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.

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


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