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Education Best of the Blogs


April 14, 2015 7 min read
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| NEWS | Curriculum Matters

Common-Core Consortium Tests: It’s Been a Long Five Years

Five years ago, Education Week was reporting on the start of the Race to the Top assessment competition, which offered $350 million to cash-starved states to band together and design tests for the Common Core State Standards.

Yes, those were the days when the U.S. Department of Education thought that maybe some states could get together and design “comprehensive” tests, and others could design end-of-course tests for high school. The high school part didn’t go so well, and the department funneled all the money into tests for grades 3-12 instead.

Those were the days when the department dreamed of tests that could measure how well prepared students were for good jobs as well as for college. The “career readiness” part of that has pretty much fizzled out. How’s the college-readiness part going? One judgment on that, perhaps, will rest on how many college and university systems agree to use PARCC and Smarter Balanced scores to let students skip remedial work and go right into credit-bearing courses.

Back then, the federal government was hoping for tests that not only measured student achievement and progress, but could also be used to evaluate teachers and principals. They’re still hanging on to those goals, although they’ve granted states some wiggle room in how soon they need to factor test scores into personnel evaluations.

Now, we’re into the operational administration of both tests. It would be tempting to say that time certainly flies. But for those involved in building these tests, and for the educators who’ve been under intense pressure to have students ready for them, these last five years have doubtless seemed like dog years, when every year on the calendar feels like seven. And that’s before test results are even announced.

–Catherine Gewertz

| NEWS | Teaching Now

‘Phenomenon’ Teaching to Reduce Role of Academic Subjects in Finland

Thanks to a new set of reforms focused on interdisciplinary learning, Finnish students can say goodbye to subject-area classes like math and language arts—at least for a few weeks each year.

Finland is often held up as a model for successful education, even though its scores on international-comparison tests are declining. But Helsinki’s education manager, Marjo Kyllonen, says the country’s current system doesn’t go far enough in teaching students information and skills that are relevant to the real world. “We really need a rethinking of education and a redesigning of our system,” she told a local newspaper.

Starting in August 2016, that redesigned system will come in the form of “phenomenon” teaching, which in theory replaces traditional subject-based classes—history, math—with interdisciplinary ones based on broader topics like the European Union or vocation-specific lessons that draw from multiple subjects.

Pasi Sahlberg, formerly of the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture and now a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says the changes aren’t as broad as they might seem.

Finland isn’t scrapping subjects entirely, he says. The newest iteration of the country’s national curriculum framework will require schools to implement “at least one extended period” of phenomenon teaching, but the specifics of what that looks like will be left up to individual school systems.

One aspect of the reforms that hasn’t been drawing much attention is the new framework requiring students be involved in the planning and assessment of phenomenon-based lessons—a way of encouraging students to take greater ownership of their education.

–Jordan Moeny

| NEWS | Rules for Engagement

Will Crowd-Sourced Student Stories Lead to Changes in Suspension Policy?

In recent years, advocates have been calling for changes to school discipline policies to help drive down the use of exclusionary discipline like suspensions, and to reduce racial disparities in discipline rates.

Changes have been made, but those advocates say federal data show that much work remains to be done.

DoSomething.org is giving students a platform to tweet “real, powerful stories” of discipline to their states’ boards of education. The site plans to share a new story every day from April 27 to May 1.

How and will the website verify students’ stories? Schools frequently cite federal privacy laws when they refuse to comment on disciplinary incidents, which can cause some to doubt the credibility of stories. And it’s not as if policymakers haven’t heard from students.

Still, the campaign may have another effect: I suspect the tweets will raise awareness of the discipline debate among students.

–Evie Blad

| NEWS | Politics K-12

A Common-Core Foe, Voucher Backer, Sen. Rand Paul Enters Presidential Race

Add one more unabashed Common Core State Standards foe to the list of 2016 Republican presidential candidates: U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Paul, who officially entered the race April 7, has relentlessly tweaked former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for his support of the standards, saying last fall that any “hypothetical” GOP presidential hopeful who likes the common core “doesn’t have much chance of winning in a Republican primary.”

And earlier this year, Paul’s camp put out a memo that slammed his Republican rivals for their championship of the standards. (There were a lot of inaccuracies about the common core in that memo. Plus, some of the folks on the list, like Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, aren’t as closely associated with support of the standards as, say, Bush.)

In the Senate, Paul is a member of the education committee. So far this year, he’s co-sponsored legislation by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., that would bar the feds from getting involved in standards. He’s also lent his support to a bill by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, that would prohibit the feds from interfering with local decisionmaking on standards, curriculum, and assessments.

In fact, the Crapo bill would prohibit the federal government from mandating testing at all. That flies in the face of both the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the No Child Left Behind Act—and the compromise legislation to rewrite nclb worked out between the two top lawmakers on the education committee, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman, and Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member.

(For those keeping score, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who also is a declared presidential candidate, is another co-sponsor of the Crapo bill.)

But Alexander and Paul have been school choice buddies in recent years, a partnership that has a clear political upside for both lawmakers. In March of 2013, they teamed up on a budget amendment that would have allowed Title I dollars for disadvantaged kids to follow students to any school of their choice, even a private school. In fact, Paul mentioned school choice in his official presidential announcement. “We need to stop limiting kids in poor neighborhoods to failing public schools and offer them school choice,” he said.

Paul is not afraid to use Senate rules and procedures to block education legislation he doesn’t like. In 2011, he initially introduced more than 70 amendments during committee consideration of a bipartisan bill to rewrite the NCLB law—and put up procedural roadblocks aimed at slowing down the bill.

–Alyson Klein

| NEWS | Digital Education

‘Discussion Draft’ Circulated on Measure to Better Protect Student-Data Privacy

A proposed overhaul of the country’s primary law protecting student-data privacy is being circulated for feedback, offering yet another sign of the federal government’s interest in reshaping the legislative landscape around this hot-button issue.

The “discussion draft” of a bill that would rewrite the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, was released April 6 by the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., and Rep. Robert “Bobby” Scott, D-Va., its ranking member.

The bill is intended as a potential complement to—not replacement for—the pending Student Digital Privacy and Parental Rights Act, championed by the White House.

The draft FERPA proposal, which had not been formally introduced as of last week, would include a number of potentially significant changes. Among them, the definition of a student’s “educational record” would be expanded, and a ban would be placed on using such information for marketing or advertising. States and local education agencies would be subject to new requirements when contracting with vendors handling sensitive student information.

The bill would also allow fines of up to $500,000 to be levied on educational service providers that improperly shared student information, and parents would be given new opportunities to access and amend their children’s data and opt out of the use of that information for research purposes.

FERPA was enacted in 1974 and, as currently constituted, is widely regarded as insufficient for addressing the privacy challenges of the digital age.

–Benjamin Herold

A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2015 edition of Education Week as Blogs


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