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Legislative Update: October 21, 2013

Budget and Appropriations
On October 16th—the 16th day of fiscal year 2014—Congress “got its act together” and negotiated a deal that would reopen the federal government and increase the debt limit. The final deal, negotiated by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) after the House’s failed attempts at a remedy, was passed first in the Senate by a vote of 81 to 18. Then the country anxiously waited for the House of Representatives to vote. In a rare moment of bipartisanship, 87 Republicans voted with all 198 Democrats to pass the final bill and end the government shutdown. The roll call vote, which definitely broke the much-discussed “Hastert Rule,” was 285 to 144.

In the early morning hours of October 17, President Obama signed into law H.R. 2775, the Continuing Appropriations Act of 2014, and the White House budget chief, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, released a formal statement ordering federal workers back to work on Thursday morning. Unfortunately, alerting over a half million federal workers to return to their offices presents a challenge when they had been required to turn off their blackberries and work computers, but here’s hoping they were paying attention. The federal government has been reopened, and federal employees are likely to spend a few days digging out under from unanswered e-mail and phone messages. In a message to Education Department (ED) employees, Secretary Arne Duncan announced that his agency would get back to business but warned that it might take some time to get back up to speed, saying, “Please be patient, though. It took several weeks to prepare ED for a possible shutdown. Getting this agency back to full speed will take more than a day.”

Despite relief about the agreement, it can be argued that the deal once again represents “kicking the can down the road.” Although the measure funds the federal government through January 15, 2014, it does so at FY 2013 post-sequestration levels, meaning that sequestration has not been addressed in any way. As for the debt limit, the measure accommodates the country’s authority to borrow through February 7, 2014. These two elements of the bill represent a temporary agreement on spending and borrowing, and one that will have to be addressed again early in the new year. To that end, the bill attempts to address longer-term spending issues by establishing a bipartisan Budget Conference Committee composed of members from both the House and the Senate, who will—in theory—negotiate a FY 2014 long-term spending plan by December 13, 2013. With luck, they will find agreement where the “Supercommittee,” which left the country to contend with sequestration, couldn’t.

As is often the case with legislation, the bill includes some other policy changes. It would ensure that federal workers receive pay for the time they were furloughed. It also requires income verification for subsidy recipients under the new health-care exchanges—arguably the sole “win” for conservatives who wanted changes to the President’ health-care reform package. The education community has been buzzing about one particular provision of the bill—one that allows teachers participating in alternative certification programs to be considered “highly qualified” until the 2015–16 school year.

While a huge sigh of relief was heard in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday night, sorting out the collateral damage of the shutdown and Congressional bickering will take some time. The legislative calendar has seen precious days disappear, and hopes for bipartisan collaboration on a number of education policy issues might have to be recalibrated, regardless of what retiring Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) was hoping to accomplish before the end of next year.

National Press Club Hosts Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
On September 30th, the National Press Club hosted Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for the fifth consecutive year to hear about the state of American education. This year’s remarks were tinged with clear disapproval of the Congressional failure to pass a fiscal year 2014 funding measure to keep the government open and continued concerns around the sequester. Hours before the shutdown the secretary did express hope for a solution at the event, saying, “We have until midnight to solve this, and one thing I’ve learned in Washington is when there’s a will, there’s a way.” In his speech, the Secretary made clear the perceived divide between the “Washington bubble” and the “real world,” in how the education system is viewed. In the “alternate universe” that is Washington, DC, it is often believed that the federal government has no role in education, he said, but the local level has appreciation for federal guidance and funding. Referring to the Common Core State Standards, he reiterated that the development and adoption of common standards in English language arts and mathematics is a state-led effort, and those in Washington who are trying to paint the Common Core as a federal mandate are simply wrong. He said, “In the real world outside the Washington bubble, the vast majority of people aren’t debating if college and career-ready standards are needed. They’re not advancing false narratives about a federal takeover of schools by mind-controlling robots. They’re just doing the hard work of putting high standards into practice.” He asserted that the idea that issues of poverty must be addressed beforehand to improve the education system is a false choice, declaring that “poverty is not destiny.” Other topics highlighted in his speech included the role of technology in increasing access, keeping the cost of higher education down, improving teacher preparation, and new assessments to measure learning more accurately. When asked what would be the impact of a government shutdown on schools and children, Duncan responded, “I am worried. There is simply no upside,” and turning to the effects of the sequester, he added, “There is nothing I can do to mitigate the sequester… we just need Congress to get its act together.” More info  

AIR Discusses Competency-Based Education
On October 9th, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) hosted a webinar, “Competency-Based Education in Higher Education,” to discuss the recent trend among colleges of offering more massive open online courses (MOOCs). Becky Klein-Collins, director of research at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, began the discussion, noting, “The real crisis in higher education comes down to quality and cost.” She noted that MOOCs solve those problems by offering classes that produce better results and use fewer resources, a combination that correlates with a high-quality education at a lower cost. Klein-Collins also mentioned the evolution of the definition of “education.” She asserted that the quality of a student’s education does not rely on how or where he or she learns, but instead is dictated and measured by what a person learns and how they apply that knowledge.  Sandy Cook and Bill Ryan, system director and executive director, respectively, in the Learn on Demand program at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS), found that MOOCs at their institution contributed to an increase in completion rates. Ryan attributed the success of MOOCs to the flexibility that students experience while participating in the classes, including possibilities for better time management, and a setting that encourages students to learn at their own pace. Sally Johnstone, vice president for academic advancement at Western Governors University (WGU), explained that the MOOCs at WGU are student-centered as a result of the variety of resources made available for students to learn, including written materials, videos, online projects, and WGU’s full-time faculty mentors. Learn more about the webinar 

Education Groups Highlight Teacher Assessment
On October 9th, the Alliance for Excellent Education; Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity; and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education held a joint webinar, “Ensuring Readiness to Teach: EdTPA Support and Assessment.” The purpose of the webinar was to discuss the new edTPA teacher assessment program, which became operational in 28 states and the District of Columbia last month. EdTPA is “a performance-based assessment that shows how teacher candidates develop and evaluate student learning and support the Common Core State Standards in the classroom.” Panelists included Amee Adkins, associate dean, College of Education, Illinois State University; Becky Pringle, secretary-treasurer, National Education Association; Nicole Barrick Renner, teacher, Metro Nashville Public Schools; Sharon Robinson, president and chief executive officer, American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education; and Mariana Hayes, senior fellow, Alliance for Excellent Education. During the dialogue, Adkins emphasized that the edTPA program is an assessment “by the profession for the profession,” describing its reliance on substantive input from student teachers, teacher leaders, and academic experts. She explained that the program includes 15 standards to assess the wide-ranging and subject-specific facets of teacher quality and efficacy. Pringle explained the National Education Association’s “Raise Your Hand” initiative, which complements the edTPA program by focusing on successful students, accomplished professionals, dynamic collaboration, and empowered leaders. She emphasized that teachers must not teach in isolation but must instead develop “collective and collaborative autonomy” that engages them with their mentors, peers, and students to improve their art. Renner asserted that the edTPA program helps her, as a new teacher, apply the skills that she learned in school to the classroom, enforcing proper habits early on in her career. Robinson emphasized that the edTPA program ensures that teachers are ready on day one to make certain that their students are college and career ready on high school graduation. Finally, Dr. Hayes ended the discussion by highlighting the need for the edTPA program to focus on what matters most: the students. More info  

House Democrats Spotlight the Impact of the Sequester on Schools
On Thursday, George Miller (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) released a report on the impact of the sequester thus far on schools. The report is meant to draw attention back to the 5 percent across the board cuts that went into effect last March. Sequestration was once the most serious budgetary concern for schools, but now it is rivaled by the concerns about the effects of the partial government shutdown and the debt-ceiling debate. Using information gathered from local media sources across the states, Children and Families First: The Harsh Impact of the Sequester and Other Budget Cuts Since 2010 highlights specific instances in which federal funding cuts have directly and adversely impacted schools. According to the report, the Sioux City, Iowa, school district “is laying off up to 12 Title I reading staff, five special education staff, and 15 intervention staff funded through a federal grant.” Travis City Unified School District in Fairfield, California, now boasts an average high school class size of 39. Broward County schools in Florida have had to cut 5 of only 11 behavioral specialists; 10 special education program specialists; and an assistive technology position. View the complete report.

NEA Hosts Event on New Framework
On October 10th, the National Education Association (NEA) hosted a symposium on the topic “Great Public Schools (GPS) Indicators Framework” to unveil the seven-point criteria for great public schools. Becky Pringle, secretary-treasurer of the NEA, opened the symposium by thanking NEA’s Raise Your Hand team for their hard work in developing the GPS Indicators that are designed to bring policymakers, educators, and advocates together, under one framework, to evaluate the education system. To be a great public school, a school must be strong in seven areas: (1) school readiness, (2) standards and curriculum, (3) conditions of teaching and learning, (4) workforce quality, (5) accountability and assessments, (6) family and community engagement, and (7) school funding. Martin Blank, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership, began the panel discussion by stating that education reform occurs when there is a connected movement of multiple organizations and people. Chanelle Hardy, senior vice president for policy at the National Urban League, supported Blank’s perspective, noting that education is locally driven, and the best way to improve public education is through partnerships between local schools and parents, businesses, and the community. Panel members unanimously agreed that public schools will improve when outside involvement increases—and the involvement works both ways, with the community getting involved in the schools and educators getting involved in the community. Dr. Ivory Toldson, deputy director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, reflected on the fact that the GPS Indicators were written for states instead of school districts, and  proposed that the NEA produce a follow-up companion guide for school districts to drive reform at the local level. Learn more about the GPS Indicators.

OECD Releases New PIAAC Study
On October 8th, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released the results of the first Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), which measured the skills of 16 to 65-year-olds across 24 countries. The survey can be compared to the popular OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Similar to American students in international comparisons, American adults found themselves in the bottom half of countries surveyed in math, reading, and problem solving, lagging well behind adults in high-performing nations, including Japan and Finland. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated, “These findings should concern us all. They show our education system hasn’t done enough to help Americans compete—or position our country to lead—in a global economy that demands increasingly higher skills. While the PIAAC study places our highest-skilled adults on par with those in other leading nations, the findings shine a spotlight on a segment of our population that has been overlooked and underserved:  the large number of adults with very low basic skills, most of whom are working.” It is Interesting to note that the oldest U.S. adults fared the best on the survey, scoring closest to the world average, however the remaining age groups scored well under the international average in all subject areas. The Department of Education was set to publish a report on relevant policy implications when the partial government shutdown delayed the release. More info  

Change the Equation Examines College and Career Readiness
On October 1st, Change the Equation (CtE) hosted its October STEM Salon to discuss “Are College and Career Ready the Same Thing?” The event highlighted the ever-growing need for high-quality K-12 science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses. The panel included Kate Blosveren Kreamer, associate executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium (NASDCTEc); Amy Loyd, executive director of Pathways to Prosperity Network; Rob Vallentine, director of STEM education at Dow Chemical Company; and Linda Rosen, chief executive officer of CtE. The discussion began by comparing the opportunities available to a student earning a four-year degree from an institution of higher education with those available to a student participating in a career and technical education (CTE) program. Vallentine expressed concern about the negative associations that CTE sometimes has because CTE programs prepare individuals to enter the workforce in high-demand fields and create a pathway to higher earnings. Loyd underscored Vallentine’s perspective, noting that postsecondary education is beneficial for individuals to succeed in their future careers, but as reflected by declining college completion rates, attending a four-year university is not the only, or best, option for some students. She also observed that STEM subjects need to be introduced to younger students because early access to these fields can help steer students’ interest toward STEM, and students can connect the STEM subjects with other academic fields. Blosveren Kreamer discussed the implementation of Loyd’s comment: “STEM classes and CTE programs are one in the same and should be introduced to students in middle school as a way of showing students what career opportunities are available to them.” The other panelists agreed with both statements, and Rosen summarized the consensus noting, “All adults in a student’s life, including parents, teachers, and guidance counselors, should encourage students to experience numerous opportunities [related to] future career choices in order to see all of their options before their primary education comes to an end.” The discussion ended with a brief focus on STEM and CTE in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Blosveren Kreamer concluded that the CCSS mathematics curriculum covers the knowledge needed for many STEM fields. However, Vallentine asserted that the NGSS incorporates STEM and CTE in the curriculum in a more prominent manner, but more development and testing needs to be done before implementation. More information on the event.

State After-School Networks Improve Expanded Learning Opportunities
On Friday, September 27, the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) and the Afterschool Alliance cohosted a briefing to look at the ways in which states have taken a coordinated approach to expand learning opportunities for students through programs in which providers, schools, intermediaries, and other stakeholders all work together to provide high-quality programs aligned with the school day. Statewide after-school networks (SANs) have played a key factor in states that have been most successful at this coordinated approach. Currently SANs—supported by funding from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation—operate in 42 states and provide a range of services and coordinated supports, such as research, technical assistance, and resources to local stakeholders. Terry Peterson, director of the After School National Resource Network and chairman of the board of the Afterschool Alliance, wanted congressional staff to know that these networks are resources for them as well. Specifically SANs can gather, analyze, and share data to drive improvements in after-school programs as well as policy. SANs can also provide as experts and witnesses for hearings and other kinds of policy-related discussions, Peterson added. Further, state networks are acting as conveners by engaging local leaders in systemic planning that brings together a range of local and state decision makers, focused on high-quality expanded learning opportunities outside the traditional school day for all students. To share more specifics, Peterson then turned the program over to Laveta Wills-Hale, network coordinator of the Arkansas Out of School Network, and Michelle Doucette Cunningham, executive director of the Connecticut After School Network. Both panelists provided an overview of their work in leveraging partners and aligning resources in their respective states to support and improve after-school programs and summer learning opportunities. While focusing on building high-quality, SANs have improved program quality through training and technical assistance, sharing best practices, and developing assessment tools. In each instance, Wills-Hale and Cunningham noted the critical role that their organizations play in bringing a diverse set of stakeholders to sit around the same table. Viewed as “honest brokers,” SANs enable interagency collaboration to take place, resulting in getting more direct resources to the community. More information about the effectiveness of afterschool programs.

Stakeholders Discuss Partnerships in STEM
On Friday, September 27, the National Undergraduate STEM Partnership met at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to discuss current issues in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and related fields. Brian Fitzgerald, CEO of the Business-Higher Education Forum (BHEF), opened the meeting by outlining a strategy to improve partnerships in STEM. He noted that STEM innovation cannot be done nationally; all STEM innovation is local and determined by “regional comparative advantage.” Fitzgerald finished his opening remarks by unveiling a new BHEF report—The National Higher Education and Workforce Initiative: Forging Strategic Partnerships for Undergraduate Innovation and Workforce Development.” The meeting then featured a six-person panel discussion titled “Scaling Effective Practices: The Programs and Platforms Needed to Foster Change.” Panel member had ten minutes each to discuss their innovative practices and initiatives. David Asai, director of undergraduate science education programs at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), summarized the learning outcomes of HHMI’s Science Education Alliance project, Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES). This project has expanded to 70 campuses since the fall of 2008, helping more than 4,800 undergraduates get involved in national experiments of bacteriophage genomics that allow them to make significant contributions to the field of genomics. Michael Summers, professor of chemistry and HHMI investigator at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County (UMBC), spoke about the positive effect of diversity in college communities. On average, minority students from UMBC’s Meyerhoff Program are 5.3 times more likely to graduate or attend a STEM Ph.D. or M.D. /Ph.D. program, demonstrating the positive effects of undergraduate research on these students, as highlighted in the Engage to Excel report. Felix Ortiz, CEO of Viridis Learning, shifted the discussion to talk about STEM innovation through the lens of the company he created. Viridis Learning works to maximize a potential individual success through sophisticated algorithms that match middle-skilled workers to more skilled jobs that are in demand—such as careers in STEM. Read the new BHEF report.

SETDA Discusses Online Assessments
On October 15th, the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) hosted a webinar, “Ready for Online Assessments? Help is Here,” to discuss a series of case studies on online assessments. This was the second in a series of webinars aiming to provide helpful information about using the new online assessments that are being developed to accompany the Common Core State Standards. This webinar highlighted two case studies from the recent report, Implementing Online Assessments: Pathways to Success. The presentation featured Patches Hill, technology systems manager of Indian River (Delaware) School District, and Scott Smith, chief technology officer of Mooresville (North Carolina) Graded School District. The presentation focused on how these two school districts prepared to implement online assessments. Hill explained that Delaware is a small state that has been working on online assessment since the 2009–10 school year. With a “centralized statewide network that provides Internet connectivity to each school,” a statewide student accounting system that tracks accommodations used by each district, an annual school technology survey to determine readiness, and engaged stakeholders focused on ensuring the technology capacity of each school, the state was more prepared than most to agree to adopt the 2014 Common Core–aligned assessments. Hill stressed that without the prior work to ensure appropriate technological access, implementing the new assessments would be more of a challenge to. Delaware, Hill stated, even has a law that requires all state-mandated and high-stakes assessments to be administered digitally. Smith explained that his school district comprises eight schools, with about 5,900 K–12 students. In detailing his district’s transition to online assessments, he referred to a “digital conversion,” intended to “close the digital divide.” This effort focuses on building a school and community culture that is open to technology, using 21st-century tools and online resources, and finding ways to provide teachers with immediate feedback on student learning, including online assessments. This digital conversion influences teachers’ instructional practice and ultimately improves academic achievement. The district offers a MacBook Air to every teacher and student in grades 3–12. Since implementing the digital conversion, the 4-year cohort graduation rate at Mooresville High School has risen from 77 percent in 2007 to 90 percent in 2012. He explained that online assessments are used not only for end-of-the-year and end-of-course exams, but also for daily and quarterly assessments. Buy-in of all stakeholders was critical to the conversion, Smith asserted. More info  

NAF Hosts Discussion on New Early Childhood Report
On October 16th, the New America Foundation (NAF) hosted an event focused on the launch of a new report, Investing in Our Future: The Evidence Base on Preschool Education. One of the authors of the report, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, a professor at New York University, presented the findings, clarifying that the focus of the report is only on four-year olds. Yoshikawa explained that President Obama’s proposal for universal preschool sparked key questions about whether high-quality preschool education could be implemented at scale and whether a second year of preschool is beneficial. After the president released his early childhood proposal, the public discussion relied heavily on early studies of preschool, which provide a selective look at the effects of preschool education. Given the need for more recent evidence and rigorous studies, researchers worked collectively to produce the new NAF report. The report claims that large-scale public preschool programs can have a substantial impact on a child’s early learning and that quality preschool education is a profitable investment, saving three to seven dollars for every dollar spent. Furthermore, it is clear from existing large-scale studies that only a minority of preschool programs provide high-quality levels of instructional support to children. This finding is significant because instructional support is one of the most important aspects of high-quality preschool education. Yoshikawa said that a meta-analysis of 84 studies makes it clear that one year of preschool education provides students with one-third more learning than the comparison groups in the studies. Therefore, one year of preschool is beneficial, and research demonstrates that two years provide even greater benefits for disadvantaged children. Finally, the report concludes that long-term benefits of preschool education are noted well into elementary school, high school graduation, earnings, and reduced crime and teen pregnancy. More info 


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