Published Online: January 20, 2015
Published in Print: January 21, 2015, as Blogs

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| NEWS | Curriculum Matters

What If Tests Were Only Used for Guidance, Not Consequences?

In the past year, opposition to standardized testing has been on the rise. Much of the pushback is about the stakes that are riding on these assessments, such as teachers' evaluations, students' promotion from grade to grade, and decisions about high school graduation. Another strain of opposition comes from the heavy burden of testing—think about classroom tests, district-imposed tests, year-end state tests, and how many hours those consume.

To all that unhappiness, it's interesting to offer a contrast: NAEP.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress has long been viewed as the gold standard of testing. Its questions are demanding and its achievement standards high. But there's hardly a peep of public opposition to this test. And it's not hard to see why. It offers insight into how well K-12 schools are doing without imposing consequences on anyone.

Exhibit A is a Jan. 5 letter sent by the principal of a Virginia high school to parents, announcing that it had been chosen as a NAEP site for 17-year-olds. When I look at it, I see the absence of nearly every single trigger point in today's testing debates. Every kid required to sit for hours and hours of tests? Nope. Here, we have only two hours of testing, given to a sample of the school's students. Weeks of test prep? Nope. Students tied in knots over potentially bad test scores? Nope. NAEP has no effect on student grades. Students aren't even required to take—let alone complete—the test, because NAEP results are drawn from a matrix sample nationally.

Of course, there is a crucial difference between NAEP and states' summative assessments: While NAEP offers a picture of national, and to a more limited extent, state and district performance, it can't measure how well individual students are doing.

Nonetheless, as debate rages about tests, NAEP offers an informative and sharp contrast. And it reiterates the question: What if all tests were used to offer insight into the teaching and learning process, without imposing consequences on anyone?

–Catherine Gewertz


| NEWS | Teaching Now

New Tony Award to Be Given to Showcase Theater Teachers

Countless Tony Award winners have used their acceptance speeches to thank their former theater teachers. As a way of formally recognizing these educators, the Tony Awards and Carnegie Mellon University have just opened nominations for the Excellence in Theatre Education Award, a new award that recognizes outstanding theater teachers around the country.

The prize aims to honor teachers who have demonstrated dedication to the theater and have had a significant impact on their students and community. Anyone currently teaching at a K-12 school or "reputable theater organization" in the United States is eligible to be nominated by a student, community member, or other individual familiar with his or her work. The nomination process is entirely online and must be completed by March 31.

Finalists will be chosen by judges within the theater industry and will receive $1,000 for their schools, as well as tickets to the Tony Awards ceremony in June, including transportation to and lodging in New York City and an invitation to an "exclusive pre-Tony event." The winner will also be recognized onstage at the ceremony and will receive $10,000 for his or her school.

–Jordan Moeny


| NEWS | Rules for Engagement

Principal: Have Students Hurl Canned Goods at School Intruders

A principal at an Alabama middle school got a lot of attention last week when she asked parents to send canned goods to school with their children. The plan? Hurl the canned goods at school intruders to distract or hurt them should they ever gain access to a classroom.

Priscella Holley, the principal at W.F. Burns Middle School, in Valley, sent the letter after school officials learned of a method of responding to school shooters called ALICE, for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate.

"The canned-food item could stun the intruder or even knock him out until the police arrive," Ms. Holley wrote, according to local news media. "The canned-food item will give the students a sense of empowerment to protect themselves and will make them feel secure in case an intruder enters their classroom."

The creator of ALICE training says that while the school's plan to use canned goods is not a recommendation ALICE trainers make, it's not out of line with the approach, and it's not something they would discourage.

The school likely got the idea from the "counter" portion of the training, which teaches educators to work with students to distract a shooter and affect his or her shooting accuracy by making noise and throwing classroom materials, said Lisa Crane, a former principal who helped create the training with her husband, a police officer, after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.

It's a technique used by police, who may use a nonlethal explosive to create chaos and interrupt a shooting, Crane said.

"ALICE does not endorse civilians fighting an active shooter, but when confronted directly in a life-and-death situation, individuals should use any actions necessary to defend themselves. Counter is a last-ditch and worst-case scenario option," says the training institute.

ALICE doesn't prescribe specific materials to be used in the event of a counter situation, Crane said. In training, some schools talk about throwing things like textbooks or staplers. The idea of canned goods was suggested at a training session a few years back and is sometimes cited as an example at training events, she said.

Would it work?

Crane, who couldn't name a school that had ever used the counter technique in a real active-shooter situation, said countering is a last resort.

But some school safety experts have questioned such confrontational approaches.

School emergency guidelines released by the Obama administration in 2013 suggested that school employees try to fight an intruder when given no other choice.

–Evie Blad


| NEWS | Marketplace K-12

Unions Battling Push by Republicans to Dilute Obamacare Employer Mandate

The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives has approved legislation that attempts to alter a provision in the federal health-care law that critics say harms school districts, but the measure has drawn the scorn of the nation's two major teachers' unions.

The policy requires employers, including school districts, with 50 or more employees to provide insurance to those who work full time—defined as those who work at least 30 hours a week—or pay fines. The GOP-backed legislation would change the mandate so that only employees working at least 40 hours would qualify.

Republicans say raising the hourly threshold would reduce costs for employers saddled with big expenses as a result of the law. They say the mandate encourages employers, including school districts, to cut employee hours rather than pay potentially steep costs to cover uninsured workers. The plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed in Indiana by a number of school districts have made the same argument.

Workers whose coverage is not provided by their employers are eligible to receive insurance through government-sponsored options, such as exchanges created by the health-care law, officially known as the Affordable Care Act.

The legislation has drawn the opposition of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, which, in a letter to House lawmakers, predicted the change would disrupt the lives of workers around the country. The union specifically cited risks for college employees, such as adjunct faculty.

Some critics predict that raising the 30-hour threshold to 40 hours would create greater incentives for employers to cut workers' hours, because with the change, many more workers would be close to the threshold for employers providing insurance.

The National Education Association also criticized the measure, saying some employers, including K-12 districts, have misinterpreted or mischaracterized the health-care law's provisions as arguments for cutting employees' hours.

But AASA, the School Superintendents Association, supports increasing the hourly threshold. The provision as written places an unnecessary burden on school districts, the organization argued in its letter, in which it was joined by the Association of Educational Service Agencies, the National Rural Education Association, and the National Rural Education Advocacy Coalition.

–Sean Cavanagh


| NEWS | On Special Education

Pre-K Special Education Aid Misspent, Audit of New York State Program Finds

Special education money intended for preschool students has been misspent on services that were never documented, including food, travel, flowers, even air conditioners installed in personal residences, according to an audit released earlier this month from New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

DiNapoli's office has been probing the state's preschool special education program, which, in an unusual arrangement, is provided through special education itinerant teachers as opposed to through individual school districts. The itinerant teachers are employed by about 320 approved for-profit and nonprofit private providers, and about 81,000 preschool children receive special education services in the state, at a cost of about $1.4 billion a year.

More than $40 million has been misspent in the past decade, the comptroller's office contends. The state education department has agreed to implement all the recommendations in the special education expense audits, including reviewing recommended disallowances, and recovering disallowed expenses, according to the audit report.

–Christina Samuels


| NEWS | District Dossier

New Emergency Manager Appointed for Detroit's Troubled School System

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has appointed Darnell Earley as the next leader of the Detroit public school system. Earley will replace outgoing emergency manager Jack Martin, whose 18-month tenure ended earlier this month. To take the Detroit job, Earley will leave his current post as emergency manager for the city of Flint, where he has served since late 2013. His appointment was scheduled to end this spring.

Earley will be the fourth emergency manager of the Detroit school system, which has been under state oversight since March 2009. Under previous emergency managers, the district has lost tens of thousands of students, closed dozens of schools, and struggled with persistent budget deficits. Falling enrollment continues to be a concern as the 47,000-student district faces increased competition from charter and suburban schools.

–Corey Mitchell

Vol. 34, Issue 18, Pages 10,19

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