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.

MCAS or PARCC?

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.

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.

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.

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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.

Ready to work: Computer science programs take education by storm

Yesterday, the White House announced new commitments to supporting computer science education that are giving more students access to technology education across the country. This follows President Obama’s call to action last winter for students, businesses, nonprofit organizations, students, and foundations to come together to support K-12 computer science education.

Yesterday’s announcement covered funding, partnerships, outreach, and a successful campaign to increase the number of computer science courses offered to students.

For the sake of increasing STEM opportunities, let’s talk numbers:

  • The philanthropic community committed over $20 million to the cause.
  • More than 60 districts, including some big names such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and others, committed to offering computer science courses to their students. That’s over four million students in more than 1,000 middle and high schools across the country!
  • The College Board will add to its repertoire of more than 30 AP courses with an AP Computer Science course and exam.
  • These commitments also aim to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities in computer science. Today, women only represent 12 percent of all computer science graduates.

This is all good news for STEM education, especially in terms of preparing youth for the skills the workforce will require when they reach graduation. If the education world can keep up the momentum, we’re one step closer to graduating college and career ready students from all schools.

News You Should Know: Election News Round-Up

This month, we continue our news round-up feature with a recap of election results and their potential impact on education.

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Last month, Americans turned out to vote in the 2014 midterm elections. As the results rolled in, we learned that at the federal level, Republicans maintained control of the House and won control of the Senate. At the state level, a handful of historically blue states (including Illinois and Massachusetts) elected Republican governors. And in states with elected state education chiefs, the majority of elections resulted in wins for Common Core opponents (see EdWeek’s coverage of the chiefs’ races state-by-state here).

What does this mean? In terms of the U.S. House and Senate, it could end gridlock, though depending on your political stance that could be good or bad. Most notably for the education world, with the Republicans claiming a majority in the Senate, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is poised to become the next chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

We rounded up a few video and written forecasts on what the elections will mean for education come January:

  • Barely one week after the elections, EdWeek hosted a day of panels and speakers, sharing expert opinions on the potential impact of the elections over the next few years. Click here for an archive of panel videos.
  • Similarly, the Alliance for Excellent Education hosted a panel the week of the elections, with a spin that policy wonks may find especially interesting. Click here for a transcript and video of the panel.
  • Meanwhile, at U.S. News, Rick Hess and Mike McShane summed up the potential impact on education as a loss for unions (with the exception of California), and ponder the meaning of the silence on the Common Core in many candidates’ campaign platforms. Click here for the full post.

 

Debunking education myths over turkey dinner

Thanksgiving could be the time of year where family members hook onto one or two education news headlines they’ve seen over the course of the past few months and begin spitting out what is so often misinformation about a trend, policy, or event in the education sphere. If this sounds like a familiar situation to you, fear not: This year, In the Zone blog writers Charis Anderson and Alison Segal have some talking points for you to set your relatives straight:

“This whole Common Core thing is ridiculous! Since when is the federal government allowed to tell teachers what to teach?”

  • The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were put together by experts and state leaders with input from teachers, parents, and other stakeholders.
  • The goal of the standards is to ensure that all students in the U.S. will be taught with the same rigor and under the same high expectations, meaning that when a child moves from Mississippi to Massachusetts, that child has mastered the same skills as students in Massachusetts and is ready to dive in.
  • The Common Core is not a curriculum; teachers, principals, and superintendents can still make local decision about how to teach.
  • What the Common Core is is a set of “consistent education standards [that] provide a clear set of shared goals and expectations for the knowledge and skills that will help our students succeed.”
  • Finally, while the Common Core State Standards are a critical first step, we also need a common assessment (such as PARCC) in order to close the expectations gap between states. If states are able to set their own performance standards (i.e. what is tested), they 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.
  • Click here for additional CCSS talking points from ASCD.

 

“Why all this talk about college readiness? A high school diploma was good enough for me!”

 

“These teacher salaries are too damn high!”

  • There is a great deal of evidence showing that teacher quality is one of the most important variables in driving student success in the classroom. But guess what: for something so important, the salary is not competitive enough to drive field experts into classrooms. That means that, specifically in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classrooms, most talented STEM college graduates are choosing lucrative private sector careers over the classroom.
  • Even of the people who do initially choose the classroom, many leave within five years, citing low salaries as one reason. For example, the median starting salary for chemical engineering majors is $67,500 compared to $37,200 for education majors.

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Will the highly qualified STEM graduates please stand up?

The economy is expected to add about 1 million new STEM jobs by 2022, yet the U.S. has one of the lowest ratios of STEM to non-STEM bachelor’s degrees in the world.  That’s a serious STEM shortage, according to an issue brief released last week by Public Impact. The report mirrors a point we’ve written about before: that it’s widely argued that the U.S. educational system is simply not churning out enough highly qualified STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates to meet the needs of U.S. employers.

Why is this? Students aren’t being adequately prepared by our K-12 systems to pursue STEM degrees once they land in college, according to Public Impact.

Again, why? Public Impact posits that one big reason is a serious lack of skilled STEM teachers – and the numbers it cites are pretty compelling:

  • Twenty-five thousand new STEM teachers are needed every year – and yet fewer than 9,000 highly qualified high school students say they have any interest in going into teaching.
  • Only 10 percent of education majors in the bottom 25 percent of university education schools are taking the courses they need to teach middle school math – and yet that same pool of education schools produces 60 percent of middle school math teachers.
  • In 2013, only 30 percent of eighth graders had math teachers who had majored in math.
  • More than 40 percent of high school STEM teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

Lots of people and groups recognize these troubling statistics and are trying to do something about them, including the 100Kin10 collaborative (of which Mass Insight Education is a partner), which aims to get 100,000 STEM teachers into U.S. classrooms within a decade.

Public Impact’s proposed solution is the creation of what they call an Opportunity Culture – developing new models that redesign jobs or use technology to attract more highly qualified candidates into STEM teaching jobs and then to place those teachers into high-leverage situations where they interact with a large number of students.

We’re excited to see where Opportunity Culture has proven success and then how replicable the approach is. The success of our AP/STEM program stems in part from exposing more students to a rigorous AP curriculum – but also from allowing high-quality AP teachers to reach more students. It’s encouraging to learn about other initiatives that, coupled with our own, could put more students on a path to postsecondary success and increase the number of qualified STEM graduates.

Find out what happens when district stakeholders get out of the district and start getting real

This month, we’re holding off on our news round-up until after Election Day (remember to get out and vote!).

Instead, today’s post will focus on an event Mass Insight Education hosted last week for its College Success Communities.

 

Last week, we hosted a convening for six of our College Success Communities (CSCs) from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Louisiana. Participating districts brought teams that included teachers, school faculty and administration, district leadership, and community members (e.g. local university leadership or school committee members). Over the course of two days, the teams spent time learning how to work together as a team, improving their ability to engage the public in their reform efforts and – most importantly – developing strategies and action-oriented plans for preparing their students for post-secondary success.

By the end of the two-day event, we realized a few things:

  • First, change is not easy. However, when people are given the opportunity to step away from the everyday churn of their districts, it becomes a lot easier for them to escape the constraints of the status quo and, especially with an array of stakeholders at the table, to strategize a way around everyday obstacles.
  • Second, these particular groups of stakeholders very rarely (if ever) have the time to sit down together and spend time thinking as a group. At our event, teams were given the opportunity to examine student achievement data in a group that most likely had never done so together prior to last week. As a result, teams were able to see patterns in the data they hadn’t before, allowing them to identify major areas for growth and plan around where students needed the most support, whether increasing test scores in the middle grades or gaining the skills necessary to persist in college.
  • Lastly, communication and public engagement are extremely important in local education initiatives. Unfortunately, there often isn’t enough time for leadership, teachers, and the community to come together and get on message. When polled on the importance of community engagement and communication, participants rated it an average of 8.8 out of 10, with 10 being the most important. But when we moved into a discussion about how they implemented communications practices, we heard a lot of qualifiers such as, “when there’s time…” or “in theory….” Out of this discussion, the group as a whole came to the conclusion that telling a story of why a school or district is making certain decisions is incredibly important. Even if there isn’t explicit time in a principal or superintendent’s schedule, they can still have an impact by ensuring that everyone is speaking the same language when engaging the public and telling the story.

Overall, working with and listening to the CSC district teams over the two days showed us that there is a lot of excellent work going on in districts across Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Louisiana. It also showed us the importance of engaging a wide range of stakeholders in planning for a district’s future. We are glad to have been able to provide that opportunity to our CSC teams.

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