Blog

  • March 27, 2015 02:00 PM Did Jeb Bush’s Education Reforms Work in Florida?

    One of the positive points of a potential Jeb Bush presidential candidacy is that he has some claim to success as governor of Florida, particularly with regard to education.

    Some of his education reforms (support for school privatization and more accountability) are unpopular among liberals. Some (particularly Common Core) are unpopular with conservatives. But at least he can claim to be actually moderate.

    What’s more, according to this article at Newsweek his reforms don’t seem so bad:

    While Bush was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, the state “made dramatic improvements in the academic outcomes of all its students,” a report from The Heritage Foundation concluded in 2010.
    It said Florida also made “significant progress” in narrowing the nationwide achievement gap in grades K-12 between white students and minorities, particularly blacks and Hispanics.

    Being able to boost an achievement record like this is objectively impressive. Jeb Bush is right to highlight his success.

    And the state’s students went on to make the strongest gains in the nation on a test known as NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, since 2003, the first year that all 50 states used the exam.

    JebWhatever

    But one of the problems here, as far as education for the nation as a whole goes, is that we don’t really know why the governor was so successful.

    The Heritage report cited above “credited parental choice, higher standards, and both accountability and flexibility” as the reasons for the higher achievement, but that’s not really clear. Florida, for instance, also got a lot richer during the same period. Nor is it clear which of those reform strategies (the total package was called the A + Plan) mattered most.

    Critics argue he presents the whole package as part of a necessary reform strategies for all states because there just isn’t evidence of success for any particular strategy. His plan is pitched through his nonprofit, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which is curiously connected to various companies that make a lot of money through education reform.

    But the evidence isn’t bad. There’s nothing to indicate that anything got worse while he was governor. There’s reason to question how much his reforms mattered and what might be most effective for the country, but the state posted gains beyond those of other states. And that’s a valid standard to use when evaluating a candidate.

    Let’s keep this in mind as he proceeds along the path to the nomination. He’s going to have critics poking holes in his education record, as is entirely appropriate. But he was governor of Florida some 8 years ago. If any of the success he touts was a lie we would probably know about it by now.

  • March 27, 2015 10:00 AM We’ve Got Education Reform All Wrong

    Everyone knows that American education is in crisis. Education is one of the few fields where an obsession with failure can be good for a career. Education secretaries get applause when they talk about the great and immediate need to make radical changes.

    It is unacceptable that our country performs like Latvia. Our schools are bad. Our teachers are bad. Our children are stupid.

    And so we’ve enacted near-continuous reforms, and spent truckloads of money, trying to improve American achievement by fixing out schools. That’s probably wrong.

    That’s according to recent research by Gary Orfield and Patricia Gandara at the University of California-Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project, who argue that the source of America’s low education achievement might not have anything to do with schools at all. According to a piece about them in Pacific Standard:

    In spite the opening of a second front comprised of school vouchers, a 2.57-million student charter school network, and a classroom culture tied to test preparation, the nation’s education outcomes have barely budged, and rather than narrowing the education gap, the chasm between rich and poor appears only to be significantly widening.
    But what if it turned out that education reform, with its teacher-blaming assumptions, got it all wrong in the first place? That’s the conclusion being drawn by a growing number of researchers who, armed with a mountain of fresh evidence, argue that 30 years of test scores have not measured a decline in America’s public schools, but are rather a metric of the country’s child poverty—the worst among developed nations—and the broadening divide of income inequality.

    EmptyClassroom

    My first reaction on this piece was wait, this is a debatable point? We have the poorest children of any industrialized nation in the world. Of course we perform worse.

    But looking at again it appears the researchers may have discovered something that challenges even standard progressive ways of thinking. Sure achievement is low, but it’s actually pretty much the same as it’s always been. We should have higher achievement, yes, but the only way to get that is to make serious changes in society itself.

    But one of the points the researchers are making indicates that achievement is actually getting worse. Not nationally, of course—achievement levels on standardized tests seem mostly to rise, as do graduation rates and college attendance—but among the poor achievement seems to be declining relative to everyone else. The achievement gap between the rich and poor is growing, despite extensive changes in teaching, lessons, and school structure.

    “There are, according to the article, “limitations to what even the most inspired teachers alone can achieve in a society plagued with inequities.”

  • March 27, 2015 09:41 AM One of the Biggest Threats to Student Privacy​? Failure to Communicate

    Lorrie Faith Cranor, a professor of computer science and of engineering and public policy in her office at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa.

    PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Online programs bring new educational resources to classrooms and homes.

    And with them comes the responsibility to ensure children are safe when they log in to play games, chat with friends and explore the world. Policymakers, businesses and educators continue to debate appropriate controls. The U.S. Department of Education last week released new tools for educators to help them keep student information safe.

    Last week, The Hechinger Report sat down to discuss this with Lorrie Faith Cranor, a professor of computer science and of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. “Kids care a lot about privacy, but their view of privacy threats may be a little bit different than adults,” Cranor said.

    Cranor, who is also director of the university’s CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory, says understanding the different ways in which children and adults think about security and privacy might improve their conversations.

    Q: Can you tell me a little bit, first of all, about your “Security Blanket” quilt?

    A: I took a collection of stolen passwords that had been published to the Internet, and there were about 32 million passwords. Then we made a big word cloud of the thousand words that appeared most frequently. I digitally printed it on fabric and made it into a quilt called the Security Blanket. There are a lot of words that relate to love, I love you and various misspellings of that in different languages, lots of people’s names, pets’ names and cartoon characters’ names. There are a few four-letter words mixed in, but actually not so much of that.

    Q: What do you think that tells you about the human psyche?

    A: Well, it’s clear that people are thinking about positive things and things they like when they make passwords. It seems like people are thinking about other people who are important to them and characters they like and their pets, so that’s the kind of sentiment that we see in passwords. This also makes them really predictable, though.

    Q: More recently you’ve done work with young children asking them what privacy or security means to them?

    A: We have a project called Privacy Illustrated. We went to schools, and we asked students to draw pictures of what privacy means to them. Then we also went online and asked adults to do it. We have them on the Privacy Illustrated website, and people can contribute to our collection and also browse the collection. We have them all categorized by keywords, so you can pick a word and see what other people think about it. There are lots of pictures that have doors. A lot of the children, when they think about privacy, they think about keeping their siblings out of their stuff.

    Q: Some things never change.

    A: Yeah.

    Q: Did you notice that it seems like the younger students were thinking more of physical space, and then as they got older they changed?

    A: The children were definitely focused on that physical privacy, and so we see doors, bedrooms, even blankets — hiding under the blanket as a manifestation of privacy. One of my favorites is that Spiderman needs privacy so he can change his clothes.

    Q: That’s very creative.

    A: It’s what they’re thinking about. We see a lot of that with kids. We see that with adults, too. There are plenty of adults who drew pictures of brick walls, of fences around their house, of closing the curtains in their house, so same sort of thing. But we also see some additional things in the adults. As they get older we start seeing concepts related to Internet privacy, securing your computer, surveillance, the NSA, video cameras, surveillance cameras and those sorts of concepts.

    Related: Sign up to latest news on blended learning delivered for free to your inbox

    In this April 2, 2014 file photo, Pre-K students use electronic tablets at the South Education Center in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

    Q: Do you have any tips for K-12 teachers who want to try things but want to make sure they’re being safe with students?

    A: First of all, the teachers should preview what they’re going to do before they send their class there. You want to avoid things that have lots of advertisements or are going to be asking the kids to type in personal information.

    Q: What is personal these days?

    A: I think for children, they shouldn’t even be putting their name on the Internet. We’ll start there. With children really anything that can be used to connect something with them. A good kids’ site is either not going to make them log in, or it is going to ask them to make up a name.

    Q: Interesting. Not even their name?

    A: My kids, at their school, they use a math site. Each kid is given a user name and they’re all made up words. They’re not asked to put their real names in there.

    Q: Would you recommend teachers reading the terms of service completely? That can be a dull read.

    A: They’re a dull read and really hard to understand. I don’t think they’re going to get that much out of doing it, sadly. I think often it’s better to get other people’s opinions and to look for recommendations on sites. If you’ve stumbled across a random site, you might try looking for reviews of that site, and seeing if other teachers have had a good experience with that site.

    Q: How do you start to teach students age appropriately about cyber security and privacy and passwords?

    A: In my house, we have a lot of computers and we set up accounts for everybody in the house on the computers, largely so that people wouldn’t delete each other’s files. Initially, my kids had accounts from the moment that they could type at all on the keyboard, which was about age three. Initially it had to be a password that was going to be really easy for a 3-year-old to type. But the 3-year-olds could never remember their passwords, so everybody else in the house knew the password. The typical conversation was, “I want to use the computer. What are the letters in my password?” As they got older, we started saying, “No. Actually you should have a password that’s a secret that other people don’t know, other than your parents. I’m going to know your password.”

    Q: About what age was that do you think around?

    A: I think once they could get to a point where they could actually remember a password on their own, and I think once they realized that when their big brother knew their password and he could go mess with their account. That was like, “Oh. I don’t want my brother to know my password. I can see there’s a consequence if my brother knows my password.”

    Q: Is there anything that worries you or you wish that more people were thinking about in this area?

    A: I think that a lot of kids have trouble figuring out what the threats are. Not just kids, people in general. You see these articles that say, “Oh, kids don’t care about privacy.” I think that that’s been demonstrated to be really not true. Kids care a lot about privacy, but their view of privacy threats may be a little bit different than adults. Their main fear about privacy is that their parents will see things, their teachers will see things, and maybe their siblings will see things that they don’t want them to see. They’re not thinking about the government, the National Security Agency, and they’re certainly not thinking about future employers. When adults say to them, “Don’t post that. When you try to get a job your employer will see …” and they go, “When am I going to get a job? That’s like five years from now, 10 years from now.”

    Q: Maybe it’s better to put it in terms they can understand?

    A: It’s hard to figure out how to put it in terms that they can understand and to get across the notion that time passes, you will change. Part of it is to say, “Remember, you’re 10 now, when you were eight you were really different. You liked different things, and when you’re 12 you’re going to like different things. When you post something to the Internet, it can be there forever, and think about whether you’re going to want people to see this about you forever.”

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • March 26, 2015 12:50 PM Education Technology Hasn’t Worked Yet. Why’s It Going to Work Now?

    It’s tempting to think technology can fix most of education’s problems.

    There have, in history, been lots of problems that seemed intractable and in need of vast complicated policy initiatives to address them. And then, in an instant, technology makes them disappear.

    During the 19th century, for instance, the streets of America were covered in horse excrement. Public health reformers puzzled for years about how to fix this problem, how to get the horse poop out so children could play and people could work with relative ease. Pundits worried that by 1930s the horse droppings would pile up to the third floors of city buildings. Then we got the automobile and no one worried about that again.

    But the fact that technology sometimes fixes serious problems doesn’t mean technology can fix all problems. This is the issue Megan Erickson ponders with regard to education in that latest issue of the Jacobin. It’s a long essay, and well worth reading, but the basic thesis is this:

    Education is not a design problem with a technical solution. It’s a social and political project neoliberals want to innovate away.

    She’s talking about the popular education reforms ideas of today (and a way of envisioning the future) about improving education “output” through new and innovative products to educate our children more efficiently:

    For… corporate education reformers, knowledge is static and students are passive recipients; efficient transmission of information is the goal of education. And technology is the means by which we make the transmission process faster, cheaper, smarter. Gifted children are best served by moving individually at their own pace, “slow students” move at theirs, all in isolation.

    The problem with this is that with education the barrier to higher achievement might be more structural.

    We have, in fact, been ramping up technology in school for years. Early 20th century behavioral psychologist Edward Thorndike, Erickson explains, “envisioned a future in which texts were capable of offering a self-directed learning experience… if, a ‘book could be arranged to hide information and display it step-by-step, much that now requires personal instruction could be managed by print.’”

    MagicTech

    In the mid-20th century we tried radio college, in which people we supposed to receive higher education remotely, by listening to lectures on the radio.

    In the 1950s psychologist Sidney Pressey developed a teaching machine in which children sat at long tables and worked alone, completing individual tasks to learn lessons.

    In 1962, when The Jetsons premiered, the family’s young son, Elroy, learns his lessons from a robot named Ms. Brainmocker.

    None of this stuff works. Or, the methods proposed are so unnatural, and so unpleasant to actual human beings, that they don’t work to address the serious achievement gap we have in American schools.

    But Erickson noticed something interesting here. Many of the people who are so very eager to push technology-based education reform seem curiously to get that these methods don’t work for actual human beings. How do we know this?

    An article in the New York Times reported on the popularity of the Waldorf model of education in Silicon Valley as if it were a contradiction: “A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute.”
    Waldorf schools incorporate creative and tactile experiences and tools including hammers and nails, knives, knitting needles, and mud — but not computers — into the curriculum. Engagement comes from the connection between children and their teachers, who stress critical thinking and aim to create interesting, inquiry-based lesson plans.
    According to the Times, employees at Google, Apple, Yahoo, Hewlett-Packard and eBay send their children to the Waldorf School of the Peninsula. “The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous,” Alan Eagle, a Google communications executive who’s written speeches for Eric Schmidt, told the Times.

    This sort of thing is not a personal quirk, like a preference for Fresca or loose-fitting suits. Nor is it like the Obamas sending their children to Sidwell Friends while worrying about the state of American public schools. No, Waldorf schools use an education philosophy directly in contrast to the education reform strategies pushed by those selling education technology.

    The very Silicon Valley reformers promoting and funding techno-utopian models for American schoolchildren refuse to submit their own children to anything like it, choosing innovative pedagogical models instead of newer touch screens.

    But the techno-utopian model offers a continual promise of an education solution just waiting around to be developed at a company somewhere, even though this magical teaching machine never really materializes.

    Technology sales pitches can seduce us all when we’re looking to buy stuff or address technical problems at work. But somehow we’re never really interested in taking that sort of gamble when we’re raising our own children.

    Why is it OK to do this when we’re talking about someone else’s?

  • March 26, 2015 09:33 AM Three Cheers for Failure! Wait, What?

    ATLANTA, Ga. - A faux evergreen tree set up inside a convention center hotel here last week was festooned with hand-written confessions from school leaders.

    “Inadequate WiFi density caused classroom technology to crash during Open House!” “Teacher technology stipends: All pain, no gain.” “Did not check references.” “Poor construction management destroys existing network.”

    Of course, most of the events at the annual conference for the Consortium for School Networking, a national professional association for educational technology leaders, were not about failure. This was not a meeting of Luddites, after all. But many sessions offered presentations from leaders who had pioneered education technology, and who could offer successful examples and suggest solutions to common problems - and acknowledge failures, as well.

    “We always want to talk about best practices, but we also have to talk about pitfalls,” said Pete Just, chief technology officer of the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, Indiana. “It might not be a dismal failure. Obviously you want to be able to recover from it.”

    The Consortium for School Networking annual conference in Atlanta offered intimate meeting spaces to solve problems. The CoSN Camp featured “fireside chats” in a section of a ballroom that was decorated to look like a national park campground. Photo: Nichole Dobo

    The annual conference featured awards to those who were successful, celebrations of intelligent risk-taking and shared stories of promising innovations. And the organization shared documents that serve as a road map to guide people toward smart choices, and revealed the results of a survey of members’ opinions on technology needs.

    This year, the federal government expects to dramatically increase the amount of money available to subsidize education technology purchases for schools and libraries. In December, the Federal Communications Commission voted to increase the spending cap by $1.5 billion, and the agency established priorities for that spending, such as improving the speed of the Internet in schools.

    Related: FCC votes to increase E-rate funding for school technology

    Here is a sampling of tips offered in some of the sessions during the CoSN conference in Atlanta.

    Ask “why,” then ask “how.”

    The Houston Independent School District, the seventh-largest public school district in the country, is deep into work that will bring every student in the district a computer, something commonly referred to as a 1:1 program. Two leaders from the district, Daniel Gohl, the chief academic officer, and Lenny Schad, chief technology information officer, said a key part of the work was a solid plan.

    “We dove in and mapped out, in boring detail, who was going to do what and when,” Schad told the audience.

    That included cooperation between leaders in technology and academic departments. The district determined academic needs first. Technology was selected second. But Schad said too many districts call him to ask “how” the Houston leaders did the work. The first question, he said, should be “why” the schools want classroom technology.

    Make a plan, but be prepared to change it.

    When educators in the District of Columbia Public Schools, the school system in Washington, D.C., started using a program to teach computer science, enrichment teacher Angel Cintron said he was eager to try it. Globaloria allows students build their own computer games with the program, and Cintron decided right away that he wanted to be sure students were learning more than just computer science. He wanted creativity. Over a weekend he taught himself dozens of versions of games. This way, he could personalize the lesson so each student was making something of their own.

    Photo: Nichole Dobo

    “This way I did not get 46 of the same game,” Cintron said. “I get 46 different games.”

    Cintron, who teaches middle school, said he allowed each child to work on a project at his or her own pace. In the end, the top five programmers and coders were girls, he said. Students with high test scores in core academic subjects did not always create the best games, he said. The scores don’t measure creativity or persistence, he said.

    “Some of my highest performers were the first to quit,” he said, adding that this provided him with an opportunity to teach them that it’s OK to make mistakes if they try again.

    Let the leaders go first to show others how it works.

    The Baltimore County Public Schools, led by superintendent Dallas Dance, are currently working on plans to bring uniform technology to all schools. When he started in the district about three years ago, Dance noticed there was inequality between the schools, which span city, suburban and rural communities. Those with active PTAs, for instance, often had so much technology that they couldn’t use it all, while schools from poorer areas didn’t have the basics.

    After several years of work - which included communications plans, community surveys and developing a prudent budget to pay for new technology - the district opened 10 “Lighthouse” schools this academic year. These schools are the first to use technology in the classroom to enhance teaching and learning. These test cases give teachers, parents and the community a place to see how to works.

    “We know we needed to go slow to move fast,” Dance said.

    It’s OK to make a mistake.

    Attendees at the conference devoted an hour at the five-day conference entirely to the topic of failure.

    The session, called FailFest, is a noisy, silly session designed to appreciate the value in learning from mistakes. They banged a gong to boot people off stage and whirled noise-makers to “vote” for the best mistake; presenters wore crazy costumes. The idea was to help others avoid making similar mistakes, as the nation’s schools navigate an evolving technology environment and new methods of instruction.

    “We want it to be fun and light-hearted, but there is a serious point here,” said Gavin Dykes, an internationally known education and technology advisor.

    FailFest is a departure from the traditional script at a conference, but it is not unique to the CoSN event. For instance, a version of it is offered at the Education World Forum, where Dykes is program director. That program, which brings together top leaders from several countries, organized a confessional that worked so well there that Dykes suggested the idea to leaders of CoSN. This was the second year CoSN featured it at the annual conference. It adds a dose of reality, empathy and trust, leaders said, so educators are not discouraged when carefully researched plans don’t immediately succeed.

    “Frequently educators think failure is not allowed,” Dykes said.

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • March 25, 2015 01:24 PM What if a High School Diploma Guaranteed a Highly Paid Job?

    WACO, Texas — At first glance, there’s nothing revolutionary about the Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy, a vocational school opened in 2013 to serve students in and around this central Texas city. The machines are fancy and gleaming, but the students here learn skills for the sorts of jobs that fueled America’s economy last century: welding, manufacturing, building homes.

    Around Waco, though, those jobs are still heavily in demand. And the academy offers a unique promise that’s unheard of even among a new generation of career and technical schools striving to make education more relevant and useful for today’s teenagers: a guarantee of a job after graduation.

    “If kids finish, they will be hired,” said Robin McDurham, executive director of secondary education for the Waco Independent School District. “If we had a kid who was looking for a job and hadn’t been placed, we would call the businesses and say, ‘We have one that hasn’t been picked up.’”

    At the end of last school year, the school hosted a “signing day” in which five students signed contracts with partner businesses. By the fall, 27 students out of the graduating class of 35 had gone to college or found jobs, or both. Eleven of them went to work with companies partnered with the school. (The school had eight graduating seniors who did not apply for either after receiving their diplomas and did not report their post-graduation plans.)

    As a movement to reform high school gains momentum around the country, vocational education is being revived. New models are seeking to change the reputation of career and technical classes as dumping grounds for the students who can’t make it in the academic track.

    These new programs emphasize both careers and college, and though they tend to promise an internship or interview with partner companies that can lead to opportunities, they don’t go so far as to guarantee a job.

    Students at the Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy learn 20th century skills like welding that educators say prepares them for highly paid 21st century jobs. Photo: Sarah Garland

    The National Academy Foundation is a network of more than 600 schools that house “work-based learning” programs. It’s grown to serve 80,000 students, up from 50,000 in 2010. Students complete internships and participate in classes shaped by business partners while also taking college-track courses, and the foundation says more than half of its graduates earn a bachelor’s within four years of high school graduation. (In 2013, just over a third of 25- to 29-year-olds had completed a bachelor’s degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.)

    “We don’t consider ourselves voc-ed in the traditional sense. We’re very focused on college and career readiness,” said Lisa Dughi, National Academy Foundation’s assistant vice president.

    Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy is more old-fashioned. School administrators are proud of the students who go on to college, as many in the school’s first graduating class did. But they’re also pleased when students get a job straight out of high school using the skills they learned there.

    “We actually have a really strong need for welders,” McDurham said. “They’re relatively high-paying jobs, $60,000 or better.”

    In Waco, where the median-income is $40,000 according to the latest U.S. census numbers, that’s a big deal. The academy is drawing a diverse group of students from 11 different school districts, from urban Waco to rural areas up to 45 minutes away. Sixty percent of students are Hispanic, 23 percent are white and 17 percent are African-American.

    Alex Acuña, 17, lives in the tiny town of MacGregor, south of Waco. Both of his parents came from Mexico, “and they didn’t really have anything,” he says. His father works at a Purina factory making animal food, and his mother babysits. Alex sees a welding diploma from the academy as a chance to help his family reach the middle class.

    “I’m going to get her everything she wants,” he said of his mom.

    Yet despite this more traditional focus on blue-collar job skills, the school is also incorporating some key strategies of the college-ready movement as it tries to make learning more connected to the real world. It lost a dozen students out of the original 67 juniors and seniors who enrolled in the fall of 2013 because some decided the vocational focus and the rigor of the curriculum wasn’t for them, according to Jonathan Price, the school’s family-community liaison.

    Much of the curriculum is organized around projects, for instance, a popular trend in many new college-focused high school programs. But at Greater Waco, geometry students spend the year using the formulas they’re learning to create blueprints for a house — and then build it.

    “I wanted something different than being in a classroom and just doing book work,” said Leeanna Rayes, 16, as she looked up from a vice stop she was making on a precision metal machine. “This is a bit more hands on, and I learn better that way.”

    College isn’t necessarily an afterthought for Greater Waco administrators, however. Rather, they encourage students to be savvy about planning for post-secondary education, teaching them about the tuition reimbursement programs some of the school’s partner companies offer employees, for example. “Let the business pay for college,” Price said.

    “It opens up their future,” he added. “For the kids here in Waco, they need that so badly.”

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • March 25, 2015 10:01 AM A ‘Promising’ Way to Help Low-Income Students To and Through College

    Maryville College, Photo: Maryville College

    Why do so few low-income students go to college? Is it simply because there is not enough federal financial aid available? Or are there other factors at play?

    These are vital questions to answer considering that the federal government spends about $35 billion a year on the Pell Grant program, which annually provides low-income students up to $5,730 each to help pay for college.

    Despite the government’s huge investment in the program, the college-going rates of low-income students continue to lag far below those of their more-affluent peers. In fact, the gap in college attendance between the highest- and lowest-income students remains as wide as it was in the 1970s, when Congress created the Pell Grant program.

    Many financial-aid advocates and college lobbyists say that the only problem with the government’s student aid programs is that they have not been adequately financed. After all, the percentage of the cost of attending a public four-year college that is covered by the maximum Pell award has fallen significantly over the past 40 years—from 77 percent in 1979-80 to 30 percent in 2014-15. These advocates argue that if Congress dramatically increased the maximum grant amount, millions more low-income students would be able to gain access to college.

    But many higher-education researchers believe the problem is more complicated than just inadequate funding. They worry that the complexity of applying for aid may blunt the impact of federal programs. Low-income students may not know that financial aid is available or how to access it, and thus conclude at an early age they will not be able to afford college.

    In the most recent volume of the Journal for Higher Education, two respected researchers—Robert Kelchen of Seton Hall and Sara Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin at Madison—offer a creative proposal aimed at preventing this outcome: a pilot program guaranteeing the maximum Pell Grant to low-income eighth-graders who complete high school and enroll in college.

    Related: Are public universities becoming bastions of privilege?

    This “early commitment” program would be modeled after similar efforts that several states and a number of cities and towns have undertaken to motivate financially needy students to take the academic steps necessary to pursue a higher education.

    Take the Kalamazoo Promise, for example. Since 2005, private donors have covered most or all of the public college tuition for students who attended public schools in Kalamazoo, Mich., since at least ninth grade and graduated from high school. The program has offered the promise of higher education at Michigan’s public universities and community colleges to many students who otherwise wouldn’t have considered going.

    “One of every three students in the Kalamazoo district falls below the national poverty level. One in 12 is homeless,” according to The New York Times. “Many of them are the first in their families to finish high school; many come from single-parent homes. Some are young parents themselves: Kalamazoo has one of the highest pregnancy rates among black teenagers in the state.”

    Evaluations of the program are encouraging. A 2015 analysis of state data by the Kalamazoo Gazette found that a greater proportion of graduates of Kalamazoo public schools go to college than do high school graduates in the rest of the region or the state as a whole.

    The Kalamazoo Promise and other similar programs appear to be effective because students know at a fairly young age that college will be affordable for them. Unfortunately, federal financial aid programs don’t offer similar guarantees.

    In fact, students don’t currently know how much federal aid they will receive until a college has accepted them and offered them a financial aid package. This is way too late for many low-income students. “After completing three years of high school, students begin a complex process in order to obtain specific information about the costs of college attendance. While nearly all eighth grade students express a desire to attend college, many give up hope long before this point, never considering applying for financial aid,” Kelchen and Goldrick-Rab write. “Figuring that college is out of their financial reach, many high school students from economically fragile families opt for easier high school courses, invest in work or friends rather than school, and stop thinking of themselves as college material.”

    Related: College, federal financial aid increasingly benefits the rich

    Based on peer-reviewed studies of other college access programs, the researchers estimate that adding an early commitment component to the Pell Grant program would increase overall postsecondary enrollment rates by approximately four percentage points—which adds up over time and is nothing to sneeze at. But there are potential downsides to the proposal. First, such a change could make the Pell Grant program inefficient by promising maximum grants to students whose families’ financial circumstances could significantly improve by the time they apply for college. Second, the program’s additional costs to the government could prove prohibitive.

    To address the first concern, Kelchen and Goldrick-Rab came up with a concrete way to define the target population. They studied 2,240 children from 1,503 households and determined that the early commitment program would work best if tied to the free and reduced-price lunch program. In other words, the program would promise eighth-graders who receive free or reduced-price lunch that they would get the maximum Pell Grant if they complete high school and enroll in college.

    Looking at income data over time, the researchers concluded that such a program would be “reasonably well-targeted, as nearly seven in ten students who would receive the maximum Pell Grant under this new approach” would get it under current rules. The rest of the students would have been eligible for a smaller Pell Grant or would have just missed being eligible for the awards.

    Related: Colleges that pledged to help poor families have been doing the opposite, new figures show

    With regard to the second concern, Kelchen and Goldrick-Rab estimate that adding an early commitment component to Pell Grants would increase the program’s annual costs by $1.5 billion. However, they project that the government would receive an additional $2.1 billion annually in tax revenues from students who enrolled in and graduated from college as a result of it.

    Still, they say there are remaining questions about how effective the program would be. Therefore, before permanently changing the Pell Grant program, Congress should “authorize and rigorously evaluate a demonstration program over a period of several years” to see if it is successful in inspiring more low-income students to take the necessary academic steps to graduate from high school and enroll in college, the researchers write.

    This is an exciting plan, and one that Congress should definitely consider. While increasing funding for federal financial aid programs is certainly important, redesigning the programs to make them less complicated and easier to navigate may be just as crucial to increasing college attendance and degree completion rates.

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • March 25, 2015 09:51 AM Tools That Use Student Data Show Promise, but Concerns About Student Privacy Remain Hotly Debated

    On Monday, two Representatives, one a Democrat, the other a Republican, were putting final touches on a proposed new Student Digital Privacy and Parental Rights Act, thus joining the White House in efforts to update federal data privacy law. Almost immediately after a draft of the legislation began to circulate Monday, some people said it did not alleviate all of the concerns.

    Generally speaking, the proposal would limit the ability of companies to tailor marketing or advertisements to students based on profiles created in school, according to a story Monday in The New York Times. The legislation is co-sponsored by Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado, and Rep. Luke Messer, a Republican from Indiana; it is expected to be introduced in the House of Representatives this week.

    Separately, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, is also expected to propose legislation on this topic. His spokesman told me Monday that it has not been introduced yet.

    The proposed bills arrive as more states legislators are proposing laws to set parameters for digital learning platforms that make use of student data. As I reported last week, more than 30 organizations partnered to publish new “Student Data Principles,” which advocates say explain the way student information can be used responsibly, to help improve student outcomes.

    Some say technology and the effective use of data are keys to improving academic outcomes. To see an example, read “A tiny school in the Ozarks powered a nationally acclaimed turnaround with a mix of technology and trust,” a column published recently at The Hechinger Report. And in my travels I’ve talked to many school leaders and teachers who say they figured out how to use the new tools in ways that protect student information. Kerry Gallagher, a history teacher at Reading Memorial High School in Reading, Massachusetts, told me in an interview earlier this month about an easy solution others might replicate. Students do not use their real names to log in to online programs. They use a pseudonym known to their teacher.

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • March 25, 2015 12:23 AM Amid March Madness, Americans Express Concern About College Sports Spending

    Sixteen men’s basketball teams are still alive in the N.C.A.A. March Madness tournament, including No. 7 Wichita State which knocked off No. 2 Kansas over the weekend.

    Today March Madness brings to mind more than big upsets and broken brackets, though. The multi-billion-dollar college sports industry is increasingly answering questions about academic standards, player safety and growing inequities between coaches and athletes.

    With tuition and fees on the rise, a poll from Monmouth University finds a majority of Americans think universities with big-time athletic programs spend too much time and money on sports. 

    Perhaps no one knows that better than Mark Schlissel, president of the University of Michigan.

    WGBH Radio’s Kirk Carapezza recently sat down with Schlissel for a rare one-on-one interview and asked him how big-time college sports impact the bottom line and identity of a major research university.

    “Michigan is fortunate enough that our athletic program pays its own way,” Schlissel said. “Sports isn’t, for us, a drain on the enterprise. It’s a neutral in terms of costs and a big positive in terms of community.”

    Listen to the full interview: 

    The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics finds since 2008 Michigan has cut academic spending per student by 3 percent while increasing athletic spending per athlete by 36 percent. The Commission predicts that escalation in spending on coaching salaries and facilities will continue at rates disproportional to growth in academic spending. It says the disclosure of finance enhances the ability of colleges and universities to make sure athletic programs advance the mission of higher education.

    “Data show that over the past decade, coaching salaries for major college football and basketball coaches soared while university academic budgets stagnated and pressure for greater player benefits intensified,” says Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission. “There is no evidence that the trends will stop absent a different financial regulatory approach or a shift in the incentives to reward educational outcomes, not just winning teams, more significantly.”

    You can track athletic and academic spending by institution here.

    [Cross-posted at On Campus: the WGBH Higher Education Blog]

  • March 24, 2015 11:16 PM Moving Young Learners Forward

    Last month, Conor Williams and I wrote a series of posts on how young learners, PreK-3rd grade, could be better supported in a newly reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind.

    An ESEA reauthorization is eight years overdue. No Child Left Behind waivers are the temporary law of the land, and Congress is attempting to find common ground in a mostly partisan process.

    Over the past several years, interest in pre-K and other early learning programs has been growing. More and more states, both red and blue, have developed pre-K programs and some states and local communities are thinking about how to better connect and coordinate children’s pre-K experiences and learning with what happens in kindergarten and the early grades.

    We believe ESEA could be a vehicle for achieving these goals. In a new brief (that brings these posts together), “Moving Young Learners Forward: How to Fix No Child Left Behind,” I discuss ideas proposed for incorporating a more robust focus on PreK-3rd grades in a reauthorized law and Conor Williams shares his ideas for how to improve the federal government’s education policies for dual language learners.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Recent Blog Posts