education policies.” It’s not just a practice in self reflection or an examination of what works. It’s an in-depth investigation of varying insights and opinions involved with developing academic standards in several states.

I hope the leaders of our states will take a hint from the West Coast and look closely at current practices, with an intent to utilize the best research to draft the national standards this fall.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Forethought, The Silver Bullet

From Guest Blogger Candice DePrang

I heard it said recently, “There is no silver bullet.” And while Weldon denies that could be true for a certain program or specific initiative, he made something else very clear in his recent WaPo opinion article. He wrote,

“We must also consider how best to sustain health-care innovation that will serve tomorrow's patients.”

That’s forethought, and maybe it’s the silver bullet.

With the President’s allocation of $650M for an innovation and improvement fund in education as part of the ARRA, our nation could do just that – carefully allot stimulus funding to lay the groundwork for a permanent institute devoted to fostering innovative research that will lead to the accumulation of knowledge and what works.

“Tapping into the considerable expertise of their researchers could also dramatically increase the number and quality of studies.” This institute could promote valid research to develop innovative solutions to persistent problems of practice. It could provide leadership to the Nation, and then serve as a central location for disseminating the research so that it does impact instruction, and ultimately increase student achievement.

A well-designed knowledge and innovation institute, supported with sustainable funding and broad input, is essential for education reform, too. It’s responsibly spending the money today to build an infrastructure that strengthens our children’s future tomorrow.

That’s forethought, and maybe it’s the silver bullet.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

Guest Blogger Candice DePrang

A peer review program introduced in Toledo, Ohio in 1981 moved a little closer to home about ten years ago. Yesterday’s Washington Post article profiled the progress of Montgomery County’s Peer Assistance and Review Program, “that identifies struggling teachers and tries to help them improve.”

Peer review is just one of the many answers to poor behavior management skills and low performing students that characterize the classroom of a struggling teacher. Paramount to the transformation of peer review programs are mentors that supply their mentees with promising practices based on rigorous research. Teachers need excellent examples of these practices modeled in context, with a chance to demonstrate their improvement over time. Districts seeking to improve student outcomes by increasing teacher quality through a peer review program will realize the culture shift “from 'gotcha' to support” that currently exists in local administrations. Strengthening the culture means strengthening the teachers with evidence based research practices – not necessarily intuition or the solely stories of other classrooms– to help them establish and sustain a structure in their classroom that creates a space where students learn.