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Legislative Update: January 2, 2014

Congress gave advocates an unexpected Christmas gift this year—an actual budget agreement with discretionary spending levels established for fiscal year (FY) 2014 and FY 2015. Although the budget agreement was not as generous as the Senate had hoped at the beginning of the year, it was also not as draconian as the House of Representatives had proposed. The details are yet to be resolved by the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (LHHS) staff over the next month, but with a bigger pie overall, education programs can expect a larger slice. This two-year agreement also restores the majority of the funds cut from the FY 2013 by the sequester . The way that these cut funds are restored  is called chicanery by some and decried by others as harmful, and some other funds are likely to be restored at a later date. In other words, though a government shutdown has been averted and some budget certainty has been achieved, the hard work of tax and entitlement reform will have to wait for another day.

The new discretionary spending figure for FY 2014 is $1.012 trillion. In FY 2015, overall spending is set to rise to $1.014 trillion, and the agreement restores $22.5 billion of the $25.8 billion cut from non-defense discretionary programs in FY2013 by sequestration. According to Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Senate budget committee chair, “The deal is far from perfect, to be sure.” Working out 12 compromise appropriations measures in a month’s time will not be an easy task. Though the House LHHS bill was never made public, programs authorized by the Affordable Care Act and many other Obama administration priorities would probably be eliminated in the bill. Even a better funding allocation require serious bipartisan give-and-take for the spending plan to make it into the omnibus appropriations bill that Congress must adopt by January 15, when the current continuing resolution funding the federal government will expire.

2013 TUDA Results
The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) hosted a webinar, “Urban Landscape: 21 School Districts’ Achievement,” to announce the results released in The Nation’s Report Card: 2013 Mathematics and Reading—Trial Urban District Assessment. The Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) assesses how students are performing in the nation’s largest school systems. Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, presented the results of 2013 TUDA and explained that participation in TUDA is voluntary, but all 21 districts that were invited participated. Overall, math scores across the nation improved in grades 4 and 8,along with reading scores in grade 8. Cities such as the District of Columbia saw an increase for all grades and subject combinations, while Baltimore saw an increase only in grade 8 reading. All students receiving a free or reduced-price lunch showed an increase in their reading skills, Buckley reported. Anitere Flores, Florida state senator and member of NAGB, asserted that for urban school districts TUDA is a “truth teller” of the sort “that we all need sometimes in order to make the necessary changes at the local level in the education system.” Mike Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, asserted, “Public schools made real progress over the past 10 years with eighth-grade reading improving nine points and narrowing the gap in math by gaining over 11 points.” A new website to display this data was revealed on the webinar.  

Research in the Common Core
The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) hosted an event, “The Use of Research in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).” Lorraine McDonnell, professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, opened the discussion by noting that CCSS was developed through multiple research strands, and the implementation of the Common Core will require the same. McDonnell later argued that the development of CCSS should have been based on many diverse types of evidence, and urged that implementation of the standards focus on professional judgment and practitioner expertise. Sandra Alberti, director of state and district partnerships and professional development at Student Achievement Partners, pursued the discussion, saying, “Standards are a basis for innovation, not standardization,” and asserting that large-scale innovation needs collaboration and collectivity. Alberti faulted the CCSS implementation process for not outlining a collaboration method encompassing teachers, administrators, and policymakers. Nancy Gannon, executive director of the Office of Academic Quality at the New York City Department of Education, agreed with Alberti’s point that multi-tiered collaboration is important to effective implementation of CCSS. Gannon presented a step-by-step approach of New York City’s research and evaluation process of the Common Core curriculum, consisting of teacher leaders, national experts, education department leaders, and multiple stakeholders. The discussion concluded with the panel agreeing that more teachers and stakeholders need to be introduced to, and involved in, preliminary research to incorporate more diversity and innovation. More info  

Report on NGSS
The National Research Council (NRC) released a report, Developing Assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards, on the findings related to assessments that measure the three dimensions—science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas—of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Constructed as a set of performance expectations, NGSS is often misconstrued as a science curriculum that would align with the Common Core State Standards to prepare students for college, careers, and citizenship. The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) has been a strong advocate for NGSS and has released a position statement with recommendations and new benchmarks for states to use to be successful in implementation of NGSS. Eight states and recently the District of Columbia have adopted the standards, with no deadline for implementation. Read the report.

Course Credit After School
Education Week
hosted a webinar, “Beyond School: Earning Credit for Real-World Experience.” The webinar explained the partnership between Providence After School Alliance (PASA) and Providence Public Schools. Patrick Duhon, director of expanding learning at Providence Public Schools, opened the webinar with an overview of the Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) program. Duhon noted that the program took years of planning by district administrators, principals, teachers, students, and community partners, with the goal of creating a youth-centered program that uses community partners as educators to teach middle school students 21st-century skills as they are used in the work place. Alex Molina, deputy director of PASA, asserted that the program’s instructional engagement occurs mostly online. Each student creates an online portfolio, and weekly blog posts by students, teachers, and community employers generate discussion. Molina explained that the online activity is monitored by teacher mentors who award online badges that amount to course credit  when students have assembled skill sets for certain subject areas. Duhon said that the ELO program has expanded in 10 years from 37 students to more than 200 across three schools in Rhode Island and hopes to get more high schools and communities involved in the future. Molina credited the program’s success to the passion and excitement that the program creates for students, interest which motivates students to come to school and learn more. Both Molina and Duhon believe that the ELO program should be expanded both statewide and nationwide because it leverages technology in real-world experiences that allow students to make informed decisions about their future careers and apply their education towards obtaining those goals. More info  

Competency-Based Education
The Center for American Progress (CAP) held an event, “Meeting Students Where They Are: Competency-Based Education and College Success.” Ruth Ann Gainey, a student in a competency-based education program at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), College of America, led with a description of the flexibility and personalized learning that her program offered, enabling her to earn an associate’s degree in less than two years while working 60 hours a week. Responding to Gainey’s account, Martha Kanter, under secretary at the Department of Education, spoke about the new world of students who, like Gainey, have to work full-time while attending college. Kanter asserted that college students have changed over time and so should our old system of measuring “seat time.” Instead, she said, institutions should measure students’ ability to complete a task at their own pace, demonstrating their understanding and ability to apply the subject matter. Becky Klein-Collins, director of research at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, stated that “there are many education models that an institution can choose, but all institutional education models have two main building blocks, which are (1) establishing a competency framework, and (2) creating a way to assess a student’s competencies upon graduation.” Yvonne Simon, chief learning architect of Innovation Lab at SNHU, supported Klein-Collins by reiterating that institutional education models are not all the same, and by the same token, neither are students. Simon also mentioned that competency-based education at SNHU is project-based and concerned with assessing the mastery of a skill in its entirety instead of a percentage of a skill, describing the institution’s requirements as “a floor, not a ceiling.” The panel members had differing opinions on the individuals who benefit from competency-based education, but they all agreed that competency-based learning opens the doors for more access and the opportunity to be a lifetime learner. Watch the webinar.

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