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College-Ready Wars: Assessing Threats to the Common Core

April 19, 2013
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Although the deadline for all students to achieve proficiency in math and reading has been lifted in most states by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers, 2014 test anxiety is high as ever. That’s because the 2014-15 school year is the first time 45 states and Washington, D.C. will be fully implementing the Common Core State Standards – including new tests that will be used as part of high-stakes accountability systems for schools and, in many cases, teachers and students. But when the time comes, will states stay the course? Practical concerns along with escalating political arguments already threaten the emerging system of common standards and assessments.

As I wrote previously, Alabama became the first state to exit the Common Core test consortia, opting instead to administer ACT-based assessments. By 2014, Alabama will likely not be alone in its choice. ACT is a well-established player that has spent decades building an organization with a reputation for providing valid, reliable assessments. Conversely, the state consortia are upstarts, attempting to build next-generation assessments and a precarious, multi-state structure to support and sustain the effort simultaneously. Naturally, states are left with many unanswered questions. How much will the new tests costs, and what are the technical requirements? Will the tests accurately reflect a student’s readiness? And will the assessments even be completed on time? In his smart take on the issue, Bellwether Education Partner’s Andy Smarick writes, the ACT “is the ‘Plan B’ that many states – concerned about the reliability and cost of the consortia-developed tests – have been looking for. It enables a state to remain committed to tough standards and rigorous assessments without putting all of their eggs in the basket of a fragile multi-state entity.”

But this kind of pragmatic concern isn’t the only threat to the common standards. While the Common Core is a state-led initiative (I repeat, the Common Core is a state-led initiative), the effort has been supported by private and corporate philanthropy and by the federal government. Specifically, the requirement to adopt the common standards to compete for Race to the Top funding is at the heart of increasingly polarized and politicized arguments against the Common Core. In their words, “Obamacore” amounts to a “nationalized curriculum” and “leftist indoctrination” that has been “forced on state governments” and “imposed on the children of this nation.”

Reasonable individuals easily dismiss most of these arguments. But reasonable arguments are often overshadowed, especially when national politicians and parties start getting involved. Just last week, the Republican National Committee adopted an anti-Common Core resolution, echoing these same divisive arguments.  And President Obama frequently touts that his administration “convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards, all for about 1 percent of what we spend on education each year” – adding credibility to their claims.

The problem may be about to get worse. As noted in our Key Questions on the Obama Administration’s 2014 Education Budget Request, federal funding for the assessment consortia is set to expire before the tests are fully launched. To provide continued support, President Obama’s latest budget includes a $9 million competitive grant initiative that could finance some of their ongoing work. The other $380 million of the “Assessing Achievement” program would provide states with formula grants for their current assessment programs, although leftover funds could go toward Common Core implementation.

However, a significant change would occur in fiscal year 2015: Assessing Achievement formula funding would be available “only to States that have adopted college- and career-ready standards that are common to a significant number of States” (emphasis added). While Race to the Top included a similar requirement, that program was a competition, where states could opt-out. NCLB waivers also require states to adopt college- and career-ready standards, but they do not have to be common ones. The Assessing Achievement program would mark the first time federal formula funding – typically available to all states – required adoption of common standards. If enacted, this requirement will undoubtedly add fuel to the “Obamacore” fire. On the heels of the president’s budget request, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Ia) is calling for the federal government to eliminate all Department of Education funding that supports or prioritizes the Common Core – and he doesn’t even mention the Assessing Achievement program.

What can we make of these threats to the Common Core? To date, most of its political detractors have been contained outside of the mainstream and have had little success gaining traction or passing legislation to reverse Common Core adoption. Will the RNC resolution, Grassley’s letter, or potential changes in federal funding have a greater impact?

On the other hand, the pragmatic concerns about how the new standards and assessments will be implemented are just that – pragmatic. Few could fault Alabama’s decision to choose the ACT over PARCC and SmarterBalanced. All three of the developing testing systems could prove to be a great improvement over current assessments, measuring competencies better aligned to postsecondary work and providing more useful information to students, their teachers, parents, and policymakers.

The important difference between the practical and political critiques is that states deciding to use the ACT system are not necessarily backing away from their commitment to the Common Core altogether. Yes, the assessment consortia should do as much as possible to allay the concerns of wavering states. And yes, policymakers and stakeholders should closely monitor all of the emerging for-profit and non-profit ventures to ensure their assessments, curricula, textbooks, and other resources accurately reflect the new standards. But in the end, any damage done to the Common Core from these pragmatic objections to the consortia is far less severe than what would happen in the unlikely, but not out of the question, case that “Obamacore” goes mainstream. Common Core supporters would do well to distinguish between the two. 

Does the President’s New Budget Signal a Change for Teacher Preparation?

April 18, 2013
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While poring over the president’s fiscal year 2014 budget request, we noticed several subtle, but critical, shifts in the way that the administration addresses teacher preparation grants and regulations.

Just as in the fiscal year 2013 budget request, the administration is proposing to phase out the current TEACH Grants program in favor of a $190 million Presidential Teaching Fellows program. What follows is our attempt to read the tea leaves in the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed budget.

TEACH grants, started in 2008, provide $4,000 a year to eligible undergraduate or graduate students who agree to teach a high-needs subject in a high-needs school for at least four years within the first eight years after they graduate. In the 2013 budget, the Department projected that a large number of grant recipients – perhaps as high as 75% – will not fulfill the service requirement and instead will see the grants converted to Unsubsidized Stafford loans. The 2014 budget justification does not cite this figure, indicating only that a “significant” number of recipients will not fulfill the requirements, and that the Department anticipates about $17 million in revenues from converted grants.

In last year’s Presidential Teaching Fellows proposal, the administration would have provided formula grants to states to improve teacher preparation program performance and finance scholarships of up to $10,000 for students in the last year of an effective education program. Scholarship recipients would commit to teaching a high-needs subject in a high-needs school for at least three years out of six following graduation.

This year’s budget request includes the same framework for granting scholarships, but the provisions for improving teacher preparation programs have been softened. Previously, the Department would have required states to “withdraw approval of programs persistently identified as low-performing,” noting that 38 states and D.C. have not yet identified any low-performing or at-risk teacher training programs. Programs would be given technical assistance to improve before having their approval revoked after a given number of years.

Now, funding is contingent on states’ willingness to “hold teacher preparation programs accountable for results, including withdrawal of approval for programs persistently identified as low-performing” – a subtle difference, but an important one. Rather than revoking approval, states would be required to “establish and enforce a timeline for withdrawing financial support” from schools and alternative preparation programs that have received technical assistance but have not improved in a given number of years. And rather than focus on the closure of schools that produce ineffective teachers, the 2014 budget proposal also has new language that encourages states to “facilitate the broad adoption of practices employed by [high-quality] programs” to broaden the share of teachers prepared using high-performing methods.

This language shift may be the result of the stream of conversations around teacher preparation program accountability that occurred after the last budget release. At the end of February in 2012, ED released a draft set of federal regulations to join the TEACH grant eligibility to teacher preparation reporting under Title II of the Higher Education Act. Submitted for consideration under a negotiated rulemaking process, the regulations would have classified teacher-prep programs in four categories – high-performing, satisfactory, low-performing, or at-risk – based on new indicators including student learning outcomes, employment levels, and satisfaction surveys from recent graduates and schools that hire them. Students attending schools rated in the bottom two categories would not be eligible for federally-funded TEACH grants.

The negotiated rulemaking process fizzled out without a consensus  in April, so ED has been left to write regulations governing teacher preparation programs and TEACH grants on its own. These new rules were initially expected by last fall but thus far are still in progress. In the wake of this slow-down, those on the inside are not optimistic that significant regulations will move forward this year.

Nonetheless, in February the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) released a draft set of accreditation standards for teacher preparation schools that provides for increased use of outcome-based measures. The standards have spurred feedback, particularly from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), which objects to the creation of a “gold standard” designation for top programs and provisions for the use and interpretation of outcome data.

It remains to be seen whether the revised language in the 2014 budget will move the conversation around teacher preparation towards a feasible outcome for all stakeholders. In the meantime, a few states, including Louisiana and Tennessee, have already implemented systems for tracking student outcomes for graduates of teacher preparation programs. Furthermore, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) has partnered with U.S. News & World Report to release a ranking of quality of teacher training programs in 2013. Even if the Department ends up dragging its feet, it’s clear that the push to hold teacher preparation programs accountable for their graduates’ achievements will go on.

Syllabus: Week of April 8

April 12, 2013
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Welcome to the Syllabus, a weekly guide that provides insight into what’s happening in higher education.


California State U. System Will Expand MOOC Experiment, Steve Kolowich
Chronicle of Higher Education

Last fall, San Jose State, part of the California State University system, used material from a MOOC on circuits and electronics to flip the classroom for its own introductory course in electrical engineering. San Jose State offered three versions of the course—two were taught as they had been traditionally taught before, and one section replaced the lecture with videos from the MOOC so that students could participate in group work during class. The passage rates in the two conventional sections were 55 to 59 percent. In the flipped section, 91 percent of students passed. Now, a second semester of trials is under way.

Key Questions on the Obama Administration's 2014 Education Budget Request

April 11, 2013
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President Barack Obama submitted his fiscal year 2014 budget request to Congress on April 10, 2013. The New America Foundation has reviewed the president’s proposals and generated a list of key questions that policymakers, the media, stakeholder groups, and the public should ask about the proposals.

Below are a few of our questions on postsecondary education. To read the full report, click here.
  • The president proposes expanding the recently enacted, more generous Income-Based Repayment plan for federal student loans, Pay As You Earn, to all borrowers rather than just new borrowers as of October 1, 2007, and eliminating the tax on loans forgiven for borrowers. Last year, the New America Foundation argued for those exact policy changes – provided that Congress and the administration first address the perverse incentives and windfall benefits the program will provide to graduate and professional students and the schools that enroll them.

Key Questions on the Obama Administration's 2014 Education Budget Request

April 11, 2013
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President Barack Obama submitted his fiscal year 2014 budget request to Congress on April 10, 2013. The New America Foundation has reviewed the president’s proposals and generated a list of key questions that policymakers, the media, stakeholder groups, and the public should ask about the proposals.

Below are a few of our questions on early learning and PreK-12 education. To read the full report, click here.

Key Questions on the Obama Administration’s 2014 Education Budget Request

  • By
  • Clare McCann,
  • New America Foundation
  • and Education Policy Program
April 10, 2013

President Obama sent his fiscal year 2014 budget request to Congress on April 10, 2013. The New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program released this subsequent issue brief, “Key Questions on the Obama Administration’s 2014 Budget Request."

President's 2014 Budget Request Released; Increases Federal Education Spending

April 10, 2013

Today, President Obama released the first budget of his second term. The budget would increase overall appropriations funding for the U.S. Department of Education by about $3 million over 2012 levels, to $71.2 billion. It consolidates a number of programs and creates a few new ones -- including a broad new pre-K package.

The president’s budget comes two months behind schedule (by law, the budget request is due on the Hill in February), and both the House and Senate have already voted on budget resolutions for fiscal year 2014, although they haven’t yet agreed on a joint resolution. Still, the budget request acts as a weathervane, indicating the president’s priorities over the next few years. Below are a few of the highlights from this year’s budget request:

Early Education

  • The White House hopes to initiate a new early learning program, first outlined in February’s State of the Union address. States would partner with the federal government to receive $75 billion over 10 years to fund pre-K for 4-year-olds at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. A separate, $750 million investment next year would help states develop their early learning systems. Home visiting programs for infants and children would also be extended.


  • The Promise Neighborhoods program would receive $300 million in fiscal year 2014, up from $60 million last year. It would be incorporated into a new cross-agency “Promise Zones initiative, and a portion of the Promise Neighborhood funds would be reserved for Promise Zone awardees.
  • School turnaround grants would receive $659 million, up from $534 million in 2012. That includes a new, $125 million competition to expand schools’ capacity for reform.
  • As in prior budget requests, Obama included a proposal to reorganize teacher programs to a “teacher and leader innovation” fund and an “effective teachers and leaders” formula grant to states – the latter with a 25 percent set-aside for competitive grants. There would be a $100 million competition to design professional development programs for school leaders, as well as a one-time, $5 billion entitlement cost for the previously proposed RESPECT program. The White House also proposes another $12.5 billion in mandatory funding to prevent teacher layoffs – a legacy proposal since the stimulus legislation was passed in 2009.

Higher Education

  • The White House request moves Race to the Top out of the early learning and K-12 arenas and into the higher education world, with a $1.0 billion competition designed to develop higher education reforms while keeping costs low. It also significantly expands the request for an innovation-focused First in the World competition, funded at $260 million, which includes approximately $175 million for an evidence-based program (similar to i3), as well as $75 million to support competency-based education efforts Both competitions have been proposed before, but neither has received funding.
  • Student loan interest rates, which are scheduled to double on certain loans next year from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, would be moved to a market-based approach. Adapted from a proposal last year by New America’s Jason Delisle, the approach would tie rates to the 10-year Treasury notes. Subsidized Stafford loans would total the 10-year Treasury rate plus .93 percent; Unsubsidized Stafford loans would total 10-year Treasury rate plus 2.93 percent, and PLUS loans would be 10-year Treasury rate plus 3.93 percent.
  • Pay As You Earn, the latest version of income-based repayment for federal student loans, would be available to all borrowers, not just to those who borrowed in 2008 or later, and the loan forgiveness granted after 20 years of payments would be tax-free. The budget is silent on the issues we raised last year of windfall payments for high-debt, high-income borrowers, though, so we’ll be looking to the U.S. Department of Education to see how it plans to address those concerns.

We’ll be writing on these and many other topics in the budget request in the coming weeks, so check back with Ed Money Watch for more details.

What to Watch for in the President’s Budget Release

April 8, 2013

President Obama is scheduled to submit his fiscal year 2014 budget request to Congress this Wednesday, April 10. This year’s proposal – the president’s fifth budget request and the first of his final term – will likely include education policies from his past budgets, and certainly some new ideas. It will also show how the Obama administration would allocate fiscal year 2014 funding for every federal education program, which starts October 1, 2013.

Here are a few of topics worth keeping an eye out for on Wednesday.

  • Pre-K Initiative: President Obama proposed in his State of the Union address that the Department of Education work with states to expand access to high-quality pre-K to all four-year-olds whose families earn below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. But there were no other details in the weeks that followed, except that we could expect more information when the president’s budget was released – and according to The New York Times, that the pre-K program will be funded with an increase to the federal tobacco tax.

We have a lot of questions about the plan, like how many children is it expected to cover? How expensive will it be and for how much will states be on the hook? How will the White House ensure pre-K offerings are high-quality? We’ll be looking to the budget request for these and other details on the plan.

  • Program Consolidations: In each of President Obama’s first four budgets, he proposed consolidating 38 existing K-12 programs into just 11.  The proposed reorganization formed a basis of the administration’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization – a long overdue legislative action by Congress, given that No Child Left Behind, its most recent iteration, expired in 2007. Will the administration still be pushing for ESEA reauthorization?  Will the budget include the same consolidations it has in every one of President Obama’s budgets before that?  Or will the Obama administration propose something new altogether?
  • Competitive Grants: In the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Obama launched several new competitive grant programs for school districts, among them the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation (i3) programs. The programs have been refunded each year, and in the case of Race to the Top, used to fund new versions of the competition. Obama’s past proposals include a Race to the Top round for higher education and a “First in the World” college access and completion competition – neither of which received funding.

In his State of the Union address, Obama previewed a partnership program between high schools and colleges and employers to develop classes that promote career readiness in the STEM fields.  So far, no details have emerged on the proposal. But we wonder whether President Obama’s budget request will include funding for a new Race to the Top competition – this time for high schools. And will he push for any of his other lost proposals? Or will programs like the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge receive another injection of federal spending instead?

  • Pell Grants: The Congressional Budget Office estimated this year that the Pell Grant program has had ample funding in recent years, such that it has accumulated a $9.2 billion surplus. That funding gives Congress and the Obama administration more time than originally estimated before big increases in temporary funding for the program run out. In other words, the president’s budget need not include any supplemental funding for the Pell Grant program in fiscal year 2014 or even 2015. But the Pell Grant program will eventually need an increase of about $6.2 billion by 2016 to continue in its current form, and given that the president’s budget covers a 10-year period, it may include a proposal to address the long-term funding challenge for Pell Grants. Of course, the president could duck the issue altogether. Last year, the president included only a one-year fix and punted on what he’d do in the longer term.
  • Student Loan Interest Rates: Last year, the president proposed extending for one year the 3.4 percent interest rate for newly issued Subsidized Stafford student loans. Congress obliged, which means that the interest rate on Subsidized Stafford student loans is set to increase this year from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1…again. Ed Money Watch wrote last year about this interest rate increase, which would save borrowers only about $9 a month. Each one-year extension costs between $4 and $6 billion and affects a portion of loans made to about two-thirds of undergraduates. One year later, Congress is back to the same debate. The New America Foundation has proposed another interest rate option: tying rates to the 10-year Treasury note rate, plus 3.0 percentage points. The alternative would put an end to annual debate that makes little real difference to students – especially the low-income borrowers who enroll in income-based repayment. Will the president propose another one-year extension or a permanent extension? Or will he propose something bigger and longer-term?
  • Income-Based Repayment for Student Loans: In Safety Net or Windfall: Examining Changes to Income-Based Repayment for Federal Student Loans, we explored the effects of recent Obama administration changes to Income-Based Repayment for student loans. Namely, the program is set to provide graduate school borrowers with exceedingly generous benefits even if they earn a high income after they leave school. Graduate schools can now tell borrowers that they will bear little to no extra cost in borrowing more to pay ever-higher tuition – even if they expect to earn a relatively high income.

Will the Obama budget propose any corrections to this problem?  Or will he propose to make it worse? Each year the president has proposed making loan forgiveness a tax-free event under Income-Based Repayment. Such a policy would make the benefits of the program for high-debt (and high-income) graduate students even more generous, regressive, and expensive. To be sure, we agree that the loan forgiveness should be tax-free and recommend the change – but only after the program’s benefits for high-debt and high-income borrowers with graduate and professional degrees are scaled back.

Look for answers to these and other questions over the next several weeks as we read the president’s budget request and publish our analyses. Check out Early Ed Watch, Ed Money Watch, and Higher Ed Watch for details.

Waiver Watch: District Waivers Go Off the Map

April 4, 2013
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The California Office to Reform Education (CORE) is closer to becoming the first consortium of school districts to receive a flexibility waiver from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Although the nine CORE districts -- Clovis, Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, Sanger, and Santa Ana Unified -- submitted a formal waiver proposal to the U.S. Department of Education in February, speculation around district-level waivers had been percolating for months, particularly in states that were reluctant to apply for a waiver or failed to meet the Department’s waiver guidelines, like California.

Naturally, groups representing states -- like the Council of Chief State School Officers -- have significant concerns about district waivers, as it throws the relationship between local, state, and federal authority off kilter. Meanwhile, influential leaders in California, including State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, theoretically support the CORE request, but raise questions about how it would work in practice.

I share these concerns. Many states sought to unify state and federal policies via waivers and create a streamlined, more effective system of school accountability and improvement. But despite their intentions, most waivers are convoluted, confusing, and vague, presenting a challenge to those trying to monitor states’ progress and figure out what’s working (like me!). In other words, despite a common map and itinerary from the U.S. Department of Education, states chose very different, and often, indirect routes to arrive at their final waiver destination. Don’t get me wrong: variation and creativity aren’t necessarily bad things. Some states needed to spend more time developing teacher evaluations, or take a side trip and explore new approaches to student assessment. But, these variations certainly make the system more difficult to understand.

When it comes to waivers at the district level, the roadmap simply flies out the window. Most of the flexibility provisions within NCLB operate at the state level, making districts a far less logical driver of change. In most waiver states, local policies can be aligned with the federal-state waiver approach through legislation, regulation, and technical assistance from state education agencies. Schools and stakeholders within district waivers, however, will still have to navigate changing local, state, and federal systems -- just with fewer tools and resources at their disposal to bring the systems together. Thus, district waivers, by design, will likely create even more confusion.

Despite its deviations from the Department’s careful roadmap, the CORE proposal deserves to be taken seriously by waiver-watchers. Last week, the Department moved the request to the peer review stage, which means CORE’s proposal has already made it further down the road than California’s failed attempt. Therefore, it’s worth taking a closer look at the specifics within the CORE approach. Stay tuned for a full rundown of the CORE request in an upcoming post.

Podcast: Pre-K Bills in Congress, Cracks in the Credit Hour and More

April 1, 2013
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This week's education podcast -- available through iTunes and the In the Tank blog – begins with discussion of the recent movement by the 113th Congress on early learning. Starting with President Obama’s call to expand preschool access in his State of the Union Address, Congress has introduced of a number of early education bills in the past three months.
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