Live Blogging Eduwonk

I rushed back to WM campus from meetings in Richmond to hear Andrew Rotherham, aka Eduwonk. I’ve told several people that his blog was directly responsible for my passing the first day of my doctoral comprehensive exams so didn’t want to miss a chance to hear him LIVE! So, here I am, a thorn amidst undergraduate roses, waiting for the great man. (Later note: I got to shake his hand and tell him how much help his blog was. He was appreciative.)

So there are going to be two speakers: Andrew and Erin Dillon, another employee of Education Sector. OK, turns out Erin is here to answer questions about higher ed costs and school choice. Hmmm…she’s a WM undergrad with an MA from Stanford but she dissected a cadaver in her prof’s garage while she was here at WM.

Here are my notes, typed furiously as I listened:

Three big trends and what they mean for education: demographics, politics, and availability of information.


An intense period of demographic change…tremendous predicted growth of Hispanics from 14 to 20 percent. You have to go back to the 19th century to see such major changes. We still don’t have a coherent national strategy for educating these students.

The “graying” of America: the percent of young Americans will decline while the percent of older Americans will increase. Why is this a school issue? For the last generation, the government has been able to focus on young people and these trends portend a change in focus. Politically, we don’t know how older Americans think about funding schools. Is there a “gray” peril in that retirees don’t want to support schools? Will they have less direct connection to the schools and feel some economic insecurity that will keep them from wanting to contribute to schools?


The broader issue is that the broader coalitions are beginning to fray. There is ahunger among voters for post-partisan politics. No matter what you think about Obama, he’s tapped into that and McCain has also tapped into that. Our politics are taking on a global focus as well. The conversation has a global focus, too. He commented that some of the debate about the global competition is hype. He looks back to the Russians and the Japanese. But it’s a mistake to ignore the changes around the world as some in education counsel us to do.

There is an achievement gap. Here’s what it looks like. We give a test called NAEP given to a sample of students around the country. It’s a good barometer of student progress. Blacks score much lower than whites and blacks fail to complete high school at a much larger rate. Take a look at number of ninth graders versus number of graduates in some of our challenged communities. Minority parents are organizing and fighting back. They are pushing back on the teachers’ unions to change things for their kids. And, while white students are best served by schools, that population is declining.

Availability of Information:

When he was in the Clinton White House, the New York Times was really the publication that mattered. Now, it’s the Huffington Post and Politico, two publications that didn’t exist just several years ago. Quotes Bret Hume who says how hard it is for them to put together the evening news. Now, everyone knows the news when they tune into the nightly program.

For schools, this is a challenge. There used to be few access points to school information; now sites like School Matters provide lots of information about schools. Ditto for student data collection. The states weren’t collecting data. References the “data quality”campaign. Just about every state is making progress in putting this into place.

From 1954 (Brown) until the 1980s, the debate was about access for students (minorities, special ed, etc). Now the debate is focusing within schools. Under the same roof, even in the same classroom, students can have very different experiences.

What do these trends mean for schools and education policies? Education has changed a lot since 1954. We know a lot from empirical stand points. The debate is concerned about how schools matter: so what are effective teachers and schools? But our public policies are still focused on an assumption that schools don’t matter that much. Education policy was often considered the weak system in the discipline. Education think tanks like his were not at the center of the debate.

The most important idea in ed policy today is that we know that different schools and different teachers have different effects on different students. It doesn’t just follow demographics. Ignoring this and ignoring performance is a problem.

Three trends buffet the schools but the pressure to improve performance is the greatest. There is a pressure to close the gaps but also to generally increase achievement overall.

Clinton used to say that if you play by the rules, you can achieve some kind of middle class lifestyle. But we know from an educational standpoint, that isn’t true. And, students don’t perform as well as they should against their international counterparts. That didn’t matter because we could just throw more engineers at the problem (four US engineers to one German engineers). But the Chinese and Indian numbers are too great to consider this old philosophy. If they thrive, they’ll just outnumber us.

Today’s consumers don’t want to be told how things are going to be…think about how people consume. When you buy a coffee, you want to be contributing to the world so you buy fair trade coffee.

Think about parents: if your kid’s school isn’t safe, that’s what you worry about. But if those needs are met, you start thinking about academic quality. Brian Jacob and Lars ? found that low income parents were much more interested in academics. Upper income parents were more concerned with “softer” issues such as student satisfaction. Parents increasingly want customization from their public schools. Mass customization will better serve parents and their children. That’s what will make school something people want rather than something they have to do?

We spend about 5o0 billion on education. If our schools were a country, they would be a large country. Since 1970, we have more than doubled spending. And we are reaching more students such as special education students. But that spending trajectory is not sustainable. So, public schools are going to have to learn to do more with less.

We always add spending items but we need to think about new ways that we use time, people and resources. We might have to increase class size but pay teachers more and provide aides. But the way we approach education works against that. We don’t hold ourselves accountable. We resist choice and things like charter schools. And we keep telling tax payers that we need more money.

We approach these problems as public relations rather than an organization. So, bottom line, changes in the country are not being addressed in the public schools. People want quality, choice, customization even in education.

Questions: how would you attack the problem that we spend more on urban students but they don’t achieve as well (Camden was the example). This is one of the classic false choices. On one hand, we say money doesn’t matter; on the other side, you have people saying that we need to pour more money into the district. Money matters but what really matters is how you spend the money. He gives the example of Michelle Reed in the DC schools and the way she is redirecting resources. We need to think about efficiency. You could take 20% of teachers’ salaries but you could repurpose that money: they are tied to achievement or the classroom.

The other piece on school finance is that the feds only provide 9% of the funding. Different states do a better job. Virginia is underfunding its schools, particularly in the western regions of the state. Fairfax, on the other hand, is funding its schools to the tune of 20K per student. The states are going to have to adopt more rational research policies. We don’t like to make revenue raising public. What we do is find revenue gimicks (different types of taxes and lotteries) and they are tied to the economy. We have a public that is disengaged from us.

Question: What are we going to do about racial and economic isolation? Schools are becoming more segregated. What’s happened is that residential patterns have changed and schools draw from residential areas, particularly elementary schools. We tried to coerce schools to desegregate and the Supreme Court walked away from that. Parents worry about peer effects. The debate today is still about diversity and he is all for that. But he’s not prepared to wait. We have to make schools better everywhere. You can’t let another generation of kids wait for the courts to make changes. Where he comes down is that we need to get the good schools to the kids. How do we get more KIPP schools and some other models?

This is why NCLB despite all its problems is a good way of looking at how schools are dealing with diverse kids. The school may seem diverse but there is a gap between whites and minorities.

Question: Can the KIPP Academy in Philly be a model? Described the KIPP model, begun by Teach for America grads. It’s a culture of college, very rigorous, teacher focused and parents have to sign contracts. They do have a couple KIPP schools that haven’t panned out but most are very successful. He didn’t want to predict how big it will get. It’s a model that has changed the conversation because it proves that it can teach “poor” children. We’re moving from a system where you have one school model so this will be one option among a whole bunch of providers. Poor parents should not be limited to a choice between a school that didn’t work versus KIPP. They should have lots of options. The first KIPP kids are getting out of college and a lot of them are going back to their communities.

Question: Address curriculum. He’s not a curriculum expert so he won’t address it. But he says we don’t have curriculum and isn’t sure we need a national curriculum. Tests and standards are not curriculum. Points out that NBC News is going to become an online education provider using their archival footage. The days of the old textbook companies being the drivers in education is going the way of dinosaurs. But teachers haven’t been trained. The policy issue here is about getting teachers trained.

Question: How do we get resources to all schools, even textbooks? Points to DC that had a textbook distribution shortage rather than a textbook shortage. What about the larger digital divide? There is tremendous potential with technology to extend learning time. All the tech stuff is great and cool. (He played with the big white board at NBC.) None of the cool tech is that it is a substitute for content or good teaching. The digital divide isn’t necessarily an educational issue.

Question: Noticed you used the word consumer a lot; is it ethical to talk about education in free market terms? Should we hold education above the free market? We should hold education as something unique, different from a cup of coffee. In this country, what’s a free market? Someone gives an example of the illicit drug trade. Ebay: sort of. But we don’t have many free markets. We have choice and we marry it regulation. In education, we have externalities, that is, education influences everyone. We have to marry public and private interests. Making a suboptimal education choice is important to us, much more important than if you make a suboptimal choice in long distance carrier. Friedman called is the neighborhood effect. Even Friedman favored some kind of government influence.

The case of Ohio and charter schools. Some of the charter schools are lousy and yet people are choosing them. So, we have to get policy right and then we have to offer choice.

Question: How will we fund teachers’ salaries? What parents really want is good teachers. Good teachers matters more than small classes. Here’s the problem. That only goes so far. Gives the example of student writing…if you have lots of kids, it’s hard to teach writing. Smaller classes would be better at this, but why don’t we think about giving them classroom aides to help them. It sounds crazy but there’s a charter school in Boston that has full time tutors. They LIVE on the third floor of the school and are available from 7 AM to 11 PM. We made a deliberate decision to go with numbers rather than quality and pay. He believes the best teachers should be making more money.

He made a point about KIPP that the teachers tend to blame themselves when students don’t succeed rather than point to the deficiencies in the students. (My later note: I interviewed a teacher in an alternative school recently and when I asked about some of the behavior problems in her class, she made a similar comment: the learning just wasn’t good enough or else the kid’s would be engaged. I’m not sure I agree.)

He answered my question!! Which was how can policy effect the culture that really denigrates teachers. Policy makers can do that by offering real incentives for achievement. But it lies with educators themselves who need to see themselves as learners and entrepreneurs. We infantize teachers in the way we treat them. He related the story of a woman who works for him who walked out of professional development saying that just because she was a kindergarten teacher didn’t mean that that was how they should treat her.

Also, as an aside, I mentioned the flurry of attention on Finland and he said that if KIPP is a cult, then Finland is a cult as well. There is a facebook group devoted to people who haven’t been invited to Finland.

Question: What happens when kids don’t have choices such as rural communities? Choice is a more metropolitan question. There are sacrifices for living in a rural area and the choice conversation is going to look different but that doesn’t mean we can’t have greater customization through technology. He gives the example of multi-county alternative programs. Rural communities often have the same problems as urban schools in terms of funding and access and even attention.

Question: Are there any really bad ideas? He thinks vouchers could make things worse. We need to look at the logic models, the evidence for the program. How does it move us from the system we have now to a system that will be better? Part of his concern about vouchers is that it severs the public/private divide. But it also isn’t scalable and doesn’t meet the challenge.

Now onto Erin Dillon: looking at inter-district choice. The way you design the policy makes a big impact. Low income students won’t participate if you don’t provide transportation. Even if 10% of the kids choose, you still have 90% that are left behind. It’s easy to say that we are so desperate, we should try anything. Then you look at Philly’s theme high school program and because it ended up sending students to some general high schools, it exacerbated the situation.

Back to Andrew: He compares school reform to the 1996 welfare reform. Some people were helped, but there were others who just couldn’t work. The fact is we didn’t throw them off the rolls. We aren’t going to do that with people. It is the same thing in education. We will influence a lot of kids but there are kids whose parents won’t engage and they won’t be able to really succeed. The problem is that we can’t say that because we can’t reach them all, we shouldn’t reach anyone. We can’t throw those kids under the bus. As we see the system evolve, we’ll see changes being made.

Question: How you would form policy that will sustain through the changes in the Hispanic population? Here’s the funniest direct quote: “Superintendents are the highest paid migrant workers in the country.” Points to the 1989 summit in Charlottesville that put us on the path to standards-based reform. We need a national strategy around accountability, investment and assessments of ESL; you can’t have assessments in every language but certainly there are some major languages that we can address. Policy is more sustained at the state and national level than at the local level. Superintendents tend to lose their jobs over things like school boundaries.

Question: What about “gender-blind” education? He favors what parents want. He would be against it if it was the one-size fits all, mandatory program but if that’s what parents want, then they should have choice of that. The irony of sending girls to all-girls higher ed and then they join women’s groups and fight against girls only education. Kids need different things so we should have more choices. My Note: That seems to be his bottom line. We shouldn’t rule out anything (well maybe vouchers).

Question: What pro dev model would you pose? He points to most pro dev as just weak: the half day, localized program. What’s out there isn’t quality. So what he would do is making it sustained. He gives the example of a prof who needed three days to learn a software program. And, in education, we usually only get a half day. Give teachers sustained time off, like a week at a time, really engage with their colleagues. Give teachers the same kinds of opportunities they would get in the private sector. You create high quality.

Question: Rewarding good teachers: how do you do that? It’s easy at one level. We’ve got a shortage in certain areas. You should get rewarded for going into high need areas. The trickier piece is the question of effectiveness: you can’t just do test scores since students are in courses that aren’t tested. What about the bus drivers, cafeteria workers, or custodians. How do we reward them? And in the courses we do test, can we use test scores? There is a lot of noise in the pre-testing, post-testing; there are differences in how many students they face. There is some element of discretion and some element of objective measures. The debate is stuck, partially because of teachers’ unions. And we have relatively little innovation. Conference at Vanderbilt on performance incentives and there is some early research. But it’s depressing how little we know. We have to figure out how to do this.

Question: What advantages he saw at having multi grade students within one class? Advantages: ability grouping seems to provide more improvement. Disadvantages: parents loved the ideas of no grades in a Fairfax experience but the grades are so ingrained that parents revolted because they wouldn’t know what “grade” their child was in. It’s difficult to break out of habits. Here’s where accountability is helpful. If it gets better results, than that’s good. But parents need to have options. It’s also really demanding teaching.

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