Investing in Evidence: Funding Game-Changing Evaluations

What major evaluations could have the biggest impact on preschool through Grade 12 (P-12) education—providing information that could drive significant improvement in the ways that teachers, principals, and policymakers provide education to American students?

The U.S. Department of Education is committed to helping schools, districts, states, and the federal government use funds as wisely as possible – which means in ways that yield better results for students. As part of that, we are working to build evidence of effective practice – and one of the ways we do that is through conducting evaluations that offer useful guidance for future investments. We are looking to the field to help figure out what evaluations are most useful.

The Congressionally enacted Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 allows the Department to strengthen the impact of our evaluation work by pooling resources across Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) programs. This makes it possible to fund rigorous evaluations of individual Federal education programs that currently lack sufficient evaluation dollars, and to evaluate the impact of various strategies that cut across a wide range of ESEA programs.

Specifically, we are asking your help to identify what the most pressing education policy and/or practice questions are and how answering them could provide needed information to educators, parents and local, state, and federal governments to enable significant improvements in education. Our goal is to support the development of findings that have the rigor and power to inform significant improvements in how schools, districts, states, and the federal government provide services to students. We are seeking public input on the following questions:

  1. What are the most critical P-12 questions that are still unanswered?
  2. How could answering these questions provide information that could be used by schools, districts, and States to improve student outcomes for all students and/or particular groups of students?
  3. What type of study could answer these questions and produce findings that are reliable and generalizable?
  4. What implications would these findings have for existing practices, policies, and federal programs? Please mention the specific practices, policies, and programs by name if possible.

Submissions can be posted either publicly through the comment section of the blog or by email to evaluationideas@ed.gov by Monday, December 1, 2014. Any evaluations funded with pooled money should be relevant to P-12 programs authorized under ESEA. All opinions, ideas, suggestions and comments are considered informal input. As such, the Department will not provide formal responses to ideas submitted and submissions may or may not be reflected in the final decisions. If including additional information beyond the above four questions, this information should be accessible to all individuals, including individuals with disabilities, and should not include links to advertisements or endorsements. Any advertisements and/or endorsements will be deleted before submissions are posted.

Emily Anthony is senior policy advisor in the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Education.

A Deeper Shade of Green: A District Sustainability Plan Encompasses Facilities, Operations, and Instruction

Note: The U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools program 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 in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees.

Making the decision to “go green” is an important step toward building 21st-century school systems in this country. And, as our decades-long experience in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) shows, it takes commitment, collaboration, culture change, and comprehensive planning to turn a deeper shade of green.

School Energy and Recycling Teams (SERTs) are comprised of students, teachers, and administrators at each school. (Photo credit: Montgomery County Public Schools)

School Energy and Recycling Teams (SERTs) are comprised of students, teachers, and administrators at each school. (Photo credit: Montgomery County Public Schools)

MCPS’ commitment to good environmental stewardship spans more than 35 years. We began laying the foundation for sustainability in the 1980s and 1990s through dedicated energy and utilities management, including automation of building systems, lighting retrofits, and energy efficient design in new constructions. Today, we have a district-wide sustainability plan championed by the superintendent of schools and it’s implemented at every level of our system.

We’re working hard. We’re getting results. And, we’re getting noticed.

We’re proud that MCPS has received the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools District Sustainability Award and four school awards since 2012. These honors are the result of tremendous collaboration among many offices and departments, including Facilities, Materials Management, Transportation, Information Management, and the Office of Curriculum and Instruction.

We’re integrating operations with instruction in several ways:

  • Building and grounds provide a safe and healthy environment for students;
  • Resource-efficient and renewable energy technologies offer authentic learning; and
  • Conservation practices help the school system save money on operations.

Our district-wide focus on sustainability creates opportunities to involve students in conservation practices as they learn the why and how of those practices.

We have found that a key to the cultural change required for a sustainable school district is getting buy-in from the school community: convincing the staff and students at every school that conservation pays off – quite literally.

A major step forward in this effort was the formation of School Energy and Recycling Teams (SERTs), which are comprised of students, teachers, and administrators at each school. Empowered with quarterly energy use reports to monitor usage and recycling scores, school teams create and implement plans for continued improvement. District-wide savings generated by improved energy and waste management practices are returned to schools, creating further incentives to reduce their utility bills.

Our SERT program unleashes creativity, enthusiasm, and resourcefulness on the part of students and staff. It complements the MCPS K-12 environmental literacy curriculum by providing practical stewardship projects, like those showcased during this month’s Green Strides Best Practices Tour of Francis Scott Key Middle School, one of 14 LEED Gold Certified schools in MCPS. During the tour, Francis Scott Key students spoke about their role in recycling materials at their school and described how they monitor lighting and computer status in classrooms after school. The school features geothermal heating and cooling, a 100 KW solar photovoltaic system, occupancy sensors, and a state-of-the-art storm water management system, all of which provide authentic lessons and project opportunities for teachers and students to explore, research, and analyze.

In MCPS, our Environmental Sustainability Management Plan outlines our goals, strategies, actions, and measurements for a whole array of sustainability areas including energy, transportation, information technology, recycling, and cleaning. Perhaps most importantly, it includes a strong focus on environmental literacy. The plan is a working document that will evolve as new sustainable technologies and practices are invented, and it will continue to help students become better environmental stewards of the world they will inherit.

Laurie Jenkins is Supervisor of Environmental Education Programs and Sean Gallagher is Assistant Director of Facilities Management at Montgomery County Public Schools.

Know It 2 Own It: National Disability Employment Month

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month!

In 1945, Congress passed a law declaring the first week in October as National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week. In 1962, the word ‘physically’ was removed to acknowledge the employment needs and contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities. In 1988, Congress expanded the observance to a month and changed its title.

This year’s theme, “Expect, Employ, Empower,” is a reminder that every American has a right to dignity, respect, and a shot at success in the workplace. The Americans with Disabilities Act guarantees equal opportunity for everyone who is willing to work hard; and, over the past 25 years, Americans living with disabilities have achieved amazing things. Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of students living with disabilities still do not go on to experience steady, gainful employment. Transition planning and related programs can give young people with disabilities the opportunity, skills, and experience needed to make that move from student to employee.

A good example of this type of programming is Project SEARCH. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) partnered with the District of Columbia Public Schools and the District’s Department on Disability Services to host a Project SEARCH class. The Project SEARCH High School Transition Program is a unique, business-led, one-year, school-to-work program that takes place entirely at the workplace. Total workplace immersion facilitates a seamless combination of classroom instruction, career exploration, and hands-on training through worksite rotations. Now in its fifth year at ED, almost 50 students have graduated from the program. Many have gone on to find competitive employment.   These young adults are living examples of the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act and, as a result, are able to lead independent lives.

To learn more about Project SEARCH at the Department of Education, check out this month’s “Know It 2 Own It” video:

“Know It 2 Own It” is a campaign to encourage the general public to learn more about the disability rights movement and history that led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Please let us know how you are working to bring about positive change for individuals with disabilities in your community by sharing your story on social media with the hashtag #know2own.

Click here to view September’s “Know It 2 Own It” blog.

Alexis Perlmutter is a Special Assistant in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education.

Why I’m a Principal, Not a Statistic

Sharif El-Mekki

As October, National Principals Month, comes to an end, I cannot help but to reflect upon what led me into the principalship.

As a twenty-one year old African American male, I could have very easily become a statistic. Five months after graduating from IUP in rural Pennsylvania, I was shot and left for dead on a football field in Philadelphia.

Many people struggle to recover from such an experience and I am blessed to have a community that rallied around me and refused to let me succumb to the trauma that could have easily overwhelmed me. Instead, I was led to become a career changer, transitioning from counseling adjudicated youth to one of the most important careers in the world-being a principal.

As a teacher leader, my principal, Charles D’Alfonso, supported and encouraged me to take on the immense challenge of becoming a principal. He guided me, connected me with other mentors (like Yvonne Savior, who would serve as my new teacher coach and new principal coach years later), and provided various resources to spur my growth and success. And, although, I viewed myself as a leader of middle school students, my principal saw me as a leader of a school community.

Today, I make it part of my mission to encourage all my peers to mentor the brave, humble, and up-and-coming leaders in the principal pipeline. We need to do this to strengthen our profession and to ensure that there is a higher level of diversity in the principalship. By expanding leadership opportunities for women and minorities, we acknowledge the diversity of the students we serve. By harnessing the unique and life-impacting experiences and perceptions of culturally distinct principals, we will help to strengthen students’ outcomes – including and especially for the most vulnerable students in our communities. We will impact these students in ways that equip the next generation to master the incredible challenges and seize the incredible opportunities of our time.

It’s said Albert Einstein, the great scientist and philosopher, believed that one of the most powerful forces in the universe is the effect of compound interest in finance. I’m not sure if this attribution is true, but I do know that – like the power of earning “interest on interest,” – a great principal is a force that elevates, amplifies, and supports the great work of teachers and other school staff. And, that’s a mighty force! In my experience, it’s certainly one that moves mountains, uplifts communities, and accelerates student achievement.

My fellow Ambassadors Jill Levine and Rachel Skerritt and I have visited many cities and schools over the last several months, and we’ve spoken with over 875 principals. Research is clear about the tremendous lever that principals represent in school improvement efforts. Our conversations with our colleagues around the nation affirm the research below.

  • Principals’ actions have a have influence on why 70 percent of our best teachers leave the classroom
  • There are 90,000 principals, for 98,706 schools, employing 3 million teachers all of which serve the 55 million students in American public schools. On average, then, each principal impacts 611 students, each day, of each year, over their life at a school.
  • Principals account for 25 percent of a school’s total impact on student achievement, second only to teachers
  • Principals can have enormous impact on all students because principals ensure effective instruction year to year across the entire school

I am humbled and inspired daily by the work that we do and the impact that we have. As principals, we must continue to identify and develop those leaders in our buildings that can join us in this mission of the principalship – just as Charles D’Alfonso did twenty-two years ago.

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker Campus in Philadelphia, PA, and a 2013-15 Campus Principal Ambassador Fellow of the U.S. Department of Education. El-Mekki serves on Mayor Michael Nutter’s Commission on African American Males and is an America Achieves Fellow.

Highlighting Hispanic Education Year-Round

It’s the middle of October. The leaves are changing colors, baseball playoffs are under way, and Hispanic Heritage month – celebrated each year from September 15 to October 15 – just came to close. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the rich history and the centuries’-worth of contributions the Hispanic community – a diverse community with roots in Mexico, the Caribbean, Spain and Central and South America – has made to this country.

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We first began celebrating Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968, and in 1988 the observance of Hispanic Heritage Month was enacted as law by the U.S. Congress. But the impact of this country’s Hispanic community has never been greater – and the importance of promoting success for Hispanic learners has never mattered more – than right now.

Today, Hispanics are the largest, youngest and fastest-growing minority group. Yet our college attainment rates are among the lowest. A college education continues to be the ticket to the middle class, and improving educational outcomes for the Hispanic community is vitally important for the common good. In America, we fall or rise together. The success of Hispanic students is directly tied to the success of our democracy, and our ability to compete in a global economy.

President Obama’s North Star Goal – that this country will again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world – depends on the success of every single student, whatever his or her background or circumstance. The President understands the crucial role of the Hispanic community and has continued to expand opportunities for them and all students. Whether it is our work through the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, the My Brother’s Keeper initiative or our support of Hispanic Serving institutions, this Department is committed to supporting this community and foster its educational success.

And we’ve seen encouraging signs of progress. The Hispanic high school dropout rate among 16-24 year olds fell from 28 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2011. Hispanic college enrollment has grown by more than 1.1. million students. In fact, college enrollment is up more for Hispanics than any other group. In 2012, the enrollment rate among Hispanics 18-24 years old was over 49 percent, up from 31 percent in 2002.

Still, there’s more we must do. As a country our high school graduation rate has reached an all-time high of 80 percent, but the rate for Hispanics still lags behind. In addition, African American and Hispanic students account for 40 percent of high school youth, yet make up just 25 percent of students taking advanced placement classes. Hispanic youth are also disproportionately represented in school-related arrests and disciplinary actions.

During the Department’s kick-off event for National Hispanic Heritage Month, Secretary Duncan said, “we need to make sure that the opportunities we offer every single child in this country are the opportunities we would want to offer our own children.”

This call to action comes at a watershed moment: for the first time in history, a majority of our nation’s public school students are minority students. Hispanic students alone make up 25 percent of all public school students in our schools.

Although Hispanic Heritage month is over, educating Hispanic learners – and all students – is important all year round. That’s the one sure way to reach our North Star goal, preserve the promise of the American Dream, and have the world’s best educated, most competitive workforce.

Robert Gomez is the director of higher education outreach at the U.S. Department of Education, and the son of Mexican immigrants.

Getting Assessment Right to Support Students, Educators and Families

The following op-ed piece by Secretary Duncan originally appeared in the Washington Post on Oct. 17. Secretary Duncan addressed the issue of getting assessment right in conjunction with an Oct. 15 official statement on the issue from President Obama, which is below.

As a parent, I want to know how my children are progressing in school each year. The more I know, the more I can help them build upon their strengths and interests and work on their weaknesses. The more I know, the better I can reinforce at home each night the hard work of their teachers during the school day.

The standardized tests my kids take are one gauge on the dashboard, but parents and educators know that tests are not the only indicator.

Last week, state education chiefs and district superintendents announced a plan to examine their assessment systems, ensure that assessments are high-quality and cut back testing that doesn’t meet that bar or is redundant. I welcome that important step.

Parents have a right to know how much their children are learning; teachers, schools and districts need to know how students are progressing; and policymakers must know where students are excelling, improving and struggling. A focus on measuring student learning has had real benefits, especially for our most vulnerable students, ensuring that they are being held to the same rigorous standards as their well-off peers and shining a light on achievement gaps.

However, many have expressed concern about low-quality and redundant tests. And in some places, tests — and preparation for them — dominate the calendar and culture of schools, causing undue stress.

Policymakers at every level bear responsibility here — and that includes me and my department. We will support state and district leaders in taking on this issue and provide technical assistance to those who seek it.

To be clear: I strongly believe in using high-quality assessments, including annual tests, as one (but only one) part of how adults improve instruction and hold themselves responsible for students’ progress. With my own kids, I know parent-teacher conferences, grades and other feedback round out the picture of whether they’re on track.

After a generation of watching other nations surpass ours educationally, the United States is putting the building blocks in place for schools that will once again lead the world. But for this effort to pay off, political leaders must be both strong and flexible in support of the nation’s educators.

America’s schools are changing because our world is changing. Success in today’s world requires critical thinking, adaptability, collaboration, problem solving and creativity — skills that go beyond the basics for which schools were designed in the past. But in recent decades, other countries have retooled their schools faster than we have.

We must do better. A great education isn’t just what every parent wants for his or her child; it’s a necessity for security in a globally competitive economy.

The good news is that, thanks to the hard work of educators, students and communities, America’s schools have made historic achievements in recent years. The U.S. high school graduation rate is at an all-time high, and the places most committed to bold change have made major progress on the nation’s report card. Since 2000, high school dropout rates have been cut in half for Hispanic students and more than a third for African Americans. College enrollment by black and Hispanic students has surged.

Perhaps even more important, educators are taking fundamental steps to help reclaim the United States’ leadership in education. Throughout the country, students are being taught to higher standards, by teachers empowered to be creative and to teach critical thinking skills. Last year, nearly 30 states, led by both Republicans and Democrats, increased funding for early learning.

Yet change this big is always hard, and political leaders — myself included — must provide support and make course corrections where needed. We are asking a great deal of our educators and students. Despite their hard work, and a growing embrace of many of these changes, one topic — standardized testing — sometimes diverts energy from this ambitious set of changes.

Fortunately, states and districts are taking on this challenge — including places such as Rhode Island and New York state; St. Paul, Minn.; Nashville; and the District, where leaders are already taking actions to limit testing. As they and others move forward, I look forward to highlighting progress others can learn from.

States are also leading the way on improving test quality, building assessments that move beyond bubble tests and measure critical thinking skills and writing; the Education Department has provided $360 million to two consortia of states to support that work. And to reduce stress on teachers during this year of transition, my department in August offered states new flexibility on connecting teacher evaluation to test results.

It’s vital that political leaders stand behind changes that will prepare our young people for success in the real world — changes that educators have worked so hard to get underway. We must also stand behind states that have increased standards for learning, and where adults are holding themselves responsible for the progress of all students. We must stand strong for responsible and equitable school funding. We must stand strong for making both preschool and college accessible to all.

And we must stand strong in the knowledge — not the belief but the knowledge — that great schools make a difference in the lives of all children.


Statement by the President on Local Education Leaders’ Action on Standardized Testing

Over the past five years, my Administration has worked with states to remove obstacles created by unworkable requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.  While the goals behind No Child Left Behind – promoting school accountability and closing the achievement gap – were admirable, in too many cases the law created conditions that failed to give our young people the fair shot at success they deserve. Too many states felt they had no choice but to lower their standards and emphasize punishing failure more than rewarding success. Too many teachers felt they had no choice but to teach to the test.

That’s why my Administration has given states that have set higher, more honest standards the flexibility to meet them.  In that spirit of flexibility, I welcome today’s announcement from the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools that state education chiefs and district superintendents will work together to cut back on unnecessary testing and test preparation, while promoting the smarter use of tests that measure real student learning.  I have directed Secretary Duncan to support states and school districts in the effort to improve assessment of student learning so that parents and teachers have the information they need, that classroom time is used wisely, and assessments are one part of fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools.

In the 21st century economy, a world-class education is more important than ever.  We should be preparing every child for success, because the countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.  Our nation’s schools are on the right track: Our high school graduation rate is at its highest in our history, the dropout rate is the lowest on record, and more of our young people are earning college degrees than ever before.  I’m determined to support our nation’s educators and families as they work to set high expectations for our students and for the schools in which they learn.

Community Colleges: Helping the U.S. Become “First in the World”

About three-quarters of college students in this country attend a community college or public university. President Obama understands the crucial role that community colleges play in helping students and our nation skill up for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. That’s why, in a recent speech on the economy, he called them “gateways to the middle class” – and it’s also why they’re a key part of his ambitious plan to improve higher education in America.

I recently had an opportunity to visit LaGuardia Community College in Long Island, New York where I was able to deliver some exciting news. During my visit, I announced that LaGuardia is among the 24 winners of our new $75 million First in the World (FITW) grant program, designed to fund innovation in higher education in ways that help keep the quality of a college education up, and the costs of a college education within reach, so more students of every background can fulfill their dreams of getting a degree.

As this award made clear, community colleges are often at the forefront of innovation. They also promote the dual goals of academics and career readiness. To learn more about how LaGuardia and countless other community colleges across the country support students, I sat down with a group of them to hear their stories.

Hassan Hasibul, a former cab driver and alumnus of LaGuardia’s Tech Internship Placement Program, explained how he learned to thrive in the workplace and gained new skills – skills that got him noticed. “My internship site hired me, and even gave me a portion of their stock,” he said.

One of the most exciting innovations at LaGuardia, which the FITW grant will support, is the development of an integrated set of tools to increase and enhance student success, including the use of ePortfolios, learning analytics, and outcome assessments. With the extra funding, LaGuardia will help students navigate their educational and career goals as they transfer to other institutions or join the workforce.

Faculty and staff aren’t the only ones helping students make academic and career decisions. Students are also helping other students plot out their courses and career trajectories. Jenny Perez shared her experience in helping her peers. “Even if they aren’t planning on transferring, I help them open their mind about the possibilities in their future,” she said.

For Enes “Malik” Akdemir, who came to the U.S. at age 18, without money or relatives, the LaGuardia faculty and students have become a huge, supportive family. After a year and a half in intense English immersion classes, he discovered his passion for aeronautics.

During a school tour, he stopped to admire a vintage picture of a plane flying over Manhattan. Pointing to the flight deck, I said, “Someday, you’ll be right there.”

“Someday,” he agreed.

Stories like those of Hassan, Jenny and Malik offer a glimpse of the great work happening every day in these incubators of innovation. They also serve as reminders of the clear role that community colleges play in ensuring that. America’s more than 1,100 community colleges are playing a major role in helping to ensure that our higher education system is once again, first in the world. And, every step of progress brings us closer to reaching our North Star Goal – to reclaim our place as the nation with the world’s highest proportion of college graduates.

Ted Mitchell is Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education.

Boulder Valley School District Shines in Solar-Powered Learning

Note: U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools 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 in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees.

Imagine a gymnasium filled with children eagerly raising their hands during a school-wide event when asked the question, “How is electricity at your school produced?” In many of the schools in Boulder Valley School District (BVSD), with our annual 300-plus days of Colorado sunshine, the answer to that question is an enthusiastic “SOLAR POWER!”

We were delighted to showcase our solar program during the 2014 Green Strides Best Practices Tour which visited BVSD Sept 17. Approximately 8 percent of our district-wide energy needs are met by solar, with panels on 28 of our 55 schools. By taking advantage of community partnerships, grants and bond money, we’ve been able to install solar power in schools across the district.

(Photo credit: Boulder Valley School District)

The growing dome greenhouse at Columbine Elementary. (Photo credit: Boulder Valley School District)

The Renew Our Schools Program, for example, helped support the installation of solar panels at Arapahoe Ridge High School and kick-started the creation of a Green Team, who we heard from on the first stop of the tour. This team led efforts to green the school, including competing in BVSD’s Energy Challenge, an effort to conserve energy through behavioral change among building occupants. While the solar panels help raise awareness about alternative energy and give students data to manipulate, student-led conservation measures, such as educating the school community about ways to save energy, auditing the school’s usage and taking follow up action on the findings, lead to even greater energy savings.

Additionally, a bond program in 2006 funded the solar panels and other green features at LEED Platinum Casey Middle School, which was also part of the tour. The solar panels double as cover for bike parking, offering shade and weather protection to the many students who bike to school year-round as part of the Alternative Transportation Program. Teachers at Casey incorporate live data from the Green Touch Screen and hosted Energy Days in which students learned about solar energy and baked cookies using a solar oven, among other interactive lessons. The sun not only provides clean electricity, but floods the school with natural daylight by design, so students and staff can be at their most productive.

During the tour’s stop at Columbine Elementary, before visiting the community supported gardens and growing dome greenhouse, we headed to the rooftop to see the roughly 100kW photovoltaic system. The system is part of a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) BVSD signed with Solar City in June 2011. The 14 schools in the agreement have large-scale systems that provide an additional 1.4 MW of solar power for the district and 15 to 30 percent of each school’s electricity. All the schools in the PPA have websites showing live data from the solar panels and real-time energy consumption. These schools are using materials provided by the National Energy Education Development Project and Solar  City for lessons about renewable energy and efficiency, providing standards-based real life examples of sustainability, math and science.

The Sustainability Management System has guided this work, and the District has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars and has significantly reduced our environmental footprint. However, we see the real value from our sustainability efforts in educating our students and using these opportunities to prepare our students to be engaged environmental stewards and successful, life-long learners.

Dr. Ghita Carroll is Sustainability Coordinator at the Boulder Valley School District.

Promoting Safe and Supportive Schools

Cross-posted from the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs blog.

Last week, Secretary Duncan joined representatives from education and juvenile justice organizations at the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Summit on School Discipline and Climate. There, he spoke about the importance of comprehensively supporting our students – and not just when it comes to raising test scores. Our schools should first, and foremost, be safe places to learn and our students should feel secure and valued.

We’d all agree that acting out in school is both disrespectful and disruptive, but should a minor infraction like tardiness or a dress code violation earn a student suspension or expulsion? For some kids, that’s exactly what happens, thanks to zero-tolerance disciplinary policies in place in school districts across the country. What’s even more troubling, too often these removals from school begin a road to academic failure and even later involvement in the juvenile justice system.

Under a promising effort called the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, the Departments of Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services, in partnership with philanthropies, are helping to foster safe, supportive, and productive learning environments while keeping students in school. As part of the initiative, on Oct. 6 and 7 we held a National Leadership Summit on School Climate and Discipline that brought together teams of educators and justice system professionals from 20 states and the District of Columbia to discuss how to improve school disciplinary practice and reduce student entry into the juvenile justice system. The summit provided the opportunity for states and local jurisdictions to develop strategies and begin taking steps toward disciplinary and juvenile justice reform. We also announced $4.3 million in grant awards to support activities designed to keep kids in school and out of court.

Kids should be held responsible for their behavior, but there are better alternatives to the harsh disciplinary methods being used in too many districts. By working with schools and justice system professionals, I believe we can find ways to keep our kids in school and on the path to learning and success.

Karol Mason is Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Join Secretary Duncan for a Connected Educator Month Twitter Chat

Mark your calendars and join Secretary Duncan this week on Twitter during Connected Educator Month.

Duncan and educators across the country will have a discussion about the importance of connected learning and the newly announced Future Ready Pledge this Tuesday, Oct. 14 from 7-8 pm ET. Use the hashtag #ce14 to join the discussion. And be sure to follow @ArneDuncan and @usedgov. (If you aren’t able to join, the conversation will be archived here.)

Connected Educator Month offers a range of engaging online professional development activities for educators at all levels.

Originally developed by ED and our partners, Connected Educator Month focuses on reaching and encouraging educators to try out and explore national and global, online learning opportunities. Its goal is not only to provide access to unique professional development opportunities, but to also to show how educators can stay connected and learn with each other.

In the brief video below, Richard Culatta, Director of the Office of Educational Technology, highlights the value of connecting with other teachers to share ideas and best practices and invites teachers to bring a friend or colleague to the conversations happening during Connected Educator Month.

This year’s Twitter chat with Secretary Duncan will focus on the importance of being a connected educator and Future Ready.

Connected learning opportunities provide teachers with a support network and the opportunity to engage in discussions around teaching and learning. These opportunities will help further initiatives like Teach to Lead, which emphasizes the importance of providing opportunities for teachers to lead from the classroom and involving teachers in the development of policies that affect their work.

Tuesday’s conversation will also focus on the newly announced Future Ready Initiative. At its heart is the Future Ready District Pledge, which establishes a framework for districts to achieve the goals laid out in President Obama’s ConnectED Initiative. In particular, the pledge emphasizes the value of providing personalized professional learning opportunities that empower educators to use technology effectively to improve student learning.

How to Choose the Best Federal Student Loan Repayment Plan

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If you have federal student loans, it’s important that you understand your loan repayment options. For example, did you know that you have the option to choose a repayment plan? That’s right. While your loan servicer (the company that handles the billing and other services on your federal education loan) will automatically place your loan on the Standard Repayment Plan, you CAN choose another plan.

The Department of Education offers several traditional and income-driven repayment plans with different payment options. So, make sure to take the time to understand these options and find the plan that works best for you.

Generally, our repayment plans offer three types of payments:

  • Fixed Payments: Our Standard Repayment Plan and Extended Repayment Plan offer payments that remain the same amount for the life of the loan.
  • Graduated Payments: Our Graduated Repayment Plan and Extended-Graduated Plan offer payments that start out low and gradually increase every two years.
  • Income-Driven Payments: Our three income-driven repayment plans offer payments that are calculated based on your income.

Choosing a repayment plan can feel overwhelming. Don’t worry—there are several resources available to help you understand the repayments plans, determine your eligibility for each plan, and make the right decision for you.

  • Use our online Repayment Estimator to find out which plans you may be eligible for and to estimate how much you would pay under each plan. (If you log-in, the Repayment Estimator will use your actual loan balance to estimate your eligibility and payment information.)
  • Get detailed information about each repayment plan on our website.
  • Watch our Repayment: What to Expect video to get a high-level overview of the repayment plans.
  • Check out our Repayment Plans infographic for an easy-to-understand visual that will give you some key points to keep in mind as you are choosing a repayment plan.
  • Read our Repay Your Federal Student Loans fact sheet for additional information on loan repayment and the repayment plans.
  • Contact your loan servicer to discuss your options and choose a federal student loan repayment plan that’s best for you.

Remember, the repayment plans discussed here are for federal loans only. If you have private loans, check with your lender about available repayment options.

For more information on federal student loan repayment plans, visit Studentaid.ed.gov/repay-loans.

Tara Marini is a communication analyst at the Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid.

An Invitation to Commit to Lead

When I was honored to be named Nebraska teacher of the year in 2007, almost in the same breath folks said, “Congratulations – when are you leaving the classroom?” Unfortunately, we have built into the American teaching culture this perverse disincentive that only seems to listen to and honor educators who move farthest away from those who need us most – our students.

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Teach to Lead seeks to flip that by allowing teachers to lead from the classroom. We know that the many of the best ideas come from teachers – in fact, the solutions to today’s educational challenges will not be solved without the involvement of classroom teachers in the development as well as the implementation of innovative educational ideas.

Teach to Lead was developed by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to advance student success by expanding opportunities for teacher leadership – in other words, to make sure that teachers were involved in the development and implementation of education transformation.

One of the components of Teach to Lead is our virtual community, Commit to Lead. Commit to Lead is for those who have a seed of an idea, those who are developing their ideas, and those who are deep in implementation. It’s for classroom teachers, administrators, system leaders, advocacy groups – all those who are working to include teacher leadership in their decision making. The platform is a place to discuss and learn from others who may have already been down your path – or who want to learn from your success!

Commit to Lead is easy to use. After you join the community, you can post your own idea (just 300 words or less) and interact with others who comment. Or you can join and then peruse the ideas posted by others, offering your suggestions and giving a “thumbs up” by voting for those ideas that you find most compelling.

Christina from Willamsport, Pennsylvania, has submitted the most talked about idea so far:

“Principals, central office admin, consultants, and state ed departments would be required to teach just one prep or class for a 3-6 month period at least once every two years. The teacher in which they are ‘subbing’ for would then be released during that time to participate in some of the leadership responsibilities of the person assuming their role as teacher. Or they could use their release time to coach a colleague (or new teacher).

An easy idea to implement? Not really. Worthy of discussion? Absolutely! To be done right, this wouldn’t just be a simple schedule change, but a real culture shift that exemplifies the importance of being as close to the classroom as possible. I’ve often heard teachers say that some policies would never happen if administrators had to live by their own rules. I also know many teachers that don’t understand the heavy burdens and isolation faced by many in traditional leadership positions. A change of this magnitude would be great if it was done thoughtfully and with the best interests of students at the forefront.

Commit to Lead isn’t just about posting your own ideas. It’s also about sharing your “teacher wisdom” with colleagues across the country. Meeting the needs of her English Language Learners is what prompted Donna from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to reach out to colleagues through Commit to Lead:

I would like to start a discussion of ways to foster accurate academic participation for ELLs (or other student populations). Currently, I use scaffolds such as posted and practiced academic sentence frames to assist students when reporting out ideas after “Think-Write-Pair-Share.” I would like to collaborate with others to broaden my strategies and increase student use of academic language and structures.

Maybe you are just the person Donna is looking for to help fill her teacher toolbox! The best ideas are stolen or borrowed from other teachers – maybe even you!

Deidra from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, saw a problem in her teaching community and stepped up with a solution:

All teachers benefit from collaborative interaction, so I am starting a collaborative learning group among the CTE [Career & Technical Education] teachers I work with at my high school. Because our planning times do not coincide, I am using Google classroom to share professional readings with my colleagues, opening up discussion threads, and encouraging them to post articles and reading suggestions as well.

I’ve been reading The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein and she advises, “…the next step in American education reform may be to focus … more on classroom-up interventions that replicate the practices of the best [teachers].” Christina, Donna, and Deidra – and so many other teachers like them – are doing just that: leading from their classrooms!

Commit to Lead is just a beginning and we know this work isn’t easy, but it won’t be done correctly unless professional educators are key players.

We invite you to be part of the dialogue by joining us at http://teachtolead.ideascale.com/. Do you have more questions? Please email me at info@teachtolead.org and let me know how I can help!

Maddie Fennell is Literacy Coach at Miller Park Elementary in Omaha, Nebraska and a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow working on Teach to Lead.