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Literacy, STEM Education See Big Push in Senate ESEA Bill

By Erik W. Robelen — October 12, 2011 4 min read
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The sprawling ESEA reauthorization bill put forward yesterday by the chairman of the Senate education committee envisions major programs both for literacy and STEM education.

Analysts tell me that the literacy program in the bill from Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is based on the LEARN Act, and focuses on promoting state-based comprehensive literacy programs spanning from birth through the end of high school. The STEM program, meanwhile, would apparently replace the existing Mathematics and Science Partnerships program and allow states and districts far more latitude in the kind of activities they could use the money for.

(Quick background: For those not in the loop, the No Child Left Behind Act is the latest iteration of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main federal law for the K-12 world. Congress is far, far behind schedule in reauthorizing the law, which last was updated nearly ten years ago.)

For the big picture on Harkin’s bill, check out my colleague Alyson Klein’s blog post over at Politics K-12. In it, she explains that the bill was released by Harkin, the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, but is the product of months of negotiations with the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming. Also, my co-author, Catherine, did some early analysis on this blog yesterday. And over at Teacher Beat, you can find Steve Sawchuk’s analysis on teacher-quality policy.

I’ll start with literacy. First off, the bill seems to answer with an emphatic “yes” the question raised earlier this year of whether the federal government should have a major program specifically devoted to literacy. Remember that lawmakers provided no funding in fiscal 2011 for the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program, which I’m told is essentially a pared-down version of the LEARN Act.

“This is an important provision, and we are pleased to see it included in the draft bill,” said Phillip Lovell, the vice president for federal advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, in an email. “This proposal takes a comprehensive approach to strengthening literacy by recognizing that students need literacy support and instruction throughout their education.”

In a follow-up interview, Lovell explained: “It’s pretty much the same as the LEARN Act as introduced, so it’s a substantial improvement over current policy. It is is based on what Senator [Patty] Murry has been working on with a number of organizations for several years now.”

For a recent analysis of the LEARN Act, check out this post at Politics K-12.

The draft Senate bill seeks to improve reading and writing by helping states implement plans that ensure “high-quality instruction and effective strategies in reading and writing from early education through grade 12,” the bill says.

Fred Jones, a colleague of Lovell’s at the Alliance for Excellent Education, said a core focus of the measure is supporting professional development for teachers. The money would go out by formula to states, he explained, which would then set up competitions for local districts seeking a portion of the aid. No price tag is attached to the measure, though the Murray bill authorized $2.35 billion per year.

While I’m sure there’s a lot more to say about this program, I’ll move on now to say a little about the STEM program.

James Brown, the executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, a broad-based advocacy group, said his organization “supports this [bill] 100 percent.” He notes that the section is “nearly identical” to a bill recently introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. (and several other Democrats).

A recent letter from the STEM Education Coalition describes key provisions in the Merkley bill. For one, it says states and districts would have considerable flexibility in how the money is spent to meet their own specific needs.

It notes: “The allowable activities proposed through the amended program reflect broad input from the business, education, and professional [science and technology] communities and incorporate a variety of best practices that have evolved since NCLB, such as STEM Master Teachers, hands-on engineering competitions, and innovative professional-development models.”

The draft bill from Sen. Harkin outlines four key goals for the STEM program:

• Enhancing instruction in [STEM] subjects through grade 12;
• Bolstering student engagement in, and increasing student access to, courses in such subjects;
• Improving the quality and effectiveness of classroom instruction by recruiting, training, and supporting highly rated teachers and providing robust tools and supports for students and teachers in such subjects; and
• Closing student-achievement gaps and preparing more students to be college- and career-ready, in such subjects.

Anyway, there’s plenty more to examine in this bill, but I wanted to give a quick flavor for what’s up with STEM and literacy.

Word is that the Senate education committee will take action on the bill later this month. Stay tuned.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.