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Legislative Update: November 4, 2013

If Halloween was scary for you, imagine how several members of the Obama administration felt appearing before an increasingly hostile Congress last week. Though not in costume, they all arrived in Washington wearing their “game faces.” First was Department of Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius, charged with implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), who stood before the House Ways and Means Committee to answer questions about what had gone wrong with the HealthCare.gov website. Just down the hall, the heads of various national security agencies had some explaining to do about listening in on German chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone, as well as on the communication of 23 other heads of state.  Though apologies were made all around, for the most part administration representatives held their ground while members of both parties expressed their outrage. Secretary Sebelius insisted that the website would soon be up and running, and national security team members said they were “revisiting” their surveillance policies, but really, everybody does it!

These were the stories that got the most press attention, but developments continued on the budget and appropriations front. The budget committees in the House and Senate appointed conferees to try to work out a budget agreement that will include a final spending plan for FY 2014, and, if possible, modifications to the cuts in spending required by the sequester as part of the Budget Control Act. The Senate sent all 23 members of the committee to negotiate while the House sent seven. Though the first meeting of the conferees—chaired by Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) was cordial, it was also an exercise in lowering expectations. Republicans insisted that taxes are off the table, and Democrats were equally adamant about protecting entitlements. Without addressing these major contributors to the exploding deficit, committee members have little hope of a major bipartisan agreement by the December 15 deadline. The most likely scenario is an omnibus bill for FY 2014 that will fund some but not all federal agencies, leaving agencies like the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Labor funded through a continuing resolution with more cuts to all programs in place.

Best Practices in Accessing the Common Core
On October 30, the Brookings Institution hosted an event, “Common Core Aligned Assessments: You Get What You Pay For?” to discuss the increase in per student testing costs for states to implement the Common Core assessments. Matt Chingos, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, began the discussion by outlining the differences in cost among assessments from Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), ACT, and other regional consortia, resulting in Common Core aligned tests costing from $20­ to $30 per student per test. Conclusions were that the cost of the test is not what matters, but the quality of the test is the true factor that school districts should consider in choosing assessment to implement. Closing remarks outlined four questions that school administrators should ask in deciding what assessment to choose:

  1. What tasks are involved in the tests?
  2. Does the assessment cover the full range of Common Core State Standards?
  3. Does evidence prove that the test measures whether students are college and career ready?
  4. What are the post-test reporting parameters?

More info 

Role of Principals in Literacy Education
The National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE) sponsored a briefing on October 29 focused on the role of principals in ensuring effective literacy and learning for all students. This event specifically highlighted the principal’s role in ensuring that teachers, students, and parents understand the importance of improved literacy instruction in the K−12 curriculum and across content areas in order to improve academic achievement and turn around low-performing schools. The Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) Act, introduced by Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), includes the best practices highlighted by the speakers. The LEARN Act supports comprehensive state and local literacy programs to ensure that children from birth to grade 12 acquire the reading and writing skills necessary for success in school and beyond. Meeting this goal requires high-quality professional development for instructional staff that is job-embedded and collaborative. Moreinfo 

State of the States Report
On October 30, the National Council on Teacher Quality released a new report, State of the States 2013: Connecting the Dots: Using Evaluations of Teacher Effectiveness to Inform Policy and Practice, outlining state teacher evaluation policy as it stands in 2013. Overall, the findings indicate that many states have adopted rigorous teacher evaluation policies—35 states and the District of Columbia Public Schools now require the inclusion of student achievement in measurements of teacher effectiveness. The report pointed out that most states have yet to develop ways of using the newly collected information to inform policy or improve student achievement. Key findings include the information that 27 states require teacher ratings to encompass multiple measures, along with requiring annual teacher evaluations. This is an increase from only 15 states in 2009. Furthermore, only 10 states lack policy requiring teacher ratings to include some form of objective measure of student achievement, compared with state policies in 2009, when only four states required such reporting. Read the full report.

Higher Education Innovations
On October 31, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held its second hearing in a series meant to inform and guide the forthcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). The hearing, “Attaining a Quality Degree: Innovations to Improve Student Success,” did not offer much in the way of specifics, but did show the positions of certain Senators on select issues heading into HEA reauthorization. Though the hearing was broad in scope and stayed away from specifics, it included some interesting developments. Perhaps most notably, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) discussed the efforts of a work group on decreasing the burden of higher education regulations. The members of this group include Senators Alexander, Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). Panelists first shared brief testimony highlighting ways to ensure that students are successful in entering and completing college but that progress in curtailing the rising costs is evident. In their testimonies, each witness summarized the innovations being implemented, piloted, tested, and evaluated in a variety of urban, state, traditional, and non-traditional settings to help more students successfully enter and complete college. They commented and discussed with members the challenges and opportunities in redesigning curriculum, delivering courses, engaging non-traditional students, partnering with business to understand the needs of the modern workplace, providing competency-based education to adults, and struggling with outdated federal regulation and financial aid concerns. Also of note, the HELP Committee announced a process for HEA reauthorization that would ask interested stakeholders to submit statements in advance of the hearings. The hearings are expected to continue into 2014, with perhaps two more this year. Learn more, including witness testimony and an archived webcast of this hearing and submitting recommendations to the HELP Committee on HEA reauthorization.

Leadership and Technology in Schools
On October 31, the American Enterprise Institute hosted a panel discussion, “Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age: Using Learning Science to Reboot Schooling,” to discuss the ways that school districts are incorporating technology in education. Bror Saxberg, chief learning officer at Kaplan, began the discussion with an analogy that summarized the common misconceptions of implementing technology in the classroom: “Technology is to education as FedEx is to nutrition. Although FedEx makes shipping food quicker and easier, it does not mean that every food product that is shipped through FedEx is good for you. The same goes for technology and education.” He noted that technology can be an effective resource for schools, but it must be used well. The panel unanimously agreed that technology in the classroom allows for more one-on-one instruction for students, and it also allows teachers to give more timely and personal feedback to individual students by providing student data reports and methods of instant communication, such as e-mails and discussion boards. More info 

NAEP-TIMSS Study
On October 24, the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a National Assessment of Educational Progress–Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (NAEP-TIMSS) Linking Study. NCES’s aim in creating the study was to compare student performance more easily. According to report findings, eighth-grade students in 36 states scored higher than average in math. Massachusetts scored the highest, and Alabama scored the lowest. Forty-seven states scored higher than average in science, with Massachusetts again scoring the highest and Washington, D.C., scoring the lowest. Although Massachusetts led the United States, only 19 percent of the state’s eighth graders scored “advanced” in math, compared with about 50 percent of students in Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore. In response to the findings, Jack Buckley, commissioner of NCES said, “It’s a good news, bad news scenario: all of our high performing states are being outperformed significantly by these other countries.” Read the full report.

STEM Workforce Shortage
On October 22, Change the Equation (CTEq) held a news conference to release a report of the findings of the 16th annual Bayer Facts of Science Education Survey, The U.S. STEM Shortage: Myth or Reality? Talent Recruiters at Fortune 1000 Companies Settle the Debate. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut and “Making Science Make Sense” spokeswoman, convened the conference on a strong note, asserting, “STEM incorporates the entire spectrum of education.” She contended that to improve the nation’s competitiveness, the education system, graduates, and employers must embrace the many facets of the STEM fields instead of perceiving STEM as one narrow path. She emphasized the need for American society to be more aware of the importance of STEM subjects and provide resources to students that will allow them to enter college STEM-literate. Also, she added, employers need to be cognizant of both two-year and four-year STEM degrees that are relevant to a broad range of occupations. Read the results.

Puerto Rico Joins States with NCLB Flexibility
On October 22, the Department of Education announced that the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico would join 42 states and the District of Columbia with a waiver from the most onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). “Forty two states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia can’t wait any longer for education reform,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “A strong, bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) remains the best path forward in education reform, but as these states have demonstrated, our kids can’t wait any longer for Congress to act.” The department introduced the waivers in 2011 in response to Congress’ inability to pass a reauthorization of the ESEA, which has been due since 2007. More info  

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