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February 17, 2015 8 min read
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| NEWS | Curriculum Matters

Florida, Illinois Issue Warnings About Testing Opt-Outs

Don’t even think about it. That’s what Illinois and Florida are saying to school districts, teachers, and parents who are planning to opt out of state-mandated standardized tests.

In a stern letter issued by state schools chief Christopher Koch and the Illinois state board of education, reports the Chicago Tribune, Koch warns districts that they risk losing hundreds of millions in state and federal funding if they don’t administer the PARCC exam in all schools.

“If any district does not test, [the state board] will withhold its Title I funds (for impoverished schools),” says the letter. It also explains that federal officials could withhold money from the state as well.

Chicago recently announced that it would give PARCC in only about 10 percent of its schools, citing concerns about technological readiness, among other things. While the state officials’ letter is clearly, though tacitly, aimed at Chicago, it’s also clear that it was intended to create second thoughts in any district considering a similar move.

In Florida, too, Commissioner Pam Stewart wrote a letter saying that students must take the state’s standardized test, and that districts and teachers could face punishments if they encourage or allow them to skip it.

–Catherine Gewertz

| NEWS | Digital Education

Virtual Preschool: Yes, That’s Now a Real Option

Now an option for parents of young children: a “virtual” preschool with digital learning materials, activity guides, learning analytics, and “homeroom teachers,” all accessible online through your computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Really. This is not satire.

“We call it a virtual school, because we deliver the curriculum and the content and everything else through online tools,” said Dan Yang, the founder of VINCI Education, which has headquarters in Ottawa, Canada; North Andover, Mass.; and Hong Kong. “To be honest, we haven’t had anybody who has said, ‘That’s a bad idea.’ ”

But early-childhood-education experts offer a different take. “Honestly, my first reaction is this preys on anxious parents with money to burn,” said Lisa Guernsey, the director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Here’s how the virtual preschool is supposed to work:

Parents sign up for a subscription service ranging from $80 to $645 annually. Packages include weekly electronic delivery of digital books, songs, and games, as well as an activity guide for parents. Children are expected to use the digital learning games about 30 minutes per week, and parents are expected to do about 30 minutes worth of activities per week with their child, along with daily reading with them. The company tracks the child’s work.

Guernsey said the opportunity to connect with teachers is “probably the most appealing part” of VINCI Education’s virtual preschool offering, but she questioned what that would actually look like in practice.

–Benjamin Herold

| NEWS | Marketplace K-12

It’s a $1.7 Billion Testing Market, But a $600 Billion Ed. System

Standardized testing is quite the piñata these days, and one of the sticks being wielded most often to batter the assessment industry is its sheer size—$1.7 billion a year by one oft-cited estimate.

The author of that figure, Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, recently objected to what he sees as the constant misuse of his calculation, arguing that the dollar total isn’t nearly as daunting.

Chingos, as he explained in a recent blog post, came up with the estimate of what states spend on testing in 2012 as part of a report in which he looked at the size of states’ contracts with assessment vendors. Doing that brought him to a $669 million testing total, and then he reached the $1.7 billion figure based on a projection of costs that were not in his initial calculation.

Teachers’ unions and others have used the nearly $2 billion-per-year amount that states collectively spend to argue that K-12 policymakers’ priorities are askew.

But what the testing critics often overlook, Chingos says, is that spending on testing is just a fraction of the overall amount spent on K-12: nearly $600 billion annually.

Thus, abandoning annual testing would be “penny-wise and pound-foolish,” he contends.

–Sean Cavanagh

| NEWS | Teaching Now

Teachers Draw Lots to Keep Jobs After District Cuts Position

A somewhat surreal story out of Kanawha Country, W.Va.: Five first-year teachers gathered recently in a district office to pick numbers from a plastic cube—to see which one of them would be laid off, according to The Charleston Gazette.

This grim spectacle arose because a high school in the district had recently had to cut the position of a veteran art teacher for budgetary reasons.

Under the state’s reduction-in-force laws governing schools, the district was required to bump a junior teacher to create a new position for the more experienced educator. So the first-year teachers at the drawing were basically just unlucky: They had all been hired on the exact same day and had positions that the art teacher could move into.

The job-lottery process may sound torturous enough, but in this case it was particularly ugly. The drawing reportedly had to be redone three times over two days because of logistical snafus. Then, a new vacancy was suddenly found for the displaced art teacher.

–Anthony Rebora

| NEWS | Politics K-12

New Turnaround-Program Regulations Offer States Some Additional Flexibility

Congress last year ordered the U.S. Department of Education to make the School Improvement Grant program much more flexible for states. Now, under final federal SIG regulations published Feb. 9, states can cook up their own turnaround interventions for low-performing schools and submit them to the U.S. Secretary of Education for approval. These remedies would not necessarily have to comply with the turnaround principles in the department’s waivers.

It was not immediately clear, however, how this change will affect states with waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. (That’s 42 states and the District of Columbia.) Those states must use a specific set of turnaround principles with their lowest-performing schools that closely resembles the most popular SIG model, transformation.

The regulations are the latest step in a long saga over how much leeway states and districts should get when it comes to fixing low-performing schools. When it first took office, the Obama administration poured money into the SIG program, including an initial $3 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the stimulus. But with the new resources came added strings. Almost from the beginning, the SIG models were seen as too restrictive, and the program has posted iffy results when it comes to moving the needle on student achievement.

The new regulations also incorporate other changes previously floated in the draft regulations that came out last September. They include: allowing states to use early-childhood-education programs as a turnaround strategy for elementary schools; making the teacher-evaluation component of the transformation model more consistent with what states have outlined for teacher-performance reviews in their NCLB waivers; and requiring districts to regularly review contractors that work on SIG.

–Alyson Klein

| NEWS | State EdWatch

La. Gov. Bobby Jindal Criticizes ‘Elites’ Who Push Common Core, Insult Parents

Continuing his campaign against the Common Core State Standards and aligned tests, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told an audience at a luncheon hosted by a conservative nonprofit group that the standards represent a grave threat to parental power over their children’s schooling.

At a Feb. 5 event hosted by the American Principles Project, Jindal, a Republican, used the standards to attack Washington bureaucracy, which he claimed forced the standards on states and was now controlling curriculum in the nation’s schools in a way that would fail to teach students American exceptionalism. He also decried corporate interests and other groups that he said believe that parents do not know what is in the best interest of their children’s education.

“I ask them to slow down and listen to these parents. Don’t insult them,” Jindal said of parents opposed to the standards.

He also mentioned in subsequent remarks to the press that while he agrees with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush about many K-12 policies, specifically those that emphasize school choice, the two disagree about the common core. Jindal, who like Mr. Bush is considered a potential 2016 presidential candidate, told the crowd, “I have more confidence in the moms in this room than any collection of bureaucrats.” He added that “elites” in Washington and elsewhere who back the standards “think they’re better than you.”

Once a supporter of the standards, Jindal last year sued both the Louisiana board of education and the federal government in order to try to halt the standards and the state’s use of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

–Andrew Ujifusa

| NEWS | State EdWatch

R.I. Chief Gist to Take Top Post in Tulsa, Capping Rocky Tenure in Ocean State

Deborah Gist is on her way out as Rhode Island education commissioner after accepting a job offer to become superintendent of the Tulsa, Okla., public schools, The Tulsa World reported. She will take over for Keith Ballard, who is retiring as head of the 42,000-student district.

Gist has been Rhode Island’s chief state school officer since 2009, and has overseen changes to K-12 policy during her tenure that include shifts in teacher evaluations and blended learning. She’s also a member of Chiefs for Change, a group of chief state school officers that advocates school choice and digital education. But her positions faced increasing resistance from teachers’ unions and state legislators as time wore on, and the board declined to pick up an option to extend her contract, which was set to expire later this year.

–Andrew Ujifusa

A version of this article appeared in the February 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as Best of the Blogs

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