An Open Letter to President-Elect Barack Obama

Dear President-Elect Obama,

Congratulations on your impressive victory last evening.  For the past two years, you have spoken to the nation about the need for hope, the need to dream, and the need to do things differently.  Your message of change is not only one that should take hold of government itself, but it is also one that should serve as the cornerstone of your education policy.  You now have a mandate for real change, with the Congress and the national will to support it.

Throughout the campaign, you focused on five key education issues: 1) early childhood education; 2) general K-12, 3) teacher recruitment and training; 4) affordability of higher education; and 5) parental involvement. These issues now serve as the tent posts of your federal education policy.  And they play an equally important role in shaping your U.S. Department of Education.

Now is not the time to retreat to the educational status quo of a Democratic president.  Now is not the time to put power in the hands of those seeking to protect and conserve what was, or those who are troubled by the notion of innovation or new approaches.  And now is certainly not the time to refight the NCLB fight, throwing punches that should have been thrown six years ago.

Instead, now is the time to be bold and audacious, as you have called for so many times before.  Now is the time to be innovative and offer new ideas for the problems that have ailed our public schools for decades now. Now is the time to build a non-partisan approach based on what is needed, what is sought, and what works.  Now is indeed a time for change, and you need to use education to drive that change.  The status quoers or the defenders of policies part don't fit with your message.  This is time for powerful rhetoric, deep thinking, and meaningful change and innovation.

I will leave it to you and your transition team to determine who the next EdSec will be.  If recent history is any indication, the Clinton model works well.  Find a strong administrator -- a governor type -- who understands the issues and knows how to effectively use knowledgeable staff.  The Mike Easleys or the Janet Napolitanos or even the Phil Bredensens of the world deserve a close look.  Sure, your selection will be based in part on who is selected for other Cabinet posts, as you seek the right racial, gender, and geographic balance of the Cabinet.  But these sorts of governors have the political experience, management background, and general understanding needed to move the issue forward.

Those jobs further down the line in the Department of Education are the jobs that are essential.  Who will be driving policy?  Who will implement the policy?  Who will collect the data?  Who will analyze it?  Who will market and sell all of it to the stakeholders that are needed to move change?  The assistant secretaries you appoint will be the linchpins of your education policy success. Don't make these patronage jobs.  Don't use these to reward friends or organizational friends of the campaign.  Get out into the field and find the best people for the jobs.  Of particular importance, at least in Eduflack's eyes, is finding the right people to head the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Office of Innovation and Improvement, the Office of English Language Acquisition (particularly since the Hispanic community was such an important demographic in your victory), and the Institute of Education Sciences.  Find the true leaders, the true innovators, and the true thinkers to head these offices and drive policy.

Now that we've gotten the administrative piece out of the way, let's focus for a second on actual policies.  In your policy platforms, you've identified a number of issues and areas that you want to focus on, both in terms of rhetorical and financial muscle. Many of these are specific programs, whether they be the continuation of the old or the creation of the new.  These are good ideas -- some great, but as your education transition team moves forward, I ask that you make sure a number of issues get their fair shake:

* STEM -- We all know that science-tech-engineering-math is a hot topic these days.  But it is also a substantive topic.  Education doesn't happen in a vacuum.  STEM provides you a tangible program to effectively link instruction to our future economic needs.  It tells kids they are career ready.  It tells employers we have a viable pipeline in the workforce.  And it tells the nation we are doing what it takes to align education with the economy.  STEM is your low-hanging fruit, and you can make some immediate gains by focusing on this policy priority, using education as an economic driver in all states.

* Reading -- I have reluctantly accepted that Reading First is dead.  But for decades, the federal government has funded programs to boost reading achievement, particularly among minority and low-income populations.  We need to continue that commitment, and Title I doesn't get the job done.  For all of its flaws, RF has left a legacy of evidence-based instruction and ensuring we are doing what is proven effective.  Let's use that to build a new, better reading approach.  Scientifically based reading is in place in every Title I district across the country.  Now is not the time to change horses.  Now is the time to build on successes, showing all families -- from those in our urban centers to those in our most rural of communities -- that we are committed to making sure every child is reading proficient and reading successful.

* Education Research -- Staying on the topic, we need to continue federal efforts to support high-quality K-12 research.  We need to do a better job of collecting long-term measurements of student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and the like.  And we need to do a better job of analyzing the data we collect. Now is the time to use IES to further shape education R&D in the United States.  That shaping requires a true innovator at the helm, with a good sense of research and a better sense of innovation and experimenting on what is new and possible.  Few see it, but the IES appointment will speak volumes as to the possibility of new ideas and new educational exploration for the next four years.

* Teachers -- Supporting teachers is more than just supporting the teachers unions.  You've demonstrated that understanding in your support to merit pay.  Continue to display that independence.  Merit pay, for instance, is a terrific tool to implementing best practice in the schools, sharing best practices among educators, and incentivizing closing the achievement gap and boosting student achievement without the strict use of the ED stick.  If you need help with this, just give a ring over to your advisor Jon Schnur and ask him about New Leaders for New Schools' lessons learned through the EPIC program.

* Innovation -- All of the great education ideas have not been thought of yet.  You need to find ways to invest in experimentation and invest in what is possible and what is promising.  That is why OII was originally conceived. Take a look at advisor Andy Rotherham's (and Sara Mead's) study for Brookings on the future of education innovation, and start exploring the ways to use OII as a venture capital fund for new ideas and as an incubator for promising practices.  We should even elevate OII to full assistant secretary status.

* Accountability -- Some think you will throw accountability out the window when you take office.  Eduflack knows better.  From your work in Chicago, you understand the importance of measuring the effectiveness of our reforms.  You know we need to see real results if we are to continue real work.  We not only need to keep measuring student achievement, but we need to do a better job of applying the data to policy decisions, spending decisions, and instructional decisions.  More importantly, we just need to plain know that what we are doing works, and it works in schools like mine, in classes like mine, with kids like mine.  There is nothing wrong with accountability if it is a shared responsibility, shared by government, schools, teachers, parents, and the students themselves.

* Choice -- Forget about vouchers, the future of education choice is charters and virtual education.  There is a fine line between offering choices to families in need and stripping resources from the public schools.  You need to find it. Charter enrollment in our urban centers is at all time highs.  Find ways to further encourage it, while requiring higher quality and greater oversight.  Virtual education, such as that mandated by Florida, is the future, and needs to be further explored to expand learning opportunities, particularly in our urban and rural schools.  Options are key if we are to give every child a chance at opportunity.

* Parental Involvement -- Now for my big idea.  I propose you actually establish an Office of Family and Community Engagement, an authorized body at the Assistant Secretary level that can get information into the hands of those who need it most.  The most recent regs from ED show that the current infrastructure isn't getting it done.  If you're serious about greater family involvement, turning off the TVs, and such, make the commitment to Family Engagement (and we do have to think beyond the traditional mother/father nuclear parent family structure). EdTrust has today's student attaining education at lower rates than their parents. That is a travesty.  And the responsibility falls on the family.  Parents are our first, and most durable, of teachers.  Equip them with information, help them build the paths and help them paint the picture of the value and need for education.  Create this new office, have it collaborate with OESE, OCO, and others, and see the impact of effectively collaborating with families and the community at large on education improvement.

Throughout the campaign, you demonstrated a keen understanding for the intersection between policy and communication.   That understanding must be applied to your education work as well.  On the whole, your predecessor did a poor job when it came to communicating, even with regard to some good policies.  Their thinking seemed to be people will realize this is good policy, and if they don't we'll make them because we are the federal government. That won't work for you.  You need to effectively sell your policies, and you need to sell them to a broad cross-section of audiences.  You need stakeholder buy-in from the beginning, and that buy-in comes from more than just the usual suspects.  Through a well-though-out, sustained public engagement plan, you can not only educate Americans on why education is important, you can actually change their thoughts and behaviors when it comes to the above issues and so many others.  And if you aren't sure how, just give me a call.

I realize, from recent media interviews, that education is not going to be a top three issue for your Administration.  That is understandable.  I was heartened to see it comes into the top five.  That just means there is more heavy lifting for your Department of Education and for those inside it to do more and make more change with less of the presidential bully pulpit.  We share a common goal -- a high quality education for all children.  Now we just need to build the team and execute the plan to move that goal into reality.  You have that chance.  Please take full advantage of it.  Yes, you -- and we -- can.


Patrick R. Riccards (aka Eduflack)



November 5th, 2008



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