Blogs of the Week

March 04, 2014 9 min read
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| NEWS | Curriculum Matters

‘Quick and Easy’ Formative Assessment Helps Fuel a Thriving New Market

Even as the common core steps up pressure on teachers to help students master new skills, there’s no need for them to worry about how they’ll gauge whether their students are learning well as they go along. Teachers can learn such formative-assessment strategies quickly and easily.

At least that’s what the burgeoning common-core market would like you to believe.

In a recent press release, for instance, Staff Development for Educators promises that in six short hours, for a fee of $209 per person, potential seminar participants will be guided through “quick and easy-to-use tools for developing a strong formative-assessment plan that informs instruction across all content areas and prepares students for their state’s new common-core assessments—including PARCC and Smarter Balanced.”

Among the things they’ll learn: strategies to help them figure out the right level of instruction for students, monitor student progress, and measure students’ performance against the Common Core State Standards; how to develop “a formative-assessment plan with a differentiated mindset for each classroom"; and “tactics for instilling in students a sense of self-regulation, learning ownership, and responsibility.”

Is all this possible in a one-day seminar?

Margaret Heritage, the assistant director for professional development at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, or CRESST, greeted the press release with the same disappointed sigh that she’s expressed before when she’s shared her thoughts about the widespread misconceptions about formative assessment.

“It misses the point of formative assessment,” she wrote in an email. “Formative assessment is a process involving teachers AND students that is integrated into everyday teaching and learning.”

In other words: This is not at all the kind of stuff that teachers can hope to learn in a quick-hit setting, no matter what the world of marketing and PR would like you to believe.

–Catherine Gewertz

| NEWS | District Dossier

District of Columbia Schools to Devote $5 Million to Student Satisfaction

Principals in the District of Columbia school system will get an extra incentive in the 2014-15 school year to develop programs to make their students happy, thanks to a $5 million grant program the district is centering on student satisfaction.

Seventy-eight percent of students in the 45,500-student district said they liked school, according to a survey conducted last year of students in grades 3-12, said schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. The system wants to get that number up to 90 percent by 2017.

This grant will be one step to doing that, said Henderson during a dial-in news conference last week. “I want students to love going to school.”

Many ideas might fit the bill, she said. Students who were unhappy with school complained about everything from the food to school cleanliness to peer-to-peer interactions, she said. The central office is working on the elements under its own control, such as food and janitors. But principals might use the money for anti-bullying programs, extracurricular activities, field trips, or other programs that will engage children.

“Every parent in this city wants their child’s school to be a place where they can explore, where they can feel safe and supported, and where they can thrive,” she said.

–Christina A. Samuels

| NEWS | Schooled in Sports

NASA Launches Online Video Series Using Sports to Teach STEM Subjects

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched a new online video series last week aimed at using sports to teach science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The series, called NASA STEM Mania, includes sessions for both students and teachers. Students can learn about the physics behind the game of football and the differences in training for athletes and astronauts, while some of the educator sessions include clips of astronauts playing sports on the International Space Station, a comparison between the principles of bowling and those used to develop Mars rovers, and how solar energy is being used to power a NASCAR track.

All sessions will be streamed live on NASA’s Distance Learning Network. To participate in interactive activities, students and teachers will have to register on NASA’s website for particular sessions. Sessions run through March 20.

–Bryan Toporek

| NEWS | Politics K-12

GOP Demanding Answers on Teacher-Equity Plan

Key House Republicans have some pretty pointed questions for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan when it comes to how his department plans to pursue a proposed “50-state strategy” aimed at pushing states to revamp their “highly qualified” teacher plans.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, and Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., the top Republican on the subcommittee overseeing K-12 education, sent a letter to Mr. Duncan Feb. 25 expressing concerns over the U.S. Department of Education’s plan to have the office for civil rights ensure that states provide kids in poverty access to as many highly effective teachers as their more-advantaged peers.

Reps. Kline and Rokita support the goal of teacher quality, they explain, but they’re worried the department is going about this the wrong way. A federal 50-state strategy, they say, could get in the way of local efforts to bolster teacher quality.

What’s more, “the department’s heavy-handed approach to federal enforcement ignores the effects of teacher-equity efforts on state and local teacher-transfer policies and retention efforts.”

The two congressmen want some information from Mr. Duncan—and they want to see it before the feds release their proposal.

First off, they want the department to explain why they think the OCR has the legal authority to enforce rules on teacher quality.

And they’re looking for specifics of just what will be included in the 50-state strategy. They want to know what format the proposal will come in, and what the process for rolling it out will be, including a timeframe for implementation.

They’re interested in any feedback the department has gotten from stakeholders (presumably including groups representing teachers, school board members, and state chiefs). They want to know how the department is going to incorporate that feedback into its final teacher-equity plan.

The letter is just the latest instance of congressional skepticism of Mr. Duncan, who seems to have stretched his executive muscles more than any previous education secretary. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House education committee, recently sounded the alarm bells on the department’s waiver strategy, saying some state plans could let schools off the hook for improving outcomes for disadvantaged students.

But Mr. Miller, for one, is on board with the general idea of a 50-state teacher-equity strategy. In a recent interview, he said he’d like the department to “get on with it” already.

—Alyson Klein

| NEWS | Politics K-12

More States Seen Struggling on Waiver Implementation

The U.S. Department of Education released waiver monitoring reports for three more states recently that show continued struggles with low-performing schools and new tests aligned to the common core.

Kansas was dinged because the interventions for its focus schools do not seem to line up with the reasons those schools were selected for this designation in the first place. (Focus schools are those with the largest achievement gaps in the state.) The state also has not shown that it is appropriately flagging schools that aren’t among the lowest-performing, but are still not making progress toward their academic targets. Federal officials also noted that the state still has not resolved its teacher-evaluation problems that earned it a “high risk” designation, nor has the state gotten approval from the department for a new assessment plan since dropping out of the Smarter Balanced common-testing consortium.

South Dakota was also red-flagged for not providing appropriate supports for other Title I schools—besides the lowest-performing—that aren’t making progress.

Oklahoma is cited for dropping out of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers assessment consortium, then submitting its own plan for administering common-core-aligned assessments that so far isn’t up to federal standards. Also, its state and local report cards don’t contain all the information that’s required. (This is a common problem across many waiver states.)

None of these states has a federally approved teacher-evaluation system either. All of these issues will loom large as states seek a one-year extension of their waivers.

—Michele McNeil

| NEWS | The School Law Blog

Hair-Length Rule Rejected for Male Basketball Players

A federal appeals court has struck down an Indiana school district’s policy requiring short hair for boys on the basketball team, ruling that the lack of a similar policy for players on the girls’ basketball team results in illegal sex discrimination.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, ruled 2-1 for a boy identified as A.H., who beginning in junior high school sought to wear his hair longer than the short-hair policy permitted.

Greensburg Junior High School in Greensburg, Ind., has a code of conduct for athletes (not the general student population) that bars hair styles that may obstruct vision or draw attention to the athlete, such as mohawks, dyed hair, or having numbers or initials cut into the hair. The hair-length policy, though, was established by the basketball coach, and requires hair to be cut above the “ears, eyebrows, and collar” to promote a “clean-cut image.”

A.H. is now a high school junior, and the court worked on the assumption that Greensburg High School had the same policy as the junior high.

The policy evokes the look and era of “Hoosiers,” the 1986 basketball movie set in small-town Indiana in the 1950s. But basketball great Larry Bird, who wore long hair that was typical of his era when he played high school ball in French Lick, Ind., in the early 1970s, would not have been in compliance with the Greensburg policy.

The 7th Circuit court said in its Feb. 24 decision in Hayden v. Greensburg Community School Corporation that based on jointly stipulated facts, the hair-length policy violated A.H.'s 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law and Title IX’s prohibition against sex discrimination in federally funded schools. That’s because there is no comparable limitation on the hair length of female basketball players in the district, the court said.

“The hair-length policy applies only to male athletes, and there is no facially apparent reason why that should be so,” U.S. Circuit Judge Ilana D. Rovner wrote for the majority. “Girls playing interscholastic basketball have the same need as boys do to keep their hair out of their eyes, to subordinate individuality to team unity, and to project a positive image.”

To defeat the inference of sex discrimination, “it was up to the school district to show that the hair-length policy is just one component of a comprehensive grooming code that imposes comparable although not identical demands on both male and female athletes,” the court said.

Writing in dissent, Judge Daniel A. Manion said he would have upheld the hair-length policy.

“On the record we have, the grooming policies for boys and girls, as a whole, are comparable,” Judge Manion said. “Requiring men, but not women, to keep their hair at a certain length has never been held to be unequally burdensome.”

—Mark Walsh

A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as Best of the Blogs


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