The U.S. Department of Education released estimates last week of the amount of federal funding each state is poised to receive if they opt into the Preschool for All program, part of the Obama Administration’s push to provide pre-k to every low and moderate-income four-year-old in America.
The proposal has been hailed by early education advocates. But like Obama’s previous efforts to increase support for early education, it’s likely to face major roadblocks in Congress, where conservative lawmakers have balked at the idea of spending more money on preschool. The recent proposal comes on the heels of a federal decision in April to direct about $370 million, the majority of funds in the latest round of Race to the Top, to the Early Learning Challenge, a competitive grant process that rewards state for increasing early childhood opportunities.
In order to fund the new $75 billion program, Obama has proposed raising cigarette taxes by 94 cents a pack, which has been met with resistance by the tobacco industry.
Although states like Michigan and Mississippi have recently expanded efforts to improve early childhood education, nationally, preschool has had a shaky year. In March, sequestration cuts reduced funding for Head Start by 5.27 percent, forcing some of the federally funded pre-k centers across the country to end the school year early, reduce spots for children, and fire teachers.
In 2011-12, state spending on pre-k per child dropped in 27 of the 40 states that fund preschool, to its lowest point in 10 years, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). While three states improved in quality according to NIEER standards, seven slid backward. And for the second year in a row, enrollment of four-year-olds in pre-k remained stagnant.
The federal funds proposed under Obama’s latest plan, which vary from $334 million in for California to $2.6 million for North Dakota, come with extensive conditions attached. States would be required to match a percentage of their federal funds each year and meet federal quality guidelines around curriculum and teacher qualifications in order to receive funding. The Obama administration estimates that only 15 states will be approved to receive funding in the first year.
“Not everybody will jump in line right away,” said Helen Blank, Director of Child Care and Early Learning at the National Women’s Law Center, a Washington D.C. based non-profit that advocates for low-income women and their families. Blank said that the new federal funds would be significant enough, and the matching funds would be small enough, to encourage states to create or expand preschool programs that will target the poorest children. “It’s a start for a state that hasn’t been able to invest,” she said.
But some advocates worry that the threat of future costs could deter conservative lawmakers in many states, especially those with the fewest preschool offerings and the highest numbers of children in poverty, from participating in the federal program. “I think that there are a lot of folks who are nervous about agreeing to that and creating an obligation of that size for their successors,” said Catriona Macdonald, campaign manager for the First Five Years Fund, a non-profit aimed at expanding early childhood opportunities. Despite research that has found preschool to be beneficial, states like Texas, which has refused federal funding for education, and those like Montana, which still do not fund pre-k, are also expected to opt-out.
Studies have shown that the first five years in a child’s life are crucial to a child’s educational success, and children who start behind often stay behind. Children from low-income homes often have less access to books and learning materials, and hear fewer words than children with a higher socioeconomic status.
In April, legislators in Mississippi, the state with the highest child poverty rate in the nation, passed its first pre-k bill, which will go into effect this year. The program will serve about 12 percent of four-year-olds in the state by providing $8 million in funding over the next three to five years to pre-k programs that can meet new and rigorous guidelines around teacher qualifications and curriculum, and raise half the cost of their programs.
But unlike every other Southern state, with the exception of Alabama, its law does not prioritize seats for low-income students or English language learners. In 2008, one out of every 14 kindergarteners and one out of every 15 first graders in the state was deemed unprepared for the next grade-level, which many early childhood advocates believe could be helped by a better early childhood system and more federal support.
Although Mississippi would only be required to provide $2.1 million as a match to receive federal funding, Obama’s program intends for states to assume more financial responsibility and oversight over the course of 10 years. “I think that is going to be the stumbling block for Mississippi’s decisions,” said Cathy Grace, director of the Early Childhood Institute at Mississippi State University. “As the match increases, then that will put more burden on the state,” she said.
Reactions to the federal proposal have been mixed across the country, and within the parties. Some conservative lawmakers fear that the program will waste money and invite too much government control over how states run preschool programs. Others have cited a controversial Head Start study released in December, which found that by the end of first grade, positive effects of the pre-k program had mostly disappeared.
In Tennessee, Rep. Bill Dunn, a Republican and critic of pre-k programs, said that the state should ignore the federal offer according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. In West Virginia, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, welcomed the federal support, saying that the funding would help the state’s current efforts to improve its extensive pre-k program, according to The Charleston Gazette.
On Tuesday, Mississippi Sen. Brice Wiggins, a Republican, showed support for the federal proposal while speaking at an event in Washington, D.C. Wiggins, who sponsored the pre-k legislation in Mississippi that was recently signed into law, stated that pre-k is a “bipartisan issue” that is crucial to academic success and economic growth. This year, Republican governors in six states, and Democratic governors in two states, have proposed or signed laws supporting pre-k, according to The Mississippi Press.
Federal lawmakers tantalized the education community this week with a new proposal to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which nearly everyone in the education community agrees is long overdue for an update.
But the likelihood of passage seems bleak given a divided Congress. Just two days after Democratic senators released their bill, Republicans put forward one of their own that has some commonalities, but differs on many important particulars from the Democratic proposal. As The New York Times put it, “The bill faces an uphill climb.”
Here is a recap of what the two bills include, and reaction from different corners of the education world.
In The Huffington Post, Harkin’s bill, known as the “Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013,” was described as having a “softer version” of the annual proficiency targets that have so frustrated schools. (By next year, every child in America was supposed to have scored at the proficient level in math and reading, something that the nation’s schools are far from achieving.) Under the Harkin proposal, states will have to show “continuous improvement.”
The Post writes: “States can choose between three models of accountability to accomplish that improvement. It would also require states to implement teacher and principal evaluations that rely in part on student achievement, as defined by states.”
The bill also reduces the focus on standardized testing. States could use alternatives, like portfolios, to have students demonstrate proficiency instead.
Education Week published a more detailed bullet list of what the Harkin bill does. Here are excerpts:
• The bill keeps in place the four improvement models created under the School Improvement Grant program. But it would add another option, “whole school reform”, which allows for using turnaround programs with a super-strong evidence base.
• Schools would have to adopt standards that prepare students for post-secondary education or the workforce, but those standards would not necessarily have to be the same as the Common Core State Standards.
• States would have to create uniform report cards for every school that provide clear information about things like trends in academic achievement over a three-year period, and a rundown of how the school performs on state tests in each subject relative to the state average.
• In order to tap Title II dollars, districts and states would have to do teacher evaluations based in part on student outcomes, including achievement and growth. Other measures, such as educator observations, would also have to factor in.
• The bill doesn’t wholesale adopt universal prekindergarten. Harkin is likely to introduce a separate bill that would include a broader pre-kindergarten proposal.
Republicans on the Senate education committee did not embrace the new bill. A spokesman for Sen. Lamar Alexander of Texas was quoted in Education Week as saying that he “believes that the U.S. Department of Education has become so congested with federal mandates that it has, in effect, become a national school board and that the Harkin bill makes this congestion worse.”
From Education Week, excerpts from bulleted list describing Alexander’s bill:
• The Alexander bill would eliminate the provision on “highly qualified” teachers, and allow states to use Title II to develop teacher evaluation systems that take into account student outcomes, but it wouldn’t be a requirement.
• The Alexander bill includes a public-school choice option, which would allow federal Title I dollars to follow a child to any public school they want, but not to a private school or for outside options like tutoring.
•The Alexander bill includes really specific language saying the U.S. Secretary of Education can’t require districts to adopt certain tests, standards, or accountability systems.
•The Alexander bill would get rid of maintenance of effort, which requires districts to keep up their own spending at a certain level in order to tap federal funds.
The teachers unions, perhaps not surprisingly, seemed pleased with the Democratic bill, as were groups like the Education Trust, an advocacy group focused on the achievement gap. “This is a big improvement,” Kate Tromble, the group’s director of legislative affairs, told Education Week.
Michael Petrilli, vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank, said Harkin’s “claims of flexibility” were “laughable,” however.
In terms of what will happen in actual classrooms in the coming year, the action—or inaction—in Washington, D.C. around the legislation may not make much difference. The Washington Post reminds us that, given the stalemate in Congress, the Obama administration has already been busy working around the current NCLB requirements on its own, so that states won’t face punishments when they fail to reach the 100 percent proficiency targets for 2014:
“With Congress unable to agree on a new law, the Obama administration in 2011 began issuing waivers to states to free them from the requirements of No Child Left Behind. In exchange for waivers, states were required to adopt President Obama’s preferred education reforms.”
For decades, public workers, including teachers, have been promised pensions and health care benefits when they retire. As more baby boomers do so, states are starting to pay out – and coming to grips with the fact that they’ve negotiated themselves into a fiscal crisis.
A new report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank, looks at three school districts – Milwaukee Public Schools, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and the School District of Philadelphia – to see how prepared, or ill-prepared, they are to deal with making good on their financial promises.
The research found large differences in what the impact of retirements would be on school districts’ budgets over the next decade, which reflects a larger pattern of variation across states. Even Milwaukee, the district with the best projections, faces large costs. The paper also highlights a problematic truth of these guaranteed retiree benefits: someone must pay for them, whether it’s school districts, taxpayers or younger teachers.
Pension and retiree health care benefits are a staple of teachers union demands. Throughout a teacher’s career, the employer pays into a pension fund. In some places, the teacher doesn’t need to make any contributions. After retiring, teachers receive pension payments that are based on their years of service and final salary and which are often adjusted for inflation. Because many teachers retire in their 50s, before being eligible for Medicare, unions have also negotiated for school districts to cover the health care of retirees.
As of 2010, the difference between what states had promised to their public employees and what they had reserved to actually pay for these costs was $1.38 trillion, according to an analysis from the Pew Charitable Trusts. In all, states will have to pay out more than $3 trillion. Audits of the Los Angeles Unified School District estimated that the school system’s future health care benefits costs for retirees would be $5 billion. For the Fresno Unified School District, the costs were predicted to be $1.1 billion – double the district’s annual operating budget.
Critics have suggested that problems faced by pension funds have been overstated, and that the picture is rosier than depicted by the conservative groups in particular that have raised alarms about public pensions.
The Fordham study, The Big Squeeze: Retirement Costs and School-District Budgets, found the most dire situation to be in Philadelphia, where researchers estimated the school district will have to pay $2,361 per pupil on retirement costs by 2020, up $1,923 from its current level. In a best-case scenario, the system would have to cut classroom instruction by $62.4 million and instructional support by $14.7 million.
“They’re faced with this catastrophic situation,” said Robert Costrell, a pension expert from the University of Arkansas who worked on the analysis. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed legislation that would overhaul the state’s pension plan, but it has yet to gain momentum in the legislature. “It’s very surprising,” Costrell said. “There are still some who will bury their heads in the sand.”
Costrell said he was also surprised by Milwaukee, but pleasantly so. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial 2011 Budget Repair Bill that significantly weakened labor in the state required employees to contribute to their own pension funds. The legislation also prevented teachers unions from using collective bargaining to determine retiree health benefits. Districts can now determine those on their own. Milwaukee Public Schools will be implementing large changes, including increasing eligibility requirements and reducing subsidies for premiums beginning in July.
The changes will actually drop Milwaukee’s pension costs from $1,029 per student to $845 in 2020, Fordham researchers projected. The cost of retiree health care will rise $248 per pupil in that time to $1,079.
Ohio also recently took steps to address its pension problems. Legislation passed in 2012 will keep retirement costs per pupil fairly constant over the next decade at about $1,200. But the state chose a reform that essentially requires young employees to pay for the pensions and health care of their older, retiring peers.
Costrell noted that if a private company set up a retirement structure like that, it would be forced to forfeit tax benefits because it’s illegal to take money out of the paychecks of younger workers for the benefits of their older peers. “That raises huge issues going forward,” he said.
Much to the frustration of many education reformers, another state could retreat from the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.
A bill was introduced in Michigan this week that would end funding for the standards, meant to increase rigor in English and math classrooms across the nation so that students are more prepared for college, and the tests that go with them. Other states, including Alabama and Indiana, have also tried to peddle backward after adopting the new standards. (An effort in Alabama to stop implementation failed; one in Indiana to slow implementation succeeded.)
Still, most states are plowing ahead. The resistance so far has come from right-wing conservative groups who fear federal overstepping because the Obama administration, although not involved in the creation of the Common Core, has been a cheerleader for the adoption of new, more rigorous standards and offered federal incentives for states to adopt them. The standards still enjoy a wide coalition of proponents, which included teachers unions and right-leaning think tanks like the Thomas Fordham Institute.
Next year, as Common Core hits classrooms—and as many schools grapple with how to handle the new standards along with new teacher evaluations and the new standardized tests coming online in a couple of years—that coalition may be tested, however.
Already, presidents of the two national teachers unions have called for states to wait before connecting school and teacher accountability to the new standards. The unions say this is only prudent to make sure implementation is fair and teacher buy-in is assured, although some proponents of the standards have accused the unions of backing down on their support.
More interesting, perhaps, will be watching how districts, principals and teachers react to the standards once they go into effect in classrooms. Some high school English teachers are already concerned they will have to reduce their focus on literature to make room for the inclusion of nonfiction informational texts called for by the standards. And content experts have worried about more esoteric issues, such as how much algebra is covered by the standards and how the concepts of geometry are presented.
The Hechinger Report will be reporting from classrooms in the next year to determine how teaching is changing and how any problems are being worked out–or not, so stay tuned!
Since our last batch of awards in March, we’ve picked up several more.
- Our “Mississippi Learning” series won a New York press Club Award for continuing coverage by an online outlet.
- Sara Neufeld’s series on reform efforts at Quitman Street Community School in Newark, N.J. won First Place in the series category in the Garden State Journalists Association’s Memorial Journalism Awards.
- Sara Neufeld’s series on the Quitman school also won First Place for Online Feature Reporting from the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists. The same series won Second Place in the Online Series Reporting category.
- Sarah Garland and Sarah Carr, along with The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune reporters Andrew Vanacore and Mark Waller, won first place for Public/Community Service Reporting in the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press Managing Editors Awards for their Grading the Grader series.
- Contributing Editor Jon Marcus was a finalist for the Newspaper or Digital Beat Reporting Award from the Deadline Club.
The current debate between business-minded reformers like Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York and former Washington, D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee and their critics has often been set up as a fight over whether policymakers should tackle poverty or not as they attempt to improve student achievement.
Last week, Michael Petrilli, vice president at the Fordham Institute, usually found staunchly on the side of reformers who support charter schools and more accountability for schools and teachers, seemed to call for a truce. In a panel at the annual Education Writers Association conference at Stanford University (which I moderated), he suggested that No Excuses reformers were softening their schools-only approach.
The research both sides rely on—dating back to James Coleman’s famous federally-commissioned study on educational opportunity in the sixties—suggests that the largest factors affecting how a child performs in school have to do with his or her family circumstances. These out-of-school factors include parent education levels, poverty status, being part of a group that has faced discrimination, and neighborhood conditions, among other important but sociologically complex characteristics.
Schools have a smaller role to play, according to the research. But the current crop of reformers has insisted that with the right tools and strategies, schools might trump the disadvantages of poverty, minority-status, and less-educated parents. This belief in the power of good schools to disrupt the cycle of poverty has partly fueled the recent movement to overhaul the teaching profession so that the quality of teachers—the biggest factor impacting students inside schools—can be improved particularly for disadvantaged students.
Critics of this school-focused approach, including Diane Ravitch, the historian and former assistant U.S. secretary of education, have argued that schools should not be expected to go it alone. Rather, they argue, policymakers should devote more attention and resources to attacking the societal problems that set up children to fall behind their peers in the first place.
Previously, among the reformers, there was a concern that talking too much about the problems of poverty would allow schools to wash their hands of responsibility for their students’ success or failure. Now, Petrilli suggested, people on his side are taking a second look at this assumption.
“We need to stop having these extreme arguments, between ‘No excuses!’ on one side and ‘It’s all about poverty!’ on the other,” he wrote today in a blog post published on Education Week’s website. “Poverty matters immensely. Schools matter immensely. Let’s get on with addressing both.”
Don’t start the chorus of “Kumbaya” yet, however.
In a responding blog post, Diane Ravitch bristled at the suggestion that she did not believe schools matter.
“I do believe that the dramatic income inequality in this country burdens children, nearly a quarter of whom live in poverty. I do think it is a national scandal that our nation has a higher proportion of children in poverty (about 23%) than any other advanced nation,” she wrote. “But I have never said that schools can do nothing to improve the education of poor children until we redistribute income or raise the minimum wage, etc. I have said and written on many occasions that we must improve schools and improve the lives of children at the same time.”
It might seem that both sides are saying the same thing: To make a real difference in the lives of children who struggle to keep up with their more advantaged peers because of both outside circumstances that hold them back and low quality schools that don’t give them an extra hand to catch up, we should address both problems simultaneously.
But there are still many quibbles about both tone and the substance of what exactly should be done to get such a two-pronged strategy off the ground. In heated blog and email exchanges today, Petrilli, Ravitch and others on both sides of the debate argued about whether teaching disadvantaged children more vocabulary and providing a more enriched curriculum would make up for the educational experiences they lack at home, or whether a more sweeping effort to redistribute resources is critical for reducing the achievement gap for poor children.
There have been a few hints of common ground. Reformers like Petrilli and current D.C. schools chancellor Kaya Henderson have talked lately about the importance of promoting more economic and racial diversity in schools—a subject also dear to advocates who argue more must be done to level the playing field outside of school walls. And Randi Weingarten, president of the second largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, has crossed battle lines to work with reformers on new teacher evaluations and launching the Common Core State Standards.
But should we expect an armistice in the education reform war in the near future? Maybe not.
The United Federation of Teachers wraps up an election today that will likely see the return of president Michael Mulgrew. It has been a difficult tenure, however.
Nationally, unions and many of the policies they support are under fire like never before from former allies in the Democratic Party as well as traditional political foes. Locally, Mulgrew has fought with Mayor Michael Bloomberg over school closings, charter schools and teacher evaluations.
Although Mulgrew will likely coast to victory, Cramer noted that there are still “a lot of teachers who are unhappy with how things have gone in the last couple of years.” Nevertheless, the union—the largest teachers union local in the country—will probably maintain its “enormous amount of influence” in the city as mayoral candidates vie for its support and endorsement.
For more about the sources of union’s influence and how it’s likely to wield power in the future, check out the link on SchoolBook for the interview in its entirety.
An ongoing argument raging across the country over whether student test score gains are a fair way to gauge a teacher’s skill has hit the courts.
In what may be among the first of many lawsuits over the new evaluations—which have been adopted by multiple states—the Florida teachers union is challenging the state’s use of test scores in decisions about which teachers are fired and which receive pay raises. The Florida Education Association argues the system violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection and due process clauses.
The debate over the new systems has often centered on the frequent errors in what’s known as value-added measurement, which can lead to effective teachers being misidentified as ineffective, and whether the potential problems for teachers outweigh the potential benefits for students.
A new paper published this week explores both sides.
Ratings for teachers based on test scores get it wrong a lot of the time. Dan Goldhaber of the University of Washington-Bothell, and Susanna Loeb, of Stanford University, review previous research that finds about a quarter of teachers are likely to be misidentified as ineffective when they’re in fact effective using the test score measures.
“The error rates,” they write, “appear to be quite high.”
And yet, the researchers argue that using test scores to make high-stakes decisions about teachers’ jobs is actually a more accurate method than previous systems, which often depended on cursory classroom observations, pass rates on licensure tests, and degrees earned.
“Flawed as they are, value-added measures appear to be better predictors of student achievement than the teacher characteristics that we currently use,” the researchers write.
What to do? Goldhaber and Loeb, as researchers are wont to do, suggest more research. But they also lay out some of the trade-offs that policymakers (and now the courts) should consider.
Is firing some teachers who may not deserve to be fired worth it if it ensures more bad teachers leave the classroom and more students have the opportunity to sit in the classroom of a good teacher?
Will increasing accountability, especially if the systems are viewed as unfair, have the unintended effect of reducing collaboration among teachers and scaring away good candidates from the profession?
Will the new evaluations prompt schools of education and districts to better train teachers, or will the newly-identified struggling teachers still be left to flounder?
Finally, the researchers ask, “How will the system handle legal challenges?”
At issue in Florida are not the error rates, but the fact that teachers are receiving ratings based on test scores of students or subjects they don’t teach. “This lawsuit highlights the absurdity of the evaluation system,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, in a statement.
Goldhaber and Loeb argue that for the most part, courts will probably defer to states and districts on the new evaluations, recognizing “that value-added measures are intended to improve those systems.” But they also say that the outcome of lawsuits will depend on whether “the state or district can demonstrate that the evaluation system in question was thoughtfully designed and consistent with sound educational principles.”
“Ultimately,” the researchers conclude, “employment decisions need only be based on evaluation systems that are sufficiently valid, not perfect.”
Sarah Carr, a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report, went on NBC’s Education Nation on Friday to talk about the radical changes to New Orleans’ school landscape since Katrina.
The city has a higher percentage of charter schools than any other since the flood. Education Nation traveled to New Orleans last week to see how the changes are playing out on the ground.
Carr’s panel focused on the rise in the number of teachers coming to the city through alternative programs like Teach For America and the need for holistic reforms that reach parents and the broader community.
As students choose their colleges for next year, Hechinger contributing editor Jon Marcus speaks on Here and Now about whether they can trust the information they receive from admissions offices.
Several have been caught misrepresenting test score and other information to improve the way they look to prospective students and rise up the college rankings. In the past year alone, six top colleges and universities have admitted falsifying information sent to the U.S. Department of Education, their own accrediting agencies, and U.S. News & World Report, whose college rankings remain the nation’s most prominent. Another was caught the year before.
For many of the schools, the misrepresentations had gone on for years. One law school has also been fined, another has been placed on probation by its accrediting agency, and 15 others have faced lawsuits for fraud, unfair competition, and false advertising for allegedly misreporting graduates’ job-placement rates.