December 2011 School Board News

On the Hill

ESEA reauthorization takes huge leap, but some concerns remain
Michael A. Resnick

Congressional efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) took a significant step forward several weeks ago when the Senate committee overseeing education reported out its bill to replace the badly flawed No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

However, several significant steps are ahead as federal lawmakers work to reauthorize legislation that has been on the books for a decade.

In its formal correspondence to the committee, NSBA praised significant features of the bill that support raising student achievement while eliminating serious counterproductive requirements contained in current law.

The bill’s achievement goals, which are based on state-selected college and career readiness standards, eliminate the current accountability system (AYP) for determining how student subgroups would reach them. States would have more flexibility in determining accountability. For example, they must add student academic growth, but only as one measure. Under current law, states must exclusively require cohort test scores and the use of just one test for that purpose.

A key goal is to improve schools in the state’s lowest 5 percent in student performance as well as another 5 percent that have the biggest achievement gap between subgroups in those schools. Interventions would be targeted only to those schools, with just the lowest performing category mandated to implement the current law’s turnaround models, which were expanded to allow for a state-developed option. Unlike current law, interventions would not apply to the other 90 percent of schools or cause them to be labeled as failing. All schools still would have to publicly issue a student performance report card, however.

The bill also eases the highly qualified teacher requirement, and improves current law to support the professional development of teachers and principals. If a state chooses to use its Title II funds -- which are specifically designed for quality teaching -- for developing and implementing a teacher evaluation system, the evaluations must, in “significant” part, be based on improved student achievement.

Despite these positive directions, effective legislation still must provide the necessary flexibility for nearly 100,000 schools to best meet their students’ unique needs and challenges. To do that, the legislation must recognize that districts have varying capacity in terms of size, geographic location, staff, and financial resources. NSBA remains concerned that the committee bill requires too much data collection, reporting, coordination, and outreach, as well as specificity in several areas that crosses into unnecessary micromanagement.

In the wake of severe budget cuts, it’s important that the legislation’s operational details are realistic and don’t preempt other features of the local education program, as NCLB’s compliance has.

Unfortunately, the committee only gave its members and the public three business days to wade through the massive 868-page bill before senators had to file amendments they intended to offer. NSBA, along with other major organizations representing the local level, encouraged the committee to rethink the timetable so the law’s operational impact at the local level could be ascertained and any needed adjustments made.

While the committee’s leadership moved forward, NSBA’s lobbying team developed 41 amendments to consider. Some of our concerns were addressed; others we will seek to remedy when the bill reaches the floor, along with new concerns resulting from other amendments that were adopted. The bill passed on a 15-7 vote with the “nays” primarily concerned that the federal footprint -- while significantly reduced -- was still too big.

On the Senate floor, it is expected that important amendments will be offered by some members to loosen various federal requirements, while others will look to add or tighten program provisions.

Given the bill’s comprehensive scope, the fundamental changes it will bring in the delivery of education, and the fact that it likely will be at least seven years before the next reauthorization, it is crucial that local school board members -- working with their state school boards association and NSBA -- make their voices heard. The Senate bill is expected to reach floor action as early as mid-November.

Meanwhile, the House is dealing with the reauthorization in component parts. The committee has acted on three bills, with one having passed the floor. Teaching and accountability, the part that awaits committee action, will be at the heart of the process and is expected to be taken up before the end of the year.

Once the House and Senate pass their bills, a joint conference committee will convene to resolve the differences, then submit the product to each chamber for final passage and the President’s signature. The timing of the final passage also could impact whether and how the U.S. Department of Education’s NCLB waiver program moves forward.

NSBA’s Federal Relations Network (FRN) members especially need to keep an eye on timing. Any delay in floor action in either body -- and it’s more likely the timing of a conference committee on this historic piece of legislation could be the main event of NSBA’s FRN meeting, set for Feb. 5-7. No matter what happens, this is one meeting FRN members won’t want to miss.

For information on the progress of this major legislation, including NSBA’s positions on provisions and amendments being sought, see www.NSBA. org/advocacy. 

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


NSBA roundup

Pre-K Coalition calls for more federal support, greater integration for early education
The National School Boards Association (NSBA) and five other leading national education organizations are urging the federal government to take a more active leadership role in ensuring that all children have access to quality preschool education.

At an October briefing on Capitol Hill, the group -- known as the Pre-K Coalition -- released a report titled Ensuring America’s Future: Policy Statements and Recommendations from National Education Organizations. It calls on local, state, and federal policymakers to “come together to design an early childhood financing system that ensures equity, supports quality and effectiveness, fosters collaboration, and does not take funding away from any other existing education programs.”

A major step in that direction is for Congress to expand the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to include early education practices and interventions, the report said. “The reauthorization of the ESEA offers a unique opportunity to update our nation’s primary federal education law to take full advantage of high quality pre-K,” the coalition said.

At the briefing, several speakers said preschool is an integral part of the education process, providing young children with critical social and academic skills that will influence their success in elementary school and beyond.

“We believe if we have them ready to learn in those important years, it will have a huge effect on the years they’re in the [K-12] system,” said C. Ed Massey, president-elect of NSBA and a member of Kentucky’s Boone County Board of Education.

“Pre-K is not separate, apart from K-12,” Massey said. “It is a part of that process.”

In addition to NSBA, the coalition includes the American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, Council of Chief State School Officers, National Association of Elementary School Principals, and the National Education Association.

For more information, go to School Board News online at http://school boardnews.nsba.org.

CUBE Annual Award winner announced
Texas’ Mesquite Independent School District took top honors as the winner of the 2011 Annual Award for Urban School Board Excellence. Boston Public Schools and Nevada’s Washoe County Public Schools were named as finalists.

Mesquite Board President Kevin Carbó, board members Christina Hall and Cary Tanamachi, and Superintendent Linda Henrie accepted the award at NSBA’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) annual meeting in New Orleans in October.

The award recognizes excellence in school board governance, building civic capacity, closing the achievement gap (equity in education), and demonstrated academic success.

For more information about the winners and the finalists, go to School Board News online at http://school boardnews.nsba.org.

Q&A with Arthur L. Coleman, co-author of a new guide on school diversity

As they have for decades, issues of race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status continue to dominate discussions among school leaders, who often face issues of division and increasing segregation. They aren’t always certain how to respond to this reality. How important is diversity to their schools? Do they have a responsibility to take action? And what action should they take?

To answer these questions, we turned to Arthur L. Coleman, a managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel LLC, a law, policy, strategy, and advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

Coleman, who served as deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in the late 1990s, is co-author of Achieving Educational Excellence for All: A Guide to Diversity-Related Strategies for School Districts. The guide is a joint publication of NSBA, The College Board, and EducationCounsel.

Coleman recently talked with ASBJ Senior Editor Del Stover about this guide for school leaders -- and the information you need to know about school diversity policies.

The nation’s student population is increasingly diverse, but its schools are increasingly segregated. What role do school board members have in adapting to this reality -- or changing it?

Much of the answer to this question will be highly context-specific, but without question, one universal point of guidance that I’d offer is to keep in mind the end goal: Our objective is to ensure that all students are getting a quality education -- one that will allow students to succeed in the real world, a world that is increasingly diverse and requires our students to have the knowledge and the skills to think critically, work collaboratively, and communicate effectively.

So we need to reframe the question -- to one where we look at the educational benefits associated with diversity and not at diversity for diversity’s sake. This is about diversity for the benefit of all students. We need to associate the concept of student diversity as integral and intrinsic to educational excellence. Research and evidence show that meaningful diversity can lead to a better learning environment.

The guide stresses the need for community engagement in dealing with issues of school diversity. How do school boards communicate the importance of this issue to its community -- and win community buy-in?

The first step is to have clarity of goals. A school or district must know why it is pursuing diversity goals and what that diversity will look like. This is a vital foundation to any meaningful discussion.

Diversity is not an issue where you can go off into a room, design and frame a policy, and then impart it on the school district and think you’ll be successful. Competing values and a balancing of community interests are implicated in just about any discussion of diversity. The important thing is to keep your educational goals at the center of the conversation and ensure that you have a community that understands and appreciates the power of student diversity and what it can yield in educational and, ultimately, in economic and societal terms.

The federal courts have made it clear that school leaders must show caution in the use of race in student assignment plans. So now school districts are employing all sorts of formulas using socioeconomic status, academic achievement levels, and parent educational levels, among other factors, to promote diversity in their schools. Just how much thought needs to go into a school board’s deliberations when it tackles issues of diversity?

The short and simple answer is: a lot of thought and a lot of deliberation.

But that should go into any policy that advances the learning environment. The federal courts are demanding that kind of thought when it comes to race- and ethnicity-conscious practices. Good rules for all policymaking include: Be clear on your goals. Have sound educational rationale for policies implemented, supported by evidence. Ultimately, have a policy that makes educational sense, about which there are good answers that explain why the policy is important and that articulate the logic of the policy or program design in achieving goals.

What do you think is the importance of Achieving Educational Excellence for All? Does it give school leaders the foundation to tackle this complex issue?

My hope is it informs educators in the ways to think about diversity. The effort was to provide an educational grounding in the policy concepts associated with what diversity can mean -- and should mean -- and then offer some practical guidance on developing policies.

This is part of a broader effort to help school leaders reflect on what their goals are -- and what strategies they will establish to achieve them. This is hard work, and there aren’t simple solutions. But it is hard work that can yield powerful outcomes. That’s why it’s worth the effort. 


Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Impact of Ala. immigration law
A federal appeals court in October blocked two provisions of Alabama’s sweeping new immigration law, including the mandate that schools determine the immigration status of new students. Immediately after the preliminary injunction by the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, interim State Superintendent Larry E. Craven said schools would stop trying to determine whether students were born in this country or abroad. But by then, the impact of the law -- the toughest in the nation targeting illegal immigrants -- was clear: According to the New York Times, close to 2,000 Hispanic students were absent on Oct 7. Many of these students eventually returned, but hundreds had left the state for good. The 4,100-student Albertville City Schools, in the northeast part of the state, was particularly hard hit. As of early October, 81 students had withdrawn and absentee rates were high. “Most of them have been with us a long time,” Superintendent Frederic Ayer said of the students who disappeared. “A good many of our students have birth certificates. They’re American citizens.” The law is being challenged by the U.S. Department of Justice and several civil rights groups.

You can’t buy publicity like this
“Hi! We’re from a ridiculously rich hedge fund, and we want to give you oodles and oodles of cash. All you have to do is produce a study showing that cuts to education and collective bargaining rights will hurt public school children -- and the money’s yours!” It probably was a little subtler that, but that’s the gist of what some strange phone callers told executives at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a left-leaning Washington, D.C., think tank that criticizes high-stakes testing and supports increased spending on school infrastructure. Could it be, asked Sam Stein, of the Huffington Post, that James O’Keefe, the famous conservative sting operator who had targeted the likes of ACORN, CNN, and National Public Radio, was now going after EPI policy wonks? “We can’t discuss our actual tactics or what we are working on right now,” Ryan Girdusky, a spokesman for Project Veritas, O’Keefe’s 501(3) organization, told the Post. To his credit, EPI President Lawrence Mishel didn’t bite. He told whomever called him that “you can’t buy results,” the Post said. But later, he said he was pleased -- honored, even -- to have been contacted. “I’m honored to be the subject of their attention,” he told the Post. “When we get attacked by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, I tell my people, ‘Be proud.’ I never got listed by Glenn Beck. I felt left out because I feel I’m an important person on the left.”  


YOUR TURN: We ask

How can we reduce cheating?
When an investigation turned up allegations of extensive cheating in the Atlanta Public Schools, the story became big news nationwide. But as Senior Editor Naomi Dillon explains on page 17, these kind of scandals are hardly new: Cheating -- whether by adults or children -- has been a fact of life in schooling for a long time and will surely be around for as long as individuals see the benefit in changing a test score or copying someone else’s work. And, of course, schools aren’t the only targets: the problem is society-wide.

What do you think is the best way to, if not eliminate, at least reduce the instances of, cheating in the public schools? As always, choose one of the responses below, add your comments, and send your reply to your-turn@asbj.com. We’ll report the results in February.

A. The best way to reduce cheating is to reemphasize ethics and character building in the public schools. If students and adults have more information about what cheating is and why it’s wrong, there will be greater awareness of the issues involved and a reduction in cheating incidents. (Please elaborate with all responses.)

B. Ethics training is fine, but the key to reducing cheating is better monitoring, oversight, and test security.

C. Reducing the influence of high-stakes tests and rethinking a culture that pits schools and students against one another is the best thing we could do to reduce cheating.

D. None of the above. (Again, please elaborate.)

YOUR TURN: YOU SAY

You are paying attention to climate
One high school principal tells his staff: “We will not yell at kids,” and “We will not humiliate kids.” In one Connecticut district, there is an active climate committee made of teachers, parents, and administrators; the school board has adopted a strict policy on bullying. In North Dakota, as in much of the nation, a district is conducting comprehensive surveys of student attitudes and behavior, with the goal of improving school climate for all.

In answer to our October question, “How’s your climate?,” nearly 70 percent of you said you are addressing the issue in a comprehensive way. Fifteen percent said you plan to focus on school climate in the near future, and another 15 percent said you have no plans to work on the issue at this time.

Some comments:

• Our school district, which includes 12 elementary, four middle, and three high schools, has been conducting comprehensive surveys of students since the early 1990s. The surveys assess behavior issues such as bullying, drug use, sexual encounters, friends, and the like. Our district has a full-time staff member who analyzes the data collected from the survey, and provides programs to students to help curb behavior misconduct and abuse. Our school board receives an annual review.

 -- Tim Lamb, board member, North Dakota

• Our district integrates school climate into everything that we do. Wisconsin has open enrollment, which means that districts that do not take their school climate seriously often see their clients leaving to enroll elsewhere. Our district takes this very seriously -- we currently enroll 20 percent of our students from other districts. This equals $1.3 million of our $11 million budget.

 -- Randal Braun, superintendent, Wisconsin

• We have adopted positive behavior intervention and supports in all of our schools, and we have implemented a social-emotional skills curriculum, Second Steps, in K-8. In addition, we have a district school climate committee of teachers, parents, and administrators that runs workshops throughout each year on bullying, mean behavior, harassment, etc. Finally, our board just adopted a very stringent bullying policy that aligns with Connecticut’s new bullying legislation.

 -- Janice M. Jordan, associate superintendent, Connecticut

• We are addressing school climate in many different ways, including adopting social and emotional learning standards and incorporating those standards into our curriculum. Students need to feel safe and comfortable in school in order to achieve their full academic potential. Unfortunately, many of our efforts depend on grant funding that may not always be available. Legislators need to understand that as they ask schools to address more issues, districts need adequate funding to support those efforts.

 -- Jeff Friedman, board member, Alaska