May 2014 AASA News

Posted on July 16, 2014

The Advocate, April 2014

Dan Domenech

Executive Director

AASA, The School Superintendents Association

 

Last month the FCC closed its comment period for its most recent Public Notice (PN), soliciting responses for the FCC’s proposed changes to the E-Rate program. The current E-Rate policy environment is an unprecedented confluence of events: An FCC Chairman committed to modernizing the E-Rate program, an FCC Commissioner deeply passionate about E-Rate, the momentum of the President’s ConnectEd proposal, the announcement of $2 billion in found funding for the E-Rate program, and the ever-increasing demand for connectivity in the nation’s schools and libraries.

 

The long-term success of E-Rate relies on its ability to be updated to reflect the ever-changing world of connectivity and educational technology while remaining committed to its focus on equity and program sustainability. Though most schools and libraries are now connected to the internet, the quality and speed of that connection does not always meet the demand.  We still have school districts that do not have the technological capacity to keep up with the mandated online formative assessments and the tracking of massive amounts of data through the state longitudinal data systems.

 

From an AASA point of view, we strongly support a two-prong approach to modernizing the E-Rate program. One with both programmatic changes and a permanent increase in the program’s funding cap. An infusion of funding without programmatic restructuring is a poor investment, and programmatic restructuring without permanent, adequate funding sets the program on a path towards instability and failure.

 

Earlier this year, the administration announced an infusion of $2 billion over two years for the E-Rate program. This is not new funding, rather it is found funding, coming in part from roll-over funds not allocated to Priority Two (internal connections and their basic maintenance) services and other tweaks to program accounting. AASA applauds the effort to find the funds, but we want this funding to be seen as what it is: a one-time infusion of E-Rate funding back into the E-Rate program. In its Public Notice, the FCC is looking to allocate these dollars to Priority Two services, the portion of the program that provides for internal connections and is regularly underfunded, as funding runs out before demand can be met.

 

In a time when it is all but certain that the demand for connectivity in the learning environment will keep growing, it is counterintuitive to provide a much-needed infusion of funds as a one-time investment. Districts, like individuals, will spend one-time funding (like a bonus) differently than a permanent increase (salary increase). Any serious discussion about modernizing E-Rate will be committed to sustainability, and any final proposal short of a permanent funding increase sets the program on an unsustainable path.

High school graduation rate could hit 90 percent
By: Stephanie Simon
April 28, 2014 07:47 AM EDT
The high school graduation rate has topped 80 percent for the first time in U.S. history — and if states can keep up their rapid pace of improvement, the rate could hit 90 percent by 2020, according to federal data released Monday.The improvement has been driven by steep gains among African-American and Hispanic students and by progress in shutting down hundreds of troubled urban schools dubbed “dropout factories.” And it’s not confined to one region of the country. Rural states such as Iowa, Vermont and Nebraska are among the best at keeping kids in school until graduation — but other top performers include Texas, Tennessee and Missouri, all of which serve large numbers of low-income students in densely populated cities.The practical result: Over the past decade, 1.7 million more students received diplomas than would have been expected if graduation rates had remained flat.(Also on POLITICO: Full education policy coverage)

“This is really, really good news,” said John Gomperts, the president of America’s Promise Alliance, a coalition of nonprofits, businesses and educators focused on raising the graduation rate. “For a country that can feel like it’s struggling to make progress, this is a pretty big story of positive change.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Monday hailed the new data at a “Building a Grad Nation” summit hosted by America’s Promise. The group released a report detailing state-by-state performance, based on 2012 data.

“Even as we celebrate, we all know we have to push beyond that 80 percent,” Duncan said. He emphasized that high school diplomas are not the finish line, telling students they will need some form of post-secondary education to succeed in the global economy.

He warned schools that the focus shouldn’t be on handing out diplomas, but on teaching students the skills they need to prepare them for college or technical school.

“Ultimately, what our children need isn’t a little bit more of the same, it’s a true sea change that alters the odds of opportunity,” Duncan said.

(PHOTOS: Schools making adequate yearly progress)

And the strong national gains mask sharp disparities between states — and between groups of students.

In Nevada, fewer than one in four students with disabilities earns a high school diploma. In Montana, 81 percent do.

In Minnesota, just 59 percent of low-income students graduate, compared with 87 percent of their wealthier peers. The disparity between income groups is almost as big in Colorado, Connecticut, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Connecticut Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor noted that the state has made some progress: Graduation rates jumped more than 6 percent for low-income students in 2012. But that only brought them up to a 70 percent graduation rate — compared to a 94 percent rate for their more affluent peers. “There remains much more work to do,” Pryor said. To make up ground, the state is focusing on chronically absent students. It’s also pushing to expand choice by introducing more magnet and charter schools in a bid to keep more teenagers engaged.

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The report points out that gaps in student performance are not inevitable. It highlights Indiana, Texas and Hawaii as success stories. The graduation rates for low-income students in those states nearly match the overall graduation rate. Montana, Arkansas, Kansas and Texas get shout-outs as well for keeping more than three in four students with disabilities on paths to diplomas.

“One of the most compelling messages to come out of this is that we don’t have a chronically un-fixable problem of poverty or disability or other circumstances of birth,” said John Bridgeland, CEO of the public policy firm Civic Enterprises and a co-author of the report.

The disparities may show up most clearly in urban graduation rates. Some big city districts with large populations of low-income students boast graduation rates close to 80 percent. They include Des Moines, Iowa; Columbus, Ohio; Houston; Portland, Maine; and Miami-Dade County in Florida.

At the other end of the scale, a handful of districts including Denver, New Orleans, Cleveland and Atlanta do not graduate even 60 percent of their students. At the very bottom of the pack: the Minneapolis Public School District, where an incoming freshman has just a 50 percent chance of earning a diploma.

(PHOTOS: President Obama talks up ConnectED)

Josh Collins, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education, said the state “has been challenged for years with an achievement gap for students of color and students living in poverty.” But he noted that the state notched real improvements in 2013, including a 6 percentage-point jump in graduation rates for African-American students and a nearly eight-point jump for students still learning English. That 2013 data is not included in the Grad Nation report.

Minnesota has set ambitious targets for raising test scores and graduation rates for every demographic group of students. “For the first time, we have have concrete goals around gaps and are letting our school leaders know exactly how far they need to go to be fully on track to close those gaps,” Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said earlier this year.

The state has set up an early-warning system that helps principals identify students most at risk of dropping out, even as early as grade six, and provide them with additional supports. Cassellius is also pushing schools to develop alternatives to out-of-school suspensions, so kids don’t miss so many classes or become disengaged.

Authors of the new analysis point out that graduation rates have risen quickly since 2006 even though many states were ratcheting up demands on students, requiring more credits in tough academic courses and imposing exit exams.

In the past two years, however, states have begun to back away from the increased rigor. Florida students no longer need chemistry, physics or Algebra II to graduate. Texas scrapped a slew of mandatory exams and its Algebra II requirement. Other states are moving rapidly to let students substitute vocational classes for some academics.

Confronted with huge numbers of students who could not pass the math exam required for high school graduation, the Nevada Board of Education recently lowered the score needed to pass, from 300 to 242 points out of 500.

Some districts and states, eager to improve graduation rates, have also pushed students into abbreviated credit-recovery courses that let them rapidly make up missing credits but don’t necessarily ensure solid learning.

The report’s authors say all of those issues bear close scrutiny. For now, though, they’re focused on the good news.

“When we ventured into this work six or seven years ago, people told us, ‘You can’t change the graduation rate. This is just the way it is, the way it’s always been, the way it always will be,’ ” Gomperts said. His message for those skeptics: “We can do big things.”

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