July 2010 Up Front

On The Hill
Will the ESEA reauthorization  pass this year?

Michael A. Resnick

As Congress works through the summer months, the question for educators is whether the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) will be reauthorized this year. The answer will be driven by the interaction of timing, priorities, and the willingness to compromise.

With respect to timing, the window of opportunity is closing fast. If the Senate and House committees markup their bills by June, they have only through July to schedule and debate the legislation on the floor prior to August’s recess. Even then, other items will compete for floor time, including regular funding bills and the Senate confirmation hearings on Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. Any number of other issues might rise up that are more politically attractive in the pre-election season.

Once Congress returns after Labor Day, it only will have until early October to finish work before members recess to campaign for re-election. The House and Senate bills will need to be close enough in content and so politically uncontroversial that differences between the two versions can be reconciled and the final bill passed in time.

With regard to the politics, the Obama administration has proposed its “blueprint,” which contains many positive alternatives to ESEA’s current iteration, the No Child Left Behind Act. But a number of features in the blueprint, in various ways, are not acceptable to Democrats or Republicans or education associations such as NSBA. Since the Democratic committee leadership in the House and Senate is writing what no doubt will be highly technical and legal bills, it will need to determine how far it must go to accommodate the Republicans, the administration, and the various education groups and still have a coherent product.

From the political standpoint, Republicans may feel it’s better to wait  until next year for the reauthorization. The midterm election likely will give the GOP more seats in both chambers, and stalling would deny the Democrats a potentially positive legislative success to tout during the campaign season. At the same time, the administration must decide whether to hold tight on pushing for stronger provisions or changes that are problematic for reaching consensus.

It comes down to whether the administration believes that its current stance will slow progress on the legislation or cause it to be swept up in the current anti-federal mood of the country as the election season nears.

Within these givens, you have to wonder how much willingness there is to cross political lines and, between the House and Senate, to accommodate disparate views while still providing a bill that moves education forward.

If Congress does not reauthorize ESEA this year, school districts must continue to live with NCLB’s flaws, which are educationally unsound and cost students dearly in the use of staff time, program focus, and dollars for resources -- right when budgets are being cut to the bare bones. Complicating matters is the fact that many states have backloaded to this year and next significant increases to the percentage of students who must score proficiently on state tests.

Especially for these states, NCLB’s flaws will unnecessarily place more schools at risk of being identified as needing improvement, resulting in them being faced with flawed sanctions, the sanctions’ attendant costs on student learning, and limited resources.

School districts should not support a reauthorization bill that simply discards the various problems with current law, however. Reauthorization now occurs only once every eight years or so, so it’s important that Congress gets this one right and avoids bringing a whole new set of problems or unintended consequences onto the nation’s schools.

What’s needed is legislation that constructively leads and supports school districts in raising student achievement -- and in ways that make sense at the local level, where education actually occurs. If Congress cannot accomplish that by October, it should move forward with legislation that defers implementation of NCLB’s dysfunctional aspects until a good bill can be produced next year.

For its part, NSBA will continue to push its agenda to provide constructive approaches to the federal role and to do it now. This will include our advocacy for the features of the blueprint that work and our opposition to those that don’t.

Over the coming weeks, we encourage you to talk to members of Congress about the reauthorization and what it means for your school district.   

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is NSBA’s associate executive director for advocacy and issues management. His column appears monthly in ASBJ.

Incentive pay guidelines offered by NSBA, other education gorups

Planning on applying for some of the $437 million that the U.S. Department of Education is offering in grants to support projects that reward teachers, principals, and other school personnel who improve student achievement? If so,  NSBA is offering guidelines for school leaders trying to get some of this money.

Along with the National Education Association and the American Association of School Administrators, NSBA produced 11 guiding principles for those applying for the federal Teacher Incentive Fund or other incentive compensation programs.

Applications for the program are due July 6, and the Education Department says that it plans to award 40 to 80 grants ranging from $5 million to $10 million each.

The 11 guiding principles focus on collaboration and support between school boards, administrators, and teachers representatives at the local level. If a local district decides to create an incentive plan as part of its school improvement efforts, it should be in line with the district’s mission and strategic plan, and should be integrated into other components, including evaluations and training.

Schoolwide plans often have the best results and are the easiest to implement, according to the guidelines.

It was important that the national organizations work together to offer recommendations, said NSBA Executive Director Anne L. Bryant. She added, “A successful incentive compensation plan must foster collaboration with a broad base of support among teachers, school staff, administrators, school board members, and within the community.”

The guidelines include:

• School boards, administrators, and unions/associations should review various models of incentive compensation plans, including research about their effectiveness, before developing a plan at the local level.

• They should work together to build ongoing community and stakeholder support for both the incentive compensation plan as well as for the necessary funding.

• They should work together to develop and implement the plan utilizing collective bargaining, where it exists.

• Teachers should be provided assistance including time, curriculum, and professional development to increase student achievement.

• The foundation of incentive compensation plans shall be professional-level base salaries.

• Funding for the plan must be adequate and sustainable.

• The plan and its requirements should be transparent, easily understood, and uniformly implemented.

• A detailed implementation plan, with agreed-upon benchmarks and timelines, should be developed.

• The incentive compensation plan should be based on a multifactor approach (teacher evaluations, student performance growth, specific goals set by the teacher and/or management, increased responsibilities, assessments of student learning, etc.) that is research-based and improves student achievement.

• All employees who meet the criteria for the incentive compensation plan should be compensated accordingly, and incentive compensation plans should foster collaboration, not competition.

• Evaluations, if a factor in incentive compensation plans, should be fair, rigorous, and take into account multiple measures of student progress. 

Joetta Sack-Min

Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Detroit study links lead to  low test scores
A study by health and education officials found that more than half of the students tested in Detroit Public Schools have signs of lead poisoning. Data showed that students with higher levels of the toxic substance in their blood, which permanently damages the brain’s development, had lower scores on state assessments. About 60 percent of students who performed below their grade level on 2008 standardized tests had elevated lead levels, and students in special education classes were more likely to have lead poisoning, according to the Detroit Free Press. The study underscores the persistent and troubling legacy of lead, even as the overall number of lead cases continues to fall in Detroit and across the nation. While children could be exposed to lead through many different means, it is most often present in paint in older homes and occasionally in unfiltered water.

Elementary education  ranks low on pay scale
Elementary education came in second in a list of the 10 lowest-paying majors for current college students by website Payscale.com, with an average starting salary of $33,000 and mid-career median salary of $42,000. The worst-paying major was social work, with theology, music, and Spanish rounding out the top of the list. Majors in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, which are being pushed by federal and local education officials, fared much better, though. Seven of the top 10 best-paying majors were aerospace, chemical, computer, and electrical engineering; economics; physics; and computer science. Meanwhile, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has promoted teaching careers in his visits to schools. During a recent visit to New Orleans, he met with minority teachers and asked them for advice to help recruit more minorities to the field, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “We have far too few teachers of color. Only 2 percent, one in 50 teachers today, are African-American males. Something is fundamentally wrong with that picture,” Duncan said.

GOP-led Kansas legislature approves tax increase
Defying conventional conservatism and demands from Tea Party activists, the GOP-led Kansas legislature approved a 1-cent sales tax increase in May. The move is designed to avoid further cuts in K-12 education programs. The measure, which Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson planned to sign, would increase the state’s sales tax from 5.3 to 6.3 cents per dollar until 2013. Supporters had used the schools’ situations as a rallying point for the increase, according to The Associated Press.

Increases and decreases  in school choice
Hundreds of middle-class families are applying for slots at magnet and year-round schools after the Wake County, N.C., school board rescinded a diversity policy that based student assignments on socioeconomic levels. The Raleigh News & Observer reported that numerous slots in the choice schools had been unfilled because of the previous policies, but many of the newly eligible students would be leaving overcrowded neighborhood schools. Meanwhile, in Portland, Ore., school officials are dismantling the district’s school choice program, which offered students the chance to attend schools with focuses such as arts, technology, or advanced classes, and moving students back to neighborhood schools, the Los Angeles Times reported. According to the Times, school officials found that too many middle- and upper-class parents were using their savvy to ensure that their children got into the choice schools, while low-income families attended schools with declining enrollments and underfunded programs.

Ariz. district puts wireless Internet on school buses
A rural Arizona school district has installed a wireless Internet router on its school buses to help students make their long rides -- at least an hour each way -- more productive, or at least more entertaining. The Vail, Ariz., district is one of about 25 across the country that have installed routers, according to National Public Radio. Vail officials mounted the router just above the driver’s-side windshield. Wiring buses is not expensive or technically challenging, Vanderbilt University professor Julie Hudson told NPR. But not every family can afford a laptop, and that’s a “tougher nut to crack,” she said.

All-male schools benefit Hispanics and blacks
A study that examined seven all-male schools concluded that single-sex classes can benefit African-American and Hispanic males by promoting the value of education and dispelling myths that boys, particularly minorities, can’t perform as well as their white and female counterparts. The Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University conducted the study over a three-year period.

Md. parents must give permission for military test use
This spring, Maryland became the first state to bar schools from automatically sending military recruiters results from the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, commonly given in high schools and used by military recruiters. Under the new law, students, and their parents if they are under age 18, will have to give permission for their test results to be given to military officials. The test has been criticized by some who say it is misused as a backdoor recruitment tool by the military to coerce students to enlist, often without the knowledge of or input from their parents. Others say it is a legitimate and important career aptitude test.

Child care study shows impact of poor care
The longest-running federal study of child care has found that students who had low-quality care in their first four years of life were more likely to struggle with academics up to age 15. The study, which tracked more than 1,300 children, beginning in 1991, found that those who received low-quality care saw behavior and academic problems at least until their 15th birthdays. However, those differences were relatively small.

Ky. congressman promotes Head Start but decries funding source
A Kentucky congressman decried an extension of the economic stimulus package as excessive federal spending on the same day that his office praised stimulus funding for a Head Start program in his district, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. Republican Rep. Geoff Davis announced that he helped get more than $1 million for the Carroll County, Ky., school district to expand its Head Start program for poor children. The money came from the stimulus funds, the Herald-Leader said, which he had predicted would result in “endless debt and the promise of increased taxes.” His Head Start funding statement read: “In these difficult economic times, it is critical to ensure that vulnerable populations in Kentucky have access to important support services,” the Herald-Leader reported. “I am pleased that our office was able to assist.”

Teachers at R.I. high school rehired
After state-appointed officials chose to fire the entire teaching staff at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island this spring, their move won praise from President Obama, brought protests from local community members, and stirred debate nationally. However, in May, the state-appointed school board and teachers union reached an agreement that all of the teachers would keep their jobs. A new reform plan includes a new principal at the school, longer school days, after-school tutoring, and a new teacher evaluation system.

Breathalizers show up at some proms
A number of high schools used Breathalyzers at their proms this year -- some even at the request of students -- but there’s no clear evidence that the devices cut down on alcohol-related accidents and other incidents. In Jefferson City, Mo., the student council at Jefferson City High School asked the police force to test all attendees before they entered the event, according to the Jefferson City News Tribune. “The entire student council voted unanimously to support an alcohol- and drug-free event,” said student council President Renzi Crow, the News Tribune reported. “We’re doing everything we can to make this the best prom possible, and part of that is encouraging everyone to be responsible.” But the school board in Bellows Falls, Vt., actually voted to ban Breathalyzers at its high schools’ proms. The board heard from students and parents, who said that a blanket test for every attendee was a violation of their rights and that the money that would have been spent to have sheriff’s deputies administer the test would be better spent on other anti-drug programs, according to the Rutland Herald.