Three things to read this weekend

Be sure to take a break from enjoying the beautiful weather this weekend to check out our picks for the top three things we read this week:

Digital Natives, Yet Strangers to the Web (The Atlantic): As someone who is old enough to have graduated from college before Facebook was even invented, it’s easy to view today’s students as “digital natives” who seem to have learned everything there is to know about technology before they turn 13. However, as this piece points out, there’s a big difference between being technologically savvy and truly understanding the ways in which technology can shape the human experience (never mind the behind-the-scenes algorithms). This story highlights different efforts to create a digital-age curriculum that helps students explore and understand the current technological era – and the extent to which schools are effective at teaching this.

The Condition of Future Educators 2014 (ACT): So, this is perhaps not the most scintillating read for a nice spring weekend. But! Some of the numbers in this report from ACT were just so staggering that I had to share. First, the number of ACT-tested students interested in a career in education dropped by 16 percent from 2010 to 2014 – even as the overall number of students who took the ACT increased by 18 percent. That decline doesn’t bode well for the pipeline of prospective teachers the country will need as more and more Baby Boomer-types ease into retirement. Second, the students who were interested in a career in education had lower than average achievement levels in three of the four subjects tested by the ACT – and in math and science the performance gap was significant. Since there’s widespread agreement that teacher quality is a critical variable in student achievement, these numbers are really troubling.

Building a Better Teacher (The New York Times): This article by Elizabeth Green is from several years back, so many of you may have already read it. But as I just started reading the book by the same name that Green published just last year, I figured I’d throw this on the list in case anyone missed it. The article (and the book, which is also worth reading) explore the difficulty in identifying what is good teaching and how to teach people how to teach well. The article focuses on Doug Lemov, who helped found Uncommon Schools and also published a book on good teaching called “Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College.” I thought revisiting this article was particularly timely given the numbers in the ACT report.

The importance of leadership

How important is high-quality school leadership to achieving improvements in student performance? A little? Very?

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Will Miller, president of the Wallace Foundation, argues that it’s critical. In support of the position, Miller pointed to a study on school leadership commissioned by the Wallace Foundation that found not a single case of a school improving its students’ performance in the absence of a high-quality principal.

Yet despite the important role great principals play in improving a school’s performance, Miller points to a serious lack of attention and investment in creating those principals. For example, only 200 out of the 500 university preparation programs for principals are effective, according to one estimate, and much of the focus of those programs is on general management and administrative requirements as opposed to instructional leadership. The average per-school tenure for principals is only three to four years. And only 4 percent of the federal funding directed toward improving educator performance is spent on principals.

You can’t improve a school with a great principal alone; great teachers are critically important as well. But Miller argues that part of what teachers need to be great is to be “led and developed” by great principals. It’s hard to argue with that.

How do you think we can improve this country’s pipeline of great principal candidates?

Three things to read this weekend

Happy Friday Saturday! Due to technical difficulties, we are posting this a day late, but there’s still plenty of time to check out our picks for the top three things you should read this weekend while you’re out and about enjoying the spring-like weather:

California’s multi-million dollar online education flop is another blow for MOOCs (The Hechinger Report): Three years ago, the University of California system placed a big bet on online courses, directing $7 million toward the creation of an online “campus” that would allow UC students to take courses across the system as well as provide access to non-UC students (for a price). This would turn out to be a bad bet. Only 250 non-UC students finished a class in the first two years of the program, dashing hopes that of a revenue stream to make the program self-sustaining. The article argues the UC experience is symptomatic of larger troubles in the world of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. According to the article, more than half of university administrators do not believe MOOCs are financially sustainable – more than twice the number who said that in 2012. While MOOCs are largely focused at post-secondary level, I wonder what implications these developments have for the growth of online or blended learning at the K-12 level.

American has ‘solved every problem in public education,’ but how are we still failing? 5 questions with John Engler (Real Clear Education): In this interview, John Engler, former three-term governor of Michigan and current president of the Business Roundtable, makes the case that the 21st century “blue collar” job is actually a “blue tech” job that requires a degree of skill and competency that must be learned. The way to do this, he believes, is through higher standards. He points out the disconnect between the education students are receiving and the needs of the workforce: there are between four and five million U.S. jobs that are empty because businesses can’t find people with the right skills, and yet there are also several million young adults who are not working or in school. According to Engler, there are three key components to bridging that gap: ensuring all students graduate from high school prepared for college-level work; give students skills to be successful in a career even if they choose not to go to college; reduce the high school drop-out rate to zero.

Where kids learn more outside their classrooms than in them (The Atlantic): It’s not terribly controversial to argue that the traditional high school model doesn’t work for all students. Pinning down an alternative to that model, though, has proved tricky. In this article, reporter Emily Richmond documents the efforts of one New Hampshire high school to give students more flexibility in designing a high school program that works for their individual needs and interests. Under a framework adopted in 2012, Pittsfield Middle High School allows students to choose to participate in extended learning opportunities that allow them to pursue internships or self-directed projects in lieu of traditional classes. Richmond emphasizes that this program is not a shortcut or a way to get certain kids out of the classroom; students participating in the model still need to meet rigorous guidelines and demonstrate what they’ve learned. However, it does allow students to meet the state’s language arts standards by designing and building a green house, a project that included making an oral presentation to the School Board and completing all required paperwork for building permits. The article notes that it’s not clear how well this model would scale to a large high school (Pittsfield only 260 students in grades seven through 12), but it’s a really interesting approach both to getting students more engaged in their education and to helping them draw connections between what they’re learning and the “real world.”

News You Should Know

As I’m writing this, it’s Opening Day at Fenway Park and everyone’s allergies seem to be acting up, which must mean it’s finally spring in Boston! Lucky for you, that means fewer complaints from us about the snow and more stories for you to read while enjoying the outdoors!

Education news round-up from the past few weeks below:

Sometimes meeting goals is harder than it sounds. The Lumina Foundation released a report to announce that, sadly, the U.S. will not be reaching Lumina’s Goal 2025 (that 60 percent of Americans will have a high-quality postsecondary credential by 2025). While the higher education attainment rate is increasing, the incremental growth from year to year is not enough to push the current 40 percent rate up by 20 percentage points in the next ten years. Lumina also cautions us to remember that the subgroup rates for postsecondary credentials is still pretty dire: the rate for Hispanic adults is half that of the overall rate at only 20.3 percent, and for African Americans it is at 28.1 percent. The good news is that the rates for these subgroups are still rising, just not quickly enough. As always, there is still work to do.

Supporting our English Language Learners. Over the past several years, the number of English language learner (ELL) students has continued to rise, particularly in western states.  To ensure ELLs are supported, the Education Commission of the States (ECS) released a report with recommendations for state-level ELL policies to support these students. The policies cover finance, identification, educator quality, early learning, and family engagement. ECS cautions that no one change will be the silver bullet that perfects the education experience for ELL students, and that instead it is at the intersection of these five interventions that states can better support their ELL student population.

“Go to college.” Not always as easy as it sounds. A great NPR story came out last month about smart, educated, and driven students from across the country. These particular students, though, are low-income and as a result often “undermatch,” only applying to local schools or not getting the support they need to apply to the schools that would really challenge them. Luckily, this story has a happy ending.

Communication is key. As mentioned above, the Lumina Foundation recently admitted that based on current data trends, the U.S. likely will not meet Goal 2025. But according to high school graduation data, there are plenty of eligible high school graduates who are simply not making it to college. According to Education Dive, the U.S. high school graduation rate was 81 percent in 2013, but at the same time, college enrollment is failing to keep up. It seems like college enrollment and success is a priority across institutions in the U.S., and the article recommends more partnerships between higher education, stated, and the federal government to ensure access for all.

SIG (In)sanity

We interrupt our normal “Three things to read this weekend” schedule to bring you this guest post by Larry Stanton, senior field consultant for Mass Insight Education, on how the new SIG guidance makes it possible for state education agencies to correct past mistakes. Here’s a little teaser – for the full piece, click over to our website!


Albert Einstein reportedly said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Between now and April 15, 2015, when state applications for School Improvement Grant (SIG) funding are due to the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE), state education agency (SEA) leaders have a chance to demonstrate their sanity.

Over the past four years, SEAs have awarded billions of SIG dollars to hundreds of schools and seen only a marginal return on their in­vestments. On average, schools that received as much as two million dollars each year improved only 2 or 3 percentage points in reading and math. Nearly one-third of SIG schools actually saw declines in student performance.

Why did such a large investment achieve so little? In too many cases, the activities funded with SIG grants failed to target the instructional core: the intersection of student engagement, teacher instructional practice and academically challenging content where student learning occurs.

Three factors explain this missed opportunity. First, not enough time and attention was paid to creating the necessary conditions for school improvement. Second, too many schools funded activities that were not tied to the instructional core. Third, even when schools had good plans, they often failed to implement them with fidelity.

USDOE has issued new rules governing the next round of SIG grants that give SEAs a chance to do it right. The new rules make it possible for SEAs to address each of the reasons SIG grants have failed in the past.

College, but at what cost?

Any long-time reader of this blog knows that we think preparing students for the academic rigors of post-secondary education is a critical ingredient in the college success equation. However, the financial barriers to college enrollment and completion can’t be underestimated by anyone (or any organization) serious about trying to increase the college completion rates in this country.

That’s why I found this column in the Hechinger Report by Chris Lehmann, the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, particularly moving. Lehmann says this was one of the best years yet for Science Leadership Academy when it came to college acceptances – and yet moving from acceptance to enrollment was an open question for many students due to issues with cost. Lehmann describes sitting with one student who had been accepted to her top-choice college, but was facing the prospect of taking on $200,000 in student loan debt in order to enroll – a loan burden that would require her to pay $1,500 a month until she was 52.

Lehmann argues that colleges have a moral responsibility to put together aid packages that allow students access to a college education – and the opportunity that comes with it – at a price that doesn’t saddle them with ruinous debt payments for decades after graduation.

Frankly, I think it’s a pretty fair argument. The professional world is increasingly weighted toward people with college degrees; limiting access to those degrees only to those who have significant financial resources is bound to create an even more financially polarized country than even the current state of affairs. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I think it’s an issue we can’t lose sight of as we work to ensure that all students are on a path to college success.

Balancing Support and Compliance

Over the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve spent a lot of time through Mass Insight Education’s State Development Network learning from state education agencies (SEAs) across the country as they work to transform low-performing districts and schools. This work looks different in almost every state. Some focus more on setting district-level conditions that better support school improvement, while others have a strong presence within the schools themselves, focusing on instruction, leadership, and data. Regardless of the approach, the majority of the SEAs I have spoken to struggle to find the right balance between support and compliance. And it makes sense: Oftentimes various offices within an SEA will have competing priorities or messages, and it makes it tough to create a cohesive culture across the organization for support to schools.

According to last week’s USDE’s Progress blog, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) has tapped into a method of support that is starting to work for both the SEA and the districts and schools it supports. According to the post, RIDE shifted its school improvement support strategies closer to the support end of the spectrum by moving beyond simply monitoring and pushing a school to meet goals. The SEA has added additional touch points throughout the year and now collaborates with the school and provides additional support when necessary to help the school meet identified goals. In order to identify internal capacity to make this work, RIDE tapped into federal funding such as SIG and Race to the Top and also leveraged its ESEA waiver, which provides additional intervention options to low-achieving schools. RIDE also encourages schools to use their improvement plans as living documents, readjusting activities when necessary to ensure resources are allocated to the strategies that will have a high return on student achievement.

While this may not be a feasible strategy for larger states, it’s worth looking at RIDE’s school improvement support strategy and considering how other SEAs might learn from RIDE’s practice.

Three things to read this weekend

Happy Friday! Here are our top picks for what you should be reading this weekend (in between watching college basketball, of course).

Finland’s school reforms won’t scrap subjects altogether (The Conversation): In case you missed it, Finland is planning some changes to its national curriculum that have caused a few waves in the international press. In this piece, Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and visiting professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, explains that Finland is not, in fact, getting rid of traditional subject (e.g., math, history, etc.) altogether. Schools will continue to teach those subjects but will also be required to spend some on multi-disciplinary modules – Sahlberg calls this “phenomenom-based” teaching. I think this integrated approach makes a lot of sense: how often in the workplace do you do a task that only calls for one particular skill or source of knowledge? What do you think?

How much should you pay for a degree? (The Hechinger Report): California Competes, a California nonprofit focused on higher education, has proposed creating an online tool that would help students determine whether college is the right choice for them, given certain factors like grades, SAT scores and excitement about school among other things. Robert Shireman, the nonprofit’s executive director, argues that such a tool could help puzzled or overwhelmed 12th graders make decisions about their future that will help lead them to college success. Reading a description of the proposed tool, however, raises questions for me about whether it would just discourage kids who are on the bubble from trying for college at all. Shireman acknowledges that there’s a need for a human advisor to help students understand the options generated by the tool. I wonder if there’s a way to apply this concept much earlier in a student’s academic trajectory, say in middle school, to help kids understand how the grades they get and the courses they take inform the options they will have years down the line. Would that increase motivation, or would it turn kids off?

Does student motivation even matter? (The Atlantic): This article about a recent Brookings Institution report highlights several of the report’s counterintuitive findings, including the fact that increasing a student’s enjoyment of reading doesn’t correlate with higher reading scores and that many countries whose students report higher levels of motivations on math actually posted declining math scores. Also, girls outperform boys – in some cases dramatically so – in every wealthy country in the world, including the U.S. – and yet by adulthood that gap disappears. More than anything, I think what these results highlight is the difficult in figuring out policy solutions for some of long-running educational problems.

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.


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