Flypaper

THIRD-RATE ORATORY, FIRST-RATE FUN
President Obama’s annual State of the Union address will be held tonight, and while polarizing K–12 policy is likely to be absent, early childhood and higher education will get plenty of air time. On the docket for these two subjects: the president’s free community college proposal, along with an idea to streamline child-care tax benefits and incentives for families with young children. Be sure to hop on Twitter during your SOTU viewing party for a special edition of the EWA’s buzzword bingo.

RELAX, THEY WON'T REVOKE YOUR PASSPORT
Arizona will be the first state to require high school students to pass a civics test, the assessment that all candidates for U.S. citizenship must take. A poll found that 77 percent of responders support this new requirement. Before you decide on the wisdom of the policy, see if you can pass the test.

AND YOU THOUGHT LUTEFISK WAS BAD
While Scandinavian countries top global rankings in many education metrics, a new piece in the Washington Post suggests that they are not the utopias they are sometimes made out to be. It seems that even the “happiest countries on Earth” struggle with racial tension, a slowing economy, and high youth unemployment (to name just a few). What does this mean for education? For starters, we need to be realistic when looking to other countries as potential models. But as Chester E. Finn, Jr. and others explain here, we do need to address our ranking in the global education sphere—and fast.

CITY OF BROTHERLY CHEAPSKATES
Philadelphia provides strikingly less per-pupil funding to its students than most comparatively sized cities, a Pew Charitable Trusts study has shown. Some have blamed the shortfall...

HOLD THE PHONE
The numbers are in: According to a new Quinnipiac Poll released today, 54 percent of New Yorkers support Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to lift the cell phone ban in the city’s schools. It’s a good reprieve for de Blasio in the court of public opinion; his approval rating, while positive overall, still lags under 50 percent (the territory usually deemed safe for incumbent politicians). Chancellor Carmen Farina’s popularity is lower still, at 39 percent. Maybe it has something to do with her apparent imperviousness to evidentiary analysis

IN THE LOOP
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has contributed a dose of common sense on testing that some of our national politicians would be well-advised to heed. Just a week after members of the State Board of Education voted (likely with no legal standing) to allow school districts to opt out of Common Core-aligned PARCC tests, the governor took time in his State of the State address to dissuade lawmakers from cutting annual assessments. “We need to confront the truth about whether Colorado’s kids are getting the education they need to compete and succeed in the job market,” he said. “But how do we know if we are getting the job done unless we accurately measure individual student growth?”

SPEAK OF THE DEVIL
Now that we’ve broached the topic of our beloved congressional leaders, here’s your semi-regular ESEA update: Education Week has conscientiously assembled a layman’s crib sheet on the ins and outs of Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander’s draft reauthorization bill. Sure, you can go take a few days off to read all 400 pages of the actual text, because you’re an education policy enthusiast and loved reading the Common Core State Standards. But...

Though hardly the only issue to be debated during the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education act, annual testing has taken center stage in discussions so far. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate HELP committee, put forth a bill that leaves open the possibility of removing the federal requirement that states test students annually in reading and math from grades three through eight—a possibility that has thoroughly freaked out much of the education-reform community.

But as Alexander has explained, he is merely trying to respond to what he and every other member of Congress are hearing from their constituents: There’s too much damn testing in the schools.

But is that true? And if so, is it because of the federal requirements?

A new report from the Ohio Department of Education provides some timely answers, at least for one state. (A bellwether state, mind you.) State Superintendent Dick Ross charged his department with collecting information about the number of hours Buckeye State students spend preparing for and taking tests (not including tests developed by their own teachers). The findings are illuminating (most of this language is verbatim):

  • The average student spends approximately 19.8 hours taking tests each year. This is only 1-3 percent of the school year, depending on grade level. Kindergarten students spend the least amount of time on testing (11.3 hours on average), while grade-10 students spend the most (28.4 hours on average).
     
  • Students spend approximately 15 additional hours practicing for tests each year.
     
  • Tests used to feed teacher evaluations are one of the largest drivers of testing time of all tests. Approximately 26 percent of total student test-taking time is spent taking “student learning objective” tests.

That last point may be the most important one. As I’ve...

Cynthia G. Brown

Editor's note: This post appears in response to Michael J. Petrilli and Frederick M. Hess's earlier article.

I was appalled to read the attack of Jonah Edelman by my colleagues Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess for supposedly playing the “race card” on the ESEA reauthorization in his recent Daily Beast column. Hey guys, why the cheap shot? Jonah was citing historical facts that even today’s schoolchildren study. He talks mostly about groups of disadvantaged students, particularly those living in poverty, and uses the term “racism” once. And if you knew Jonah and each of his parents as I do, you would know that Jonah’s views have evolved way past his parents’ views from different times.

I won’t argue the strengths and weaknesses of NCLB. They both exist and are being vigorously debated. But to assert that states will do the right thing flies in the face of many current practices nationwide, not just history. How can Rick and Mike deny that most states have been insensitive to inequity in schooling and elsewhere? There is ample documentation that states choose to fund high-poverty schools at lesser rates than low-poverty schools, unlike most every other advanced country. Or that high-poverty schools have weaker teachers. And so on. And then there are other current state actions that reinforce disadvantages for undereducated and low-income people like the voter suppression actions being pursued in many states.

Maybe the federal government cannot do much in our grossly decentralized education governance system, but the use of the bully pulpit, legislative and regulatory actions, and civil rights enforcement by the Bush and Obama administrations have triggered state and local changes that would not have happened otherwise—attention to identifying and assisting the lowest-performing schools and student groups and meaningful teacher evaluation, to name two. Yes, there...

DISTANCE MATTERS
What really matters most to parents when choosing a school for their child? A new study from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans has found that factors such as distance, extended hours, and extracurricular offerings tend to outweigh a school’s academic record for many parents, particularly those lower on the income spectrum. What parents want out of schools is a topic worthy of further study.

MORE OIL, MORE PROBLEMS
While millions of Americans are currently enjoying the lowest oil prices they have seen in years, state-level petroeconomies like Alaska are experiencing huge revenue shortages. In these states, funding for K–12 and higher education will soon be feeling the crunch. With the added uncertainty regarding the duration of the oil price drop, state lawmakers will likely continue to budget frugally for the foreseeable future.

DOUBLETALK
New York City schools will open forty dual-language programs in September as part of new Chancellor Carmen Farina’s plan to immerse students in bilingualism and biculturalism. The classes will contain half English-language learners and half English-proficient students, who will receive instruction in both English and a targeted language such as Spanish or French.

GRADE-SPAN TESTING IS A BAD IDEA
The Center for American Progress and the AFT say that annual testing should be maintained to help better assess student outcomes, but should not be used for school-level accountability. For that purpose they recommend tests taken once per grade span. Many reformers, including Fordham, maintain that this is a bad idea because it doesn’t directly address overtesting, and it only increases the stakes of the tests themselves....

TARHEEL BLUES
North Carolina is the latest state to investigate a new set of standards to replace the Common Core, a move that Michael Petrilli warns won’t be so easy. The state has organized a commission to review and potentially replace the Common Core. As this NPR article explains, the debate is split. The commission is set to reach its decision in December 2015.

STICKER SHOCK
The White House has released the price tag for President Obama’s proposal to make two years of community college free to qualifying students. The initiative is projected to cost the federal government $60 billion over the course of a decade. It will certainly be interesting to see how the administration plans to foot this bill in the president’s budget proposal, which is scheduled for release in early February.

DOUBLE PLUS UNGOOD
The Atlantic’s Alia Wong asks the question we’ve all faced at one time or another: Why is education reporting so boring? The answer, according to Wong, lies in the dense forest of jargon, acronyms, and buzzwords that combine to baffle and anesthetize everyone who comes in contact with education writing. From “holistic mastery” to “the experiential-based learning process,” the piece is an amusing sendup of both educationese and the unfortunate folks who have to become fluent in it.

STEEL STANDING
An unlikely leader in the technological learning revolution is Pittsburgh, according to Education Week. Now decades into its gradual recovery from the industrial collapse that devastated so many Rust Belt communities, the city has created a network of schools, museums, libraries, and artists that buoy traditional education with digital tools and curricula. Along with more obvious candidates like New York and Chicago, it has received huge grants from the Macarthur Foundation for its...

The debate over annual testing is important, but it’s no Brown v. Board of Education.
Frederick M. Hess and Michael J. Petrilli

Monday afternoon, a Washington, D.C., metro rail train stopped in a tunnel not far from a major station, and the car began filling with smoke. Soon the lights went off and, though many passengers were struggling to breathe, they were told by metro employees to stay put. A spokesman for first responders disputes the timeline, but the Washington Post spoke with passengers who said they were waiting as much as an hour before help arrived. The paper also quotes a fire department spokesman who admitted that, even once they arrived on the scene, "firefighters did not immediately enter the tunnel to help the riders because they were not sure whether the subway’s electrified third rail had been deactivated."

All told, one woman lost her life and eighty-four were hospitalized. In the coming weeks and months we will learn more about how this happened, whether the response was adequate, and whether the accident and subsequent loss of life could have been prevented.

To many riders, accidents like this are not surprising. A 2009 train collision killed nine people. There are also years’ worth of examples documented by bloggers, everyday riders, and journalists of seldom-enforced rules, sloppy workmanship, and bafflingly onerous collectively bargained work rules that sacrifice quality and safety in the interest of other union priorities.

To top it off, system leadership will often downplay the problems to make it seem like everything is under control. A post from Cato's Walter Olson after this most recent incident noted, "Track fires have become common in recent years in the WMATA (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority) rail system, as have train breakdowns, escalator closures, delays, and other disruptions."

While the unceasing work on tracks, trains, switches, and other equipment is often done out of public...

Last week, I explained the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (a.k.a. No Child Left Behind) in a single table:

Now that Senator Alexander, chairman of the HELP Committee, has released a draft bill, let’s take a look at where it stands on these various issues (items that moved are in bold):

In brief, most of my “yellow” items went to red—as in, they got left on the cutting room floor. Just testing in science and a version of School Improvement Grants made it to the “green” territory.[1] And most intriguingly, annual testing—the star of the current debate—stays in yellow thanks to Alexander’s equivocation on the issue. (He included two options in his bill—either keep the current annual testing requirements or let states propose something that is similar in spirit.)

To be sure, this is just the opening bid. Conservatives will aim to shrink the green list, and liberals will aim to grow it. What’s still not known is where the president’s “red line” may fall. Stay tuned!




[1] As several readers noted, the School Improvement Grants program is officially gone, though the bill does include a large state set-aside for school improvement activities. 

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THE DRAFT BILL IS HERE...ALMOST
Reporters are gathering details on Senator Lamar Alexander’s much-awaited draft bill for reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. The bill is more than 400 pages long and outlines two roads for standardized testing: A Choose Your Own (Testing) Adventure or “stick with the assessment language we pretty much already have,” note the Politics K–12 duo.

WALKER: TESTING RANGER
Education Week’s excellent State Edwatch blog has an in-depth examination of Wisconsin Republicans’ new state education plan, called for by Governor Scott Walker during last year’s reelection campaign, which would convert persistently failing public schools into charter schools. Also included in the legislation is a proposal to grant broad leeway to public, charter, and private schools to select from a menu of competing standardized tests.

BOARD TO DEATH
American University’s WAMU takes a look at the responsibilities of charter board members in Washington, D.C., a city in which nearly half of all children attend charter schools. Carrie Irvin, head of a nonprofit that seeks to train the volunteer board members, says that the duties of the position can be demanding: "Serving on a public charter school board is not 'I’ll show up twice a year, vote like the guy next to me because he looks smart and put it on my resume.’ It’s a serious leadership responsibility."

INTEGRATION AND THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP
The Supreme Court will be hearing a case next week concerning disparate impact of housing policies on racial minorities. In a case that could potentially solidify economic and racial neighborhood boundaries, some voices in education fear that disadvantaged students will be unfairly concentrated in already underperforming schools....

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