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”?

College and career: Two sides of the same coin

The bad news: Nationally, college persistence rates – the rate at which students return to college for a second year – are down 1.2 percentage points from 2009, according to a report released last week by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The percentage may sound small, but on an enrollment of 3.1 million students, that means 37,000 students who were not enrolled last fall would have been under the 2009 rate.

The report didn’t hypothesize on what might have driven the dip, although a story in Inside Higher Ed pointed out that the economic recession might have caused some students to choose employment over education.

A dip in the college persistence rate flies in the face of the increased focus on college success spearheaded by the Obama Administration, the Lumina Foundation, and Mass Insight Education, among others. And it could spell long-range trouble on the employment front given that the Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce is projecting that 65 percent of the jobs created by 2020 will require at least some post-secondary education.

The good news: It is possible to move the needle on college persistence. Studies have found that students who take advanced math and sciences courses in high school are more likely to earn higher scores on academic assessments. They’re more likely to both enroll in and graduate from college and – most critically for the future of our STEM economy – they are also more likely to pursue a STEM degree.  And for those concerned about the arts, advanced courses in English/Language Arts lay the foundation for skills students need to succeed in the sciences.

Over the past six years, Mass Insight Education has partnered with more than 70 high schools across Massachusetts on its College Success/AP program, a program designed to increase participation and performance in AP math, science and English courses with the ultimate goal of increasing college success.

And as a research brief we published earlier this year found, the program works: students who took at least one AP course through the program are enrolling and persisting in college at rates higher than the state average.

Mass Insight is working to expand the impact of this program by launching College Success Communities in several districts across Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Rhode Island.

News You Should Know: June Round-Up

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

Is remediation the key to success? A Brookings brief found that as many as seven in 10 students at some higher education institutions take remedial courses in English or math.  As a result, these students are held back from taking the courses that will count toward graduation or a certificate, thus moving them further away from a college diploma.  Brookings offers three recommendations:

  1. Improve the assessment process for identifying students in need of remediation.
  2. Leverage technology and innovation to make the remediation process more meaningful.
  3. Strengthen the K-12 pipeline to better prepare students academically for college.

“The bridge from high school to postsecondary education is creaking loudly.” Former Massachusetts Commissioner of Education David Driscoll penned a commentary in EdWeek that feeds directly into Brookings’ third recommendation above.  Mr. Driscoll encourages us to look beyond the dreary data surrounding college readiness and instead do something about it, bringing together stakeholders ranging from district and school building leaders to businesses, policymakers, and the general public.

Why go to college? That degree is worth it. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York released a report finding that even though higher education is expensive, those who earn their bachelor’s or associate’s degrees will earn more money over their lifetime than those who do not attend college.  In fact, having recently graduated from college also makes one less likely to be unemployed.

Just short of a cross-country road trip. An EdWeek analysis found that if all states currently committed to PARCC/Smarter Balanced maintain their commitment, only about two in five students across the nation will be taking the common assessments.

All-in or nothing at all.  New York is using 21st Century Community Learning Center grant funding to expand the learning day, which means a 25 percent increase of the school day or school year for all students at schools that are awarded the grants.  The time does not need to be used exclusively on core academic subjects, and can instead be used for enrichment activities, including additional time with community organizations.


Summer reading: What’s on your list?

As the school year wound down in New England last week (a bit late thanks to a long winter), children and young adults prepare to spend their summers at camp, summer school, working, or just hanging out.  We’re all familiar with summer learning loss, but what role can parents play in making sure their children’s summers have some educational value? Providing children with books – whether it’s Harry Potter or The Catcher in the Rye—can be time well spent.

Unfortunately, a new study found that only 17 percent of parents say reading is a top priority during the summer.  We asked our colleagues at Mass Insight for the books that kept them occupied while at the beach or in front of a fan during their summers.  Here are some ideas to share with parents you might know:

Ryan:  “Some of my favorite summer books for school were historical fiction war novels. They tend to be heavily plotted books, which for me were most engrossing when I could devote hours at a time to reading them. Two favorites are:

  • The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara: the Civil War never felt more real than in this play-by-play account of the Battle of Gettysburg; I am irrationally proud that Maine’s own Joshua Chamberlain is the hero.
  • All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque: a brutal depiction of trench warfare in WWI.”

Stephen: “One of my favorite summer reads was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I actually think I may read it again this summer after I finish a few other books on my list.  Another favorite of mine was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. I read this book for a second time last summer, and it took me on the same wonderful journey that it did during my high school years.”

Anu: “My 11th grade chemistry teacher assigned Voodoo Science by Robert L. Park. It gave me a peek at how science experiments are carried out outside of the classroom, and got me hooked on popular science reading!”

Christina: “I remember reading Great Expectations by Charles Dickens the summer before my freshman year and loving it. Miss Havisham has always been one of my favorite recluses!  And when I was a little older, another one of my favorites was The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. Again, another story about man pining over a woman! But I do remember learning about the Hemingway Hero and also Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s friendship, or lack of friendship at times. The history behind the book and the drama inside the pages are what always kept me intrigued.”

Looking for something to watch after you read? Some favorites that made their way onto the silver screen include:

Sara: “I remember when I first discovered that The Princess Bride was a book. I loved the movie and had some hesitations about the book – but it ended up being wonderful: just as good as the movie, but in an entirely different tone and spirit. It kept my brain active comparing film and page, separating truth from fiction (the author writes a fictional version of himself as a character), and keeping track of the multiple story frames. Plus, it is a plain old good story.”

Ami: “Great Gatsby – for a little girl from WV, this was one of the first novels I read that really painted a picture of the destructive nature of the American dream. In teen years, you’re pushed to dream and live the “American dream.” An awesome AP English Lit teacher wanted us to understand the underpinnings of American culture in the 20s and at the same time understand that regardless of where our dreams led us, humility should remain at the core of our person.”

What are you reading this summer? Share your ideas in the comments below!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 124 other followers

%d bloggers like this: