Sunday, September 23, 2007

A very good Education Plan from John Edwards

(this is being posted at a variety of sites, including dailykos, raisingkaine, and the education policy blog)

While is Iowa this week Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards unveiled an extensive and fairly comprehensive approach to the educational issues facing America’s schools. It is entitled Restoring the Promise of America's Schools. It is by far the best overall approach to education I have seen in the last few presidential cycles. While I have some concerns, which I will address, I want to begin by acknowledging how good it is.

I strongly urge people to go to the link above and read the plan and accompanying materials in their entirety. I cannot hope to fully explore every dimension and implication. My intent is to focus on some things that caught the attention of one person who is a high school teacher, who reads seriously about educational policy issues, and who attempts in his online and other writings to help non-experts understand how policy proposals play out in the real world of schools and classrooms, teachers and parents and students.

Far too many politicians have been limiting their comments on education within the framework of No Child Left Behind, as if that were the only possible paradigm through which we can talk about education through high school. Edwards goes well beyond that, even as he acknowledges the necessity to make what improvements are immediately possible in the short term. Of greater importance, he frames his discussion on three basic principles, and ties most of his proposals to those principles, which are
* Every child should be prepared to succeed when they show up in the classroom.
* Every classroom should be led by an excellent teacher.
* Every teacher should work in an outstanding school.
Having such organizing principles is a positive, and in general the plan follows the outline of the three key principles - there are few occasions where an issue is not easily classifiable, and thus it may appear not quite where one might expect to encounter it. Since the overall plan is only a few pages long in its website version, this is not a major issue - one can quickly determine that an issue is addressed, either by the overall structure or the use of different size and colored headings and the bolding and bulleting of key points. For example, under the first key heading of “Preparing Every Child to Succeed” we find in just the first subarea, “Offer Universal “Great Promise” Preschool to Four-Year-Olds” the following subtropics (bulleted and bolded in the original:
- teach academic skills
- Start in needy communities
- Be led by excellent teachers
- Involve parents and their families
- Be voluntary and universally affordable

It is thus fairly easy for the reader to follow the flow of the ideas without becoming buried in either jargon or overwhelmed by extraneous detail.

One key issue outside the frame of No Child Left Behind is the failure of the Federal government to fulfill its original commitment in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the primary law for special education. This legislatively creates a set of federal civil rights in education, and recognizing the cost the Federal commitment was supposed to be 40% of the average additional costs. The highest the federal commitment has ever been was 19% in FY2005, and in FY2007 it has slipped to 17%. In 2005 that meant my own state of Virginia had to absorb about $350 million in additional expenses that should have been federally funded, either by raising local taxes, transferring funds from other educational programs, or both. I note from the Edwards plan the following, under the heading of “Meet the Promise of Special Education”:
More than thirty years ago, Congress committed to fund 40 percent of the excess cost of educating children with disabilities, but it provides less than half that amount. George Bush has proposed a $300 million cut. Edwards opposes the Bush cuts and supports getting on a path toward meeting the federal promise.

Edwards recognizes that
Half of the achievement gap between children from poor families and their more fortunate peers exists before they start school. Quality preschools compensate for the learning opportunities some children miss at home, reducing remedial education, welfare, and crime.
His plan proposes that all lead teachers in such pre-school programs have a 4-year degree, and receive appropriate compensation. The Federal commitment should begin with low-income neighborhoods, and should also include
- parental involvement
- be voluntary
- be universally affordable.
He combines this with a commitment to things like child care services and family support services. And as part of his “Smart Start” program I note especially the idea of making it
easier for young children to get screening for health problems related to hearing, speech, vision, dental, and learning disabilities.
Here I offer a caution, but one I assume will be addressed in other parts of the overall agenda that is part of Edwards’ vision - identification of such problems is insufficient if there is no ability to address them, due to lack of providers or an inability to pay. I know Edwards has a commitment on these issues, and it would be nice to see in the education plan a mention of the connection: education does not occur in a vacuum, and addressing the health and learning disability issues as early as possible is a key to greater long-term success in school for these children.

Edwards does address a number of deficiencies in No Child Left Behind, and one of his key points appears under the category of excellent teachers. He rightly notes that NCLB requires that a school failing to make AYP for 3 years has to set aside up to 20% of Title I funds for :supplemental educational services” with no formal requirement for the quality of the providers. Edwards insists that any tutors under this provision be “highly qualified teachers” as is required under the law for in-class teachers. While I think this is an improvement, it still maintains the idea of Adequate Yearly Progress towards the unmeetable goal of 100% proficiency in 2014. If there is a clear deficiency in the material it is the unwillingness to confront this issue directly.

We see this further in the material grouped under “Overhaul No Child Left Behind.” Good points under this heading include broadening the methods of measurement to include
assessments that measure higher-order thinking skills, including open-ended essays, oral examinations, and projects and experiments
and allow states to use additional measures of academic performance, including using the growth of individual students and allowing states greater flexibility in how they respond to schools that are underperforming. These ideas are consistent with his overall approach to schools and teaching, but leave a number of areas of concern, which I think I must point out:

1) If growth is measured June to June the results are often distorted by non-school effects. The professional literature is clear that students from lower economic classes, often minority, lose knowledge during the summer while students economically better off often increase learning through enrichment opportunities. Measuring Fall to Spring usually shows more equitably the learning actually occurring in the schools. To date I have not seen any proposal for using growth models that specifically addresses this. At a time when the funding for the testing for accountability is still not even at the authorized level, I worry that a growth model Spring to Spring will wrongly give a picture that schools serving students in poor communities are doing worse than they actually are. Here I note that the recent Feingold-Leahy proposal is that punitive sanctions currently in place with once a year testing be suspended until that portion of the original proposal is fully funded, which has not yet happened.

2) There is no discussion of how such alternative measures would be funded. The work done by the Forum on Educational Accountability strongly suggests that performance assessment, when imbedded in instruction, can be done in a fashion that is no more expensive than the approach currently being widely used to respond to NCLB. It would be nice to see an explicit recognition of the costs of some of the proposals made by Edwards, with an explanation of how he plans to pay for his ideas.

Edwards explicitly recognizes that the needs of rural schools are often quite different. Thus we find in his allowing “Broader measures of school success” that he offers a plan that would “give more flexibility to small rural schools.” In his proposal to have all high schools have access to challenging Advanced Placement courses he notes “even those in small, isolated, and high-poverty areas” should be included in such an approach. He also has a separate section on “More Resources for Poor and Rural Schools” where he notes that
Four out of five urban school districts studied nationally spend more on low-poverty schools than on high-poverty schools. Rural schools enroll 40 percent of American children – including most children in Iowa, New Hampshire, and North Carolina – but receive only 22 percent of federal education funding.
Edwards not only promises to increase Title I funding with the additional moneys directed towards low-income schools, but also commits to using technology and distance-learning to assist more rural areas that are in danger of being left behind.

Edwards bases a lot of his proposals on things he has seen work in North Carolina, which given it is his home state is understandable. He does however cite a number of examples from other states, such as smaller classes in Tennessee and universal pre-K in Georgia and Oklahoma, but it would have been nice to see a similar broad look at the secondary level. For example, Nebraska has a successful approach to using school based assessments. Wyoming and Rhode Island have experience with using school based measurement as a basis for meeting statewide graduation requirements. As good as the proposals Edwards offers may be, I cannot help but wonder how much better they might have been had there been some more consideration of successful models from other states included.

It is clear that unlike some who attempt to mold educational policy, Edwards has listened to the voices of teachers. Thus we find clear ideas about mentorship, about providing a transition into teaching in the first year, about paying highly skilled teachers for taking on the challenge of teaching in high-poverty schools (an idea that he might consider extending to teaching in more rural schools as well). He argues for allowing time for more teacher collaboration and joint planning, a key part of improving working conditions. And he directly addresses an issue that is key - making it easier for teachers to move from one state to another both by encouraging reciprocity of credentialing and by trying to find a way to make pension plans compatible (although the latter is certainly going to be a more difficult task). At one point I maintained separate credentials in Maryland, DC and Virginia, and I have taught in the the last as well as in my current district in Maryland. As one holding my state’s highest credential (Advanced Professional Certificate II) as well as being National Board certified, I have reasonable portability of my credentials, but the money from my one year in Virginia is not directly transferable to my Maryland pension (although I could withdraw it and deposit it in a 403B plan without paying taxes). I have some personal understanding of the importance of an issue like this to many teachers who perhaps need to relocate because of family concerns, but who face unnecessary stumbling blocks in being certified in the state to which they wish to move.

There are issues in the plan about which I have some additional concerns. Edwards offers a proposal to reduce class sizes. While he argues that poor and African-American children gain the most, and promises to direct resources especially to reducing class sizes in lower grades for children below grade level, there is an implication that any reduction of class size is a positive. I’m not sure that the research supports that. Some studies have found that until there is a significant reduction, say to 17 or less, the gains in learning are prohibitive in expense, assuming that (a) there are sufficient high quality teachers (not currently the situation) and (b) that there are sufficient classrooms to increase the number of classes (often not the case in overcrowded urban schools). I acknowledge that Edwards is committed to increasing the availability of highly qualified teachers through a variety of methods, not all of of which have I addressed here. I do think we need to acknowledge that we have an issue about classrooms that must also be considered.

On some issue I find myself quibbling around the margins. Edwards wants to pay teams of experienced teachers to go into struggling schools for a year to help turn them around. I like the idea in principle, but my sense is that such “helicoptering in” for one year will ultimately not succeed. Here I note that even Teach for America wants a commitment of their young people for more than one year. I would think we should try to get commitments of at least two if not three years, in order to be able to establish a positive school culture that will survive the departure of those brought in - and I hope that at least some after several years might be encouraged to stay longer?

I have raised some cautions and concerns. I feel it my responsibility to do so. But do not let that mislead. I think the plan presented by Edwards represents something remarkable. It is of a piece with many of his other ideas about America, upon which I lack the competence and confidence to comment in the same detail as I can on education. It has an overall vision, a commitment to goals that are almost radical in there simplicity - revisit those three main principles again. It contains elements to address current needs - second chance high schools, leveraging the knowledge and skill of our best teachers to where they are most needed, directing federal resources to those schools and students most in need of extra assistance - at the same time as it attempts to lay down a foundation that will prevent the conditions requiring such interventions from going one without respite: here the focus on early childhood, on parent-school partnerships, on screening for vision and hearing and learning disabilities (assuming the resources to address the needs thereby identified) - all of this demonstrates a vision and a commitment that is heartening. John Edwards is committed to PUBLIC EDUCATION at a time when many in this nation are prepared to walk away. While I wish he would be explicit on things like the impossibility of 100% proficiency by 2014, he shows a clear understanding of what has been happening. We read in the plan
Children need to master both basic skills in reading, writing and math and advanced thinking skills like creativity, analytic thinking and using technology. We cannot tolerate the benign neglect of our schools. No Child Left Behind has lost its way by imposing cheap standardized tests, narrowing the curriculum at the expense of science, history, and the arts and mandating unproven cookie-cutter reforms on schools. As a result, it has lost the support of teachers, principals, and parents, whose support is needed for any reform to succeed.
That puts it fairly succinctly, and makes clear that under an Edwards administration we would see an attempt at a very different Federal role in pre K-12 public education than has been the case during the Bush administration.

Education is of critical importance to John Edwards, both because of his personal experience, that of his family (all four of his children attend(ed) public schools) and his vision for the nation.

At the beginning of the webpage from which I am obtaining the information about the Edwards plan, there are two paragraphs from a press release about the speech he gave in Iowa on the plan that are worth reproducing in their entirety:
"Education is an issue that's very personal for me," said Edwards. "I grew up in a small, rural town and my parents didn't have a lot of money. But I was lucky to have public school teachers who taught me to believe that somebody from a little town in North Carolina could do just about anything if he worked hard and played by the rules."

"Every child deserves to have the same chances I had," Edwards continued. "But today, millions of young people don't get these opportunities. More than a half-century after Brown v. Board of Education, we still have two school systems, separate and unequal. George Bush's No Child Left Behind law is not working, and Washington is simply not doing its part to invest in early childhood education, teachers, or support for struggling schools."

At this point I am neutral in the presidential contest. As a Virginian, my focus between now and November 6 will remain the contest for Democrats to gain control of our General Assembly. People I know and respect in Virginia are about equally split in their support for the top three Democratic candidates. I am a professional educator, and for me education is as important as any other issue with the possible exception of protecting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I am not, in writing this piece, endorsing a candidate. But I can say without hesitation that I view this plan as a remarkable document, a very good start at laying out the guidelines for making serious and positive changes that will sustain and improve public education in this country. I have never met the candidate, although I was fortunate enough to be able to speak about education with his closest adviser, his wife, whom I found well informed and willing to listen. I think the proposals in this plan are a wonderful starting point for a serious discussion on education beyond merely talking about how we keep NCLB from destroying public education. I will be interested in what other professionals in education have to say about this in the various sites in which I will post and/or distribute this piece.

Again, I have my points of contention, but they are more than outweighed by the overall excellence of what Edwards has put forth. I hope this in an indication that serious discussion about education will continue to play a major role in the forthcoming federal election cycle.

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