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.

Three things to read this weekend

Congratulations to all of my fellow Boston-area commuters on surviving another week! While I’m hoping against hope that the storm forecast for this weekend gives us a pass, it’s looking likely that I’ll be stuck inside again. If you’re in the same boat, pass the time by checking out some of the most interesting things I read this week.

Rich School, Poor School: Looking Across the College Access Divide (NPR): The juxtaposition of two very different schools in the Detroit area: Cranbrook Schools, the $30,000-a-year alma mater of Mitt Romney, and Osborn Collegiate Academy of Math, Science and Technology, a public school that enrolls many students who could be the first in their families to attend college. This story highlights the growing disparity in the level of college counseling high school students receive. Not surprisingly, wealthier, suburban schools (not to mention private schools) tend to have more counselors and/or counselors with more training and experience; poor urban and rural schools are more likely to have counselors overburdened by large caseloads and with little formal training in college admissions. What does this mean? The students who need the most help navigating an increasingly complex college admissions process get the least assistance – which can exacerbate the already troubling income-based gaps in post-secondary achievement (see more on that in this story from last week’s weekend reads).

Saving School Choice without Undermining Poor Communities (The Atlantic): Chief among the many contentious issues in the NCLB reauthorization debate is whether federal funds for low-income students (i.e., Title I funding) should be “portable” – allowed to follow students to schools they choose. Republicans are largely in the let-the-funds-go-with-the-students camp, while most Democrats take the opposite position (shocker). Research has shown that reducing socioeconomic isolation – the effect that’s created when low-income students attend a school that enrolls almost entirely other low-income students –is more effective at improving the academic performance of low-income students than keeping them enrolled in a high-poverty school but spending more money on them. Given that, the article argues that structuring portable Title I funding so that it encourages wealthier public schools to recruit low-income students could reduce economic segregation and lead to larger improvements in student outcomes. I’m not entirely sure I buy the argument (what happens to the students left behind at the low-income schools? Do they all transfer? More details needed.) but it’s certainly an interesting read.

The Promise and Failure of Community Colleges (The New York Times): Community colleges have been getting a lot of attention recently, what with President Obama’s proposal to give students two years of community college for free. This article agrees with the president that community colleges have a lot of promise as a pathway to middle class stability for the huge percentage of American students who have neither the money nor the grades to go right to a four-year university. However, what Obama’s proposal ignores (or at least skirts around) is that community colleges aren’t doing a very good job at fulfilling that promise: only 35 percent of community college students attain a degree with six years, and the graduation rates have been declining over the past decade, according to the article. While the real solution to this problem probably lies in high schools or even earlier in the academic trajectory, the articles argues against giving up on community colleges, pointing to a successful experiment at City University of New York that doubled the three-year graduation rate for the most disadvantaged students.


As the debate over the Common Core and Common Core-aligned tests rages on, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education has entered the fray with a new report that compares the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS – the standardized test created by the landmark Massachusetts Education Reform Act – with the PARCC assessment. The report looks to answer one key question: which test does a better job of determining whether kids are “college- and career-ready”?

The – somewhat cautious and hedged – answer is the PARCC, according to the report. To be fair to MCAS, the report acknowledged that the test wasn’t designed for that purpose; it was merely intended to assess whether students were proficient on the state’s 10th grade English language arts and math standards. PARCC, born as it was in an era of heightened focus on college success, is explicitly designed (at the high school level) to assess against college- and career-ready standards. Also unlike MCAS, which was designed and rolled out in bits and pieces, PARCC is being built all at once, which makes it easier to ensure that the elementary and middle-school exams are vertically aligned and do a good job at gauging a student’s progress against those college- and career-ready standards. The report does acknowledge that it’s a little bit difficult to judge PARCC as the first full-scale administration has yet to happen and much of what we know about the test is what it promises not what it actually does.

The MBAE released the report in the hopes of informing the discussion in the months leading up to the Massachusetts Board of Education’s decision next fall on which assessment to use in Massachusetts schools. It should be a very interesting issue to follow.

For more on the MBAE report, check out this post from EdWeek.

Three things to read this weekend

As a Boston-area commuter, I’ve had a lot – a lot – of extra time on my daily commutes recently to get some reading in. Here are a few of my favorite picks from the week’s reading:

The Rich Get Richer – and More Educated (The Atlantic): Just in case achievement gaps at the K-12 level weren’t worrisome enough, some recent research points to even more troubling gaps at the post-secondary level: in 2013, Americans in the highest-income bracket were eight times more likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree than those from the lowest-income households – up from five times more likely in 1970. Since a college degree is widely viewed as the most important ingredient in the recipe for financial well-being, this growing gap could create a self-perpetuating cycle that makes it ever more difficult for students from poorer families to get the educational leg-up they need.

How to Raise a University’s Profile: Pricing and Packaging (The New York Times): The writer uses the experience of Washington D.C.’s George Washington University over the past two decades as a lens to explore the branding of the college experience. His conclusion? Becoming a top-tier university is less about the academic experience and what students are actually learning and more about the luxury amenities a university has on offer and the sticker price a student pays to access them. Favorite (most depressing?) detail: that the former president of GW likens college to vodka (all vodkas taste the same, but people will pay more for Absolut because of the brand).

Cramming for College at Beijing’s Second High (Fast Company): If you thought the SAT created a pressure cooker, just wait until you read about what students in China go through preparing for the gaokao, a national exam that students must take (and score extremely well on) to be admitted to college. This article follows the lives of a group of seniors at Beijing’s Second High as they prepared for this exam – and in so doing paints an illuminating portrait of the educational system in one of the world’s fastest growing powers.

New SIG guidance is out…Now what?

The wait is over. The U.S. Department of Education on Friday released a final version of updated School Improvement Grant (SIG) guidance, bringing to a close months of review and anticipation. The SIG rules were revised in order to improve implementation and use of SIG dollars. After a 2012 report found SIG was only effective in approximately two-thirds of schools (more on that in a previous blog post here), Congress and others began pushing the federal government to use SIG money on activities, programs, and systems that would be more likely to improve student and overall school performance.

At face value, the guidance seems rather similar to the initial draft released in September, with the biggest change being the addition of a state-determined improvement model in addition to the classic four options of turnaround, transformation, closure, and restart. State education agencies and districts and schools receiving (or hoping to receive) SIG funding have approximately one month to digest the changes; they go into effect on March 11.

The final updated guidance still includes many additions that will place more accountability on the local education agency (LEA) to monitor school performance, engage the local community, monitor and support intervention and implementation at the schools, and review the performance of external providers. It also includes an early education intervention model, which comes after many early education advocates and researchers have encouraged a greater focus on school improvement investments that offer preventative options to increase student performance at an early age.

Meanwhile, the state-determined model provides an opportunity for non-ESEA waiver states to expand turnaround model options for SIG schools. The guidance explains that this addition is still under review, but that for now, states will have the opportunity to submit one new turnaround model that addresses a “whole-school reform model” to the U.S. Secretary of Education for review. The guidance clarifies that states will not have the ability to require LEAs to implement a specific turnaround model for specific schools. It seems in relation to the state-determined model, state education agencies have a lot to think about.

With the release of the new guidance, states are given an opportunity to rethink the way they use their SIG funding, a process that will hopefully result in more dramatic increases in student achievement from this significant investment. We also hope that within education departments, we will see ongoing and increased collaboration across offices and units of school support to create models and systems that best support school improvement.

Three things to read this weekend

If you’re anything like me, you have a lot of tabs open on your Internet browser so you don’t lose track of the things you want to read … but don’t have time to get to right this second. With that in mind, we’ve decided to start a new weekly feature on the Mass Insight blog: Three things to read this weekend (when you actually might have the time!). Check in every Friday to see what caught our eye over the course of the week.

Without further ado, here are three things I found particularly compelling this week:

College Freshmen Seek Financial Security Amid Emotional Insecurity (The Chronicle of Higher Education): Dan Barrett and Eric Hoover parse the annual Freshman Survey from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (part of the Higher Education Research Institutes at UCLA) to identify some key insights into what’s going on in the minds of college freshman. One staggering statistic from the survey: 82 percent of college freshmen think it’s very important or essential to be financially well-off – up from 44 percent in 1974.

The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Improving U.S. Educational Outcomes (Washington Center for Equitable Growth): This study supports the argument that investing in and creating a strong educational system is essentially an economic development play by showing that raising educational achievement and closing achievement gaps would result in significant economic growth. Or, from the flip side, we should be willing to make significant investments in education because those investments will results in dramatically increased GDP and government revenue. For example, if we were able to increase U.S. math and science to the OECD average, the U.S. would experience $72 billion in GDP growth per year (!) for the next 35 years.

The Talking Cure (The New Yorker): An exploration of the Providence Talks program in Providence, R.I., which is an effort to get low-income parents to spend more time talking with their children in the hopes that will pay off with improvements in educational outcomes. The program is based on research that showed a connection between the amount of time parents spent talking with their children and the size of the children’s vocabularies and the children’s performance on IQ tests. This is a topic that’s fascinated me since I first heard about it on a radio show a year or two back, and this article raises some really interesting questions about the intervention.

News You Should Know: January

Our monthly news round-up below highlights the fun, the research, and the big education news stories of January 2015. While we couldn’t find a way to include the Patriots’ Super Bowl win in below, we did include a Boston story!

Boston gets a longer school day. After a 5-1 School Committee vote, Boston Public Schools will add 40 minutes to the school day for over 50 elementary and middle schools. While the impact of extended day on student achievement depends on how the time is used, as it stands now, teachers will be compensated for the additional time and will also have a voice in decision-making around how the time will be used within their schools. Proposed uses for the newfound time include common planning time for teachers, enrichment activities for students, and additional math and English instruction.

U.S. per-pupil K-12 funding continues to decline. A new report from the National Center for Education Statistics examined public school districts’ revenue and expenditures in the 2011-2012 school year. Findings indicate a 2.8 percent decline in per-pupil expenditures overall for the second year in a row, with some states, such as Florida, seeing a decline as large as 8.3 percent, and other states, such as Vermont, increasing their investments as much as 10 percent.

Closing the achievement gap – or trying to. The Education Commission of the States released a report last month on how states with overall high achievement rates but also large achievement gaps are working to improve performance for all students. The report highlights efforts in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Washington, and Wisconsin to use state-level task forces, legislative action, and research efforts around root cause analysis and best practices to tackle persistent achievement gaps.

Just for fun: Scholastic pitted the Super Bowl contenders up against one another based on their cities’ education systems. Who’s the winner? You decide.

Feel good story: The Humans of New York blog crowdfunded over $1M for students at a high-poverty middle school to visit Harvard University.

Three things to read on your snow day

With the whole East Coast buried under historic amounts of snow (or possibly buried – I’m writing this Monday, so I suppose the storm could have diverted!), there’s going to be a lot of shoveling going on today. And since the best part of shoveling is warming up afterwards with a mug of hot chocolate and something good to read, here are three reports worth checking out on your snow day:

Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success (Association of American Colleges and Universities)
The results of a survey of both senior executives and college students about what skills and knowledge college graduates need to succeed in the workplace (and whether, in fact, college students do possess those skills and knowledge when they graduate) found pretty strong alignment between the two groups on the importance of key learning outcomes and the applied learning experiences. However, while 74 percent of students think college and universities are doing a good job preparing them for entry-level positions, only 44 percent of employers think the same.

Breaking Down Walls: Increasing Access to Four-Year Colleges for High-Achieving Community College Students (Jack Kent Cooke Foundation)
Structural barriers at both two-year and four-year institutions make it difficult for community college students to go on to complete a four-year degree, even for those students who have demonstrated success at their community colleges, according to this report. Making it easier to students to transfer – and giving those students the support they need to be successful – would give four-year colleges access to a pool of high-performing applicants and would allow more students to fulfill their academic potential, according to the report.

The Seat Pleasant 59 (Washington Post)
This three-part series in the Washington Post from a few years back is well-worth a read. It’s about a group of students who in 1988 were fifth graders at Seat Pleasant Elementary, a school serving one of Prince George’s County’s poorest neighborhoods, when two wealthy businessmen promised to pay for their college educations. The series documents what happened to these students, who were, essentially, part of a social experiment.

School Savings Time: Lessons Learned About Adding Minutes to the Day

Last week, the Center on Education Policy released a report summarizing findings from expanded learning time in low-performing schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Oregon, and Virginia. After reading through the report, I see a few clear themes (see EdWeek’s take for more):

  1. There is no single “right way” to do expanded learning time. We’ve written before about the important opportunities expanded learning time provides. Schools sometimes rely on external providers or community organizations to support additional time during the day, on weekends, or tacked on to the school year. Others use expanded learning time for teacher collaboration or activities to supplement student instruction.
  1. Expanded learning time is costly both financially and as a time investment. Adding time to a day or school year does carry a significant financial burden – and that increased time for students will only be effective if it is a structured opportunity for remediation or additional time with high-quality teachers. Successful implementation also requires teachers to embrace a change in working conditions. Leveraging additional time (and money) to improve teaching skills can yield a high return on investment for a school using expanded learning time.
  1. Expanded learning time is not a silver bullet. The schools using expanded learning time that are having better outcomes for students (e.g. increased proficiency, higher graduation rates) see these results as a result of simultaneous, high-impact interventions. As highlighted in the point above, simply tacking hours on to a day is not enough to improve student outcomes.

In general, the report repeats a theme that many studies on expanded learning time find: sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But it seems the positive outcomes outweigh the negative, and maybe it’s only a matter of time before someone really gets it right.

Edu-trends to watch in 2015

Happy New Year! To kick off 2015, In the Zone blog writers Charis Anderson and Alison Segal are back with our predictions for the big education topics and trends for the upcoming year! Did we miss anything you predict could hit the front pages of education news? Let us know in the comments section.


Higher education: Shifting the baseline

President Obama’s proposal last week to make community college free for all students puts a spotlight on a critical element of our higher education system. While the future of the proposal remains unknown, the announcement has spurred an important dialogue about community college’s role in preparing students for career success. It’s also the first step in shifting the baseline educational standard from a high school diploma to an Associate’s degree. We also hope if this proposal comes to fruition that it would increase and improve communication and links between two-year and four-year educational institutions.

Common Core: Less “if,” more “how”

The Common Core debates are winding down, and while clearly there are still pockets of dissent, the focus seems to have shifted toward implementation, which is where we think it should be. Fewer reports are hitting our inboxes around the “dangers of Common Core,” and more discussion is appearing online and at the water cooler focusing on how teachers, with the support of their school and district leadership, can begin shifting their classroom routines and structures to reflect the Common Core Standards.

NCLB: Standardized testing to remain, but perhaps more balanced application

It’s pretty clear standardized testing isn’t going—and shouldn’t go—anywhere. But could 2015 be the year schools cut down on the testing-obsessed atmosphere and through the Common Core State Standards reclaim the classroom for learning? We see this is a classroom that is still imparting knowledge students need for Smarter Balanced and PARCC assessments, but perhaps steps away from the rhetoric of “teaching to the test.”

School Improvement: More complicated, or more autonomy?

In September, the U.S. Department of Education released draft guidance updates to the School Improvement Grant. Hundreds (including us) responded with comments for edits, but the Department will not release the updated guidance for a few more weeks. The big ticket items were expanding the grant’s cycle from three to five years to include planning time, focusing on early education, and identifying a state-determined model. While we have yet to see how many changes the federal government makes, the new guidance is sure to change the way states use and view their School Improvement Grant allocations.


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