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U.S. Department of Education

Waivers (of Waivers) Watch: If It Looks Like a Pause, and It Sounds Like a Pause…

June 18, 2013
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Earlier today, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weighed in on the question of whether states can delay their timeline for using Common Core assessments in accountability systems for schools and teachers. The tests are set to be fully deployed during the 2014-15 school year, and according to the original policy for offering No Child Left Behind waivers, the results from the assessments would also be used for school accountability and educator evaluations that year (except in states that applied for waivers after August 2012 – see this nifty chart for a full breakdown). Under the new policy, however, states would be able to apply to hold off using the evaluation results for personnel decisions for an extra year – meaning that, in some states, the results from the 2014-15 year would be used to provide feedback and inform professional development only.

The question of whether to “pause” or place a “moratorium” on Common Core implementation has divided education stakeholders. Fifteen organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, support a moratorium on high-stakes accountability (including student promotion and graduation policies, personnel decisions, and school improvement designations) associated with the Common Core. Instead, these groups - the Learning First Alliance - would like to focus all immediate efforts on improving the supports teachers have to adopt the Common Core, including professional development, curriculum, technology infrastructure, and other resources. On the other hand, Chiefs for Change – a group of eleven reform-minded chief state school officers – urged Secretary Duncan to maintain the Common Core implementation timeline, even for high-stakes decisions, noting that states made these commitments years ago and should not backtrack on accountability.

Others took a slightly more measured approach, but still supported a pause on some components of implementation. The Council of Chief State School Officers asked for state flexibility in three areas: school ratings, teacher evaluations, and which assessments to use for accountability during 2013-14. Some states could maintain the rigorous timelines laid out in their waiver plans, while others could choose to slow down on one or all of these components.

And it appears that Secretary Duncan chose to take the CCSSO route, more or less. States could apply – if they want – to delay the most serious consequences for teachers, like decisions to award tenure or dismiss staff, for one year. Additionally, states would have new flexibility for implementing assessments and school accountability systems. They could apply to use either existing state assessments or Common Core field test results for accountability in the 2013-14 school year (to avoid the so-called “double testing” problem).

While Secretary Duncan insisted the new policy is not a “pause” or a “moratorium” on Common Core, it’s hard to distinguish between an “extension” – the language used by the Department – and a “pause.” No matter what you call it, the requirement for waiver states to use evaluations for personnel decisions can be shelved for a year. And there is no question that states have had a lot of time to fully transition to the Common Core – in most cases, over four years, longer than they had to implement all of the components of No Child Left Behind. In the words of Chad Aldeman, “If this isn’t enough time, what would be?” Will opposition to using teacher evaluations for personnel decisions really die down by the time 2016 rolls around? Further, the new policy could create additional confusion in an already confusing waiver process. It says something that the Department has to release a four-page, state-by-state chart just to explain the timeline for implementing the waiver components (still waiting for a state-by-state chart explaining what they’re actually doing – a far more complicated question).

Still, the Secretary’s decision is a fair compromise between the competing advocacy groups’ positions. And I give credit to the Department for one thing: holding firm on the most critical component of accountability, continuous improvement. More so than the punitive consequences, like school closures and teacher dismissals, accountability really serves to provide meaningful and transparent feedback to schools and educators and give them a roadmap to improve. During the transition to college- and career-ready standards, it is imperative for both schools and teachers to be evaluated on their progress and to use information from evaluations to improve the implementation process. If accountability and other incentives for educators are not aligned to the standards, what kind of signal does that send about the value of implementing them well?

So yes, there will be a pause. And members of Congress can now wave binders full of waivers, and then waivers of waivers, during hearings. But at least the Department is not pressing pause on what’s most important: its expectations for higher standards, better assessments, and continuous improvement.

English Language Learners in Rep. Kline's Student Success Act

June 18, 2013

The parade of bills that could replace No Child Left Behind continues this week with Wednesday’s markup of Rep. John Kline’s (R-MN) version. All signals suggest that this won’t be the year Congress finally updates the nation’s most comprehensive education law—and the substantial differences between Kline’s and Sen. Tom Harkin’s bills have a lot to do with these dim prospects. We’ve already seen what Harkin’s Strengthening America’s Schools Act would mean for English Language Learners (ELLs). Today we’ll take a similar look at Kline’s bill, the Student Success Act (SSA).

Student Stories from Gainful Employment Programs UPDATED

June 17, 2013

Last week, Higher Ed Watch took a look at some of the gainful employment policy questions raised in the over 900 public comments submitted to the Department of Education. While policy discussions will ultimately be the most important considerations as the regulatory process moves forward, it's also important to remember that these issues do affect real people. So today we're looking at what some current and former students at these programs had to say in their comments.

Ambition and hope do not pan out in Wisconsin

For many low-income and non-traditional students, going to college can be a source of hope and a chance for a better life, even in spite of fears about not having succeeded academically in the past. That sense of opportunity is prevalent in a combined set of 13 comments from students who now appear to be enrolled in courses at Milwaukee Area Technical College. These comments almost all start on a hopeful note with a sense of excitement for a better life. Many detail previously unachieved academic successes in these programs--high grade point averages, scholarship-winning essays--the type of accomplishment that shows they are college-caliber material. But then the reversal--a degree with no return, a dispute over further debts, no change in status--that leaves them arguably worse off and in debt. (The original comments have been temporarily taken down from Regulations.gov with a request to remove personally identifiable information, so I created a redacted version here.) 

A story from one woman who enrolled at Sanford Brown to become a probation officer encapsulates this emotional roller coaster:

I was so excited about going to Sanford Brown College. I was sold because I was told I could get small class sizes and get extra help if I needed and graduate faster because the courses were 5 weeks long and you went to school year round until you graduated. 
I went ahead and took the admissions test and paid $50.00 for it. I was told by the financial aid personnel that I could also write a 500 word paper on why higher education was important and win a $1,500 scholarship. I won the scholarship because of the paper I wrote. I was so excited and proud of myself. I was looking forward to the wonderful future my 3 kids and I were going to have. I was going to finish college and finally have a career which I loved which was helping people. I was assured by all the admissions people at Sanford Brown College that I had made the right choice to attend that college. They all were so friendly and seemed to want this as much as I did.
But it was not to be. After attending from August 2006 to September 2008, the woman believed she had graduated but ended up not being able to do so after a dispute with the institution over whether she still had an outstanding balance on her account. She never ended up finding a job in the criminal justice field and owes $25,000 in student loans and cannot transfer her credits. Now the campus she attended, which had a 27.5 percent student loan default rate in the last year and charged the lowest income students a net price of nearly $18,000, is shutting down. 
Those who went from the highs of success to the disappointing workforce reality pulled no punches on their sentiments. For example, one student in the Milwaukee area who graduated from a dental assisting program at Everest College in 2011 wrote: "My intentions were to give my children a better future by bettering myself through education. Everest ripped that dream away from me and is the reason I am struggling today with a $12,000 loan." A student who finished at Everest with a 4.0 grade point average in the same program had the same reaction, calling her experience the "beginning of a long unfinished nightmare."
[UPDATE: On Twitter, Robert Kelchen notes that the Milwaukee branch of Everest College closed after placing only 95 out of its 1,585 students in jobs since opening in October 2010. An Inside Higher Ed article from February also notes that Milwaukee is increasing scrutiny of for-profit colleges.]

Confusion rules the day

Given all the work that's been done to raise questions about some gainful employment programs, it's fair to ask why students are still choosing to enroll in certain ones that already have bad outcomes (see 27 percent default rate at Sanford Brown). The answer, at least partially, appears to be confusion. Lack of clarity around costs, expected return, likelihood of finishing, transfer opportunities, and ability to pass licensing tests whether credits would transfer, and whether they will even be able to sit for the necessary licensing tests pop up again and again in a host of comments. (See for example, this comment about trying to get an animation degree or page 4 of the document labeled "student complaints.")

Confusion can be one way to shift personal responsibility away from the individual and to the program, but it also seems to be a symptom of our opaque higher education system and false quality assurance provided by accreditation. In a working transparent market, concerns about cost, transfer, etc. should not be happening. The fact that they are again reiterates the importance of efforts like the College Scorecard and Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, which try to standardize information to help with comparisons may be some assistance, but are struggling to get widespread adoption.

But better information is not enough unless either: 1) consumers change their behavior and take a more skeptical and less trusting approach to choosing colleges or 2) they have a better quality assurance that the institutions where they can take their aid have been sufficiently vetted to merit a more trusting relationship. Right now, students face the worst of both worlds thanks to accreditation. With the imprimatur of accrediting agencies (and thus by implication the Department of Education), accreditation provides a false sense of security for students that breeds an implicit level of trust toward the institution that may not be warranted. Unlike a mechanic you've never used before, a student trusts her accredited college will charge her a reasonable price and give her a service that works. And she does that because some other group of people have reviewed the college to check its quality. Experts in higher education have signed off on it, so why shouldn't she trust that seal? And so students trust that their accredited institution will offer accredited law degrees in their state--but that's not always true, as a student from Iowa found out when he tried to get a law degree from a program whose lack of recognition from the American Bar Association meant California was the only state in which he could become a lawyer. Or they might assume that their credits could be used at colleges beyond the one they are currently attending., which was not the case for many students who tried to take their coursework from proprietary institutions to Milwaukee Area Technical College.

Solving this issue of trust can be done one of two ways. First, Congress could change the requirements around accreditation to compel these agencies to actually set clear standards for outcomes and results--including things like having necessary programmatic accreditation--which would likely result in closing some institutions and accreditors for poor performance. Or, we could go the opposite way and acknowledge that accreditation is not a meaningful indicator of anything and students should not assume that just because a college gets federal student aid that means they should assume it's any good. The former is extremely difficult politically. The latter is not only hard to accomplish but would make the path into college even more confusing for low-income students that currently have to trust and rely on their financial aid office for help navigating Federal grants and loans. Either way this issue indicates more must be done to think about not just what information consumers use for their decisions, but also how they interact with the colleges they are considering attending.

Does this really require a college credential?

Also implicit in the trusting attitude of students is the assurance that program will be what it says it is--training that will provide them access to a job. Now in any system, some programs will be better than others and there will always be a few duds.  And commenters did identify some that appeared to be not very good--students discussed outdated or insufficient equipment (imagine learning how to work with braces on half a mouth) or instructors without sufficient content knowledge. But assumed in all of those comments is the idea that the program would have been better had those deficiencies just been corrected. Never would a student assume that the degree itself is fundamentally not reflective of how the fields they are preparing for actually operate. Yes one student who attended  Sanford Brown in the Milwaukee area found out that misalignment problem was exactly what her program suffered from:
The majority of companies hiring for Billing have on the job training for people who have been hired by the company including Aurora Healthcare. ... The HIPPAA, JCAHO and Medical Terminology courses are being given as on the job training as free computer based learning courses. Positions in Coding for hospitals are impossible to get into without years of experience. The Certificate I received has not been useful to me and is not worth the $17,000 I now owe. 
The commenter raises a point that goes beyond the idea of whether a program merits the price charged and debt incurred to instead ask is it even aligned with fields or occupations where postsecondary education really provides an advantage for entry and advancement? In the case of the coding program, she suggests that even an extremely good program would not have been worth it because that is not how the coding industry works. This isn't a derivative of the "bachelor's degree holders working in restaurants" argument, but rather the idea  that even someone who gets employment in the relevant field may not actually need that credential. It's a challenge to the idea that if a college or university offers a program it is by definition "postsecondary." 

Signs some schools are taking steps to improve--is it enough?

To be sure, there's a lot of comments that do no paint a flattering light of the programs and the institutions that offer them. But there are some rays of light suggested in the comments. Some institutions have shut down poor-performing programs, while others have closed entire branches that did not appear to be succeeding. Outside the comments, the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University have been among the large institutions to get noticed for offering trial periods and experimenting with new curricula to boost quality. In these cases, schools do appear to be responding to market forces in positive ways. The task ahead then is to figure out how to keep driving those kinds of changes so that stories of future students can focus only on the hope and not the disappointment and regret that followed. 

Storify: Senate HELP Committee ESEA Markup

June 13, 2013

Tuesday and Wednesday, the Senate HELP Committee convened to mark up Chairman Tom Harkin's (D-IA) bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. @NewAmericaEd's Anne Hyslop and Conor Williams live-Tweeted, and we've collected some of the main takeaways here, ICYMI.

Storify: Senate HELP Committee ESEA Markup

June 12, 2013

What Reading 900+ Comments Tells Us About the Coming Gainful Employment Re-Regulation

June 13, 2013

Circle September 9 on your calendars. That's the date according to a Federal Register notice published yesterday that the Department of Education will bring together a committee to develop new regulations defining gainful employment. While it had been clear since a notice published in mid-May that the Department was going to be considering gainful employment in its next round of rulemaking, yesterday's announcement provides exact timing for negotiations, as well as the types of negotiators to be considered. 

With the first negotiating session still not for several months, it is going to be some time before the Department puts forth any public proposal, but with more than 900 public comments already submitted in response to initial thoughts on the regulatory agenda, there's already some clear indications of what we can expect to see from a policy standpoint. In a separate post I'll put up some of the more interesting comments received from students. (New America also submitted its own comments on the regulations, which can be found here.)

Arguments in favor--stronger, more comprehensive

By far the largest number of comments came similar short submissions calling for a stronger rule and protections for students and taxpayers (see here for an example). On the more substantive side, a few themes emerged:

The gainful employment rule should be stronger: Multiple comments cited the 2011 rule's "nine strikes and you're out" policy whereby a program had to fail each of three measures for three years straight as being overly generous. Several comments called for initiating penalties for programs that failed two out of the three measures. Others, such as those from The Institute for College Access and Success argued for a higher threshold on the repayment rate based upon prior studies of delinquency and default as well as how Congress set thresholds for cohort default rates. Not surprisingly, among the most thoughtful and creative comments were those from Robert Shireman, the former Department official who helped craft the initial set of regulation. Shireman's comments suggested a new structure that would draw distinctions between institutional and program eligibility depending on repayment rates, with debt to earnings tests used if repayment rates fell below a certain level.

Accountability in this space is about more than just gainful employment: Many comments touched on the idea that gainful employment is only one piece of an accountability framework that also includes cohort default rates and the 90/10 rule. Given that, many commenters stressed the need for the Department to address the use of deferments and forbearances by some institutions to keep their default rates low by limiting the number of students that could default during the measurement window. Similarly, commenters also stressed the need to consider tactics like delaying the disbursement of student aid funds so some dollars would not count as part of the 90/10 calculation for a given year.

Relief for borrowers at failing programs: The final gainful employment regulation never included any relief for borrowers that had debt from a program that eventually lost eligibility on the grounds that discharge requirements were statutory and could not be changed. This time, several comments, such as those from the National Consumer Law Center, stressed that borrowers in programs that lose eligibility should be given relief much the same way that those who attend institutions that shut down receive assistance.

Job placement matters: The comments also included several submissions from attorneys general from states such as Colorado, Illinois, and Kentucky. One issue these focused on is the importance of greater clarity in definitions of successful job placement. Inaccurate, misleading, and outright fraudulent have been an ongoing problem at some proprietary institutions for many years, but the lack of a clear definition can make enforcement of the issue more complicated (the Department's National Center for Education Statistics did hold a technical review panel on creating a definition a few years ago, but did not end up putting together a definition).

Arguments against--wait for reauthorization 

Not surprisingly, there was a pretty clear divide on whether the Department should approach the gainful employment rule again, and what to do so if it does. In general, proprietary colleges and their lobby groups argued that the Department should delay action on the grounds that Congress would be scheduled to reauthorize the Higher Education Act in short order (see page 2 of the comments from the industry's main lobby group, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities for a typical form of this argument). Since reauthorizations these days have a cicada-like periodicity  that's effectively calling for a delay of many years.

In a similar vein, several institutions also brought forward the idea that the gainful employment rule should be applied to all types of institutions, not just a subset of programs at public and private nonprofit institutions and essentially all programs at proprietary colleges. DeVry and LIM College had the clearest forms of this argument, while Strayer University took a slightly different approach, arguing why it resembles other institutions that are not subject to the gainful employment requirement and should thus be excluded. (Whether including more programs is legally allowable, a good policy idea, or just something that would be designed to get other sectors of higher education opposed is debatable.) 

By far the two most thoughtful and interesting comments from those opposed to gainful employment came from Strayer University and Champion College Services, which provides default management and would have provided gainful employment support if the rule were still in effect. Strayer's comments suggests relying on the cohort default rate to set thresholds and penalties, while Champion put forth an argument for creating a repayment rate that is based on the number of borrowers, not dollars, and define "repayment" as not being in default or more than 120 days delinquent. Other ideas more commonly raised included allowing institutions to limit the amount of debt a student can take on and risk-adjusting the measures based upon the characteristics of students enrolled. 

Not surprisingly then, we're already clearly headed for a pretty significant divide on the policy questions in gainful employment. In a subsequent post I'll pull out some of the more interesting submissions from former students and faculty at proprietary institutions. 

English Language Learners in Sen. Alexander's Every Child Ready for College or Career Act

June 11, 2013

Last week was a big week for American education policy watchers—we received not one, not two, but three new ESEA reauthorization bills. We’ve already discussed Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) Strengthening America’s Schools Act (SASA), so it’s time to take a look at the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act, proposed by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN).* Like last time, we’ll be focusing on how the bill would affect English language learners (ELLs). (For a comprehensive view of the differences between the bills, check out this post from my colleague Anne Hyslop.)

Sen. Harkin’s Strengthening America’s Schools Act, Title III

June 10, 2013

Now that my colleagues Anne Hyslop and Clare McCann have dug into the changes that Senator Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) Strengthening America’s Schools Act (SASA) proposes for Title I and Title II (here and here), it’s my turn to take a look at the bill’s potential effects on English language learners (ELLs).

Harkin, Alexander, and Waivers: Your ESEA Markup Cheat Sheet

June 10, 2013

Tomorrow morning, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will markup the Strengthening America’s Schools Act, the latest ESEA reauthorization proposal from Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA). Ed Money Watch and Early Ed Watch have already recapped many of the changes proposed to accountability for schools and educators, as well as Title I and early learning programs. But we have yet to weigh in on the alternative proposal offered by the Committee’s Republican members, led by Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN).

Here are the three biggest differences between the two bills:

1. No love for Common Core. Alexander’s bill – the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act – includes detailed language to explicitly prohibit the U.S. Department of Education from exercising any direction, preference, or control over state’s academic content standards (like the Common Core State Standards) or achievement standards (i.e. cut scores that determine what it means to be college- and career-ready). This also has big implications for education data and reporting – more on that below.

Clearly concerned with federal overreach, this level of specificity around the Department’s role should appeal to critics of the common standards, claiming they are step one toward a “federal curriculum” or “national school board.” But Alexander is silent on a specific timeline or transition to college- and career-ready standards and tests – another increasingly divisive issue. Harkin’s bill would allow states a one-year “pause,” requiring implementation by the 2015-16 school year, even though both Common Core consortia say they will deliver their assessments on-time in 2014-15.

2. A mini-backpack for Title I funds. Another sharp contrast with the Harkin proposal: states could allocate Title I funds to districts based only on their number of eligible children – and federal funding could then follow the child to any public school in the district. Similar to a Romney campaign proposal (but on a smaller scale, without the option to use Title I funds to attend out-of-district public schools or private schools, or to pay for tutoring), it is unclear how many states would take advantage of this provision. How would it work in districts that lack other public school options – in particular, rural districts or districts where the overwhelming majority of schools are low-performing? Funding fights are always messy – how would school and district administrators respond to the change? The Alexander bill would also eliminate maintenance of effort requirements, meaning that states and districts would not be penalized for spending less on education from year to year, another potential sore spot for local school leaders.

3. States: choose your own accountability adventure. Unlike the Democrats’ bill, Every Child Ready for College or a Career would not require performance targets for schools. As Politics K-12 predicted, this was a major partisan sticking point between Harkin and Alexander. And transparency – rather than accountability – is the key policy lever in the Republican proposal. States can choose to differentiate between schools as they see fit.

Further, the Senate Republican proposal would prohibit the Department from specifying, defining, or prescribing any measure that states include in their accountability systems. Presumably, this means states could choose how they want to define everything from adequate student growth, to a cut score for college and career readiness, to how they define graduation rates. Would this undermine data comparability between states, including efforts to report a uniform graduation rate?

Alexander’s bill also doesn’t require states to identify any set percentage of Title I schools for improvement, leaving both identification and intervention entirely up to states (with the exception that students be allowed to transfer if their schools are identified). Given states’ history with setting rigorous goals and expectations for schools (as this new Education Sector report reminds us), Alexander’s bill would effectively set federal education policy back twenty years – to the 1994 Improving America’s Schools Act.

Finally, Alexander’s bill would not require states to develop teacher or principal evaluation systems, but they could use Title II funds for these purposes. And unlike Harkin’s proposal, states could partner with for-profits, as well as nonprofit organizations or higher education institutions, to implement their plans for preparing, training and improving the quality of teachers and school leaders. Because the bill also eliminates the “highly qualified teacher” provision, states would not have to report, whether teachers are distributed equitably between Title I and non-Title I schools – another blow for accountability and a big difference between the Alexander and Harkin proposals.

The bottom line? Alexander’s bill doesn’t actually require states to do anything. And that’s a problem. As Chad Aldeman also notes in his smart take on the Alexander bill, Every Child College or Career Ready relies on assurances from states that they will implement rigorous and high-quality standards, assessments, and accountability systems. As Aldeman writes: “There are no serious standards for these things and, even if there were, there would be no way to verify state assertions.” If a plan is a poor substitute for policy, then an assurance as policymaking is downright laughable.

To help keep both draft bills – along with No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s waiver policy – straight, download this side-by-side cheat sheet to use during the markup. You can click also click on the image below to enlarge it. And of course, the always-helpful Politics K12 team has another side-by-side comparison that features the House Republican plan

Comparing ESEA Reauthorization Proposals

Follow along with us tomorrow, and stay tuned to Ed Money Watch for continuing coverage.

Harkin Bill Reforms Teacher and Principal Programs

June 6, 2013

Earlier this week, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced the Strengthening America’s Schools Act (SASA). We profiled its major changes here, and a few significant mentions for early childhood education here. Our sister blog, Ed Money Watch, wrote about the Title II teacher and principal provisions today (for more, click here). We’ve collected a few notes on the early education and early grade connections to the Title II reforms:

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