Archive | September 2013

New Officer in the Education Department

The Education Department has named Jamienne S. Studley as a deputy under secretary of education.  A former president of Skidmore College and a former top lawyer for the U.S. Department of Education, her job will be to help implement President Obama’s higher education plan, aimed at accountability, accessibility, and affordability.

The plan itself has been highly criticized and reviewed.  The president has asked that students attending higher ranked schools can obtain more federal funding than students who attend lower ranked institutions (see this link for a general overview) . Regardless of the plan, I am interested in what her new position actually entails, and how successful the education department may be in receiving funding.

According to the highly reputable wikipedia, the office of the Under Secretary of Education is “responsible for helping to implement the Secretary’s Action Plan for Higher Education, which calls for expanding the accessibility, affordability, and accountability of higher education for more Americans.”

So Ms. Studley, as deputy, is responsible for implementing the secretary’s action plan.  A further look at wikipedia reveals that her job is primarily to focus “on K–12 education policy, such as No Child Left Behind, the High School Initiative, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  The Deputy Secretary also has responsibility for carrying out the intergovernmental relations of the Department.”  However, she will be working with the Higher Ed system and the disparity in socio-economic status of students at universities, and not just the K-12 education system, though that also needs serious reform.

She is seen as a gunner, but someone who can play fair – the President and his staff believe she can play the middle ground to get things done in Congress.  But what vexes me is how the budget crisis funnels in to this.   If the government shutdown occurs next week, which is incredibly likely, the Washington Post predicts that the Education Department will lose 94% of its funding.  That is enough to keep a grand total of 212 employees working on processing paperwork and distributing money already allocated for October 1.  Other than that, it seems nigh impossible that any money will be trickling down to the education department for the new plan.  So how will Studley be able to make moves if she can’t get money?  Something to keep an eye out for.

Erica M


To Watch: The South Carolina Read to Succeed Act

Change could be on the horizon for the South Carolina educational system? In January, the Read to Succeed Act, proposed by South Carolina State Senator Harvey Peeler, will be up for debate. The proposed act would restructure the curriculum taught in South Carolina elementary schools to focus on reading development using a variety of mandates. The Read to Succeed Act would require 3rd graders who cannot read at the appropriate grade level to be held back. These held back 3rd graders would then partake in an intensive summer reading program. The students who demonstrate reading proficiency by Nov. 1 will then be allowed to proceed to the 4th grade. In addition, the Read to Succeed Act would create a Reading Proficiency Panel, a panel of education experts that would oversee literary programs and establish the best practices for elementary schools to follow. Current teachers in the South Carolina school districts would be required to go back to school to learn how to teach reading and a Read to Succeed Office would be created to facilitate their training.

However, these new requirements are stirring lots of debate within the South Carolina education community and are heavily opposed by some South Carolina teachers and educational organizations. The head of the South Carolina Education Association, Jackie Hicks, believes that the state’s educational issues are due to underfunding and lack of resources. She believes that if the necessary tools aren’t provided to the South Carolina elementary schools, then the changes proposed by the Read to Succeed Act will be “doomed to failure”. South Carolina Department of Education’s Superintendent Mick Zais is also opposed to the proposed act. It would cause the restructuring of the Department of Education and create additional boards which he finds to be useless and “unaccountable”. School administrators such as Jason McCreary, a director of accountability and quality assurance for Greenville County Schools do not support the act because they believe they have found successful formulas for improving reading already. Instead of very strict reform, McCreary suggest having a “broad discussion” about currently successful South Carolina literacy programs.

Harry Peeler and the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee believe the mandates of the Read to Succeed Act are necessary to establish change and have already began to gather support for the bill. Earlier this year, the South Carolina legislature allocated $1.5 million for the formation of a summer school reading program. The Education Oversight has reached out to and gain support from Clemson University and several local charities. Now the bill sits ready to go before the South Carolina Senate along with a similar bill in the House.

It will be interesting to see if the proposed Read to Succeed Act will maintain its original mandates. Elections for the South Carolina House and Senate will be occurring next year and educators and politicians have very different opinions on the bill. The Read to Succeed Act would also force teachers to return to school and would possible have to pay for their re-education with their own funds. The divisions caused by the bill will definitely affect voting during the next election unless concessions are made.

-Arthur Townsend

Education Spending Reform: Possibility or Pipe Dream?

When talking about the sequester cuts, national attention seems to be directed at the “big” issues, especially national defense.  And while I’ll grant that it is undoubtedly important to be prepared for any type of military emergency, no matter how unlikely, more attention needs to be given to the impacts of the sequester that affect us every day, including cuts to education spending.  Though the exact effects vary by state, the sequester has generally cut funding for poor and special education students, decreased Head Start enrollment, slashed after-school programs, caused class sizes to increase, cut financial aid for college students, and caused thousands of job losses among teachers and administrators.  A recent article in the Huffington Post described an elementary school teacher in Michigan swamped with phone calls about cuts to school programs including specialized math, reading, and writing help sessions and the loss of speech therapists, counselors, and teachers devoted solely to kids with special needs.

Unfortunately, the conversation over government spending is mired in debate over military spending and the funding of Obamacare, and does not appear to be reaching a sustainable conclusion.  Debt ceiling negotiations and foreign policy are also likely to eat into Congress’ time this fall, further pushing the important subject of education spending to the back burner.  Education spending has been stagnant since 2008, and is in need of overhaul if these problems are to be solved.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Appropriations and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committees, is currently drafting a sweeping education reform bill based on President Obama’s prekindergarten initiative, which may receive floor time in the Senate this fall.  However, the bill is likely to carry $1.3 billion in spending increases with it, which will not garner much support from Republicans looking to trim federal spending wherever they can.  Put simply, unless the bill’s funding is cut back so much that it is rendered nearly useless, it is unlikely to come anywhere near to becoming a law.

So is it possible that Congress could pass an effective bill anytime in the near future?  Barring an unexpected upturn in the economy, the answer is probably no.  Any proposed bill is likely to come from Democrats and be significantly left of the point needed to overturn a filibuster and pass the House.  The only hope is for our lawmakers to ignore the fiscal implications of any such bill and pass it.  Education has one of the greatest returns of any investment one can make, and a comprehensive education spending bill, if implemented correctly, could very easily pay for itself in the long run, increasing American innovation and competitiveness in high-tech, high-skill sectors.

-Chris Gibson

Decision Time for NEA: Students or Teachers?

With the start of a new academic year, the National Education Association (NEA) has begun to promote its new initiatives and practices, which aim to improve public schooling standards in the United States. “Raise Your Hand for Public Education” is one of these initiatives that strives to achieve this goal with input from educators, rather than lobbyists or politicians. “We want to harness the passion of our members – professionals who were drawn to this field because of their creativity and drive to help students – to prepare the next generation of leaders,” said NEA President, Dennis Van Roekel. According to the NEA, “The initiative has identified four simple yet ambitious goals: successful students, accomplished professionals, dynamic collaboration and empowered school leaders.” These are admirable objectives, but the NEA must implement tangible policies in order to meet them.

One such policy is the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which would standardize curricula in participating states in an attempt to homogenize the material taught in public schools in America. On his Back-to-School Tour last week, Van Roekel appealed to NEA members across the country to embrace CCSS: “Even with all the divisiveness surrounding education, 45 states agree on the Common Core State Standards,” he said.  “The Common Core standards will help ensure that all of our students are able to think critically, solve problems and attain global competence. “ Despite these claims, educators have expressed many concerns with CCSS. The most prominent of the issues teachers have with CCSS is that they will cause more schools and teachers to be labeled as incompetent, resulting in punitive action against the parties involved. This debate forces Van Roekel and the NEA to find the proper balance between their stated mission of advocating on behalf of education professionals and the mission of their new initiatives – improving public education for the students.

Developing a precise system for quantifying teacher merit is a longstanding education policy issue, and CCSS may be a solution to this issue, as it is beginning to see success in communities that have enacted early implementation systems. Chippewaw Middle School in Des Plaines, Illinois, one of the stops on Van Roekel’s Back-to-School Tour, has seen great improvements in student performance thanks to CCSS. Lisa Kocis, a literacy and language arts teacher at the school said, “it took a while for everyone to get on board, but we’re already seeing the benefits. Our students are speaking and listening differently, they’re thinking more critically, and they’re on the path to successful learning across the board.” While teachers and schools may be unhappy with the prospect of being rated based on their performance according to CCSS, the additional pressure is inconsequential as long as there is a noted improvement in student performance.

Jeremy Tudin

Lee County, Alabama

Lee County, Alabama, home to Auburn University and a total population of around 140,000, has come to an agreement with the U.S. Education Department on equal access to Advanced Placement courses and high-level learning opportunities for African American students.

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the Education Department announced on September 10th the details of the agreement.   The goal is to ensure that all students, and African American students in particular, are afforded the opportunity to attend AP courses or dual-enrollment classes at the local community college.   According to the article, the school district will:

  • “Develop a comprehensive district-wide plan for addressing the underrepresentation of African American students in AP and higher level courses;
  • Identify any barriers to African American students’ participation in AP and higher level courses, and ensure that African American students have an equal opportunity for participation in the courses;
  • Permit students to participate in distance learning opportunities at schools providing more AP and higher level options;
  • Establish dual-enrollment courses with the local community college for students at the predominantly African American high school and provide transportation for all students who elect to take dual-enrollment courses;
  • Encourage students at all of the district’s elementary, middle, and high schools to aspire to attend college, and to participate in AP and higher level courses.”

The OCR investigated the county under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,which focused on equal opportunities to everyone in programs receiving federal financial assistance.  What the investigation revealed was an incredibly low number of African-American students on the math and science track in 8th grade geared for high school AP sciences or AP calculus.  In contrast, advanced math was offered in the predominantly white middle schools, and students were taking advantage of the opportunities afforded to them.  The predominantly white high schools, consequently offered more higher level classes in almost every department, whereas there were noticeably fewer courses in the predominantly black high schools.

The district is working hand in hand with the OCR to correct this wrong.  This is a first for the OCR, and I personally hope that it succeeds, so that more underrepresented districts can receive the same help from the OCR, and education across the country will be improved.

Erica Michelson

Welcome to Our Blog!

Hello everyone! Welcome to Kindling Flames, our blog on educational reform legislation in Congress. Education is important for building human capital and sustaining a bright future for the US. We would like to keep you informed on what Congress is doing to support the American educational system.

As the semester progresses, we will be adding new post about the US & education on a weekly basis. Look out for our first post coming this week!!

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