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AAE Federal Update August 31, 2011
posted by: Alix | August 31, 2011, 03:18 PM   

Department of Education Releases Final Guidelines for Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge

Following 2010's federal Race to the Top competitive grant program, the Department of Education has once again flagged an estimated $700 million for an additional round of state-level grants. This year, the Obama administration plans to focus the majority of the funds on the nation's youngest students with their Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge. The final guidelines of the program were released last week.

The funding will be issued based on individual state-based plans to implement five key early education reforms including:
  • Establishing Successful State Systems
  • Defining High-Quality, Accountable Programs
  • Promoting Early Learning and Development Outcomes for Children
  • Supporting a Great Early Childhood Education Workforce
  • Measuring Outcomes and Progress

While the prospect of creating tests for pre-school aged children may seem complicated and perhaps unrealistic, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan emphasized that the assessments will not be comparable to classic standardized tests. In an interview this week, Duncan elaborated, "We will never ask 3-year-olds to take bubble tests. That would just be ludicrous."

While some early learning advocates are calling the program a step in the right direction for preparing young children for learning and the classroom environment, others see the focus on measurements of any kind too extreme. Executive Director of National Head Start Association Yasmina Vinci stressed that "children develop at very different rates, young children especially." Other experts argue that while collecting data and information on child development is critical, assessments should not be used to classify children at such early ages.

Despite the controversy, states eager for funding are expected to apply for the funds via lengthy proposals aimed at outlining their early childhood plans and their state's track record and prior commitments to early learning. The proposals are due October 19, and the winners will be announced sometime in December.

Mapping State Standards

The Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), an organization part of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), released a report last week comparing the difficulty of state proficiency standards in reading and mathematics using the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scale as a measuring benchmark.

Currently, each individual state develops its own state assessments in reading and math and sets its own proficiency standard.  As a result, states vary widely in the standards set for students.  By using NAEP as a guide, the standards were compared.

Among the interesting findings:

  • Most states' proficiency standards were at or below NAEP's definition of "Basic" performance.
  • For those states that had made substantive changes in their assessments between 2007 and 2009, most (62%) moved toward more rigorous standards, as measured by NAEP.
  • For those states that had made substantive changes in their assessments between 2005 and 2009, more showed decreases (51%) than increases (32%) in the rigor of their standards, as measured by NAEP.

After reviewing the report, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for tougher standards in the year ahead. "I am optimistic that states will continue to increase the rigor of their standards. Over the past two years, 44 states and the District of Columbia have adopted standards that are designed to prepare students for success in college and careers."

Click here
to read the full report with an interactive map.

Congressional Republicans Call Duncan's Action on NCLB a 'Backdoor Education Reform Agenda'

Since the 112th Congress began eight months ago, the Republican-controlled House Committee on Education and the Workforce has  made what they have called "great progress" on advancing a series of reform bills to overhaul current elementary and secondary education law.

Since session began, the committee has approved three strategic pieces of legislation designed to reduce federal barriers, encourage innovation, and encourage charter schools. After the summer recess, Chairman John Kline (R-MN) has plans to complete this package of reforms with legislation that improves teacher effectiveness and modernizes the law's outdated accountability system.

While these bills have been pushed through committee, they were not heard on the floor for full House consideration, coming short of the Obama administration's summer deadline for NCLB re-authorization.

With summer wrapping up, the Department of Education was determined to provide regulatory relief in exchange for reform, a step congressional Republicans see as a way to "override Congressional efforts to reform the law and enact a backdoor education agenda."Committee members see Duncan's plan to offer NCLB waivers in exchange for reform as rooted not in the law or traditional congressional action, but in the secretary's own education agenda.

In response, the Department of Education has maintained that while they have given plenty of time for action on overhauling the outdated law, they have yet to see meaningful results. Since the plan was unveiled, nearly fifteen states have indicated they are interested in applying for waivers.

USDA Clarifies Costs Districts Can Charge to School Cafeterias

After years of confusion, cross-billing, and increased costs to students and families, this summer the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued rules to clarify the kinds of costs that districts can and cannot bill to their separately controlled cafeterias.

Under the new rules and regulations, districts are given guidelines on billing for school food programs for utilities, trash collection, and janitors, among other services, that are intended to eliminate variation from one district to the next and keep costs in check. The USDA got the authority to create the rules under 2010's Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the answer to years of requests from food-service directors for regulation of these indirect costs.

"Nationally, it has become an issue just because of the fact that school budgets are so tight. Districts want to maintain a high level of education for their students-that being an education institution priority-so they would try to maximize whatever funds they can get that's allowable," said former School Nutrition Association (SNA) President Dora Rivas.

A 2006 survey of about 1,000 school districts by the SNA found that 52 percent of districts were charging their food-service programs for indirect costs. Under the unchecked system, SNA argues, districts can potentially charge too much for these services, there is then less money to pay for food programs' main purpose: school meals.

Also, providing school meals is likely to become more expensive if new nutrition standards proposed by the USDA are adopted. The standards, also authorized by the school nutrition law, would require serving more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. 

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