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.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.



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