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This fall I had one on one conversations with many of our state's leaders and experts on the misplaced opposition to testing in gen...

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Federal Data and eRate Status

States ramping up student data collection back

By Stephanie Simon | 11/19/13 5:04 AM EST

Parents who pull their children out of standardized tests put the entire educational system at risk, much as parents who decline to vaccinate their children endanger public health, a leading advocate for data-driven education asserted this week.

Aimee Rogstad Guidera, executive director of the Data Quality Campaign, said that when parents refuse to let their kids take state-mandated exams, “it is damaging to that individual child” because the teacher relies on achievement data to customize lesson plans. The collective good also suffers, she said, because when families boycott the tests, student performance data is incomplete — which makes it tough for policymakers to evaluate instructional approaches and pick the most effective one.

“The analogy is tied to the vaccine one: If you choose not to vaccinate your kid, you’re not only … possibly hurting your own kid, but in addition you may be … [putting] at risk the whole system,” she said. “I think there are grave analogies between those two situations.”

Guidera spoke during a press briefing introducing a new analysis of state data policies. The report, made public Tuesday, finds that states are forging ahead with more aggressive data collection and more robust data analysis to shape teaching and learning.

The state focus on data has been driven by a sizable federal investment in systems that can track student progress from preschool through college and into the workforce. In FY 2012 alone, the federal government distributed nearly $100 million in grants to state education agencies to develop longitudinal data systems. Other federal grant programs, collectively worth billions of dollars, also include money for data collection, storage and analysis.

“State leaders increasingly recognize that empowering parents, educators and policymakers with the right data at the right time, in the right format, better ensures our young people graduate from high school prepared,” Guidera said.

But the push to collect ever more data has also sparked a backlash.

Protests from parents fearful for their children’s privacy prompted states including Colorado and Louisiana to drop plans to store student information in the $100 million inBloom database funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Parents are now leading a forceful campaign to get New York to drop out of the inBloom project. More than two dozen school districts across New York state have demanded that their students’ data be omitted from inBloom, but the state has said it will upload it all, despite local objections.

Parents who object to the intense focus on data collection expressed outrage at Guidera’s remarks comparing test boycotts with vaccine refusals.

“On the contrary, parents who opt out are fighting to improve the system,” said Fred Smith, a New York organizer with Change the Stakes, an advocacy group that opposes high-stakes testing. “I can only see such actions as courageous.”

Guidera acknowledged that data collection stirs fear in many parents and said state officials need to work assiduously to “build trust.” A key first step, she said, is to show parents that the data collected on their students can help them — for instance, by identifying strengths and weaknesses so teachers can tailor lesson plans to suit each child’s needs.

“Data systems aren’t just collecting data for data’s sake,” she said. Rather, it’s about turning the data into “actionable information” that can be used to boost school quality, she said.

Among the findings in the report:

— Teachers in 35 states now have access to performance data for their students, often through an online dashboard that monitors each child’s progress.

— Thirty-one states use “early warning” software to identify students at risk of failing or dropping out, in some cases as early as elementary school.

— Fourteen states let parents track their children’s academic progress through online portals.

— Forty-three states link their K-12 to their early childhood data systems.

Guidera singled out Delaware and Arkansas as two states that have done the most to collect and use data effectively. She also highlighted several other states for specific advances.

Kentucky, for instance, gives each high school a “feedback report” that shows how its graduates fare when they get to college. In recent years, a smaller share of college freshmen have required remedial courses, she said — perhaps because the data showed high schools where they needed to improve their instruction.

And Oregon has trained 5,000 teachers to use data to shape their work in the classroom. Schools participating in this program have seen greater academic growth on standardized tests than other schools and have made substantial progress toward closing the achievement gap, Guidera said.

“Data,” she said, “can be a transformative tool.”back

Hope, hurdles ahead for E-Rate program back

By Caitlin Emma | 11/18/13 2:38 PM EST

At some schools even today, just the main office or computer lab has an Internet connection.

But reworking a federal Internet subsidy program could change how classrooms look, how teachers teach and how students interact.

“We have to look at this as an opportunity to reimagine and redesign learning,” said Richard Culatta, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the Education Department.

Supporters of a plan to overhaul the E-Rate program for schools and libraries — which is being fast-tracked by the FCC and promoted by President Barack Obama — want to phase out the days of the clunky computer lab and shift to putting technology directly into students' hands all day long.

The FCC’s proposal to overhaul the E-Rate program calls for almost universal access to high-speed broadband with an emphasis on widespread wireless capability. That proposal aligns closely with the ideas in Obama’s $4 billion to $6 billion ConnectED proposal, which aims to connect 99 percent of students and libraries to high-speed broadband within five years.

“Who’s going to lead the world now in this new era of education? I think we should lead,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said of her urgency to revamp the federal E-Rate program. “I think we can do something really big here.”

But the timeline is ambitious, and the effort faces challenges from some in the telecom industry, which provides money for the program, often through fees charged to consumers. Despite good intentions, the work could get bogged down by the regulatory process. And even after a rewrite, some of the poorest or most-rural schools in the country may still be without premier Internet access. Comments submitted to the FCC in recent weeks about the rewrite hint at the potential hurdles.

Rosenworcel, however, is fiercely determined: “My foot is on the gas,” she said. “We have to move in Internet time, not regulatory time.”

Before the program was created, only about 14 percent of classrooms had some kind of Internet connection. E-Rate, created by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, bumped that number up to 97 percent of classrooms over time.

One of the first challenges: deciding how much Internet speed schools really need.

Many groups have embraced the bandwidth numbers endorsed by Rosenworcel, the Obama administration and the State Educational Technology Directors Association. In the short-term, supporters would like to see a minimum threshold of 100 megabits per second per 1,000 students in all schools and 1 gigabit for the same number of students in the long term.

Forty-three percent of school districts said none of their schools meet the short-term threshold, according to a survey conducted by the Consortium for School Networking and Market Data Retrieval.

But schools in rural or low-income communities don’t want to be penalized if they can’t meet bandwidth goals.

“Any attempt to adopt policies that even inadvertently favor less rural, or less impoverished, schools and libraries will have a lasting negative effect on Tribes,” the Navajo Nation Telecommunications Regulatory Commission said in comments.

How to get to that bandwidth — and how to pay for it — is up for debate. The way it works now, schools and libraries apply for a cut of $2.25 billion in annual discounts for telecommunications services, Internet and internal connections. Many education groups want to at least double that amount.

The money comes from the Universal Service Fund, created to help pay for expanded access to telecommunications services in rural and low-income areas and for schools, libraries and rural health care providers. Some companies collect these funds from customers.

“The size of the program was designed for the dial-up era,” Rosenworcel said. “We need to design for the broadband era.”

To decide how big the program should be, the FCC must look at who pays into the program and how money is spent. If the funding cap is raised and customers continue paying via phone bills, some groups worry about how much more customers will have to pay.

The existing pool of money could go further if discounts were no longer allowed to be used on paging and land-line phones. Groups including the LEAD Commission, the Alliance for Excellent Education and the American Library Association support phasing out spending on these services and paying only for those directly tied to students.

The FCC also must determine how schools and libraries get the bandwidth they need. For most schools, the solution lies in fiber optic cable. Some wonder if the program should prioritize fiber, but it might be difficult to lay miles of cable to a rural school.

The notion of schools and libraries leasing “dark fiber” has generated some of the loudest buzz. Most fiber is “lit” — it’s in use. Dark fiber hasn’t been activated. Typically, providers charge schools based on the amount of bandwidth flowing over the cable. But if schools can lease dark fiber at a flat rate and operate their own networks, they could save money.

That could put them in direct competition with existing Internet service providers.

“Fiber in the ground does not a reliable broadband service make,” AT&T wrote in its public policy blog on Oct. 18. “Asking a school to become a telecom provider makes about as much sense as asking a telecom provider to open an elementary school.”

Cox Communications told the FCC it isn’t against using dark fiber, but schools and libraries should make sure that it’s truly the most cost-effective solution before using it.

Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway, noted that providers make money charging for bandwidth.

“They don’t want the government to provide capital for someone to build a fiber network and then compete with them. I’m sympathetic to that,” Marwell said. “What I’m not sympathetic to is telecom companies charging $5,000 for something that costs them $200.”

Other issues: Should the program finance wireless hotspots outside schools and libraries to help low-income students access the Internet away from school? Can the program be simplified?

Rosenworcel said she worries that E-Rate and all of its paperwork deters some of the most needy schools from applying — the very students the program targets. She and others want schools to be able to apply for E-Rate money for multiple years, apply totally online and allow bundled applications for groups of schools and districts.

FCC will consider all of this and more before proposing a new E-Rate.

Rosenworcel is E-Rate reform’s biggest champion. Before she became an FCC commissioner, she was senior communications counsel for the Senate Commerce Committee under Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), one of the architects of the program.

Two other Obama appointees are on the FCC, suggesting a plan that reflects the administration’s vision would have the FCC’s support. Chairman Tom Wheeler hasn’t made any specific comments on an overhaul plan, however, and may want the commission to come to a broad consensus before proceeding.

Interest in a revamp doesn’t only lie with Democrats, however. Republican Ajit Pai has called for a “student-centered” E-Rate. He said the program should “divvy up the money on a per-student basis and let the money follow the students when they change schools.” Education groups have challenged the idea, citing ever-changing enrollment numbers, among other reasons.

But the hurdles don’t stop at a vote. Any group can petition for reconsideration should a reform plan pass, and the exchange between the FCC and challengers could end up in court.

“This is a little bit like [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] reauthorization,” said John Bailey, executive director of Digital Learning Now! “Everyone wants it, but the disagreement comes in on the how. The FCC has lots of difficult decisions to make.”back

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