Getting more bang for your buck…without being frugal

“From our research, a few things are clear. Perhaps most importantly, 
it is plain that some districts can get more bang for their buck.” 
-Parallel Lives, Different Outcomes: A Twin Study of Academic Productivity in U.S. School Districts 
(Center for American Progress)


No, today’s blog isn’t about savvy shopping or living on a tight budget.  Rather, it’s about schools and districts using funds in a manner that maximizes return on investment – and how State Education Agencies (SEAs) can create an environment that encourages such spending.

In the publication quoted above from the Center for American Progress, the authors studied “twin” districts with similar characteristics, but different per-pupil spending and revenues, and in turn, different academic results.  What they found might be surprise you: More money doesn’t always equate to better results. Another finding from the report: constraints and mandates attached to state and federal money dictated how districts could allocate those resources, leaving very little room for innovation.

The report recommends moving away from these overly structured funding systems – and in fact, there is a growing trend among some SEAs that are moving away from the norm, and trading increased autonomy over funding for increased accountability with their state’s lowest performing schools.

Two of our State Development Network (SDN) states are testing methods to move away from the norm. Colorado, for example, launched a school turnaround network this spring, which raises expectations for improvement while also providing additional resources to the schools within the network. The network schools will remain in district control, unlike the more bold structures in Tennessee and Louisiana. While the network is still in its early phases, eight schools have signed on for the coming school year.

New Jersey goes about spending innovation in a slightly different way: The Regional Achievement Centers (RACs) support improvement in the state’s lowest performing schools using district assurances through Title I funding to drive said funding through the NJDOE’s RACs.

The recommendation in the CAP report parallels a publication we released last year with the Federal Education Group entitled “The Money You Don’t Know You Have for School Turnaround: Maximizing Your Title I Schoolwide Model.”  The toolkit addresses one of our 10 SEA “power levers” for school turnaround: encourage flexible use of all available funds in turnaround schools, specifically through the use of the Title I school-wide model, and using the concept of supplement, not supplant, to increase the impact of funding.

What is your state doing to help your lowest performing schools get the most “bang for their buck”?

College and career: Two sides of the same coin

The bad news: Nationally, college persistence rates – the rate at which students return to college for a second year – are down 1.2 percentage points from 2009, according to a report released last week by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The percentage may sound small, but on an enrollment of 3.1 million students, that means 37,000 students who were not enrolled last fall would have been under the 2009 rate.

The report didn’t hypothesize on what might have driven the dip, although a story in Inside Higher Ed pointed out that the economic recession might have caused some students to choose employment over education.

A dip in the college persistence rate flies in the face of the increased focus on college success spearheaded by the Obama Administration, the Lumina Foundation, and Mass Insight Education, among others. And it could spell long-range trouble on the employment front given that the Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce is projecting that 65 percent of the jobs created by 2020 will require at least some post-secondary education.

The good news: It is possible to move the needle on college persistence. Studies have found that students who take advanced math and sciences courses in high school are more likely to earn higher scores on academic assessments. They’re more likely to both enroll in and graduate from college and – most critically for the future of our STEM economy – they are also more likely to pursue a STEM degree.  And for those concerned about the arts, advanced courses in English/Language Arts lay the foundation for skills students need to succeed in the sciences.

Over the past six years, Mass Insight Education has partnered with more than 70 high schools across Massachusetts on its College Success/AP program, a program designed to increase participation and performance in AP math, science and English courses with the ultimate goal of increasing college success.

And as a research brief we published earlier this year found, the program works: students who took at least one AP course through the program are enrolling and persisting in college at rates higher than the state average.

Mass Insight is working to expand the impact of this program by launching College Success Communities in several districts across Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Rhode Island.

Translating rhetoric into practice

Last week, a California judge issued a long-awaited opinion on Vergara v. California, ruling that not only were students’ civil rights violated, but that they were being deprived of their right to an education under the California State Constitution.  The decision is poised to open the gates for city-by-city, state-by-state conversations, cases, and debates.  Cases like this serve a critical role in framing issues, and to achieve the goals behind the decisions, it will be necessary to translate solid legal reasoning into implementation and practice.

The case creates an opportunity to discuss closing the chasm between rhetoric and results.  No Child Left Behind is a great case in point, wherein the policy necessitated a still-to-be-realized shift in practice. NCLB required that all students be taught by a “highly-qualified” teacher. An aspirational statement, certainly, but most school systems, particularly systems service high concentrations of low-income students, still fall short of this goal.

Fortunately, there has been some progress in linking policy to practice. A timely study highlighted in EdWeek on Monday found just that: stricter tenure laws in New York City resulted in underperforming teachers leaving schools voluntarily, and thus placing more effective teachers in the classroom in front of students.

While on paper the Vergara ruling sets the stage for a new era of equity in education, now is the time to get to planning for implementation and to explore what educational equity looks like on the ground.

New York bets big on expanded learning time

The Center for American Progress (CAP) is out with a new report examining efforts underway in the state of New York to expand learning time for many more students in high-poverty, low-performing schools across the state.

According to CAP, New York is taking an approach that allows districts and schools to combine federal support through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers with a competitive state-run grant program in order to expand the learning day. The state grant – the New York Extended Learning Time Grant program – requires an increase of at least 25 percent in the school day or year for all students.  Extended learning time is easily misused, and without an intentional strategy can result in stagnant student performance.  The grant program aims to make the time as effective as possible with a series of requirements.

The focus of the additional time is not restricted to core academic subjects, but in fact must include enrichment activities – “a critical component to closing the opportunity gaps that are prevalent in low-income schools,” the CAP report noted. To meet the requirements of the grant, schools can work with community partners, an approach that builds off New York’s history of collaborating with community-based organizations to provide additional opportunities for students.

Certainly at Mass Insight, we believe strongly in the importance of engaging the community in a school’s reform efforts. Making a long-term commitment to children is a community-wide effort, and engaging with community stakeholders helps build urgency for and ensure the sustainability of the reforms. Developing a community strategy is one of three integrated pillars to maximize impact, provide seamless support and produce sustainable results in College Success Communities (CSC), our name for small high-school driven clusters of schools. Click here for more information on CSCs and Mass Insight’s three-pillar approach.

It will be interesting to see how this effort plays out in New York. The first round of grantees will be announced this year, according to the CAP report.

To read the full report released yesterday by CAP, click here.

A proactive approach to improvement: The story behind the Indiana State Board of Education’s recent decision

At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, it looked like Glenwood Leadership Academy, a K-8 school in Indiana’s Evansville Vanderburgh Corporation (EVSC), could be in danger of a state takeover.

The school had received its sixth “F” on the state’s accountability system, which triggered a review process by the State Board of Education that could have led to mandated interventions – up to a complete takeover by the state.

However, the district was already a step ahead.

“We recognized that several of EVSC’s schools, including Glenwood Leadership Academy, were not meeting the needs of their students despite a number of initiatives that had been implemented over the years. We realized we needed to try a new approach in order to dramatically improve student outcomes,” Superintendent David Smith told Mass Insight recently.

So, EVSC decided to partner with Mass Insight Education to reinvent the way it serves GLA and other chronically underperforming. Through the partnership, the district created an independent unit, the Office of Transformational Support (OTS) to oversee five of the district’s schools, including GLA.

Historically, the Indiana State Board of Education has not been shy about exercising its authority to intervene in chronically underperforming schools like Glenwood Leadership Academy. Yet in March, the State Board of Education approved the district’s self-imposed intervention – an unprecedented ruling that was an explicit endorsement of the innovative and proactive approach taken by EVSC in implementing bold and swift interventions across a cluster of the district’s chronically underperforming schools.

Our newest publication examines the partnership between EVSC and Mass Insight and the early results it has produced – click here to read more.

“D” to “B” in Three: Dramatic Improvements in Jefferson Parish

The Jefferson Parish Public School System in Louisiana has made dramatic improvements over the last two to three years on nearly every metric analyzed, with students and schools demonstrating significantly higher performance than three years ago, according to a new report prepared by GCR Inc. for the Jefferson Community Foundation and the Jefferson Business Council.

“This improvement represents an important shift in the educational landscape throughout Jefferson Parish and, most critically, a cause for renewed optimism for the parish’s students and their families,” the report stated.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • The district’s overall performance score went up 19 percent from 2010 to 2013, and the 2013 score – 101.4 – was high enough to earn the district a “B,” a significant increase from the “D” it received in 2010.
  • Forty-one percent of the district’s schools were rated either an “A” or a “B” in 2012-13, an increase of 27 percentage points from 2010-2011.
  • The improvement at the school level translates to more students attending better schools: in 2013, 16,376 students were attending schools rated an “A” or a “B,” compared to 5,843 in 2011. The number of students attending failing schools dropped to 646 from 2,237.
  • The district’s graduation rate increased significantly, jumping 8.9 points to 70.4 percent from 2009-10 to 2011-12 and outpacing growth in the statewide rate during the same time period by 3.8 percentage points.

The report concluded by stating: “Teachers, administrators, district leaders, and communities everywhere, of course, constantly strive to improve the quality of education on which students and their families rely. The fact that recent gains of this significant have been made in Jefferson Parish is a reflection of this collective effort, and is an encouraging trend for the parish and its surrounding region.”

To read the full report, click here, and for a news story on the release of the report, click here.

Mass Insight Education has worked with the Jefferson Parish Public School System since the fall of 2011. Mass Insight’s initial work with the district initially focused on organizational structure, and more recently, the work expanded to include efforts to grow the Advanced Placement programs at an initial group of district high schools.

For previous blog posts on Mass Insight’s partnership with JPPSS, click here and here.

Join the Club: State Turnaround Networks

We have to think more creatively about school turnaround.  As described in the Center for School Turnaround’s new handbook, a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t always the best support model, and many State Education Agencies (SEA’s) are starting to develop a less traditional support structure for low-performing schools. One such strategy is a statewide turnaround network, ranging from an experience as all-in as Tennessee’s Achievement School District, to a lighter touch approach such as the Connecticut Commissioner’s Network.

Mass Insight’s State Development Network, a cohort of 11 states, has spent the past three years exploring strategies that will provide the best support to each state’s lowest-performing schools – including the SEA turnaround network.

Colorado, one of our SDN states, is launching a Turnaround Network which will support between eight and twelve low-performing schools.  The network will provide added capacity to schools and their districts, with the founding goal of improving student achievement.  The network is not intended to be a punishment for schools failing to improve, but rather an opportunity to opt into this added support.  Districts will work with the Colorado Department of Education to ensure that all conditions for the network are met at the schools.

Read more about Colorado’s new Turnaround Network here.

A Taste of What’s To Come: Preparing Students for College Success

“You’re getting a taste of what’s to come – the work, what teachers expect of you, and the amount of dedication and study you have to put into your work.”

That’s how Yolanda Bueso, a sophomore at Grace King High School in Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish Public School System (JPPSS), described her experience this year in Advanced Placement English Language and Composition.

Yolanda is one of several hundred students who are benefiting from a partnership between JPPSS and Mass Insight Education focused on expanding the AP programs at Grace King and Fisher Middle-High School. In the first year of the program, enrollment in AP math, science and English courses at the two schools increased by just over 300 students.

The program isn’t just about increasing enrollment, however. It’s also about ensuring that all of those students are successful in their AP courses – and that’s where Saturday Study Sessions come in. At Saturday Study Sessions, students attend a series of workshops taught by expert instructors selected by Mass Insight that explore in further depth topics the students are covering in their AP courses. Over the course of the school year, three Saturday sessions are held in each subject covered the program (math, science and English) – resulting in 15 additional hours of instruction for students who attend all three.

Mass Insight’s latest publication, “Extended Learning at Saturday Study Sessions: Students and teachers in Jefferson Parish commit to learning,” focuses on these Saturday sessions and how they, and the broader AP program, are putting JPPSS students on a path to college success.

Click here for a previous post on JPPSS.

News You Should Know: March Round-Up

Beginning in April 2014, we are jumpstarting our blog with a new schedule featuring a post every Tuesday.  At the beginning of each month, we will highlight education news stories from the previous month that you may have missed. Throughout the remainder of the month, we will showcase new Mass Insight Education publications and other key news stories.  We hope you enjoy the changes to our blog!


March News Round-Up

  • Don’t you forget about me. When it comes to school turnaround, there is one very important stakeholder that is often forgotten about: the community.  Last month, the U.S. Department of Education released case studies and tools relating to turnaround community engagement.  Check it out here!
  • Before you go on summer break… Students across the country will be field testing the PARCC Common Core assessments this spring.  Rather than seeking to get a sneak peek at student performance, the field test is more intended to serve as a test run: do schools have the right staffing in place? The right technology? A schedule without kinks? Do students understand the technology?
  • Still not good enough. New data from an exam administered in 28 OECD countries suggests that while American students are on par with some developed countries in their problem-solving skills, they still lag behind many European and Asian nations.
  • This shouldn’t be new to you. Unless you avoided the news and social media last month, you’re aware of the changes to the SAT, which will launch in Spring 2016.  The new test reverts back to the 1600 point scale, and the content will change to focus more on the language and skills students will require in college courses and the workforce.  The essay section will also become optional.
  • FAF-what?  Are students in your community aware of the benefits of filling out the FAFSA? Last month, government data revealed that 2 million students who did not file a FAFSA would have been eligible  for the needs-based Pell Grant toward college admissions fees.

Know what you have

After our last 6+ inch snowfall, I saw a neighbor of mine cleaning off her car with her jacket sleeves.  I offered her my car ice scraper, and she declined, saying she had one somewhere in her car but didn’t know where, and she was fine just continuing on the way she was.

This past summer, we released a publication called The Bold and the Bureaucrat: The Top Ten State Education Agency Levers for School Turnaround. In our and our partners’ work with SEAs relating to turnaround, we have found that there often are power levers available to states through law or policy that could be used to better support school turnaround efforts that state turnaround offices either didn’t know existed, or aren’t sure how to use.  Paul Hill at CRPE wrote, reaffirming our findings, that “[states] don’t use a good number of the powers they have,” continuing on to say that “many states treat school districts as if they were constitutionally established branches of government rather than (as is the case) creatures built at the state’s discretion.”

Hill’s final recommendations go beyond our recommendations, in that he calls for a whole new system for the state education agency to follow, but the resulting call for action is clear: understand the resources you have, and how to use them, and maybe the state can be more effective in supporting school turnaround.


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