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

26-Duncan-Arne-Duncan-file-blog.jpgWe're more than halfway through the summer, and most kids, and even many teachers are in full-on vacation mode. But the U.S. Department of Education—and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—still have a lot on their plates.

Here's what the department is burning the midnight oil over, while the world is working on their tans (or gearing up for an Elementary and Secondary Education Act conference):

School Improvement Grant data: We've seen the data from the first two cohorts of the Obama administration's supercharged new SIG program. And the bottom line was: Mixed results. About two-thirds of schools got better, thanks to dramatic interventions and a big infusion of federal cash, but another third slid backward. Now it's been nearly a year and a half since we last saw SIG data, even though the third cohort of the revamped program finished up years ago. And the administration is trying to make the case to Congress that states should continue to identify and intervene in their lowest-performing schools. (A sort of SIG-lite). Wouldn't a fresh round of strong SIG data help the Obama administration's case? Of course, when the administration initially tried to put out SIG data in the fall of 2013, it had some big problems. The contractor selected accidentally left out a lot of schools that should have been included. So avoiding a repeat of that problem could be part of the reason that this release is taking some time?

Peer Review Criteria for State Assessments: This is one of those wonky-but-important issues, and it has been hanging out there for quite awhile—in fact it was on the department's summer to-do list last year. (Quick background: Under the No Child Left Behind Act, states can pick any test they want for their students, but those tests must be of "adequate quality." And "adequate quality" is determined by experts through a process known as "peer review.")

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 many states' transitions to common core. This is particularly important for waiver states, which are supposed to have assessments that align to their college-and-career ready standards, as the peer-review process could be critical in determining which tests meet that bar.

The department had initially hoped to unveil its peer review criteria earlier this summer, sources say, but it hasn't come out yet. Part of what may be tripping things up? Reauthorization of ESEA. If the bill makes it over the finish line soon, that could scuttle the process, making any new criteria outdated. So this item could stay on the "to-do" list for quite awhile. Great background on peer review in this smart story by my colleague, Catherine Gewertz.

Waiver Renewals: Every state with a wavier from the NCLB law applied to keep it, although some applications—like Texas'—didn't exactly follow the Obama administration's asks to the letter of the law. The department has approved two dozen waivers so far, some for up to four years (well beyond the end of Obama's tenure) and some for just a year (a sign that the state in question still had work to do, or didn't a longer renewal.) 

Reviewing Teacher Equity Plans: The administration spent a lot of time touting this "50 state strategy" to improve teacher distribution. And now, every state has filed a plan with the U.S. Department of Education to ensure that their highest poverty schools have access to qualified educators. And now those plans are all on the department's website. The Obama administration has said it will be reviewing plans over the summer to ensure that they all meet requirements (like using data to figure out root causes of teacher inequity and then finding fixes for those root causes). But, just from looking at the website, it's hard to tell which states had letter-perfect plans and which still have work to do. (Unless I'm missing something?) Presumably, the department is looking the plans over to see which ones worked and which didn't and will somehow make this feedback, or at least any updates, clear to the public? 

Final Report on Race to the Top Classic: It seems like yesterday (okay, maybe just to me) but it was actually nearly five years ago that the U.S. Department of Education awarded the second round of Race to the Top grants to nine states and the District of Columbia. And now that Congres has totally discontinued it, we'll find out whether or not the program worked. A comprehensive report on the program is due out in coming months.

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