Things I Know 266 of 365: I’m still not sure who’s informing education policy

Politics is applesauce.

– Will Rogers

Doing some work today, I had the recent Twitter Town Hall with Sec. Duncan hosted by John Merrow education correspondent for PBS NewsHour playing in the background.

At about the 7:30 mark, Merrow read a question:

Here’s a question that actually came up the first time, and the charge was that you didn’t answer it. Joe Bower, “What educators do you work with to develop your ideas and reforms?

Sec. Duncan started to list places he’d been to see the good work teachers and principals were doing.

Merrow wasn’t satisfied, so he pushed again asking for names. Sec. Duncan named some people in his office and some folks he’d met in Tennessee.

At 8:26, the exchange took a turn I rarely see in contemporary journalism:

Merrow: Okay, but again, I’m going to keep pushing you on this, because there’s a spectrum of ideas. There’s a sort of Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee camp, and there’s a Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch camp.

Sec. Duncan: I listen to ’em all. I pay attention to ’em all. I’m not one who’s going to sit in a camp. I think that narrow mindedness is a real problem. I think there’s a host of ideas along the spectrum.

It’s interesting to me, John. I think so often people like to pit this person against that person. I just don’t see that that way at all. I love all those people you just mentioned. What I like about all of them is that they’re absolutely passionate about education. For me the battle’s not between those folks you named. The battle to me is with complacency. The battle is with a country that’s stagnating educationally and isn’t taking that next step. Am I going to agree with every single person every issue? Of course not. Are they all going to agree with me? Of course not. But what you have is a series of people who desperately want our country to improve and are working hard to get us there.

Merrow: Are there people who don’t listen to? You don’t believe in vouchers.

Sec. Duncan: It doesn’t mean I don’t listen to them because I don’t believe in it. I think it’s so critically important that you do listen to them. I think frankly it’s one of my strengths is the ability to listen. Listen doesn’t mean you agree. Listen it doesn’t mean you’re going to do it. I think the day I stop listening to anyone, particularly someone who doesn’t agree with me, I think that’s when you stop getting better. That’s when you stop improving…The day you start shutting down and not listening to different voices or different opinions, I think you lose a lot there. And, I hope I never get to that point.

At 10:00 Merrow relented. It doesn’t sound to me as though he was satisfied with the answer, but realized Sec. Duncan had given the answer he was going to give.

Listening in, I was more impressed with the exercise than the answer given. My time in school has tuned my perception of espoused beliefs versus enacted beliefs.

The interview progressed, and I continued with my work.

At just about the 14:00 mark, Merrow asked Sec. Duncan if he’d taken any flack for his comments from the previous Town Hall where he commented that 10 days of testing and test preparation were too much for a school. Sec. Duncan jumped in and said he still thought that was too much and that it was at the high end.

Marrow returned to his original question – had the Secretary taken any flack? “Is there anybody officially saying, ‘What are you doing interfering in this?'”

Sec. Duncan laughed it off a bit and said he didn’t think so. At the 14:00 mark he said, “I don’t pay attention to all the criticism,” and then clarified his position.

I kept listening.

It wasn’t until later that I realized something was rubbing me the wrong way. I went back to the video and listened to those first 14 minutes.

Here’s what I needed in those moments, and what I think Joe Bower was hoping for. I needed Sec. Duncan to talk about the ideas of the people he said he loved. It was a chance for a frank, informal conversation about the ideas of Joel Klein or Debbie Meier to which he ascribed. If I agreed or disagreed with what he said, that would be fine. What I needed in those moments was for him to say something.

Look back at the transcript. To a question for specific educators to whom the Secretary turns to develop education ideas and reforms for the country, the answer appears to be everyone. Four minutes later (and admittedly off the cuff) he says he doesn’t listen to all his critics.

Who does that leave?

It’s similar to responding to the question of what books he enjoys reading with, “I like reading all of them,” and then later admitting, “I don’t like reading the ones I don’t like.”

I am truly interested in which education minds are informing policy at the national level.

I am truly upset that I still don’t know.

(And a little worried.)

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Things I Know 237 of 365: The DoE is circumventing democracy

We have to educate our way to a better economy.

– Sec. Arne Duncan

In the latest round of circumventing the United States Congress, the U.S. Department of Education rolled out a new competition Friday that mirrors the cock fight tactics of Race to the Top.

In competing for a portion of $185 million in funding, states will have to show their colleges’ teacher preparation programs graduate teachers whose students score well on state testing. They’ll also need to tighten up teacher licensing requirements and kill off poor performing teacher preparation programs.

The move is wholly undemocratic and circumvents the checks and balances meant to stabilize the country. The DOE’s anti-policy plays on the needs of states, colleges and universities to find alternative sources of revenue as we double dip into another recession.

The move is akin to educational bum fights.

States and institutions that might otherwise be thoughtful in their adoption of policy will have little choice but to make moves they would otherwise abhor or at least question.

More frustratingly, the competition supposes we have all agreed student scores on state standardized tests are to be the measure of a teacher’s effectiveness. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten made just such an argument in her response to the competition:

At the same time that the validity of using standardized tests as the ultimate measure of performance is being widely questioned, the U.S. Department of Education appears to be putting its foot on the accelerator by calling for yet another use for tests.

If this is to be the policy of the land, if this is to be the shape of the advent of completely nationalization of the K-12+ education system, then let it be more worthy of the country’s finest ideals.

Let there be debate.

Let it be fierce and thoughtful.

Let there be ideas from all sides presented to live or die on their merit.

Let it be the law of the land and the procedures of creating that law that governs our path.

To do otherwise and sidestep the system, to sidestep democracy, is to abdicate your right to complain or claim shock when those with whom you disagree choose the same path.

Things I Know 87 of 365: Pres. Obama, Rhee, Gates and Sec. Duncan should support the NWP

So our goal as an administration, my goal as President, has been to build on these successes across America…

…We need to put outstanding teachers in every classroom, and give those teachers the pay and the support that they deserve…

…A budget that sacrifices our commitment to education would be a budget that’s sacrificing our country’s future.  That would be a budget that sacrifices our children’s future.  And I will not let it happen…

…Let me make it plain:  We cannot cut education.  (Applause.)  We can’t cut the things that will make America more competitive…

– Pres. Obama 3/14/11 Kenmore Middle School, Arlington, VA

We’ll fight against ineffective instructional programs and bureaucracy so that public dollars go where they make the biggest difference: to effective instructional programs.

– Michelle Rhee 12/6/10 Newsweek

Great teachers are a precious natural resource. But we have to figure out how to make them a renewable, expandable resource. We have to figure out what makes the great teachers great and how we transfer those skills to others. These are vital questions for American education.

– Bill Gates 11/19/10 Council of Chief State School Officers

The plain fact is that — to lead in the new century — we have no choice in the matter but to invest in education. No other issue is more critical to our economy, to our future and our way of life.

– Sec. Arne Duncan 3/9/11 Senate Testimony

For 20 years, the National Writing Project has received federal funding to help teachers across the nation improve their practice and improve the learning of their students. The research bears this out.

The NWP is in danger. Twenty years of success and grass-roots professional development are in danger. Contact your congressperson – daily. After that, contact the offices of each of the people quoted above. If they truly believe what they say above, they will have no problem speaking out in support of the NWP.

Waiting to understand

The Gist:

  • A little over a week ago, I started trying to contact @EdPressSec on twitter to ask some questions about the elimination of direct federal funding for the National Writing Project.
  • When I didn’t get any answers, I moved from twitter to phone.
  • Though I’ve had a few promises that I’d be gotten back to (often by the end of the day), I’m still waiting.

The Whole Story:

This all stems from a few simple questions:

I’m attempting to understand, to gather more information from a variety of sources in order to be better informed.
Friday, I received a three calls from the DOE’s press office. Each person told me they would pass my request on to the appropriate person. Thus far, I’ve not heard back.
I understand the frenetic and demanding nature of the job of working within the press office. It’s why I wasn’t surprised when my initial calls took a few days to return.
But, this is a conversation worth having and one that deserves transparency.
I fully support the use of tools like twitter to offer a more fluid connection between citizens and their government. At this point, though, I’m getting the feeling the tools are being used to push out prepared statements, but not really communicate.
I’m feeling rather frustrated.

One of the moments we talk about

The Gist:

  • The federal budget has eliminated direct funding for the National Writing Project.
  • Without the funding, it’s unlikely this national model of a successful networked collective of professional development can survive.
  • This is one of those moments when the network we talk about so frequently can make the difference we’re always claiming it can make.

The Whole Story:

If you haven’t written your congresspeople to support the National Writing Project, you need to.

My last post focused on the letter I’ve used to contact my congressmen. Thanks to Karl and Ben for reposting. Also, if you haven’t read Bud’s letter, you should.

I need to make clear, that, aside from being able to speak at NWP’s Digital is… conference in the fall, I’m not directly associated with the Project.

I simply realize it to be a good idea. A really good idea with a proven record, a tendency toward self-evaluation and networking hundreds of thousands of teachers together with a simple purpose.

It’s one of those few black and white moments in policy. The NWP works. It works better than any other national education program that comes to mind.

So, here’s the thing, this is one of those moments we talk about when we talk about the power of network, when we stand and tell rooms full of teachers about how being connected means our students have greater voice and greater power as citizens. It strikes me this is one of those moments we’re talking about.

Only, it’s not our students, it’s us. Yes, it’s about our students, as they are the ones the NWP is impacting. But the voices that should be raised first and loudest in this moment are the voices of teachers.

My voice right now is one of questions. Specifically, I’m with Bud in asking to see the reasoning behind cutting the funding and how that reasoning stands up to the substantial evidence that the NWP is doing exactly what it is meant to do and what no singular state-based program could accomplish. I hope to receive response soon.

Honestly, though, the likelihood of response is increased with each additional voice.

Speak up.

Ask your representative to sign Rep. George Miller’s Dear Colleague letter. Call your local NWP affiliate to see what you can do to help. Most importantly, make this a conversation where you live, in your virtual and real spaces.

Again, this isn’t national standards or RTTT or any of the myriad issues with equally numerous and complex perspectives.

NWP works.

Tell people.

Make sure one of them is your Representative.

Open letter on behalf of the NWP

The Gist:

  • The current draft of the federal budget cuts direct funding for the National Writing Project.
  • The NWP has been one of the few extremely successful examples of a nationally-networked effort to improve K-12 writing for 36 years.
  • We must communicate with Congress to change the budget.

The Whole Story:

Dear Rep. Fattah, Sen. Casey and Sen. Specter:

I write to you on behalf of the National Writing Project. More precisely, I write to you on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of students and teachers the program has transformed over its 36 years.

Under the budget proposed by President Obama, national funding for the NWP would be cut. In a Feb. 1 press release from the U.S. Department of Education, the NWP was lumped in with 5 other projects losing funding because the DOE claims they “duplicate local or state programs or have not had a significant measurable impact.”

As the NWP is unique as a networked writing instruction program with 200+ local sites serving all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, I am left to believe Sec. Duncan is claiming the NWP falls under the category of not having a “significant measurable impact.”

This too is untrue.

A 1987 longitudinal study on the effects of the NWP by Kathy Krendl and Julie Dodd found participating third through twelfth graders showed an increase “in interest in learning about writing, in their level of confidence, and in their association of self-esteen with good writing.

Not only that, the study also found a decrease “in students’ feelings of discomfort about completing writing assignments and in their feelings that they do not write well and that writing is difficult.”

In a 2007 study of the NWP’s Local Site Research Initiative, across nine localities students showed significant or non-significant favorable results in all seven categories.

This should not have been surprising considering the DOE’s own data listed the NWP as exceeding its performance targets in 2001. Indeed participants’ ratings across all categories ranged from 95-88 percent reporting positive impact at their follow-up assessment of the program. This went well above the program’s target of 75 percent in each category.

Were this simply an impassioned plea, I would have hesitated to write. The data speaks for itself, the National Writing Project has offered a significant return on investment in its 36 year history. Federal funding for the NWP must be maintained if we are to continue striving to meet the Project’s goal of “a future where every person is an accomplished writer, engaged learner, and active participant in a digital, interconnected world.”

I thank your for your time and attention to this matter. Please, let me know if I can be of any assistance.


Zachary Chase

English Teacher

Science Leadership Academy

Philadelphia, PA

(Note: See also Bud Hunt’s post on this topic.)