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Five Items on Arne Duncan's Summer To-Do List

Summer starts this weekend, but that doesn't mean that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and company get to kick back and work on their tans. The department has a long and wonky to-do list for the summer and beyond, including some overdue homework assignments.

And some key, still-pending announcements could have big implications for extensions of state's waivers from pieces of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Here's a look at what to watch for:

• Some sort of peer-review process or other criteria for examining state assessments. This is a really big deal, in part because states must use tests aligned to standards that will prepare students for college and the workforce in order to keep their waivers from many of the mandates of the NCLB law. A handful of states were originally participating in one of two consortia developing these tests, but have since dropped out. The department has asked these states to submit a new "high-quality plan" for developing other assessments. Peer review would also apply to the consortia tests, and presumably, any assessments for waiver states that have ditched the Common Core State Standards altogether (like Indiana). 

Typically, the department uses peer review to determine whether state assessments pass muster, but that system has been "paused" as the department rethinks its process, in light of the transition to common core. The department planned to hold hearings on a new process for evaluating assessments last fall, according to this smart blog post by Catherine Gewertz of Curriculum Matters fame. It's now nearly a year later, and those hearings haven't started yet. The department could make some announcement in this area by the end of the year.

Recommendations to put teeth in the federal requirements for teacher preparation. My colleague, Steve Sawchuk of Teacher Beat has been all over this issue for, well, years. Read his most recent take here.

New School Improvement Grant regulations or guidance. This is another in-the-weeds issue that could also have a big impact on NCLB waivers.

Some background: In January, Congress passed a spending bill that added new options to the list of four turnaround models mandated under the SIG program, which has been widely panned as rigid and unworkable. Under the new law, states can either stick with the four models that were previously on the books, or go with a fifth option that allows them to partner with an organization that has a track record of success in turnarounds. More importantly, states can also now submit their own turnaround remedies to the education secretary for approval.

The problem? No one has any idea what criteria (if any) the secretary will use for judging state strategies, or how all this interacts with NCLB waivers, which required states to intervene in "priority schools." (That's the wonky, waivery name for the worst schools in a state, including some schools that get extra money under SIG grants and some that don't.) After all, the strategies required for "priority" schools under the waivers look pretty similar to the four old-school SIG models. Would the department really allow for more flexibility for SIG schools that get extra federal money and less flexibility for other "priority" schools, which may not? 

The administration has said some sort of guidelines on all this will be available later this year.

The 50-state strategy on teacher equity. This is supposed to help states ensure that low-income and minority students have access to just as many good teachers as more advantaged students. This was originally supposed to come out in January, and now most folks are expecting to see it sometime in July. Much more on the delays and their implications here.

Final rules and program applications for Preschool Development Grants. Earlier this year, the department sketched out the general parameters for these grants, which are meant to help states beef up their early-childhood education programs. Sometime this summer, we're likely to see the final rules and applications. Finalists could be announced this fall, and the money will have to be out the door by Dec. 31.

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