A little more bold, a little less bureaucratic

Last fall, the Mass Insight State Development Network (SDN) released a toolkit in which we identified the top ten “levers” that a State Education Agency (SEA) could use to strengthen and better support turnaround efforts at the school and district levels. The publication provided the reader with an in-depth understanding of each of the levers, and included a discussion protocol to flesh out the availability and use of the levers in a specific state. The levers cover topics such as competitive funding, tying awards to specific performance topics, using a single robust turnaround plan, creating conditions to place the best teachers in front of classrooms, and intervening when a turnaround plan isn’t proving effective.

This year, the SDN states members (which include CO, CT, DE, FL, IN, MS, NJ, NV, NY, PA, and VA) came together for a series of four one-day briefings to walk through a deep dive of specific topics. These discussions covered school turnaround networks, public metrics and goal-setting, revisiting the turnaround power levers, and supporting rural and isolated schools. The third briefing on the turnaround levers included discussion of effective turnaround support around the planning and funding levers, as well as discussion of the lack of existing evidence on the absolute best form of intervention. Based on the fruitful discussion at that briefing, the SDN is releasing a supplemental update to the power levers report, entitled More Bold, Less Bureaucratic: Revisiting Three SEA Power Levers for School Turnaround.

More Bold, Less Bureaucratic - New publication from the SDN!

More Bold, Less Bureaucratic – New publication from the SDN!

The specific levers discussed included:

  • Encouraging flexible use of all available funds in turnaround schools;
  • Requiring from each turnaround school a single, coherent, robust turnaround plan based on an analysis of need;
  • Using state authority and capacity to take-over or close schools that fail to improve.

For the first two levers, we were able to identify SDN states using their power levers wisely and effectively, with clear lessons for other states. As for the third lever, which is more complicated, we brainstormed options SEAs might use when nothing else is working. Take a look at our newest publication to learn more!


An extra year of college? There’s a cost to that.

Liberty Street Economics, the blog of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, posted an interesting series last week on the value of a college degree. We’ve posted on this topic before, thanks to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, but in an era of ballooning college tuition costs and rising student loan debt, it’s a really important issue to continue to shine a light on.

Spoiler alert: the series concluded that having a college degree is still better than not having one (although the challenges facing recent college grads in securing good employment mean that a college degree will not be quite as lucrative as it used to be).

One of the series’ most interesting findings was that taking longer than four years to graduate from college can actually cost a graduate considerably more, not just in an extra year or two of tuition but in the opportunity costs from remaining a full-time student for an additional year or two.

According to the series’ authors, based on lifetime earnings profiles, “an extra year of staying in school costs more than $85,000, and for those who take two extra years to finish, it costs about $174,000.”

There are many reasons why students might take more than four years to complete a bachelors’ degree – but one big reason is being unprepared for the academic rigor of college. As we reported in the blog late last month, just 26 percent of the 1.8 million students who took the ACT last year met the college readiness benchmark in all four subjects tested (English, reading, math and science), according to a recent report by ACT. Students who aren’t ready for college-level work will often find themselves in remedial courses, which cost money but don’t get them any closer to their degree.

At Mass Insight, we believe that the best way to ensure students are ready for college-level work in college is to have more of them taking college-level classes while still in high school, through the Advanced Placement platform. And since students don’t just wake up in 11th grade ready for AP-level work, we also believe in working with teachers from sixth grade on to train them on how to increase the rigor in their pre-AP courses in order to grow the pipeline of future AP students.

Six years in, we’re seeing great results. Across the more than 70 Massachusetts high schools we’ve worked with, both participation in and performance on AP math, science and English courses have more than doubled. And students who have gone through our program are enrolling and persisting in college at rates higher than state and national averages.

Again, there are a lot of reasons why students might take more than four years to graduate from college. But given the financial implications laid out in the Liberty Street Economics blog, we should all be focused on making sure lack of academic readiness isn’t one of them.

To read the full Liberty Street Economics blog series, click here, here, here and here.

News You Should Know: August Round-Up

Our monthly news round-up continues below with August’s highlights.

 Tug-of-war over Common Core in Louisiana. Last week, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) filed a legal suit against the federal government over the Common Core initiative. The suit alleges that the federal government has created a “national curriculum,” which is illegal under federal law.

The impact of trainings. While we’ve written about the Mass Insight teacher trainings over the summer, New York City was seemingly on to something when the city began training cadres of teachers and principals a few years ago in preparation for Common Core implementation. New York State Commissioner John King believes the trainings may be the reason why New York City saw a small increase in student proficiency rates after the latest tests, while scores declined in other districts.

The customer is always right. In a speech announcing the Providence (R.I.) School District’s strategic vision for the 2014-15 school year, School Superintendent Sue Lusi emphasized a critical piece of the updated vision: customer service. The vision states that the role of the school district’s central office will include providing “outstanding customer service to students, families, and fellow staff and community partners” to ensure all are “treated with dignity and respect.”

’It’s good to be No. 1 in something other than football…’” Alabama leads the nation in Advanced Placement (AP) improvements. Since 2008, pass rates for AP exams in Alabama have increased by 136 percent, compared to the national rate of 49 percent.

Education policy is out; education politics is in. Education has been the topic of many more state-level legislative bills over the past year or so than in the past. What was the impetus for this shift in focus? The Common Core roll-out, says Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post. After many states missed their windows of opportunity to communicate and engage with the public around Common Core implementation, many legislatures took the lead on developing new standards.


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True or False: Today’s high school students are prepared for college

For anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to the state of college readiness in the U.S., the numbers in the report released last week by ACT shouldn’t come as a great surprise. According to the report, just 26 percent of the 1.8 million students who took the ACT last year met the college readiness benchmark in all four subjects tested (English, reading, math and science). And 31 percent of tested students did not meet the readiness benchmark in a single subject.

As I said, these numbers aren’t necessarily a surprise – in fact, they haven’t budged at all since the prior year – but they do paint a fairly bleak picture of the state of college readiness among this country’s graduating seniors.

Why does this matter? Students who aren’t adequately prepared to handle the academic load in college (among other factors) often end up dropping out before completing their degrees. Across the U.S., the percentage of students who graduate from four-year public colleges and universities within six years is just 56 percent – which means an awful lot of students are starting, but not making it all the way through. And yet 65 percent of the jobs created in this country by 2020 will require some post-secondary education, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Add to that the significant “skill premium” – the difference in wages between college educated workers and workers without a college degree – that we’ve discussed previously on the blog, and it’s pretty clear that it’s important for both our young people and our economy as a whole to ensure that more students have the skills they need to be successful in college all the way through to graduation.

One of the recommendations ACT’s report makes on how to increase the college readiness is to give more students access to a rigorous curriculum in high school. This is something we wholeheartedly agree with at Mass Insight. We believe that one way to put students on a path to college success is to treat more courses in middle and high school as “Pre-AP,” establishing a level of rigor that will better prepare students for postsecondary experiences. This summer, we provided Pre-AP/Common Core-aligned Strategic Design trainings to almost 600 teachers from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Louisiana. The Common Core provides an opportunity to rethink the way K-12 instruction and curriculum happen. Perhaps this will be the venue through which we raise rigor in the classroom, and maybe a few years from now the ACT annual report will tell a story with a happier ending.

The Blessing and Curse of High Visibility

Bonus post this week!  Mass Insight Education President Justin Cohen shares his thoughts on Common Core roll-out and how #edreformers can better engage the public.

I am enjoying the ongoing debate on the edreform interwebs about how the rollout of the Common Core State Standards has hit a completely predictable bump in the road known as “public opinion.”

As I’ve spent more and more personal time digging into the Common Core and the real rigor behind it, I have become even more convinced that it is a powerful step forward from our existing patchwork of standards. And as Mass Insight Education has spent the summer training middle and high school teachers in Common Core ELA and math – not to mention Next Generation Science – the transition in standards creates huge opportunities to connect with teachers on a much deeper level than is afforded by traditional PD.

That said, while there are substantive problems with the rollout of the Common Core, we can’t ignore the immense problems in communicating with the public about the transition. This is even more acute as conversations about education have become more national in nature, as opposed to local or statewide.

As an education professional, I basically jump for joy at the fact that education seems to have become more of a first tier domestic issue. But more attention means more scrutiny! The folks who make and drive education policy have to explain things to the public, justify their actions, and perhaps even tweak their approaches based on how the public responds.

While I don’t have a randomized trial to support the following assertion, I’m not sure that everyone in my field is thrilled about this scrutiny. That’s not so surprising, because serious changes usually start small and are less subject to broad public debate. Like it or not, with those dual holy grails of “scale” and “impact” come existential challenges around public engagement.

The Common Core blowback is but a whiff of things to come, so here are some quick thoughts on how to do a better job on public engagement:

  1. Think about a communications strategy at the beginning of a major initiative. Don’t get 90 percent down the road before asking a communications expert to repackage it. I have heard groups complain that this is likely to “water down” the approach. First of all, I don’t think that needs to be true, but second, nothing is more “watered down” than an initiative that doesn’t happen because it gets killed in a legislature or by a gun-shy state board of education.
  2. Talk to real humans that don’t communicate in “eduspeak.” I’m guilty of peppering my everyday speech with terms like “vertical alignment” and “expansion of high quality seats.” These utterances will get #edreform hearts fluttering, but they’re likely to be dead-on-arrival with anyone who doesn’t have dog-eared copies of the last 15 Rick Hess books on his/her nightstand. If we get too attached to the language we use, it can distract from the fact that core ideas remain popular when the language becomes toxic (see Mike Petrilli’s good point on this).
  3. Teacher buy-in really matters. A lot of people – rightly! – listen to teachers when it comes to education policy. So from a communications standpoint, that means active communication with educators. But it also means absolutely nailing the rollout of major new initiatives. As more and more unions point to “botched” rollout, it’s going to get harder to advance a positive message around the Common Core. That’s why solid training and support is so central … and why it’s important to remember that policy, implementation, and communications are inextricably linked!

Justin Cohen
President, Mass Insight Education

Last-minute college success preparation

For some students, the summer before college is filled with hunting down dorm room necessities, wrapping up a summer job, and finding the best deals on college textbooks.  But how much of this serves to arm students with the skills they will need once they enroll in college?  Last month, a Huffington Post infographic came out with a sobering data point: there is “no state [in the US] where a majority of students graduate college in four years.”

Some state schools are taking an extra step to ensure accepted students come in prepared, with special attention toward first-generation and low-income students. In Nevada, where the four-year college graduation rate is 8.75 percent (six-year data brings the rate to just over one in four), three state schools have developed programs to support at-risk students during their transition to college through summer bridge programs, which include such things as “math boot camp,” “college survival skills,” and general academic skills.  So far, the programs appear to be working: of all the students who attended the 2013 summer programs, 100 percent remained enrolled for the full first year of college.

On the other side of the country, the University of Connecticut (this writer’s alma mater) runs a similar summer bridge program for incoming freshman, attempting to raise the state’s 30.1 percent four-year college graduation rate. The Student Support Services Summer Program, a six-week preparatory session, provides students with an intensive and structured introduction to college courses, focusing most on math, while housing students on the college campus.  This program comes with a catch: to continue enrollment as a freshman in the fall, students must complete the entire summer program.

These programs go to show that the burden for preparing students for higher education lies not only on K-12 schools, but also on the local community and the colleges that will one day enroll these students to lift them to their highest potential.

Read on here for more on efforts that help students overcome barriers to college success.

Students need more than just more courses

Type the words “STEM crisis” into Google, and it spits back nearly 30,000 results for articles chronicling the current state of science and mathematics preparation among American students and workers. Whether there is a crisis or not is a matter of debate, at least according to the Google results, but what’s not in dispute is the fact that American students are trailing their international peers when it comes to STEM skills and knowledge.

To counteract this trend and to ensure that students are prepared for STEM careers, many states have increased the number of math and science courses students must take in order to graduate from high school, according to a new ACT Research & Policy policy brief by Richard Buddin and Michelle Croft. The brief examined the effects of one such effort in Illinois, which in 2005 passed a law establishing a minimum high school graduation requirement of three years of math and two years of science.

Buddin and Croft found that the introduction of more rigorous graduation requirements had little effect on student course taking, achievement or college enrollment. It’s not enough to require certain courses, the authors noted, as students must be adequately prepared in order to be successful in the more advanced classes.

“Course requirements alone may not be sufficient mechanism for change. Exposing students to advanced material is an important first step, but we must recognize that better preparation, better instruction, better student commitment, better parent support, and a host of other factors are needed for students to master these advanced skills,” the authors concluded.

Here at Mass Insight, we wholeheartedly agree. We’ve had great success over the last six years working with more than 70 partner high schools across Massachusetts to increase student participation in and performance on Advanced Placement STEM courses. In that time, both student participation and student performance has more than doubled. The success of the program has led to its expansion beyond state lines to the Jefferson Parish Public School System in Louisiana.

Yet we didn’t achieve those results by opening the doors to AP courses for more students and then just letting them sink or swim. We supplement their classroom experience with additional learning time in our Saturday Study Sessions, and we provide teachers with rigorous professional development opportunities to improve the quality of their instruction.

We also recognize that to really increase the number of students prepared for AP courses in high school, we have to start earlier than high school – and that’s we also focus on teacher training at the middle school level. Increasing the instructional quality and academic rigor students are receiving in middle school will set those students up to be successful in advanced courses in high school.

Buddin and Croft’s findings really shouldn’t take anyone by surprise: if there’s one thing we know to be true in education, it’s that there are no silver bullets. Raising the expectations bar is an excellent first step – but that has to be paired with student support and teacher training to ensure that all students have a shot at meeting that bar.

News You Should Know: July Round-Up

Our monthly news roundup continues below with July’s highlights.

Add that to the vocabulary list. A first-of-its-kind report out of the OECD measured indicators around innovation in education in various countries. The OECD describes “innovation” as something that “drives improvement, either incrementally by advancing existing processes or more radically by introducing new practices.”  The good news: education is in fact high in innovation when compared to other sectors. The bad news: the education sector takes much more time to adopt new practices than comparative sectors. The news you already heard: the U.S. ranked toward the bottom of the list of most innovative countries in terms of education.  Shout out to Massachusetts for being the only U.S. state to make it onto the rankings.

Sunshine standards. As Florida schools prepare for a full launch of Common Core standards, the Hechinger Report and StateImpact Florida followed the experiences of students, teachers, and administrators in two schools to observe how preparations for the new standards were playing out on the ground.  Of lessons learned, researchers cite the realization that the Common Core isn’t just about standards, but also new curriculum adjustments and new teaching techniques.  See the full article series here.

Ready by exit. A new California funding law requires all districts to outline a plan for spending state funds, including specifically highlighting how the money will be spent to increase students’ college and career readiness, especially for high-needs students.

High impact training. Over the final week of July, more than 350 AP teachers from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Louisiana came together for a weeklong series of professional development sessions aimed at increasing the number of students enrolled in AP courses and passing (scores of 3 or above) AP exams, with the end goal of doubling the number of students who succeed in college.

Equal access for all. Last month, President Obama announced a new initiative, “Excellent Educators for All,” with the mission of placing a quality teacher in front of all students, regardless of socioeconomic backgrounds, by 2015.

College: Still worth the price of admission

It’s not news to anybody that the cost of college these days is through the roof. Nor would anybody be surprised to learn that to cover those increasingly astronomical costs, more students than ever are taking out student loans: seven in 10 students who graduated college last year did so with at least some student loan debt, according to the Project on Student Debt, an initiative of the Institute for College Access and Success. 

Faced with the prospect of $30,000 in student loan debt – the average loan burden per borrower, according to the Project on Student Debt – many students might ask themselves whether college is really worth it. According to a new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, it absolutely is.

The study found that the “skill premium” – the difference in wages between college educated workers and workers without a college degree – was 61.5 percent for young households earning the median wage: $42,693 for college-educated households compared to $26,429 for those households without a college degree.

However, the real pay-off in the college degree doesn’t come until later in a person’s career: “In many professions, a college degree combined with work experience opens the door to senior-level administrative positions and higher salaries,” the authors wrote.

Indeed: the premium for older households (30-65 years of age) was 88 percent for median income earners.

Yes, there’s a tradeoff, the authors conclude: to get access to that skill premium, students are taking on a considerable amount of debt early on. But over the course of a lifetime of working, it is still a smart tradeoff.

There is a cautionary note: the skill premium does not hold true for students who have some college, but did not persist to earn a degree, according to study. Those students get the worst of both worlds: college debt, but no wage benefit. This finding serves to underscore our belief at Mass Insight that it’s critical our K-12 systems are preparing students for success in college or other post-secondary education.

Getting more bang for your buck…without being frugal

“From our research, a few things are clear. Perhaps most importantly, 
it is plain that some districts can get more bang for their buck.” 
-Parallel Lives, Different Outcomes: A Twin Study of Academic Productivity in U.S. School Districts 
(Center for American Progress)


No, today’s blog isn’t about savvy shopping or living on a tight budget.  Rather, it’s about schools and districts using funds in a manner that maximizes return on investment – and how State Education Agencies (SEAs) can create an environment that encourages such spending.

In the publication quoted above from the Center for American Progress, the authors studied “twin” districts with similar characteristics, but different per-pupil spending and revenues, and in turn, different academic results.  What they found might be surprise you: More money doesn’t always equate to better results. Another finding from the report: constraints and mandates attached to state and federal money dictated how districts could allocate those resources, leaving very little room for innovation.

The report recommends moving away from these overly structured funding systems – and in fact, there is a growing trend among some SEAs that are moving away from the norm, and trading increased autonomy over funding for increased accountability with their state’s lowest performing schools.

Two of our State Development Network (SDN) states are testing methods to move away from the norm. Colorado, for example, launched a school turnaround network this spring, which raises expectations for improvement while also providing additional resources to the schools within the network. The network schools will remain in district control, unlike the more bold structures in Tennessee and Louisiana. While the network is still in its early phases, eight schools have signed on for the coming school year.

New Jersey goes about spending innovation in a slightly different way: The Regional Achievement Centers (RACs) support improvement in the state’s lowest performing schools using district assurances through Title I funding to drive said funding through the NJDOE’s RACs.

The recommendation in the CAP report parallels a publication we released last year with the Federal Education Group entitled “The Money You Don’t Know You Have for School Turnaround: Maximizing Your Title I Schoolwide Model.”  The toolkit addresses one of our 10 SEA “power levers” for school turnaround: encourage flexible use of all available funds in turnaround schools, specifically through the use of the Title I school-wide model, and using the concept of supplement, not supplant, to increase the impact of funding.

What is your state doing to help your lowest performing schools get the most “bang for their buck”?


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