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Policy Into Practice: CEE and NCTE

As we gather, new vistas for education policy are unfolding. We won’t find every view to our liking, but it’s useful to understand the nuanced shifts underway as the federal government prepares to allocate, over the next two years, the largest federal investment in education in our nation’s history--$110 billion dollars. While we are wise to look critically at the emerging plans, it is hard to argue about the gigantic sums they are making available to save as many as 100,000 teaching jobs. In a desperate economy, this is vital first aid, and we are grateful for it.

What I’d like to do today is outline a few of the major initiatives that are in various launch, or fizzle, stages, then circle back to discuss how CEE and NCTE action can make a difference.

The Obama Administration and Secretary Duncan have been consistent in outlining what they are prepared to invest in. There are four purposes that will pervade grant making over the next two years:

  1. Improving student access to high quality teachers, particularly in high-poverty areas and in hard-to-staff subjects.
  2. Closing the achievement gap.
  3. Investing in improved data systems and improving the quality of assessments and availability of information gleaned from them to advance learning
  4. Developing a system of national standards and methods of implementing them that improve graduation rates and readiness for college or the work place.

Many of us who have survived the NCLB era may be disheartened after skimming this list. Data systems? Standards? Assessments driving instruction? Isn’t this what we just voted to get rid of?

I’m not an apologist for the new administration or its Department of Education, but I think it is a mistake to dismiss them as “Bush-lite”. After working with key congressional staffers and new Education Department officials, I believe that they are sincere in their quest for new approaches to restore equity, challenge, and creativity to the public education system. One critical difference from the recent past is that they are not interested in ideology and are deeply skeptical about there being just one way to do anything—particularly the teaching of literacy.

It’s useful to keep track of what policy-makers read and pay attention to. There is no doubt that Arne Duncan’s experiences in Chicago Public Schools, after-school learning programs in Harlem and New York City, and programs like the KIPP schools and the Green Dot charters in LA have shaped policy-makers’ thinking about what is possible. Perhaps even more influential have been a series of presentations offered by OECD researcher Andreas Schleiker. His cross-national study, based on PISA math and reading results in roughly 40 countries around the world, correlated changes in PISA score results over time with characteristics of national education systems. He argues that the data show that national education systems which have been most successful at both advancing equity and improving learning outcomes across all sub-groups have the following characteristics:

  • There is a national consensus around what success looks like at various education levels. Sometimes these are expressed as standards and others as more general outcome descriptors, but regardless of the label, the most successful systems have risen above arguments about the right markers, and have mobilized to reach them.
  • There are assessment systems that feed data back to all stakeholders, with an emphasis on speedy feedback to teachers and principals.
  • Unlike the NCLB-American system, these results are never used to de-fund schools. Rather, they are used to target resources to those most in need of improvement.
  • The “unit” of improvement is the school, or in some cases, school district. That is, in the systems that have progressed fastest, schools are encouraged to develop their own curricula, pedagogical approaches, and improvement plans. Many nurture early career faculty over years of apprenticeship and invest heavily in on-going professional development.

As you might imagine, different groups seize upon different elements of this data. But in the Obama/Duncan priorities, I think you’ll find all of the key elements represented in Schleiker’s influential study. Here is a quick summary of related recent policy developments.

First, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) is leading a movement, in alliance with the College Board, National Governors Association, and ACHIEVE, to create “voluntary” national standards in English language arts and math. 49 states and territories have signed on to this movement, which requires that the state standards are in 85% compliance with a national model, presumably one that is the same or quite similar to the ADP/Achieve model. How, you might ask, is this different than a top-down national standards model?

The answer is, we’ll see. The Chiefs understand that this is a political hot-potato, and made a calculated decision not to involve teacher organizations in the creation of early drafts of the over-arching national model. But as they move into creating grade level benchmarks for what students should know and be able to do, their chilliness about involving NCTE, NCTM, and IRA appears to be thawing quickly. We have been invited to submit names of people to serve as “validators” of the state drafts. And it seems likely that we will be called upon to play a central role in advising about reasonable grade or school level benchmarks.

This leaves teacher organizations in something of a quandary. We are justifiably suspicious of narrow standards that handcuff teachers or serve as invitations to publishers to create “teacher-proof” curricula. But if we don’t participate, the chances of getting this precise result are much greater. So the trick for us is to help the administration stick to its professed vision of what good standards look like: fewer, clearer, higher—with the means of implementation left in the hands of teachers and local officials. While this is a complicated situation for our professional community, it is far better than the pariah status we have enjoyed for the last eight to twelve years. Portrayed unfairly as bastions of the status-quo and purveyors of deeply ideological agendas unhinged from research, we have been the enemy of those in power.

This question of what will happen with the next round of national standards is definitely “of the moment” because of the scale of the planned federal investment. $4.3 billion in Race to the Top Funds, to be awarded to state consortia for efforts to achieve the administrations big four goals, will almost certainly be channeled to those who not only have allied with the CCSSO’s Common Core Standards but have proposed plans to support their implementation through measures ranging from systematic teacher professional development to building data systems that track individual student progress over the course of a preK-12 career, to local design of assessments keyed to goals that align with Common Core Standards.

Recently, most likely through CCSSO’s influence, the administration has taken a step back from its aggressive grant making schedule. It is true that if all of the Race to the Top and Innovation Fund monies were awarded this summer they would almost certainly attract a lukewarm pool of slapped-together proposals. The administration appears to be headed towards a plan to award about 15% of Race to the Top monies by the end of this summer, and the remainder next summer—by which time they could very easily be tied to a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Make no mistake, this administration is interested in results, perhaps even more than their predecessors were. Their impatience grows from two distinct sets of concerns—one ethical and one political. From an ethical perspective, they detest what they see as a two-tier system of education that continues to suffer from both wildly uneven funding, an uncertain vision of quality, and chronically low expectations. Politically, they are concerned that after spending unprecedented billions over the next few years, they could get routed in the mid-term elections if they can’t create some positive momentum in public education. So, like politicians everywhere, they are looking for some early wins. Yesterday, I was at a briefing where Arne Duncan put it this way: “We need to make changes in the next four years that will shape education for the next forty.”

It is hard to keep track of all of the funding programs in the offing. Another key ARRA program that NCTE/CEE members will want to pay close attention to is the Innovation or What Works Fund. This $650 million competitive grants fund, unlike most of the other ARRA spending, will go straight to school districts who partner with non-profit organizations or universities. It is generally described as “scale up” money that will be invested in programs that have already proven effective at meeting one of the four major objectives for ARRA spending.

NCTE will almost certainly be submitting a grant to make the Pathways professional development program available through teacher education, induction, and in-service programs that promote deep teacher learning and improved teaching practice, particularly in schools serving high-need students. We have outlined a proposal demonstrating the potential of the Pathways program to address the achievement gap and distribution of high quality literacy teaching by helping teachers grow “where they are”, and I would welcome hearing from those of you who feel that your program or course could be a candidate for inclusion in such a grant.

Briefly, there are also substantial monies available for the Teaching Through Technology program, the School Improvement Funds ($3 billion), Teacher Quality Partnerships, and substantial new monies for IDEA and Title I, with a particular emphasis on expanding Title I support into high schools ($10 billion in new monies).

Apart from the spending support, some very interesting things are going on in Congress and the Department of Education regarding policy. Naturally, I’ll highlight those that influence our community most.

Following the scandals that plagued grant awards through the Reading First program, Congress became very suspicious of programs that seemed to funnel money to a short list of publishers whose work was deemed to meet the “scientifically-based research” standard. After scaling back the program in the 2007 budget it was zeroed out last year. While it was difficult to see money for early literacy and literacy coaches scaled back, it has opened the way for a much more progressive approach to advancing literacy learning in K-12 schools.

Starting in 2005, NCTE worked to broaden the misguided “scientifically-based” standard, citing the more capacious “scientifically valid” standard employed by the National Research Council as the appropriate one for education research. Our first breakthrough came when the Head Start bill was authorized in 2007 using the scientifically valid standard, which validates programs deemed effective through a rigorous peer review processes or observational studies, and doesn’t necessarily require the control group protocol used in the scientifically based model.

Next, we were able to get the scientifically valid standard written into the authorizing language for the Striving Readers program. In itself, this wasn’t a monumental accomplishment, but it was closely related to two propitious developments. First, it happened in part because our members were enthusiastic participants in email and letter writing campaigns to Congress, in many cases making legislators aware for the first time that the professional community in literacy had a more nuanced view than they had been led to understand; 2) we began to circulate briefs on reform of No Child Left Behind and to develop and circulate an annual legislative platform that is increasingly referred to by legislators on key congressional committees and their staff.

Incidentally, Katie Van Sluys, Chair of the NCTE Executive Committee’s Government Relations subcommittee is here today and we should all thank her for her outstanding leadership of this year’s legislative platform writing process.

Since the election of the Obama administration, NCTE has been working arduously on two coalition measures that can change the way the public thinks about literacy, and the way the federal government funds literacy education.

The first measure, a Congressional Resolution declaring October 20, 2009 as the National Day on Writing, has attracted widespread, bipartisan support. It currently has more than 25 cosponsors and appears to be headed for a vote on the floor this summer. This will mark the first time in our history that NCTE has really written a legislative measure, and there is much credit to go around. The House Sponsor, Dina Titus of Las Vegas, is a college professor at UNLV and enthusiastic strategist. Our National Partners, including Google, the National Geographic Society, AAAS, National Writing Project, WPA, National Center for Family Literacy, NEH, and the Newseum, and several other subject matter groups, to name a few, have given it great credibility.

What really matters is that this will be an enormous, participatory opportunity to help all Americans see how profoundly the practice of writing affects our daily lives. We will tap what we learn from the National Gallery of Writing to try to shape policymakers ideas about what is important to fund—and what must be avoided if we are to have a citizenry that can use writing to innovate, solve problems, and communicate globally. We need 100,000 authors in the National Gallery of Writing, and are counting on our members and our allies to help get their friends, neighbors, students, and families involved.

The second measure, the Comprehensive Literacy Reform Bill, is a product of our collaboration with the Alliance for Excellent Education, IRA, the Principals’ organizations, and a few others—but honestly, I can tell you that without the skillful work of Barbara Cambridge and our staff in Washington DC, it wouldn’t be on its way to Congress’ Legislative Council next week. What distinguishes this bill is that it is based on a developmental view of literacy. It calls upon districts to build preK – 12 plan to advance literacy that includes coaching; systematic, job embedded professional development, content area literacy initiatives, special services and support for English language learners, a heavy investment in early literacy, and local development of appropriate assessments.

Whether it passes in its own right or ultimately gets folded into reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it marks a 180 degree turn from the top-down mandates of No Child Left Behind. The time is coming when we’ll need your active support to get this bill a fair hearing on the floor of Congress and to ultimately see it enacted as law.

I’ve taken too much of your time, but I feel strongly that you need to understand that we are no longer on the sidelines. Your expertise, your passion, can make a real difference. The policy world is particularly interested in smarter approaches to assessment, to advancing English language learners, and to engaging reluctant students through authentic learning experiences that result in graduation and a productive role in our society.

NCTE and CEE are becoming more than clubs you can join…we’re on our way to being a movement for progressive literacy education—a movement that depends on you. It would be great to have 100,000 members, but in these tight times, that’s unrealistic. What I do hope for is a deeper commitment from all who share our ambitions for the literacy education community. You’ve given up a summer weekend to be here…a pretty good indication that you feel committed to change and growth. Try to find time to send that email, make that call to Congress, or participate online in the NCTE Ning space and the enhanced member social network that we’ll introduce later this fall.. Let’s work together to not only improve the teaching of literacy, but to create the conditions under which literacy educators, and learners, can thrive.

This piece was presented by Kent Williamson, NCTE Executive Director, at the June 2009 CEE Conference in Chicago, IL.

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