Category Archives: Federal Education Policy

Are Better Schools Enough to Advance STEM Learning? A Q&A With Ron Ottinger

Ron Ottinger, Director of STEM Next

Ron Ottinger, Director of STEM Next

I’ve long thought that the best way to get more kids into STEM fields is just to give them better schools. This way more Americans are in a position to make choices about their career paths and vocations. But there is obviously more to it than that, so I asked Ron Ottinger, champion of STEM learning and the Director of STEM Next, a few questions about changing the STEM status quo. (Interview edited for length and clarity).

Andy Rotherham: Why isn’t creating great schools so kids can make their own career and academic choices enough to advance STEM attainment in this country?

Ron Ottinger: There is just not enough time in the school day to actively engage students in STEM. Young people are only in the classroom for about 20 percent of their day and must shift from one subject to the next, without being able to fully immerse themselves in any one subject.

From my years of investing in helping build the field of STEM, spending 12 years on the San Diego City School Board and 10 as executive director of the Noyce Foundation, I have seen how high-quality afterschool and summer programs can support schools in improving students’ understanding of and interest in STEM.

Our studies at the Noyce Foundation and others show that consistent participation in high-quality afterschool programs is linked to increased interest, engagement, and persistence in STEM subjects, and that some afterschool programs have helped close the math achievement gap.

We now have new, large-scale research from The PEAR Institute at Harvard University and The Institute for Measurement, Methodology, Analysis, and Policy at Texas Tech that involve nearly 1,600 youth across 11 states. The research shows increased interest in STEM careers and gains in important 21st century skills that are in high demand in today’s workforce — such as critical thinking and perseverance — as a result of participation in an afterschool STEM program. Additionally, 80 percent of students reported a positive gain in their STEM career knowledge.

AR: What is the biggest obstacle to expanding STEM afterschool programs across the country? Continue reading

Trump’s Proposal to Eliminate This Teacher-Focused Program Could be an Opportunity

President Trump’s newly released budget would slash $9 billion or 13.5 percent of funding from the Department of Education. That’s a dramatic change. It’s important to remember, however, that Congress controls the country’s purse strings, so a President’s budget proposal serves more as a statement of priorities than a concrete action plan.

For those of us who work on teacher quality issues, that’s a relief. For one, Trump’s proposed Education Department cuts include the complete elimination of the roughly $2.3 billion Title II program. States and districts use Title II’s Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants for teacher quality activities, like recruiting teachers and supporting effective instruction.  

Unsurprisingly, the mention of defunding Title II has teachers unions and advocacy organizations up in arms. Many state departments of education, districts, and schools have relied on this funding to support teacher-related activities for years.

But the effectiveness of the Title II dollars spent is questionable. Although states and districts are given a wide array of choices on how to spend Title II dollars, they tend to stick to the same activities. A closer look at the data on Title II use reveals that for more than a decade, districts have been using at least three quarters of Title II funding on just two activities: class-size reduction and professional development.

Title II

Data via U.S. Department of Education; Chart via author.

This funding allocation is problematic because there is no data to suggest that class-size reduction or professional development widely or consistently impact student achievement. Research shows that the effects of class-size reduction are restricted to only certain grades, with particular influence on students in early elementary grades. And while some districts and schools have been able to crack the code to ensure that teacher professional development positively impacts student learning, it is not happening at scale. Continue reading

How Will States Handle New Title I Powers with Minimal Federal Oversight?

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, photo by Michael Vadon via Flickr

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, photo by Michael Vadon via Flickr

Last week Congress threw Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accountability regulations out the window, and all signs from the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos point to a minimal review of state ESSA plans. For example, a little known ESSA provision could change the shape of Title I spending in schools, and under new guidelines, states don’t even have to describe their plans for implementing this new power.

Title I is a $14 billion federal grant program aimed at supporting low-income students. For decades, Title I programs have been split into two categories: targeted programs, where funds exclusively support low-achieving students, and schoolwide programs, where funds can support schoolwide improvements more flexibly. Prior federal law restricted schoolwide programs to schools with more than 40 percent low-income students. Under ESSA, all states now have the power to waive the 40 percent requirement and allow schools with less concentrated poverty to implement schoolwide reforms using Title I funds. This new flexibility could make Title I programs more effective for disadvantaged students — if states step up and use their new power wisely. But, while the Obama-era regulations required states to explain how they would issue schoolwide Title I waivers, the new template issued yesterday by the Trump administration doesn’t ask states about this provision.

There are several upsides to the expansion of schoolwide programs. Schoolwide Title I programs require schools to perform a comprehensive needs assessment, while targeted programs do not. These needs assessments are designed to engage the whole school community, and use data to identify to key areas for improvement. In contrast, a common criticism of targeted Title I programs is that they encourage schools to implement small add-on programs, like tutoring, rather than addressing bigger issues that impact all students, like curriculum and teacher quality. Schoolwide programs also allow for Title I funds to be combined with other federal and state funding streams, amplifying the impact of multiple small funding streams and reducing administrative overhead.

But there are risks that come along with this flexibility. Title I’s convoluted funding formulas already give plenty of money to wealthy, large school districts, and unchecked flexibility in spending could further dilute the effects of Title I on its intended beneficiaries — low-income students. While combining multiple funding streams reduces administrative burdens, it can also remove guardrails to ensure that money is being spent responsibly and equitably. That is why state monitoring of school Title I plans and interim progress indicators are all even more important under ESSA.

In a few states, schools below 40 percent low-income students are already allowed to implement schoolwide Title I programs. Even before the passage of ESSA, the Education Flexibility Partnership Act (Ed-Flex) approved ten states for Title I flexibility beginning in 1999. More recently, several states used their No Child Left Behind Flexibility Waivers to allow for schoolwide Title I programs in their lowest performing schools.

The success of this new nationwide flexibility will depend on states taking an active role to monitor and assess schoolwide Title I programs — whether they are enacted at schools above or below the 40 percent threshold. Early drafts of ESSA state plans suggest that many states do not yet have a clear vision for this — and now they don’t even have to include details on Title I waivers in their state plans at all. Out of 15 draft ESSA state plans available online last week (all likely to be rewritten), nine states had very broad, non-specific language for how they would review requests to shift to a schoolwide Title I program.

Light oversight is no excuse for states to take it easy. States should not just rubber-stamp requests for flexibility when it comes to Title I when there is so much at stake for low-income students, and advocates should push for more specifics on how states will ensure Title I money is well-spent.

Donald Trump’s Election is a “Sputnik Moment” for Civics Education

Last week, the American Enterprise Institute hosted an event discussing the failings of civics education in America. The panelists referred to the dismal state of civics literacy as a “Sputnik moment” – a reference to when the Soviet Union successfully launched the world’s first satellite in 1957, stirring the United States to create the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and dramatically increase its space exploration efforts.

Nothing illustrates this comparison better than the election of Donald Trump. As Trump has demonstrated time and time again, he knows little about governing or policy – instead relying on divisive rhetoric and petulant Twitter tantrums. His most recent gaffe: at a White House convening of the nation’s governors, Trump said that “nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” As it turns out, many people knew.

However, if Trump can name all three branches of government, that alone would put him ahead of nearly three quarters of Americans. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 26 percent of respondents could name all three branches, and 31 percent could not name a single one.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) also show poor results. In 2014 – the most recent NAEP civics assessment – only 23 percent of eighth grade students scored at or above the proficient level. The same is true of older students getting ready to vote. In 2010, when NAEP last tested high school seniors, only 24 percent scored at or above the proficient level. Neither of these results has changed significantly since 1998.

At the same time, faith in many of America’s institutions are at historic lows – even before Trump’s election. And it’s likely that his constant attacks on various institutions will only serve to worsen these numbers. This crisis of confidence only feeds into the growing level of polarization, making it nearly impossible to govern effectively. It’s no wonder that recent congresses have been arguably some of the least productive ever.

Confidence in Institutions

Despite these difficulties, the American people seem well aware of the problem at hand. According to the 2016 PDK poll of the public’s attitudes toward the public schools, 82 percent of Americans believe preparing students to be good citizens is very or extremely important. At the same time, only 33 percent think the public schools in their communities are doing that job very or extremely well.

So what is to be done? Continue reading

Four Problems With Betsy DeVos’ Possible Vision of School Accountability

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

During her Senate hearing, now Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos repeatedly stated that she supports school accountability. But what does accountability actually mean to her? For clues, I looked into the model school choice legislation proposed by the American Federation for Children (AFC), an organization DeVos formerly chaired. If that bill reflects DeVos’ priorities, it suggests she supports accountability measures that are significantly weaker than the ones currently applied to public schools in all 50 states.

There are at least four key accountability problems with the AFC’s voucher program:

Continue reading