Education Best of the Blogs


November 04, 2014 8 min read
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| NEWS | Marketplace K-12

Rural Schools and Libraries Could Lose Funds Under New E-Rate Classification

What a difference a definition makes.

A coalition of 22 organizations is opposing the reclassification of about 1,500 schools and libraries that have been considered “rural” into a category called “urban clusters” under changes to the Federal Communication Commission’s E-rate program, which will go into effect in the 2015-16 school year.

An urban cluster, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, has 2,500 to 50,000 residents. This definition puts it squarely between a rural area and an urban one.

In a letter to the FCC last week, AASA, the School Superintendents Association; the American Library Association; the Consortium for School Networking; the National PTA; and both major teachers’ unions, among others, urged the agency to reconsider its adoption of the Census Bureau’s definition in judging whether an E-rate applicant qualifies for an additional rural discount. Previously, the FCC had proposed using the definition of rural set by the National Center for Education Statistics, which uses a locale-code classification to describe a school’s location.

“We are concerned that the FCC has adopted a specific definition of rural that will come with unintended consequences,” the letter says. Citing the “unique obstacles and opportunities that rural communities face,” the organizations urged the FCC to modify the definition of rural and urban clusters.

What’s at stake is thousands of dollars for some schools.

In the federal government, “rural is defined seven different ways to Sunday, depending upon the agency,” said Noelle Ellerson, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at AASA, the main group representing district superintendents. The coalition proposed that a population threshold of 25,000 or greater be considered urban.

–Michele Molnar

| NEWS | College Bound

Campaign Aims to Recruit 1 Million STEM Mentors for Girls

When Talmesha Richards graduated with her Ph.D. in cellular and molecular medicine from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine two years ago, she felt a personal obligation to encourage other girls to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering, or math.

“I know the power of a mentor. I’m a testimony to it,” says the 33-year-old, the director of project partnerships for STEMconnector, which connects corporations with community groups to invest in STEM training. Richards can recall mentors as early as 3rd and 8th grades who helped encourage her in math and science.

Now she is part of an effort to recruit 1 million STEM mentors to support girls from middle school through careers. The Million Women Mentors campaign is sponsored by more than 70 businesses and organizations, including Cisco, Girl Scouts, the National Girls Collaborative Project, and STEMconnector.

The effort started in January, and 170,000 professionals have pledged their time so far. Volunteers are asked to give about 20 hours per year to work with a young girl with an interest in studying STEM subjects. Mentors (male and female) receive training and a weekly guide for meeting with students, which occurs outside of school through industry partnerships and community organizations, according to Richards.

The campaign hopes to increase the percentage of high school girls planning to pursue STEM careers, which is currently 13 percent.

–Caralee Adams

| NEWS | Rules for Engagement

Virginia District’s Plan to Start School Later Will Cost $5 Million

The Fairfax County, Va., district will shift high school start times next year, citing “clear health benefits for adolescents” associated with providing more time for sleep.

Under the plan, high school start times will shift from 7:20 a.m. to between 8 a.m. and 8:10 a.m., while middle schools will start at 7:30 a.m., as much as a half hour earlier than they start now.

The move, which will cost the 185,000-student district about $5 million, provides a real-life example of the cost-benefit analysis a district must make in shifting start times.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools should start at 8:30 a.m. or later to better sync schedules with students’ natural sleep cycles.

But, as Fairfax County proves, starting school later isn’t always as simple as printing a new time on students’ schedules. The $5 million will cover the cost of dozens of extra school buses.

School budgets are tight around the country, and some districts might not be willing to shell out the cash for such a change. And families often have well-worn schedules oriented around the school bell. Those can be difficult to change.

–Evie Blad

| NEWS | Politics K-12

White House Seen to Be Driving Fresh Rhetoric on Test Reduction

President Barack Obama appears to be behind his administration’s recent rhetorical push to reconsider the number of tests students take, sources say. And the president’s thinking on tests would seem to put U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a pretty awkward position.

For the first six years of his term in office, Duncan has bet big on student scores on state tests, pressing states to use them in pivotal decisions, such as teacher evaluations. That started to crumble in August, when he wrote in a blog post that “testing and test preparation takes up too much time.”

And earlier this month, when the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools said they wanted to take a hard look at the number of tests states and districts require and consider paring it back, Mr. Duncan cheered. He also posted an op-ed in the Washington Post on the subject.

So what caused the secretary to (sort of) change his testing tune?

Maybe he didn’t. Or at least he wasn’t the first. The administration’s recent test-reduction rhetoric appears to have come from the president, who took the unusual step of putting out his own statement patting the CCSSO and the big-city districts’ group on the back for their plan to reconsider testing regimes.

–Alyson Klein

| NEWS | Teacher Beat

Coalition of Ed. Groups, Unions Pushes New Accountability Take

A coalition of education organizations, with support from the two national teachers’ unions, is calling for a different take on school accountability—one that reduces annual testing and includes a broader mix of school outcomes.

Among other things, such a system must be focused on “meaningful learning” using “rich assessments,” and a “school quality review” that looks at schools’ data to examine how they are doing.

All levels of government also must be held accountable, the groups say, “for equitably allocating adequate resources—dollars, curriculum and learning tools, well-qualified educators, and safe, healthy environments for learning—to meet student needs and support meaningful learning.”

In all, the slate of principles mirrors the accountability resolution that the American Federation of Teachers passed at its July meeting, even including some of the same language (such as calling for replacing “test and punish” with “support and improve” accountability.)

Absent from this new proposal are a lot of specifics about how to get such concepts enacted in legislation. None of the terms in quotes above is defined, for instance. Remedies for struggling schools aren’t spelled out.

Right now, the coalition is working on getting signatories for this “social compact,” so more details are probably forthcoming in the next few months. (Also, both of the national teachers’ unions support grade-span testing rather than annual testing and have endorsed different proposals introduced in Congress to that end.)

Supporters include AASA, the School Superintendents Association; the American Youth Policy Forum; and the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign.

There’s been a variety of voices clamoring for new kinds of accountability systems lately, and many of the ideas overlap. Just last week, for example, a variety of civil rights groups sent a letter asking Congress and President Barack Obama to include resource equity in a revamp of the No Child Left Behind Act.

–Stephen Sawchuk

| NEWS | Politics K-12

Leaders of Big Suburban Districts Offer Proposals on Waiver Renewal

The U.S. Department of Education is expected to unveil its No Child Left Behind Act waiver-renewal guidelines as early as the middle of next month, so advocacy groups are getting their ideas in now.

The latest proposal comes from the 16 superintendents who make up the Large Countywide and Suburban District Consortium. The organization is chaired by J. Alvin Wilbanks, the superintendent of Gwinnett County schools in Georgia (this year’s Broad Prize co-recipient). And the co-chair is Joshua Starr, the superintendent in Montgomery County, Md., who is also developing a national profile on K-12 policy.

Among the recommendations:

• The group agrees with both national teachers’ unions and former President Bill Clinton: Grade-span testing at key points, or testing that just samples certain students, should be an option for districts. There should be fewer and better local assessments and less focus on the state summative tests.

• The Education Department should think outside the box when it comes to assessments and data, including allowing states and districts to experiment with competency-based systems, which look at student mastery of certain skills, and performance tasks. That’s something New Hampshire is already in talks with the department about.

• Waiver states are transitioning to new assessments, so they should get at least two years before they have to incorporate student-growth data.

• The department shouldn’t force states to use state test results in teacher evaluations. Local assessments or local tests combined with state tests can be a great measure of student learning, the district leaders say. (Many policymakers in Washington state, which lost its waiver because it allows districts to choose between using state or local assessments in evaluations, might second this recommendation.)

–Alyson Klein

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


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