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‘Back-to-School’ Bus Tour Focuses on Obama Education Legacy

By Alyson Klein — September 20, 2016 3 min read
Rogelio V. Solis/AP

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. used the last “back-to-school” bus tour of the Obama administration to pave the way for implementation of the new Every Student Succeeds Act and highlight the administration’s marquee competitive-grant programs.

King, who took over from former Secretary Arne Duncan in January, said from the start that he wanted to focus on ensuring students’ equitable access to resources and supports, revamping the teaching profession, and improving access and completion in higher education.

“We will revisit each of those three in the places that we visit and also talk about the legacy of the administration, the great work that’s been accomplished over the last seven and a half years,” King said at a news conference at the U.S. Department of Education last week before boarding a snazzy yellow coach, slated to be decorated by students he met along the tour.

Southern Swing

King swung through six Southern states and visited 11 cities and towns. His stops included North Little Rock, Ark., to underscore that state’s efforts to expand early learning—in part with the help of a $15 million preschool-development grant, a program created by the Obama administration and now included in ESSA.

King also explored teacher leadership at Battle Academy in Chattanooga, Tenn., and stopped off in Indianola, Miss., to check out an elementary school that is pairing wraparound services with academics as part of the administration’s Promise Neighborhoods program.

In Baton Rouge, King visited University Terrace Elementary School, which has been affected by recent flooding in Louisiana. The state education department is getting a $1.5 million federal grant to help with flood relief.

Jodi Burson, who teaches 3rd grade science and social studies at University Terrace, had to execute a quick move when her home flooded. Now she’s sleeping on an air mattress and coping without internet capability—far from ideal circumstances at the start of the school year.

She shared her story with her students and most of them were sympathetic, she said. “Most of them understood,” she said in an interview.

And while only a handful of her students were also flooded out of their homes, “they’ve all been affected by it,” she said. Some students have had displaced relatives come and stay with them, she said.

Later in the day, King also planned to stop off at Louisiana State University, which recently stepped up its efforts to enroll and graduate black students, as well as close completion gaps between students of color and their peers.

But other efforts highlighted on the tour—including Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation—were either scrapped under ESSA or face funding fights in Congress.

Earlier in the week, King stopped at an elementary school in Monroe, La., that is benefiting from a piece of the state’s $17.4 million Race to the Top grant, one of those awarded in 2011 to states that barely missed receiving larger grants the previous year. Duncan, King’s predecessor, had hoped to enshrine Race to the Top in the legislation that eventually became ESSA, but he didn’t get his wish.

And King’s first scheduled stop was at Buford Middle School, in Charlottesville, Va., which is using its Investing in Innovation grant to ramp up computer science education. ESSA includes a successor to i3, called the Education Innovation and Research program, but House Republicans have slated it for elimination in their most recent budget proposal.

On Friday afternoon, King planned to visit Cohen College Prep, a charter school in New Orleans that participated in a nearly $30 million i3 grant to New Schools for New Orleans. The grant was aimed at helping flailing schools find success by “restarting” as charters. The effort seems to have had some effect. All of the school’s graduates were accepted to college in 2014, according to the school’s website.

Evidence-Based Strategies

Under ESSA, states and districts can pick any kind of improvement strategy that works for them, as long as they have evidence to back it up. Last week, while King was on the tour, the department issued official guidance giving district and state leaders a clearer picture of what it thinks those interventions should look like under the new law.

The guidance—which is non-binding—urges states, districts, and schools to use interventions that have a strong record of making a difference with the types of students or schools that need help, and to think deliberately at every step of the turnaround process.

The guidance also includes suggestions for better defining the top three evidence tiers in ESSA used for school improvement. It offers suggestions for fleshing out what constitutes “promising,” “moderate” and “strong” evidence that a particular intervention will work.

A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2016 edition of Education Week as In ‘Back-to-School’ Bus Tour, a Focus on Obama Education Legacy

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