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Legislative Update: June 6, 2013

If your interest is education policy and federal spending on education programs, you probably found it hard to believe that Congress was in recess last week in Washington. On the Senate side of the Capitol, lights were on around the clock in both the majority and minority staff offices as they race to meet the June 11 deadline for a markup of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization proposal. With negotiations between Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the committee, having ended, it was all hands on deck to produce two bills—one that would garner only Democratic support and the other only Republican. Given the Democratic majority on the HELP Committee, we already know which side will win, but it is fair to ask, “Win what?” A purely partisan education bill faces a very uncertain future on the floor of the Senate.

The situation was quite similar on the House side of the Capitol, except that the winning team there will be the Republicans. Education and the Workforce Committee chairman John Kline (R-Minn.), fresh from his student loan victory, has turned his sights on ESEA once again. It is unclear whether he will simply dust off the bill from the previous Congress or make amendments to the legislation prior to its introduction, in light of the new members on the committee. Regardless of the chairman’s efforts, the Democratic chorus will be shouting “Nay” in unison. Ranking member George Miller (D-Calif.) is working on his own substitute amendment, which will similarly be endorsed by only his party and be rejected by the committee Republicans. In the House, however, the committee might not be the end of the line. If Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) wants to schedule time for an education debate, the bill is sure to pass with strong Republican support and few, if any, Democratic votes.

Which takes us back to the question, “Win what?” If Chairman Harkin was unwilling to move a bipartisan ESEA bill last year because he was unwilling to negotiate a House bill that had no Democratic supporters, then why would he want to take a partisan ESEA bill to the Senate floor for debate? It’s a mystery.

Turning to federal education funding, the scenario is similar. The Senate Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee (LHHS), with its relatively generous allocation for FY 2014, is planning to mark up a bill in late July. With Democrats in charge, that bill will make it out of the subcommittee and through the full appropriations committee, but floor action in the Senate is questionable. The House LHHS Subcommittee faces a different challenge. In spite of an allocation that will force deep cuts (more than 20 percent) for the appropriations bill that is produced, the cuts are not likely to be drastic enough for Appropriations Chairman Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) to get enough Republican votes for passage. Instead, the most likely scenario is a repeat of the situation in FY 2012, when the chairman introduced a bill that was never taken up by the subcommittee but became the vehicle for an attempted conference with the Senate. Because no agreement could be reached, a continuing resolution provided a budget for the Department of Education. Sadly, this all feels like Groundhog Day.

The Administration’s Proposed Preschool Initiative
On May 29, the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution and the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management hosted Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former Congresswoman Nancy Johnson, and a panel of early education and policy experts who discussed the president’s proposed preschool initiative. Both Secretary Duncan and former Congresswoman Johnson expressed optimism about a bill passing in Congress. From his positive experiences with governors of both parties, Duncan said that a bipartisan coalition of support for the bill can be built and that the largest obstacle ahead will be getting politicians to believe in the long-term benefit of the $75 billion investment. Speaking from her experience as a former member of Congress, Johnson said that she thinks there is a chance that the bill can gain enough support from the Republican majority in the House to pass. Johnson recommended that the “pay for” or tax increase provision to support the proposal be better explained in order to sway Republican members of Congress. Watch an archived webcast of the event.

Connected Learning
The Alliance for Excellent Education recently hosted a webinar focused on “connected learning”—a framework that draws on the power of technology to link young people’s interests, social networks, and academic achievement. The panelists discussed the research, design, and implementation of connected learning. “We can’t predict what the jobs of the future are going to be. The way we educate now may not prepare young people for the workforce,” one panelist explained. The principles of connected learning can be applied to existing programs and support stronger alignment of learning standards. More info 

Department of Education Highlights the Work of i3 Grantees 
On May 30, the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement held a briefing, “Investing in Innovation (i3) Three Years Later: How Grantees Are Successfully Improving Low-Performing School via National Reform Networks,” to highlight the work of three i3 grantees and their program models. The grantees’ models link individual schools to larger reform networks that provide support for implementation and place schools in “national communities of shared practice.” The speakers focused on how their program models use research-based approaches, including data-driven instruction and a variety of collaborative activities among teachers and administrators to implement academic and social supports. More info 

ED Announces Three New NCLB Waiver Approvals
On May 20, the Department of Education (ED) approved three more requests for waivers from the most onerous provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), in exchange for state-developed plans to prepare all students for college and career, focus aid on the neediest students, and support effective teaching and leadership. The newly approved states are Alaska, Hawaii, and West Virginia. ED began offering waivers in the fall of 2011 in response to Congressional inaction on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which has been due for a congressional rewrite since 2007. Eight states— Alabama, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming, plus the Bureau of Indian Education and Puerto Rico—have outstanding requests for waivers. Additionally, five states—California, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota (request withdrawn), and Vermont (request withdrawn)—have not yet requested flexibility. California has notified the department that the state does not plan to request ESEA flexibility for the next school year, and instead will focus on implementing the new Common Core State Standards. ED will continue its consideration of a separate request for waivers from the CORE districts in California. More info 

Advocates for Literacy Highlight STEM Connection 
On May 20, the Advocates for Literacy discussed the link between science and literacy as well as the necessary preconditions for successful science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. The first speaker, Brenda Becker, superintendent of Hempfield School District in Landisville, Pennsylvania, explained that the focus in her district has been on “helping teachers become better at their craft,” and part of this effort has been an increased emphasis on assisting teachers with data analysis. One result of the more focused look at data has been the recognition that at the secondary school level, students’ comprehension of higher level math concepts is not the problem, but rather, their ability to read and understand actual math problems is the issue. Becker noted that secondary school teachers are taught little pedagogy in their preservice training because the emphasis is on content knowledge. Consequently, a portion of the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy (SRCL) funds that the Hempfield School District received from the State’s SRCL grant has gone to professional development in reading and writing for secondary school teachers. Specifically, this funding has allowed the district to hire literacy coaches and provide mandatory professional development workshops focused on 21st-century skills, such as critical thinking, comprehension of high-level technical reading, and writing. Chris Bird, a veteran physics teacher at Fairfax High School in Fairfax, Virginia, added, “A single word can derail a whole math problem for students.” He also observed that the difference between the best science students and best science research students at Fairfax High School comes down to a difference in communication skills. The student researchers have better literacy skills. More info 

Report on Data Standards and Interoperability Issues 
The State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) released a report on May 21 addressing the issues facing K–12 data standards and information systems, Transforming Data to Information in Service of Learning. In response to the need for a simple explanation of technical information for school administrators and teachers, the report aims to provide an outline of current improvement efforts and interoperability initiatives in a context that educational leaders can understand. In sum, the report serves to make this technical information more clear for educators in hopes that issues and initiatives can be more accurately addressed and implemented. At the report release, panelists presented their input on interoperability initiatives currently taking place in their respective state education systems. More info 

Learning Forward Highlights the Common Core
Learning Forward and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) recently hosted an event titled “Advancing Common Core: State Strategies for Transforming Professional Learning.” The event featured opening remarks by Stephanie Hirsch, executive director of Learning Forward, who described how the featured state, Kentucky, had been chosen as the focus of the professional learning academy developed by Learning Forward, as well as the political and educational challenges facing states that are trying to implement the Common Core State Standards. She added that Learning Forward believes that teacher training and professional development must be transformed for this enormous effort to be successful. The purpose of the event, according to Hirsch, was to explore exactly how representative states are in fact collaborating to create what she calls “coherent systems of professional learning” that provide teachers with the tools they need to be successful. Hirsch introduced Kentucky commissioner of education Terry Holliday to talk about how the state had become engaged in early implementation of the Common Core and the partnership that had been created with Learning Forward. Holliday attributed the willingness of the Kentucky legislature to commit to the Common Core to its recognition of the fact that students had to be better prepared for college and careers in order for Kentucky to attract and keep businesses like GE in the state. The adoption of a more rigorous curriculum and a complete transformation of the professional learning provided to teachers throughout the state has helped maintain the interest of the business sector. Moreinfo  

Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee Discusses STEM skills 
On May 22, Mary Landrieu (D-La.), chair of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee and ranking member Jim Risch (R-Idaho) held a roundtable discussion, “Bridging the Skills Gap: How the STEM Education Pipeline Can Develop a High-Skilled American Workforce for Small Business.” Participants included numerous small business leaders and government employees. Senator Landrieu opened the discussion by asking the central question: What are the skills that potential employees need to support the growth and expansion of small businesses, and is the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744) a step in the right direction? Ranking member Risch discussed the importance of fostering an understanding and interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in children at an early age to build a STEM-educated U.S. workforce. Joan Ferrini-Mundy, assistant director of education and human resources for the National Science Foundation (NSF), noted the high attrition rate among students who begin college in a STEM field but do not graduate with a STEM degree. She said that NSF efforts to increase retention have focused on trying to provide students with high-quality teachers, engaging hands on activities, and real-life experiences through fellowships. Learn more (includes recording).

Observation as a Tool for Teacher Evaluations
On May 22, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) held the event “Improving Teaching through Teacher Evaluation” to discuss the complexities of observation used for teacher evaluations. The event featured expert presenters who highlighted the history of teacher evaluations to support a better understanding of the current state of evaluations. Previous efforts have relied on checklists with infrequent observations providing teachers with little feedback that could lead to improvement. This system resulted in 97 percent of teachers receiving satisfactory ratings, a percentage that was clearly too high. Currently, efforts to evaluate teachers are based on multiple measures, including some sort of value-added method. Presenters noted that the goal of an observation system is to “guide the improvement of teaching and inform human capital decisions.” Findings from ETS research supports two challenges that were discussed: (1) “observers vary in the consistency of their judgments,” and although they gain accuracy over time, their observational results remain below “acceptable levels of reliability”; and (2) “the struggles observers face are systemic,” in that principals do not agree with each other more often than master observers, and teachers and observers do not agree on the quality of their instruction. More info 

Making Teachers Comfortable with Technology
The Alliance for Excellent Education recently held the seventh in its series of webinars as part of Project 24, an effort to help school districts plan for the effective use of technology and digital learning to achieve the goal of career and college readiness for all students. This webinar, “Build Your People: Professional Learning That Creates a Teacher Workforce for the Digital Age,” looked at the role of ongoing professional learning that can build the capacity of a teaching staff to implement personalized learning environments to prepare all students for college and a career. The participants shared lessons learned on how to integrate and embed powerful professional learning experiences for all teachers and staff. Watch the webinar.

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