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Legislative Update: February 5, 2013

Capitol Hill was bustling last week even though only the Senate was in session. Bills began moving, and hearings of great interest to the public were held. Recently, the House passed a three-month extension of the debt ceiling, allowing the federal government to borrow what it needs to pay the bills until mid-May. Last week the Senate followed suit. Spokespersons for the Treasury Department admitted that they might be able to keep going into the summer months, giving lawmakers additional time to come up with a longer-term agreement. The Senate also passed the final bill to pay for the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy after months of haggling that pitted Democratic and Republican members of the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut delegations against the GOP leadership in the House of Representatives, boosting the federal deficit even more.

With a resolution to the immediate debt ceiling crisis in hand, the next financial hurdle for Congress will be the looming sequester. In spite of the deep cuts that the sequester will impose—5.1 percent on non-defense discretionary spending and 7.1 percent on defense spending, it is beginning to feel as though Congress is resigned to the automatic reductions. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) continues to encourage his colleagues to work on an alternative, but a new plan has not emerged. An across-the-board cut is always a popular alternative for Congress, versus picking winners and losers, and the former is what sequester negotiations would force. If sequestration, the cuts will apply to the unresolved FY2013 budget. A continuing resolution that extends the FY2012 spending level and is due to expire on March 27 is funding all government agencies at this time. Imposing the sequester means reductions that would put programs below that funding level.

As though this weren’t confusing enough, we learned just this week that the Office of Management and Budget has sent preliminary figures to all agencies for the FY 2014 budget. In a process called the “pass back,”the president generally submits his budget to Congress approximately one month after this exercise. This makes the likelihood of a yearlong continuing resolution, with or without the sequester deductions in place, the most likely scenario for a budget for FY 2013.

Turning to the congressional agenda, we note that two major policy issues that the 113th Congress will try to address this year are immigration reform and gun control and violence prevention in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown. The Senate Judiciary Committee launched the first of what are anticipated to be many hearings on the issue of guns last week. Several other committees will follow suit in the months ahead. A bipartisan group of eight Senators unveiled the principles for an immigration reform bill, and the president immediately followed suit, though their respective outlines shared many similarities. It is rumored that House Republicans are also working on an immigration reform bill. Gaining bipartisan consensus on immigration policy will be a far more difficult task in the House of Representatives than in the Senate. And finally, to wrap up our report on Congress, we note that two of the president’s cabinet nominations came before Senate Committees last week—Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) for secretary of state and former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) for secretary of defense. Kerry sailed through both his hearing and a confirmation vote on the floor of the Senate, whereas Hagel met a tougher crowd and stiff opposition from members of his own party. No floor vote on Hagel’s nomination is set. The Senate will host another nominee soon, since last Friday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu resigned his post.

Writing and the Common Core
Education Weekhosted a webinar last Tuesday on “Teaching Writing in the Common-Core Era” to highlight the shared, cross-curricular responsibility for teaching writing and to provide guidance on writing instruction that builds college- and career-ready skills. The writing process was described as one that is “idiosyncratic” and largely determined by genre, purpose, and audience. Content area teachers determine the genre emphasis of their discipline and incorporate multiple models in a series of mini-lessons to teach students writing in a particular content area. Other recommendations for teaching writing include having students engage in journal writing, group discussions, peer review opportunities, and working with “wonder walls”—a series of questions displayed around the classroom for students to share comments on by using sticky notes. Teachers need to think about (1) how to help students use writing to explain, persuade, and convey real or imagined experiences, (2) how to scaffold instruction to introduce short and long writing assignments to students, and (3) how to show students the genres of writing that are appropriate for their discipline. Some best practices for teaching college- and career-ready writing that were discussed included building on prior knowledge, engaging writers in developing a context/subject logically, responding and revising, sharing with real readers by hosting a school writing night or community showcase event, providing research assignments that look at different careers and involve an interview, and asking students to reflect on their writing. More info 

Hearing on Gun Violence
The Senate Committee on the Judiciary held its first hearing last Wednesday to discuss “What Should America Do About Gun Violence?” Chaired by Senator Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), the hearing concluded after four hours of testimony and questions and hosted an audience of more than 200 people. Prior to Senator Leahy’s opening statement, former congresswoman Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), who resigned her seat after being a victim of gun violence, shared a few words. “Too many children are dying, too many children. We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now,” she said. She told the members present to “be bold, be courageous,” in hopes of ending these senseless acts of violence. Chairman Leahy affirmed in his opening statement that the Second Amendment “is secure and will remain secure and protected,” but “lives are at risk when responsible people fail to stand up for laws that will keep guns out of the hands of those who will use them to commit mass murder.” Member questions ranged from specific concerns around magazine capacity to how to improve mental health services to prevent the occurrence of violent acts. More info 

After-school STEM Programs
Change the Equation recently hosted a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) salon to examine a new report from the Afterschool Alliance, Defining Youth Outcomes for STEM Learning in Afterschool. The report looks at reasonable expectations for after-school STEM learning and how these might inform after-school programming and funders’ investments in programs moving forward. Speakers noted that after-school programs complement in-school learning by engaging students in STEM topics in a flexible environment. As STEM-focused, hands-on after-school opportunities for students have grown and become more visible in recent years, after-school program funders have understandably asked program providers to track and document student outcomes to prove effectiveness. A lack of consensus about what outcomes are appropriate for after school programs—and what the relationship is between afterschool programming and in-school performance—complicates these demands. The featured report is the result of a 10-month study of data from experienced after-school providers and supporters, who were asked to identify appropriate and feasible outcomes. A consensus on outcomes, indicators, and sub-indicators that emerged in study participants’ responses provides a framework for mapping how afterschool programs contribute to larger STEM education goals. Respondents said that the afterschool programs help youth to (1) develop an interest in STEM and STEM learning activities, (2) develop capacities to engage productively in STEM learning activities, and (3) come to value the goals of STEM and STEM learning activities. The report also shows a shared agreement that after-school STEM programs are best positioned to affect indicators of learning in the following rank order: (1) active participation in STEM learning opportunities; (2) curiosity about STEM topics, concepts, or practices; (3) ability to engage productively in STEM processes of investigation; (4) awareness of STEM professions; (5) ability to exercise STEM-relevant life and career skills; and (6) understanding the value of STEM in society. Watch a recording of the event. 

School Counselors
The American School Counselor Association (ASCA), the National Education Association (NEA), and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) held a Capitol Hill briefing last Thursday. The briefing, “School Counselors Fostering a Safe and Supportive School Climate,” discussed the impact of school counselors on the lives of children and highlighted the importance of supporting social and emotional development. More info  

School Level Assessment Data
As part of ongoing efforts to increase transparency, the Department of Education last Thursday released school-level assessment data in reading for all students in the country for the school years 2008–09, 2009–10, and 2010–11. This is the first time this performance data has been released under the requirements of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The data provides information on each student who participated in the assessment and received a valid score. Also included is the percentage of students who scored at or above the level considered proficient for the grade by the state. Additionally, subgroup data is included, both at each grade level and school-wide. “It is important for the department to continually provide transparency into our programs and the performance of our schools,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “Releasing this school-level assessment data is an important step toward that goal. As we know, test scores alone will never determine how effective our schools are, and we are working to release more varied school-level data that we collect over the coming months.” More info 

Gains in High School Graduation Rates
On January 22, the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a report documenting gains in rates of high school completion. The study, based on 2009–2010 data, estimated that 78 percent of students nationwide graduated within four years of entering ninth grade, an increase of two percentage points over the previous year. Additionally, the report found a 10 percent increase in Hispanic graduation rates, with 71 percent graduating in 2010 compared with 61 percent in 2006. According to the report, African Americans have the lowest high school completion rate, at 66 percent, whereas Asians have the highest rate, at 93 percent. “The new NCES report is good news. After three decades of stagnation, the on-time graduation rate for high school students in the 2009–10 school year is the highest it’s been since at least 1974,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement following the report’s release. However he did acknowledged that the “high school dropout rate is still unsustainably high for a knowledge-based economy and still unacceptably high in our African-American, Latino, and Native-American communities.” More info 

Journal on the Common Core
The National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) held a webinar on January 23, “Implementing the Common Core Standards: From Inception to the College and Career Ready Agenda.” Highlighting a journal released in September 2012, The State Education Standard: Implementing the Common Core, the webinar provided the history of the Common Core and emphasized that the standards are content standards, defining what students should know and be able to do, rather than performance standards, defining what students need to achieve to claim mastery. The Common Core grew out of comparisons between the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results and state assessment results and concerns about global competitiveness. Students often tested higher on state assessments than on the national assessment, and this was cause for concern. Policymakers took note and determined that state standards had to be improved, but it has been made clear throughout history that these efforts must be led by individual states. The Common Core aims to provide fewer, clearer, and higher standards for students. The webinar also highlighted the Common Core’s “15 percent rule”: Up to 15 percent of a state’s standards may differ from the Common Core. As of late 2011, 30 states had not yet publicly declared whether they would make use of the option. At the time of the journal’s publication, eight states had formally decided against invoking the rule, whereas eight states had chosen to make use of it. Most commonly, states chose to add to the English language arts standards by incorporating cultural lessons specific to the state’s demographics. Some states added math standards, particularly related to currency and early financial literacy. More info 

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