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Legislative Update: February 2, 2012

Both chambers of Congress were in session in Washington last week following an extended recess. President Obama greeted them with a lengthy State of the Union (SOTU) address that was—not surprisingly—praised by Democrats and panned by Republicans. Now that both parties have heard the president’s wish list for the year and have held their respective annual retreats to plan their legislative agendas, activity can begin—we all hope. Presidential, not congressional, politics are stealing most of the public’s attention at the moment. Republican primary debate number 19 was held in Florida last week, and the fourth primary vote took place in that state on Tuesday, with Mitt Romney claiming all the delegate votes. So far, there is no clear challenger to President Obama, who will be seeking his second term in November.

The release of the administration’s FY 2013 budget has been postponed until February 13, providing more time to study the recommendations from the SOTU and anticipate this year’s funding priorities for education. In his speech, President Obama presented a strong case for making college more affordable, reforming teacher education programs, reducing classroom time spent on testing, and supporting talented teachers. He highlighted the impact of the Race to the Top Program as a catalyst for education reform and underscored the important role that community colleges can play in retraining workers, reiterating his view that education is the path to economic recovery.

The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is still the major business before education committees in the Congress. The draft bills released recently by House Education and the Workforce Committee chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) will soon be introduced as legislation and marked up in the Committee, probably before the end of February. Without any Democratic support, it is unlikely that the Senate will take up the House measure or its own bill, leaving Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as the key education policymaker as he approves state waivers from the provisions of the No Child left Behind Act (NCLB). Clearly, the administration views the waiver plan as preferable to either the bipartisan bill produced by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee or the Kline drafts. The second round of waiver applications is due shortly. Forty states have indicated their intentions to submit applications, having lost faith in Congressional action.

The Congress did complete some important bipartisan business last week. The debt ceiling was raised by $1.2 trillion, without the acrimonious debate this action usually generates. And in the House, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) accepted the resignation of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who cited her need for additional time to recover from a gunshot wound sustained last year. Just before that ceremony, in a rare display of unity, the House unanimously approved a bill that has been important to Congresswoman Giffords, affecting border states.  

President Delivers Third State of the Union Address 

On January 24, President Barack Obama delivered his third State of the Union (SOTU) address. After a year filled with attempts to improve the condition and prospects of the middle class and the ensuing partisan arguments about how to do so, the president did not stray from the message he has delivered in speeches in recent weeks and months. In Obama’s 2011 address, education played a prominent role; this year, it was folded into the third of the four main pillars of his speech—manufacturing, energy, worker training, and American values. He called for community colleges to become “community career centers” to train two million Americans with the skills that will lead directly to jobs. He also said, “Our commitment to skills and education has to start earlier.” Offering a new nationwide policy to increase the country’s high school graduation rate, he declared, “We also know that when students don’t walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better. So tonight, I am proposing that every state—every state—requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.” The president also highlighted initiatives and programs already underway that he considers successes. At the top of his list was the Race to the Top program and other initiatives initially funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Obama stated, “For less than one percent of what our nation spends on education each year, we’ve convinced nearly every state in the country to raise their standards for teaching and learning—the first time that’s happened in a generation.” The president expressed his desire to “offer schools a deal” to let go of the status quo and to provide them with the resources necessary to keep and retain quality teachers and “reward the best ones.” In referring to this new program proposal, he said, “In return, [we will] grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.” In addition, he argued that through the reform of teacher education programs, carving out steps for career advancement that are tied to performance, and providing leadership opportunities for teachers, this new initiative would revamp the profession and expand an established program favored by the administration—the Teacher Incentive Fund. More information.
Read the SOTU address.

GAO Finds Overlap in STEM Programs, Urges Planning and Evaluation 

The number of reports on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education increased this week as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that suggests the federal government’s $3 billion annual investment in STEM education initiatives contains a number of programs with overlapping goals and target audiences. The report, requested by House Education and the Workforce Committee chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) and Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), notes the overlaps, but also states that overlap does not necessarily indicate duplication. “Even when programs overlap, the services they provide and the populations they serve may differ in meaningful ways and would therefore not necessarily be duplicative,” the report stated. In fiscal year 2010, 13 federal agencies were sponsoring 209 STEM programs, at a  cost of $3 billion. This examination mimics the inventory of federal STEM education programs recently completed by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), as well as other examinations of federal STEM education programs that have occurred in recent years. The GAO said STEM programs need to be “well coordinated and guided by a robust strategic plan” to ensure that they are aligned without duplication, and the report points to the imminent release of a plan from OSTP. The GAO also suggested that programs need better evaluation, a point reiterated in Chairman Kline’s comments on the release: “In recent years, the federal government has dedicated significant resources to developing STEM programs, yet taxpayers have seen little evidence that these programs are actually working. According to the GAO, only about a quarter of the 209 federal STEM programs have been evaluated for efficacy since 2005, and nearly 90 percent overlap with at least one other program.” Read the report.

EdWeek Examines STEM Specialty Schools 

On January 17, Education Week hosted a webinar that examined the concept and proliferation of STEM-focused schools. These schools focus on preparing students for study and careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields and have recently been buoyed by the president’s call for the creation of hundreds of new STEM schools. The session featured Sharon Lynch, a science education professor at George Washington University, who outlined the need for and benefits of STEM schools. She said that although STEM schools historically have targeted the top math and science students in a state or district, schools in the new wave have a broader reach, with many of them aimed at serving populations that are underrepresented in STEM fields, such as African-American, Hispanic, female, and low-income students. She cited statistics that show that pursuit of STEM studies and careers act as equalizers in the workplace, since in these fields the differentials in pay among varying genders and races are the smallest. Steven Zipkes, founding principal at Manor New Technology High School in Manor, Texas, noted that the emphasis on collaboration and project-based learning in STEM-focused schools serves all the students in their future endeavors, whether they pursue two-year, four-year, or graduate degrees—in STEM fields or other areas—or choose to enter the workplace immediately after high school. He also said that engagement in the STEM fields supports increased achievement in all academic areas and behaviors. Listen to the archived webinar.

ED Releases Strategic Plan for FY 2011–2014 

On January 13, the Department of Education (ED) posted its draft strategic plan for fiscal years 2011–2014. The plan contains six goals: (1) to increase college access, quality, and completion through the improvement of postsecondary education, career-technical education, and adult education; (2) to increase the number of students who are college or career ready through the improvement of classroom instruction and rigorous academic standards while providing support services; (3) to improve early learning through effective services addressing health, social, emotional, and cognitive outcomes for high-need children from birth to third grade; (4) to improve the use of data, research, evaluation, transparency, innovation, and technology to improve and enhance the education system; (5) to continue to provide an equitable education to all students; and (6) to increase and improve ED’s organizational capacity to address and implement this strategic plan appropriately. The draft also highlights three points of focus: (1) an emphasis on early learning; (2) a commitment to college readiness for all high school graduates; and (3) the provision of supports to students to ensure that they complete postsecondary education with a credential such as a degree or certificate. More information

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