Employers paying student loans? Maybe in Colorado.

You don’t need me to tell you that college is expensive (and getting more so). To cover the cost, students are taking out staggering amounts of student loans that leave them, in some cases, with a college degree in one hand and a pseudo-mortgage payment in the other.

Needless to say, it’s hard for students to get a financial leg up if they’re throwing a disproportionate amount of their income at their student loans for the first 10 (or 20 or 30) years after they graduate. In Colorado, the state Legislature has come up with a novel proposal for how to help new graduates clear the obstacle of student loans while also building up the state’s talent pipeline in high-need areas.

In short, the state wants to give STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) businesses a tax credit of up to $200,000 a year if those businesses help their workers pay off student loans, up to a maximum of $5,000 per employee per year. There are a few caveats about what employees are eligible (including that it’s limited to workers making less than $60,000 a year), but it sounds like an interesting, win-win way to help students and the state’s economy.

While there’s no doubt that a student’s academic readiness for college plays a huge role in whether he will persist through to graduation, we shouldn’t underestimate the financial barriers to completion as well. Programs like the Colorado proposal not only help students with their loans but also provide incentives that can help align the college experience with the needs of the workforce.

Three things to read this weekend

Now that Boston has broken the record for snowiest winter ever, I think I speak for all Bostonians in saying that we’re all ready for it to stop snowing, maybe forever. But Mother Nature has other ideas! So as we celebrate the official start of spring with a few more inches of snow, here are the three stories that should be at the top of your reading list this weekend.

What parents should demand about PARCC (The Boston Globe): As states around the country prepare for the inaugural administration of PARCC – the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or the Common Core-aligned standardized test that will replace individual state exams such as MCAS – the Globe’s Joanna Weiss has a few suggestions for what parents should be demanding of the system. The most interesting one to me was the notion that we have to separate the Common Core from the curriculum. As Joanna points out, the Common Core is a set of benchmarks for what kids should know and be able to do. It’s then up to districts what curriculum they want to use to get kids there. I wonder: how many of the problems people have with the Common Core actually have to do with the curriculum choices their school districts have made?

Eva et al. flunk the fairness test (Flypaper, a Fordham Institute blog): In this blog post, Mike Petrilli advances the argument that the move toward higher standards (e.g., the Common Core) requires an accompanying shift in how we think about school accountability. Under the “old” system, many states set the cut point for proficiency quite low, meaning that students could be deemed “proficient” yet still graduate from high school not remotely prepared for college. The “new” system sets the proficiency cut point much higher – at about the 70th percentile, according to Petrilli – which, of course, means that fewer kids are meeting this mark. However, Petrilli argues that it’s unfair to use this data to immediately label schools as “persistently failing” without also taking into account where students where when they started at those schools. In middle and high schools, some students may arrive four grade levels behind – should we slap a “failing” label on those schools if they’re not able to get their kids up to this new high bar immediately? Or should we also take into account how effective the schools are at improving their students’ performance – even if they still fall short of the elevated proficiency bar? (Spoiler: Petrilli is advocating for the latter approach.)

Four models of non-traditional schools at SXSWedu (The Hechinger Report): This report from the annual South by Southwest Education conference in Austin, Texas, highlights some of the non-traditional school models discussed this year. I loved the description of Beaver Country Day School, in Chestnut Hill, Mass., where all teachers in grades 6-12 are integrating computer coding into their classes (example – students in an English class using code to animate a scene from Macbeth). Teachers at the school worked with each other both to learn code and then figure out how to teach it. I think this is an interesting approach to exposing all students to coding, not just those who would self-select into a computer coding class. The Quest to Learn school in New York City also sounds fascinating. The whole school revolves around games and game design with the goal of making technology meaningful and purposeful to students. So how do games help kids learn? In one example from a sixth grade math and science class, students had to help a “shrunken mad scientist” navigate inside the human body and then report back to a research lab.

Are colleges ready for “college ready”?

Over the past several years, we’ve thought a lot about clusters, vertical alignment, and upward trajectories for students. And it seems as though we are identifying strategies, programs, and systems that work – for example, our AP/STEM Program both offers professional development to AP and pre-AP teachers and creates the foundation for increased collaboration between middle and high school core subject teachers. In some of our partner districts, we have even gone so far as to engage local businesses and colleges and universities with middle and high school students, giving the students a glimpse of their future possibilities and a goal to work toward. Nationally, however, vertical alignment remains a problem.

Enter the world of higher education. Expectations, campuses, fees, and experiences vary among institutions, but according to a recent Politico article, one constant exists: colleges are not ready for Common Core-educated students. That is not to say higher education is not aware of the changes in instruction and content the Common Core State Standards require. The article points out that in some states, State Boards of Higher Education were required to approve the standards to ensure rigor for future college students, and professors from colleges across the nation held seats on the task forces that designed the standards. And according to one source, these professors found the standards to be an accurate depiction of the knowledge and skills students require to be considered “college- and career-ready.” Additionally, state systems in six states are either aligning courses to the standards or putting processes in place to use students’ Common Core assessment scores to guide their placement.

So what’s the problem? While the higher education community has been a constant voice and actor in the Common Core conversations, not all institutions of higher education have figured out what deems a student “ready” – and thus exempt from remedial courses – when they enter college or university.

The article doesn’t identify a solution to the problem, but offers advice on the “low-hanging fruit,” as identified by a policy analyst with the New American Education Policy Program, by encouraging colleges to at least begin aligning entry-level courses with the Common Core so as to provide a more seamless transition for students.

This article raises really interesting points about the importance of taking a holistic view of the Common Core implementation to ensure that any domino effects of the standards are explored and addressed.

Three things to read this weekend

Happy (almost) Pi Day! Did you know that the world record for memorizing Pi out to as many decimals as possible is held by Chao Lu of China, who recited Pi from memory to 67,890 places? Think about the impossibility of that feat this weekend while you eat some pie and read the following stories.

When a Teacher’s Job Depends on a Child’s Test (The New Yorker): This snapshot of the current mood around testing and teacher evaluations in New York State raises some interesting questions about the unintended (but perhaps foreseeable) consequences of relying heavily on student test scores to judge whether teachers are doing their jobs well. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to increase the percentage of a teacher’s evaluation based on student test scores from 20 percent to 50 percent; under Cuomo’s proposal, the remaining 50 percent would be heavily weighted toward the assessment of a one-time visit conducted by an outside observer. Not everyone is on board with Cuomo’s proposal, with critics pointing out that the shift could encourage teachers to narrow their curricula or focus on improving the test scores of their most capable students at the expense of the rest of their class and could force principals to make class placement decisions that trade-off between what’s best for a student and what’s best for a teacher’s evaluation grade. Meanwhile, many parents in New York are demonstrating their displeasure with the system by opting their children out of testing altogether. At the school the author’s son attends in Brooklyn, an astonishing 70 percent of testing-age students opted out of the state tests.

Why do American students have so little power? (The Atlantic): Amanda Ripley uses the efforts of a group of Kentucky high school students to get a bill passed that would allow school boards to include students on superintendent screening committees to explore the reluctance of U.S. school systems to give students a seat at the table. Despite the fact that research has shown students to be more reliable assessors of what’s going on in their classrooms than either expert observers or test scores, only 59 percent of U.S. high school students attend schools that ask them for feedback. The percentage in Finland? Seventy-four percent. In fact, 14 states explicitly prohibit students from serving on district school boards. The main arguments adults make against giving students a voice are concerns about the stress it would impose and the maturity level of teenagers – although, as Ripley points out, the latter is not particular convincing given some of the behaviors exhibited by adult school board members around the country. Meanwhile, in Kentucky, the students’ bill looks unlikely to pass the state Senate thanks to two “poison-pill” amendments introduced by (adult) senators.

States Raise Proficiency Standards in Math and Reading (Education Next): This report from Education Next is the sixth in a series of report that have graded state proficiency standards on an A-F scale. Previous reports have shown that the average state proficiency standards are much lower than those set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. Additionally, previous reports have found wide variation from state in state in what they deem “proficient” and have found that, up until 2011, few increases in the proficiency bar. However, the latest installment is more encouraging: this analysis found that many states have raised the bar since 2011, with 20 states strengthening the proficiency standard and just eight weakening it. This finding indicates that “a key objective of the (Common Core State Standards) consortium – the raising of state proficiency standards – has begun to happen.”

Updated SIG Rules: Doing it your way

This week, we released an essay written by our Senior Field Consultant, Larry Stanton. The essay, titled “Doing It Your Way: Building a Strong SEA SIG Application,” focuses on the recently released updated School Improvement Grant (SIG) rules. State education agencies (SEAs) have until April 15, 2015, to submit their updated applications to the federal government. See below for a snippet of the essay, which provides advice for SEAs on these applications gleaned from four years of work with SEAs, and click here to read the full essay!


 

State education agency (SEA) leaders can no longer complain that the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) transformation model is too easy and the turnaround and restart models are too hard. In February 2015, with some prodding from Congress, USDOE responded to complaints about the models by essentially saying, “OK, do it your way.” By adding a planning year, inviting states to propose a state-determined model, extending the maximum grant term to five years and encouraging more local education agency (LEA) involvement in SIG schools, USDOE is giving SEAs the opportunity to describe “their way” in their applications for Sec. 1003(g) School Improvement Grant (SIG) funding due on April 15th.
This opportunity raises a handful of questions for SEAs: What should they be thinking about as they build their applications for SIG funding to USDOE? Should we develop a state-determined model? What should happen during a planning year? How do we get schools and LEAs to choose a model aligned with school needs? Based on our experience working on school improvement with 15 SEAs over the past four years, we encourage states to consider the following ideas contained in this essay.

All work, no surveys, for U.S. teachers

While there’s been a lot of attention paid this week to a just-released OECD report on gender gaps, I found myself captivated by another OECD report, the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS).The results from the 2013 survey were released last year, but I just stumbled upon them thanks to a webinar hosted by the American Institutes for Research.

The TALIS 2013 was a survey of junior high teachers (roughly grades seven through nine) from 34 participating OECD countries. They were asked about topics such as classroom conditions, professional development, teacher appraisal and feedback, and teacher job satisfaction.

The first interesting thing about this survey isn’t even one of the findings. It’s that, alone among the 34 participating educational systems, the U.S. failed to achieve the response rate required by the TALIS data standards. The U.S. results were deemed to be valid enough to be reported – but not to be included in the international average or any of the indices in the TALIS database. I’m not sure exactly what conclusion to draw from this – U.S. teachers have less time than their international counterparts? Less interest in international surveys? – but it stood out to me.

Other interesting tidbits from the report:

  • U.S. teachers spend the most time actually teaching: 26.8 hours a week, or almost 60 percent of their overall work week. (At the other end of the spectrum? Norway, where teachers only spend 15 (!) hours teaching each week.)
  • While more than nine out of 10 U.S. teachers participated in some type of professional development within the last year, the bulk of that PD took the form of courses or workshops, or education conferences. Relatively few U.S. teachers (13.3 percent) conducted observation visits to other schools; this is below the international average (19 percent) and well under countries like Japan (51.4 percent) and Iceland (52.1 percent).
  • A lot of U.S. teachers report they are satisfied with their jobs – 89.1 percent – but only a third of them said they thought the teaching profession was valued in society. Interestingly, they were above the international average on that, but well below countries like Finland (58.6 percent) and Korea (66.5 percent).

There are a lot more figures to explore in the findings from this survey. I highly recommend you check it out to learn a bit more about how U.S. teachers are viewing their profession these days.

Three things (plus one!) to read this weekend

I’ve turned into that person who can only talk about the weather. But bear with me because I think (knock on wood, cross fingers, etc.) that the end is in sight: it’s supposed to be in the 40s next week. So before you know it, I’ll be suggesting things for you to read while on the beach, instead of under a blanket while on the couch. Without further ado, the three – plus one! – things you should read this weekend.

Common Core’s Unintended Consequences? (The Hechinger Report): Teachers in the more than 40 states that have adopted the Common Core standards work are having a hard time finding curriculum materials that are aligned to the new standards. With the traditional sources for these materials coming up short, more and more teachers have been writing a curriculum themselves. The article quotes a stat from the Center on Education Policy that found that in more than 80 percent of districts, at least one source for curriculum materials was local – either from teachers, the district or other districts in state. There are various websites that popped up in recent years to address this growing need, including one – Teachers Pay Teachers – that did $78 million in business in 2014 (an increase of $34 million over the prior year). While it’s not all bad to have teachers more involved in writing the curriculum – it certainly helps them learn more about the standards – some experts worry about creating an expectation that teachers have the time and the background to do this kind of work. Additionally, there’s no guarantee that the teacher-created curriculum and materials are more aligned or better quality than the off-the-shelf options. Finally, such a wide variety of sources for curriculum materials could undercut the goal of the Common Core standards to introduce a common set of expectations.

The Danger of Neglecting Community College (The Boston Globe): Massachusetts is known the world over for its four-year colleges and universities … not everyone realizes the value its two-year colleges can provide. A couple of staggering facts from this story: in states that report graduates’ incomes, 30 percent of associate’s degree holders earn more than their bachelor-holding counterparts; in Massachusetts, which has cut funding for higher education by 37 percent since the start of the recession, the state’s 15 community colleges are currently funded at 2001 levels; and also in Massachusetts, there are currently as many jobs available calling for an associate’s degree as there are requiring a bachelor’s degree. There’s lots more information in this rich and absorbing case, which makes a pretty convincing argument for why community colleges should be a critical part of any college success strategy.

Free Community College: It Works (Inside Higher Ed): President Obama’s free-community-college proposal has been getting a lot of airtime recently. But what you may not know is that at least one of this country’s community colleges started a similar program all the way back in 2007. And guess what? It works. The Tulsa Achieves program at Tulsa (Okla.) Community College pays for three years of tuition, or 63 credits, for all eligible high school graduates in Tulsa County. To remain eligible, students have to maintain a 2.0 GPA, take a student success course and do 40 hours of community service a year. The first year the program was offered, the college doubled the number of first-time freshmen enrolled. And half of that first cohort of students had earned a degree (bachelor’s or associate’s) or certificate by 2014 – a completion rate significantly higher than students not in the program.

Seven Things Every Kid Should Master (The Boston Globe Magazine): I know, I know, normally we stop after three. But I couldn’t resist including this essay by one of my favorite college professors. In this piece, Susan Engel offers another option in the ongoing debate over testing. Instead of viewing the only possibilities as testing or not testing, Engel suggests that we should be more focused on figuring out good ways to test the things we value most. In support of her approach, Engel points to a review she did of more than 300 studies of K-12 academic tests that found no research demonstrating a relationship between the tests and other measures of thinking or life outcomes. All the tests really predicted, she found, was the likelihood of performing similarly on other such tests. It should be noted that Engel is definitely not arguing against testing, but is instead suggesting shifting to a system in which the tests we administer are aligned with and predictive of the kind of outcomes we think are most valuable.

News You Should Know: February Round-Up

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


 

No silver bullet to college completion, but here are some bright spots. A Business Insider write-up from a summit on college completion shared some thoughts from Complete College America’s vice president on strategies colleges can use to increase the odds that students will persist through graduation. For example, stressing the number of credits students should enroll in per semester (15), creating schedules that place students together in cohorts, and increasing the involvement of advisors in advisee’s coursework and daily life are all low-cost strategies that, together, could create a stronger support system to ensure more students persist in college.

What do you think, Governor? The Education Commission of the States (ECS) has been tracking governors’ State of the State addresses, pulling out any information relating directly to education. While this issue brief is still a work in progress as not all governors have completed their addresses, ECS’ tracking has found some early trends at the bookends of K-16 education: early care, and college and career readiness/success, as well as creation of a strong workforce.

Common Core FAQs, please hold.” A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll found many misperceptions in the American public’s understanding of the Common Core State Standards. Overall, though, many poll respondents were in one of two camps: either they had heard “just a little” or “nothing at all” about the standards; or they believed the standards to be much more far-reaching than they actually are, believing they even cover subjects such as sex education. (For the record, they only cover math and reading.) For the full FDU press release, click here.

An opportunity to do things differently. In early February, the U.S. Department of Education released the updated School Improvement Grant (SIG) guidance, which offers a few opportunities for state education agencies (SEAs) to change the way they “do” SIG. Namely, the updated guidance introduced an early education model, expanded the grant from three to five years (including a planning year), and included of a “state-determined model” in addition to the typical four SIG implementation options – closure, restart, turnaround, and transformation.

Running off schedule. I had hoped news of ESEA reauthorization would squeeze into this February news round-up, but on Friday, U.S. House leaders put a hold on a vote for a bill that would begin the process to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The hold may have been due to strong opposition from external parties, or the need for Congress to focus on refinancing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Three things to read this weekend

Looking for things to add to your weekend reading list? We’ve got you covered – here are our top picks from the week’s reading:

Why Are So Many College Students Turning Down Free Money? (The Atlantic): The quick answer? The paperwork headache of the financial aid process combined with widespread financial illiteracy. The FAFSA – Free Application for Federal Student Aid – is time-consuming and laborious to complete: the USDOE itself estimates that it could take almost two hours to complete, while other estimates put it closer to 10 hours. That’s a pretty big obstacle in and of itself, but when you add to that the fact that a lot of students and families just don’t understand how federal financial aid works – they don’t think they’re eligible, or they think it’s all loans not grants – and you wind up with this staggering statistic: Less than half of last year’s high-school graduates completed the FAFSA, according to NerdWallet. And how much money did they leave on the table? Nearly $3 billion, also according to NerdWallet. That’s a lot of money.

‘The Good Teachers Are Starting to Leave’ (The Washington Post): This blog post features a letter from Georgia teacher Susan B. Barber to the new Georgia State School Superintendent detailing how the increasing emphasis on standardized testing has affected her and her students. Barber wrote that she supports some testing as a way to hold schools accountable for student learning and teacher instruction, but believes the pendulum has swung too far to one side. Wherever you sit on the issue of testing, this letter is a really interesting window into how the issue is playing out in one Georgia High School and into the opportunity costs, as perceived by Barber, of increasing the number of standardized tests students take.

#CommonCore: How Social Media is Changing the Politics of Education: This project by researchers from UPenn, UC San Diego and UNEC (Madrid, Spain) to document and examine how the Common Core debate has played out on Twitter is getting a lot of attention this week. I’ll admit upfront that I’m not done exploring the site, but what I have read so far is really fascinating (and awe-inspiring in its scope). The authors examined tweets from 53,000 distinct Twitter actors over the course to six months to document how Twitter has changed the way conversations about this type of public policy issue play out. One of the most interesting (to me) patterns the research uncovered was that the Common Core was often explained in metaphors – but those metaphors don’t always accurately describe what the writer meant. As that metaphor is repeated through retweets, it can be become the dominant narrative instead of what the author intended as the message. It’s like a massive, sprawling, electronic game of telephone. Whether you agree with this research or not, I think the site is worth exploring.

 

College for all? CAP says ‘Yes’

The Center for American Progress (CAP) recently kicked off a “College For All” campaign, a plan to break down barriers to post-secondary enrollment by covering costs for higher education to ensure that students and their families can afford college. In a planned series of reports, CAP will also recommend funding and support models. Ideally, this plan will result in increased college enrollment and degree attainment for students from low-income and moderate-income families.

The primer for this series – Strengthening Our Economy Through College for All – was released last week, framing the proposal around President Obama’s proposal last month to make community college free for as many students as possible. CAP takes the goal to the next level by encouraging the federal government to allow students to attend public four-year colleges and universities tuition- and fee-free. This removes FAFSA completion from the equation for college enrollment at these schools, a paperwork nightmare that has stood in the way of many students’ college application processes. Rather, CAP proposes a system in which students repay their college tuition through their taxes, based on income.

As CAP sees it, the U.S. economy is continuing to demand higher levels of educational credentials and degrees. As the oft-cited Georgetown University’s Center of Education and the Workforce 2013 report found, by 2020, the U.S. is projected to have a shortfall of 5 million college-educated workers. That is not an easy equation to solve.

As CAP continues to roll out the College For All proposal, it will be interesting to see the federal government’s reaction, as well as avenues built for state and university systems to respond.

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