Curtis Whatley is a past member of the 50CAN team. 

Here’s what educators, advocates, wonks and policymakers are talking about today:

News & analysis

Public money finds back door to private schools
When the Georgia legislature passed a private school scholarship program in 2008, lawmakers promoted it as a way to give poor children the same education choices as the wealthy. Spreading at a time of deep cutbacks in public schools, the programs are operating in eight states and represent one of the fastest-growing components of the school choice movement. This school year alone, the programs redirected nearly $350 million that would have gone into public budgets to pay for private school scholarships for 129,000 students, according to the Alliance for School Choice, an advocacy organization. Legislators in at least nine other states are considering the programs. While the scholarship programs have helped many children whose parents would have to scrimp or work several jobs to send them to private schools, the money has also been used to attract star football players, expand the payrolls of the nonprofit scholarship groups and spread the theology of creationism, interviews and documents show. Even some private school parents and administrators have questioned whether the programs are a charade. Most of the private schools are religious. Nearly a quarter of the participating schools in Georgia require families to make a profession of religious faith, according to their Web sites. Many of those schools adhere to a fundamentalist brand of Christianity. A commonly used sixth-grade science text retells the creation story contained in Genesis, omitting any other explanation. An economics book used in some high schools holds that the Antichrist — a world ruler predicted in the New Testament — will one day control what is bought and sold. The programs are insulated from provisions requiring church-state separation because the donations are collected and distributed by the nonprofit scholarship groups. (New York Times)

District grant contest unveiled
School districts will be able to submit proposals for innovative educational programs this year to compete for federal grants of up to $25 million under a new national contest, part of the three-year-old Race to the Top program. Rules for the competition were to be announced on Tuesday by the Department of Education. Like the department’s state-level competition for federal grants that preceded it, the program will require systems for measuring student progress and assessing teachers and administrators and will target low-income communities. Under the department’s rules, the schools included in each application must have at least 40 percent of students qualify for federally subsidized school lunches. A spokesman for the department said it would look for programs that provide ways to tailor instruction to individual students. “We need to take classroom learning beyond a one-size-fits-all model and bring it into the 21st century,” Arne Duncan, the education secretary, said in a statement. The rules require districts to show how they will focus resources on “students facing significant challenges, such as students with disabilities, English learners and students affected by impacts of poverty or family instability.” In the last three rounds, the Race to the Top competition has awarded about $4 billion in grants to 22 states and the District of Columbia. The district-level phase of the program will be much smaller, with about $400 million that could be distributed among 15 to 20 applicants around the country. School districts can apply on their own or in a consortium with neighboring districts and propose programs that encompass all students or just a subset, making it easier to achieve the low-income population target. A district can specify schools, grade levels and even academic subjects in its application. (New York Times)

State teacher-preparation report cards now live
The U.S. Department of Education has finally released the state “report cards” each state must submit annually on its teacher-preparation programs, and they’re chock-full of information about programs states have deemed underperforming, the states’ different entry routes into the profession, and the battery of licensing tests each state uses. It’s the first year states have had to fulfill a bunch of revised reporting requirements, which were added in the 2008 rewrite of the Higher Education Act. I’m told these went live in March, but my attention of late has been on a series of stories on education campaign finance. Apologizes for being a bit late to bring them to your attention. In any case, they are ripe for analysis. Keep in mind that these reports represent just one level of reporting required under the HEA. There’s also an annual federal report (which was released earlier this year). In addition, every individual institution also has to prepare one. For an overview of what’s in all the various levels of reporting, check out this helpful document and this Teacher Beat blog item. (Teacher Beat)

Pennsylvania: Hundreds of local students have yet to comply with Pennsylvania’s new vaccination rules, school officials say
School officials say they gave it their best shot over the past eight months to inform everyone about the state’s new vaccination rules, but hundreds of local students still have yet to comply. On Friday, a handful of students remained excluded from West Shore School District for failing to get the required inoculations for mumps, chicken pox and other diseases. It was unclear from a district spokesman if others had previously been barred from coming but returned after getting the required shots. Cumberland Valley had one student who had been barred from school for less than a week but has gotten the necessary immunizations and is back in school. A sampling of other districts found they, too, had students who failed to meet the new immunization requirements but opted against barring them from classes. Steelton-Highspire has between 15 and 20 students out of compliance, down from 216 a month ago. Central Dauphin still has 168 students without the required inoculations out of the 1,200 it had initially. Harrisburg has some as well, although now far less than the 2,200 once thought. Families had eight months from the start of the school year to get their children immunized. When it became apparent a substantial number of students were still out of compliance by the state’s April 27 deadline, the state extended it two weeks. Most districts set this past Tuesday as the deadline for students to meet the requirements. The state left it up to school districts to decide whether they would turn away students who failed to comply with the rules. But the state Department of Health reminded school officials that aside from being out of compliance with state law, districts carry the responsibility and burden of any public health risks that might be associated with not complying. (Patriot News)

Video Interlude: U Really Got a Hold on Me

Minnesota: School counselors in short supply
After two public school students in southeastern Minnesota committed suicide this spring, experts expressed concern about gaps in mental health services in Minnesota schools.On the front lines are school counselors, whose jobs is to help students with problems before a crisis occurs.But that’s difficult in Minnesota, which has one of the largest ratios of students to school counselors in the nation – and a shortage of community counselors who treat children. According to the Minnesota Association of School Counselors, the average ratio of students to counselors in the state is about 800 to 1. “Minnesota is second to last in the nation as far as the ratio goes,” said Kay Hertling Wahl, a professor of counseling at the University of Minnesota. The lopsided student-to-counselor ratio makes it difficult for counselors to be effective in dealing with things like depression, addiction or bullying, Herting Wahl said. (MPR)

Minnesota: State’s program a better measurement of Minn. schools, education official says
Minnesota schools have a new way to measure performance, replacing the controversial No Child Left Behind accountability system with the state’s own. Education officials say the new measurements take more factors into account to grade a school’s performance. But the system also zeroes in more intently on a smaller number of underperforming schools. Earlier this year Minnesota was allowed to opt out of the No Child Left Behind national school accountability program. It was put into place a decade ago by Pres. George W. Bush. Critics said the program’s goals were unrealistic. It called for all students to have proficiency in reading and math by 2014. But as late as last year, about half of Minnesota schools failed to achieve that. In response, the state built its own system to measure performance. The state system considers academic growth and other factors when assessing schools, not just one set of test scores. It identifies a narrow group of the highest- and lowest-performing schools for all to see, not just a broad list of who failed and who didn’t. It also removes many of the toughest sanctions for low performance. The new system still measures student proficiency through the Adequate Yearly Progress score. AYP is based largely on standardized test scores in reading and math. And it also takes into account graduation rates and performance growth in students. It considers how well a school is closing the achievement gap between middle-class whites and minority, low-income and special-needs students. Minnesota’s Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the new system is more fair and a more accurate way to measure schools. (MPR)


Joe Nocera: Gates puts the focus on teaching
Although the Gates Foundation is perhaps best-known for its health initiatives in Africa, it has long played an important role in the educational reform movement here at home. It was an early, enthusiastic backer of charter schools. Around the year 2000, it also became enamored with the idea that students would do better in smaller schools than bigger ones. All along, Gates says, he had been asking questions about teacher effectiveness. How do you measure it? What are the skills that make a teacher great? “It was mind-blowing how little it had been studied,” he told me. So, with the help of Thomas Kane, an education professor at Harvard, the Gates Foundation began videotaping some 3,000 teachers across the country. It also collected lots of other data to measure whether a teacher was effective. All of this work, Kane says, was aimed at “identifying the practices that are associated with student achievement.” With a wealth of data now in hand, the Gates Foundation was ready for the next step: trying to create a personnel system that not only measured teacher effectiveness but helped teachers improve. Although pilot projects have been announced in four school districts, the one that is furthest along is in Hillsborough County, Fla. That district, which is dominated by Tampa, is in the second year of a seven-year, $100 million grant. There are several important things to point out about the Gates approach. The first is that in order for the district to be eligible for the grant, the Hillsborough County teachers’ union had to be a willing participant. Although Gates remains a supporter of charter schools, he realizes that charter schools alone will not solve the crisis in American education. “Even with rapid growth, it won’t reach 10 percent” of students, he says. True education reform requires engaging all of the country’s teachers. (New York Times)


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