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Legislative Update: December 18, 2013

Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the leaders of the Senate and House Budget Committees, surprised many Capitol Hill watchers last Tuesday by presenting a bipartisan budget agreement. Though not the grand bargain that has eluded legislators and the White House for years, it marks an important thaw in the icy relations that have become the hallmark of the interactions between the two political parties. Republican resistance to closing tax loopholes and Democratic resistance to reforming entitlement programs persist, making a long-term solution to the nation’s fiscal woes seemingly impossible. The bill does, however, set spending levels for FY 2014 and FY 2015 of $1.012 trillion and $1.014 trillion, respectively, essentially splitting the difference between the Senate and House budget resolutions. This agreement provides a degree of budgetary certainty that pleases most appropriators. Perhaps most importantly, it restores $63 billion cut by sequestration over two years, and spreads the funds evenly between defense and nondefense programs. These gains are offset by $85 billion in deficit reduction over the next decade. This combination of increased revenue and deficit reduction make the compromise palatable to most members.

Although the agreement was not without its critics, it has important champions that make the final bill likely to reach the president’s desk by the time the Senate adjourns this week. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) praised the bill and urged support from the Republican caucus. The speaker’s support, along with that of other Republican leaders, proved effective last Thursday evening, when the House passed the budget deal by an overwhelming vote of 332-94. In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) similarly praised the compromise and urged its passage. House Democrats criticized the bill for what it didn’t do—extend long-term unemployment benefits, which are set to expire at the end of the year. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in a primary battle with a prominent tea partier in Kentucky, may oppose the agreement, but enough Senate Republicans have indicated a willingness to support the measure that its passage is anticipated.

Assuming that the agreement is adopted, Senate and House appropriators will have one month to determine how to divide the pie for the FY 2014 budget before the expiration date of January 15 for the continuing resolution now in effect. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) praised the compromise and noted, “The agreement provides some certainty for the annual appropriations process, allowing my committee to get to work and make the hard, thoughtful, responsible, line-by-line funding decisions that is our Congress’s duty to make.” A holiday gift, for sure.

PISA Results Highlight U.S. Educational Shortcomings
On December 3, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released the latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses reading literacy, mathematics, and science and is administered every three years to 15-year-olds in the United States and more than 65 developed countries worldwide. The Alliance for Excellent Education and several partner organizations hosted a daylong broadcast to discuss the findings. OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria explained that the focus of this year’s assessment was mathematics, which has generally been recognized as a subject in which the United States does not excel. He reported that 40 out of the 60 participating countries improved in at least one subject, while the United States’ performance has remained “fundamentally flat” in all areas. Alarmingly, only 2 percent of students in the United States achieved the top rating in mathematics, compared with more than 30 percent of student in high-performing Asian countries. Secretary-General Gurria drew the conclusion that the U.S. education system is “not conducive to providing equality” and asserted that the socioeconomic background of a child still has a great impact on educational achievement. He noted that many top-performing nations allocate funds more equitably than the United States, and they also focus less on compliance and more on allowing teachers to think outside of the box, since teachers are often the key to student success. He was, however, optimistic about the potential positive impact that the implementation of the Common Core State Standards could have on achievement, saying that it would “undoubtedly” improve PISA scores. More info 

Girls in Computer Science
Last week was Computer Science Education Week, a campaign to draw attention to the need for more computer science in K–12 schools, organized by Code.org and Computing in the Core. The focus of the campaign was the “Hour of Code,” which Code.org reports resulted in more than 13 million students trying an hour of coding. The week was marked in Washington, D.C., by several events and some attention from Congress and the White House, including videos from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and President Obama. Among the computer science-focused events was one hosted by Change the Equation featuring representatives of Oracle and Microsoft, and a program called Black Girls Code. The panelists discussed equity issues that affect the decisions of girls and women to pursue academic studies and careers in computer science. Change the Equation released a brief on the issue, and speakers spoke of the need to adequately engage women and underrepresented minorities in computer science to meet industry demand for workers with these skills in future years. For more information, and a webcast of the event, visit here.

Seeking More Answers to the Common Core
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) held a webinar, “Common Core Meets Education Reform: What It All Means for Politics, Policy, and the Future of Schooling,” to discuss the goals of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the accompanying implementation process. Deven Carlson, professor at the University of Oklahoma, asserted that the new Common Core assessments should work to redefine proficiency levels as variable thresholds that are comparable across states. He stated that the Common Core and other national tests, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), could be improved to compare achievement across states. Carlson notes that the Common Core moves in the opposite way from the NAEP assessments by having one standard and different assessments instead of one assessment and different standards. Patrick McGuinn, professor at Drew University, stated that misperceptions of CCSS are the result of the lack of a central governing body to implement CCSS, a situation that causes tensions between the state and federal government. Ashley Jochim, research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, agreed with McGuinn and noted further that the implementation of the Common Core goes beyond party politics and depends on public opinion to mobilize the people in the middle to choose whether CCSS should be implemented or not. The discussion came to a close with the participants agreeing that CCSS still has a long way to go until before it is ready to be implemented in states. Learn more.

School Improvement Grant Analysis Removed from Website
The Department of Education (ED) announced a revision to the November analysis of the school- and district-level state assessment data. The original report cast the administration’s $5 billion investment in the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program as a failure, with two-thirds of the schools showing modest gains in math and reading proficiency and about one third of the targeted schools declining in proficiency rates after the infusion of funds. This week ED reported that the contractor conducting the analysis—the American Institutes for Research (AIR)—excluded too many schools as a result of changes in state assessments and made mistakes in handling schools with missing assessment data. ED has removed the analysis from the department’s webpage, and AIR has agreed to reimburse ED for the $28,300 contract and redo the analysis for free. The revised analysis is expected to be released in January with additional oversight from ED. More info 

HELP Committee Examines Accreditation
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing, “Accreditation as Quality Assurance: Meeting the Needs of 21st Century Learning,” the latest in a series of hearings in advance of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA). The witnesses discussed many common themes in their testimonies, including the history of accreditation, the unique self-regulatory aspect of the accreditation process, and the question of whether accreditation is the primary culprit in stifling innovation in higher education. The panelists all acknowledged many of the concerns associated with accreditation and mostly focused on the process’s impact on the ability of institutions to be flexible in serving the needs of students. However, witnesses were also quick to note that many issues are involved in the lack of innovation, and the accreditation process is often an easy scapegoat. The panelists also expressed concerns about a significant loss of quality if major reforms for accreditation are undertaken in a haphazard fashion.  Additional information on the hearing, including witness testimony and an archived webcast, is available online.

School Safety Issues
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), in cooperation with Representative Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa), hosted a panel discussion, “Rethinking School Safety: Schools and Communities Working Together.” Each panelist emphasized the importance of schools’ creating conditions for learning that emphasize student support, safety, and well-being. Cathy Kennedy-Paine, school psychologist and chair of the NASP National Emergency Assistance Team (NEAT), discussed three components of planning a response to school emergencies:

  1. Effective strategies for prevention
  2. Systems with trained safety and intervention teams
  3. Adequate school-based mental health services that extend several years after a crisis

Christina Connolly-Wilson, director of crisis intervention and safety in Waukegan Public Schools, highlighted the effectiveness of her district crisis team, which coordinates prevention, mental health services, suicide prevention, and other supports that are targeted to balancing school safety with psychological safety. She asserted, “Safety is not as simple as metal detectors.” Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, provided insight into the role of on-site officers who are well trained and integrated into the planning. Thomas Demaria, director of psychological services center at Long Island University, highlighted the importance of community collaboration in the planning and implementation of successful school-based prevention and support services. David Osher, vice president and co-director of the human and social development program at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and an AIR institute fellow, shared research and perspectives on technical assistance regarding the important balance between academics and the conditions for learning and teaching, highlighting the following:

  1. The importance of effective collaboration and coordination
  2. The continuous development of data through planning and implementing policies
  3. A three-tiered approach to promoting prevention, intervention, and wellness of students

The final speaker joined by video: Nelba Marquez-Greene, a licensed marriage and family therapist, mental health and relational wellness director for Sandy Hook Promise, founder of the Ana Grace Project, and mother of a child killed at Sandy Hook. Her poignant and emotional message promoted and supported preventative actions for school safety in the wake of tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. More info 

2013 National Child and Youth Well-Being Index
First Focus and the Foundation for Child Development hosted a Capitol Hill briefing, “Measuring the Well-Being of our Children.” The briefing was sponsored by the Congressional Children’s Caucus, spearheaded by Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). In brief opening remarks, Representative Ros-Lehtinen stated, “We need to keep nurturing children’s social and emotional awareness if we want them to have positive, safe interactions.” Kenneth Land, professor at Duke University, presented findings from the 2013 National Child and Youth Well-Being Index (CWI). Land explained that CWI is a comprehensive measure of children and youth in the United States and consists of an “annual assessment of 28 social indicators organized into seven quality-of-life well-being domains.” This composite measurement, assessed since 1975, provides a sense of direction of the well-being of young children. The seven quality-of-life domains are (1) family economic well-being, (2) health, (3) safe vs. risky behavior, (4) educational attainment, (5) community engagement, (6) social relationships, and (7) emotional and spiritual well-being. The composite measurement demonstrates a minor improvement compared with the base year, 1975. Additionally, data in the first domain, family economic well-being, reveal a decade-long decline, including increases in child poverty and decreases in secure parental employment and median family income, although data from 2011 and 2012 showed a slight improvement. Learn more. 

Accelerated Learning 
The College and Career Readiness and Success Center (CCRSC) at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) joined with the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) to host a webinar, “Understanding Accelerated Learning across Secondary and Postsecondary Education,” to discuss a recently released report by the same name. Joe Harris, director of CCRSC at AIR, provided welcoming remarks, and Jennifer Brown Lerner, senior director at AYPF, discussed the report. She explained that accelerated learning encompasses strategies to build academic momentum and provides individualized learning. She also noted that accelerated learning can be used for all students, since it includes both credit recovery and advanced coursework, such as AP and IB. Thomas Acampora, field manager of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, asserted that all students can excel at high levels if they are given adequate resources and support, and accelerated learning can provide that opportunity. Critical to the success of accelerated learning efforts are small learning communities; multi-level professional development; tiered student supports focused on attendance, behavior, and academic performance; and a “can-do” school culture that highlights clear pathways to success. He emphasized that forcing students to retake classes that they struggled in is not the answer. Separate stand-alone classes should be offered to fill in the academic gaps, which requires a shift in scheduling to include extended learning time and other opportunities for credit recovery. He noted that making this change does not indefinitely generate higher costs as long as resources are reallocated to fill these needs. More info 

Hearing on Pell Grants
The House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training convened a hearing on the future of the Pell Grant program. The hearing was well attended and, somewhat atypically for a higher education hearing, more Republicans than Democrats were present. The witnesses at the hearing provided a range of perspectives, with Jenna Robinson, director of outreach at the John W. Pope Center for Education Policy, framing the debate from the right and Michael Dannenberg, director of higher education and education finance policy at the Education Trust, framing the debate from the left. Offering on-the-ground insights and a historical perspective were Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), and Richard Heath, financial aid director at Anne Arundel Community College. In his testimony, Draeger reviewed the history of the program, recent changes, and offered details on NASFAA’s proposals on the future of the Pell Grant program. Drawing the most attention was the call for a “Pell Well,” a scheme that would make the same cumulative aid available for students, but by using a predefined amount and informing students often of the available funds, would prevent students from failing to pursue higher education due to a lack of funds. Members from both sides of the aisle were interested in this model, but also wanted to know if it would increase costs. Heath,  who is very active with NASFAA and regional associations in his work at Anne Arundel, offered “on the ground” insights to supplement Draeger’s proposals. According to Heath, providing the same amount of Pell dollars for nine credits and eleven credits makes little sense, particularly for community colleges and others that charge by the credit hour. According to Robinson, students in need of extensive remedial coursework should not be eligible for Pell. She also added that some research shows that students from middle-income backgrounds, defined as family incomes of $25,000–$50,000, respond more favorably to loans than grants. Though Robinson acknowledged that the research was limited, Dannenberg and several Democratic members of the committee took umbrage at these statements, questioning whether $25,000–$50,000 was truly “middle income” and noting that students in remedial classes are often taking advantage of the least expensive option available to them by attending community colleges. Dannenberg focused much of his remarks on the virtues of the Pell Grant Program and urged Congress to (a) find more funding for the program and (b) require more funding and accountability from institutions and states. Dannenberg acknowledged that his proposal would require additional government funding, but he also included potential revenue raisers in his testimony. The most notable of these proposals was for the government to seek to consolidate existing FFELP loans through the Direct Loan program, which produces budgetary savings under current law. Additional information on the hearing, including an archived webcast and witness testimony, is available online.

Conditions for Learning
The American Institutes for Research (AIR) hosted a congressional briefing on necessary conditions—both inside and outside of the classroom—to create the most supportive learning environments for students to succeed in school. The goal of the event was to present policy recommendations based on the research and best practice in the classroom. Kimberly Kendziora, a principal researcher at AIR with expertise in evaluating school-based student support initiatives, began the discussion by providing attendees with a definition of “conditions for learning.” She described it as an umbrella term that includes a rage of concepts, both personal and environmental. Factors such as teacher quality, classroom size, and effective school leaders are critical for academic success, Kendziora noted, “but they are only part of what makes learning possible.” Drawing on research and practice, Kendziora outlined the four essential factors that school leadership teams must consider to create optimal conditions for learning:

  1. A safe environment, where students are protected both physically and emotionally
  2. A supportive environment, where students feel connected to the adults in the building
  3. A challenging environment, where expectations for all students are high and the curriculum is academically relevant
  4. A socially and emotionally nurturing environment, where students are taught how to cope with challenges and work in collaboration with both teachers and fellow students

Jillian Ahrens, a first-grade teacher at Memorial School in Cleveland, Ohio, spoke about both the benefits and challenges of implementing social and emotional learning strategies in individual classrooms and district-wide. She noted that successful implementation means securing buy-in from all stakeholders—from the boardroom to the classroom. In Cleveland this has been accomplished by supporting teachers with professional development with evidenced-based programs and using data to demonstrate improved academic success. More info 

Americans for the Arts Highlights STEAM
Americans for the Arts joined with the newly formed House of Representatives STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) Caucus, co-chaired by Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) and Suzanna Bonamici (D-Ore.), to host a webinar, “What’s Happening with STEAM: a Discussion with Diverse Sectors.” Although support for STEAM is widespread, what STEAM represents in K–12 education, on through higher education, and into the workplace is important to discuss. Representing the Department of Education (ED), Edith Harvey spoke about the administration’s efforts to promote STEAM, detailing the formation of interagency taskforces bringing together the Smithsonian Institution, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, ED, and others. She also pointed to the importance of linking early learning and arts education. Babette Allina, director of government relations at the Rhode Island School of Design, asserted that the disciplines are “stronger together than apart” and emphasized that it is critical to educate the public about the role of the arts, particularly as related to the sciences. Janice Hill, the principal of Quatama Elementary School in Oregon, said, “STEAM is all about engaging our learners,” adding that because “there is way more to teach than there is time,” the integration of subjects is a logical action to ensure that students obtain a well-rounded education. Amy Rasmussen, executive director of the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, also echoed these sentiments, noting that when the arts are integrated with other subjects, test scores in English and math tend to increase. Representing the Boeing Company, Tamika Lang explained that community engagement is a key part of Boeing’s business model, which works toward a future where all children will have the opportunity to learn and acquire the skills to work in the STEM fields if they so choose. She noted that students must not only have content knowledge but also be able to apply that knowledge to real-life situations, a need that highlights the importance of 21st-century skills. Kevin Murray, program manager and performance faculty member at the George Mason University College of Visual and Performing Arts, also affirmed that the inclusion of the arts increases achievement in other subjects, particularly noting the close relationship the arts share with STEM fields. More info 

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