August 29, 2011
Newest Race to the Top Prioritizes Public Rating Systems and Assessment
Just after a 5.8 earthquake rocked Washington, D.C., last week, the Obama administration unveiled the state application criteria for the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge and what it views as the most important components of effective state early learning and development programs. Top among these are public rating systems to help families select the best programs for their children. The $500 million competition, which is jointly run by the education and health and human services departments, is intended to help more high-need children—including those from low-income families—enter kindergarten ready to succeed.
The competition promises to be fierce. Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia have already expressed an interest in applying, but the department will reward only a handful of states with grants ranging from $50 to $100 million.
Just as the original Race to the Top competition was organized around four assurances, this competition will evaluate state applications according to five key reform areas on a 300-point scale:
- Successful State Systems (65 points): The state demonstrates a commitment to early learning and has the necessary capacity and coordination to implement its plan.
- High-Quality, Accountable Programs (75 points): The state will adopt a common set of early learning program standards and establish a meaningful program rating system that families can use to make decisions about which programs best meet their children’s needs.
- Promoting Early Learning and Development Outcomes for Children (60 points): The state will develop common standards and assessments that measure child outcomes, address behavioral and health needs, and inform and support families.
- A Great Early Childhood Education Workforce (40 points): The state will define a set of workforce competencies and provide early childhood educators with professional development; career advancement opportunities; differentiated compensation; and incentives to improve their knowledge, skills, and abilities.
- Measuring Outcomes and Progress (40 points): The state will use data to improve early learning instruction and services and assess kindergarten readiness.
States can earn bonus points for publicly rating all of their early education programs and for having a high-quality kindergarten entry assessment.
Early childhood experts have questioned the competition's emphasis on assessment, fearing it could lead to high-stakes testing of young children, make unfair employment decisions for early educators based on test results, and detract from the importance of play and exploratory learning.
In response to such concerns, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, "We will never ask three-year-olds to take bubble tests…that would just be ludicrous." He added that the assessments should be used to evaluate children’s progress and help improve programs.
Applications are due October 19, and four-year grants will be awarded at the end of December. To help states navigate the application, the Department of Education will host a webinar on September 1 and an all-day technical assistance session for state teams on September 13.
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Educators Blast Secretary with Tough Questions During Twitter Town Hall
Thousands of educators submitted questions to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as part of his first-ever #AskArne Twitter Town Hall. Many of the questions revealed deep frustration and even hostility over the perception that the Department of Education fails to listen to teachers and over-emphasizes standardized testing to the detriment of student learning.
Moderator and education journalist John Merrow chose the toughest and best questions for his 40-minute Q&A with Secretary Duncan, which covered everything from cheating scandals to the administration's stance on vouchers.
Here are some nuggets from the Q&A:
- Is the secretary overstepping his role with attempts to fix No Child Left Behind? Duncan replied that he believes No Child Left Behind (NCLB) provides states, districts, and schools with too many ways to fail and not enough opportunities for rewards. Because Congress has failed to fix the law in a timely manner, he plans to introduce his NCLB waiver plan for states in mid-September. And in response to criticism that his expected waiver requirements could levy even more federal control over education, he vehemently disagreed, saying his goal is to decrease the federal footprint and provide states with more autonomy in exchange for raising standards and doing what should be done.
- Does Duncan listen to teachers? Duncan said he listens to teachers on a daily basis through the department's Teaching Ambassador Fellowship Program, weekly school visits, conference calls, and more. But he admitted he doesn't follow any teachers on Twitter, claiming he's a Twitter novice and needs to do a better job.
- How much is too much testing? The secretary answered that he thinks devoting 10 school days a year to standardized testing is too much, and although some schools and districts spend the right amount of time on testing and testing preparation, others go overboard. In addition, he believes we need to shift our focus from absolute test scores to growth over time.
- What’s the secretary’s view on vouchers? Duncan said he will never support vouchers because they funnel money from our public school system, which needs more money, not less.
- How should we evaluate and pay teachers? Duncan responded that he believes we should evaluate teachers and principals according to a variety of measures that include?but aren't limited to?student performance on tests. Moreover, he thinks paying teachers based on performance is a good idea as long as it's voluntary and incorporates measures like graduation rates, success at the next step, attendance rates, and school culture. He also believes we can improve respect for the profession by paying teachers more?from $60,000 up to $150,000.
- How can we improve teacher preparation? Duncan said that this fall, the Department of Education will release ideas for improving teacher preparation programs that will, among other things, address two main critiques that new teachers have shared about their preparation: 1) lack of on-the-ground experience in challenging classrooms, and 2) lack of instruction related to administering ongoing, formative assessments and adjusting their teaching strategies accordingly.
Duncan mentioned that he is interested in organizing another Twitter Town Hall, preferably in the evening so that even more educators can participate.
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Feedback Wanted on Common Core Draft Content Frameworks
The two state consortia designing assessments aligned to the common core state standards are seeking public feedback on draft documents that provide an initial idea of how the new standards might be taught in the classroom and measured on tests.
The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is asking for input on its draft content frameworks for English language arts and math by this Wednesday, August 31. Meanwhile, the first round of feedback on the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium's draft content specifications (PDF) for English language arts is due today. A second round of feedback will be sought next month. SMARTER Balanced is expected to release its draft specifications for math sometime today and wants input on these by September 19.
Both sets of documents highlight key concepts from the standards and provide a bridge from the standards themselves to the instructional materials, professional development, and ultimately tests that will measure student mastery of the standards.
Consortia leaders believe the documents can guide district development of curricula aligned with the common core, as well as teacher planning and collaboration on specific units of study. They also provide initial cues to test makers who are waiting to submit proposals to build the common core testing systems.
- For regular updates on the common core state standards, sign up for ASCD's new Core Connection e-newsletter, which will launch in the coming weeks.
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Application Deadline Looms for 2011 Promise Neighborhoods Grants
Just over one week remains to submit applications for the Department of Education's 2011 Promise Neighborhoods grant program. Nonprofits, higher education institutions, and American Indian tribes are eligible to compete for the $30 million in funds to help distressed urban and rural neighborhoods build a comprehensive continuum of education programs and family services to boost student learning.
The department expects to award four to six implementation grants ranging from $4 to $6 million and a second round of 10 one-year planning grants of about $500,000 each.
The new implementation grants can be used to coordinate education, health, and safety services; increase family engagement in student learning; improve learning inside and outside of school; secure additional and sustainable funding sources; and establish data systems to record and share the community's progress.
Applications are due September 6, and winners will be selected by the end of the year.
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