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Legislative Update: June 3, 2014

A bipartisan and bicameral group of senators and representatives released a reauthorization proposal for the Workforce Investment Act. This bill has been many years in the making, and the drafts produced by the House Education and the Workforce Committee and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) were thought to be miles apart. The compromise measure was well received, and floor action is expected soon. Rumors also persist that the House will act on the Senate-passed Child Care Development Block Grant bill, and the Senate will take up the House-passed Education Sciences Reform Act—with amendments, of course.

A second surprise was the appointment of five Democrats to the committee that will investigate the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) set up this committee in the House of Representatives to loud Democratic protests. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had insisted that concessions were needed if she were to appoint members of her caucus to participate. Now it appears that the committee will get to work in early June.

Other activity on the Hill this week focused on the FY 2015 budget and appropriations process. Funding for the Department of Agriculture moved forward in both the House and Senate. Much to the dismay of ranking democrat Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the House appropriations bill cuts spending on feeding programs and includes language to allow school districts to waive new regulations to improve the nutritional value of school lunches. The main surprise had to do with potatoes. Disagreement is apparently strong about whether or not potatoes should be allowed in food plans for women and children eligible for the WIC program. In the Senate, the waiver provision did not make its way into the bill, but the potato controversy continues to rage. Yes—the potato controversy.

Although some signs of cooperation elsewhere were encouraging, the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee was the venue for bitter partisan sniping as members started to mark up a proposal to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act, and the amendments and statements were starkly partisan.

Allocations for the Senate and House Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittees were finalized, and once again it looks as though spending for education will be at best frozen and more likely reduced. Unfortunately, this does not qualify as a surprise. June will certainly be busy on Capitol Hill.

Expanded Learning Time 

The Center for American Progress (CAP) held an event, “All Hands on Deck: How Expanded Learning Time and Community Partners Can Benefit Students,” to launch CAP’s new report focused on best practices regarding extended learning time (ELT). Carmel Martin, executive vice president of public policy at CAP, moderated the discussion and announced the release of a new CAP report, “Expanded Time, Enriching Experiences: Expanded Learning Time Schools and Community Organization Partnerships.” Jonathan Brice, deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Education (ED), spoke passionately about education and said that “everything matters—curriculum, assessments, professional development, access to advanced courses [for students], extended learning time (ELT), and that regardless of a child’s zip code or disability status, each child deserves a quality pre-K to 12 education.” He placed special emphasis on ELT throughout his remarks and referred to the “Dual Capacity Framework,” which focuses on birth to grade 3 as a resource to schools and teachers. Jennifer Davis, co-founder and president of the National Center on Time and Learning, moderated a panel of ELT proponents and implementers: The panel’s collective focus was to discuss and share how their work in ELT is making a difference in a variety of schools, mostly urban settings, in the United States.

Preliminary Work in Promise Zones 

The Center for American Progress (CAP) hosted a panel discussion, “A Renewed Promise: How Promise Zones Can Help Re-Shape the Federal Place-Based Agenda.” The event began with remarks from Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, who spoke about the inception of Promise Zones, which are based on other successful place-based programs. She said the model was an attractive one to President Obama because it allows the federal government to be “on the team” with local leaders rather than just providing federal money and guidelines for spending. After Munoz’s remarks, Tracey Ross, a senior policy analyst at CAP and author of the May 2014 report, led a panel discussion of community leaders who work on Promise Zone initiatives in Philadelphia, San Antonio, and the Choctaw Nation. Ross asked panel members to describe their work and how the Promise Zone designation affected it. All the panelists agreed that the designation elevated enthusiasm for the work that they were doing in their local communities. They also stressed the importance of collaboration and emphasized that Promise Zones are not meant to work around schools, localities, and other institutions but rather to bring those players together to tackle local issues. They all acknowledged that although the designation is helpful, a great deal of work remains to be done.

Former Governors Discuss Common Core 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the Business Roundtable, and the Bipartisan Policy Center hosted an event, “Confronting the Myths: The Truth about the Common Core.” Nirvi Shah from Politico moderated the discussion with former Republican governors who played an integral role in the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in their respective states. Governors Jim Douglas (Vt.), Linda Lingle (Hawaii), and Sonny Perdue (Ga.) discussed the reasons that they supported the Common Core State Standards during their tenure and why they continue to advocate for high standards for students in every state. Governor John Engler (Mich.), president of the Business Roundtable, and Governor John McKernan (Maine), president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, joined the conversation to discuss how the Common Core State Standards will affect the nation’s ability to compete in a global economy. Each articulated why his or her particular state needed to improve on the English language arts and mathematics standards that were being used prior to CCSS, variously explaining that the majority of young adults exiting high school with regular diplomas were not prepared for college courses, were unable to pass basic military or other proficiency exams, were unable to enter technical training schools with basic math skills, or needed remediation in community college or state universities. All agreed that the myths being circulated by anti–Common Core supporters—including fellow Republicans who equate CCSS with a national curriculum or the federalization of education—are misguided and untrue.

After-School Programs Can Help Close Achievement Gaps  

As part of its 13th annual Afterschool for All Challenge, the Afterschool Alliance hosted a Capitol Hill briefing with the Senate Afterschool Caucus featuring compelling stories and encouraging research that point to the success and potential of after-school programs. Deborah Lowe Vandell, founding dean of the School of Education, University of California–Irvine, shared new statistics that show that after-school participation can help close the achievement gap in the country and can be particularly effective in improving achievement and positive behavior among low-income students. She noted that after-school researchers and advocates have data that show the long-term outcomes associated with after-school participation are positive and compelling and should move discussion about the benefits of structured after-school time beyond the safety and good behaviors conversations. In addition, Vandell stated that in recent years the research tools and findings have facilitated the incorporation of measures of intensity, duration, and quality. Karen West, director of Redhound Enrichment and out-of-school time programs at Corbin Independent Schools in Corbin, Kentucky, shared the particular challenges that she and her colleagues face as they try to provide services to a rural and poor area. She noted that out-of-school time opportunities and programs are key to fostering success among school-aged children in Corbin and that the 21st Century Community Learning Center (21st CCLC) program is crucial to the community. The funds invested in the program are leveraged by partnerships and other investments from community business and programs, but she and her fellow participants noted that the 21st CCLC program hasn’t seen any increases in more than 10 years, indicating that many communities and young people who want after-school programs go unserved. Although West’s comments were compelling, the star of the briefing was a young man who participates in an After School All Stars program located at a Washington, D.C., charter school. Sixth-grader Josiah Lynch, who attends Stuart-Hobson Middle School, told his rapt audience about the program that has captured his interest and exposed him to varied learning and enrichment experiences. He spoke of his plans to graduate from high school, go to Stanford University, and become a doctor. He and his parents received enthusiastic applause from the audience, and Josiah said that he was certain that programs like his would benefit many other young people in Washington, D.C., and across the country.

Preschool Development Grants 

The Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services hosted a webinar on the Preschool Development Grants competition. The purpose of the webinar was to provide context and details about the grants, as well as competition priorities, selection criteria, and a timeline for the grant process. The departments will give preference to applicants when matching funds are available from states, localities, or philanthropic entities. They seek applications that support a birth-to-5 continuum, commit to high-quality programming, and demonstrate commitment from communities with high need. Applications will be due in early fall, and awards will be announced by late fall. Notices with exact dates are anticipated early this summer.

Teacher Evaluation Systems 

The Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution hosted a webinar to discuss a new report on improving teacher evaluation systems. Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center and coauthor of the report, noted that recent efforts by states to use metrics to measure teacher performance required that the information collected be accurate, palatable to teachers, cost-effective, and easily understood by the public. In designing the study, four mid-sized urban districts were selected because they were viewed as having successfully implemented new evaluation systems that rely on value-added measures (VAM) and other strategies, including observations, surveys, and self-study. Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research, asserted that VAM is “as good as it gets” in predicting student achievement, but he cautioned that it should be used in conjunction with other measures. Whitehurst noted the great concern among educators, and the public, about the fairness of VAM, but he said that this information is a small percentage of what goes into an actual evaluation. He asserted that only 22 percent of teachers are actually subject to evaluations that use of this student achievement data and that classroom observations represent 40-70 percent of evaluation scores for teachers. Sandi Jacobs, director of the National Center on Teacher Quality, noted that although student growth is important, observation is the only method that gives teachers feedback that can be acted on. Better instruments to guide observation are needed, Jacobs said. Matt Chingos, fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy, presented the third finding, that teachers who are assigned higher-achieving students get higher scores on observations, suggesting a source of bias. To address this, the authors propose adjusting classroom make-up according to student demographics, such as eligibility for free and reduced lunch prices, race, and ethnicity—an adjustment that is similar to the way that VAM is adjusted at the first of the year depending on achievement levels. All the discussants agreed that the issue of face-value fairness is critically important and that classroom observations are currently too generic and need to be modified to be more content-specific, along with taking student demographics into account, if they are to be effective promoting this kind of change.

Senate HELP Committee Marks Up Pre-K Bill 

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held an executive session to mark up the Strong Start for America’s Children Act  (S. 1697). Ranking member Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) offered an amendment in the form of a substitute bill that would allow states to use federal dollars to fund prekindergarten at their own discretion. Ultimately, S. 1697 was approved by a vote of 12 to 10, and the Alexander substitute amendment failed by a vote of 10 to 12. Both votes were strictly along party lines.

Extended Learning Time 

The National Center on Time and Learning (NCTL) and Teach Plus held an event to launch their new report, “Time for Teachers: Leveraging Expanded Time to Strengthen Instructions & Empower Teachers,” which discussed best practices regarding extended learning time (ELT). Jennifer Davis, co-founder and president of NCTL, opened the event by highlighting the significant work that is currently under way related to teacher time, and she stated unequivocally that “there could not be a more important time to learn and understand the impact of how schools utilize a teacher’s time.” She spoke about the need of the United States to keep up with the more educationally advanced nations and highlighted work in Massachusetts showing that schools can dramatically improve when teachers are given more time and support. Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to the president on the White House Domestic Policy Council, noted that the Obama administration “recognized the benefits of expanded time and learning because it is focused squarely on ensuring that students have the time, support, and experiences that they need in their learning to be successful.” He stated that the president and the secretary of education are expanding the Race to the Top goals and developing a comprehensive blueprint with four goals in mind:

  • Use data to identify disparities
  • Support, recruit, develop, and retain strong teachers and leaders, especially in our highest-need schools
  • Create more access to advanced opportunities for learning, including advanced coursework to prepare students for college
  • Do more to support our students and bring together comprehensive, integrated solutions, including expanded learning time that supports students

Claire Kaplan, vice president of Strategy and Knowledge Management, and coauthor of the report, highlighted and summarized the findings and recommendations of the report, emphasizing that the report looked specifically at schools with strong teacher practices, high growth in student learning, unique and focused learning opportunities, and expanded learning time. She noted that on average the schools in the report had added 7.5 additional weeks of school time to the year. Kaplan shared that one of the most interesting facts about the schools “is their way of creating schedules that offer more time for students as well as teachers.” ELT schools allocate twice as much time for teachers to work with one another and extensively plan the work. According to Kaplan, “ELT schools look more like schools in high performing countries.” Referring to the report’s findings, Kaplan outlined the six shared practices across ELT schools: collaborative lesson planning, embedded professional development, summer training, data analysis, individualized coaching, and peer observation. 



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