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January 07, 2014 8 min read
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| NEWS | State EdWatch

‘Common Core Is Dead’ or Not: What Did Huckabee Mean?

One of the more prominent conservative defenders of the Common Core State Standards has been former Arkansas governor and one-time presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Just to use one example, he told listeners on his radio show with former Michigan Gov. John Engler on May 1 that conservatives in particular should be fans of the standards, not opponents.

On his Fox News show on Dec. 8, Huckabee argued that when the common core started out as a state-led initiative to boost K-12 standards, it was a great idea. But he said he doesn’t like how the standards are being implemented nor some of the “agenda driven” curricula that’s been developed for them. (He didn’t specify what agenda is being driven.)

Huckabee also said the common core has been used inappropriately to justify collecting student data, although beyond general allusions to fears about the federal government getting its hands on that data, he didn’t specify what’s been inappropriate.

He called for the term “common core” to disappear from the education lexicon, but said states shouldn’t back away from high standards: “Common core is dead, but common sense should not be.”

Now, what did Huckabee tell the Council of Chief State School Officers in November? Not quite the same thing. He was consistent in expressing concern that the name itself is now politically toxic. But his line to the chiefs on the common core was “Rebrand it, refocus it, but don’t retreat.” That’s different from “Common core is dead.”

He also didn’t tell the state chiefs he was dissatisfied with the implementation, such as the curricula being used with common standards.

Huckabee’s comments leave some room for interpretation as to his exact level of support for the standards. But the phrase “Common core is dead” is a stark contrast to what he talked about with Engler on his radio show back in May.

—Andrew Ujifusa

| NEWS | Politics K-12

U.S. Department of Education Still Not an Awesome Place to Work

The U.S. Department of Education isn’t anywhere near the best place to work in the federal government, but it’s getting better. In 2003, the agency received a job-satisfaction score of 53.8 (out of 100). Now, the score is 57.6, and it ranked 18th out of 23 midsize agencies in terms of the best places in the federal government to work, according to 2013 rankings from the Partnership for Public Service.

The department’s general upward trend (despite a low-morale dip in 2012) comes as overall satisfaction in midsize agencies has been declining since 2010.The Education Department ranks above the Small Business Administration and the National Labor Relations Board, among others, for job satisfaction. The No. 1 midsize agency: the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Compared with 2003, department employees are giving the agency—and their boss, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—higher marks for providing effective leadership and fostering teamwork. Generally, among all midsize agencies, Education Department officials seem to be fairly satisfied with their pay. But it’s important to note the survey was done before the October government shutdown.

—Michele McNeil

| NEWS | Rules for Engagement

Kentucky Panel’s Proposal Could Take Truancy Offenses Out of Court

A Kentucky task force has recommended reducing the state’s youth-incarceration rate in part by developing a new system that relies on community programs and parent involvement for dealing with offenses like truancy.

The Bluegrass State is one of many that have considered proposals to reduce youth incarceration, such as increased funding of crime-prevention efforts, new youth-mentoring programs, and a narrowing of “zero tolerance” policies in schools.

Many state efforts focus largely on “status offenses” like skipping school, which are only prohibited because of the offender’s age.

If Kentucky lawmakers act on the task force’s report, released last month, changes could take discussions of many offenses out of the courtroom, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.

The sticking point for some state legislatures has been increased costs on the front end for some programs. But those costs are far outweighed by the eventual savings that come from reducing incarceration rates, supporters of such changes have said.

State-level changes to juvenile-justice efforts could be particularly noticeable in schools because truancy cases typically make up a large portion of overall status offenses, according to a recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice.

—Evie Blad

| NEWS | Politics K-12

Well Into Final Race to Top Year, States Have Plenty of Cash Left

With states well into their final year of Race to the Top implementation, the 12 winners still have a lot of money to spend, according to the latest financial reports by the U.S. Department of Education.

The state with the largest share of its award left? New York, with 59 percent of its $700 million still in the bank as of Nov. 30.

Meanwhile, Delaware (one of the two states that got a jump start by winning in the first round) has just 31 percent left.

Combined, the 12 Race to the Top states have $1.8 billion of their $4 billion in winnings left, or about 46 percent. The Obama administration’s signature education-improvement effort was designed—for the most part—to be a four-year program. Awards were made in 2010.

It’s important to note that the large balances aren’t necessarily a bad thing. For one, it’s possible this money has already been spent on paper—a contract has been signed, for example—but hasn’t been drawn down. Secondly, sometimes there are delays in when the money is spent and when that shows up on the federal ledger. And thirdly, Race to the Top states spent the first couple years of their grants doing intense planning, and left a lot of the actual implementation to the final couple of years.

However, the unspent money is one indicator of larger delays that have plagued Race to the Top states, and it is a factor in the Education Department’s decision to allow winning states, on a case-by-case basis, to get an additional year of time to implement some of their programs. With these “no-cost extensions,” states will have until July 1, 2015, to spend their money (versus summer 2014).

Federal officials aren’t granting wholesale extensions; the extra time is for small components of states’ winning plans. States including Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee are approved to spend some of their money during the 2014-15 school year, mostly on state-level oversight of the program.

—Michele McNeil

| NEWS | Politics K-12

Ed. Dept. to Revise SIG Analysis After Contractor’s Analysis Error

The U.S. Department of Education is revising its recent analysis of the second year of the Obama administration’s controversial version of the School Improvement Grant program, after it became clear that an outside contractor charged with crunching the data erroneously left out too many schools that should have been included in the mix.

The contractor in question was the American Institutes for Research, which has conducted other SIG research for the department. The analysis cost $28,300 overall. The department is hoping to re-release an updated analysis, with more schools included, in January.

The original analysis, released in November, excluded about half the schools that entered the newly revamped SIG program in its first year (the 2010-11 school year) and about a third of the schools that started in the second year (the 2011-12 school year).

At the time, the department gave a host of reasons for the exclusions. For instance, the agency said, number crunchers took out schools in states that changed their assessments, schools that merged with other schools, and schools where proficiency rates were missing.

But apparently, in some cases, the contractors were overzealous in deciding which schools to toss out, according to an email message to reporters by Cameron French, a department spokesman.

Overall, the analysis showed that about two-thirds of schools improved, while another third saw stagnant student performance (or even slipped backward). It’s unclear if the do-over will significantly change those conclusions.

Importantly, the change doesn’t have any impact on the actual school- and district-level data, for every school in the country, that were released along with the SIG results.

—Alyson Klein

| NEWS | Politics K-12

Advocacy Groups Pushing Back On California’s Test Suspension

A number of state and national advocacy organizations are none too happy about California’s decision to suspend most of its accountability testing for a year to help the state’s schools get up to speed on new tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards—and they’ve let U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan know.

Not explaining to teachers and schools how their students—particularly those in key subgroups, such as English-language learners—perform on assessments is a major missed opportunity for professional development, say the groups, which include StudentsFirst, Teach Plus, the Education Trust-West, and the Alliance for a Better Community.

“The teachers, principals, and superintendents with whom we work have been very clear: They need to know how their students are doing,” the groups wrote in a Dec. 23 letter to Mr. Duncan. “This is not only essential in assessing how schools are adapting their curriculum and instruction to meet the [common-core standards], but critical to teachers in their own professional development and continuous improvement to meet the needs of their students.”

Any waiver that the federal Department of Education grants the Golden State from the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act—the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—should, at a minimum, call for the state to “provide useful data on student progress back to the districts,” the letter says.

More than 40 states and the District of Columbia have NCLB waivers, but California isn’t one of them. However, it was one of 15 that applied for the department’s so-called “double testing” waiver. That waiver allows states to get rid of some or all of their current testing programs in math and language arts to focus on the field tests being given this spring by two multistate common-assessment consortia. So far, California hasn’t heard back on its request.

—Alyson Klein

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2014 edition of Education Week as Blogs

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