2014 Back-to-School Bus Tour Cities Announced!

Students across the country are heading back to school, which means it’s also time for our annual Back-to-School Bus Tour!

Secretary Arne Duncan and senior ED officials will visit Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. This year’s tour, themed Partners in Progress, will run from September 8-10 and includes visits in the following cities:

  • Atlanta, Ga.
  • Carrollton, Ga.
  • Birmingham, Ala.
  • Huntsville, Ala.
  • Chattanooga, Tenn.
  • Nashville, Tenn.
  • Memphis, Tenn.

Throughout the tour, the Secretary will discuss the changes in education and the challenges that accompany them, all while highlighting the champions of reform — teachers, parents, community members, and others — who are leading the effort to improve education for all students.

Secretary Duncan will also showcase the investments the Department has made in each state and discuss initiatives such as Investing in Innovation (i3), Race to the Top state grants, Preschool for All, College Access and My Brother’s Keeper that are aimed at improving outcomes for students.

This is the fifth back-to-school bus tour for Secretary Duncan. Last year, the tour traveled throughout the Southwest. In 2012, the Department’s tour went coast to coast; in 2011, the tour rolled through the Midwest; and in 2010, Duncan and his team visited the South and the Northeast.

Check back soon for additional information on the tour, or simply sign up to receive Partners in Progress updates in your email inbox.

Dorothy Amatucci is a digital engagement strategist at the U.S. Department of Education.

Uniting for Sustainable Excellence in Kentucky

Note: U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) recognizes schools, districts and postsecondary institutions that are 1) reducing environmental impact and costs; 2) improving health and wellness; and 3) teaching environmental education.  To share innovative practices and widely-available resources in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees.  A state and local official write about the honorees visited on the tour in Kentucky.

Locust Trace AgriScience Farm is a new, net zero construction that opened in August 2011

Locust Trace AgriScience is a new, net zero construction that opened in August 2011 (Photo courtesy of Fayette County Public Schools)

Kentucky schools have been working to make our facilities more sustainable, and to ensure that they support student wellness and environmental literacy. But it was U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) that provided the framework our state needed to address these areas cohesively. The award prompted an open dialogue and helped us reach new stakeholders who might not have otherwise been engaged in sustainability.

Ultimately, each conversation that we have about building performance, student wellness, or environmental learning is rooted in the understanding that they are most effective when addressed together. To bring all of our many partners together and highlight this coordinated work, Kentucky was pleased to co-host the first leg of the second annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour.

Kentucky’s districts that integrate the three pillars of ED-GRS let students take ownership of their school facilities and well-being.

In Scott County, students at Northern Elementary explained to guests how they measured the brightness of their classrooms and then removed overhead bulbs to save money and ensure a better learning environment. At Georgetown Middle School, school leadership emphasizes comprehensive health, ensuring that students have adequate physical activity and nutrition — even outside of school hours — with breakfast, dinner, and weekend meal programs.

At Rosa Parks Elementary in Fayette County, visitors saw the results of the students’ campaign to reduce car idling near school in order to improve public health. The Wellington Elementary School Living Lab team then taught visitors about their sustainable building’s features, including photovoltaic solar panels, a rainwater capture and reuse system, a thermal hot water system, permeable pavers, a rain garden, automatic lighting controls, native landscaping, and an outdoor classroom.

Rosa Parks Elementary School

Rosa Parks Elementary School uses the U.S. EPA’s Portfolio Manager to track its energy reduction progress of more than 70 percent achieved through simple conservation measures. (Photo courtesy of Fayette County Public Schools)

At Locust Trace Agriscience Farm, a student guided visitors through the net zero-building that opened in August of 2011. The school featured permeable pavement, solar panels, solatube daylighting, a green roof, and a constructed wetlands waste disposal system. This low-environmental impact, low-utility cost facility supports green agricultural career paths ranging from Agricultural Power Mechanics to Veterinary Science. Additionally, the small school has formed unique partnerships on the 82-acre farm that benefit other nearby organizations, including culinary and horse training programs.

The tour was a powerful reminder of how Kentucky’s independent programs for sustainability, environmental education, energy management, and health at diverse statewide and local organizations have come together in one unified effort to support schools moving toward the Pillars of ED-GRS.

Seeing the tremendous positive impact this approach has on student achievement in our state, we’re more committed than ever to making our school campuses greener and healthier, and our students more environmentally literate. In order for our community to collaborate in ensuring that all students achieve at high levels and are prepared to excel in a global society, the choice is clear.

Elizabeth Schmitz is Executive Director at the Kentucky Environmental Education Council, part of the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet. Tresine Logsdon is the Sustainability and Energy Curriculum Coordinator for Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington, Kentucky.

Not Just Teachers: Supporting Students’ Success

As summer ends and the school year begins, we often think about teachers and students heading back to school. While teachers prepare lessons and students learn new concepts we can’t forget the service employees who provide support that enable the schools to run efficiently.

Instructional support in schools can play a key role in student success. Paraeducators –– support staff responsible for assisting in the delivery of instruction — help provide such support by assisting with classroom management, organizing instructional materials, helping in libraries and media centers, and translating, to name a few of their responsibilities. Perhaps most importantly, paraeducators reinforce the efforts of teachers in the classroom, and help increase student outcomes.

This is why, as President of the California Service Employees Union, I want to take the time to tell the story of one service employee in the Golden State who really shines.

Paraeducator Michele Delao, a 2011 California School Employees Association Member of the Year, uses her knowledge and warmth to help special education students learn. For the past eight years as special education paraeducator at Bear River School in Wheatland, California, she has brought light-heartedness and laughter to the serious mission of showing special education students that they can thrive.

The staff of Bear River School laud Delao’s ability to help students focus and grasp instruction.

Michele Delao helps a student on an assignment.

Michele Delao helps a student on an assignment.

“She has a very striking sense of humor that comforts the kids and takes the pressure off,” explains Angela Gouker, principal of Bear River School. “Most of these kids know they’re a little bit behind or struggling in some areas. She makes learning fun so that they forget that pressure.”

Delao says it’s satisfying to see the students’ progress. With her help, the students can attend mainstream middle school classes even as they’re working to master the basics.

With budget cuts and fewer staff dedicated to special education, the paraeducators at Bear River School  have taken on a larger load of students with a broader range of learning disabilities. Despite the challenge, Delao tailors her approach to fit each student.

“They’re having great difficulties and there are great variations in each person,” she says. “But because there are only three of us, our groups are really not as targeted as we would like. I have to find a middle ground and at the same time try to meet individual students where they are.”

Understanding  the needs and challenges of working with diverse learners, including special education students, Delao comes to work each day fired by  the energy, compassion and will to give the students she mentors a boost toward academic success. And, she does it all with a smile.

“She really cares about what she does – she cares about people – and that sense of humor comes through,” Gouker said. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Michael Bilbrey  is president of the California School Employees Association.

 

Moving Sustainability Forward in the Mountain State

Note: U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) recognizes schools, districts and postsecondary institutions that are 1) reducing environmental impact and costs; 2) improving health and wellness; and 3) teaching environmental education. To share innovative practices and widely-available resources in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees. Two non-profit organization school sustainability leaders write about the schools and district honorees visited on the tour in West Virginia.

EastwoodElem1

At Eastwood Elementary, in Morgantown, West Virginia, enhanced wall and roof insulation and a geothermal heating and cooling system allow the school to use about 25 percent less energy than a conventional one of the same size. (Photo courtesy of Eastwood Elementary)

Here in West Virginia, we were excited to highlight our U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School (ED-GRS) honorees during the second annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour. West Virginia was a fitting place to kick off the 2014 tour because, when the ED-GRS program was announced a few years ago, non-profit organizations like ours were quick to offer support to our state education agency.

Before 2011, many organizations were holding green schools workshops and events that helped participants develop plans to become more sustainable. But ED-GRS has provided a common goal for those engaged in the sustainable schools movement, and a new direction for our conversation on healthy schools and high-achieving students.

What has emerged is West Virginia Sustainable Schools (WVSS) initiative, which we use to recruit applicants for the national award. Led by the West Virginia Department of Education, WVSS has become a conduit through which agencies and organizations channel sustainability programming in curriculum, health and wellness, and facilities to schools.

ED-GRS has helped what was once a small but deeply-rooted sustainability community to grow less isolated, and more effective. Now we are using a few exemplary schools to inspire other schools to expand their efforts.

For this reason, it was a particular pleasure to have federal, state and local visitors tour our ED-GRS honorees to learn about innovative, hands-on curricula, community partnerships, and sustainability practices that advance learning, health and cost savings.

From pulling invasive garlic mustard weed to monitoring water quality in a local stream, Petersburg Elementary School, our first stop, partners with field experts to effectively teach science and stewardship while conserving Appalachia’s precious land.

Later, at Wyoming County Career and Technical Center, in the heart of coal country, students, school leaders, and community partners led guests through an energy efficient modular home, a 8.4 kW solar array, a biodiesel processor, and a recycling trailer, all student-built in sustainable career pathways.

Cameron-Middle-High-exterior

Cameron Middle-High School in Cameron, West Virginia. Both the school and Marshall County, a District Sustainability Awardee, have received U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools accolades. (Photo courtesy of Cameron Middle-High School)

In Marshall County Schools, we toured Hilltop Elementary and Cameron Middle-High School. Marshall County has made sustainable building practices and learning a priority from early learning to agricultural technology programs, saving the district over $5 million in 10 years. From low-impact buses to green cleaning, recycling to school gardens, these schools are teaching environmental concepts, along with entrepreneurial and civic skills, and wellness practices, in healthy, safe, lower utility-cost facilities.

Finally, visitors toured Eastwood Elementary in Morgantown, where every attention was given to reducing environmental impact and improving health in the construction of the new facility, from its geothermal heating and cooling system to expansive daylighting to safe and healthy building materials.

Where we once felt we were facing an insurmountable task – striving for increased health and a sustainable future for the children of our state – we now feel a new sense of purpose and momentum. A sustainably literate, college- and career-ready, and civically-engaged generation of West Virginians is on the rise. Striving toward the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools’ three Pillars is now our unifying Mountain State goal.

Vicki Fenwick-Judy is Director of the Appalachian Program at The Mountain Institute. Mark Swiger is a USGBC Center for Green Schools’ Chapter Committees National Chair.

Announcing Commit to Lead

Today, we are announcing a new opportunity to advance teacher leadership. But, for it to succeed, we need your voice to be a part of it.

Since day one on the job, many teachers have shared with me an overwhelming desire to excel in the profession, lead others, and to have a stronger voice. Too often, great teachers leave the classroom because they lack avenues to exercise their leadership – and that’s a loss for our students, our schools and for the profession. As I’ve heard this common refrain from teachers, I thought it was critical to respond. In the midst of dramatic change in education, we need to give our teachers genuine opportunities to be leaders without leaving their classrooms.

To promote and accelerate opportunities for teachers to lead without leaving the classroom, we announced one of our most exciting initiatives earlier this year – Teach to Lead. This initiative builds on years of work to elevate the teaching profession, particularly through our RESPECT effort, and on the leadership of our Teacher and Principal Ambassador Fellows, who advise our team on key decisions and represent the Department externally. Together with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, we launched Teach to Lead to advance student outcomes through expanding opportunities for teacher leadership. And, to achieve this vision, my team and our partners committed to identify, spotlight, and support promising models for teacher leadership across the country.

Teach to Lead is a collaborative effort to advance student achievement by opening doors for all teachers to engage in meaningful leadership opportunities, while remaining in the classroom and in the profession they love. Most importantly, this initiative should be shaped by your thoughts, experiences, and ideas. The shape of teacher leadership shouldn’t be dictated from outside the profession, it should be decided and shaped by teachers themselves, in partnership with principals and other educators.

That’s why today we’re unveiling a key platform to spur more ideas, more conversation, and more collaboration around teacher leadership – Commit to Lead.

Commit to Lead is a public, online community that directly engages teachers and other educators to define what teacher leadership can and should be in their communities, so that collectively we can help make it part of the fabric and culture of every school. It builds on the great work that already exists in the field, and invites the creation of new ideas.

Through this platform, educators will have the opportunity to share ideas and get feedback from peers and collaborators nationwide. It offers a place to spark discussion and build momentum around the best teacher leadership ideas and strongest commitments you can come up with – whether you’re a veteran teacher-leader with best practices to share, or you’re a novice who’s just beginning to get engaged in the conversation. The launch of this site represents one step in our ongoing commitment to listen to educators and support their vital leadership of their profession.

Using Commit to Lead, participants can vote on each other’s ideas, allowing the most promising ideas to rise to the top. We’ll stay a part of the conversation, so that we’re learning from your invaluable experience and knowledge, but also so you can benefit from resources and contacts at our more than 100 partner organizations. The ideas that this online community shares – the ideas fostered, developed, and supported by teachers everywhere – will help to drive a number of regional leadership labs for teachers. At these convenings, featuring teams of teacher leaders and experts from across our partner organizations, your ideas will become plans and, soon, those plans will become actions.

Teach to Lead is all about giving educators the power and a seat at the table – and through this virtual community, the chance to share and develop your ideas on a massive scale is in your hands. Already, we’ve heard of great ideas like the classroom structure reorganization led by 5th grade teacher Vicky Edwards and the school-wide writing program developed by Rhea Espedido, a reading interventionist who wanted to boost student success in writing throughout her entire school.

We want to hear the next great idea – will you be the one to share it?

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.

Building Momentum: Education Leaders Convene at the White House to Help Address the Developmental Education Challenge

Higher education leaders met at the White House to build on the momentum generated at January’s College Opportunity Summit and focus on addressing a key barrier to postsecondary completion.

Some students begin their college careers ill-prepared for college-level math or English. After the excitement of enrolling in college, these students are often surprised and disappointed to learn that their high school experience did not equip them with the skills necessary for success. That means they often must complete remedial or “developmental education” coursework in order to catch up to their peers, which can add time and expense to their pursuit of a degree. Unfortunately, many students do not finish this sequence of developmental courses, and only a small percentage end up graduating. It’s frustrating for the students and the college faculty who want to help them reach their goals.

Assisting these students and helping them graduate was the topic of a recent gathering at the White House.

On August 12, leaders from across the higher education, philanthropic and non-profit communities gathered to discuss the research, evidence, and challenges associated with reinventing developmental education. Secretary Duncan framed the developmental education challenge as both a completion and equity issue, saying, “As you know, we can no longer use the traditional approach to developmental education, which has been a long sequence of remedial classes that do not count toward a degree and few students are able to complete.”

He told the participants, “I want to congratulate you on the innovative work you are doing on your campuses to redesign and accelerate developmental education and reduce time to degree. Not only will this help more students graduate but it will also help close the persistent college completion gaps because we know that large numbers of minority students begin their college careers in developmental education courses.”

Throughout the day, participants engaged in insightful, real-world discussions on the obstacles and opportunities of implementing developmental education reform:

  • Carol Lincoln of Achieving the Dream noted the importance of scaling effective reforms
  • Gregory Peterson of Long Beach City College highlighted how data can influence the developmental education reform process
  • Mike Leach of the Arkansas Association of Two-Year Colleges explained how this particular state system was able to scale developmental education innovation statewide with a federal TAACCCT grant
  • Uri Treisman of the Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin discussed the importance of making developmental math relevant to a student’s career aspirations

The event was also an opportunity to introduce the new Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness, which is funded by a grant awarded by the Department of Education’s Institute for Educational Sciences. Thomas Bailey, the new center’s Principal Investigator, was on hand to engage the audience on the topic of research and how best to utilize the work of the center to address this challenge.

The participants also discussed the importance of faculty and staff engagement in strategic efforts to improve developmental education outcomes.

This Developmental Education meeting is part of the White House College Opportunity Initiative, a call to action by the President and First Lady to accelerate college completion through a set of targeted commitments by colleges and universities, non-profit groups, states and cities, philanthropy and other allies.

The participants in the August 12 event added new commitments to the list generated at January’s summit and will contribute significantly to the momentum building for the next White House Summit in December, 2014. Yet, even as the higher education community focuses on improving the delivery of developmental education and its outcomes for students, the ultimate goal is to ensure that every student in America receives a world-class education, graduates from high school truly prepared for college and career success, and arrives on campus with no need for remedial education.

Those are powerful reasons to build momentum — and strive for results.

Mark Mitsui is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Colleges in the Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Tips for Developing a Strong Relationship with Your Child’s Teacher

The start of the school year is the perfect time to build a positive relationship with your child’s teacher.

It’s a good idea to let your child’s educator know you want to partner with him or her, and share the responsibility for your child’s academic growth.

Here are some tips to bear in mind:

  • Keep in touch! Make sure your child’s teacher has multiple ways and times of day to contact you. Provide as many ways as possible – which might include a work, cell, and home phone number and email address if possible.
  • Mark your calendar! Ask your child’s teacher about the best ways and times to contact him or her. Keep in mind that most teachers are in the classroom all day, so after school may be the best time to call or to make an appointment to meet with him or her.
  • Reach out! Let the teacher know that you as a parent are there to help. Volunteer to assist with school trips or functions at school that might require additional adult supervision.
  • Stay informed! Within the first few weeks after school starts, find out from the teacher if you child needs any assistance in one or more subject areas. Find out what resources are available at the school and what resources the teacher would recommend to help your child keep improving.
  • Team up! Remember, you and the teacher have the exact same goals. You’re both working to ensure the academic development and progress of your child. So, sit down together and figure out what you can do at home to reinforce what your child’s teacher is doing in the classroom. That way, your child can keep learning long after the school day ends!

For more ways to start off the new school year, read the Parent Power booklet.

Carrie Jasper is director of outreach to parents and families at the U.S. Department of Education.

Local Professional Development Sessions Promote Collaboration to “Bridge the Gap” for Young Children

As an early childhood educator, I often wondered about the best ways for stakeholders to work together in meeting the academic needs of young children. Recently, I had the chance to see collaborative planning and intergovernmental work in action at the municipal level, when I attended an event held by the city of Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

The theme was Bridging the Gap – School Readiness by 5, and the event was jointly organized by the office of Mayor Johnny DuPree, the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education, and the National League of Cities Institute (NLCI), to help boost the success of the city’s young children. In an effort to support teachers and child care center directors, the mayor’s office led a professional development session for educators of young children. The day also included a roundtable discussion by representatives of civic organizations, municipal leaders, and educators who committed to improving the outcomes of young children.

The professional development session was extremely beneficial for me. As an educator, I always welcome meaningful opportunities to gain new skills and learn about resources that I can implement in the classroom immediately.

One of the most memorable presentations was by Dr. Joe Olmi, the director of school psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi. He spoke on the value of social-emotional learning and the importance of teaching self-regulation in and outside of the classroom.  He gave great insights on strategies such as “Time-in and Time-out,” in which consequences and privileges are built into the relationship between students and teachers.

Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell, the Department’s director of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, offered her thoughts on the value of family and community engagement. She shared some powerful reflections about her grandmother, who helped her develop a love for reading.  She also urged educators to enlist the help of their students’ families to foster community-building in their classrooms.

Another thoughtful presenter was Dr. Tonja Rucker, the program manager for Early Childhood Development in the Institute for Youth Education and Families at NLCI. She provided suggestions to help children and families transition from preschool to kindergarten. I also had the privilege of sharing my perspective, as an African-American male preschool teacher, on transitions within an early childhood program, and ways to increase rigor in literacy for students.

By fostering collaboration among various agencies and organizations, school leaders in this community have been able to make a positive impact in the lives of young children.

This collaboration means a lot for educators like me, who often struggle to find the resources, information and support we need to teach our youngest pupils.

To provide the best start for all our nation’s young children, we need more state and local communities to show the cooperative spirit that NLCI, the Department and the city and school leaders of Hattiesburg demonstrated in hosting this valuable “Bridging the Gap” planning session.

James Casey was a summer Leadership in Educational Equity fellow in the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education.

Academic Mobility: Have Degree, Will Travel

Last month in Rome, I attended an international meeting focused on increasing academic mobility by making it easier for individuals to use their college degrees in other countries. The annual meeting of the European Network of Information Centers (ENIC) draws participants from 55 countries, as well as representatives from UNESCO and the Council of Europe.

You may not have heard about “academic mobility” before, but it’s actually nothing new. From the time of the first universities in medieval Europe, students and scholars have traveled great distances and crossed borders to engage in academic pursuits. But what makes academic mobility such a prominent issue today is its scale and rate of growth.

willtravel

Participants in the 21st ENIC-NARIC Conference, held in Rome, Italy, July 6-8, 2014.
(Photo credit: Italian Center for Academic Mobility and Equivalencies)

The demand for higher education in many countries has increased significantly, while the number of international students worldwide also continues to grow, rising from 2.5 million in 2004 to 3.6 million in 2010. And for all students earning academic credit or degrees abroad, ensuring that those credentials will be recognized when they return home is critical to their future prospects for employment or further study.

Years ago, just after graduating from college, I spent an additional year studying in Buenos Aires, Argentina. As is the case with most students who go abroad, immersion in another language and culture was a life-changing experience. I didn’t realize it at the time, but not only was I starting down a path toward a career in international education, I was also engaging in something called academic mobility.

Today, as the U.S. representative to the ENIC network, I provide information to counterparts in other countries to help in their evaluation of U.S. credentials, including those that are less well known outside of the United States—like associate degrees and industry-based certifications. I also respond to inquiries from U.S. graduates wishing to work or pursue graduate studies abroad and to questions from foreign-educated graduates planning to work or go to graduate school in the United States.

But the recognition of degrees is just one aspect of academic mobility. Academic mobility comprises all cross-border education activities that involve the movement of people, programs or institutions. And as globalization continues and higher education evolves along with it, academic mobility is becoming a topic of increasing relevance.

Today, I understand the benefits of academic mobility from professional as well as personal experience.  And now more than ever, events and challenges around the world affect all of us on a day-to-day basis. That’s why I’m passionate about working with my international colleagues to help students expand their horizons through study abroad and to facilitate the recognition of degrees and other credentials. Academic mobility helps create more globally competent citizens with the 21st century skills that every nation – and the world as a whole – needs.

Rafael Nevárez is an International Education Specialist in the International Affairs Office. He serves as U.S. representative to the European Network of Information Centers (ENIC) and as a vice president on its steering committee, the ENIC Bureau.

A Back-to-School Conversation with Teachers and School Leaders

As teachers gear up for a new school year, I want to offer two thoughts. One is a message of celebration and thanks. The other is a response to a concern that has come up often in many conversations with teachers and families, and which deserves an answer.

First, the thanks. America’s students have posted some unprecedented achievements in the last year – the highest high school graduation rate in the nation’s history, and sharp cuts in dropout rates and increases in college enrollment, especially for groups that in the past have lagged significantly. For these achievements, we should celebrate America’s teachers, principals, and students and their families. These achievements are also indications of deeper, more successful relationships with our students. All of us who’ve worked with young people know how much they yearn for adults to care about them and know them as individuals.

These achievements come at a time of nearly unprecedented change in American education – which entails enormously hard work by educators. Nearly every state has adopted new standards, new assessments, new approaches to incorporating data on student learning, and new efforts to support teachers.

This transition represents the biggest, fastest change in schools nationwide in our lifetime. And these efforts are essential to prepare kids to succeed in an age when the ability to think critically and creatively, communicate skillfully, and manipulate ideas fluently is vital. I have heard from many teachers that they have not received all the support they’d want during this transition. Yet America’s teachers are making this change work – and I want to recognize and thank them for that and encourage their leadership in this time of change.

That’s the easy part of this message. The harder part has to do with concerns that many teachers have brought to my door.

My team and I hold regular conversations with teachers, principals and other educators, often led by Teacher and Principal Ambassador Fellows, who take a year away from their schools to advise my agency. Increasingly, in those conversations, I hear concerns about standardized testing.

Assessment of student progress has a fundamental place in teaching and learning – few question that teachers, schools and parents need to know what progress students are making. And few question the particular importance of knowing how our most vulnerable students are progressing. Indeed, there’s wide recognition that annual assessments – those required by federal law – have done much to shine a light on the places and groups of students most in need of help. Yet in too many places, it’s clear that the yardstick has become the focus.

There are three main issues I’ve heard about repeatedly from educators:

  1. It doesn’t make sense to hold them accountable during this transition year for results on the new assessments – a test many of them have not seen before – and as many are coming up to speed with new standards.
  2. The standardized tests they have today focus too much on basic skills, not enough on critical thinking and deeper learning.
  3. Testing – and test preparation – takes up too much time.

I share these concerns. And I want our department to be part of the solution.

To those who are reading the last sentence with surprise, let me be clear: assessment is a vital part of teaching and learning, but it should be one part (and only one part) of how adults hold themselves responsible for students’ progress. Schools, teachers and families need and deserve clear, useful information about how their students are progressing. As a parent of two children in public school, I know I want that. And in fact, most teachers and principals I talk with want to be held responsible for students’ progress – through a sensible, smart combination of factors that reflect their work with students – not the level students came in at, or factors outside of their control.

But assessment needs to be done wisely. No school or teacher should look bad because they took on kids with greater challenges. Growth is what matters. No teacher or school should be judged on any one test, or tests alone – always on a mix of measures – which could range from classroom observations to family engagement indicators. In Nevada, educators include a teacher’s contribution to the school community in their measures; in Hawaii, schools consider student feedback surveys and professional growth, such as leading workshops or taking university coursework). Educators in Delaware look at measures of planning and preparation such as lesson plans and descriptions of instructional strategies to be used for students with diverse needs. Federal policy rightly stays out of picking those individual measures, but ensures that in evaluating teachers, states and districts include student growth, and consider multiple measures.

But the larger issue is, testing should never be the main focus of our schools. Educators work all day to inspire, to intrigue, to know their students – not just in a few subjects, and not just in “academic” areas. There’s a whole world of skills that tests can never touch that are vital to students’ success. No test will ever measure what a student is, or can be. It’s simply one measure of one kind of progress. Yet in too many places, testing itself has become a distraction from the work it is meant to support.

I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools – oxygen that is needed for a healthy transition to higher standards, improved systems for data, better aligned assessments, teacher professional development, evaluation and support, and more. This is one of the biggest changes education in this country has ever seen, and teachers who’ve worked through it have told me it’s allowed them to become the best teachers they’ve ever been. That change needs educators’ full attention.

That’s why – as I shared in a conversation with dozens of teachers at Jefferson Middle School in Washington, D.C. earlier today – we will be taking action in the coming weeks that give states more flexibility in key areas that teachers have said are causing worry.

States will have the opportunity to request a delay in when test results matter for teacher evaluation during this transition. As we always have, we’ll work with them in a spirit of flexibility to develop a plan that works, but typically I’d expect this to mean that states that request this delay will push back by one year (to 2015-16) the time when student growth measures based on new state assessments become part of their evaluation systems – and we will work with states seeking other areas of flexibility as well. We want to make sure that they are still sharing growth data with their teachers, and still moving forward on the other critical pieces of evaluation systems that provide useful feedback to educators.  We will be working in concert with other educators and leaders to get this right. These changes are incredibly important, and educators should not have to make them in an atmosphere of worry. Some states will choose to take advantage of that flexibility; others, especially those that are well along in this transition, will not need a delay. The bottom line is that educators deserve strong support as our schools make vital, and urgently needed, changes. As many educators have pointed out, getting this right rests also on high-quality assessments. Many educators, and parents, have made clear that they’re supportive of assessment that measures what matters – but that a lot of tests today don’t do that – they focus too much on basic skills rather than problem solving and critical thinking. That’s why we’ve committed a third of a billion dollars to two consortia of states working to create new assessments that get beyond the bubble test, and do a better job of measuring critical thinking and writing.

I’m concerned, too, when I see places where adults are gaming tests, rather than using them to help students.

And we also need to recognize that in many places, the sheer quantity of testing – and test prep – has become an issue. In some schools and districts, over time tests have simply been layered on top of one another, without a clear sense of strategy or direction. Where tests are redundant, or not sufficiently helpful for instruction, they cost precious time that teachers and kids can’t afford. Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress. This issue is a priority for us, and we’ll continue to work throughout the fall on efforts to cut back on over-testing.

There’s plenty of responsibility to share on these challenges, and a fair chunk of that sits with me and my department. We encouraged states to move a whole lot of changes simultaneously, because of the enormous urgency to raise standards and improve systems of teacher support – not for another generation of students, but for today’s students.

But in how this change happens, we need to listen carefully to the teachers, principals and other educators who are living it on a daily basis – and we need to be true to our promise to be tight on outcomes, but loose on how we get there.

From my first day on this job, the objective has been to work in a spirit of flexibility to help states and communities improve outcomes for kids. We need to make changes, but we are also making progress. I’m determined that, working in partnership, we’ll continue to do both – be flexible and make progress for our kids.

Change is hard, and changes of significance rarely work exactly as planned. But in partnership, making course alterations as necessary, we will get there.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.

This post originally appeared on SmartBlog on Education.

A Promising Pilot to Help Student Borrowers

Cross-posted from the White House OSTP Blog.

Investing in postsecondary education is among the smartest choices Americans can make. College completion opens doors and expands economic opportunity, leading to lower rates of unemployment and higher earnings over the course of a career. But tuition rates have risen significantly in recent decades, and obtaining a college degree increasingly depends on students’ ability to take out loans and manage repayment after leaving school. While most borrowers are able to repay their student loans, many struggle, and some fall behind.

That’s why last month the President and his Administration announced a series of executive actions to help reduce the burden faced by student loan borrowers and make postsecondary education more affordable and accessible to American families. A centerpiece of this action plan is to improve the effectiveness of communications to borrowers about flexible repayment options the U.S. Department of Education offers to help ensure they stay on track with their payments. This includes income-driven repayment plans – Income-Based Repayment, Pay As You Earn, and Income-Contingent Repayment – that link monthly payments to borrower incomes.

We know borrowers are busy and that decisions about student loan plans can be complex and challenging. That’s why the Office of Federal Student Aid at the Department of Education has teamed up with the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, a group of experts who focus on effective, innovative strategies for helping government programs and communications better serve citizens.

In November 2013, Federal Student Aid, in collaboration with the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, launched an e-mail campaign to increase awareness of Income-Driven Repayment and help borrowers make more informed decisions about loan repayment options given their circumstances. The campaign sent emails to borrowers who had fallen behind on their payments, had higher-than-average debts, had grace periods coming to an end, had deferred or entered forbearance because of financial hardship or unemployment, or some combination of the above. In total, the campaign sent emails to over three million borrowers last year and 221,000 submitted applications.

The team embedded a rigorous, randomized-control pilot into the broader campaign, which measured the impact of e-mails designed based on insights from the behavioral sciences on action among borrowers in delinquency for 90-180 days. These e-mails indicated income-driven repayment eligibility criteria, the benefits associated with taking action and the costs associated with inaction, and the relevant web-links and servicer contact information. Behavioral science research demonstrates that timely, clear and low-cost informational messages of this kind can help citizens better understand their options, make more informed decisions, and follow through on their intentions.

Results of the pilot are promising. Sending e-mails to borrowers in delinquency for 90-180 days resulted in a statistically significant, four-fold increase in completed income-driven repayment applications. This effect translates into roughly 6,000 additional completed applications in just the first month after sending among the 841,442 borrowers in the pilot.

We are working together to use insights from this trial to inform future communications and develop even more effective ways of reaching borrowers to help them stay on track.

Maya Shankar is Senior Advisor for the Social and Behavioral Sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Ajita Talwalker Menon is the Senior Policy Advisor for Higher Education at the White House Domestic Policy Council.

Making Critical Investments in Our Youngest Citizens

Cross-posted from the White House Blog.

The Department of Education has unveiled a new grant opportunity to partner with states and local communities to expand the reach of high-quality preschool. The $250 million grant competition will provide thousands of additional 4-year-old children across the country with a high-quality preschool education. The Obama administration’s Preschool Development Grants program is a critical piece of the President’s plan to boost access to high-quality preschool and support early learning for every child in America, beginning at birth and continuing through school entry.

The return on our dollar is highest when we invest in our youngest children, and we have recent research showing that sufficiently scaled Pre-K programs in cities like Boston and Tulsa are having a significant, positive impact on children’s literacy, language development, and math skills. Still, only approximately 28% of America’s 4-year-olds were enrolled in state preschool programs in the 2012-2013 school year. The high cost of private preschool programs and insufficient funding for public preschool in many communities narrows options for families, especially those in low-income communities.

In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to expand access to high-quality preschool education to every child in America. Last January, he challenged more Americans to join this effort — and governors, mayors, school superintendents, corporate and community leaders, foundations, and policymakers have responded.

More than 30 states and the District of Columbia increased funding for preschool in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, and 10 of these states increased funding by more than 20%. This school year, 11,500 more low-income children in California will enjoy high-quality preschool thanks to the leadership of Governor Jerry Brown and Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. The State of Michigan also increased funding for Pre-K by $65 million for the second year in a row, adding more than 10,000 additional seats for 4-year-olds in state Pre-K for the 2014-2015 school year, and more than doubling overall funding for Pre-K in Michigan. Alabama, Connecticut, and Maine, as well as other states and dozens of cities across the country, like San Antonio, New York, Cleveland, and Seattle, have also established new preschool programs or are pushing forward with major expansions.

As we celebrate the expansion of high-quality preschool in states and cities across the country, President Obama continues to call on leadership in Congress to renew our federal commitment to our youngest children, and to the future of our country by partnering with states to provide high-quality Pre-K to every American child. There truly is no better investment in the economic security of our families and our communities than making sure our youngest citizens are ready to succeed in school and in life.

Cecilia Muñoz is an Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council.