Legislative Update: October 2015

  • Apparently Fridays are good for resigning. Last week’s surprise announcement from Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) was followed by word this week that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is leaving Washington at the end of December. He is headed back to Chicago to be reunited with his family; they moved back there this summer. The news was unexpected, since Duncan and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack are the only two original Obama cabinet members left and everyone assumed he would be with the president until the very end. At his annual National Press Club appearance on Wednesday, Secretary Duncan was asked whether or not he would stick around until the end of next year. In retrospect, those who were there and heard his answer about wanting to work hard so that all children have the opportunity to learn well didn’t hear what he didn’t say. What he didn’t say was “yes” or “no.”  

    President Obama has asked John King, Jr. to step in to lead the agency, which has more than 4,000 employees and an operating budget of over $60 billion. King, who came to the department after being the commissioner of education in New York, is currently serving as “delegated” Deputy Secretary. (The “delegated” qualifier means it’s unlikely he’ll ever be officially confirmed by the Senate for either his current job or his new one.) What’s next for Secretary Duncan? In an email to employees, he said, in part, “I haven’t talked with anyone about what I’ll do next, and probably won’t for a little while—I’m simply returning to Chicago to live with my family. I imagine my next steps will continue to involve the work of expanding opportunity for children, but I have no idea what that will look like yet.”

    In other news, a federal government shutdown was averted this week. The House and Senate have agreed to keep the government going at current funding levels through December 11, 2015. A “clean” continuing resolution (CR) passed the House by a vote of 277 to 151, with the support of all Democrats and less than half of the Republicans. (The breakdown of votes is interesting for the particularly wonky and could foreshadow the fault lines in future difficult votes.) With the latest manufactured crisis behind us, many are wondering what Speaker Boehner may or may not want to do before the end of the month. Will he negotiate raising the spending caps required by sequestration before he goes? What about the highway bill? And the debt ceiling that requires lifting before November 5? Clearly, answers to these and many other questions will be affected by next week’s House Republican leadership elections and what the incoming Speaker (almost certainly Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his new team will ask or want a lame-duck Speaker Boehner to do. 

    With all of these machinations stealing headlines, staff time and members’ attention, negotiations on a revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) remain in a holding pattern. Committee staff continue to report progress on some of the less controversial provisions of the House and Senate bills (HR 5/ S 1177), but the debates will get more difficult fast. It’s also worth noting that Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) missed his own September deadline for drafting a Higher Education Act reauthorization proposal. That means that goals are changing. Here’s hoping they aren’t changing too much for those hoping for a new K–12 education law by the end of next year.

    STEM Equity and Diversity Gap
    The National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE), in collaboration with John Hopkins School of Education, released their latest report on the connection between STEM and student equity. As part of the report rollout, they hosted a briefing on Capitol Hill with researchers from both organizations, the National Education Association (NEA), and Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-Md.). During the briefing, co-author Carolyn Parker, Ph. D., explained that while access to STEM resources, meaningful assessments, and STEM pedagogy has improved, the missing link is the lack of an equitable learning environment for students. This environment needs to include multiple student perspectives, values, experiences, and beliefs. She and other panelists were gravely concerned that if educators do not learn how to respond to the cultural needs of minority students, then the STEM opportunities and skills gaps will never close as students tend to lose interest in the subject before ever even having a chance to learn the skills. NAPE predicts that if the STEM workforce shortage crisis is not solved, the economy, government, and US GDP stand to lose a combined $95 trillion. For more information on the report and its policy recommendations, go here. 

    Challenges and Strategies for Afterschool Networks
    The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) held an event titled, “Increasing Investment in Afterschool: The Role of Statewide Afterschool Networks.” Betsy Brand, executive director of AYPF, convened the briefing by explaining 10.2 million kids participate in afterschool programs, but nearly double would if they could. Jeff Cole, network lead for Beyond School Bells, a part of the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, said kids are in afterschool programs for an average of 10 hours per week, and greatly benefit from high quality programs such as 21st Century Community Learning Centers and those that incorporate science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) that his organization has worked to implement. Michelle Doucette Cunningham, executive director of the Connecticut Afterschool Network, emphasized the challenge of access along socio-economic lines in her state, noting that 44 percent of students would partake in programs if they could. Cunningham discussed the importance of uniting stakeholders behind a single message, getting state legislatures to support a line item for afterschool in state budgets, where possible, and preserving or increasing state-level funding. She noted that in Connecticut, funding has grown from a few hundred thousand dollars in to $5.3 million. Joe Davis, executive director of the Florida Afterschool Network, asserted that “afterschool programs are going to save our public education system,” although Florida also struggles with issues of quality and access. Florida’s “Panel of Champions,” open to a mix of stakeholders and community leaders that advocate for afterschool programs, is designed to show Floridians that afterschool is everyone’s business, and represents meaningful and successful resources for students. All panelists talked about the issue of quality, noting strategies they have implemented to raise the quality of lower-performing afterschool programs, including: developing city-wide systems to create a common understanding of quality, equipping parents as strong advocates for programming needs, creating quality standards and best practices, and showing stakeholders high quality programs so they understand what is possible with afterschool programming. Afterschool networks also face challenges with data collection, which sometimes impedes their ability to show direct results. Connecticut issues state-wide identification numbers to all students, enabling a better understanding of the impact of afterschool programs, but other states continue to struggle with collecting information to demonstrate overall value. According to the panelists, all levels of government have a role to play in the implementation of successful afterschool programs, and they called upon the federal government to fully fund the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, increase flexibility in other funding sources, and construct supportive policies.

    New Data on STEM in Afterschool
    The Noyce Foundation and the C.S. Mott Foundation hosted the inaugural Afterschool STEM Summit in Washington, DC. The convening brought together hundreds of afterschool program providers and advocates to discuss developments in STEM and afterschool policy, programs and strategies. With 10.2 million children and youth currently participating in out-of-school time activities, afterschool and summer learning programs are integral to creating a generation of passionate learners and STEM literate professionals, according to the Summit sponsors. Not only do afterschool and summer programs provide diverse, innovative learning experiences, but they have also been proven to inspire and motivate children and youth in pursuing STEM career. One highlight of the gathering was the release of data from the Afterschool Alliance’s America After 3pm report focused on STEM in afterschool. “Full STEM Ahead: Afterschool Programs Step Up as Key Partners in STEM Education” asserts that a majority of children in afterschool programs are offered STEM learning opportunities. Seven in ten parents (69 percent) report that their child is offered STEM learning opportunities in their afterschool program, which, according to the report, equates to approximately seven million children who have access to afterschool STEM. The numbers are similar across elementary school, middle school, and high school grade levels. Further, math activities are the most prevalent STEM offerings, followed by science. Technology and engineering are the least common activities in the hours outside of school. The report and its findings support the afterschool community’s ongoing plea for more public resources for afterschool programming. While the number of children in afterschool programs has grown over the past decade, the demand for programs has also grown. For every child in a program, two more are waiting to get in, according to the report. To increase and improve STEM programming in afterschool, parents need to have a choice of afterschool programs where they can send their children to access these learning opportunities. Public-private partnerships and investments at the national, state, and local levels are needed more than ever to inspire learning while supporting working families and keeping kids safe.

    School-to-Prison Pipeline
    The Obama administration and members of Congress both championed efforts to implement juvenile justice reform at different events in Washington, DC. In a speech at the National Press Club, Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged states and local communities to break the “school-to-prison pipeline” by cutting in half the number of non-violent offenders sent to prison. The estimated $15 billion in annual savings that would result should be used to give 50 percent salary increases to teachers in high-poverty schools under the aggressive plan. Duncan echoed President Barack Obama and other administration officials in voicing disdain for the size of the nation’s prison population, which is disproportionately comprised of African Americans. He said his proposal to shift funds from prisons to teacher salaries would send a signal that “we believe in great teaching early in our kids’ lives rather than courts, jails and prisons later.” Duncan said this type of reform is “essential” as part of the nation’s response to the “issues of race and class” that have come to the forefront in the wake of high profile encounters between African Americans and the police. Duncan noted a sobering statistic, saying that “One out of every three black men in America is predicted to go to prison at some point in their lives, while just one in five of them receives a college degree. We must do more to change the odds.” Secretary Duncan acknowledged that the federal government does not have authority to shift funds from prisons to schools but he said the Education Department might initiate a small pilot program to encourage it. “Whatever we can do to give people second chances or third chances, we should do,” Duncan reiterated. "You don't have to be a liberal romantic," Duncan said, to favor shifting funds from prisons to schools. He noted that many conservatives as well as liberals now believe the U.S. incarceration rate is too high. He said many young offenders commit more serious crimes after being imprisoned on relatively minor charges. Schools play an important role in creating this situation, Duncan said. They suspend about 3.5 million students per year and refer about 250,000 per year to the police. Disproportionate numbers, he said, are “children of color — particularly boys — and…students with disabilities.” Duncan said the $15 billion saved by a 50 percent cut in nonviolent offenders in prison should be targeted for teachers in the 20 percent of schools with the highest poverty rates in each state. This would benefit 17,640 schools, Duncan said, and would help “attract and keep more great talent in the most challenged schools.” 

    Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, a conversation focused on the human stories of the juvenile justice system. Fusion, a joint venture media company with ABC and Univsion, hosted a short pre-screening of their new documentary, Prison Kids: A Crime Against America’s Children, a look inside the world of juvenile detention centers and the impact that incarceration has on kids. The screening was followed by an interview with Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and a panel including Van Jones, president and co-founder of #Cut50; Five Mualimm-ak, executive director of Incarcerated Nation Corporation; Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries; Jessica Sandoval, from the Campaign for Youth Justice; and Jennifer Bellamy, from the American Civil Liberties Union Campaign for Smart Justice. Before the film, Christine Leonard, executive director of the Coalition for Public Safety, stressed the “urgent need for comprehensive criminal justice reform.” She noted the large number of kids in prison, many of whom have mental health issues, are youth of color or have committed noncriminal statute offenses. Furthermore, Leonard highlighted the need for national reform, explaining that a stark difference in the treatment of juveniles from state to state has resulted in “justice by geography.” After the film, Fusion television host Alicia Mendez interviewed Senator Booker, who focused on the negative effects of solitary confinement for both adults and children. He said that the juvenile justice system “violates our morals, our fiscal prudence and common sense.” He highlighted the bipartisan nature of the issue, citing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 and its supporters. The subsequent panel began with Jones demanding, “stop assuming only certain people care about our kids.” Bellamy brought two bills to light, the Youth PROMISE Act (S.1770) and the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (S.1169); on the latter, she emphasized the importance of core protections for children: separating kids from adults in detention facilities, decriminalizing childhood mistakes or trauma; and reducing disproportionate minority contact with the system. Mualimm-ak and Holden, a former inmate and a former prison guard respectively, discussed the need for those in the system to have a voice so that reforms can actually make a difference. Sandoval echoed the other panelists, adding that the number one predictor of whether an individual would enter the adult criminal justice system is whether or not they have experience in the juvenile justice system.

    $60 Million Awarded to Innovative Colleges and Universities
    The Education Department awarded nearly $60 million to 17 colleges and universities in its First in the World (FITW) grant program. “We all know that innovation can take many forms and as a key part of the Administration’s goal to promote college access and affordability, the First in the World program aims to support a wide range of innovation to improve student outcomes,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “We are pleased to support these educational leaders who are driving exciting innovations to achieve those goals. Duncan continued, “Given the importance of such an investment in America’s future and with college being more important than ever, it makes absolutely no sense that Republicans in Congress want to end this program.” The 17 recipients represent 14 states; ten public, private, and nonprofit four-year institutions; five public two-year institutions; and two educational agencies or organizations. Nine of the 17 winning applications were submitted by minority serving institutions (MSIs), three of which were Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). This year, there were more than 300 applications submitted for FITW’s two competitions: development grants to seed and rigorously evaluate earlier stage innovations and validation grants to test, at a broad scale, interventions supported by significant evidence. Many of the grants will support collaborations among multiple partners -- among as many as ten colleges or universities, between two- and four-year institutions, or with non-profit partners focused on college access and student data. In order to expand the evidence on effective interventions, all grantees are required to have a strong evaluation plan that meets What Works Clearinghouse standards. The competition solicited applications in a number of focus areas, such as improving teaching and learning, improving student support services, developing and using new assessments of learning, and improving success in developmental education. This is the Obama Administration’s second round of FITW Grants. The President’s FY2016 budget has requested $200 million for First in the World grants. However, Congress’s current budget proposals would eliminate FITW completely. For more information, go here. 

    Communicating Results of CCSS-Aligned Assessments
    The Learning First Alliance (LFA) held a webinar “Let’s Talk Data: What Common Core Test Results Tell Us about Teaching and Learning,” to discuss how to interpret and disseminate the information being released on results from the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) –aligned assessments. As results from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced assessments trickle in, many state agencies and local districts are working on strategies for explaining these results to students and parents and finding out how to best use the data to improve instruction. Deb Delisle, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) moderated the webinar and quickly turned over the discussion to Aimee Guidera, CEO of Data Quality Campaign, who spoke about the fact that data needs to be present in the beginning, middle, and end of any conversation about student outcomes as opposed to being exclusively used at the end. She also noted that data should be used as “a flashlight, not a hammer,” in reference to the notion that data is often measured and released for compliance and accountability provisions. Alternatively, she suggested that data can be used earlier in the year, throughout formative assessments, and during summative assessments to provide a richer, more vibrant snapshot of how a student is progressing and how to adjust teaching accordingly for continuous improvement. Guidera was joined by Dr. Dallas Dance, superintendent, Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS), who has been gearing up for the release of the PARCC results in his district. Dr. Dance has been a strong advocate of parental involvement in schools and detailed communication between schools and parents, using the online platform BCPS One to provide a one-stop shop for teachers, parents, staff, and students to access wide-ranging information about student learning and results. He noted that parents rarely complain about a school district communicating with them too much and that he has been searching for more ways to get parents and the community knowledgeable about what the CCSS-aligned assessments are showing – using podcasts, and local television and cable stations to broadcast informational segments about how these assessments work and what types of data they are providing. Michael Krist, President of the California State Board of Education, also talked about the need for open channels of communication, not just with parents but also between the K-12 sector and the higher education space – notably community colleges to create better alignment of skills. In California’s use of the Smarter Balanced Assessments, 3.2 million students were able to complete the computer-based assessment without a technical glitch, and the data that they are seeing is providing a much richer and comprehensive picture of where gaps exist in student learning. Krist was adamant about the fact that the new standards are as overtly aligned with college and career standards as any curriculum have been, making them naturally more complex and intensive; however, he noted that the initial difficulty in transition is going to pay dividends in the end as “the skills these students are learning and mastering will train them for the jobs and education of the future.” All three panelists shared their final thoughts that data is not something to fear, but something to embrace and openly discuss with parents and other educators to create an environment where all influences on student learning are coming to the table and making changes as needed. 

    Collaborative to Encourage Girls in STEM
    The White House Council for Women and Girls announced that Arizona State University will be the leader of the new National STEM Collaborative, a consortium of 19 universities and nonprofit organizations committed to supporting minority girls and women. This initiative will help boost the efforts by ASU’s Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology to encourage greater access to STEM for underserved populations. The consortium will be responsible for creating a toolkit and spreading best practices regarding training, recruiting and retaining women of color in STEM majors. The member institutions include: Amherst College, City College of New York, Diné College, Maricopa Community Colleges, Spelman College, University of Alabama, University of California–Riverside, University of Maryland–Baltimore County, the Project on Race & Gender in Science & Medicine at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, American Indian Higher Education Consortium, Arizona STEM Network, Iridescent, National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, National Math + Science Initiative, National Society of Black Engineers, OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates, STEM4Us!, and the Surge Assembly.

    Recommendations on Inclusion in Early Education
    The U.S. Departments of Education (ED) and Health and Human Services (HHS) released a policy paper titled, “Policy Statement on Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Early Childhood Programs.” Inclusion has become increasingly widespread in K–12 classrooms as a growing body of research has found that students with disabilities benefit from the regular classroom setting. ED and HHS are now nudging preschools to offer opportunities to younger learners, as well. The policy statement, which was written with input from early learning professionals, families and other early learning stakeholders, outlines a vision for increasing inclusion in high-quality early childhood programs. At the unveiling of the plan at Woodland Early Learning Community School in Kansas City, Missouri, as part of ED’s back-to-school bus tour, Secretary Arne Duncan remarked, “As our country continues to move forward on the critical task of expanding access to high-quality early learning programs for all children, we must do everything we can to ensure that children with disabilities are part of that.” Duncan additionally emphasized the importance of high expectations for all students, including those with a disability. The report acknowledges some challenges to adopting inclusion, but also offers free resources for States, program providers and families that support inclusion of children with disabilities into early education programs. 

    Learning Outcomes of Technology Use
    The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) - known for their Promgramme for International Student Assessment (PISA) surveys on student learning in reading, math, and science - held a webinar to discuss the findings of their latest report, “Students, Computers, and Learning: Making the Connection.” The first of its kind, the PISA survey to address digital learning skills and digital literacy found that schools have yet to take advantage of the potential of technology in the classroom to tackle the digital divide and give every student the skills they need in today’s connected world. Even countries which have invested heavily in information and communication technologies (ICT) for education have seen no noticeable improvement in their performances in PISA results for reading, mathematics or science. To assess their digital skills, the test required students in 31 countries to use a keyboard and mouse to navigate texts by using tools like hyperlinks, browser button or scrolling, in order to access information, as well as make a chart from data or use on-screen calculators. The degree of proficiency was measured in part by a student’s ability to stay focused and be task-oriented while using an efficient browsing strategy. Top performers were Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong-China, Japan, Canada and Shanghai-China. This reflects closely to their performances in the 2012 print-reading test, suggesting that many of the skills essential for online navigation can also be taught and learned using standard, analog reading techniques. The report found that the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students in digital reading was very similar to the differences in performance in the traditional PISA reading test, despite the vast majority of students using computers whatever their background. This suggests that to reduce inequalities in digital skills, countries need to improve equity in education first. Overall, students who use computers moderately at school tend to have somewhat better learning outcomes than students who use computers rarely. But students who use computers frequently at school do much worse, even after accounting for social background and student demographics. The main take-away from the webinar was that technology can amplify teacher effectiveness if used well, but it is no substitute for poor teaching – affirming that the best way to leverage technology is to support the human capital that is delivering the lessons. “School systems need to find more effective ways to integrate technology into teaching and learning to provide educators with learning environments that support 21st century pedagogies and provide children with the 21st century skills they need to succeed in tomorrow’s world,” said Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills. “Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge. To deliver on the promises technology holds, countries need to invest more effectively and ensure that teachers are at the forefront of designing and implementing this change.”

    Link Between Social and Emotional Learning an Academics
    Education Week and the Committee for Children hosted a webinar, “Social-Emotional Learning: Systemic Innovation for Improved Outcomes,” which examined Austin Independent School District’s effort to incorporate social and emotional learning (SEL) and its effect on student outcomes, as well as innovative strategies for best-practice SEL implementation and sustainability. Joan Duffell, Executive Director of Committee for Children, moderated the panel featuring Roger Weissberg, Chief Knowledge Officer at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL); Paul Cruz, Superintendent, Austin Independent School District; and Sherrie Raven, Director of SEL, Austin Independent School District. Weissberg presented an overview of CASEL and discussed its partnership with Austin. He stressed the importance of enhancing children’s social, emotional and academic skills to produce good outcomes and noted that studies have found students participating in SEL programs scored 11 percentile points higher academically, and that teachers are overwhelmingly supportive of SEL. Educators see the strategy’s broad benefits, ranging from academic achievement to workforce preparation. Cruz presented an overview of the Austin, TX school district, which is a fast-growing urban district that serves roughly 86,000 students, 60 percent of whom are low income. “SEL is at the heart of what we want to do,” said Cruz, who described SEL as “about shaping a culture of caring and personal responsibility.” He said his district aims for SEL to be a part of all instruction. Raven explained how Austin went about integrating SEL, beginning by collaborating with CASEL in 2010 to bring SEL to two high schools and their feeder middle schools. The program gradually expanded, and this year the district trained its final high school and feeder school. She described a 4-pronged approach within the district that includes explicit instruction; climate and culture; integration of SEL into academic content throughout the day (which she categorized as getting the biggest “bang for the buck”); and work with families and community to support a 24-7 approach. Raven showcased a school that began comprehensive, school-wide SEL and saw discipline referrals decrease from 800 to less than 100 within a year. During a question and answer session led by Duffell, Cruz said the most convincing argument for SEL implementation is underscoring the need for the program, and then building an expectation about implementation and providing supports for teachers. Weissberg added that the key ingredients for successful implementation are strong stakeholder commitment; research to inform best practices; aligning classroom, schoolwide and family programming with district priorities; and, creating systems to support reflection and continuous improvement of work.

    Results from College and Career-Ready Assessments
    The Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) held a webinar to discuss the results of college-and-career-readiness assessments thus far and how they are impacting teaching and learning in both the K-12 sector and the higher education sphere. Robert Rothman, a Senior Fellow at AEE, moderated the webinar and began by saying that the results coming in from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced assessments appear to show that fewer students are proficient in Math and Language Arts. However, he quickly pointed out that this does not mean students are becoming less proficient in these subjects, but that the standards are changing for students, causing a reset of sorts of scores that will likely improve in the future. Joining Rothman was Loretta Holloway, Interim Vice President of the Division of Enrollment and Student Development at Framingham State University in Massachusetts; Anitra Pinchback-Jones, an elementary school principal at Rainier View Elementary School in Washington; and Marti Shirley, a high school math teacher at Mattoon High School in Illinois. All three of the participants shared their experiences with PARCC and Smarter Balanced and spoke about the impact of these assessments on how students are changing their learning and how teachers are changing their method of instruction. In particular, Holloway discussed that there needs to be a much better pipeline of communication between K-12 and postsecondary education so that colleges can speak to the types of skills that students are entering with and inform the K-12 sector on how to best frame their curriculum and assessments to ease the transition. Holloway also spoke about the fact that higher education is trying to do a better job of imparting what Common Core is and how the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments work in their teaching colleges so that teachers are getting more exposure to these types of assessments in their pre-service training. The overarching theme presented in the webinar is that both PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments focus heavily on the application of knowledge as opposed to the recitation of it, and that they involve multi-part and longer questions – which many students find unfamiliar. However, according to Holloway, this type of knowledge, where students do not simply see things as right and wrong, but where they have to evaluate, justify and use their judgment to take multiple paths in solving a problem is exactly the types of skillset that colleges and employers desire. Both Pinchback-Jones and Shirley also stated that these new assessments are more complex and engaging, and that they often have parent forums and discussions with teachers on what these assessments are showing and how to get students to elaborate more about what they are learning and describe their thinking. However, they both like that these assessments focus on learning skills and not teaching to the test – thus it has helped eliminate some of the drill-based teaching to the test that was going on in previous years. The results of PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments, which many states are still waiting on, point to the fact that it will take time for teachers, parents, students, and administrators to transition into these new tests and new ways of thinking; however, those at the back end say that the skills being promoted through these assessments are exactly the type that we need to cultivate for success beyond high school.

    Obama Touts Community College Programs and Apprenticeships
    President Obama returned to Macomb Community College in Warren, Michigan, to champion increased access to affordable education and vocational training during the first stop of the Department of Education’s annual nationwide Back-to-School tour. Traveling with Jill Biden, a community college professor and wife of Vice President Joe Biden, the President discussed his Administration’s efforts to expand funding for apprenticeships and promote initiatives to make community college free. “I want two years of community college to be as free and universal as high school is today,” Obama said. Before the President began his speech, Dr. Biden touted the Obama administration’s focus on education, citing investment in early childhood education and efforts to increase the number of students graduating high school and attending college. During her speech, Biden announced she would serve as chair of the College Promise Advisory Board, a new independent commission composed of community college leaders, policymakers, businesses and foundations that will explore ways to expand existing programs that provide free two-year college degrees. During his State of the Union address in January, Obama proposed a $60 billion program that would guarantee qualified students two free years of community college. The plan has yet to gain traction in Congress. Biden said students face decades of debt and that it’s hard to get ahead in the workforce when Americans are struggling to keep up. “If we want all Americans to succeed in the 21st century we need to make sure that all students at all ages have the best education possible,” she said. Obama also announced the Board’s plans to launch Heads Up America, a public service campaign designed to support community colleges. Lastly, Obama expressed his support for apprenticeships and training opportunities as a means of making America more competitive within the world economy. The President noted a study that found workers who completed an apprenticeship made $300,000 more than their peers over a lifetime. “Upgrading your skills pays off,” he added. The Obama administration is pledging $200 million to promote apprenticeships and training opportunities, with the Department of Labor awarding $175 million in grants to 46 public-private partnerships that have committed to expanding high-quality apprenticeships. “This is a concrete way to reduce the cost of higher education for young people, to improve the skills of workers so they get higher paying jobs, to grow our economy,” Obama said. “It shouldn’t be controversial.”

    STEM Education Advocates Champion Diversity and Balance in the Field
    The Washington Post, in conjunction with Bayer Corporation, brought policymakers, educators and students together to talk about innovative efforts in classrooms to strengthen science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curricula and the need to inspire young students to study STEM - especially girls and students in underserved communities. The forum titled, “Balancing the STEM Equation,” kicked off with opening remarks from Mae Jemison, former NASA astronaut and the first female African-American to travel in space. Dr. Jemison talked about the need for advancing science literacy and the impact that hands-on STEM experiences have on cultivating inquiry and innovation for young people. She also highlighted the Bayer SayTKU Campaign, a commitment by Bayer to provide up to 1 million hands-on STEM experiences for children by the year 2020, along with a social media campaign to thank mentors and role models who have inspired students. The forum then shifted into a moderated discussion led by Kathleen Schwille, Executive Director of the National Geographic Education Foundation, with Alice Bowman, Operations Manager of the New Horizons mission to Pluto; Vanessa Ford, a teacher at Maury Elementary in Washington D.C.; 6th grade student Samantha Garcia; and Bezos Family Foundation Senior Adviser Mark Hofer. All participants spoke about the indispensable nature of hands-on STEM activities, with Ford noting how the value of “productive failures” in student experiments help them learn to evaluate what went wrong and to try alternative solutions. Hofer, a former high school science teacher, also discussed the fact that STEM courses and the arts are not mutually exclusive, noting that he frequently encourages collaboration between both the sciences and the arts, colloquially known as STEAM, saying “you do not lose one by embracing the other.” He also cited that private industry has a huge role to play in encouraging and exposing STEM to all students, which was echoed in the second panel featuring Kaya Henderson, Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools; John King, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education; and Michael Lomax, President and Chief Executive of the United Negro College Fund. This panel’s discussion focused on the efforts needed to close the STEM education gap. In particular, Lomax was very vocal about the need to demystify STEM as being a “hard” and “not for everyone” discipline, and that parents should be encouraging their kids to pursue these subjects even if they themselves have no STEM experience. He stated, minorities and women “should not just be consumers of technology, but creators of it.” Henderson and King echoed these sentiments, including the need for getting teachers with more expertise and improving school discipline procedures to make sure all students are spending more time in the classroom and given access to activities that motivate and inspire them. In closing, champions of STEM education legislation, Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and John Hoeven (R-ND) took the stage to discuss the importance of STEM education and the role that a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) can have in giving state and local agencies more control over what subjects to encourage. Senator Shaheen noted the huge gender gap in the technology industry, and said that STEM disciplines need to be encouraged in younger grades with a specific focus on getting young girls excited about STEM.