States Wrestle With How to Get Good Teachers in All Schools

Ed weekLast year, with much fanfare, the Obama administration declared that it would tackle the tricky issue of equitable teacher distribution, calling on states to revise their plans for making sure that high-poverty schools get their fair share of qualified educators.

Now most states have answered the call, rewriting plans that initially stemmed from requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act.

But it’s an open question whether the work that went into these updated plans­—some of which are more than 100 pages long and include an eye-glazing level of detail—will actually lead to any real progress.

While some states used the opportunity to come up with new ideas for improving teacher quality and distribution, others simply restated or repackaged strategies already underway. Here’s a sampling of some typical–or particularly striking–ideas taken from plans posted on the department’s website:

Florida: Will identify and convene the state’s most effective teachers so that they can help communicate best practices to others.

Idaho: Cited strategies already underway, such as leadership bonuses for teachers. Pledged to explore the feasibility and impact of other ideas, including state-funded loan forgiveness, support for special education paraprofessionals who want to become teachers, and teacher signing bonuses.

Indiana: Identified working conditions as one factor affecting equitable teacher distribution. Promised to survey first-, second-, and third-year teachers and principals to get a sense of how educator preparation can be improved.

Kansas: Touted a plan, already in the works, to bolster mentorship opportunities for the newest teachers. Cited a component of its educator evaluation system to identify teachers’ individual professional learning needs.

Massachusetts: Plans to create school-level reports to show how much exposure students in a particular school have had with teachers who were given a low effectiveness rating, have high rates of absenteeism, have been teaching for less than three years, or aren’t highly qualified.

Missouri: Will work with community members to pinpoint strategies for helping educators navigate the challenge of urban settings. Developing exit surveys to help figure out why teachers leave urban, rural, and/or high-poverty schools.

Nebraska: Promises to increase access to high-quality educators through distance learning programs. Will require its lowest-performing schools to address professional development.

New Jersey: Aims to help address teacher turnover by supporting novice teachers through intensive mentoring.

New York: Pledges to continue providing technical support and training to districts implementing states evaluation system. Will work on bolstering teacher preparation in part by continuing to support programs with a rich clinical component.

Texas: Will develop guidance and tools for local districts to create their own plans for teacher distribution. Will explore strategies to recognize and reward high-performing teachers.


It is still unclear how the U.S. Department of Education will hold states to their promises.

The good news is that, in general, the plans are “definitely richer this time around,” compared to the original batch of nearly a decade ago, said Sonja Brookins Santelises, the vice-president of the Education Trust, an advocacy organization in Washington that focuses on poor and minority students.

The real test will be implementation, she added.

“If a strong plan is put in the cabinet as being done, if a strong plan is not adjusted and monitored and revisited, it’s not going to yield outcomes for kids,” she said.

But the Department’s teacher-equity push, billed as a “50-state strategy” to tackle the long-standing problem of educator distribution, is murky when it comes to how the department will hold states’ feet to the fire, said Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting organization in Washington, who has studied some of the plans.

“I don’t see a lot of hard policy changes coming out of this, either from executive action or legislation,” said Mr. Aldeman, who served in the department earlier in the Obama administration.

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NWEA Launches New Initiative to Examine & Improve Assessment Education for Teachers

nwea_logoThe Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) has announced a new initiative designed to advance teacher preparation and professional development in the use of assessment in teaching and learning. The initiative includes a Task Force that will guide efforts to improve assessment literacy nationwide and the newly expanded website that will provide extensive resources to foster understanding of assessment and its role in learning.

Over the next year, the Task Force will explore how to better equip educators to use informal and formal assessment to inform and advance student learning. The Task Force will include representatives from both pre-service and in-service educators, including teachers, principals, superintendents, college professors, national education organizations, and leaders in assessment education.

Three key advisors will help guide this work – Rick Stiggins, founder and CEO of the Assessment Training Institute; Terri Akey, Co-Director, Center for Research, Evaluation, and Assessment at Education Northwest; and Bernice Stafford, most recently Vice President, Implementation and Education Partnerships at Evans Newton Incorporated and Board Chair at WestEd.

“Assessment is a crucial part of the teaching and learning cycle, and yet many educators aren’t getting the support or preparation they need to use information from assessments to help students succeed,” noted NWEA CEO Matt Chapman. “We are committed to addressing this challenge and identifying the most promising solutions. Assessment literacy is a central component of NWEA’s national agenda.”

Public opinion research conducted in 2014 for NWEA revealed that many teachers feel underprepared to use assessment results to inform their teaching. Simultaneously, district leaders believe that educator preparation programs need to better train teachers to integrate assessment results into instructional practice.

A key hub for this initiative is, a resource center designed to help teachers and administrators understand the different types and purposes of assessments, interpret findings, and apply results effectively in the classroom. It also provides a variety of perspectives, news, and analysis of assessment and its evolving role in K-12 education.

“We as educators are ready for a real conversation about assessment, one that provides our profession with an opportunity to move from frustration to action,” said advisor Rick Stiggins. “The moment is right for this work and we are committed to building better knowledge about assessment and to integrating it into every teacher’s introduction to the profession.”

Members of the Task Force for Assessment Education for Teachers will be announced in early October.

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Obama’s New Federal Financial Aid Rules Allow Earlier Applications

edPresident Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently rolled out a new plan to make the FAFSA (the federal tax form needed to apply for federal student aid for college) quicker, easier, and more accessible to more students. Following is a brief outline, from the White House website, of some of the major changes:

Earlier, Easier Process for Federal Financial Aid: Beginning a year from now, on October 1, 2016, students can apply for financial aid a few months after they and their parents file their 2015 tax returns with reliable information retrieved electronically from the IRS, rather than waiting until the next year’s tax season to finalize their FAFSAs and to learn about their financial aid. Giving students and families the ability to submit their FAFSAs earlier and to use earlier income data, commonly referred to as “prior-prior” year, will have several important benefits:

  • Earlier information: Students and families will get a reliable understanding of their aid eligibility as early as the fall – the same time many high school students are searching for, applying to, and even selecting colleges.
  • Simpler applications: More students and families will be able to complete their FAFSAs using information retrieved electronically directly from the IRS a few months after they and their parents file their 2015 tax returns, reducing the number of applicants who need to estimate income or taxes paid, only to correct their application later.
  • More students receiving Pell Grants and other aid: Over the next several years, the simpler FAFSA filing process could encourage hundreds of thousands of additional students to apply for and claim the aid they are eligible for – and enroll in college.
  • Reduced burden on colleges: In recent years, colleges and universities have spent as many as 3 million total hours each year verifying FAFSA information, including income and other tax return data. These colleges and universities will be able to avoid much of the burden of verifying tax return information when students apply using data retrieved directly from the IRS.

Speaking about the change, Duncan said, “This shift in the time frame may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a huge deal,” he said. It will “open the door to a new world of opportunity” for many students and families “who historically have been locked out.”

President Obama, speaking about the new rules, said, “Students like many of you who want to take that next step, have big dreams. We want you to know we’re here to help you achieve those dreams.”

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Stagnant ACT and SAT Results Demand Educational Improvements

ACT-SATWhile there are certainly shortcomings of the SAT and ACT exams, they are still a benchmark to evaluate the American education system because millions of students take these tests across the nation. The results from 2014 are not good: Only 28 percent of 2015 ACT-tested high school graduates met college-readiness benchmarks in each of the four subjects on the ACT (English, reading, math, and science). Results from the College Board were not much better, with 41.9 percent of SAT takers in the Class of 2015 meeting the SAT college- and career-readiness benchmark. These were the lowest results for the ACT since the new writing section was added in 2006.

When you break the numbers down by race, they look even more grim. On the ACT, in reading, 75 percent of Asian and 75 percent of white students met the college-readiness benchmark, compared to only 47 percent of Pacific Islanders, 47 percent of Hispanics, 39 percent of American Indians, and 34 percent of African Americans. On the SAT, while 61.3 percent of Asian SAT-takers met the SAT college- and career-readiness benchmark and 52.8 percent of white students did so, only 32.7 percent of Native American students, 22.7 percent of Hispanic students, and 16.1 percent of African American students met the benchmark.

The argument could be made that the benchmark levels for college-readiness on these tests are to some extent arbitrary, except that according to previous ACT research, fewer than 20 percent of students who meet none of the benchmarks are likely to earn a two- or four-year college degree within six years. On the other hand, nearly 60 percent of students who meet at least three benchmarks are likely to earn a degree. In other words, we have a pretty good idea from the ACT of which students will graduate from college and which ones will not.

Despite research showing improvements in elementary level math and reading over recent years, somehow, these improvements have not translated to the high school level. Reformers by no means are calling for specific reforms targeted to help students improve on the ACT and the SAT, although the College Board’s alliance with the Khan Academy would seem to be a step in the right direction. Rather, these depressing numbers should remind us of our overall duty to improve American education.

“This should be a wake-up call for our nation,” said ACT Chief Executive Officer Jon Whitmore. “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of U.S. high school graduates who won’t earn a two- or four-year college degree because they aren’t academically prepared to do so. In the increasingly competitive job market, where decent jobs are requiring more advanced skills and training, this is a huge problem.”

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Arne Duncan Stepping Down as Education Secretary

Arne DuncanAt a crucial moment with the best possibility of an ESEA re-authorization on the near horizon and with only about one year left before the end of the Obama administration, long-serving Education Secretary Arne Duncan has stepped down. It is unclear why, but we do know that the President wanted Duncan to finish the course: “I’ll be honest. I pushed Arne to stay,” he said at a televised news conference at the White House Oct. 2. “He’s one of the longest-serving education secretaries in history and one of the more consequential.”

Duncan has certainly been a polarizing figure in education politics and reform over the last 7 years for two main reasons. First, the Education Department was granted a unique opportunity to implement its policies under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This program involved $100 billion for education, which the Administration used to encourage teacher evaluation based on student achievement, college and career ready standards, and most notably Race to the Top, a grant program for school turnaround. Conservatives, although initially supportive, also grew disenchanted with Duncan’s support for Common Core.

Second, because of the inability of Congress to push through a new re-authorization of the ESEA, of which No Child Left Behind is the most recent iteration, the Education Department was left in a situation in which it became the de-facto legislator of education policy. Because the punishments associated with NCLB were starting to come to fruition 10 years after it was passed in 2001-2002 and no states had lived up to the strict standards imposed by the law, the Education Department under Duncan instituted a system of waivers that granted states clemency in return for promises of following education policies favored by the Obama Administration. This is the situation that began to rankle many of the left-leaning education professionals who had initially supported Duncan’s efforts.

Looking back at Duncan’s career as Education Secretary provides a perfect window into U.S. Education policy reform struggles in recent years. Because Duncan has pursued policies across the political spectrum, he has received praise and condemnation from those on both sides of the aisle. And it is in part for this reason, why it is still an open question whether a new education bill will be passed and how much that bill might sweep back some of the changes made by Duncan which granted the Education Department unprecedented powers in American education. It will now be the job of the new Education Secretary, John B. King Jr. (the acting deputy secretary of Education with a background in New York State education administration), to navigate the education waters for the remainder of the Obama Administration.

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Is There a Market in the United States for a Strong Instructional Core?

ncee-logo-tagline1Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy wants the U.S. to reform the way that it approaches its instructional core. By this, he means “the combination of state-mandated standards, curriculum frameworks, course syllabi, instructional materials, and tests and examinations that together define and measure what students are taught.”

Tucker’s recommendations, like his other education reform efforts, are largely based on decades of international comparisons. First and foremost, the U.S. is quite different from other countries in that we do not have national standards and aligned curriculum and testing created and monitored by the government. The U.S. usually does not have this even at the state level. Even other countries that do rely on corporations to create standards, curriculum, and assessments still often have government officials placed in important positions within those corporations or at least working closely with those corporations.

Most U.S. states have made a recent attempt at inter-state agreement through the  Common Core State Standards, but as the standards become increasingly politicized, state commitment is weakening. Some states also are engaging in multi-state assessment consortia. But Tucker has major questions about the decisions made with regard to these assessments in an attempt to keep the price down. In most countries, tests cost a lot more because they are essay-based and require humans to carefully grade them. Essays allow for a lot more in terms of a more complete understanding of student achievement. Then, those tests are released to help future students have a practical understanding of what they need to achieve to reach the levels they need to succeed. In the U.S., high-stakes assessments are used only for accountability, not as formative assessments.

The key issue for Tucker, then,  is the issue of how much school districts are willing to pay for a high quality instructional core. Publishers have not done a thorough job aligning their curricular resources to higher standards because they know states and school districts are not willing to pay the higher pricetag for a comprehensive overhaul.

The bottom line is that if state or national education agencies demanded higher quality instructional core elements and were willing to pay to get them, the situation would sort itself out. To Tucker, it is a case of priorities.

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Overlooked Educators Key to Deeper Learning

art teacherIn the world of ed-tech, STEM, and international comparisons, it can be easy to overlook art, music, and drama teachers; career and technical education instructors; and athletic coaches. Yet, as Peter Hofman argues persuasively, these are the very teachers who the most adept at “stimulating student performance and the complex tasks of evaluating substantive demonstrations of student learning, relating them to the success criteria and pathways as well as students’ trajectories, fashioning formative feedback to foster continued growth, and at some point making summative judgements (grades; work product recognition; selection of soloists, leading roles, starting positions, etc.).”

More and more, research is showing the importance of deeper learning skills and student-focused education. Above and beyond the need for the aforementioned subjects in school and teachers who know how to bring out the best in students in these subjects, Hofman urges an increased focus on the work of these educators because they are the ones most equipped to help other teachers make the shift to a style of educating students that focuses on real-time formative assessment of student performance. Perhaps the methods of these teachers are less easy to define or notice, but that does not mean that they are not crucial or effective.

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Deeper Learning: A Primer for State Legislators

screenshot-www ecs org 2015-05-27 22-08-09Deeper learning is a term being used more and more across the country, and state education leaders are being asked to create and implement aligned policies.

A new report from Education Commission of the States serves as a primer for state policymakers seeking to modify instruction and assessment policies to better engage today’s students. The primer defines deeper learning, explains how it overlaps with other active learning strategies and describes how it can be, and is being, accomplished at the state policy level. Resources that examine deeper learning in further detail are also available.

“To address the needs of 21st century learners, deeper learning advocates recommend that states pass a comprehensive set of deeper learning policies,” says Stephanie Aragon, a researcher for Education Commission of the States. “This report provides policymakers with more comprehensive information and resources on this important topic.”

Some important takeaways from the report include the following:

  • Deeper learning strategies facilitate the development of students’ collaboration, critical thinking, creative problem-solving and civic skills that are not typically addressed through traditional instructional practices.
  • Although standards in most states now call for some level of deeper learning, instruction is still working to catch up. As a result, deeper learning has yet to dramatically alter the way curricula are delivered to most students.
  • Proponents of deeper learning advocate for states to pass a comprehensive set of deeper learning policies. No single policy on its own is likely to produce the changes that advocates seek.

To access the full report, please visit:


New Federal College Scorecard Focuses on Cost-Benefit

screenshot-collegescorecard ed gov 2015-09-20 13-59-42President Obama has announced the launch of a new College Scorecard, meant to help students and parents identify which schools provide the biggest bang for your buck.

Designed with input from those who will use it most, the Scorecard offers reliable data on factors important to prospective students, such as how much graduates earn, and how much debt they have when they graduate.

In an economy where some higher education is still the surest ticket to the middle class, the choices that Americans make when searching for and selecting a college have never been more important.

In the breakdown for each school, prospective college students can research basic facts about the school and student body, average annual costs (minus average federal aid), graduation and retention rates, salary after attending, financial aid and debt figures, and average ACT/SAT scores. By no means is this website a comprehensive way for a prospective college student to find out about a college, but it is an excellent way for a student with costs and debts in mind to move their dream of college into reality.

Furthermore, a prospective student and his/her family will find easy links to start the FAFSA on the website.

Data included in the scorecard include the following:

  • URLs for the Institution’s Homepage and Net Price Calculator
  • Accrediting Agency
  • Public/Private Nonprofit/Private For-Profit
  • Carnegie Classifications
  • Specialized Mission or Religious Affiliation
  • Distance-Education-Only Indicator
  • School Revenue and Expenditures
  • Heightened Cash Monitoring Indicator
  • Percentage of Degrees Awarded by Program
  • Programs Offered by Degree Type
  • Acceptance Rate
  • SAT and ACT scores
  • Number of Undergraduate Students
  • Undergraduate Student Body by Race/Ethnicity
  • Undergraduate Students by Part-Time status
  • Undergraduate Students by Age (25 or Over)
  • Income Brackets of Federal Financial Aid Recipients
  • Share of First-Generation Students
  • Number of FAFSA Submissions to Colleges
  • Average Cost of Attendance
  • Tuition and Fees
  • Average Net Price, by Income Level
  • Percent of Undergraduates Receiving Federal Loans
  • Percentage of Pell Grant Recipients
  • Cumulative Median Debt, Disaggregated by Student Subgroups
  • Typical Monthly Loan Payments of Graduates
  • Cohort Default Rate
  • Repayment Rate on Federal Student Loans, Disaggregated by Student Subgroups
  • Completion Rates for First-Time, Full-Time Students
  • Retention Rates for First-Time Students
  • 150 percent Completion Rate (IPEDS)
  • 200 percent Completion Rate (IPEDS)
  • Completion and Transfer Outcomes for Title IV Students, Disaggregated by Student Subgroups
  • Average and Median Earnings, Disaggregated by Student Subgroups
  • Share of Former Students Earning Over $25,000

For more information, please visit:

The link to the data that powers the scorecard is here:


Featured Collection: Principal Evaluation

screenshot-schoolturnaroundsupport org 2015-09-20 14-41-28The School Turnaround Learning Community has assembled a collection of reports, policy papers, and tools related to principal evaluation. This collection of resources provides considerations for developing local administrator evaluation systems, examples of implementation and resources in support of these systems, and literature reviews identifying themes and perspectives that might be useful to practitioners and policymakers working to improve district principal evaluation systems.

Information can be used to support states and districts in identifying resources to be considered in taking appropriate next steps to evaluate school leaders, design an evaluation method, and/or buy a program or service.

Specific titles include the following:

Key Features of a Comprehensive Principal Evaluation System – An in-depth review of research and literature that identifies 13 key features as critical in establishing a comprehensive principal evaluation system.

A Brief Overview of Principal Evaluation Literature: Implications for Selecting Evaluation Models – Highlights from Policies and Practices of Principal Evaluation: A Review of the Literature, a comprehensive review of principal evaluation systems.

The Policies and Practices of Principal Evaluation: A Review of the Literature – This comprehensive literature review identifies themes and perspectives, and provides insights into how to best evaluate school principals.

How Six States are Implementing Principal Evaluation Systems – This brief provides policymakers and practitioners with information and web links for principal evaluation policies and systems in six states.

An Overview of Commercially Available Principal Evaluation Resources – This brief could assist state and district leaders to make decisions about commercially available principal evaluation resources that may be useful.

How Four Districts Crafted Innovative Principal Evaluation Systems: Success Stories in Collaboration – This publication, through informal case studies, provides concrete examples of innovative and effective principal evaluation systems.

For more information from WestEd’s School Turnaround Learning Community, please visit: