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March 24, 2015 7 min read
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| NEWS | Curriculum Matters

Science Standards Call For Teaching ‘Mysteries’

In a packed session at the National Science Teachers Association’s recent conference, a professor who helped lead the development of the Next Generation Science Standards described the new standards as “a shift from learning about something to figuring out something.”

Brian J. Reiser, a professor of learning sciences at Northwestern University, offered this example: “NGSS does not ask you to explain photosynthesis, NGSS asks you to explain how a tree gets all its stuff.”

Traditionally, science classes have been taught a few different ways, he said. One way is through application: The teacher presents the idea, then students do the lab experiment to see it in action.

The NGSS storyline is different. Students are given a big question that they can relate to—a “mystery” of sorts. Through their investigation of that question, they hit on other phenomena along the way that they also need to investigate and explain.

Reiser showed a lesson in which students were told that there was a large decrease in the number of Galapagos finches between 1976 and 1977. Students were tasked with figuring out why so many finches died and why some survived. They were given access to data on the Web and had to figure out which questions to ask and what information was relevant.

Eventually, students determined that there was a drought at that time and that the seeds the birds ate were nearly depleted. Birds with longer beaks survived because they were able to open the leftover, tough-shelled seeds.

From there, students probe a similar phenomenon—say, why peppered moths were more prominent during the Industrial Revolution. “Then you ask students to tell the story without the finch or moth,” Reiser said.

Eventually, they come up with a model.

Reiser said that’s when you deliver the kicker: “Scientists have built a story like this, too, and it’s called natural selection.”

–Liana Heitin

| NEWS | College Bound

Using Data to Match Students to Career Paths

More K-12 and college systems are turning to technology and analytics to better engage and track students.

At the recent SXSWedu conference, administrators shared how expanded access to data helped them improve career planning for high school students, deepen learning experiences on college campuses, and retain students who might otherwise fall off track.

Concerns over privacy, along with limited time and budgets, keep many systems from fully realizing their visions for leveraging data and innovation.

On one panel, Doyle Vogler, an assistant superintendent of schools in Lubbock, Texas, explained how high school students in his district create online personal graduation plans that they update yearly with the input of counselors and parents. With the program, students track their own progress and link to universities with degrees in their area of interest and job-market prospects for those fields.

It allows students to become “consumers of their own education,” said Vogler of the approach being used in his 30,000-student district where 70 percent of students are low-income. By looking at past performance, students are given projections of their likely success in future courses—although not “tracked,” he added. The analysis helps students create career pathways, which might not include college but can help them see potential matches in fields from manufacturing to information technology.

–Caralee Adams

| NEWS | Politics K-12

High School Redesign Gets Focus in Latest Proposed ‘i3' Regulations

School districts and nonprofits that want a piece of the new $120 million in the Investing in Innovation grant program are urged to focus their attention on high school redesign, under proposed regulations published in the Federal Register March 17.

Under the proposal, prospective grantees for all three kinds of i3 grants—scale-up, validation, and development—are encouraged to pitch projects designed to increase the number and percentage of students who graduate from high school ready for postsecondary education and the workforce.

For example, i3-funded programs could: help schools implement a rigorous high school curriculum; provide accelerated learning opportunities or personalized learning; develop a strong link between high school coursework and the real working world; improve science and math education; or reduce the need for remedial coursework at the college level.

And to ensure that the money goes to low-income students, grants would be aimed at high schools that are eligible to operate schoolwide Title I programs, which means that at least 40 percent of their students are in poverty.

The proposed new i3 rules closely track with a spending bill for the U.S. Department of Education that passed earlier this year and called for the department to put a new, high-school-oriented spin on i3. The program was first created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the stimulus, in 2009.

The spending bill also cut back the i3 program, from $141 million in fiscal 2014 to $120 million in fiscal 2015. And the legislation eliminated a $46 million competitive-grant program aimed at high school overhaul.

Anyone who wants to comment on the regulations can do so over the next month, and the feds will consider those comments before coming up with the final regulations.The Obama administration really wants i3 to be part of its legacy and is trying hard to get the program “authorized” under a pending rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. If that happens, i3 would be a permanent part of the ESEA and would stand a greater chance of sticking around for the long haul.

–Alyson Klein

| NEWS | Politics K-12

House, Senate Republicans Unveil Broad Fiscal 2016 Blueprint

House and Senate Republicans unveiled their fiscal year 2016 budgets last week and—spoiler alert—they look absolutely nothing like the president’s.

Both would fund the federal government to the tune of $493 billion, keeping in place the across-the-board spending caps, known as the sequester, to which the president’s proposed budget does not adhere. And both would make even steeper cuts for non-defense discretionary funding beginning fiscal 2017.

And neither proposal from the House and Senate budget committees contains much in the way of policy or funding details when it comes to K-12 education, nor do they propose agency-by-agency breakdowns for federal funding levels. Those will have to await the regular appropriations process.

Even those top-line figures stand in stark contrast to President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2016 request, which was unveiled in early February. The president’s budget proposed a total of $70.7 billion in discretionary spending for the U.S. Department of Education, an increase of $3.6 billion, or a 5.4 percent hike over 2015 levels.

The president’s proposed increase for education—and other domestic programs—was the administration’s first volley with the Republican Congress on an issue that’s officially now dominating budget talks: whether and how to end the across-the-board-cuts known as “sequestration.” In 2013, Congress brokered a temporary deal to alleviate the cuts for both military programs and domestic ones, like education. But that deal expires this coming fall, and then the cuts kick back in full force.

On March 16, the president addressed the funding discrepancy ahead of the release of the House budget proposal. In a meeting with members of the Council of the Great City Schools, the president emphasized the significant toll sequester-level spending would have on early-childhood and K-12 education programs.

“I can tell you that if the budget maintains sequester-level funding, then we would actually be spending less on pre-K to 12th grade in America’s schools in terms of federal support than we were back in 2000,” he said. “The notion that we would be going backwards instead of forwards in how we’re devoting resources to educating our kids makes absolutely no sense.”

When it comes to education, the House budget proposal focuses mainly on higher education and, specifically, on how to restructure the Pell Grant program, which provides tuition assistance for low- and middle-income students. As for K-12, the House budget proposal zeroes in on rolling back the role of the federal government and eliminating duplicative programs.

The budget notes, for example, that a 2014 Government Accountability Office report found 209 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or stem, education programs in 13 federal agencies at a cost of $3 billion annually.

Whereas the House budget proposal asks each of the chamber’s committees to identify and recommend $1 billion in funding cuts for programs from fiscal 2016 through fiscal 2025, the Senate’s plan only asks the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and the Finance Committee to do so.

However, the Senate plan provides some specificity on two K-12-related policies. Additional federal dollars could be directed at programs that protect children from sexual predators in schools, so long as that additional funding does not raise new revenue or increase the deficit. The same goes for programs that improve community health centers.

–Lauren Camera

A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as Blogs


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