Debunking education myths over turkey dinner

Thanksgiving could be the time of year where family members hook onto one or two education news headlines they’ve seen over the course of the past few months and begin spitting out what is so often misinformation about a trend, policy, or event in the education sphere. If this sounds like a familiar situation to you, fear not: This year, In the Zone blog writers Charis Anderson and Alison Segal have some talking points for you to set your relatives straight:

“This whole Common Core thing is ridiculous! Since when is the federal government allowed to tell teachers what to teach?”

  • The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were put together by experts and state leaders with input from teachers, parents, and other stakeholders.
  • The goal of the standards is to ensure that all students in the U.S. will be taught with the same rigor and under the same high expectations, meaning that when a child moves from Mississippi to Massachusetts, that child has mastered the same skills as students in Massachusetts and is ready to dive in.
  • The Common Core is not a curriculum; teachers, principals, and superintendents can still make local decision about how to teach.
  • What the Common Core is is a set of “consistent education standards [that] provide a clear set of shared goals and expectations for the knowledge and skills that will help our students succeed.”
  • Finally, while the Common Core State Standards are a critical first step, we also need a common assessment (such as PARCC) in order to close the expectations gap between states. If states are able to set their own performance standards (i.e. what is tested), they will still be able to post artificially high proficiency rates while graduating students who are not adequately prepared to be successful in college or career.
  • Click here for additional CCSS talking points from ASCD.

 

“Why all this talk about college readiness? A high school diploma was good enough for me!”

 

“These teacher salaries are too damn high!”

  • There is a great deal of evidence showing that teacher quality is one of the most important variables in driving student success in the classroom. But guess what: for something so important, the salary is not competitive enough to drive field experts into classrooms. That means that, specifically in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classrooms, most talented STEM college graduates are choosing lucrative private sector careers over the classroom.
  • Even of the people who do initially choose the classroom, many leave within five years, citing low salaries as one reason. For example, the median starting salary for chemical engineering majors is $67,500 compared to $37,200 for education majors.

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

An overabundance of A’s

Last summer, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released a report on teacher preparation programs, finding that very few rate high on a five-star scale.  Now, the organization is out with a new report, entitled Easy A’s and What’s Behind Them, that finds the rigor we expect to find in children’s classrooms across the country is missing from the programs that train the teachers who will stand in the front of those classrooms every day. Specifically, the types of assignments – typically opinion-based rather than founded in critical thinking – that lead to higher grades are far more common in teacher preparation courses than in courses for any other major across more than 500 colleges and universities studied. In fact, the report notes that in almost 300 (58%) of the institutions studied, grading standards for teacher preparation programs are far more lenient than for other majors on the same campus. As a result, many students in teacher preparation programs are leaving college and going into the classroom unprepared.

The report offers recommendations that sound very similar to what a school partner might recommend to the principal of a struggling school: identify common standards so children are being graded fairly; listen to teachers to ensure coursework is strong and criterion-referenced as opposed to solely opinion-based.

Standards” is becoming an increasingly prevalent word in the education world. Let’s make sure it applies not only to the classrooms in which teachers teach, but also to the programs that prepare our future teachers.

Will the highly qualified STEM graduates please stand up?

The economy is expected to add about 1 million new STEM jobs by 2022, yet the U.S. has one of the lowest ratios of STEM to non-STEM bachelor’s degrees in the world.  That’s a serious STEM shortage, according to an issue brief released last week by Public Impact. The report mirrors a point we’ve written about before: that it’s widely argued that the U.S. educational system is simply not churning out enough highly qualified STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates to meet the needs of U.S. employers.

Why is this? Students aren’t being adequately prepared by our K-12 systems to pursue STEM degrees once they land in college, according to Public Impact.

Again, why? Public Impact posits that one big reason is a serious lack of skilled STEM teachers – and the numbers it cites are pretty compelling:

  • Twenty-five thousand new STEM teachers are needed every year – and yet fewer than 9,000 highly qualified high school students say they have any interest in going into teaching.
  • Only 10 percent of education majors in the bottom 25 percent of university education schools are taking the courses they need to teach middle school math – and yet that same pool of education schools produces 60 percent of middle school math teachers.
  • In 2013, only 30 percent of eighth graders had math teachers who had majored in math.
  • More than 40 percent of high school STEM teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

Lots of people and groups recognize these troubling statistics and are trying to do something about them, including the 100Kin10 collaborative (of which Mass Insight Education is a partner), which aims to get 100,000 STEM teachers into U.S. classrooms within a decade.

Public Impact’s proposed solution is the creation of what they call an Opportunity Culture – developing new models that redesign jobs or use technology to attract more highly qualified candidates into STEM teaching jobs and then to place those teachers into high-leverage situations where they interact with a large number of students.

We’re excited to see where Opportunity Culture has proven success and then how replicable the approach is. The success of our AP/STEM program stems in part from exposing more students to a rigorous AP curriculum – but also from allowing high-quality AP teachers to reach more students. It’s encouraging to learn about other initiatives that, coupled with our own, could put more students on a path to postsecondary success and increase the number of qualified STEM graduates.

Find out what happens when district stakeholders get out of the district and start getting real

This month, we’re holding off on our news round-up until after Election Day (remember to get out and vote!).

Instead, today’s post will focus on an event Mass Insight Education hosted last week for its College Success Communities.

 

Last week, we hosted a convening for six of our College Success Communities (CSCs) from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Louisiana. Participating districts brought teams that included teachers, school faculty and administration, district leadership, and community members (e.g. local university leadership or school committee members). Over the course of two days, the teams spent time learning how to work together as a team, improving their ability to engage the public in their reform efforts and – most importantly – developing strategies and action-oriented plans for preparing their students for post-secondary success.

By the end of the two-day event, we realized a few things:

  • First, change is not easy. However, when people are given the opportunity to step away from the everyday churn of their districts, it becomes a lot easier for them to escape the constraints of the status quo and, especially with an array of stakeholders at the table, to strategize a way around everyday obstacles.
  • Second, these particular groups of stakeholders very rarely (if ever) have the time to sit down together and spend time thinking as a group. At our event, teams were given the opportunity to examine student achievement data in a group that most likely had never done so together prior to last week. As a result, teams were able to see patterns in the data they hadn’t before, allowing them to identify major areas for growth and plan around where students needed the most support, whether increasing test scores in the middle grades or gaining the skills necessary to persist in college.
  • Lastly, communication and public engagement are extremely important in local education initiatives. Unfortunately, there often isn’t enough time for leadership, teachers, and the community to come together and get on message. When polled on the importance of community engagement and communication, participants rated it an average of 8.8 out of 10, with 10 being the most important. But when we moved into a discussion about how they implemented communications practices, we heard a lot of qualifiers such as, “when there’s time…” or “in theory….” Out of this discussion, the group as a whole came to the conclusion that telling a story of why a school or district is making certain decisions is incredibly important. Even if there isn’t explicit time in a principal or superintendent’s schedule, they can still have an impact by ensuring that everyone is speaking the same language when engaging the public and telling the story.

Overall, working with and listening to the CSC district teams over the two days showed us that there is a lot of excellent work going on in districts across Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Louisiana. It also showed us the importance of engaging a wide range of stakeholders in planning for a district’s future. We are glad to have been able to provide that opportunity to our CSC teams.

Community Colleges: An Important Variable in the College Success Equation

Did you know that community colleges across the U.S. enroll more undergraduates than any other post-secondary sector? Nationally, 42 percent of undergraduates in 2012-2013 were enrolled in community colleges. During the 2012-2013 school year, there were 10 states in which 50 percent or more of undergraduate students were enrolled in community colleges, according to a research brief produced by RTI International for The Completion Arch. The Completion Arch is a web-based tool, launched by RTI International this fall, that captures data on the progress and success of community college students.

Clearly community colleges are a critical segment of the post-secondary landscape in the U.S. Yet according to data on The Completion Arch, in 2012 the national three-year graduation rate* was less than 25 percent. The Completion Arch argues that six-year completion rates – which capture students who attained a certificate, an associate’s degree, or a bachelor’s degree within six years after starting at a community college – is a better measure, since it captures students who are enrolled part-time or not enrolled continuously. That rate is slightly better, at 34 percent, but still (I would argue) much too low. (An additional 11 percent of students successfully transferred to a four-year institution, where they were either still enrolled or had left.)

The Completion Arch offers a tremendous amount of data on a state-by-state basis, which makes for really interesting browsing. I hadn’t realized until reading through the data that community colleges accounted for such a significant percentage of the country’s undergraduate enrollment – nor had I realized what variation there was in enrollment from state to state. Given what a significant role community colleges are clearly playing, it’s critical to reach a better understanding of how students enroll and progress toward graduation – or don’t! – in order to achieve our overarching goal of College Success. The Completion Arch seems like a much-needed way to increase transparency into this topic.

*Three years represents 150 percent of the “normal time” (i.e., two years) to graduation

State education agencies step up to the plate

Earlier this month, the Center for American Progress (CAP) released a report in conjunction with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) on individual state accountability in light of Congress’ failure to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act. The report explains that in the absence of a national accountability system for a changing educational landscape, the CCSSO collaborated with states across the nation to develop a set of next-generation accountability standards with a focus on college- and career-readiness and data-driven decision-making.

According to the report, these state-led approaches fall into five major categories:

  1. Measuring progress toward college and career readiness;
  2. Diagnosing and responding to challenges via school-based quality improvement;
  3. State systems of support and intervention;
  4. Resource accountability; and
  5. Professional accountability for teachers and leaders.

In general, states are using the flexibility granted through their ESEA waivers’ to test drive different approaches to measuring student progress. However, according to the report, challenges remain in terms of execution of strategies, alignment to preexisting national programs and initiatives, and validity of interventions.

In the end of the report, CAP calls for states to follow strong theories of action for their accountability systems. We agree that developing a strong theory of action is one of the first steps to working outside the box as many of these states are. These approaches can only be as strong as the vision and planning that supports them, and with a thoughtful planning process, these state-led systems have a better chance of boosting student performance.

How do you really feel about the Common Core?

The Center for Education Policy released a new report last week capturing findings from a large-scale survey of district leaders on the Common Core State Standards and the implementation of those findings. The findings capture some real shifts among district leaders from the first CEP survey on CCSS back in 2011 and contain a mix of good and bad news.

The good news: Despite wavering public support, district leaders have largely embraced the new standards and believe they will lead to improved student skills. There is near universal agreement among district leaders that the Common Core standards are more rigorous than the standards previously in place in their states – a huge shift in opinion from 2011 when a slight majority felt that way.

There is also increasing recognition among district leaders that the new standards will require fundamental changes in instruction. Almost 90 percent of district leaders agreed about the need for a new approach to instruction in 2014, compared to just 50 percent in 2011.

The bad news: Implementation continues to be a challenge. Most districts will not hit major implementation milestones – implementing CCSS-aligned curricula, adequately preparing teachers to teach the CCSS, having the technological infrastructure to administer CCSS-aligned assessments – until this school year or even later. District leaders cited a number of reasons for these implementation challenges, including resources, time, and internal/external resistance, but it does look, based on these survey results, like many, many districts will not be able to get all the pieces in place before consequences kick in for student performance on CCSS-aligned tests.

Our take: As MIE President Justin Cohen pointed out in a blog post earlier this fall on the Common Core roll-out, while there have been substantive problems with the rollout of the standards, there have also been immense problems in communicating with the public about the shift. Had communication been better, district leaders might be better positioned today to take on the implementation.

There are a lot of other data points in the report, so it is well worth a read. CEP is also planning to release subsequent reports with additional findings from this survey on other aspects of district implementation, so keep an eye out.

News You Should Know: September Round-Up

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

Boston gets first education chief. Early last month, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced Turahn Dorsey as the city’s first “chief of education.” The city’s mayors have typically had education advisors; however this is the first position of its kind.

“Education at a Glance 2014.” Findings from the OECD’s newest report are, as usual, pretty grim for the U.S. Among the major findings:

  • Other nations are outpacing the US’s higher education attainment growth rate;
  • The U.S. was one of only six countries to cut public spending for education between 2008 and 2011; and
  • S. teachers spend more time teaching in the classroom than teachers in other countries, though their salaries are not competitive with other nations.

Turnaround for kids. A new report out of The Ounce of Prevention recommends a new set of turnaround metrics to encourage earlier investment in school improvement. Based on the new proposed draft SIG guidelines, there may be a role for this in the next iteration of SIG.

Massachusetts launches a new college success conversation. Last week, we hosted a College Success Research Forum, at which we issued a call to action to commit to two goals for this year’s seventh graders: 1) double the number of low-income students graduating from college; and 2) double the numbers of students earning a STEM degree. Join the campaign now!

They exist, they just aren’t ready. A new report prepared by the FSG research group found that yes, the number of STEM graduates is growing, but a gap exists between the level of preparation these college graduates received and the skills that STEM employers require.

The recipe for a successful capacity strategy…

…An innovative district leader, collaborative local funders, and a promising strategy they all agree on. Sounds simple, right? According to a recent paper out of the Bridgespan Group, those are the three most important ingredients to sparking real change in results for students through local philanthropic efforts. Highlighting major transformation efforts in Memphis, Tenn., Jacksonville, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., and well-known initiatives such as Project L.I.F.T. and the Achievement School District (ASD), the paper aligns bold goal-setting by local education leaders to the opportunities that exist for local funders to transform public education.

In a follow-up article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the writers focus on Memphis’ quest to become “Teacher Town, USA,” which is described as being to teaching “what New York City is to banking and what Silicon Valley is to technology.” Without the proper political and financial backing, this may seem like a tough goal to reach. Lucky for Memphis, the goal is on its way to becoming reality.  It was well-thought-out and includes three basic strands: (1) retain teachers; (2) develop local talent; and (3) recruit national talent. With the backing of a collaborative group of local funders, the district was able to effectively engage the local community in this work, thus reinforcing the new funding streams with buy-in and a sense of ownership from local students, parents, and teachers.

The article emphasizes that it was the sense of urgency, the concrete problem and solution, and the community coming together, founded in the district’s collaboration with and across local philanthropists, that has led to the beginnings of improvement in student outcomes,. We look forward to watching this work continue to roll out, and encourage other districts, local funders, and communities to follow the footsteps of Charlotte, Memphis, and Jacksonville’s innovative—yet simple—approach to changing student outcomes.

Can we decrease the gaps by raising the bar?

The most shocking thing I learned from the American Institutes for Research’s new report by Dr. Gary Phillips? The gap in expectations between states with the highest performance standards and those with the lowest standards is equivalent to three to four grade levels. That’s double the national achievement gap between white students and black students.

Unlike with achievement gaps, however, this expectations gap is a little harder to spot through a quick read of test results – and that’s because states with the lowest performance standards tend to have the highest proficiency rates, according to AIR’s report. If you set the bar really low, more students are going to get across it.

It is only by introducing a common scale – which AIR did by benchmarking the states’ performance standards against international standards – that it’s possible to truly compare proficiency rates from state to state. What AIR found when they did this was that states with the highest standards also had higher student performance.

Why is this important? As AIR puts it in their report, “The lack of transparency among state performance standards leads to a kind of policy jabberwocky: the word proficiency means whatever one wants it to mean. … This looks good for federal reporting requirements, but it denies students the opportunity to learn college and career readiness skills.”

According to AIR, the Common Core State Standards are a critical first step, but they are not sufficient to close the expectations gap. In addition to challenging content standards (i.e., what is taught), states also need to set consistently high performance standards (i.e., what is tested). Without the latter, states will still be able to post artificially high proficiency rates while graduating students who are not adequately prepared to be successful in college or career.

As AIR notes in its report, however, support for the Common Core State Standards has been eroding, and the number of states planning to conduct common assessments based on those standards has dropped precipitously. We’ve posted before (courtesy of Mass Insight Education President Justin Cohen) on the bumpy road of the Common Core roll-out – for a refresher on that post, click here.

And for more on the Common Core implementation, Learning First has been conducting a great series of podcasts with people who are working hard to get it right: give them a listen for some really interesting insights into the implementation process.

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