Category Archives: Common Core

Tonight’s VP Debate: Education Predictions

Mike Pence photo via Gage Skidmore

Tim Kaine official Congressional photo

In the first presidential debate last week, education was all but an afterthought. But the issue is likely to get more air time in tonight’s vice presidential debate between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence because both have held positions in local, state, and federal offices and have extensive backgrounds in education.

Here are some topics to listen for in tonight’s debate and their likelihood of being mentioned:

Early Childhood Education: As governors, both Kaine and Pence worked on expanding access to early childhood education. When Kaine ran for Virginia governor in 2005, offering universal prekindergarten to all 4-year-olds in the state was the centerpiece of his education platform. The legislation did not pass, but he has continued to be a staunch supporter of pre-k efforts during his time as an elected official. In 2013 as Governor of Indiana, Pence pushed reluctant Republican leaders in the state legislature to create a publicly funded preschool program for poor children. It opened in 2015 and has more demand than available spots.

  • Likelihood of being mentioned tonight: HIGH. Early childhood education access has been at the forefront of Clinton’s education plan since the beginning of her campaign, and she gave it some attention in the first presidential debate. Expect Kaine to capitalize on this due to his interest and experience with the topic. While the issue is not as much of a hot topic for the Trump campaign, Pence will be able to hold the conversation due to his relevant experience. This may be the education issue that gets the most attention from the two candidates.

School Choice: As governor, Kaine was skeptical of charter schools and other structural reforms. Virginia is home to just nine charter schools, and Kaine did not promote these efforts throughout the state. On the other hand, Pence is a champion of school choice.  As governor, he pushed to expand both charter schools and vouchers. He gave charter schools access to a $50 million fund to help cover the cost of loans for school construction or the purchase of educational technology. And he successfully called for lawmakers to raise the $4,800 cap on vouchers for elementary school students. Continue reading

My Reaction to K-12 Issues in SOTU

What State Policy Makers Can (and Should) Glean from the Largely Irrelevant ESEA Reauthorization Debate

These cold January days are shaping up to be heady times in federal education policy with Secretary Arne Duncan previewing the administration’s priorities for ESEA reauthorization in a speech this week and Congressional hearings set to begin. From conversation inside the beltway you’d never know that across the country, nearly every state legislature is gearing up to address many of the issues in focus in those national debates in real time. While the powers that be at the federal level will be debating annual versus grade-span testing, universal pre-k, and whether the federal government should increase its share of the total expenditure of public education by about one-half of one percent, state leaders will be acting on fundamental public education policies.

So how does this federal policy debate inform state-level work in the near term? It doesn’t really. Don’t get me wrong, federal education policy is important—clearly NCLB significantly affected how states, districts, and schools operate in the decade plus since its enactment. But under any realistic outcome scenario of the current reauthorization debate, federal requirements on states won’t increase much, if any. It’s much more likely that they’ll decrease. Given that, state policy makers are free to act in response to their own political contexts with low risk of winding up crosswise with a new federal mandate.

Consider the following statistics:

  • Number of state legislatures convening between the beginning and end of January: 45
  • Number of states in the middle of implementing the rigorous, new Common Core state standards: 44
  • Number of states in the middle of revisiting, reviewing, and otherwise “formally” arguing about those standards: 18
  • Number of states rolling out new assessment regimes over the next two years: 40
  • Number of states at some stage of litigation regarding school finance: 15.

To paraphrase Bull Durham, they’re dealing with a lot of {stuff}.  So, what about the national debate is instructive for state leaders now?

Annual testing is most likely here to stay. Secretary Duncan doubled down on it in his speech. And though the frequency of testing will be a central point of conflict between Congressional and Executive leadership, states won’t benefit from spending time and political capital pushing hard on this issue. Changing assessment regimes is expensive and time-consuming. Plus, there are compelling policy reasons to stick with the current annual system.

There’s not going to be a windfall of new federal money. Secretary Duncan’s $2.7 billion is almost certainly the high side in terms of possible new federal money for education. While it’s a big number by itself, in the context of total public education spending, not so much. He referenced about $1 billion for Title I, which leaves the rest for other priorities of the administration. So if this funding materializes at all, the bulk of it will most likely go to individual states with policy agendas that align with those priorities. If your state is ready to move toward universal pre-k and the like, your ears should perk up. Those with big money problems will need to do that work themselves (and they should).

States are going to stay in the driver’s seat with regard to standards and accountability—as they have been under waivers. And with great power, comes….you know. The bottom line on standards is that the context under which the Common Core standards were developed hasn’t changed. Students need to be ready for post-secondary training (really ready without remediation), and they increasingly need to compete with graduates all over the world. They are behind the 8-ball on both. Reducing the rigor of the standards perpetuates the myth that something less is good enough. So if state and local politics require that some states back away from the Common Core brand to get buy-in, then so be it. But don’t lower the standards. It sells students short. The policy lever to adjust here is on the accountability side with careful consideration about how to support transition and how best to measure and fairly judge the progress of students and schools.

With so much in public education in transition, these are certainly not the only important issues on which state policy makers will engage over the coming months. They are simply the ones most closely tied to the current federal debate. As a state legislative staff alumna, I wish my fellow staties the best of luck with all the heavy lifting.

Will the Common Core Lead to More Schools Labeled Failing? Not Really.

There’s a common misconception that the new Common Core standards and assessments will lead to more schools being identified as “failing.” I see this a lot–Anya Kamenetz warned during a book talk today that we’ll see “score drops, schools labeled as failing, edu-panic.” It’s a good talking point, but it’s just not true.

This myth is driven by a misunderstanding of how school accountability actually works now.

It is quite likely that the more rigorous assessments aligned to the Common Core will cause student scores to artificially fall. Students won’t know less than they did the year before, but harder tests, with higher passing scores, will result in more students labeled as less than “proficient” on state tests. This is what happened in New York and Kentucky when they moved to Common Core-aligned assessments.

But note that doesn’t necessarily mean more schools being labeled “failing” or targeted for interventions. In the short run, the U.S. Department of Education is allowing states to “pause” their school accountability determinations during the transition to new assessments. In the longer run, the Obama Administration has quietly transitioned to a normative accountability system, where schools are compared to each other rather than to some pre-determined “proficiency” benchmark.

With a normative system in place, it doesn’t matter if all students appear to perform worse this year. States can identify the exact same percentage of schools for improvement no matter what happens on state tests. (Even if absolute scores fall, on a relative basis, student performance on the old state assessments is likely to look very similar to student performance on the new assessments.)

Normative systems are now in place in 42 states, DC, and Puerto Rico. These states should not fear any illusory “fall” in test scores.

What about the other states? States without a waiver–California, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming–must follow the school improvement processes outlined in NCLB. But most of these states already identify the vast majority of their Title I schools as needing improvement. California already has 90 percent of schools identified, Washington already identifies 88 percent of schools, and in Vermont, it’s 97 percent. There just aren’t masses of schools out there that could be newly affected by the new tests.

The Common Core is an easy bogey-man. But while the myth that the Common Core will trigger massive numbers of “failing” schools is a persistent one, it’s just not real.

Optimistic Predictions Notwithstanding, Common Core Faces Brutal 2015

Lots of edu-commentators have lots of edu-predictions for 2015. I’ve tried my hand at the forecasting business (relentlessly in some cases), so far be it from me to nitpick all this crystal-balling.

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Photo from savethepostoffice.com

But one recurring theme strikes me as wishful thinking: that the 2015 politics of Common Core won’t be so bad.

My Bellwether colleague Andy Rotherham, with whom I often agree, wrote the “biggest debates about Common Core might be behind us.” Similarly, Carmel Martin predicted our “Moving on From Common Core Debates.” She wrote, “for the most part legislators are getting tired of the issue.”

To me, believing this requires turning a blind eye to three enormous facts.

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