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Legislative Update: December 15, 2011

With the clock ticking toward December 16—the date that the continuing resolution currently funding the government will expire—Congress continues to work on an FY 2012 budget plan. Appropriations committee conferees recently held one face-to-face meeting that lasted just long enough to make opening statements and proclaim publicly that of the nine unfinished spending bills, the troublemakers were Labor, Health, and Human Services and Education (LHHS) and Interior. For LHHS, the key funding issue is the Pell Grant program. There is also the policy rider issue, which pertains to provisions that would prevent implementation of the new health-care reform act. If Congress fails to come to agreement on these issues, funding for the Department of Education would be excluded from the FY 2012 omnibus budget, and instead program amounts would be frozen at the FY 2011 levels.

Passing a budget for FY 2012 is not the only unfinished business that threatens to spoil the holidays for Congress. For two weeks now, members have sparred over competing plans to extend and pay for the payroll tax cut that is set to expire on December 31. Several votes have been taken on several different proposals, and no plan has made it to the finish line. Although almost everyone wants the extension, there is little agreement about how to achieve it. Other items on which members agree but have not put forward plans to enact include preventing a sharp cut in physician Medicare payments and extending unemployment insurance. Disagreements surround the appointment of the head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the start date for work on the Keystone XL Pipeline. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has presented a single package in the House to address all these issues with so-called “pay-fors,” which will be tough for his most conservative caucus members to support and impossible for many Senate Democrats to swallow. The bill will then go to the Senate, where Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) predicts it will be defeated. Once this package is dispensed with and the political posturing ends, the real compromising will begin.

Congress has never spent Christmas in session, and a president very rarely cancels his family commitments over the holidays. Both actions will loom if agreements can’t be found. All parties involved have two weeks to get it done, and the ticking clock is getting louder every day.

AYPF Explores Providence Afterschool Programs 
On December 9, the American Youth Policy Forum held an event, “Using Data to Improve Quality in City-wide Afterschool Systems: Lessons from Providence’s AfterZone,” to detail efforts made in Providence, Rhode Island, to develop one of the first citywide afterschool systems in the country. The effort began in 2004, when Representative David Cicilline (D-R.I.) was mayor of Providence and launched the Providence Afterschool Alliance (PASA). PASA has brought together more than 150 program providers and serves as the governing body, coordinates advocacy efforts, and develops strategies to improve afterschool programs. Hillary Salmons, executive director of PASA, highlighted three systemic elements that have an impact on the success of the effort: (1) collective public/private leadership; (2) a coordinated system; and (3) quality improvement. The programs focus on middle school students, since research shows that they are the most underserved and difficult-to-reach population. Tina Kauh, a senior research associate at Public/Private Ventures (PPV), presented finding from the report AfterZone: Outcomes for Youth Participating in Providence’s Citywide After-School System. Among other findings, Kauh reported that participant attendance in school showed the greatest impact, with 25 percent fewer absences in seventh grade. Additionally, math performance showed signs of improvement by the end of seventh grade. The study also found that attendance in the program had a profound impact on the student outcomes. Being present matters, Kauh explained. Salmons said that in response to the study, AfterZone now targets students with chronic school absenteeism, encourages at-risk students to participate in summer programs, and recruits students year-round to participate. More information.   

NEA Releases New Agenda to Transform the Teaching Profession 
On December 8, National Education Association (NEA) president Dennis Van Roekel announced a new agenda aiming to “transform” the teaching profession and improve student learning. The three strategies highlighted in the report were drawn from best practices found among the top performing teachers in the country and from collaboration with the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching. “It’s about the kids,” Van Roekel said. “NEA aims to ensure that every student has a qualified, caring, and effective teacher. And NEA will support a stronger profession of teaching.” The first strategy is based on setting higher standards for teacher candidates and providing better training to ensure that a new teacher enters the classroom prepared to teach effectively. The second strategy is to provide support to teachers throughout their careers so that they remain highly effective. The third strategy defines the involvement of the NEA in giving teachers a voice at the local, state, and federal levels. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated, “Reforming public education to give all children the world-class education they deserve will take all of us—unions, parents, teachers, and government officials—stepping out of our comfort zones to challenge the status quo. NEA's Three-Point Plan for Reform outlines some necessary steps for transforming the teaching profession, and I also applaud the NEA for creating the commission and empowering it to push for what is right for students.  We look forward to seeing these proposals implemented in schools.” More information.   

Coalition Highlights Importance of Effective Teaching 
On December 8, the Coalition for Teaching Quality held an event, “Student Access to Prepared and Effective Teachers: Understanding the Impact of Federal Policy,” sponsored by Senator Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.). A panel of representatives from various organizations associated with the 84-member coalition identified inequity in teacher quality in low-income schools as a key component of low student achievement. Maribel Herida, a plaintiff in Renee v. Duncan, detailed her experience as a parent whose child was being taught by an intern who was deemed highly qualified under No Child Left Behind. Herida urged policymakers to change the law, arguing that no student teacher can be highly qualified if she must leave the school to attend school herself two days a week. Through Herida’s efforts as part of the local school board, the number of intern teachers in her school district has decreased from 163 in 2007 to 49 in 2011. Her goal is to employ zero interns as full-time lead teachers to ensure that each classroom is led by a truly highly qualified, effective teacher. The panelists highlighted numerous paths to effectiveness and their needs for federal support. Among other recommendations, the panelists suggested supporting historically black colleges and universities, using teacher residency programs, providing support to teachers working in at-risk schools, supporting programs that demonstrate how to teach diverse learners, and defining a highly qualified teacher. The panel urged Congress to pass S. 1716, the Assuring Successful Students through Effective Teaching Act of 2011, to support efforts to improve teacher effectiveness. More information.   

National Assessment Governing Board Releases 2011 TUDA Results 
On December 7, the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) hosted an event, “The Nation’s Report Card: Mathematics and Reading 2011, Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA).”  Tonya Miles, moderator of the event and a NAGB member, explained that the TUDA is the longest ongoing national assessment that provides an indication of how students in 21 of the nation’s largest urban districts are performing. Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, noted that participation in this assessment for fourth and eighth graders is voluntary by the selected districts. Overall, the trends in the scores since the first assessment in 2003, with the exception of this year, demonstrate improvement in almost every district in both reading and mathematics. This year, although students demonstrated increases in math, they did not show similar increases in reading. Specifically, the 2011 eighth-grade math scores increased by three points from 2009, but there was no statistically significant change in reading scores for grade 4.  Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, summarized the progress, observing, “Most districts have seen reading gains nominally better than those of the nation … and improvement since 2003.” Andres Alonso, chief executive officer for the Baltimore City Public Schools, suggested why Baltimore’s reading scores were not rising along with the math scores. He believes that a focus on math by the district has contributed to the lower reading scores and that “a change in culture” will be the key to increasing these scores. Alonso said that the key to a successful future is rigorous instruction, the adoption of the Common Core Standards, and a focus on teacher effectiveness. More information.  

DQC Releases 2011 Analysis of Student Achievement Improvement 
On December 1, The Data Quality Campaign (DQC) released its seventh annual report, Data for Action 2011: DQC’s State Analysis, which highlights states’ progress toward building and using statewide longitudinal data systems to improve student achievement. DQC executive director Aimee Guidera outlined the current education landscape and its set of issues, such as the demand for higher expectations and the simultaneous decrease in resources owing to budget constraints. The report details how to make better decisions to achieve these goals while making sure that education remains effective in improving student achievement. Those methods include improving student outcomes; increasing efficiency in data usage; achieving higher levels of systematic transparency; and revamping system performance overall at the local school level. The report shows schools’ progress towards implementing 10 elements deemed essential for statewide longitudinal data systems, and the data indicates that 36 states have implemented all 10 elements. This is a great improvement, since no state had all 10 elements implemented in 2005. However, no state has taken all 10 actions identified for ensurint effective data use. Arkansas leads the way with 9 of the 10 state actions. The findings indicate that states have made great progress, with better data, improved access to that data, increased awareness, and more effective efforts toward long-term sustainability. Every state was said to have collected robust data beyond test scores, and the states leading in these areas were presented as proof that it is possible to tackle tough issues with proper and effective data use. Though many states have implemented longitudinal data systems and established government bodies, 36 states have not identified critical ways to collaborate and create cross-agency data efforts. Only six states share teacher performance data with teacher preparation programs, and the report highlights sharing feedback with such providers as the next step to increasing achievement and decreasing the gap. Though many strides toward an improved education system have been made, DQC’s report shows that much work remains to be done and suggests effective use of data as the way to accomplish it. More information.  

Brookings Institution Hosts Event on School Choice 
On November 30, the Brookings Institution hosted a briefing, “School Choice and Education Reform,” and also released a Brookings Paper, The Education Choice and Competition Index: Background and Results 2011.  The paper’s author, Grover Whitehurst, a senior fellow and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, explained that the current barriers to school choice disproportionally impact families that are poor and immobile because the upper 50 percent of the socioeconomic echelon is already engaging in school choice through neighborhood selection or private schools. Whitehurst explained that the report developed an Education Choice and Competition Index that measured the largest districts in America and scored them according to 12 criteria: (1) availability of alternative schools, (2) policies on virtual education, (3) funding following the student, (4) restructuring or closing unpopular schools, (5) assignment mechanism, (6) application (where parents can apply to any school in the district), (7) comparable standards and assessments, (8) gain scores, (9) accessible online information, (10) additional performance data, (11) transportation, and (12) school quality. Whitehurst said the research show that “parents should be provided with the maximum amount of choice with a clear idea of a school’s performance to make an educated decision, and the money should follow the child.” New York City’s school district received the highest grade in the index, and Joel Klein, former New York City Schools chancellor, spoke about the actions that the district took to promote school choice, explaining, “Choice was a key lever for change in New York City.” Klein reported that there are 17,000 spots in high-quality charter schools and that 64,000 low-income parents applied for them for their children. More information.  

ED Releases New Comparability Study 
On November 30, the Department of Education released a report, Comparability of State and Local Expenditures among Schools within Districts: A Report from the Study of School-Level Expenditures, which served as the first-ever national data collection on school-level expenditures in 2008-09. The findings indicate that schools are not equitably distributing state and local funds, leading to less funding for schools that serve low-income students. The study revealed that 40 percent of schools that receive Title I funding spent less on teachers than their counterparts in the same district. In an accompanying policy brief, The Potential Impact of Revising the Title I Comparability Requirement to Focus on School-Level Expenditures, an analysis found that Title I schools would need just one percent of the average district’s total spending for comparable spending. The added resources would provide a 4 to 15 percent increase in the budget of schools serving low-income students. As the Title I program is meant to provide the resources to schools to better serve at-risk students, the law requires that “districts ensure that Title I schools receive “comparability of services” from state and local funds, so that federal funds can serve their intended purpose of supplementing equitable state and local funding.” In the absence of a requirement for districts report school-level expenditures, it is possible for schools to appear to be equal, through a districtwide salary schedule, for example, when the reality is very different. More information.   

CAP Discusses Efforts to Improve Teacher Effectiveness 
On November 29, the Center for American Progress (CAP) held an event, “Professional Development and Teacher Evaluation in Improving Teacher Effectiveness,” to highlight the release of two reports and discuss efforts to improve teacher effectiveness. Craig Jerald, president of Break the Curve Consulting, said that few professional development models have been proven effective, and it is imperative that incentives are provided to schools and districts to implement proven strategies with fidelity. Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and director of the  Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the university, argued that professional development is a “critical pathway to achieving performance improvement,” and urged that metrics be put in place to quantify progress and effectiveness. Glenda Partee, associate director for teacher quality at CAP, moderated a second panel that discussed teacher evaluation systems in high schools. John H. Tyler, associate professor of education, economics, and public policy at Brown University, explained that the best evaluation systems will incorporate all available information into the evaluation of a teacher, use technology effectively, and identify variation in teacher effectiveness. Rorie Harris, coordinator of Teacher Effectiveness Measurement for Memphis City Schools, explained the Teacher Effectiveness Measure (TEM) rubric: 35 percent is based on value added, 15 percent includes other measures of student achievement, 40 percent is based on classroom observation, 5 percent is dependent on student perception, and the final 5 percent is measured by teacher knowledge. Patricia Bishop, professional development trainer for Hillsborough County, Florida, explained that principals were responsible for evaluations in the past but found that they did not have the time and that teacher mentors now lead the evaluations. In explaining accommodations for high school teachers, Bishop highlighted that pretests and posttests are given to students in every subject to measure student achievement. More information.  

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