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Republicans and Democrats agree that the country needs more science and engineering graduates--STEM geeks, if you will. They also agree that foreigners who are earning those degrees at U.S. universities should be able to stay here and fill the need for skilled workers. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., posited that each visa given to a foreign graduate student in a STEM field would create three jobs. President Obama wants to staple green cards to their diplomas.
These notions were bandied about the presidential campaign like plastic beads at Mardi Gras, and they came up again last week when the House passed legislation that would make 55,000 green cards available a year to foreigners earning advanced degrees in STEM fields. The measure won't go any further because Democrats want broader immigration reform, but the general idea has bipartisan support.
Here's the rub. Americans don't seem to be going for those degrees with the same gusto as foreign students. There are fewer home-grown STEM students than those who came from somewhere else. According to the Congressional Research Service, almost one-third of STEM graduates in 2009 were foreign nationals. A separate study in 2009 from the Education Department shows that another 30 percent of STEM students are naturalized citizens, meaning they were not born in the United States.
What's going on here? Are the science and engineering fields too difficult for Americans to handle? Why are foreign students drawn to these fields? How can educators in this country engage students in science and math? Does it make sense to focus on the economic need? Or do high school counselors just need to make science and math seem cool?
Almost any policy conversation about the job creation and unemployment contains a persistent undercurrent about adult education. It usually surfaces in the context of the "skills gap." People want jobs, but they don't have the skills to get the ones that are available.
The problem goes much deeper than that. According to the low-income advocate group CLASP, 93 million adults have basic skills deficiencies that could limit their economic and career potential. Yet only about two million of these adults have gotten any basic education from government programs.
"There's not as much attention [to adult education] because it doesn't have as much money," said National Skills Coalition Federal Policy Director Rachel Gragg. Because resources are scarce, job training counselors are faced with few answers for the very low-skilled adults who walk through their doors. "You kind of triage and do the best that you can. For somebody who has tremendous barriers to employment, it's hard to know sometimes how to start."
President Obama alludes to adult education but doesn't dwell on it when he talks about returning two million workers to community colleges to learn skills "that will lead directly to a job." Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also talks about job training as a part of the budget solution that will avoid the "fiscal cliff" of higher tax rates and automatic spending cuts. "We have to empower people with the skills they need to fill middle class jobs," Rubio said at the Washington Ideas Forum sponsored by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute.
What are the biggest challenges to educating low-skilled adults? Do they need different services than dislocated workers who are transitioning to new careers? Does Obama's focus on the "skills gap" help bring attention to the issue? Or does the conversation need to go deeper? What are the best venues to help these people? Municipal centers? Community colleges? Federal job training programs?
School board members were elected all over the country last week. Richmond, Va., Mayor Dwight Jones saw his son Derik elected to his city's board. Voters in Santa Clara County ousted nine of 26 board members.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post created a small flurry of conversation when it ran a story a few days before the election noting that only two of the eight school board members in Prince George's County, Maryland have college degrees. Does that matter? Tough to say. Personal commitment to a school system may matter more than a college diploma. But if you're in the business of educating kids, it probably doesn't hurt to have a solid education yourself.
It's difficult to consider these questions without understanding the role of school boards. According to a study conducted by American Enterprise Institute Education Policy Studies Director Rick Hess, a contributor to this blog, the amount of time board members spend on school business varies widely between large and small districts. Some board members work less than 15 hours a month, while others work more than 40 hours per month. In small districts, most board members receive no salary or a small stipend. In large districts, about half of board members are paid for their work but less than 8 percent earn more than $15,000 a year.
Some education experts are not fans of school boards. Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Chester Finn, another contributor to this blog, has called them "an anachronism and an outrage." National Journal's sister publication, The Atlantic, published a feature in 2008 with the provocative title, "First, Kill All the School Boards." Others, including the National School Boards Association, say school boards are a critical connection between the community and the public school system and an essential component of democracy.
Do school boards matter? If so, how? What are examples of good school board activities? What education topics should school boards avoid? Do board members need basic qualifications like college degrees or other certificates? Should they be elected or appointed? How do the answers to these questions vary based on region or school district size?
Education gurus are the first to acknowledge that their pet issue has not been a prominent feature in the presidential campaign. Thank God it's over.
I give education policy experts kudos for is their ability to keep humming along despite being largely ignored on the federal stage. School administrators, teachers groups, foundations, think tanks, research institutions, etc., are the places where you will find the next big ideas on education. Eventually the lawmakers catch up.
I'm collecting ideas on the next big topics in education--stuff the administration will be dealing with in one form or another. I'll start off the discussion with a few of my own.
*Digital Learning. "Ed Tech" is a big deal in Silicon Valley these days, which means there will be more and more products on the market to help teachers teach and students learn. Online campus learning is becoming a central feature of colleges and universities. Regardless of worriers who fear such innovations will replace the traditional classroom, high-tech learning is here to stay. The only question is, what form will it take?
*Common Core State Standards. With 46 states on board with the skills that kids should possess before they graduate from high school, the big question in the next year will be about implementation. How to translate the basic concepts of vocabulary, reading comprehension, logical writing, fractions, geometry, and probability into curricula and assessments will occupy the best education planners for years. Teachers, school districts, and states will have to work closely together to build this learning environment or the standards will begin to look like pipe dreams.
*School Choice. The new wave of parent-based education organizations shows that the PTA is no longer the only player in the school debates. With the help of these advocacy groups, parents are agitating for more control over where their kids go to school. They want alternatives to the bad schools. That means that the old charter school and school voucher movements aren't going away. But it also means that there will be new conversations about how to ensure that good schools are available to all kids, perhaps through new types of funding allocations or public-private partnerships. Blame Education Secretary Arne Duncan for making so much noise over the last four years about failing schools. Now no one wants to enroll their kids in them.
What other big education topics will surface for the next administration? Am I on target with my choices? What barriers will educators face in Congress? In the states? In their districts? How will the advocacy movements impact the debates? Who are the big players? What can we look forward to?
If nothing else, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made waves. In the last four years, he has brought about incredible changes in education policy, no thanks to Congress. That's a point that education writer Richard Colvin (a contributor to this blog) makes in a recent column in Kappan magazine. "The breakdown of the legislative process hasn't prevented the U.S. Department of Education from pursuing what may well be one of the most far-reaching education reform agendas ever," Colvin writes. Duncan shepherded $4 billion for Race to the Top competitive grants and created No Child Left Behind waiver program for states. Let's not forget also that the Common Core State standards are now...well...common.
This has not made everyone happy, particularly conservatives who don't want to see new education policies put in place by fiat. Fordham Institute Executive Vice President Mike Petrilli (whose boss Chester Finn is also a contributor on this blog) argued in reaction to Colvin's article that the White House could have pushed for legislation instead of the NCLB waivers, even if it didn't like where Congress was going. "Both the Senate and House passed reauthorization bills out of their respective committees, and had the administration wanted to get them across the finish line, it could have pushed for it, and I think achieved it," Petrelli said in an e-mail. Had that happened, NCLB would have been more or less dead. But it would have been a sound legislative process.
It is debatable whether Congress would have been able to pass any bill reauthorizing the complex elementary and secondary education system. It is also worth asking whether the administration did the responsible thing in responding to the gridlock, which had real consequences for states, with its "We Can't Wait" waiver program. But it is beyond question that everyone involved in the debate has been shocked at how difficult it is to accomplish anything. Everyone involved in the talks agrees with 90 percent of the changes that are on the table. Colvin quotes one Capitol Hill aide who quit out of frustration. I have met staffers who say that Congress has regressed more than 10 years in its thinking on education.
In spite of all this, Duncan broke through these barriers and instituted programs that education researchers will be studying for the next decade. If President Obama wins reelection, Duncan will stick around, but his impact probably won't be as large as he continues the programs he started. He won't have $48.6 billion in economic stimulus money to play with, and he will instead have to focus on where he can cut to meet budget constraints.
It doesn't matter because Duncan has already made his mark.
What lessons can we learn from the Education Department under Arne Duncan? What is his legacy? How important is the waiver program in considering next steps for NCLB--i.e., assessments, testing, disaggregation? How important is Race to the Top in encouraging state innovations? Are there other, better ways that an agency can deal with an intransigent Congress? What did Arne do for us in Obama's first term?
If the casual mention of a high school social studies class makes your eyes glaze over, you aren't alone. The stereotype of the throw-away, easy A class taught by the football coach is there for a reason.
But you also aren't thinking about civics the way that education scholar Peter Levine thinks you should. "In 1948, 41 percent of American kids took a class called Problems of Democracy. It was reading the newspaper and discussing the issues and writing papers about it, which is pretty much what I would want to happen. ...It's basically gone now," said Levine, who runs the civic engagement organization CIRCLE.
Levine worries a lot about how kids learn to become citizens. He says schools aren't teaching them about civics in any consistent or meaningful way. CIRCLE's research on government curriculum finds that all states require some form of social studies, but most states don't test on it and those that do use the cheapest multiple-choice tests. "That's why everybody knows how old you have to be president," he said. "It's often required but only taught in senior year when senioritis has set in when a lot of students have dropped out already."
Without context, knowing about the Constitution's separation of powers or how a bill becomes a law seems is to a lot of kids, particularly those from disadvantaged areas whose parents may be less likely to vote. The Senate's filibuster threshold makes a lot more sense if you're looking at it in terms of food stamps in the farm bill or the Dream Act for undocumented youth. Young adult high school dropouts say that the main reason they left school is that what they were learning had nothing to do with their everyday problems. On the other hand, at-risk youth who have taken part in "service learning" programs that confront current issues within their communities are more likely to stay in school. That means they are more likely to get jobs, stay healthy, and vote.
Some critics blame educators' increased focus on math and reading for the demise of civics studies in classrooms. One doesn't necessarily cancel out the other--reading and writing about current events can be just as useful as reading and writing about Shakespeare. (No offense to the Bard.) Unfortunately, Levine says that the most disadvantaged schools tend to be the ones that hunker down around reading and math basics, perhaps forgetting that there is an election happening, because they fear being labeled as failing. No one can blame them, but the narrower focus creates a vicious cycle of inequality about teaching the role of citizens in a democracy. The kids who miss out on meaningful civics classes are the most at risk of alienation to begin with.
Where do civics or government studies fit in schools? What is the best definition of a meaningful civics education? What questions about civics studies remain unanswered? What sorts of investments are needed to foster a robust study of government? How important is it to prepare high school students to cast their first vote? Is it the school's responsibility or someone else's?
Higher education is among the most valuable of activities for young adults. It opens intellectual and professional doors that otherwise would remain forever closed. Apollo Group/National Journal Next America polling finds that colleges and universities rank highly in the public esteem, in the 80 percent range, slightly above K-12 education and well above labor unions, major corporations, and Congress.
I recently wrote in a National Journal magazine feature arguing that the standard narratives about college must change. They must expand beyond dorm life and late-night pizza cram sessions to accommodate the people who will fill the 'middle jobs'--the ones that pay at least $50,000 annually and require some post-high-school education but not a bachelor's degree. There are 11 million of these jobs, according to new research from the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. And they are tailor-made for the folks who can't get into college or can't afford a full four years.
Finishing college has to be the ultimate goal, not finding yourself. Many students can't waste time and precious credit hours trying out several majors. "When I was in college, the idea was that your freshman and sophomore years was an exploratory time. Totally gone. It is not exploratory," said Joyce Romano, vice president for student services at Valencia Community College. "Decide when you're in the womb what you want to do."
How can the narrative about college evolve to accommodate a new crop of "middle" workers? What kinds of skills are most important to teach them? How important are the middle workers to the next economy? Should there be more college options than just an associate's degree and a bachelor's degree? Are there career or technical models for higher education that should be explored? What is missing in the higher education spectrum?
The College Board reported last week that 43 percent of college-bound students are academically ready for college. This means that less than half of those who took the test this year are likely to maintain a B- average or higher during their freshman year of college. The figure shouldn't be a surprise to anyone involved in higher education. In community colleges, it isn't unusual for three-quarters of the entering students to need some sort of catch-up course. Still, it's a problem for a country that seems to be in agreement that an increase in college graduates would help grow the economy and shrink the poverty rate.
Let's look at these numbers a little bit more closely. Math scores have remained stable over the last four years. That in itself is good news, since falling behind in high school math is the surest way to eliminate the most lucrative of college majors--the science, technology, and engineering fields that both President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney are encouraging. Moreover, educators are well aware that reading and writing is harder to teach and harder to test than math.
Writing scores have declined by four and five points respectively. That's not good, but it could be worse. And the population of test takers is also expanding, largely in disadvantaged populations. The SAT test takers grew from 1.56 million in 2008 to 1.66 million this year, making 2012 the largest class of test takers in history. The number of test takers who qualify for a fee waiver has increased by 61 percent over four years. Almost half of the test takers this year were minorities (45 percent), up from 38 percent in 2008. The proportion of test takers who came from non-English speaking or bilingual homes increased by 10 points over 10 years.
How significant is the 43 percent figure in judging the quality of the future workforce? Does the expanded population of test takers explain the decline in reading and writing scores? How could the SAT test be improved? Are there other measures that can predict a student's success in college? What can be done to improve tests on reading and writing? What can be done to improve reading and writing instruction?
The day after Chicago public school teachers returned their classrooms, a group of educators and researchers from around the country convened in a sunny conference room in Washington D.C. to ponder the very questions that had so recently vexed the Windy City. Where are we as a nation with teacher evaluations? Are we evaluating the right things? What role should student data play in professional development? What about employment decisions?
"I think the issue of teacher effectiveness will be here to stay," said Joanne Weiss, chief of staff to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, at a seminar on teacher evaluations sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The Obama administration has deliberately incorporated teacher evaluations into a full range of federal incentives, including No Child Left Behind waivers and Race to the Top competitive grants. They want to start the conversation about what the teacher talent base looks like and how we measure it. The answers are unclear.
"It is a scary time, a lot of unknowns," Weiss of said of Chicago strike, which hinged in part on a new evaluation system for teachers. But the idea of making a professional judgment about whether someone is effective is not new. "This is what human resources looks like," she said. The difficulty comes in creating a process that measures effectiveness accurately but also takes into account the intangibles of good teaching.
Teachers want to be treated as professionals. They don't shy away from evaluations--in fact they embrace them--as long as they know that the people observing and judging them truly understand what is going on in their classrooms. That's the point of this video developed by Teach Plus and Carnegie, using interviews from Teach Plus policy fellows who have worked under new evaluation systems in the Washington D.C. and Memphis, Tenn.
Policymakers are only just beginning figure out the nuances of how to go about making real judgments about teachers and schools. The discomfort shouldn't stop the progress. "When in fog, walk forward," Weiss said.
What do we know now about teacher evaluations? What questions remain unanswered? Where should researchers and teacher-evaluation designers focus their attention? What should educators do with imperfect measurements? How much variation can be tolerated before the broader system loses credibility? Where does professional judgment come into play? How much trust needs to be built with teachers first?
Picket lines make good headlines. Who doesn't love a story about how Chicago kids spent their unexpected week off from school? But the Chicago Teachers' Union strike isn't just good newspaper fodder. It's good dialogue fodder about the future of public education in the United States. The questions raised by the walkout drive right to the heart of issues that stymie educators and policymakers. How do you evaluate teachers? Where do teachers at failing schools go? How much should they get paid? The answers cannot be placed on a bumper sticker. No wonder this stuff got ignored at the political conventions.
It's easy to focus on the national politics of a high-profile local standoff. Unions are a critical part of the presidential election, and the major national teachers' unions came out early in support of President Obama. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a colorful character with country-wide name recognition, having worked in two administrations.
But setting aside the horse-race components of the strike reveals real and troubling issues about how to improve a city's school system that has failed many of its students. No one disagrees with the idea that teacher quality needs to be monitored, but the measurement tools have to be calibrated just right. That's the kind of instrument that takes time and trust to develop, two things that a strike does not foster. On failing schools, Chicago isn't unique. There are thousands of disagreements all over the country about closing bad schools, and the results are never pretty. What do you do with those schools' teachers? Who is to blame for a failing school? There is no easy answer.
What is surprising about the Chicago strike is not these questions but other thorny factors that are not sticking points--teacher pay, the city's right to close schools, even teachers' right to strike. The parties' grudging willingness not to make a big stink over these factors is the best evidence to show that they have acted in good faith.
What lessons about education arise from the Chicago strike? How can policymakers use the Chicago dispute to push the national dialogue into productive territory? Are there positive messages about education that can emerge from the talks? What does the dispute say about state and local education budgets? Can the strike spur creative thinking about how to treat teachers?