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Teachers and Principals in Senator Harkin’s NCLB Reauthorization Plan

June 6, 2013
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In many ways, the latest reauthorization effort from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA)–the Strengthening America’s Schools Act (SASA)–reads like an endorsement of the administration’s NCLB flexibility plan. States that have received NCLB waivers would be able to continue with those plans in most respects. What’s more, SASA builds on the waiver process, with states’ Title I plans replacing the Department of Education’s flexibility request. Title I plans (which describe each state’s standards, assessments, and systems of accountability and school improvement) would be subject to Department approval every four years.

But what about Title II? We know effective teachers and principals have a lifelong positive impact on students. And it’s no secret that human capital reforms – from teacher evaluations to preparation and tenure – are among the most contentious in education. How does Harkin’s bill navigate these issues?


Unlike the Senate’s 2011 reauthorization proposal, states and school districts would have to develop and implement a professional growth and improvement system by the 2015-16 school year to receive Title II funding – a big sticking point with Senate Republicans, like Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who have introduced a competing reauthorization plan. These systems must be developed in consultation with educators, provide meaningful feedback, include multiple performance categories, align with professional development, and provide for training of evaluators. Echoing the results of the MET study, teachers would be evaluated based on three components: student achievement and growth; classroom observations; and other measures, like student surveys. These guidelines are broad enough to apply to all teachers, including those in the early grades and untested subjects that lack test-based data on student achievement. Student Learning Objectives or other measures could be used so long as they are “evidence-based.” Principals would be evaluated based on their instructional leadership, as well as student achievement, growth, and academic outcomes, including students reaching English language proficiency.

Notably, SASA deviates from states’ waiver plans by not requiring evaluations to inform personnel decisions. To some, like Democrats for Education Reform, this means stripping all accountability from the new evaluation systems. To others, this is welcome relief given states’ simultaneous adoption of new assessments and implementation of evaluation systems based on them. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, practically praised the bill for requiring “a variety of measures to evaluate teachers, rather than making test scores the be-all and end-all.” Further, any state with a waiver-approved teacher evaluation plan would be allowed to continue with it. But even with these provisions in place, some state advocates, like the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Chris Minnich worry about the “prescriptive language” around teacher evaluations.

Despite the noise, this seems like a comfortable compromise between both extremes – states are not prohibited from using evaluations for personnel decisions, and some may continue to do so in their waivers. At the same time, states must develop evaluations and include student achievement and growth measures, resisting the urge to “pause” these reforms entirely as states adopt the Common Core. The bill also rightly emphasizes the improvement and professional growth components within evaluation systems over more punitive elements. No district or state will be able to improve the quality of its education workforce solely by hiring new teachers – they must also figure out how to improve the teachers they have.

Funding Formula and Equity

With a $2.5 billion appropriation in FY 2012, Title II’s formula grants to states represent the largest federal programs for PreK-12 teachers. These grants aim to increase the number of highly qualified teachers and school leaders, as well as improve their effectiveness. However, the Title II grant formula has been stuck in time for over a decade – an issue that arose during the 2011 Senate NCLB reauthorization markup. First, states receive allocations equal to their 2001 funding levels under an older, expired grant program. Then additional Title II dollars flow to states by the NCLB formula. Harkin’s bill would remove that “hold harmless” provision so that all of Title II’s formula funding would be allocated with the updated formula.

Unlike Title II funding under NCLB, states and districts in SASA must address inequality in the distribution of highly effective teachers and principals. Although there is little accountability to ensure states and districts follow through, this is a move in the right direction for educational equity, since states have little incentive to even report this information currently. SASA would require this information be made public to parents in an Equity Report Card. Districts can’t fix a “teacher effectiveness gap” without knowing how bad the problem is, and the new data could jumpstart these efforts.  

Class-Size Reduction vs. Professional Development

Under NCLB, districts can use their state funds for professional development, class-size reduction, and teacher quality activities, like retention and recruitment efforts, but the vast majority is spent on the first two activities. In 2011, districts surveyed by the Department reported using 42 percent of Title II grant funds for professional development and 38 percent on class-size reduction. SASA would make further changes, eliminating class-size reduction as an option in all but PreK-3rd grade classrooms and requiring that at least 20 percent of funds go toward professional development in priority schools. This would be a big lift for some districts, but reflects overall trends in Title II spending away from class-size reduction, which accounted for 57 percent of spending in 2003.

Preparation and Training

SASA also includes a version of the GREAT Act, a bipartisan effort led by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO). States could reserve up to 1 percent of their Title II allocation to develop new teacher and principal preparation academies that would be authorized directly by the state – instead of by traditional accreditors. Modeled after programs like the Relay Graduate School of Education, these academies must have high admissions standards and a rigorous selection process and include a strong mentoring component and instruction linked to candidates’ experiences in schools. Prior to graduating from the academy, all candidates would have to demonstrate their ability to increase student achievement and growth. In exchange, these academies would not have to meet certain regulations for preparation programs, including faculty degrees and research output, the number of credits hours or undergraduate coursework required, physical infrastructure, and accreditation. While the academies could be authorized by a state education agency or nonprofit, academies that do not produce effective teachers and leaders could not be reauthorized.

In addition, SASA authorizes a new competitive grant aimed at recruiting and training effective principals to work in low-income schools, particularly priority and focus schools, middle schools that feed into high schools with low graduation rates, and high-poverty rural schools. Modeled on legislation from Senators Bennet and Al Franken (D-MN), districts, states, and/or nonprofits and institutions of higher education could apply, but would need to provide at least a 20 percent match. Unlike the GREAT Act, this proposal would operate more closely with traditional preparation programs. Funds would be used to recruit highly qualified and diverse school leaders, provide principals and aspiring principals training tailored to the skills they need to lead high-needs schools, develop a year-long residency program and provide ongoing coaching, and train principal mentors. Programs would be evaluated on whether participants are placed and remain as principals in high-needs schools and whether student outcomes improve in those schools.

Both are promising approaches to improving principal leadership and effectiveness – an area that has often been overshadowed by teacher quality. And while not explicitly included in the formula-funded academies, states would have to describe how they would coordinate Title II with early education to strengthen the knowledge and skills of educators working with children PreK-3rd. Even better, states, districts, and other groups winning competitive grants must include training for elementary school principals on the benefits of high-quality early education and transitioning children from these settings to elementary schools – we’d like to see this expanded to in-service principal training as well. 

Similar to the principal quality proposal, another competitive grant program – Pathways to Teaching – would support recruitment, selection, preparation, placement, and retention of teachers in high-needs subjects at high-needs schools. Grantees must focus on classroom management, instructional planning, literacy and cognitive development, developing and using assessments, and a clinical experience at a high-needs school, with ongoing mentoring. Sound familiar? Both the Obama administration’s reauthorization blueprint and Harkin’s last reauthorization attempt included a similar provision. The Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) would also receive permanent authorization in SASA and award grants to offer merit pay or bonuses for highly effective teachers in high-needs school and to improve teacher evaluations, compensation plans, and human capital systems.

While there is a lot to like in the new Title II plan, the prospects for SASA moving beyond a partisan Committee vote are slim. Stay tuned to both Ed Money Watch and Early Ed Watch for continuing coverage of both Senate proposals as we edge toward Tuesday’s markup.

First Look: Sen. Harkin’s Strengthening America’s Schools Act

June 5, 2013
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Yesterday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, released yet another attempt to reauthorize No Child Left Behind: the Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013 (SASA). NCLB, due for a Congressional rewrite since 2007, has few remaining fans. But all previous reauthorization bills, including a bipartisan effort from Sen. Harkin and Mike Enzi (R-WY) last Congress, have failed miserably. While every Democratic Senator on the Committee signed off on the new draft legislation, Harkin could not sway key Republicans. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the Ranking Member on the Committee, plans to offer his own reauthorization legislation later this week, with partisan bills also expected from the House Education and Workforce Committee later this month.

Given the partisan nature of the Harkin bill and Congress in general, the odds for a successful reauthorization are more dismal than ever. Insiders agree: the latest Whiteboard Advisors tracking survey found that 87 percent of edu-insiders believe reauthorization will occur after January 2015. Add 37 states and Washington, D.C. with NCLB waivers into the mix, and there is little real pressure from the administration or from state and local policymakers to rewrite the law – especially a bill that would increase the role of the federal government and take away some of the flexibility states received in their waiver plans (more on that below).

Harkin’s bill is scheduled for a Committee markup next Tuesday. In the meantime, here are some of the key provisions we’re watching within Title I – the bill’s largest program – as well as areas for excitement and concern. Education Week, New York Times, and Huffington Post also offer excellent recaps of the proposed legislation.

Timeline and Interaction with NCLB Waivers

States, regardless of waiver status, must immediately begin implementing college- and career-ready assessments and reporting disaggregated student achievement data for any subgroup larger than 16 students. Otherwise, there is a two-year transition period to establish a baseline for performance targets and to identify schools for improvement based on the accountability provisions in SASA. This is a no-brainer: any reauthorization at this point cannot dismantle states’ NCLB flexibility overnight.

What’s far more interesting, however, is that Sen. Harkin is borrowing some ideas from the Department when it comes to waivers. Under SASA, state Title I plans become the new NCLB waivers – subject to Department-approval, including peer review, every four years. Any significant changes to standards, assessments, performance targets, or accountability would fall under the review and revision process. 

What’s brilliant (and quite welcome for education policy wonks) is that this provision eliminates the possibility that the next federal education law gets trapped in reauthorization limbo like NCLB. And it gives Congress more oversight over the renewal/waiver process, since it’s authorized explicitly in the law. Another welcome provision is that the bill requires states’ plans to include how they are improving access to full-day kindergarten if they fund it and to report the distribution of effective teachers – data currently unavailable to most parents, researchers, and policymakers.

Academic Standards

Under SASA, states would have to adopt college- and career-ready academic content standards in reading, math, and science by January 2015. States would also need to adopt achievement standards in all three subjects and, unlike previous bills, demonstrate that they are aligned with credit-bearing academic coursework, without need for remediation, in the state’s public colleges and universities. Without alignment to actual postsecondary standards, states’ new K-12 standards would be college- and career-ready in name-only. While the draft bill could go further, this is a move in the right direction.

The proposed legislation also weighs in on the growing backlash to the Common Core standards. SASA reiterates that the Department of Education cannot “mandate, direct, or control a State’s college and career ready academic content.” Finally, Sen. Harkin would require any state that uses Title I funds for early childhood education to develop early learning guidelines for preschool programs and early grade standards for students in grades K-3. These standards would be required to address multiple domains of learning, including social-emotional development and approaches to learning (ability to persist at a challenging task, work with others, make decisions) and align with the state’s college- and career-ready standards. While this could help encourage states to address the specific needs of its youngest students and how they learn best, it should be a requirement for all states, though, and not just those who use their Title I dollars for preschool programs.


Not a lot has changed as far as the NCLB testing schedule, but SASA would require states to administer college- and career-ready assessments by the 2015-16 school year – with assessments subject to a technical review by the Department. This provision has big implications for both the Common Core consortia and other competitors, like ACT. And Bellwether’s Andy Smarick recently revealed that the Department is also revising its review process, so this issue will emerge regardless of an NCLB reauthorization.

Another big change in the Harkin bill is that assessments must measure whether students are performing on grade level, as well as identify the specific grade level at which the student is performing. In other words, states would be allowed to administer computer-adaptive tests that adjust to students’ abilities, using items at the 4th or 5th grade level for advanced 3rd grade students and simpler items aligned to 1st or 2nd grade standards for those that are below-grade level. By allowing states to accurately measure students’ abilities, teachers would have much better information to help students improve and stay on target to postsecondary readiness. Given the importance of grade-level reading and a growing number of states that retain students based on it, this provision is sorely needed.

School Accountability

Like the administration’s NCLB waivers, Harkin’s proposal for accountability includes aggregate and disaggregated measures of student achievement and growth and establishes annual targets for school performance. But unlike the waivers, SASA defines what sufficient academic growth is: a rate of growth by which students would be performing at grade level within three years or by the end of a grade span (like high school). Given that some states’ waivers include growth models that don’t actually measure individual student growth, a better definition is overdue. However, states would also be allowed to submit alternative growth models to the Department for approval, so any sub-par models in the waivers could, theoretically, still be used.

Annual targets can also be carried over from states’ NCLB waivers or approved by the Department anew. States on the latter track would set goals, based on 2014-15 data, which aim for all schools to be performing similarly to schools at the 90th percentile over a “reasonable” amount of time and expect greater progress for lower-performing subgroups. Alternatively, these states could submit an “equally ambitious” set of goals for Department approval. On their face, these targets sound even more rigorous than those in states’ waivers. However, it’s hard to judge how difficult these targets would be without greater clarity on what, exactly, “reasonable” and “equally ambitious” mean. Notably, states’ goals cannot recognize a GED or other equivalency as a high school diploma, and super-subgroups would be eliminated in any new goals states develop.

But the most important – and welcome – change between SASA and states' waivers is that these targets actually matter beyond school report cards. As research shows, serious interventions – or the threat of them – could be the difference between schools improving or stagnating. Harkin’s bill would require state accountability systems to identify and intervene in focus and priority schools, along with schools failing to meet the same performance goals for two consecutive years. The Harkin bill is also more explicit about what happens to focus and priority schools if they do not improve than most state waivers: focus schools become priority schools after six years, while priority schools are subject to state takeover, restart, or closure if they are re-identified as a priority school after three years.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Sen. Harkin’s bill suffers in two areas: defining school improvement strategies and school report cards. In defining what schools must do to improve and what school data must be reported to parents, every Democratic Senator’s favored approach or data point appears to be included, leaving a jumbled mess of burdens and requirements for states, districts, and schools.

School improvement strategies – in addition to the specific provisions of the transformation, turnaround, whole school reform, restart, and closure models – must include over 15 common elements, from professional development, to improving coordination and access to early learning, to data-driven instruction, to positive behavioral interventions and supports. While these are all important factors to consider (and New America has written about the need to include preschool and the early grades in school turnaround), it’s a vague and inordinately long list to tackle in three years, especially if state and district capacity for school improvement is lacking.

SASA’s treatment of school report cards is even worse. After stating that school report cards must be “concise” and “easy to understand,” the draft bill includes over twenty data points that must be reported for all schools (NCLB required less than five). But there are actually far more than twenty – it could be hundreds. That is because nearly every data point must be reported by grade and all must be disaggregated by subgroup, and then cross-tabulated between subgroups. This data should be publically available. But does it all need to be reported in one place, where it could easily overwhelm parents and families? Ironically, despite all the data that must be included, there are still missing pieces – particularly enrollment in full-day and half-day kindergarten and chronic absenteeism.

There is a lot more (believe it or not) in the legislation, so New America will continue to cover the Strengthening America’s Schools Act on and the markup on Ed Money Watch and Early Ed Watch in the days ahead. Stay tuned.

New Report Explores Federal Opportunities to Promote Data in Classrooms

June 4, 2013
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Today, the New America Foundation's Education Policy Program released a new report, Promoting Data in the Classroom: Innovative State Models and Missed Opportunities. Please click here to read the report.


Over the past decade, states and school districts across the United States have collected huge amounts of data on students’ academic achievement, teachers, and academic environments. Every state maintains a student-level longitudinal data system, and education stakeholders in school districts across the country have innumerable facts, figures, and statistics at their disposal. But most states don’t do much to train teachers in using these data to inform and improve classroom instruction.

In a report released today from the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program, we examine two states—Oregon and Delaware—that are bucking that trend and working to equip teachers with the skills they need to analyze student data and to apply it in the classroom.  Both states are using federal funds to implement their plans, and they can be models for other states seeking to make relevant the many data points they collect each year. But for federal policymakers, the most valuable lessons may come from the funding each state used.

Oregon DATA Project

Oregon launched the Oregon DATA Project (ODP) using funds from the Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS) grant program in 2007. The plan was designed to help teachers use student data, particularly state standardized test scores, to identify which students were falling behind and provide them with the interventions or extra tutoring they need.

It’s run by virtually all volunteers from across the state, and brings teachers from around the state together.  Volunteer data coaches learn to work with the data, and then take it back to their schools’ Professional Learning Communities (PLCs, small-group meetings in which educators collaborate to analyze data and learn new skills).

An independent evaluation has revealed some early successes – an achievement gap between ODP and non-ODP students in the first year of the project has disappeared, and in 2011, ODP students surpassed non-ODP students in reading for the first time.


Delaware Data Coach Program

The Delaware Data Coach Program uses many similar constructs to the ODP, but it was instead included as a part of the state’s Race to the Top (RttT) grant award. The program contracted with an outside group, Wireless Generation, to provide data coaches. And whereas ODP is an all-volunteer project, the Delaware Data Coach Program is mandatory for all core subject teachers in grades 2 through 12 – though all public school teachers, including kindergarten and first grade teachers, have elected to participate.

Delaware teachers also joined Professional Learning Communities. In some school districts, PLCs were already in place before the RttT award. Where the PLCs were already robust, the program leaders reworked the data coach model so that the outside data coaches were instead training the identified teacher-leaders in the school. In fact, the data coaches were meant to be temporary – the RttT application permits for two years of data coaches in the middle of the four-year grant, after which the coaches will have “coached themselves out of a job.”

The state hasn’t released an evaluation of the program’s impact on student achievement yet, but a survey of participants shows that 87 percent of teachers believe student data can offer information critical to differentiated instruction – and nearly 60 percent are more confident using data to make instructional choices, thanks to the PLCs.

Federal Policy Implications

The Oregon and Delaware projects have a lot in common. Both used PLCs during the regular workday to bring teachers together in a collaborative, open format. Both relied on data coaches to bring teachers up to speed on the data skills they’d need. And both found the presence of administrators who bought into the project was critical.

But the Oregon and Delaware data programs came from entirely different sets of funds. Though both used federal dollars, they relied on competitive grant competitions. Scaling these projects out to other states, then, will require a broader funding base. The Improving Teacher Quality State Grants program, a formula-funded program that provides money to every state, every year, holds large potential.

The New America Foundation’s report, Promoting Data in the Classroom: Innovative State Models and Missed Opportunities, explores two states’ efforts to bring data to teachers, describes the obstacles and successes that Oregon and Delaware have each faced, and provides recommendations to federal policymakers who hope to expand similar efforts to teachers across the country. Click here to read the full report.

House Could Set Education Funding Back to Year 2001 to Fund Defense

May 28, 2013

Last week, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee circulated a proposal that would shift fiscal year 2014 funding from health care, job training, and education programs to military and national security programs. (Fiscal year 2014 starts October 1, 2013.) Just how big of a hit does that mean for education programs? Put it this way, the cuts the House Republicans have in mind for the upcoming fiscal year are four times larger than those under sequestration. That is, take education funding—already lower due to sequestration—and cut it again four times over.

Last month we explained in the issue brief, Federal Education Budget Update: Fiscal Year 2013 Recap and Fiscal Year 2014 Early Analysis, that House Republicans had big cuts to education programs in mind when they passed their budget resolution.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 limits fiscal year 2014 spending on appropriations (including most education programs) some $18 billion below the 2013 post-sequester level. House Republicans want to follow that limits, but they want to go a step further. They are proposing to increase funding for defense and national security programs while staying within that cap. That means everything else has to give.

The latest development, the release of the House 302(b) suballocations, provides the first look at what broad categories of programs will bear the brunt of the increase-defense-and-cut-the-rest policy that House Republicans are pursuing. The 302(b) suballocations are specified amounts that each appropriations subcommittee will be granted by the full House Appropriations Committee to design appropriations bills for the Department of Education and other federal agencies for the upcoming fiscal year.

Final appropriations in fiscal year 2012 for programs covered by the Labor-Health and Human Services (HHS)-Education Appropriations Subcommittee totaled $157 billion. In 2013, after the sequester, it is approximately $150 billion. Under the House proposal for 2014, the figure would fall to $122 billion.   

Democrats have expressed some concerns about the disproportionate cuts to social programs and welfare spending. And although the House Appropriations Committee has voted for the 302(b) suballocations and begun voting on defense spending bills, the Labor-HHS-Education 2014 spending bill would have to be approved both by the full House and Senate, so the cuts may never come to pass.

And there’s another reason the House Republicans are unlikely to succeed with their proposal: The last time Congress provided about $122 billion for the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill was in fiscal year 2002, without factoring in inflation. Do House Republicans really want to erase all of the funding gains for education made under the Obama administration and the Bush administration?

Still, as we warned in our budget brief last month, “an overall appropriations limit that conforms to the BCA and the House-passed budget resolution will almost certainly force spending reductions for some education programs.”  As the 2014 budget debate progresses through the halls of Congress, members will be considering whether or not they want to follow through with the reality created by a law they passed two years ago.

Promoting Data in the Classroom

  • By
  • Clare McCann,
  • Jennifer Cohen Kabaker,
  • New America Foundation
June 4, 2013

This report explores the use of student achievement data to improve classroom instruction. The paper, Promoting Data in the Classroom: Innovative State Models and Missed Opportunities, highlights examples from two states, Oregon and Delaware, of federally funded, state-driven efforts to equip teachers with the tools they need to utilize student data.

Progress Seen in Increasing Data and Transparency in Higher Education

May 15, 2013

For more on this issue, check out this post from Amy Laitinen on our sister blog, Higher Ed Watch.

Establishing a commission to study an issue is, in the words of President Obama, “Washington-speak for ‘we’ll get back to you later.’” This week, House Education and Workforce Committee member Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN) proposed yet another to study how to collect higher education data and which data points to include. The bill falls well short of resolving the concerns of students, families, businesses, and policymakers who don’t know what they’re getting for all the time and dollars spent on postsecondary education.

While the House bill, the Improving Postsecondary Education Data for Students Act, is still debating the question of whether we even need better data other members of Congress have rightly moved on. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) authored the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act along with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA). The bill, also supported in the House by Education and Workforce Committee member Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and Rep. Robert Andrews (D-NJ), would collect student-level higher education data in state data systems from colleges and universities, making it available to students, policymakers, and other stakeholders.

The data would include remedial education rates, graduation rates, transfer rates, post-graduation employment, and student debt levels. And for the first time, it would move beyond the “first-time, full-time” reporting model currently in place – an embarrassingly incomplete glimpse of the higher education landscape, given that only a quarter of full-time undergraduate students lived on campus in 2008 and more than half of students were over the age of 23.

Some critics have expressed concern about students’ privacy if we collect outcomes at the individual level. Those complaints grew out of a fearmongering campaign back in 2007 during the Higher Education Act reauthorization that ultimately led to a ban on a student unit record system. But the data under the Wyden-Rubio bill would be anonymous, so student privacy would be protected.

Amy Laitinen, deputy director of higher education for the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program, has a rundown of the support proffered in recent years for improved higher education data over at our sister blog, Higher Ed Watch. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) announced late last year that better data would be at the top of the House Republicans’ agenda. He joins the Chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training Virginia Foxx (R-NC),  the congressionally created Committee on Measures of Student Success, the White House, the Chamber of Commerce, Young Invincibles and other advocacy and research groups, the National Governors Association, and many more education leaders in a chorus of voices calling for data and transparency in higher education.

The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act is a critical piece of legislation. It will help answer the questions of whether students are graduating from certain colleges and universities, whether they’re shouldering excessive debt or earning enough to pay back their loans, and how “nontraditional students” – the new majority – are faring in institutions around the country. In the words of Senator Wyden, the new legislation will move the debate from access to higher education to “access plus.” Stakeholders will be able to demonstrate the value institutions can (or cannot) provide their students. That’s the kind of information students and families need to ensure they sign up for a good investment – not another brushoff from Congress.

Waiver Watch: Are District Waivers Rotten to the CORE?

May 7, 2013
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The California Office to Reform Education (CORE) is now one step closer to becoming the first group of school districts to receive a waiver from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Last week, the nine CORE districts received feedback from the Department of Education after their official peer review. Moving the application to peer review sent a clear signal that the Department was considering the request seriously; remember, California’s state-level request was denied prior to the review stage.

CORE chose not to release specific comments from the peer review until their districts have addressed any concerns in a revised proposal. According to Education Week’s Politics K-12 blog, a spokeswoman for CORE explained: "As you can imagine, the parties who are opposing district-level waivers are looking for any opportunity to criticize, and we worry that if we don't release the peer review and our responsive update at the same time we will face a 'death by a thousand paper cuts' situation."

But CORE did release a summary of the reviewers’ concerns. Reviewers clearly had questions about how additional districts could join CORE and begin implementing the waiver with, or without, further involvement from the Department. And they also requested more details across all three flexibility principles: standards and assessments, accountability and school improvement, and instruction and leadership.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I have several questions about the viability of district-level flexibility when waivers (and NCLB, for that matter) were designed to work through state-level policy. And my objections seem rather tame compared to those coming from some civil rights organizations, state leaders, lawmakers, and policy wonks. Given the number of organizations and leaders speaking out against district waivers, why does Department continue to press on? Despite my own hesitancy to embrace its plan, here is the best case I can muster in support of the CORE proposal.

Size matters. CORE’s waiver is under consideration, in part, because these districts represent over a million students, in one of the nation’s largest states. In fact, CORE serves more students than 24 of the 34 approved waiver states. Frankly, if nine small districts in Montana had applied, we likely wouldn’t be having this conversation. Further, CORE’s districts are well ahead of their state, enacting reforms the Department would like to see across California, including longitudinal data systems, Common Core implementation, and teacher evaluation. Rewarding these districts would send a strong signal to the state of California about its own policy choices.

Promoting Innovation. Despite cries for “multiple measures” and less emphasis on testing, most states didn’t use their waivers to experiment much with accountability. Instead, states continued to rely on math and reading proficiency levels to identify priority and focus schools. CORE took the opposite approach. The districts proposed to use tests from schools’ highest grade level only for accountability, While peer reviewers nixed this idea, CORE’s plan still broadens the scope of accountability by including social/emotional and school climate domains alongside academics. In addition to proficiency, growth, and graduation rates, CORE’s accountability system will include: chronic absenteeism, suspensions and expulsions, non-cognitive skills, student and parent perception surveys, special education identification, and redesignation for English language learners. These measures will provide a more holistic picture of students’ performance for educators, parents, and policymakers. If the Department is seeking to reward innovation via waivers, the CORE request is more inventive than any I’ve seen.

The problem with being creative, however, is that CORE can offer few details about how it will work. And based on reports of the reviewers’ comments, I suspect they want these details too. How will CORE measure non-cognitive skills? Who will design the surveys? What annual performance targets will be set in each domain, and will each carry the same weight? How will these targets be used to identify priority, focus, and reward schools? According to CORE’s request, these questions may not be answered until the 2015-16 school year. Given this timeline, does CORE merit flexibility now?

All Improvement is Local. CORE’s proposal hinges on unprecedented cooperation between districts. While other waivers rely on capacity provided by states, CORE does not have that luxury. Instead, CORE districts must agree to develop and share Common Core-aligned performance tasks and assessments, report common measures to a CORE data system, hold each other’s schools accountable for meeting performance targets, and use individual schools’ expertise as a primary tool for turnaround, pairing high-achieving schools with low-performing ones for coaching.

In some ways this could be a strength. School and district staff may have more credibility and expertise than state officials, far removed from the local context, in leading turnaround efforts and developing instructional resources or professional development. Additionally, given the size of CORE, they have greater capacity than many state education agencies. However, districts don’t have a stellar record of holding all schools and students to rigorous standards and providing meaningful accountability, and they certainly don’t have as many policy tools to wield as a state education agency.

The bottom line is that both districts and states have a role to play in implementing NCLB flexibility and improving the quality of teaching and learning. Many states have recognized this in their waivers by relying more heavily on districts’ strengths and capabilities to improve schools and support teachers. The question is whether CORE’s plan can work without a strong state role at all. I’m still not sold.

Why 2014 Could Hurt As Much As Sequestration for Education Programs

April 30, 2013

Today, the New America Foundation’s Federal Education Budget Project released Federal Education Budget Update: Fiscal Year 2013 Recap and Fiscal Year 2014 Early Analysis, an issue brief that explores the 2013 and 2014 budgeting processes and their implications for federal education programs. The brief outlines the key benchmarks Congress and the president reached, and provides a simple, comprehensive resource to understand the broader budget picture.

As the brief notes, the fiscal year 2013 budget is now complete, and the 2014 appropriations process is officially underway. But the complex circumstances of 2013 – including a temporary funding measure that Congress passed to hold funding steady at last year’s level (continuing resolution), and then an across-the-board 5.0 percent spending cut (sequestration) applied to most federal education programs – have made it challenging to track the vital figures in appropriations spending. That’s why many education stakeholders might be surprised to discover this: Next year’s budget could bring even more pain than sequestration has.

Sequestration was a product of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA), a broader deficit reduction bill passed as a compromise to raise the federal debt ceiling. According to the law, when a congressionally appointed “supercommittee” of legislators couldn’t agree on $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years, the BCA ensured most of that would happen anyway – through sequestration in 2013, and through lower spending caps from 2014 through 2021.

Sequestration was applied indiscriminately to virtually every program funded by the federal government – a poorly targeted, mid-year cut. However, the spending caps laid out by the BCA will force federal appropriations spending even lower next year than sequestration forced it this year. Instead of $984 billion in total appropriations spending, the post-sequestration total for 2013, the law caps appropriations at $966 billion next year.


Importantly, the spending cap for next year is only an aggregate one. Whereas the sequester in 2013 applied evenly to every program, the 2014 cap instead means that Congress will have to make difficult choices as it drafts spending bills. Lawmakers are supposed to appropriate not more than what the cap allows (though they may pass a law to override that limit) but within the broad category of discretionary spending, the law does not limit funding for any one program (think Head Start, Title I, and Pell Grants).

Some policymakers have opted not to make those hard decisions, at least so far. Both President Obama’s 2014 budget request and the budget resolution passed by the Democratic Senate for 2014 ignore the overall spending cap, and instead revert to the BCA spending caps set out before the supercommittee’s failure ($1.058 trillion in 2014). The House, meanwhile, stuck with the post-sequester cap in its own budget resolution.


Any joint budget resolution between the House and Senate is still a mystery; in fact, for the past several years, Congress has elected to stick with the BCA limits rather than pass a joint resolution at all. But if lawmakers vote to exceed the cap, they’ll also have to vote to override the BCA, because the BCA takes precedence over a non-binding budget resolution. If, on the other hand, lawmakers stick within the BCA limits, federal education programs will be fighting for a share of an even smaller pie than was provided in 2013.

Click here to read the full brief

Federal Education Budget Update: Fiscal Year 2013 Recap and Fiscal Year 2014 Early Analysis

  • By
  • Jason Delisle,
  • Clare McCann,
  • New America Foundation
April 30, 2013

The New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program released an issue brief detailing the completion of the fiscal year 2013 appropriations process and the start of 2014 budgeting. The brief explores congressional budget actions over the past year and describes their effects on federal education programs.

Reforming the Teacher Profession: From Consequences to Collaboration

April 25, 2013
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Much of the discussion around the President’s 2014 education budget has centered on proposed initiatives for universal pre-K and a $1 billion Race to the Top competition for college affordability and completion.

Compared to these bold new proposals, K-12 education seems to have drawn the short straw. The U.S. Department of Education could see some new or expanded programming for K-12  – additional money for the Promise Neighborhoods program, a new competitive grant competition for high school redesign, and an expanded School Turnaround Grants program – but nothing like what it has outlined for very young and adult learners.

The lack of banner initiatives for K-12 belies the attention that the Department has paid to the issue of teacher professionalism and evaluation over the past year. In fact, the dearth of new proposals may actually underscore the importance of changes to a reintroduced $5 billion proposal to transform the teaching profession – a proposal that was fleshed out today as the Blueprint for RESPECT (Recognizing Education Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching).

We would be remiss not to mention that issues of teacher evaluation and accountability have stirred a lot of public attention this year. September’s Chicago teacher strike and a recent federal lawsuit by Florida teachers on use of student scores for untested subjects have made teacher evaluation and dismissal practices a subject of national debate. Bill Gates’ Washington Post op-ed earlier this month advocated for the use of multiple measures for evaluation (including student surveys and observations by veteran teachers), as well as policies that increase collaboration rather than competition amongst teachers. Accountability measures are here to stay, but  Gates argues that the focus should shift towards how to use them in a way that increases the number of effective teachers.

In last year’s budget, the administration proposed using $5 billion from the failed American Jobs Act for a competitive grant program to “reshape the teaching profession.” The initiative as originally conceived was accountability-heavy; it suggested that state or district reforms could include making teacher training programs “more selective and accountable” and “ensuring that compensation is tied to performance.” Other possibilities included reforming tenure to “raise the bar, protect good teachers, and promote accountability” and strengthening teacher autonomy “in exchange for greater accountability.”

While not enacted, the American Jobs Act proposal did launch the RESPECT project, the Department’s attempt to engage in a national conversation on the teaching profession. This project facilitated conversations on the teaching profession across the nation and provided districts and teachers with a way of submitting feedback to the Department. Over the last two years, the Department has held 360 roundtables with 5,700 educators and solicited feedback from national teacher organizations, like the National Education Association.

Given the administration’s focus on effective teaching and school leadership, we weren’t surprised when this part of the American Jobs Act initiative returned in the 2014 budget request as $5 billion in mandatory funding to underwrite the RESPECT Project. But we were surprised by some changes to the proposal. Perhaps as a result of the conversations started by its namesake, the language used in the current budget proposal is strikingly transformed from the 2013 request.

After a year of conversations with teachers, the Department is now thinking – or at least speaking – differently. See for yourself below: “accountability” and “tenure” have been replaced, literally, by “shared leadership and responsibility for student outcomes.” Compensation system reforms are now designed to “attract and retain top talent.” Reforms could include creating “conditions in schools that support effective teaching, including by providing teachers greater autonomy… and time for collaboration.”

Budget Justification 2013 and 2014

The system reforms envisioned in the two versions of the proposal are largely the same, but the 2014 RESPECT version is couched in the language of talent development and teacher support, rather than accountability and consequences. Those in the Department may have recognized that implementing evaluation systems doesn’t have to mean identifying winners and losers in teaching careers. Rather, these new systems can spur the development of a profession that relies on collaboration, data, and talent development to increase student achievement.

The strong shift in budget justification language, in addition to the release of the Blueprint today, signal a credible change in the way that the Department is addressing the issue of teacher quality and retention. Regardless of whether the RESPECT project is funded, it will be fascinating to see how this new direction influences other competitive grant programs, like the Teacher Incentive Fund, and whether it can ultimately facilitate changes to strengthen the teacher profession.

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