A New Year

Friday, January 7, 2011

We hope all our readers enjoyed relaxing holidays and have returned refreshed for the new year. While our family and professional lives continue to make it difficult to blog with great frequency, we hope you'll continue to read our infrequent commentary and join in the discussion during 2011.

A few thoughts to start the new year...

(1) Outcomes First? If outcomes are what really matter in education, it is interesting that so many advocates, commentators and policy organizations seem to count adoption of favored policy reforms as ends in themselves. We are all guilty of this to some degree. It is only when there is a research base to suggest that specific reforms and programs work that there is a strong argument to be made. Examples might include targeted class size reduction in grades k-3, high-quality early childhood education, and comprehensive, multi-year induction support for new teachers. But, at a macro level, certain arguments fall apart when there is no evidence to back them up, such as teachers' unions being a wart on the ass of progress. Take Massachusetts, for example, a strong union state. It leads the nation in TIMMS scores in spite of the fact that the Massachusetts Teachers Association looms large in state politics.

(2) Teachers, Teachers: One of the best developments of 2010 was an increased focus on teachers and on teacher effectiveness in particular. This focus was not always for the better, as in the case of the Los Angeles Times' decision to publish value-added scores for individual teachers or the misleading, union-bashing documentary Waiting For Superman. But an overall focus on the outcomes of teaching is the right policy conversation to be having. However, that conversation must lead to solutions that create comprehensive structures and systems to maximize benefits for all involved -- students, teachers, parents, etc. Regular feedback about teaching is critical for educators, not just summative data or annual evaluations that don't provide actionable feedback. A key goal around improving teacher effectiveness should be the development of schools and districts as communities of practice that make teaching more of a collective endeavor and support all educators to strengthen their individual practices and skills.

(3) ESEA: I am increasingly of the mind that something -- but not much of anything -- will happen with regard to reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2011. If successful, reauthorization will primarily serve as a token of bipartisanship that both parties can carry into the 2012 elections to say "we can work together to get things done." If accomplished, it may be one of the few significant bipartisan accomplishments of this Congress. Look for substantive tweaks to the No Child Left Behind Act rather than a wholesale overhaul of it. More flexibility around AYP. Attention to the needs of rural districts. More local control. Perhaps a stronger focus on teacher performance pay, charter schools and school choice options -- some elements of the Obama Blueprint combined with priority issues for Republicans like John Kline and Lamar Alexander. And level funding, at best.

(4) Exclusivity: One of my wishes for the New Year is that the DC echo chamber would become less and less influential in conversations about education policy. I am constantly amazed at how regularly the usual suspects parrot, squawk about and retweet the comments and ideas of the other usual suspects, especially those with whom they have personal or proprietary relationships. And how the same usual suspects are quoted saying the same usual things by the mainstream and educational media. This dynamic plays out, too, in conversations within multiple exclusive fiefdoms within education that generally have little to no intersection with fiefdoms with competing worldviews or different policy priorities. As someone who once worked in DC and who now works for a non-DC-based national non-profit organization that has relationships with all sides of the education community, I am especially cognizant of this dynamic in which voices outside of the Beltway 'influentials' are not heard.

One alternative stream recently profiled by Rick Hess and Jay Greene are academics doing policy-relevant research and cutting a high profile in policy conversations. We need more of that type of intellect in play -- and not just from economists. Another is the rise of state-based reform groups like Stand for Children, the PIE Network, Delaware's Rodel Foundation and Oregon's Chalkboard Project. Finally, the voice of actual teachers is too often missing from policy conversations. Fortunately, there are numerous efforts afoot to remedy this. Two, in particular, worth checking out are Teach PLUS and the VIVA Project. My organization, the New Teacher Center, in conjunction with the College Board, recently profiled real-life teachers in a publication about the importance of teacher mentoring.

One way or another, 2011 undoubtedly will be an interesting year for education.