Staying productive over winter break: Readings, videos, exercises, and happiness

This week Matt Bachand, one of Mass Insight Education’s Engagement Directors, takes the Mass Insight blog reins to suggest some very productive ways to stay busy over your winter break. Enjoy!


What we’ll do (some of) over our winter break. 

Winter break is just around the corner, and we’re guessing you’re just as busy as we are right now. However, once the planning and preparations are done, we are able to sit back and just take in all of the travel, feasting, celebrations, and visiting of friends and family. After a few moments of peace and quiet, some of you might find yourself thinking, “now how do I fill this free time?”

MIE is here to help. Should you find yourself unnerved by a lack of constant commotion at any point in the winter break, we humbly submit the following as a list of possible ways to occupy your time. We’re sure we won’t get to all of these. We also welcome further suggestions!

Catch up on some reading. 

Are you caught up on all of those professional journals? If so, we’re jealous. If not, here are a few things in our pile that we’d love to talk to you about in early January:

The current issue of Principal, the National Association of Elementary School Principals magazine, is full of articles about supporting teachers this month. One we’re particularly intrigued by is “Better Together,” which talks about working with teacher leaders. The AFT magazine, American Educator, is getting into the nuts and bolts of CTE education in its fall issue. The NEA profiles their new officers—who all women of color—in NEAtoday’s cover story.

If you’re looking for something a little more removed, the new policy book “Moneyball for Government” looks at the use of program evaluation principles in government programs at all levels of government. It’s not just educators who are being encouraged to focus on outcomes. If you’re looking for something a little-less associated with a Brad Pitt film, we’re intrigued by “Show me the Evidence,” which talks about small high schools, among other areas of interest.

No one would fault you for curling up with a hot beverage and a good book that has nothing to do with your work. There are lists of the best books of 2014 available from many places. We’re looking at Goodreads, the American Library Association’s 2014 notable children’s books, and the ALA’s 2014 notable books list. If you only have a little bit of free time and want to read a poem, we’ve got you covered.

Surf the internet for some videos!

Of course there are any number of TED talks that education minded folks would find interesting. We’re particularly intrigued by the Fordham Institute’s December 2nd event on Education for Upward Mobility. With four panels and a keynote, we’ll probably be snacking on this conference all break long.

Commit to some new years resolution steps.  

Few places can disrupt your resolution to get healthy in the new year faster than the break room at work. Here are some easy at-work strategies to help burn some of the calories that await when you can’t avoid your colleagues’ leftover snickerdoodles next month. You can stand up at meetings more and improve collaboration and creativity. You can consider using a standing desk to avoid the potential health hazards of sitting. You might also think about having more walking meetings (bonus TED talk!).

Express gratitude. 

Finally, there is an emerging body of knowledge that says gratitude can improve happiness. We at MIE are grateful for our colleagues, our families, our clients, and our partners for the work they do for students every day. We wish all of you well as you enter 2015 refreshed and ready to get back to work.



Ready to work: Computer science programs take education by storm

Yesterday, the White House announced new commitments to supporting computer science education that are giving more students access to technology education across the country. This follows President Obama’s call to action last winter for students, businesses, nonprofit organizations, students, and foundations to come together to support K-12 computer science education.

Yesterday’s announcement covered funding, partnerships, outreach, and a successful campaign to increase the number of computer science courses offered to students.

For the sake of increasing STEM opportunities, let’s talk numbers:

  • The philanthropic community committed over $20 million to the cause.
  • More than 60 districts, including some big names such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and others, committed to offering computer science courses to their students. That’s over four million students in more than 1,000 middle and high schools across the country!
  • The College Board will add to its repertoire of more than 30 AP courses with an AP Computer Science course and exam.
  • These commitments also aim to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities in computer science. Today, women only represent 12 percent of all computer science graduates.

This is all good news for STEM education, especially in terms of preparing youth for the skills the workforce will require when they reach graduation. If the education world can keep up the momentum, we’re one step closer to graduating college and career ready students from all schools.

News You Should Know: Election News Round-Up

This month, we continue our news round-up feature with a recap of election results and their potential impact on education.


Last month, Americans turned out to vote in the 2014 midterm elections. As the results rolled in, we learned that at the federal level, Republicans maintained control of the House and won control of the Senate. At the state level, a handful of historically blue states (including Illinois and Massachusetts) elected Republican governors. And in states with elected state education chiefs, the majority of elections resulted in wins for Common Core opponents (see EdWeek’s coverage of the chiefs’ races state-by-state here).

What does this mean? In terms of the U.S. House and Senate, it could end gridlock, though depending on your political stance that could be good or bad. Most notably for the education world, with the Republicans claiming a majority in the Senate, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is poised to become the next chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

We rounded up a few video and written forecasts on what the elections will mean for education come January:

  • Barely one week after the elections, EdWeek hosted a day of panels and speakers, sharing expert opinions on the potential impact of the elections over the next few years. Click here for an archive of panel videos.
  • Similarly, the Alliance for Excellent Education hosted a panel the week of the elections, with a spin that policy wonks may find especially interesting. Click here for a transcript and video of the panel.
  • Meanwhile, at U.S. News, Rick Hess and Mike McShane summed up the potential impact on education as a loss for unions (with the exception of California), and ponder the meaning of the silence on the Common Core in many candidates’ campaign platforms. Click here for the full post.


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.


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