Published Online: December 10, 2013
Published in Print: December 11, 2013, as Blogs of the Week

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| NEWS | Politics K-12

Community Groups to Senators: Move Forward on ESEA

A coalition of nearly 50 advocacy groups—ranging from the National PTA to the Rural School and Community Trust—are asking Congress to pretty, pretty please reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act sooner rather than later.

The groups, 47 in all, sent a letter to Senate leaders asking them to get moving already on ESEA reauthorization. (Well, OK, they put it a little nicer than that.) No Child Left Behind Act waivers, which the Obama administration has granted to nearly every state, easing parts of the current ESEA, are no substitute for an honest-to-goodness reauthorization, the letter says.

It goes on to explain that certain policy goals—such as encouraging community organizations to develop stronger partnerships with schools—can't really be accomplished through temporary waivers.

Earlier this year, a coalition of state and local government groups sent a similar letter to Senate leaders. So far, however, the push doesn't seem to have worked. The renewal has been pending pretty much forever (well, since 2007) but has been held up by intraparty—and interparty—politics.

–Alyson Klein


| NEWS | Marketplace K-12

'MOOCs' Pioneer Says E-Courses Falling Short

The world of "MOOCs" is, in the language of so many of those classes' adherents, being disrupted—from within.

Sebastian Thrun, the colorful academic and entrepreneur who in many ways has become the public face of "massive open online courses," is now expressing dismay with the low numbers of students completing those courses, and with the forum's inability to engage and help them.

In a profile published by Fast Company, Thrun cites lackluster results as the reason he will shift the focus of the MOOC provider he co-founded, Udacity, to concentrate on corporate training.

This amounts to a big public departure for Thrun, who has received a ton of attention for his bold predictions about how MOOCs would force colleges to change how they do business by giving the public free or low-cost access to Web-based courses on a broad variety of topics.

"We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don't educate people as others wished," he told Fast Company. "We have a lousy product. ... It was a painful moment."

His comments have unleashed strong reaction from online commentators. Some are saying Thrun's turnabout was predictable, given the overhyped promises associated with MOOCs. Others are saying it's nothing to be encouraged about, while still others are viewing his shift as part of a natural, if rocky, evolution as the promises and failings of the online courses get sorted out.

As for K-12 education, where efforts to establish MOOCs are in their relative infancy, the courses are already focused on workplace skills, in one sense. Coursera, for instance, has announced partnerships with universities to provide open courses targeting teachers and aspiring educators working to get into the profession.

–Sean Cavanagh


| NEWS | Rules for Engagement

As Newtown Anniversary Nears, 911 Recordings Released

In a move that's leading to debates among journalists and community groups alike, lawyers for the city of Newtown, Conn., released recordings of 911 calls from the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School last week.

The release was made to comply with a judge's order following an appeal by State's Attorney Stephen Sedensky III, who argued that there was no public interest served by releasing the recordings, and that such an action would only exacerbate the pain of grieving families. The Associated Press sought the recordings to analyze police response to the shootings.

The judge who ordered the tapes' release said they could help inform policy debates. And, said Superior Court Judge Eliot Prescott, "Delaying the release of the audio recordings ... only serves to fuel speculation about and undermine confidence in our law-enforcement officials."

Listening to the recordings, I was struck by the same thing that struck AP reporters: the calm response of the 911 operators who worked the busy switchboards that day. Dispatchers stayed on the line with a custodian who called to report the sound of gunshots, directed teachers to lock their doors, and pinpointed the location of a teacher who'd been shot in the foot so that paramedics could quickly locate her classroom.

Few stories have included links to any audio of the recordings, but the decision to report on them at all has angered some people, including a Twitter user who told the AP that it is "really inappropriate and over the top" to cover the recordings.

–Evie Blad


| NEWS | Politics K-12

Nevada, Mississippi Get Extensions on Teacher-Evaluation Rollouts

Two states—Nevada and Mississippi—will get extra time to implement the teacher-evaluation portion of their waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, the U.S. Department of Education announced Dec. 4. These are the first two states approved for the so-called "waiver waiver," which allowed states to get an additional year to fully implement systems that gauge teacher performance using student outcomes.

So far, teacher evaluation has been the trickiest piece of the waivers, which have been granted to more than 40 states and the District of Columbia. States were originally supposed to have those systems fully in place by 2015-16, although each state set a slightly different target date in their waiver request. But in July, the department announced that states could ask to extend that deadline to the 2016-17.

For instance, Mississippi was originally supposed to have its teacher evaluation ready to go by the 2014-15 school year, and will now be able to hold off until 2016-17. And Nevada's educator-evaluation system was supposed to be completely up and running by 2015-16. Now the state also has until 2016-17.

Thirty-four waiver states were allowed to apply for the flexibility, and 12 said they were interested. Expect the Education Department to announce more "waiver waiver" decisions in coming weeks.

—Alyson Klein


| NEWS | Politics K-12

Arizona Waiver on 'High-Risk' Status, Though State Chief Still Optimistic

The U.S. Department of Education has put Arizona on notice that it might revoke the state's No Child Left Behind Act waiver over problems having to do with Arizona's teacher-evaluation system.

And, making matters worse, the state is still in hot water over plans to make graduation rates count for 15 percent of a high school's rating, versus 20 percent (what federal officials want). To be clear, the state is on "high risk" status—which is more of an official steppingstone toward losing a waiver—because of those problems.

In a letter sent Nov. 25, federal officials specifically took issue with Arizona's lack of an approved definition of student growth in terms of how student test-score changes will be incorporated into teacher evaluations. However, the department is still granting Arizona another year of flexibility, through the current 2013-14 school year. (So until now, apparently, the state had been running things on an expired waiver.)

The letter outlines requirements Arizona must meet if it wants to keep its waiver for the 2014-15 school year, including submitting a plan for fixing teacher-evaluation problems within 60 days.

In an interview, state schools chief John Huppenthal said he isn't going to fight his new high-risk status, but also thinks he can meet federal officials' requirements without giving in. He said many school districts in the state already have sophisticated teacher-evaluation systems that provide regular feedback to teachers on their "value added."

The challenge for Mr. Huppenthal is to find a way to assuage federal officials without making new work for educators in his state. "In order to get the waiver we want to avoid any new regulatory burden, and we think we can get there," he said.

Also on Nov. 25, the department rejected requests by Oregon and Kansas to have their high-risk labels removed. Those two states, plus Washington state, were already in trouble over teacher-evaluation implementation.

—Michele McNeil


| NEWS | Politics K-12

Districts Receive Two-Year Delay on New Civil Rights Data Reporting

In response to a slew of complaints from schools and districts, the U.S. Department of Education is planning to delay for two years a significant expansion of its civil-rights data collection that asked more questions about student discipline and bullying.

The Education Department had wanted to dig deeper into school discipline and other issues starting in the 2013-14 school year. But now, that information won't be required until the 2015-16 school year, according to new documents posted on the office for civil rights' website.

Data points that will be delayed include: the number of incidents of violent and serious crimes, number of school days missed by students who received out-of-school suspensions, and number of allegations of harassment or bullying on the basis of sexual orientation or religion.

Reporting that data will be optional. And the department says in its Dec. 4 Federal Register response that it will use the extra time to "provide intensive technical assistance to schools and school districts so they will be prepared to provide accurate data when required for the 2015-16 collection."

The Education Department, which received nearly 300 comments on the proposed new questions, said "many of the commenters who raised concerns about the proposed data collection focused on the need for more notice and lead time to provide comprehensive and accurate data."

In a statement today, the department said: "The proposed additions and changes to the 2013-14 and 2015-16 [data collection] reflect the need for a deeper understanding of and accurate data about the educational opportunities and school context for our nation's students."

Indeed, the accuracy of the civil rights' data has been a problem. The data collection became public last year for the first time, and reports school-level data that often can't be found anywhere else, on everything from coursetaking to grade-level retention.

Federal officials, however, are keeping a few new questions for the 2013-14 year, including ones about chronic absenteeism, distance education, and the cost to parents of preschool and kindergarten programs. (Schools and districts will answer the survey questions in the fall of 2014, which will reflect data from the 2013-14 academic year.)

Final approval of this new data collection, which must come from the federal Office of Management and Budget, is expected in early 2014.

—Michele McNeil


| NEWS | State EdWatch

Smarter Balanced Consortium's Test Best Option, Michigan Ed. Dept. Says

A study by the Michigan education department reports that a test aligned to the common core being developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium remains the best option available to the state.

Roughly a month ago, the Michigan legislature voted to "unfreeze" state spending on the Common Core State Standards, following a funding freeze that kicked in Oct. 1 while lawmakers reviewed the pros and cons of the standards. One of the conditions of letting state funds flow to the standards again was that the department had to conduct a study of the various assessments available to the state that could in theory be used. It was a way for lawmakers to clarify that even though the state was a member of Smarter Balanced and has close ties to it—Joseph Martineau, the department's chief of accountability and assessment, is co-chair of Smarter Balanced's executive committee—Michigan was not absolutely committed to the tests.

That study, released Dec. 1, found that "[Smarter Balanced] remains the only viable option that can satisfy all of the multiple needs for test security, student data privacy, a Michigan governance role, Michigan educator involvement, minimizing local burdens, cost effectiveness, Michigan access to all data to allow for verification, and so on."

The study looked at a variety of assessments, including the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, the other state-led consortium working on common-core assessments, act Aspire, and CTB/McGraw-Hill's tests. Overall, 12 different assessment options were considered and rated in a variety of categories, including alignment to the common core, cost, test security, and technical requirements. Smarter Balanced was consistently the top performer across these categories.

The report also mentions that while Michigan has the potential to create its own assessment for the standards, it has not done so up to this point. The "economies of scale provided by working with a consortium have allowed Michigan to avoid those substantial new funding needs," the report said. That's a reference to Smarter Balanced.

—Andrew Ujifusa

Vol. 33, Issue 14, Pages 10,23

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