Published Online: January 22, 2014
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Is the Ed. Department Nitpicking States Over NCLB Waivers?

There are some alarming revelations in the new No Child Left Behind Act waiver reports issued last week by the U.S. Department of Education. But then there are some not-so-alarming revelations.

For example, New York failed to put out a press release announcing its reward schools—as it had promised to do in its waiver application. Instead, it published the list on its website. For that transgression, the state earned a "not meeting expectations" for its reward schools.

Perhaps more significant, Idaho, which does have some big problems with how it's intervening in its lowest-performing schools, did not put NAEP and high-quality teacher data on its school report cards. It is also not meeting expectations in that area.

Don't get me wrong, Politics K-12 is all for transparency. It's good to know that New York did not do a press release as it had promised. And it's good to be informed that Idaho isn't putting all of the necessary data on its report cards.

But this kind of scrutiny raises an important question, one that the Education Trust's Daria Hall put this way to me: "There needs to be a serious question about, is the department focusing on the right high-leverage things, or checking boxes on compliance? It doesn't help anyone if the feds aren't thinking about high-impact areas."

Under Race to the Top, Education Department officials began to stress how they wanted to take a different view of their oversight responsibilities—that they weren't all about checking boxes on a compliance list but giving states a lot of room to maneuver as they work toward their goals. This is why the department has been flexible in allowing some significant amendments to Race to the Top plans. Department officials have emphasized that they want to work with states, and not dictate to them.

So, just how much wiggle room will federal officials allow? And if states keep getting dinged over things like posting something on a website versus issuing a press release, will their patience run thin?

Michele McNeil


If You Want Analytical Thinking, Extend Recess for Children

Most parents of very young children intuitively know how important outdoor playtime is to their little ones, but early-childhood experts say we adults are often not giving them long enough stretches of play to develop their minds—especially during the school day.

Preschools or day care centers often limit recess to 30-minute blocks, but that's just when the deep thinking is starting, said Myae Han, the president of the Rochester, N.Y.-based Association for the Study of Play and an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Delaware.

"A higher quality of play begins to emerge at around 30 minutes," she said in an interview. "They might take 20 minutes to just explore the materials," which in the case of outdoor play might be a wooden fort, a sandbox, or even leaves at the base of a tree.

Sometimes, imaginative, high-quality play begins long after that, she said.

"Children need free play so they can make choices and learn responsibility for those choices," Ms. Han said.

Truncating outdoor playtime to 30 minutes or less curtails this important type of deep, creative, and analytical thinking, she said.

According to research done in the 1990s on outdoor play by Arizona State University's James F. Christie and Francis Wardle of Red Rocks Community College, children stop trying to access a deeper level of play in anticipation of being interrupted.

"If you shorten playtime," Han explained, "you actually hurt their ideas."

Julie Blair


Getting Your Preschooler Ready for the Common Core

We already knew the marketing machine was in high gear for common core, but it's always interesting to see just how far it's trying to reach.

Exhibit A for today: a workbook—"Let's Get Ready for Preschool: Great Preparation for Common Core Standards"—that purports to get your 3-year-old up to speed for the new expectations.

For the sale price of $8.99, you can have confidence that your "little learner" will have "the engaging activities and worksheets they need to succeed at school." Sound like all work and no play? Rest easy: The workbook includes music that's "also educational."

A quick search on yields more than 100 preschool resources for the common core.

Catherine Gewertz


Despite Posting Best Score, Success For All Program Falters in 'i3' Grant Contest

For two years in a row, the Baltimore-based school turnaround organization Success for All has earned the top score in the scale-up category of the federal Investing in Innovation contest, only to be passed over, U.S. Department of Education records confirm.

There was no question that in 2012 Success for All got the top score in that category and didn't get an award, because the Education Department put that information online. But in the 2013 contest, the Education Department refused to disclose who got the top scale-up score.

Only after Politics K-12 filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request did the Education Department confirm that Success for All got the top score of 77.83 this time around.

It's worth reiterating that EducationDepartment officials, although they advertised for applications in each of the three i3 categories, were not obligated to make awards in each of them. (The winning grants in the separate "validation" and "development" categories all had scores above 80.)

So why should it matter that Success for All got the top score in the scale-up category, then got passed over two years in a row?

• First, there's the fact that, for whatever reason, Education Department officials apparently don't want to give money to an organization that received the top score two years in a row, fair and square, in the very important category that's supposed to find and scale-up education-improvement ideas with the strongest record of past success. (Success for All has already won a couple of i3 grants in various categories, including one large scale-up grant.)

• Second, it appears Success For All is not only very good at grant-writing, but also has a strong evidence base that is impressive to outside judges. That will probably make it tough for any other organization to post the top score in the scale-up category if Success for All keeps competing, as it is likely to do.

• And third, two years of no awards may well discourage folks from applying in the scale-up category.

Success For All, for its part, is grateful for the money it has already gotten from i3, said its founder, Robert E. Slavin. However, he said, "The fact that it keeps being the same organization that receives the highest scores is perhaps politically awkward, but for children and for evidence-based reform, supporting scalable, effective programs, whatever their source, seems important."

Michele McNeil


Common-Core Test Group Losing Alaska as Member

Alaska is pulling out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, and will instead design its own tests, a spokeswoman for the group confirms. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports that the state has hired the University of Kansas to design new assessments.

Alaska had planned to use tests being designed for the standards by one of two federally funded testing consortia, but it had never adopted the underlying Common Core State Standards. (The school district of Anchorage actually adopted the standards.) An official of the Alaska department of education noted that the agency decided it was best to have tests designed for its own state standards.

The last state to withdraw from Smarter Balanced, Kansas, is using the University of Kansas' tests, as well; the testing-development institute there has made Kansas' tests for years. Alaska's move brings Smarter Balanced membership to 23.

Catherine Gewertz

Vol. 33, Issue 18, Pages 10,21

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