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April 01, 2014 9 min read
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| NEWS | Politics K-12

Hearing Examines How Congress Could Boost Teacher Preparation

There’s a dearth of data out there on whether colleges of education are actually churning out graduates who are ready for the challenges of the classroom, lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle acknowledged at a Senate education committee hearing last week on teacher preparation.

At the same time, the federal government has a long list of reporting requirements for schools of education—many of which, like whether or not students are exposed to the Myers-Briggs personality test, may not have much bearing on whether new teachers are really ready for prime time.

That paradox is something Congress will explore as it seeks to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which governs teacher preparation, as well as student financial aid and college-preparatory programs.

Already, states are required to identify teacher-prep programs that aren’t up to snuff and help them improve. But states aren’t exactly knocking themselves out to fulfill that requirement, noted Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, at the hearing. As of 2013, nearly half the states and the District of Columbia hadn’t pointed to a single low-performing program, he said.

“One might be inclined to read these statistics and think that our teacher-preparation programs are doing a great job,” Harkin said. “Unfortunately, in many cases, teachers report feeling unprepared for the realities of the classroom, and school principals and administrators report that many new teachers are not ready to teach.” Harkin said that colleges of education must also do more to collaborate with school districts.

–Alyson Klein

| NEWS | Politics K-12

White House Touts Race to Top, But Glowing Report Light on Data

Race to the Top—the Obama administration’s most high-profile education initiative—has helped states improve teaching and learning and expand programs that help prepare students for higher education and the workforce, according to a glowing, glossy, 11-page White House report.

But the report released last week, which reads more like a promotional brochure than a policy document, contains very little hard data and ignores a number of Race to the Top hiccups, including delays in tying teacher evaluation to student outcomes that have plagued grant winners like New York, Maryland, and Georgia. The Peach State, in fact, had a sliver of its $400 million Race to the Top grant withheld because of this issue. The White House report also neglects to detail difficulties in turning around low-performing schools among Race to the Top winners such as the District of Columbia, Ohio, and Rhode Island.

And it ignores the fact that 11 of the 12 states—all the winners but Hawaii—are taking an extra year to finish their work. Overall, the first round of Race to the Top was financed at $4 billion, plus $350 million to help states develop tests aligned with new standards. The report notes that Advanced Placement course taking is up by 13.2 percent since 2011 in Race to the Top states. And it says that the percentage of students in Race to the Top states earning scores on AP tests that will qualify them for college credit has increased 15.5 percent in the same time period. But it’s hard to tell how impressive those numbers are—the report does not give comparable data on either point for non-Race to the Top states.

The report mentions that states have adopted higher, uniform standards but steers clear of specifically crediting Race to the Top with furthering the Common Core State Standards. That link has proved politically dicey for the Obama administration recently. Instead, the report focuses on how states, including Tennessee, are using their grants to help educators prepare to teach to new, higher standards.

Otherwise, the report is thin on data and heavy on anecdotes about interesting strategies employed by Race to the Top winners. For instance, it praises coaches in Tennessee who are helping students transition to the common core. And it highlights a Florida initiative aimed at giving students more access to opportunities in STEM fields.

“Race to the Top was merely a vehicle for unleashing local-developed ideas and activities,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a press call. “It enabled [states] to make leaps that they would not have been able to make without these resources.”

–Alyson Klein

| NEWS | Politics K-12

Waiver States Continue to Struggle On Turnarounds, Ed. Dept. Finds

The U.S. Department of Education has released a whopping nine monitoring reports taking a look at how states are doing with implementation of flexibility in meeting the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Overall, states—including those that won multimillion-dollar Race to the Top grants—continue to struggle with turning around their lowest-performing schools, and even with ensuring that their highest-performing or “reward” schools get their due.

Some specifics from the reports that came out March 21:

• Arizona, which is in danger of losing its waiver because of issues with its teacher-evaluation system, is also falling down when it comes to supporting “priority” (the lowest-performing) and “focus” (other struggling) schools.

• Race to the Top winners, including the District of Columbia, Ohio, and Rhode Island, are foundering when it comes to assisting with turnarounds. Rhode Island has also asked for changes to its teacher-evaluation system that are currently under review at the department.

• Race to the Top winner Maryland gets a gold star for implementation of both standards and turnarounds. But it is seeking an amendment to its Race to the Top plan in the area of teacher evaluation, so that portion of its waiver request is still under review.

• Another Race to the Top winner, North Carolina, doesn’t seem to have any major pitfalls. The Tar Heel State got a thumbs-up in every area of waiver implementation.

• New Mexico, one of the first states to get a waiver, is doing well when it comes to implementing new standards, but it is having difficulty with turnarounds and teacher evaluation.

• Virginia, one of several states that have a waiver but haven’t adopted the common-core standards, got high marks for its work on standards and assessments. But it’s falling down when it comes to lending a hand to its priority schools.

• Wisconsin must update the assessment portion of its waiver request to recent changes to its assessment system. And like other states, it is having difficulty supporting priority schools.

–Alyson Klein

| NEWS | State EdWatch

School Choice Savings Accounts Allowed to Continue in Arizona

The Arizona Supreme Court has declined to review a ruling that affirmed the constitutionality of the state’s education savings accounts. The program allows parents to spend what would have been the majority of their child’s per-student funding allotment from the state on schools of their choice.

The state’s highest court declined last month to review the ruling from last October, handed down by the state’s Court of Appeals. Under the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, the state deposits 90 percent of what would have been funding for one student into a scholarship account. (According to the Associated Press, each account now receives about $3,000 per student.) Parents, in turn, can use the money on private school tuition, textbooks, savings for college, fees for standardized tests, and the cost of therapy and aides for students with special needs.

To be eligible for deposits into the accounts, the student in question must have special needs, be a ward of the juvenile court, or have attended a school given a D or F grade by the state during the prior school year. Students also have to meet other requirements.

Enacted in 2011, the program was challenged in court by those who say the program violates the state constitution because it transfers public resources to private or religious public schools.

–Andrew Ujifusa

| NEWS | District Dossier

Urban K-12 Leaders Cite Shortage Of Principals for Turnarounds

Without a deeper bench of principals who specialize in overhauling chronically failing schools, the Obama administration’s efforts to turn around low-performing schools will have a fleeting impact, city K-12 leaders told federal education officials last week, four years into the administration’s $5.5 billion School Improvement Grant program.

Top U.S. Department of Education officials did not disagree. Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, acknowledged that the SIG program—which puts principals’ jobs in jeopardy if schools don’t improve quickly enough—may not have zeroed in enough on the leadership piece.

“My fear is that we have not placed enough of a laser light on the building principal,” she told superintendents, administrators, and school board members gathered in Washington for the Council of the Great City Schools’ annual legislative conference.

Ray Hart, the council’s director of research, said surveys and interviews of district administrators are turning up other challenges related to the role of school leaders in turnarounds, as well.

For instance, when new principals come in, they are either stuck with implementing a plan they didn’t write, or they are trying to make changes to it, he noted.

Congress recently opened the door to some changes to the troubled SIG program, which many educators have decried as too rigid, but in the two months since the bill passed, the department is still thinking through how to put those new options into practice.

–Lesli A. Maxwell

| NEWS | Early Years

Preschoolers Can Engage Deeply In Science, NSTA Declares

Grown-ups—including teachers—tend to underestimate preschoolers’ capacity to learn scientific principles, as well as the length of time they’ll spend exploring such ideas, the National Science Teachers Association says.

The declarations come as part of the Arlington,Va.-based group’s new recommendations for early-childhood educators. This is the first time the organization has articulated an opinion on early-childhood education, said Kate Falk, the group’s senior manager of public relations.

Effective science investigations can deeply engage young children for extended periods of time, beyond a single activity or session, the organization says. It recommends that teachers and other education providers should, among other actions:

• Provide experiences in the early years that focus on the content and practices of science, with an understanding of how these experiences connect to the content defined in the Next Generation Science Standards; and

• Understand that science experiences are already a part of what young children encounter every day through play and interactions with others, and provide a learning environment that encourages children to ask questions, plan investigations, and record and discuss findings.

–Julie Blair

| NEWS | Time and Learning

Boys & Girls Clubs to Offer After-School Arts for ‘Tweens’

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America will develop and pilot after-school arts programs for urban “tweens” with support from a $5.35 million grant by the Wallace Foundation. If all goes well with the initiative over the next 2½ years, Wallace will provide another $6.55 million for the Youth Arts Initiative.

The Boys & Girls Clubs has agreed to design its program for tweens (students in grades 5-8) around 10 principles of high-quality arts programming, including hiring instructors who are professional, practicing artists.

The first programs will be developed at the Boys & Girls Club of Green Bay,in Wisconsin; the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Minnesota; and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee. Green Bay will focus on digital-music production, and Central Minnesota and Greater Milwaukee will focus on hip-hop and step dance.

–Samantha Stainburn

A version of this article appeared in the April 02, 2014 edition of Education Week as Blogs


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