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Legislative Update: December 3, 2013

“Carve turkeys, not education.” That was the slogan on buttons clipped to plush toy turkeys delivered to congressional offices by small groups of education advocates. The Committee for Education Funding led the campaign in the hope of persuading lawmakers looking for strategies to address the sequester to save education programs from further cuts. The negotiations are pitting domestic programs against defense spending, and some on Capitol Hill want to spare defense programs while keeping cuts in place for education and other domestic programs. That possibility prompted Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to say that sparing defense at the expense of other programs would be defenseless.

Although the visits met with mixed reactions, the education community is heartened to hear that Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) are having what staff describe as “productive conversations” regarding their charge to negotiate a budget. The lawmakers are racing against a December 13 deadline for a deal, but optimists believe that the pair might reach a narrow deal to replace a portion of the automatic spending cuts. Of course, the dynamics and politics change second by second, but the large issues include concerns about deep cuts to defense that will occur in the new fiscal year without intervention; the desire of everyone—the Republican leadership in particular—to avoid another shutdown fight; and the willingness of Democrats to consider other ways to raise revenue besides tax increases—something Republicans still largely oppose. Appropriators are hoping for a deal, since an agreement on overall spending would make their jobs of determining a budget for FY 2014 much easier—and avoid another shutdown on January 15.

Although signs of compromise were encouraging, they were eclipsed by the decision of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to invoke the so-called “nuclear option” in the Senate. Senator Reid and his colleagues cast aside objections from the other side of the aisle and altered Senate rules to end the right to filibuster executive branch nominations and nominations for judicial posts other than the Supreme Court. Republican stalwarts in the Senate, like Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), were highly critical of the move.

McCain has been on Capitol Hill for three decades, and in interviews after the Senate’s action he said that while he has made many friends in the Democratic Party during his tenure in Congress, the vote on November 21 puts a strain on those relationships. More important, he said, is what he considers to be the damage to the institution. Before the rules change, the Senate had required 60-vote majorities for judicial nominees to be brought to the floor. Now, only 51 votes, a simple majority, are needed. The Senate has long been described as a place where legislation comes to “cool off” after simple majority legislation in the House of Representatives. McCain said that if the Senate were to move to simple majorities on all legislation, the two houses might as well be merged. That would be something, wouldn’t it?

Teacher Evaluation
On November 18, the Fordham Institute held an event, “Traversing the Teacher-Evaluation Terrain,” to highlight two recent reports on teacher evaluations. Sandi Jacobs, vice president and managing director for state policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality, presented findings from Connect the Dots: Using Evaluations of Teacher Effectiveness to Inform Policy and Practice. Findings of the report suggest that it is critical for a state to offer a framework to schools, even if it does not require schools to use the framework, because the model can help guide struggling schools and districts to develop their own systems. Chet Linton, CEO and president of the School Improvement Network, presented findings from Teacher Evaluation Policy Implementation and Local Flexibility: Burden or Benefit? He reported on the findings that of the 37 states granted flexibility on school districts’ evaluation systems, only 11 states mandate how evaluations system are instituted. Many states are confused about their options as a result of clear communication. Furthermore, district requirements may conflict with state mandates, causing more confusion and inefficiencies. More info  

Transforming High School Experience for America’s Youth
Last week, President Obama announced the new Youth CareerConnect grant program to encourage America’s school districts, public partners, and institutions of higher education to scale up evidence-based high school models to transform the high school experience. The Department of Labor (DOL) and the Department of Education (ED) are working together to invest $100 million in high school career and technical education (CTE) that will provide high school students with industry-relevant education and skills for a successful future. The DOL is planning to use up to $100 million in revenues from the H-1B visa program to fund 25-40 grants for CTE projects. All grantees will have to demonstrate a strong public-private partnership that includes a local education agency, a workforce investment entity, an employer, and an institution of higher education. All applicants are required to provide funding that matches 25 percent of the total grant award. Awards will be made in early 2014 for implementation in the 2014–2015 school year. The new Youth CareerConnect grant program grew out of the president’s 2013 State of the Union address, which proposed redesigning high schools to be more rigorous, relevant, and focused on real-world experiences. More info 

New Online Map Details U.S. Student Global Competence 
The Department of Education joined the Asia Society, SAS, and Longview Foundation on November 18 to host a demonstration of a new interactive map, “Mapping the Nation: Linking Local to Global.” With nearly 1 million data points, the map details international connections at the state and county levels, aiming to illustrate the importance of global competence and highlight education gaps in the United States that often lead to few students obtaining the education necessary to thrive in the global workplace. At the event, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “Our nation’s students will have an opportunity to succeed if they get the world-class education that they deserve, one that prepares them for college, and careers in our interconnected, knowledge-based economy. The stakes of our success in promoting high standards and educational excellence have never been higher.” The creators of the free online tool hope that it will become invaluable to policymakers because of the detailed information that it provides at the county level. Moreover, teachers can examine data on their own counties to determine the skills that their students are lacking and work to fill those gaps. View the map 

Hearing on Career and Technical Education
On November 19, the House Education and the Workforce Committee held a hearing, “Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs: Improving the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.” Expressing dismay at an announcement made that morning by President Obama regarding a new competitive grant program aimed at career and technical education (CTE), committee chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) stated that “it will only further muddle the system at a time when we need to make smart, structural reforms to improve CTE programs under the Perkins Act.” Nevertheless, he conceded that the president’s proposal for CTE “offers a solid starting point for bipartisan negotiations, with an emphasis on industry coordination and state involvement in the development of CTE programs.” George Miller (D-Calif.), ranking member of the committee, focused his opening remarks on the benefits of CTE in “fostering educational environments that engage students with an integrated curriculum of core academic content and real-world, work-based relevance. But we must do more to spur innovation in delivery of CTE, to reward and replicate programs achieving positive outcomes for students and industry, and to ensure CTE is positioned to drive economic success through better workforce alignment and increased collaboration.” Remarks from witnesses at the hearing generally highlighted the opportunities that CTE programs offer high school and community college students to gain the skills and experience necessary to compete for today’s jobs in a broad range of fields. More info  

Results of School Improvement Grants
On November 21, the Department of Education (ED) announced the release of school and district-level state assessment data with a brief analysis of School Improvement Grant (SIG) schools. The SIG program came into being in the 2009 economic stimulus package to improve student achievement in 1,500 of the nation’s lowest-performing schools. School recipients of the grants had to choose one of the four turnaround models—shutting down, converting to a charter school, replacing most of the teachers and administrators, or hiring a new principal—along with extending instructional time and implementing new reform methods. ED’s data analysis consists of two cohorts; the first cohort began implementing SIG turnaround methods during the 2010–2011 school year and the second cohort began implementing SIG turnaround methods in the next school year. The average proficiency rates for the first cohort increased by eight percentage points in math and five in reading. The average proficiency rates for the second cohort were lower than the first cohort, with an increase of two percentage points in math and one in reading. More info 

Connected Educators
On November 21, the White House honored 10 Connected Educator Champions of Change. President Obama’s recognition of educators from across the country who are making a difference through digital learning follows on the heels of Connected Educator Month, observed in October, and aligns with the president’s new ConnectED initiative. The aim of this initiative is to strengthen the E-Rate program so that 99 percent of students and libraries are connected to high-speed broadband within five years. In a two-part panel, the 10 educators described similar barriers to teaching their students to be creators and innovators with technology. They addressed the challenges of incorporating assessment standards while teaching their students how to use technology effectively, parental concerns about take-home devices, opposition from their colleagues, and outdated equipment. However, the panels unanimously agreed that the hardships were worth the gratification of witnessing their students enjoy learning and become motivated to learn more. Learn more.

Next Generation Science Assessments
On November 18, the Alliance for Excellent Education and the K–12 Center at Educational Testing Services (ETS) hosted a webinar, “Science Assessments: Innovations in the Next Generation of State Assessments.” Stephen Pruitt, senior vice president at Achieve began the discussion by asserting that the Next Generation Science Standards are constructed to teach students to apply science and engineering practices with core ideas and cross-cutting concepts as a way to guide students to make connections with the broad field of science. Pruitt also mentioned that eight states (Rhode Island, Kentucky, Kansas, Maryland, Vermont, California, Delaware, and Washington) have agreed to implement the NGSS so far. However, he cautions that states need to be patient, recognizing that three fundamental steps will precede the implementation of NGSS:

  1. States implement their college-and career-ready standards.
  2. School districts receive sample NGSS materials in winter 2014 and send feedback.
  3. Teachers take the time to gain a deep understanding of what NGSS is and why it is important.

Thus, Pruitt has argued against declaring an implementation time frame, but he estimates that NGSS pilot tests will be released in the 2015–2016 school year. Watch the webinar.

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