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  • December 19, 2014 05:40 PM Education Department Unveils College Rating Plan

    The Education Department Friday released its much-anticipated plan to rate colleges. Starting next school year, the Department will rate more than 5,000 colleges and universities as high-, low- or middle-performing schools.

    The Education Department wants to measure and then rank schools based on how much it actually costs to attend the school, how many students graduate and find jobs in their field, and whether colleges are admitting enough low and middle-income students. The measures will not include graduates’ salaries or the average debt load students graduate with.

    Paul Glastris is editor of the The Washington Monthly. You can listen to his full explanation of the college ratings, and politics surrounding them, here:

    Related: A New Kind of College Ranking

    The Department says the ratings will help families make better college choices and protect taxpayers’ $150 billion dollar investment in federal student aid. Ultimately, the Department would like to tie federal money to colleges’ performances in the rankings, but that would take action by Congress. Currently the government doles out federal funds to schools regardless of performance.

    As NPR reports on their education blog:

    The White House previously announced that the plan would tie federal financial aid to colleges’ performance as judged by these ratings. This step, which requires Congressional approval, is not set to occur until 2018.

    The draft plan is now open for feedback. The official ratings are expected before the 2015 school year.

    Read The Washington Monthly’s take on the new ratings here.

    Interview transcript

    GLASTRIS: The ratings, which are still a little bit indistinct — this was a draft it wasn’t the actual ratings — They’re going for three things. They want to measure access: are these colleges letting students of low and middle income in? They want to measure performance or outcomes: how are these students doing when they leave? And they want to measure affordability: what is the cost of these colleges?

    CARAPEZZA: So those are the three things they’re honing in on. How are they planning to measure them?

    GLASTRIS: On the access part, they’re going to be looking at the percentage of students who are on Pell Grants, those are grants for lower and middle income students. On the affordability front, they are looking at something called net price of attendance. That’s essentially the actual price you pay including tuition fees, books, etc - without all the grants and scholarships. So this is not the sticker price, it’s the actual price. And on outcomes they’re looking at things like graduation rates, transfer rates. But really all of these things are clearly a step forward.

    CARAPEZZA: What do you think is missing?

    GLASTRIS: I do think one of the most important outcome measures is careers. It doesn’t have to be salary exactly, but you do want to see which colleges and which departments are in fact working. Most people go to college to get a good job and right now they have no idea if the college where they go will allow them to get a good job.

    CARAPEZZA: It’s taken about 18 months to get to just this point. We’re at a draft frame-work. This is pretty ambitious, right?

    GLASTRIS: It is ambitious. And it’s also highly contentious. There are plenty of colleges that are going to look quite bad. Most of the public colleges and community colleges are on board with this thing. But they’re getting a lot of blow back from the privates and from the for-profits.

    CARAPEZZA: So what’s the next step?

    GLASTRIS: What the administration would like to to do is tie federal funding to these ratings. The federal government spends $175 billion a year on higher education in the form of grants, subsidized loans, research, tax breaks - for which they require nothing. There is no requirement for accountability, for performance. This is the first step towards changing that. But the next step would be tying funding to the ratings, and that’s going to take an act of Congress, and I don’t think there’s much chance of this Congress agreeing to that.

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

  • December 19, 2014 03:00 PM Jeb Bush’s Education Reform Ideas Are Just a Big Corporate Giveaway

    With Jeb Bush’s announcement early this week that he too was interested in moving into the ancestral estate on Pennsylvania, much of America appeared to just sort of shrug. The latest Bush isn’t really that exciting, but at least he has the advantage of not being W. And he didn’t do that bad with Florida, right?

    One of the appeals of the erstwhile governor of that state is that he has a reputation as an education reformer. He made fixing the state’s public schools a top priority. He promoted standards and accountability. The state’s forth-grade reading scores improved under his administration. He was a big proponent of charter schools and vouchers. And he made all of these reforms without raising taxes.

    JEB

    All of this could look promising to education reformers, in both parties. But the record really isn’t so good, according to a piece over at Mother Jones by (Monthly alumna) Stephanie Mencimer. His reforms mostly just look like a big corporate giveaway:

    Over the past year, he’s emerged as one of the nation’s most prominent boosters of virtual schools, touring the country to promote technology as an instrument of creative destruction against the public school system.
    Bush has couched his initiative in the bipartisan language of reform, claiming it will strengthen public education by making it more efficient, affordable, and accountable. It’s the kind of “21st-century thinking” that had Republicans begging him to run for president earlier this year—and if it helps position him for national office and connect him with potential corporate donors, so much the better. But beneath the rhetoric, the online-education push is also part of a larger agenda that closely aligns with the GOP’s national strategy: It siphons money from public institutions into for-profit companies (including those that are supporting Bush’s initiative). And it undercuts public employees, their unions, and the Democratic base. In the guise of a technocratic policy initiative, it delivers a political trifecta—and a big windfall for Bush’s corporate backers.

    He recently helped launch something called Digital Learning Now, which exists to “tear down the legal barriers to public funding for virtual classrooms.”

    All of this might be OK if it actually worked. There’s something pretty unpleasant to progressives about gutting public schools and giving the money to for-profit businesses, but if the kids learn better it’s still a successful reform.

    One electronic school system where Bush gave the keynote graduation speech, however, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) actually doesn’t do very well at all. With 10,000 students it’s a real big school district (or “school district”) but only about half of its third-graders are proficient in reading and math. Its graduation rate is lower than 40 percent. During its first year of operations it “enrolled” 2,000 students, but only seven of them had ever logged on to ECOT’s computer system.

    ECOT looks typical. Limited demonstration of success is a common problem with online schools, which, when ranked against real schools in various states where they educate students, usually rank among the worst.

    None of this is stopping Bush, however.

    After leaving the governor’s office in 2007, Bush started a foundation devoted to education reform. In 2010, it raised $5.9 million, $1.7 million of which went to a two-day conference for legislators. The confab was partially bankrolled by corporations that would benefit from the policies Bush was advocating.

    Bush’s digital-learning initiatives have also drawn support from companies hoping to cash in on the virtual-education boom, including charter school operators, online-curriculum providers, and tech firms like Apple, Dell, Google, Intel, and Microsoft.
    Perhaps not surprisingly, the Digital Learn¬ing Now report reads like an industry wish list. It calls for jettisoning caps on virtual-school enrollment and removing some teacher licensing rules; allowing students to take unlimited virtual classes from for-profit providers; and expanding use of digital textbooks and online testing.

    These are not exactly the strategies people devoted to teaching and learning highlight as important to helping students make progress.

    Obviously this was an article, not a full research study of the impact of these education reform ideas. There are, no doubt, some education technology companies doing a good job, in Florida an elsewhere. Jeb Bush’s corporate-based reform organization doesn’t mean that technology-based education privatization can’t work, but the record isn’t very good.

    Certainly Bush hasn’t demonstrated any ability to pick good companies to improve education performance.

  • December 19, 2014 02:42 PM Obama Ratings Would Divide Colleges into High and Low Performing

    The Obama administration is considering putting four-year undergraduate and graduate institutions and two-year institutions into such categories as high performing, low performing, and those in the middle based on measures including completion rates and job placement.

    As unsurprising as it was long awaited, the broad outline of the Obama ratings plan is now available for public comment through February, and officials say that it will be in place next fall.

    “It is a daunting task to develop a fair and meaningful approach” for all 7,500 U.S. postsecondary institutions. -Association of Public and Land-grant Universities

    The department says it is after a ratings system “that is clear, fair, and focused on a few key critical measures of institutional performance” while “accounting for the diversity and complexity” of the higher-education system.

    Though they say they’re all for openness, university and college associations, which get about $150 billion a year in federal financial aid, have generally argued that’s not possible.

    “It is a daunting task to develop a fair and meaningful approach” for all 7,500 U.S. postsecondary institutions, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities says, for instance.

    Among the challenges, the associations cite the broad diversity of students and institutions, the time-consuming and potentially expensive complexity of providing the appropriate information, the fast-changing makeup of the typical student, and the risk that universities will reject promising students out of fear of harming their completion rates, or lower standards to make it easier to graduate.

    Other categories proposed by the department include the proportion of an institution’s enrollment that is low income, based on the percentage of students who receive federal Pell grants, and students’ expected family contribution. Both could affect colleges and universities that have been raising their net prices—the amount they charge after discounts and financial aid are taken into account—much faster for poor students than wealthier ones.

    The ratings would also report the net price, by income; the proportion of students whose parents did not themselves go to college; transfer rates, which should help ease the fears of some institutions—particularly community colleges—that students who transfer are not included in their graduation rates; graduate school attendance; and loan default rates.

    Here is Hechinger coverage of issues relating to the ratings:

    Can universities be embarrassed into raising graduation rates?

    Colleges that pledged to help poor families have been doing the opposite

    College-rating proposal shines spotlight on powerful lobby

    Poorer families are bearing the brunt of college price hikes, data show

    So how are college graduates really doing? A few schools are willing to tell us

    Universities look for new ways to rank themselves

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • December 19, 2014 09:55 AM Comments on Federal College Rating Metrics

    The U.S. Department of Education (ED) released a document containing draft metrics for the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS) today (link via Inside Higher Ed), with a request for comments from stakeholders and the general public by February. Although the release of the metrics was delayed several months (and we were initially expecting ratings this fall instead of just some potential metrics), the potential metrics and the explanations provided by ED provide insights about what the ratings will look like if (and when) they are finalized. Below are some of the key pieces of the released metrics, along with my comments.

    Which colleges will be rated, and how will they be grouped? ED is planning to rate degree-granting and certificate-granting two-year colleges separately from four-year colleges. They are still considering whether to have finer gradations among four year colleges. Given the substantial differences in mission and completion rates between associate’s degree-granting and certificate-granting two-year colleges, I strongly recommend separating the two groups. Four-year colleges can all be rated together if input adjustments are used, or they can be put into much smaller peer groups (the latter seems to be what colleges prefer).

    Leaving non-degree-granting colleges out of PIRS sounds trivial, but it leaves out a fair number of small for-profit colleges. I think many of the colleges not subject to PIRS will be subject to gainful employment, should that survive its latest legal challenge. Given that gainful employment has financial consequences while PIRS does not at this point, the colleges left out of PIRS are subject to more stringent accountability than many of those in PIRS.

    What will the ratings categories and scoring system look like? I’m glad to see ED considering three rating categories: high-performing, in the middle, and low-performing. That’s about all the fine gradation the data can support, in my view, and it is far more politically feasible to have fewer ratings categories. No information was provided about how individual metrics will be weighted or scored, which likely indicates that ED is still in the preliminary stage on PIRS.

    What metrics are being considered? And which ones do we already have data on? The metrics fall into three main categories: access, affordability, and student outcomes.

    Access: Percent Pell, distribution of expected family contributions (EFC), enrollment by family income quintile, percent first-generation. Percent Pell and enrollment by family income quintile are already collected by the Department of Education, although these measures have gaps because not all students from low-income families file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The EFC distribution measure is intriguing, but it’s not currently collected. Perhaps considering the percentage of students with zero EFC (who have the least ability to pay) would make sense. The FAFSA asks students about parental education, so first-generation status could be made available in a few years. There is a question of how to define first-generation status, as it could include a student whose parents have some college but no degree or be limited to those with no college experience.

    Affordability: Net price of attendance (overall and by income quintile). The net price reflects the total cost of attendance (tuition, fees, books/supplies, and living costs) less all grant or scholarship aid received. It’s a good measure to include, even if it can be gamed by institutions that cut their living allowances to absurdly low levels or use income from the FAFSA instead of the CSS PROFILE (where more sources are counted). I’m surprised not to see a measure for debt burdens or student borrowing here as a measure of affordability.

    Outcomes: Graduation and transfer rates, short-term employment, longer-term earnings, graduate school attendance, and “loan performance outcomes.” As of right now, the only measures available are graduation/transfer rates (for first-time, full-time students) and student loan repayment. ED is working to improve the graduation and transfer metrics by 2017, which is welcome. I’m intrigued by how loan performance was described:

    “Relatively simple metrics like the percentage of students repaying their loans on time might be important as consumers weigh whether or not they will be able to handle their financial obligations after attending a specific school.”

    This is different from the standard cohort default rate measure, which measures whether a student defaults by not making a payment in the last 270 days. Measuring the percentage in current repayment would show a lower percentage of students having a successful outcome, but it better reflects former students’ performance than a cohort default rate. Kudos for ED for making this suggestion.

    I see employment, earnings, and graduate enrollment outcomes as being good things to consider, but they won’t be ready to include in PIRS for several years. The ban on student unit record data makes tracking employment and earnings difficult unless ED relies on colleges to self-report data from their former students. It’s worth emphasizing the importance of including dropouts as well as graduates in these metrics. Graduate enrollment could in theory be done with the National Student Clearinghouse, but colleges may not want to participate in the voluntary system if it is used for accountability.

    Any other surprises? I was pleasantly surprised to see ED include a section on considering how to reward colleges for improving their outcomes over time. This might be a way to get around the question of how to adjust for student inputs and institutional resources, or it could be a piece designed to bring more colleges to the discussion table.

    What does all of this mean? It appears that PIRS is very much in its infancy at this point, given the broadness of the suggested metrics and the difficulty in getting data on some of them in the next year or two. Putting college ratings together is methodologically quite easy to do, but politically very difficult. The delay in the timeline and the call for additional feedback by February highlight the political difficulty of PIRS. Given the GOP takeover of Congress, I think it’s safe to say that even if a full set of ratings comes out next week, the likelihood of ratings being tied to aid by 2018 (as the President has proposed) is basically nil. (For more on why I think PIRS is a difficult political sell, read my new piece in Politico Magazine.) But even getting draft ratings ready for the start of the 2015-16 academic year will be very difficult. ED has a lot of work to do before then.

    But PIRS does have the potential to substantially improve data availability and transparency on a number of important student outcomes, even without becoming a high-stakes accountability system. I expect that college access organizations, higher education publications, guidance counselors, and even those of us in the rankings business will work to get any new data sources out to students and their families in a consumer-friendly format. That may be the lasting legacy of PIRS.

    [Cross-posted at Kelchen on Education]

  • December 19, 2014 07:00 AM Nobody Wants to Go to Law School Anymore

    We are basically witnessing the end of demand for law school.

    When the real estate market collapsed in 2007 the whole economy came down with it. Seven years later large portions of the country have recovered. Times are not exactly flush, and far too many Americans still don’t have jobs, but real estate has finally recovered and the country on the whole is in a relatively safe financial position.

    But not everything has come back. One of those things still suffering is the American law school. Back before the recession there was a fairly high demand for a legal education. The financial wizardry of the early years of this century meant a need for vast armies of lawyers to manage all of those transactions. And companies had the money to pay for it.

    Now that’s over. And so no one wants to go to law school. This graph explains the whole thing:

    NoLawSchool

    This is, apparently, the smallest law school class in 40 years. Law schools admitted only 39,675 first-year students last year. That’s a 30 percent decline from just four years ago. But 40 years ago America also had 53 fewer law schools. Now if only some more law schools could just close up shop, this whole supply and demand thing might work itself out.

    But then, as Hamilton Nolan puts it at Gawker, it can probably go down a whole hell of a lot more. The whole reason most people want to go to law school is because of dreams of great success in corporate law. They just write that they want to work in “public interest” for the essay section of the application. “If about 1% of the people who go to law school saying ‘I want to go into public interest law and really help people’ actually end up with public interest law jobs that actually help people,” Nolan writes, “law school enrollment can fall by another 99% with no harm to the general public.”

    Here’s hoping.

  • December 18, 2014 04:28 PM The 2014 “Not Top Ten” List in Higher Education

    Earlier this week, I unveiled my list of the top ten higher education policy issues of 2014, with the fascinating saga of Corinthian Colleges getting top billing this year. Now it’s time to turn to the “not top ten list,” highlighting some of the less-than-wonderful happenings of the year. Last year’s “winner,” Georgetown Law’s plan to stick taxpayers with the entire cost of legal education, gets a stern finger wagging again this year along with a one-year reprieve from the list.

    10. Colleges spend millions to buy out the contracts of their football coaches. I wish I could be as financially successful as Charlie Weis, who is currently drawing enormous paychecks from Notre Dame and Kansas not to be their football coach. He is due a total of $4.6 million from the two colleges in 2015, and will get nearly $25 million to do absolutely nothing. This month, Nebraska, Florida, and Michigan all fired their coaches at the cost of over $17 million in buyouts. The (awesome) parody Twitter account of former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini (who just became the newest coach of the Youngstown State Penguins) is happy:

    But Don Heller, dean of the education school at Michigan State, sees a better use for the money:

    9. New Jersey teenagers sue their parents for financial support for college. I live in New Jersey, but I’m not sure what is in the water in the Garden State that has resulted in two teenagers suing their parents for financial support for college. In March, 18-year-old Rachel Canning made news by moving out of her parents’ house and suing for her private high school and college tuition. After a great deal of national scrutiny, she decided to drop her lawsuit and is now enrolled at Western New England University in Massachusetts.

    In November, 21-year-old Caitlyn Ricci successfully sued her divorced parents for her $16,000 per year out-of-state tuition at Temple University in Philadelphia. Given that she has been completely estranged from her parents for two years, she might be able to qualify as independent for financial aid purposes. But New Jersey legal precedent actually requires divorced parents to chip in for their adult child’s educational expenses. Legislation has been introduced to effectively overturn past Supreme Court decisions.

    8. It’s surprisingly hard to figure out how many students are having trouble repaying their loans. Putting aside concerns with how student loan default rates are calculated (which made my “top ten” list), the Department of Education doesn’t consider a student to be in default unless they have not made a monthly payment in the last 270 days. And their measure of loan delinquency rates actually exclude students in default, with the assumption that the loans will never be repaid. I got into a great discussion with Shahien Nasiripour of the Huffington Post about what percentage of students are actually having difficulties repaying loans. He wrote a piece claiming that about half of all students are not repaying, while my preferred estimate is about 30% and the federal government reports about 17%. Without better data from the feds, it’s hard to tell.

    7. The “sexy PhD costume” available on Amazon for Halloween is just sad. For Halloween, PhD holders can finally put away that tweed jacket and attempt to shimmy into the “Delicious Women’s PhD Sexy Costume” before undergoing the peer review process. (Sadly, there is no men’s version, so your humble correspondent stayed home and handed out candy to local children while wearing appropriate attire.) Needless to say, women (and men) with actual doctorates were not amused by the costume, both in the way it denigrated women and did not comport with actual doctoral robes. I shared some of the Amazon reviewer comments via Twitter, and one of those tweets ended up being my most-viewed tweet of the year:

    6. Some colleges report net price figures using PROFILE data instead of the FAFSA, possibly making themselves look better. Colleges are required to report net prices (the total cost of attendance less all grant aid received) for five household income brackets each year. These net prices are often used in media coverage of higher education, and they also play an important part in the Washington Monthly ranking of best bang-for-the-buck colleges.

    I had always assumed the net prices were based on income reported on the FAFSA, which excludes income from noncustodial parents and business enterprises in certain cases. But this excellent (if graphic-heavy) piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education found that some colleges instead use the CSS PROFILE definition of income, which typically results in fewer students being in the bottom income categories. In addition to making comparisons across colleges difficult (since we don’t know which colleges report PROFILE income versus FAFSA income), students have to fill out the PROFILE in addition to the FAFSA.

    5. I feel sorry for negotiated rulemaking panels. Negotiated rulemaking panels are used whenever the Department of Education (or other federal agencies) wish to promulgate new rules. The goal is to build consensus around a set of rules, but what most often happens is that the panel (consisting of representatives from various affected parties) cannot reach a consensus. In this case, the federal agency can go ahead and issue its own rules. Two of the most famous negotiated rulemaking panels this year were for redefining “adverse credit” for PLUS loans and regarding gainful employment. Although the panels do have value (such as the first-ever release of PLUS loan default rates), the members still need a big hug.

    4. Some colleges use where students send the FAFSA to shape financial aid packages. While completing the FAFSA, students list up to ten colleges where they would like to send their information. But what most students don’t know is that the listing is shared with other colleges—and that some enrollment management offices base part of a student’s financial aid award on where their college is listed. (Other colleges, such as DePaul, use the data to predict the size of an incoming class, which is benign. I highly recommend Jon Boeckenstedt’s take on the topic.)

    3. Nicholas Kristof pokes the bear on #engagedacademics. One of the best ways to upset the academic community is to say that we don’t engage the public and instead stay cloistered in the ivory tower. But Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times said exactly that in a February opinion piece. While there is some truth to the statement, the academic community wasn’t too happy. Chuck Pearson of Tennessee Tech University started an #engagedacademics hashtag on Twitter that got lots of great responses, and this Chronicle piece summarizes the response from the academic community, including my blog post on the topic. But I think this is the best counterexample that academics can point to:

    2. Congress raids future Pell Grant funding to pay the bills today. The continuing resolution/omnibus spending bill (or cromnibus, in DC-speak) for the federal government took just over $300 million from future surpluses to the federal Pell Grant program to pay student loan servicers in 2015 for their services performed. Some people are really upset that the money is going to companies like Nelnet and Navient, but in my view, those companies were going to get paid anyway. Congress has a long and rather sordid history of kicking the fiscal can down the road, and this is just another example. If the Pell program is running a shortfall in 2017 or 2018, this shortsighted (bipartisan) action by Congress will partially be to blame.

    1. Kean University spent $219,000 on a conference table…and vigorously defended the purchase. Kean, a relatively unknown public university in New Jersey, has gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks—and not of the good time. (In-state peer NJIT, on the other hand, got great publicity for its vagabond men’s basketball team upending Michigan.) Kean spent a remarkable $219,000 on a 22-foot-long oak conference table with global communication capabilities that was imported from China, where Kean has academic partners. (I’ve heard of endowed chairs in academia, but a table that needs to be endowed? My goodness!)

    When the inevitable criticism of the university sprouted up on social media, Kean doubled down on the need for such an expensive table. Kean claimed in a letter that the table “means added value to your Kean degree.” One can only hope that the claim is empirically validated.

    Also receiving votes: Rating colleges “like blenders,” conspiracy theories involving higher education foundations, celebrating a touchdown one yard too early, referring to the Department of Education as “DOE” (Energy) instead of “ED,” Pell Grant recipient graduation rate data being delayed yet again, people who make annual “top ten” and “not top ten” lists.

    [Cross-posted at Kelchen on Education]

  • December 18, 2014 02:00 PM Johns Hopkins Screws up the Admissions Process, Again

    It happened again. In continuance of a depressing annual tradition, Johns Hopkins sent out acceptance letters to 294 students, by mistake.

    According to an article in the Washington Post:

    Sam Stephenson was steeling himself for another round of college applications after his first choice, Johns Hopkins University, turned him down. Then the 17-year-old from Culpeper County in Virginia received an e-mail from Hopkins on Sunday afternoon that suggested he might still have reason to hope.
    “Embrace the YES!” it said in the subject line.

    It was an acceptance letter, informing the confused Stephenson that he had been admitted. He should “start using #JHU2019 on Twitter, to stop by an online store to buy Hopkins gear.”

    Let’s hope he didn’t do any of that too quickly, however.

    Like 293 others who had been turned down or deferred in their bid for early admission to the prestigious private university in Baltimore, Sam had received a welcome-to-Hopkins e-mail by mistake. The university, tipped off to the error by another rejected student, sent an apology Sunday evening to those affected by the head-spinning goof. Sam got the word at 5:28 p.m.: There was no reversal of his denial.

    Hopkins later said that the mistake was because of “human error.” Some contractor the university hired put in the wrong email addresses in a database.

    I beg to differ, Johns Hopkins. That sounds to me like an institutional error that comes as a result of how you choose to run your admissions department.

    By sending acceptance and rejection letters electronically, and by farming out crucial parts of this really important and complicated task to indifferent or incompetent contractors, you make horrible errors like this more likely to occur.

    The school did send out an apology, but this really seems insufficient. If colleges make mistakes like this they should have to pay a steeper price than just issuing an awkward email from the admissions dean; they should just admit the students. I bet they’ll quickly figure out a better way to run admissions the next year.

    This wasn’t, however, quite as bad as the time University of California, San Diego sent acceptance letters to all 46,000 students who applied in 2009.

  • December 17, 2014 10:19 AM Why Did Mississippi Lose out on Preschool Funding — Again?

    Mississippi’s flawed application and underdeveloped plans to provide preschool for all children is partly to blame for why the state’s youngest learners were bypassed once again for federal funds that could have provided a boost to early education, a review found.

    Last week, Mississippi was passed over for a preschool grant that would have tripled the number of children enrolled in early education classes in four years, increased the number of highly qualified preschool teachers and boosted salaries, according to the state’s application.

    This year marks the third time that Mississippi’s application, which asked for $60 million in federal preschool funding over the course of four years, has been rejected. The state scored seventh out of nine applicants for a specific preschool development grant, and is one of the only states in the South to lose out.

    Jennifer Calvert, director of the ABC Pre-School & Nursery Inc. in Aberdeen, Miss., helps a student build a pattern during a morning activity earlier this year. Educators say early education is critical to fix Mississippi’s education deficiencies. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

    Jennifer Calvert, director of the ABC Pre-School & Nursery Inc. in Aberdeen, Miss., helps a student build a pattern during a morning activity earlier this year. Educators say early education is critical to fix Mississippi’s education deficiencies. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

    Eighteen states received a federal preschool grant ranging from about $2 million to nearly $25 million to establish or expand existing programs as part of a nationwide push to expand access for early childhood education. Just 6 percent of 4-year-olds in Mississippi attend a state-funded program, which has received $3 million each year for two years.

    Related: Mississippi, let parents have information about child care centers

    A growing body of research has found that high-quality pre-K programs can teach children important classroom skills like how to raise their hands and pay attention, as well as boost reading and math skills. Data released earlier this year found that two-thirds of Mississippi’s students start kindergarten unprepared and are less likely to be proficient readers by third grade. For years, Mississippi’s students of all ages have scored at or near the bottom on national standardized reading and math tests.

    Many educators say that, to improve later outcomes, Mississippi must first improve early education. Nationwide, about 28 percent of 4-year-olds attend state-funded preschool programs according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, although access and quality vary greatly. As of 2013, 10 states did not offer preschool, while states like Oklahoma and Florida provided pre-K to more than 74 percent of their 4-year-olds. Some states have high-quality programs as evidenced by such traits as ensuring teachers hold bachelor’s degrees and enforcing small class sizes. Other states meet few of these high-quality guidelines.

    Officials who reviewed Mississippi’s application noted many deficiencies, including vague statements and an overall lack of evidence and details. The reviewers frequently mentioned that the state did not provide plans to ensure that all students, including English-language learners and those with disabilities, would receive a high-quality preschool experience.

    The state was also criticized for its lack of commitment to children in poverty. One reviewer noted that only 2 percent of children in poverty were served by the state-funded preschool program in 2014, and only 5 percent will be served in 2015. Unlike in states such as Tennessee, low-income children are not prioritized in Mississippi’s program, although some funding from the grant would have targeted low-income children.

    Related: Opportunity gap narrows in Mississippi

    On Thursday, Carey Wright, state superintendent of education, responded to the critiques in a statement. “We are very disappointed that Mississippi was not awarded the federal Preschool Development Grant but will use the feedback from our proposal to help strengthen our early childhood education system,” Wright said. “Mississippi is still in the early stages of offering publicly funded, high-quality early childhood education programming. We remain fully committed to expanding access to these programs for all children.”

    Children at a child care center in Mississippi. (Photo by Kim Palmer)

    Children at a child care center in Mississippi. (Photo by Kim Palmer)

    Governor Phil Bryant also issued a statement last week in which he called the loss of funds “unfortunate” and lauded the work of current preschool groups in Mississippi, which he said “are already showing positive student outcomes in the state.”

    The reviewers noted that if Mississippi wants federal funds for preschool, it must first develop the “necessary infrastructure and capacity for scaling up a sustainable preK program.” Reviewers also detailed deficiencies in Mississippi’s training and preparation for preschool teachers. Although the state proposed a plan to increase education requirements for preschool teachers, reviewers noted that the plan “appeared to emphasize the quickness of acquiring credentialed individuals” rather than “the quality of the individuals’ preparation for their jobs.”

    The officials argued that while the state’s small preschool program, which launched in 2013, is promising, “there has been no additional legislation passed in Mississippi in recent years to better support access and /or improve the quality of preschool programs for young children.” One reviewer emphasized that Mississippi’s lack of mandatory kindergarten “could be a hindrance” to sustaining “the educational and developmental gains of Eligible Children.”

    Related: Mississippi kindergartners start the year behind, new test finds

    In Mississippi, where schools are not required to offer full-day kindergarten programs and attendance is voluntary, a Hechinger Report analysis of data found that kindergarteners have the lowest average daily attendance rate of any K-8 grade.

    Danny Spreitler, a member of the state’s Board of Education and executive director of a foundation focused on early childhood, said that before the state applies for more grants, it needs to improve collaboration between state agencies and preschool programs. “I honestly don’t think this is the time for us to be out here trying to figure out money, until we get our ducks in a row,” he said.

    Spreitler added that he was troubled by the harsh comments from reviewers, which didn’t seem to acknowledge that Mississippi is at a different stage in its program than other states. “We need to take this next year, 2015, and rather than look at massive expansion, we’ve got to get more reliable data on the programs that are working and sit down … look at what’s working,” and then “figure out how to take it statewide.”

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • December 16, 2014 09:24 AM Why University of New Orleans Faculty Would Be Better off Taking Their Concerns to a New Governor

    NEW ORLEANS - Organizing to solve deeper political problems requires much more effort than the finger pointing currently under way at the University of New Orleans.

    The schools’ Faculty Council issued a vote of no confidence for Peter Fos, its president, a week before the University of Louisiana System Board of Supervisors approved Fos’s plan to eliminate seven academic programs from the institution. Low enrollments and wanting completion rates were the cited reasons why the administration placed a bull’s eye on programs in education, geography, romance languages and political science.

    Rather than organizing to vote out university presidents, faculty would be better served by voting in a Louisiana governor who would restore higher education funding to pre-recession levels. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s final term ends in January of 2016.

    Related: U.S. university enrollment continues to slide

    University faculty in Louisiana’s state institutions can’t protect academic programs and their subsequent jobs from the chopping block by issuing “no confidence” votes against college presidents. These symbolic actions merely contribute to the problematic belief that you can cut your way to success.

    Unconvinced faculty members claim the fix was in before enrollment numbers for certain programs became apparent. Other faculty members assert that university data didn’t support the stated rationale or consequent action. “President Fos and the board apparently weren’t aware that we have an online version of our master’s program that is experiencing an explosion in enrollment,” said one skeptical professor. If correct, these accusations would certainly warrant a vote of no confidence.

    This Nov. 19, 2014, file photo shows Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal as he speaks at the Republican Governors Association annual conference in Boca Raton, Fla. The conference felt like a test run for what is increasingly shaping up as a brutal showdown for the Republican presidential nomination among more than a dozen potential contenders. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter, File)

    This Nov. 19, 2014, file photo shows Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal as he speaks at the Republican Governors Association annual conference in Boca Raton, Fla. The conference felt like a test run for what is increasingly shaping up as a brutal showdown for the Republican presidential nomination among more than a dozen potential contenders. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter, File)

    However, academic upheaval at several institutions reveals the links in a predictable chain of events initiated by a common problem far away from their respective campuses. Earlier in the year Southern University faculty called for system chief Ronald Mason’s ouster. In November of this year, the Grambling University faculty senate issued a no confidence vote for interim President Cynthia Warrick. These events are related. Scarce resources accelerate political activity.

    Related: What if a college ditched lecture halls, sports and clubs?

    Let’s not forget that from 2008 to 2012, Louisiana cut its budget for postsecondary institutions by 28 percent or roughly $459 million. Hurricane Katrina certainly affected enrollments and budgets to certain institutions, but in 2007, Gov. Jindal eliminated revenue vital to higher education by repealing the “Stelly Tax” plan. Jindal also cut taxes for the wealthiest Louisianans.

    The recession was more than an excuse for state governors and eventually college presidents to do more with less. But there is no excuse for cutting revenue. The recession added insult to injurious statewide policymaking.

    According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Per-student funding in Arizona, Louisiana, and South Carolina is down by more than 40 percent since the start of the recession. Louisiana is among the eight states that continued to cut funding over the last year.”

    Related: Advocates say feds can force states to increase spending on higher ed

    It’s simply hard to cast blame on presidents in the face of rising costs, stagnant or declining enrollments, and less than adequate funding. However, faculty should find fault with college presidents and state higher education officials who willfully accepted the shovel of the Louisiana Grad Act from the same policymaker who created the fiscal ditch.

    Gov. Jindal said the policy of the Grad Act would provide “universities increased autonomy, flexibility in exchange for commitment to raise graduation rates.” The thinking here is that increased retention and graduation rates will yield increased revenues and quality, which inspires growth.

    By agreeing to increase the minimal ACT score required for admission, higher education officials also accepted the thinking that raising ACT scores reliably predict for increased graduation rates. However, “there is no significant difference in the success rates of students who submit their standardized test scores to colleges and those who don’t, according to “Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions.” This new study confirmed what many admissions offices have known for some time. Grade point average, GPA, is still the most reliable tool colleges and universities can use to determine fit as well as how to support a student towards graduation.

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

    The imposition of cutoff scores hurt universities like UNO, Southern and Grambling by removing autonomy to select the students they deem fit. Also, these institutions have historically served students with a greater range of performance on the ACT. By “raising the bar,” institutions only limited the pool of students they should educate. So the Grad Act actually removed autonomy and student choice.

    An aside - too many faculty actually blame K-12 preparation for low retention and graduation rates. College student success is still largely a function of faculty-student interaction, campus climate (including racial climate), counseling, financial aid, scheduling, and student affairs support. Let’s stop blaming students and public schools.

    As a former UNO professor and administrator, I certainly wanted to see then UNO Chancellor Tim Ryan attain more foundational and corporate funding. I also wanted the university to attain more quality student outcomes by placing more attention on student persistence and retention than incoming test scores.

    Related: College pricing data by income level: Do the right thing

    But when you have a state chief who continues to devalue higher education, college presidents will continue to manage their own downfalls.

    We faculty must quit acting as if we’re not citizens and get more politically engaged. Know that professors are a powerful constituency.

    Understand the fiscal environment isn’t likely to change if a similarly oriented governor is elected. Through the ballot, we can demand the funding needed to maintain programs that may be show low enrollment but provide a great service to the community. For instance, to cut special education programs at UNO, in a city that is known for a lack of special education services, seems absurd or a horribly missed opportunity to serve.

    It’s time to get out of the Ivory Tower and elect a state governor who will allow you to see what effect a college president can actually have.

    Faculty should learn a lesson from their struggling college presidents. You can’t cut your way to success.

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • December 15, 2014 08:54 AM California Study Finds Harm for Some in Repeating Algebra, Questions Whether it Benefits Anyone

    One of the most often repeated courses in U.S. high schools is algebra. Teachers and school leaders understandably worry whether a student who can’t solve basic equations should move on in math, to geometry or advanced algebra. So the student takes algebra again. Sometimes, even students with B’s in algebra are asked to repeat it because their teachers are concerned that they haven’t mastered the material.

    Unfortunately, a growing body of research is showing that when you march a teenager through the same algebra class again, it doesn’t help much. And this is part of an overall picture of students repeating classes or an entire year of school without good results. Without addressing a child’s underlying learning issues or missing foundations, repetition alone is rarely effective and sometimes harmful.

    A new California study, conducted for the U.S. Department of Education, reinforces this. It found that students who had gotten at least a C in the course the first time around, and had passed the state algebra assessment, were harmed by taking the course a second time. Both their grades and test scores declined. Lower performing students improved somewhat —  for example, students who had gotten an F the first year typically got a D the second year — but very few of them mastered the material. More than 80 percent of the repeaters still scored below the “proficient” threshold on the state algebra test.

    “This is what is going on in schools across the country: It’s not an option to do anything else than retake the class with the same book and same curriculum,” said Anthony B. Fong, the lead researcher at WestEd who conducted this November 2014 study, “Who Repeats Algebra I, and How does initial performance  related to improvement when the course is repeated?

    Related: Data on taking algebra in eighth grade, and the watering down of U.S. math instruction

    Fong and his WestEd colleagues studied a northern California school district in the San Jose area with an alarmingly high rate of algebra repeaters — 44 percent of the students are taking algebra twice. The East Side Union High School District serves almost 25,000 students. The researchers studied a group of 3,400 students who started seventh grade in 2006 and followed them through graduation from high school. Most of the students repeated algebra in 10th grade after doing poorly in algebra in ninth grade. But many of the students originally took algebra in eighth grade and repeated it in ninth.

    Among the higher performing students (C or better) who repeated, half saw their scores on the algebra state assessment fall by an entire performance level from “proficient” to “basic”.  Fong’s data analysis doesn’t explain why the higher performing students do worse the second time around, but he suspects that these students were demoralized by being held back in math and lost their motivation.

    You might question why teachers are holding kids back in algebra if their grades are decent. It’s a bit of a mystery. In informal conversations, Fong learned that teachers were concerned that some students with passing grades weren’t ready to move on. For example, some teachers give high grades to students who try hard and hand their homework in even if their calculations are consistently wrong. Also, the California State Test scores were often not available until the end of summer or after school started and couldn’t be used by teachers to help them make placement decisions.

    The purpose of the study is to provide guidance to schools on whether students should repeat algebra. “If you have a kid who’s on the borderline of repeating algebra or moving on, if you’re in doubt, it seems like it’s better to move on,” said Fong.

    As for the majority of struggling math students, Fong said this study doesn’t definitively conclude whether students should or shouldn’t take algebra again. They tend to improve slightly, but not as much might be hoped.

    This study confirms an earlier 2012 California study that struggling students aren’t mastering algebra by repeating it. That study looked at only ninth graders across 24 school districts in California, but also found that students who took algebra a second time were unlikely to score “proficient” on the state exam following the second attempt.

    The problem is, what do you do with the student who struggles with algebra? Simply promoting a student who has failed algebra I to algebra II seems silly, too.

    One promising algebra intervention, studied in Chicago, was a double dose of algebra each day. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many classes like this available for struggling students across the country.

    Perhaps there are clues from the research on retention and social promotion — educators’ labels for holding a student back a year or promoting a failing student to the next grade. Many researchers have found harm in holding a child back. But in Chicago and New York City, experiments in repeating school years have been successful when accompanied by extra tutoring and support programs.

    Related: New research suggests repeating elementary school grades — even kindergarten — is harmful

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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