| NEWS | High School & Beyond
A group of middle and high school leaders pulled away from the crowd at the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ annual conference to talk about experimenting with “gradeless classrooms.” The Massachusetts high school principal who came up with the session idea said that he was trying the concept out in an entrepreneurship class that gave students descriptive feedback instead of letter grades.
Even in a class that wasn’t part of the academic core, the principal said, teachers were reluctant to embrace the practice, asking questions like, “How do I do this so I can still turn it into a grade for college transcripts?”
No other principal in the discussion had tried ungraded classrooms, but many said they dearly wanted to. They were clearly frustrated with the limited meaning of assigning letter grades, but their ventures into other approaches had met with resistance, largely from parents.
The principals told stories of trying to move to standards-based grading, in which students are evaluated descriptively on how well they’ve mastered particular academic skills and knowledge, rather than on whether they turned in homework, showed up to class on time, or performed extra-credit work. Another New England principal said he supported his teachers’ push for standards-based grading only to face a firestorm of opposition from parents.
“Those parents freaked out,” the principal said. “They were going, ‘Where is my kid’s A?’”
Eventually, the principal backtracked.
A district administrator from Illinois told a story about a teacher who felt caught between the desire to provide meaningful feedback on report cards and the need to supply the information expected by high school athletic programs, which base eligibility on grades, and most colleges, which rely heavily on grades in a students’ transcript.
“I want to focus more of our time on what we’re doing, how we’re teaching, how students are learning, and less on how we grade,” said one principal.
| NEWS | Curriculum Matters
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, and many more individual districts have decided to bring the standards to their schools.
So why haven’t the science standards gotten the same attention and backlash as the Common Core State Standards? First, they’ve been adopted much more slowly. Second, the states that have adopted them are taking their time with implementation. And third, no assessments are currently attached to the science standards.
There has been some pushback regarding the standards’ language on climate change. The standards say that global warming is happening and that human activities are a primary cause, a view that about 95 percent of climate scientists agree with.
But don’t be fooled—the train is chugging along on these science standards. More states will adopt, more teachers will implement, and there will be assessments soon enough. So here’s what you’ll want to know about the standards:
1) They prize performance over memorization.
2) They are multilayered. Each standard has a performance expectation and three additional “dimensions": science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and cross-cutting concepts.
3) They include a lot of engineering and design.
4) The standards link up with the common core.
5) Some people say the standards don’t focus enough on specific science concepts and de-emphasize factual content.
6) A lot of professors, scientists, education department folks, industry representatives, and teachers have come out in support of them.
7) Teachers don’t have enough materials aligned to them.
8) Assessments will be here soon. And there’s a good chance that once they are in place, increasing backlash won’t be far behind.
| NEWS | Teaching Now
An extended-day public school in New York City is experimenting with a four-day week this year—but only for teachers.
Under a pilot program, students at the P-8 Goldie Maple Academy attend school daily from 8 a.m. to 4:35 p.m., two hours later than they got out last year. But the longer day gives teachers enough hours to take one day a week off, according a NewsNY1 report.
A key factor in making the schedule work is that, rather than having the same students throughout each day, teachers are responsible for specific subject areas.
Some research suggests that four-day school weeks with extended days can actually boost student achievement. But what the effects are when only teachers get the day off probably is anyone’s guess.
The switch hasn’t been to everyone’s taste. According to the report, some teachers have already transferred to other schools, presumably because of the longer days.
Goldie Maple Academy may be on to something: In the United Kingdom, there’s now a government-funded program designed to lure Ph.D.s into teaching by offering them a four-day week. In this case, the educators don’t get the fifth day off per se (although we doubt the Goldie Maple teachers really do, either). Instead, according to the U.K. Independent, they are expected to use the extra day to further their own research, attend conferences on teaching, or work with small groups of students.
| NEWS | State EdWatch
Members of a newly formed coalition of prominent education groups want to make sure the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t overstep its authority under the Every Student Succeeds Act by tagging on additional requirements to the new law and misinterpreting its text.
The ESSA Implementation Network includes the National Governors Association, the National PTA, and the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions. The network’s main mission will be to guard states’ flexibility under the new law and fend off federal intrusion.
“ESSA replaces a top-down accountability and testing regime with an inclusive system based on collaborative state and local innovation,” the coalition said in a letter this month to acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. “For this vision to become a reality, we must work together to closely honor congressional intent. ESSA is clear: Education decisionmaking now rests with states and districts, and the federal role is to support and inform those decisions.”
State education and political leaders are seeming more information about the law’s technical details, said Stephen Parker, the NGA’s legislative director of education and workforce. The group worries, that the department may attempt to make its own interpretations that veer from the law’s intent.
In addition to the NGA and the PTA, the network is made up of the National Association of State Boards of Education; the National School Boards Association; AASA, the School Superintendents Association; the National Association of Elementary School Principals; the National Association of Secondary School Principals; the American Federation of Teachers; and the National Education Association.
Noticeably absent from the coalition is the Council of Chief State School Officers. The executive director of that group, Chris Minnich, said the CCSSO has already voiced its opinion that the federal government should maintain a small role in education policy and said that the NGA will be working with the Education Department to help interpret the law for its members.
–Daarel Burnette II
| NEWS | The School Law Blog
The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a Mississippi high school student’s appeal of a lower-court ruling that his off-campus rap recording that alluded to shooting two teachers was not protected by the First Amendment.
The decision in Bell v. Itawamba County School Board (No. 15-666), announced Feb. 29, came without comment from the justices on their first formal orders since the Feb. 13 death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, had ruled 13-3 that Mississippi school officials reasonably concluded that one rap video made by student Taylor Bell was directed at the school community and threatened the two teachers. In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Bell had drawn support from the Student Press Law Center, as well several professional rap artists, who argued in a friend-of-the-court brief that hip hop and “gangsta rap” are often misunderstood.
Also at the Supreme Court last week:
• In the case of Kucera v. Jefferson County Board of School Commissioners (No. 15-553), the court refused to hear the appeal of a Tennessee school district whose decision to outsource its alternative education program to a private Christian school was struck down by two lower federal courts as a violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition against government establishment of religion.
• In a pair of cases, Burgos v. New Jersey (No. 15-293) and New Jersey Education Association v. New Jersey (No. 15-302), the justices declined to hear appeals from the New Jersey Education Association and other unions in that state of a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that went against them in a dispute over a 2011 state law designed to bolster public-employee pension systems. Republican Gov. Chris Christie had signed the bill into law, but in a subsequent budget, he proposed contributing only $681 million to the pension systems rather than the $2.25 billion called for under the statute.
| NEWS | Learning the Language
The U.S. Department of Education is tripling the size of a grant program designed to help Native American students succeed in school, the department announced last week.
The Native Youth Community Projects will make $17.4 million available to organizations, after awarding $5.3 million in grants to a dozen recipients last year. The department billed the program’s expansion as the federal government’s latest move to boost the college and career prospects for American Indian and Alaskan Native youths.
The department also says that acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. will soon visit South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Seven students on the reservation committed suicide in the span of several months. The department awarded the reservation’s Pine Ridge School a $218,000 grant in the wake of the suicide cluster.
More than a third of American Indian children live in poverty, and just two-thirds graduate from high school—the lowest rate of any racial or ethnic demographic group in the nation. President Barack Obama’s Generation Indigenous (Gen I) initiative, a joint undertaking by the Education Department and the Department of the Interior, seeks to address barriers to success for Native American youths.
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2016 edition of Education Week as Blogs