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.

State education agencies step up to the plate

Earlier this month, the Center for American Progress (CAP) released a report in conjunction with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) on individual state accountability in light of Congress’ failure to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act. The report explains that in the absence of a national accountability system for a changing educational landscape, the CCSSO collaborated with states across the nation to develop a set of next-generation accountability standards with a focus on college- and career-readiness and data-driven decision-making.

According to the report, these state-led approaches fall into five major categories:

  1. Measuring progress toward college and career readiness;
  2. Diagnosing and responding to challenges via school-based quality improvement;
  3. State systems of support and intervention;
  4. Resource accountability; and
  5. Professional accountability for teachers and leaders.

In general, states are using the flexibility granted through their ESEA waivers’ to test drive different approaches to measuring student progress. However, according to the report, challenges remain in terms of execution of strategies, alignment to preexisting national programs and initiatives, and validity of interventions.

In the end of the report, CAP calls for states to follow strong theories of action for their accountability systems. We agree that developing a strong theory of action is one of the first steps to working outside the box as many of these states are. These approaches can only be as strong as the vision and planning that supports them, and with a thoughtful planning process, these state-led systems have a better chance of boosting student performance.

How do you really feel about the Common Core?

The Center for Education Policy released a new report last week capturing findings from a large-scale survey of district leaders on the Common Core State Standards and the implementation of those findings. The findings capture some real shifts among district leaders from the first CEP survey on CCSS back in 2011 and contain a mix of good and bad news.

The good news: Despite wavering public support, district leaders have largely embraced the new standards and believe they will lead to improved student skills. There is near universal agreement among district leaders that the Common Core standards are more rigorous than the standards previously in place in their states – a huge shift in opinion from 2011 when a slight majority felt that way.

There is also increasing recognition among district leaders that the new standards will require fundamental changes in instruction. Almost 90 percent of district leaders agreed about the need for a new approach to instruction in 2014, compared to just 50 percent in 2011.

The bad news: Implementation continues to be a challenge. Most districts will not hit major implementation milestones – implementing CCSS-aligned curricula, adequately preparing teachers to teach the CCSS, having the technological infrastructure to administer CCSS-aligned assessments – until this school year or even later. District leaders cited a number of reasons for these implementation challenges, including resources, time, and internal/external resistance, but it does look, based on these survey results, like many, many districts will not be able to get all the pieces in place before consequences kick in for student performance on CCSS-aligned tests.

Our take: As MIE President Justin Cohen pointed out in a blog post earlier this fall on the Common Core roll-out, while there have been substantive problems with the rollout of the standards, there have also been immense problems in communicating with the public about the shift. Had communication been better, district leaders might be better positioned today to take on the implementation.

There are a lot of other data points in the report, so it is well worth a read. CEP is also planning to release subsequent reports with additional findings from this survey on other aspects of district implementation, so keep an eye out.

The recipe for a successful capacity strategy…

…An innovative district leader, collaborative local funders, and a promising strategy they all agree on. Sounds simple, right? According to a recent paper out of the Bridgespan Group, those are the three most important ingredients to sparking real change in results for students through local philanthropic efforts. Highlighting major transformation efforts in Memphis, Tenn., Jacksonville, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., and well-known initiatives such as Project L.I.F.T. and the Achievement School District (ASD), the paper aligns bold goal-setting by local education leaders to the opportunities that exist for local funders to transform public education.

In a follow-up article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the writers focus on Memphis’ quest to become “Teacher Town, USA,” which is described as being to teaching “what New York City is to banking and what Silicon Valley is to technology.” Without the proper political and financial backing, this may seem like a tough goal to reach. Lucky for Memphis, the goal is on its way to becoming reality.  It was well-thought-out and includes three basic strands: (1) retain teachers; (2) develop local talent; and (3) recruit national talent. With the backing of a collaborative group of local funders, the district was able to effectively engage the local community in this work, thus reinforcing the new funding streams with buy-in and a sense of ownership from local students, parents, and teachers.

The article emphasizes that it was the sense of urgency, the concrete problem and solution, and the community coming together, founded in the district’s collaboration with and across local philanthropists, that has led to the beginnings of improvement in student outcomes,. We look forward to watching this work continue to roll out, and encourage other districts, local funders, and communities to follow the footsteps of Charlotte, Memphis, and Jacksonville’s innovative—yet simple—approach to changing student outcomes.

Can we decrease the gaps by raising the bar?

The most shocking thing I learned from the American Institutes for Research’s new report by Dr. Gary Phillips? The gap in expectations between states with the highest performance standards and those with the lowest standards is equivalent to three to four grade levels. That’s double the national achievement gap between white students and black students.

Unlike with achievement gaps, however, this expectations gap is a little harder to spot through a quick read of test results – and that’s because states with the lowest performance standards tend to have the highest proficiency rates, according to AIR’s report. If you set the bar really low, more students are going to get across it.

It is only by introducing a common scale – which AIR did by benchmarking the states’ performance standards against international standards – that it’s possible to truly compare proficiency rates from state to state. What AIR found when they did this was that states with the highest standards also had higher student performance.

Why is this important? As AIR puts it in their report, “The lack of transparency among state performance standards leads to a kind of policy jabberwocky: the word proficiency means whatever one wants it to mean. … This looks good for federal reporting requirements, but it denies students the opportunity to learn college and career readiness skills.”

According to AIR, the Common Core State Standards are a critical first step, but they are not sufficient to close the expectations gap. In addition to challenging content standards (i.e., what is taught), states also need to set consistently high performance standards (i.e., what is tested). Without the latter, states 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.

As AIR notes in its report, however, support for the Common Core State Standards has been eroding, and the number of states planning to conduct common assessments based on those standards has dropped precipitously. We’ve posted before (courtesy of Mass Insight Education President Justin Cohen) on the bumpy road of the Common Core roll-out – for a refresher on that post, click here.

And for more on the Common Core implementation, Learning First has been conducting a great series of podcasts with people who are working hard to get it right: give them a listen for some really interesting insights into the implementation process.

A little more bold, a little less bureaucratic

Last fall, the Mass Insight State Development Network (SDN) released a toolkit in which we identified the top ten “levers” that a State Education Agency (SEA) could use to strengthen and better support turnaround efforts at the school and district levels. The publication provided the reader with an in-depth understanding of each of the levers, and included a discussion protocol to flesh out the availability and use of the levers in a specific state. The levers cover topics such as competitive funding, tying awards to specific performance topics, using a single robust turnaround plan, creating conditions to place the best teachers in front of classrooms, and intervening when a turnaround plan isn’t proving effective.

This year, the SDN states members (which include CO, CT, DE, FL, IN, MS, NJ, NV, NY, PA, and VA) came together for a series of four one-day briefings to walk through a deep dive of specific topics. These discussions covered school turnaround networks, public metrics and goal-setting, revisiting the turnaround power levers, and supporting rural and isolated schools. The third briefing on the turnaround levers included discussion of effective turnaround support around the planning and funding levers, as well as discussion of the lack of existing evidence on the absolute best form of intervention. Based on the fruitful discussion at that briefing, the SDN is releasing a supplemental update to the power levers report, entitled More Bold, Less Bureaucratic: Revisiting Three SEA Power Levers for School Turnaround.

More Bold, Less Bureaucratic - New publication from the SDN!

More Bold, Less Bureaucratic – New publication from the SDN!

The specific levers discussed included:

  • Encouraging flexible use of all available funds in turnaround schools;
  • Requiring from each turnaround school a single, coherent, robust turnaround plan based on an analysis of need;
  • Using state authority and capacity to take-over or close schools that fail to improve.

For the first two levers, we were able to identify SDN states using their power levers wisely and effectively, with clear lessons for other states. As for the third lever, which is more complicated, we brainstormed options SEAs might use when nothing else is working. Take a look at our newest publication to learn more!

 

An extra year of college? There’s a cost to that.

Liberty Street Economics, the blog of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, posted an interesting series last week on the value of a college degree. We’ve posted on this topic before, thanks to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, but in an era of ballooning college tuition costs and rising student loan debt, it’s a really important issue to continue to shine a light on.

Spoiler alert: the series concluded that having a college degree is still better than not having one (although the challenges facing recent college grads in securing good employment mean that a college degree will not be quite as lucrative as it used to be).

One of the series’ most interesting findings was that taking longer than four years to graduate from college can actually cost a graduate considerably more, not just in an extra year or two of tuition but in the opportunity costs from remaining a full-time student for an additional year or two.

According to the series’ authors, based on lifetime earnings profiles, “an extra year of staying in school costs more than $85,000, and for those who take two extra years to finish, it costs about $174,000.”

There are many reasons why students might take more than four years to complete a bachelors’ degree – but one big reason is being unprepared for the academic rigor of college. As we reported in the blog late last month, just 26 percent of the 1.8 million students who took the ACT last year met the college readiness benchmark in all four subjects tested (English, reading, math and science), according to a recent report by ACT. Students who aren’t ready for college-level work will often find themselves in remedial courses, which cost money but don’t get them any closer to their degree.

At Mass Insight, we believe that the best way to ensure students are ready for college-level work in college is to have more of them taking college-level classes while still in high school, through the Advanced Placement platform. And since students don’t just wake up in 11th grade ready for AP-level work, we also believe in working with teachers from sixth grade on to train them on how to increase the rigor in their pre-AP courses in order to grow the pipeline of future AP students.

Six years in, we’re seeing great results. Across the more than 70 Massachusetts high schools we’ve worked with, both participation in and performance on AP math, science and English courses have more than doubled. And students who have gone through our program are enrolling and persisting in college at rates higher than state and national averages.

Again, there are a lot of reasons why students might take more than four years to graduate from college. But given the financial implications laid out in the Liberty Street Economics blog, we should all be focused on making sure lack of academic readiness isn’t one of them.

To read the full Liberty Street Economics blog series, click here, here, here and here.

News You Should Know: August Round-Up

Our monthly news round-up continues below with August’s highlights.


 Tug-of-war over Common Core in Louisiana. Last week, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) filed a legal suit against the federal government over the Common Core initiative. The suit alleges that the federal government has created a “national curriculum,” which is illegal under federal law.

The impact of trainings. While we’ve written about the Mass Insight teacher trainings over the summer, New York City was seemingly on to something when the city began training cadres of teachers and principals a few years ago in preparation for Common Core implementation. New York State Commissioner John King believes the trainings may be the reason why New York City saw a small increase in student proficiency rates after the latest tests, while scores declined in other districts.

The customer is always right. In a speech announcing the Providence (R.I.) School District’s strategic vision for the 2014-15 school year, School Superintendent Sue Lusi emphasized a critical piece of the updated vision: customer service. The vision states that the role of the school district’s central office will include providing “outstanding customer service to students, families, and fellow staff and community partners” to ensure all are “treated with dignity and respect.”

’It’s good to be No. 1 in something other than football…’” Alabama leads the nation in Advanced Placement (AP) improvements. Since 2008, pass rates for AP exams in Alabama have increased by 136 percent, compared to the national rate of 49 percent.

Education policy is out; education politics is in. Education has been the topic of many more state-level legislative bills over the past year or so than in the past. What was the impetus for this shift in focus? The Common Core roll-out, says Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post. After many states missed their windows of opportunity to communicate and engage with the public around Common Core implementation, many legislatures took the lead on developing new standards.

 

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