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Capitol Report: November 4, 2013

Capitol ReportBy Ellin Nolan

After three long weeks, the government shutdown ended, and Congress is now back at work. The biggest item on its agenda is to finalize an agreement for the fiscal year (FY) 2014 budget. A budget conference committee, chaired by Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), has until December 15 to get that job done or face another possible shutdown. A review of the impact of the second phase of the sequester is part of those negotiations and will be implemented in early January if another solution to cut spending or increase revenue is not found. Although an agreement is a long shot, given the all-too-familiar partisan tensions, one positive note is the good working relationship that Ryan and Murray appear to have, and both have expressed optimism about finding a solution. The stakes are high, since without an agreement, another series of deep cuts in education funding will be required. Time will tell whether the budget conference members can find a way to do the math and make new numbers add up in a way that will garner support from their Democratic and Republican colleagues in the House and Senate.

Beyond the budget negotiations, education committees in the House and Senate are moving forward with oversight on the Higher Education Act (HEA), due for rewrite during this Congress. HEA provides financial aid for students and also makes critical funding available to teacher education programs for initiatives that are intended to strengthen and reform these important programs. Although no one expects action on a new HEA bill before the end of the year, hearings that were postponed during the shutdown are now under way in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee and the House Education and the Workforce Committee. These hearings will be ongoing in the next several months.

House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) is particularly eager to move several other education bills forward in the next few months. These include the Education Sciences Reform Act and the Carl Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. These bills support research that is intended to inform education policy and practice and support programs that provide funds for K−12 and community colleges to prepare young people for the workforce. The Perkins Act is the oldest education bill and one that the administration hopes Congress will take a serious look at rewriting. Two years ago, the president submitted a Blueprint for Reform of Career and Technical Education, which calls for a dramatic rewrite of the law. However, the Senate has not shown any interest in taking up these two bills, as HELP Committee chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is still trying to negotiate floor time for a debate on his rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education received some mixed news last week in a report that compared the performances of U.S. eighth graders and their international peers on math and science tests. The 2011 NAEP-TIMSS Linking Study found that students in 38 states did as well as or better than students around the world in terms of achievement in math and science. Students in a few states—most notably Massachusetts, Vermont, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New Hampshire—did particularly well. The weakest scores were from students in Alabama, Mississippi, and the District of Columbia. Because only nine states actually participated in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), researchers took the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results from 2011 for all 50 states and predicted their performance on this international measure. Although the overall findings were positive, a high percentage of students did poorly, even in the highest performing states. Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, put it well when he said, “If we as Americans want to get all of our kids achieving at the highest level, in terms of worldwide academic achievement, we have a lot of work, and it’s not just the low-scoring states where it’s obvious.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used these results to point out that state policies really matter, given the wide range of performance for students all across the country.

And finally, a recent article from Quartz sums up the math conundrum quite well—“Math is the great mental bogeyman of an unconfident America. If we can convince you that anyone can learn math, it should be a short step to convincing you that you can learn just about anything, if you work hard enough.” Researchers have found that hard work plus preparation and self-confidence are critical to addressing America’s “math problem,” and that’s where teachers, families, and communities can play a starring role in boosting student achievement.

Ellin Nolan is with Washington Partners, LLC.

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