• November 26, 2014 10:36 AM Can Detroit Attract Middle-Class Families to One of the Worst School Systems in the Country?

    DETROIT — Dara Hill, a college professor and mother of a four-year-old, diligently scribbled notes as the principal of Detroit’s Nichols Elementary-Middle School led her and several of her neighbors on a tour of the school. A room for special education students was brimming with stuffed animals, but the hallways were sparsely decorated. Work displayed in the kindergarten classroom was charming and developmentally appropriate. Why were there six students sitting to the side during gym class?

    Nichols sits on the edge of Indian Village — one of Detroit’s few neighborhoods that look untouched by the mortgage crisis. It typically performs at or slightly above average on state tests. It’s also a five-minute walk from Hill’s home and would be a convenient option if it had the small class sizes and diverse student body she’s looking for.

    Hill’s daughter can stay at her current school through kindergarten, so the family has two years to pick an elementary school. But Hill is starting her search now because she feels overwhelmed by the number of options in Detroit, and underwhelmed by the quality of many of them. (Children in Detroit can attend any school in the district and also have dozens of charters to pick from; they can also apply to attend suburban schools through Michigan’s statewide school choice program.)

    Detroit Public Schools has closed more than 80 schools due to severe drops in enrollment. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

    Detroit Public Schools has closed more than 80 schools due to severe drops in enrollment. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

    To help with the decision, Hill joined a group of mostly-middle class Detroit parents attempting to navigate the city’s school choices. The Best Classroom Project, a Facebook group started by Detroit parents, was formed as a way for families to share information and coordinate school visits. It is now made up of more than 250 Detroit parents, some of them life-long residents and others recent transplants. Some members have joined just for tips on finding the best school for their children: traditional public, charter or private, in Detroit proper or the suburbs. But others feel a sense of loyalty to the public school system. Hill hopes that if she and more of her middle-class peers choose schools like Nichols, their presence could help improve Detroit Public Schools (DPS) and ultimately the city.

    “I would love it if we could have a positive influence on DPS,” Hill said.

    Related: At troubled Detroit schools, adjusting to more class time

    She and the other parents are going to need convincing, though, and the district is eager to appeal to them. For five years, Detroit school officials have been trying to woo families to the district, with marginal success. But the creation of the Best Classroom Project has given them a unique chance to reach the city’s small middle class as a means of ultimately growing a larger one.

    Only about 38 percent of Detroit households earn more than $35,000 compared to 56 percent of households across America, according to 2012 American Community Survey figures published by the Census Bureau. And that household income number was well below the U.S. median income of $53,000 a year. For the city to claw its way back from bankruptcy it needs good schools to attract a better tax base. And for the school system to significantly improve, the cash-strapped district needs to boost its enrollment numbers.

    Thirteen years ago, the school system had 200,000 students. Now as the city’s population has plummeted, it has less than a quarter of that. The district has a $127 million deficit and student performance, although getting better in some grades and subjects, is still well below the rest of the state. Eighth-grade passing rates on the state’s reading exam have climbed from 34.2 percent in 2009-10 to 47 percent in 2013-14, for instance. But statewide nearly three-quarters of students passed that test.

    In 2013-14, just 14.6 percent of third-graders passed the state math test and 7 percent of 11th-graders did so, according to state data. The city’s four-year graduation rate was 65 percent in 2012-13, 12 percentage points below the state average.

    Related: Rich kid, poor kid: How mixed neighborhoods could save America’s schools

    “We recognize we’re a central anchor to the city,” said Roderick Brown, the district’s chief strategy officer, whose job is to develop ways to convince more families to pick the public school system. “Our success is tied to the success of the city.”

    On a tour with the Best Classroom Project, Dara Hill talks to a teacher at Nichols Elementary school. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

    On a tour with the Best Classroom Project, Dara Hill talks to a teacher at Nichols Elementary school. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

    Steve Wasko, assistant superintendent for community relations for the district, says he’s well aware of the need to stop the pattern of more affluent families leaving town when their children turn five. He’s begun posting information on the Best Classroom Project’s Facebook wall, has arranged for a Detroit public school to host one of their meetings and set up tours.

    Although any parent, in the group or not, is welcome to visit schools, it’s still a rarity to see parents traipsing the halls. At Nichols, Hill and her neighbors ducked into an empty middle school science classroom to fire off questions to the principal about the building and class sizes. At the moment, Nichols only has enough students for one class per grade, the principal told them, but she added, “We can always make room.”

    ‘Cosby Show Detroit’

    Hill, the daughter of German and Jamaican immigrants, graduated from Detroit Public Schools in the 1980s. She speaks fondly of her schools and the “Cosby Show Detroit” she remembers, where black and white students would walk to the Detroit Public Library after middle school and, in high school, where she would sneak out of her house at night to see her then boyfriend, now husband. She stayed in the city after graduating, teaching first in Detroit and then in a nearby suburb.

    “It’s good to have choices, it really is. I just wish more of them were in the public school domain.” Dara Hill, Detroit parent

    Hill remembers the ’90s as a period when her city took a sharp turn for the worse, but Detroit’s deterioration began decades earlier. Detroit has been losing population since the 1950s when 1.8 million people called the Motor City home. Its modern history has been marked by racial tension, white flight and political scandals. Now, fewer than 700,000 people live in Detroit; 83 percent are black and nearly 40 percent live in poverty.

    The city’s decades of struggles have been intertwined with those of the school system. Detroit Public Schools was first placed under state control in 1999 and then again in 2009 as test scores continued to falter. The district’s enrollment has fallen to 49,800 students as families moved or opted for charters that promised — but didn’t always deliver — better results. Nearly 40,000 students in the city now attend charters. Detroit Public Schools has shuttered more than 80 schools and the state has taken over 15 of the lowest performers.

    Related: A Newark school prepares—again—to reinvent itself

    In the spring, the district missed the deadline for applying for about $4 million in federal Head Start money because of technical problems. Officials said they would find money elsewhere to offer preschool to all students this school year, not just low-income ones, but to Hill, the incident is indicative of larger administrative problems. “There are things going on that are really good at many of the school levels, but as a district, it’s like, ‘Oh get it together,’” she said. “It just makes you wonder.”

    Hill, now an education professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, has toured three Detroit public schools, three private and one suburban school as part of the Best Classroom Project. At each, she compares what she’s observed to a checklist of things that she cares about and that she thinks other parents might, too. Do teachers nurture young children’s inquiry? Does the school have a zero tolerance policy for bullying?

    Everyone will have different priorities, Hill says, but she is most concerned with finding a school with a diverse student body and small class sizes, where teachers don’t have to follow rigid pacing guidelines or feel pressure to teach to the test. A start time after 8 a.m. wouldn’t hurt either.

    Those things are proving harder to find than she anticipated. Since the group connected with Wasko in the spring, Hill has given a copy of her checklist to district officials, hoping it might spur them to take some of her concerns into account.

    But it will take some work. Until she had her daughter, Hill said she never doubted she’d eventually send her child to public school. But now, after years of school closures and increased focus on standardized test scores, which she believes has eroded teacher creativity, she’s not sure. “I was always a steadfast supporter of public schools,” she said. “I lost a little fidelity to DPS … The public schools are not what they used to be.”

    The war room

    Detroit school officials are trying desperately to win back the trust of parents like Hill. They’ve turned a conference room in their downtown office building into a “war room,” which they’ve plastered with posters covered in summaries from community meetings, strategies to improve and signs of progress. It’s where Roderick Brown’s strategy team has most of its meetings.

    On one wall, a Sun Tzu quote a translation of “The Art of War” hangs next to a poster someone has titled, “THE QUESTION: How shall DPS compete and win the marketplace?” The answer, posted next to it, is “Empowered DPS employee’s operating via synchronized, lean agile and leveraged work efforts.”

    Detroit Public Schools’ “war room” serves as the headquarters for the strategy team. It’s their job to convince families to come back to the school system and get those who are enrolled to stay. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

    Detroit Public Schools’ “war room” serves as the headquarters for the strategy team. It’s their job to convince families to come back to the school system and get those who are enrolled to stay. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

    The business jargon is evidence of Brown’s previous experience as a General Motors executive. He talks in terms of markets and supply chains, and argues that along with improving academics, Detroit Public Schools also must improve the overall customer experience for students and parents. (To that end, last year Target provided a pro bono training for school office workers to teach them customer service tricks, such as smiling while answering the phone.)

    In the past, “we didn’t do the best job of serving our existing customer base,” Brown says.

    In 2009, under then-Emergency Manager Robert Bobb, the district launched an “I’m in” campaign, which encouraged families to enroll in Detroit Public Schools and spread the word about improvements in the schools. Changes in the system have been advertised with flyers, open houses and door-knocking.

    “You can’t win this on the defensive,” Wasko said. “The only way to survive and thrive is to be on the offensive.”

    Related: Is the power of parent talk enough to close the school readiness divide

    Officials gathered community volunteers to walk with children to school and are working with the city’s lighting authority to get broken streetlights near schools replaced first. They’ve picked 20 schools to serve as community hubs. They’re open 12 hours a day and filled with resources and classes for parents. Music or art is now taught at every elementary school — although many schools can’t afford to to offer both.

    They’ve also launched new academic programs, like the three-year-old Benjamin Carson High School of Medicine and Technology. Many students there said they returned to the district from charter schools because they were attracted by Carson’s small size and focus on science. They praised the school and its academics, but in the spring, in the school’s first year of state testing, only 9 percent of 11th-graders passed the state math test and just 1 percent did in science. About 40 percent were proficient in reading and writing.

    Still, in the fall of 2013, the district scored its first major victory — enrollment nearly held steady after dropping by about 10 percent every year for more than a decade. Daily attendance is up to 86 percent across the entire district, a particularly noteworthy shift considering that in 2011, the school system had to return more than $4 million in state funding for having an average daily attendance rate below 75 percent. And some schools have begun to make gains on state tests that outpace the rate of improvement in the rest of the state.

    The district has also touted how many of its schools have been rated highly by Excellent Schools Detroit, a non-profit that aims to improve all of the city’s schools. The group’s rankings — based on test scores and unannounced visits by community volunteers, who do classroom observations and examine the physical state of the school — have become an important resource for many Detroit-area parents. The Best Classroom Project, for instance, used the rankings when picking the public schools they wanted to visit.

    This year, Excellent Schools Detroit picked 31 K-8 schools — charter and traditional — across the city to recommend, 16 of which are in the public school system. The highest ranked school in the city was a Detroit district school.

    Camille Wilson, an associate professor at Wayne State University, is wary of overstating just how good all of those 27 schools are, though. She said that “maybe three” of the system’s schools would be “excellent in any other setting.” That means that despite the city’s emphasis on giving parents choices, the majority of residents lack the resources to guarantee their children a good education.

    “Most parents don’t have a choice,” she said. “It’s bad A and bad B.”

    Failing neighborhood schools

    Three weeks before Hill and her peers observed classes at Nichols, a group of community members — four mothers and grandmothers volunteering for Excellent Schools Detroit — wandered around two pre-kindergarten classrooms at Bow Elementary School. In one room, a handful of children gathered around an iPad, while another group paraded through the classroom playing tambourines and wooden blocks. The volunteers made careful notes as the lights flickered. The day before, the power had gone down entirely. (Some schools in Detroit lost as many as 13 days of school last year because of power outages caused by the city’s outdated electrical grid.)

    After the K-12 school ratings proved popular, Excellent Schools Detroit called on its army of volunteers to help visit all the city’s preschools. At Bow, a low-performing pre-K through 8th-grade school surrounded by many boarded-up and deteriorating homes, the visit was unscheduled.

    A community volunteer checks out the playground at Bow Elementary school. Excellent Schools Detroit, a Detroit-based nonprofit, rates all schools and preschool programs in the city based on test scores and unscheduled volunteer visits. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

    A community volunteer checks out the playground at Bow Elementary school. Excellent Schools Detroit, a Detroit-based nonprofit, rates all schools and preschool programs in the city based on test scores and unscheduled volunteer visits. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

    Sitting in the school’s library for a debriefing, after two hours examining the grounds and classrooms, the volunteers had generally positive things to say to their team leader from Excellent Schools Detroit. But as they praised the preschool teachers for being nurturing, they could hear a teacher yelling at older students in the hallway. The women exchanged glances, and one commented that she was glad she was only there to report on pre-K.

    Bow, where 86 percent of students receive free or discounted lunch, is emblematic of the obstacles Detroit faces as it attempts to shed its poor reputation. The school received a D this year from Excellent Schools Detroit, like 28 other district schools. Just five schools in the city limits, including only one Detroit public school, got As.

    For parents in the neighborhood, with few resources to get their children to schools miles away or little knowledge of how to navigate the school-choice process, the only other option is a similarly low-performing K-8 charter school across the street, which Bow’s former principal, Ernestine Woodward says has been drawing away students for years. Last summer staff from Bow knocked on every door in the neighborhood trying to get families back.

    The school is doing the best it can with the resources it has, said Woodward, who retired at the end of last year. There’s not nearly enough money for the technology she would have liked, nor for social workers and other services to meet the needs of her students. But they do have afterschool and arts programs and make an effort to get parents into the school whenever possible. At a May open house, where staff and parent volunteers served free burgers and held a free auction for parents with items like wine glasses, board games and school supplies, many parents said they were happy with Bow.

    “In spite of the fact that our test scores are low, it’s a really good school,” Woodward said.

    “We recognize we’re a central anchor to the city. Our success is tied to the success of the city.” Roderick Brown, Detroit Public Schools chief strategy officer

    Yet it’s a school that Hill would never consider. Two days after the Nichols visit, Hill and her neighbor Callie Sullivan sat near the water at Detroit’s river walk recapping their impressions. A short drive from Indian Village, the recently revitalized public space has playgrounds and a carousel that have made it a favorite spot for both families.

    Both say that outsiders who disparage the city don’t realize how much Detroit already has to offer, and how much more is coming. Plans for a city bike path and light rail are underway. The city has become a hub for urban farming and a Whole Foods opened in 2013 — the first new grocery store in years.

    Hill and Sullivan are committed to staying, even though they also know the downsides to living in the city; both have been burglarized in the last two years.

    “If that did not get us going, I don’t foresee us leaving,” Sullivan said. She grew up in Detroit’s suburbs and returned to the area a few years ago after teaching in New York City, joining a slow stream of families moving to Indian Village. When driving in the neighborhood one day, she spotted Hill outside with her daughter and she was so excited to see a fellow mom she pulled over the car to introduce herself.

    Sullivan said she was wary of what to expect when starting to shop around for schools. “My attitude going into this was, ‘Oh my, this is going to be so hard,” she said.

    Now, she’s got a list potential schools — one traditional public, one charter and one private — and has others left to visit. As for Hill, Nichols failed to convince her. The class sizes were too large, and she didn’t like that the English curriculum required teachers to follow a script. She still hopes to find a public school for her daughter, but for now, her leading contender is a private school.

    “It’s good to have choices, it really is,” she said. “I just wish more of them were in the public school domain.”

    There are signs of hope for the city’s schools. A handful of parents from the Best Classroom Project opted to send their children to high-performing DPS schools this fall, but Hill’s leading contender is a private school. Although she still hopes to stay in the public system, her reluctance demonstrates how difficult it will be for Brown and DPS to convince parents like her.

    “Can the public schools really appeal to us?” she said. “I don’t know that they have the resources or the ability to do that right now.”

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • November 24, 2014 02:07 PM Noteworthy Provisions of the New Higher Ed Act Draft

    [This piece was co-authored by Ben Miller, Clare McCann, and Stephen Burd].

    Yesterday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the retiring chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, released the second draft of his proposal for reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. As we noted during our review of the initial draft back in June, there are a number of good proposals in the bill, particularly ones that would increase oversight over for-profit colleges and provide better consumer information that students can use when choosing which college to attend.

    Since much of this draft is similar to the initial one, we want to highlight three key new provisions in the bill that are particularly noteworthy.

    Ending the Student Unit Record Ban

    The most noteworthy change from the first draft to this one is a new section that ends the current ban on the federal government collecting and connecting unit record data from postsecondary institutions. The new statute, which wasn’t ready for prime-time this summer, would allow the Department of Education to understand critical policy questions, like whether colleges are helping their Pell Grant students graduate or whether their graduates are able to find jobs that allow them to repay their student loan debt. The bill also has requirements that deal with the data and privacy concerns raised by those concerned about creating a federal unit record system. We were glad to see the unit-record system added to the higher education agenda. A paper we published earlier this year explains the origin of the ban—and why its repeal is so important.

    Sen. Harkin’s call to end the unit record ban now joins several other legislators who have put forward similar proposals. The first bill to repeal the ban on a student unit record system was co-authored by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Marco Rubio (R-FL). And in former vice-presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty plan released last year, he called for a Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making, which would investigate the creation of a Clearinghouse for Program and Survey Data to join data sources across the government together in pursuit of a more complete picture of federal programs.

    Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), incoming chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, is more of a question mark. He’s well-known for railing against the burden that the current data system (IPEDS) places on colleges. But while a unit record system could lighten the load by allowing schools to upload files like the ones they already maintain instead of re-tabulating dozens of figures for different groups of students, it’s not clear whether Alexander will come around to the idea. It will be interesting to see if his bipartisan task force on burden reduction for colleges, which is expected to report back early next year with recommendations, touches on the unit record issue.

    Implementing a Pell Grant Bonus

    One of the Pell Grant program’s flaws is that it awards dollars to institutions solely based upon enrollment. So two institutions with the same number of Pell recipients get essentially the same amount of money, even if one does an excellent job serving students and the other does a terrible job.

    Harkin’s bill tries to change the compensation only for enrollment dynamic by introducing a “Pell Bonus” Demonstration Project, which aims to encourage colleges to enroll and graduate more low-income students. New America has argued for the need to create this type of bonus system for several years, dating back to our initial report under the Gates Foundation’s Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery series.

    Under the legislation, the U.S. Department of Education would provide grants to colleges in up to five states, which have “a strong record of supporting, reforming, and improving the performance of the state’s public higher education system.”  States would be eligible if they have invested significantly in their public colleges, helped smooth the transfer process between public colleges, and devoted their financial aid dollars primarily to need-based aid.

    In exchange, colleges in these states would receive additional funds depending on the proportion of Pell Grant recipients they have in their graduating class, the school’s graduation rate, and its average net price. Funds could be used to increase spending on need-based financial aid; strengthen support programs for low-income students; improve student learning while reducing costs; use technology to scale and enhance improvements; and establish or expand accelerated learning opportunities.

    We are encouraged to see that this proposal would encourage colleges to do the right thing — enroll and graduate more low-income students and use their financial aid resources to help those who need the support the most.

    One-Time FAFSA

    There’s a lot of discussion about the need to make the FAFSA easier to fill out, but the form’s complexity is only one part of the issue. The other problem is that student’s have to re-submit the FAFSA each year. Research suggests that a not-insignificant number of Pell recipients re-enroll in college without filling out the FAFSA again, resulting in them losing access to the grant. And even if students do fill out the FAFSA it still means they have to wait each year to get a sense of what their aid package might look like.

    Harkin’s bill includes a new demonstration program that would test whether one-time FAFSA filing could help students get a better sense of their federal and state aid, as well as assist with credit accumulation, enrollment, and other things.

    A not-insignificant number of Pell recipients re-enroll in college without filling out the FAFSA again, resulting in them losing access to the grant.

    The program would work by authorizing the Secretary to select up to five states where students could lock in their FAFSA information for between two and four years. Students would then not have to fill out the FAFSA again during this time, unless they answered yes to a simpler question about if their income changed dramatically. This multi-year FAFSA would also be determined using multiple years of income data in order to better smooth out the results. Finally, states would be required to lock in their own aid as well using the same FAFSA data.

    This idea has a lot of potential and is similar to one we included in a report called Breaking with Tradition, which was released this summer. If effective, moving the FAFSA away from being an annual paperwork exercise could make it possible to start pursuing other exciting reforms, such as presenting student aid as a flexible account that they could draw down at their own pace.

    There’s plenty more in the bill, so check back with EdCentral in the coming weeks for more analysis.

    [This piece was co-authored by Ben Miller, Clare McCann, and Stephen Burd].

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • November 21, 2014 04:00 PM The Talented Tenth Problem in College Admissions

    A common theme in education policy discussion, particularly with regard to college education, has to do with the best way to help get poor kids into college, and out successfully, with little debt.

    At this point pretty much anyone can get admitted to college somewhere. The problem is that it costs so much to attend college that they so often drop out without a degree.

    Maybe we need special program for hard working, smart poor kids. One such program exists already, apparently. It’s a experience designed for “strivers.” According to an article by David Leonhardt in the New York Times:

    QuestBridge…has quietly become one of the biggest players in elite-college admissions. Almost 300 undergraduates at Stanford this year, or 4 percent of the student body, came through QuestBridge. The share at Amherst is 11 percent, and it’s 9 percent at Pomona. At Yale, the admissions office has changed its application to make it more like QuestBridge’s.
    QuestBridge has figured out how to convince thousands of high-achieving, low-income students that they really can attend a top college. “It’s like a national admissions office,” said Catharine Bond Hill, the president of Vassar.
    The growth of QuestBridge has broader lessons for higher education — and for closing the yawning achievement gap between rich and poor teenagers. That gap is one of the biggest reasons that moving up the economic ladder is so hard in the United States today…. But QuestBridge’s efforts are innovative enough to deserve their own attention.

    The idea of QuestBridge is that the organization finds high-achieving low-income students when they’re still in high school and then track them directly into fancy colleges.

    Can this work? Eh, this requires that we ask how helping a few really smart poor kids get to Williams or Stanford is important. Because it’ll make it that much easier for McKinsey to recruit minorities?

    It’s probably not going to hurt anyone, but it’s hard to see how this could have any significantly positive impact on education or social class on the country as a whole. It’s just not going to matter.


    All of this starts to look a little like the Talented Tenth theory of racial improvement that people discussed in the black community during the early twentieth century. The idea, popularized by W.E.B. DuBois, was that black people could do better in this country when directed by a sophisticated and well educated leadership class of African-American men, about one in ten black men were supposed to become leaders of their race in the world. As DuBois wrote

    The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.

    This essentially elitist attitude eventually fell out of favor. The DuBois idea was opposed by Booker T. Washington, who advocated vocational training, and by the time of the Black Power movement of the 1960s the Talented Tenth sort of looked self-perpetuating and perhaps not so concerned with the race in general.

    Selecting and targeting a few people for advancement into positions of authority and social prominence doesn’t really matter much for anyone except the people elevated by the special program.

    The reality is that the United States of America is full of hard working, somewhat confused students eager to attend and graduate from college. Some of these students are very poor, some of them are pretty rich, and a lot of them are doing OK, they just don’t want to go into debt to finish college.

    Most American students are strivers, on some level. We don’t need to groom a special group of superstar poor people. We just need cheaper colleges. That’s surely the best way to get hard-working kids of all social classes into college and out to good jobs.

  • November 21, 2014 08:59 AM Debt Collection Expert to Buy College Chain That Excels at Student Debt

    If there was one thing Corinthian Colleges excelled at in the last few years it was sending students into debt with questionable credentials that were almost certainly going to lead to default. So maybe it’s fitting that its new owners are a company whose revenue and resource base is built upon collecting defaulted student loans.

    That’s what would happen under the sale announced today in which Corinthian Colleges would sell almost all of its non-California U.S. campuses to the Minnesota-based Educational Credit Management Corporation, or ECMC. The total purchase price would be $24 million, though three-quarters of that is going to either indemnify ECMC or back to the Department of Education.

    It’s easy to confuse ECMC with the similarly named EDMC—the struggling publicly traded Education Management Corporation that operates the Art Institutes among other brands. But they are quite different. ECMC is not a college operator. It has no educational expertise (not that EDMC’s is great either given the spot it’s in). It’s a nonprofit vestigial organization from the days of the bank-based student loan system.

    ECMC is what’s known as guaranty agency. These are a set of agencies that in the days of the bank-based loan system would pay claims to lenders when a federal student loan defaulted (they do not operate in the current Direct Loan Program). By law they had to be public or nonprofit entities. Once a guaranty agency takes over a defaulted loan it is in charge of collecting on the loan or trying to rehabilitate it—functions for which it is compensated handsomely. In fact, guaranty agencies get about 16 cents for every dollar they collect in defaulted student loans (plus charging collection costs) or rehabilitate by getting borrowers to make nine on-time payments in 10 months. For example, ECMC had $426 million in revenue in 2012, the most recent year for which Internal Revenue Service filings are available. Of that, 89 percent ($379 million) came from loan collection. It also owns Premiere Credit of North America, a student loan debt collection agency that has a contract with the Department of Education.

    In addition to its role as a guaranty agency and debt collector, ECMC also provides a special function for the Department as its handler of the $2.9 billion in federal student loans that are involved in bankruptcy proceedings. In January of this year the New York Times published an article about ECMC’s overzealous pursuit of borrowers in bankruptcy that “wasted judicial resources.” This included things like accusing an older couple that shared an extra value meal at McDonald’s of spending too much money on dining out.

    That should be shocking, but it’s indicative of the core business that ECMC knows and operates in—debt collection and the unpleasant things that come with it. It does not award college credentials. It has a pile of cash constructed over years from struggling borrowers and a lack of a future revenue source now that the bank-based system is gone. The two are a recipe for acquisition; regardless of how related they are to expertise.

    To be fair, ECMC is trying to say all the right things about its new role. It’s promising a tuition reduction, new senior leadership, transparency, and a host of things that sound good. But it has no experience doing any of these things and will now have to do all of them on the fly while still trying to maintain enrollment.

    In many ways it’s not surprising that ECMC would be the party that ends up solving the issue of what to do with Corinthian. After all, it’s been the Department’s go-to last resort in the past. When the guaranty agency in Connecticut failed, ECMC stepped in to take it over. It did the same thing in California after its guarantor Ed Fund, was shut down by the Department for trying to sell its loan guarantees. ECMC had provided similar roles in the past in Virginia and Oregon.

    Now what was the guarantor of last resort is apparently becoming the educator of last resort, providing a way to limit the number of students who lose spots in educational programs that data repeatedly showed were not good values and left many people in bad shape. At least ECMC already knows what to do with them once they get there.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • November 21, 2014 08:51 AM Financing Dual Language Learning: The Data Matter

    Title III, the law that governs federal funding and programs for dual language learners, provides relatively small amounts of money to states. As we explained in part one of our three-part blog series on the financing of dual language learners (DLLs), the formula provides 80 percent of federal dollars on the basis of each state’s share of dual language learners, and 20 percent on each state’s share of immigrant children.

    Importantly, though, when lawmakers rewrote the bilingual education provision as Title III of No Child Left Behind in 2001, they didn’t specify which source of data that the Department of Education should use to calculate those numbers. Beyond the first several years of implementation, the statute only asks that the Secretary of Education should use the more accurate of two sources: the American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, or the number of children for whom the state administers annual English proficiency assessments, as required elsewhere in the law.

    Today, the Department uses the ACS data rather than state-reported figures–and has since 2005–apparently because the state data were initially incomplete. But while the distinctions may seem pretty insignificant, some say it makes a big difference in funding. According to a 2006 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that simulated the Title III funding formula for fiscal years 2005 and 2006 in 12 states, some states would see dramatic increases in funding if state-reported data were used as compared with ACS data–and some would see declines in funding as high as 40 percent. [See graphic below.] Moreover, variations in the sample sizes of the ACS from year to year could mean big annual ebbs or surges.

    Screenshot 2014 11 16 at 12.42.37 AM Financing Dual Language Learning: The Data Matter

    Therein lies the rub. Members of Congress are notoriously bad at revising funding formulas, because it creates winners and losers. Editing federal formulas to improve equity is rarely worth the risk of angering constituents or losing votes to lawmakers.

    A big part of the reason for that variation is because the state data are comprised of a straight count of students, while the ACS data require sampling of students. That’s especially problematic for small school districts and states with lower DLL populations, where it may be hard to find a fully representative sample. But there are plenty of other differences between the two methods, too, not all of which are a bad thing:

    • ACS includes children from age 5 to 21, while the state decides its own range for school-aged children;
    • Public and private school students are included in ACS data, while just public-school students qualify for the state counts;
    • States conduct assessments of children to determine English language proficiency that cover literacy as well as speaking proficiency, while the ACS simply asks whether the person speaks another language at home, and how well the person speaks English;
    • Because the ACS survey is conducted among adults, the child himself is not assessed for English-language proficiency in that method, while state counts are child-focused; and
    • The ACS survey is uniformly used across states, while the state counts are determined on the basis of state or local assessments and definitions.

    That’s a shame, because in this case, the changes could mean a significant difference in the services available to children under Title III. A report for the U.S. Department of Education in 2012 found that per-child funding through Title III totaled less than $120 in seven states, but topped $300 in four states. Particularly in schools with few DLL children, those numbers bear diminishing returns. In the states with the lowest per-pupil federal DLL funding, a school with 10 DLL students could bring in about $1,200–not enough to provide much in the way of dedicated staff, additional services, or new resources.

    And another report found that the variations in state and ACS estimates were significant: For example, Nevada identified 10.9 percent of its public school students as dual language learners; but the ACS data showed a rate of just 6.9 percent. In New Mexico, the state found a rate triple that of the ACS: 18.8 percent, compared with 6.6 percent. Just one state, West Virginia, had a higher rate of DLL students in the ACS than in its state data–1.0 percent in the ACS, compared with 0.9 percent in the state data; but the range of variation was substantial from state to state.

    And although the report didn’t directly address it, states’ DLL populations are not static. The size of each state’s DLL subgroup rises and falls with each year—and throughout the year—depending on their policies around classifying and reclassifying these students. So methods of assessing students for data collection purposes could have varying effects on states, depending on the frequency and timing of sampling. (For more on reclassification policies, check out our recent publication, Chaos for Dual Language Learners: An Examination of State Policies for Exiting Children from Language Services in the PreK-3rd Grades.)

    Rational people could disagree on whether the American Community Survey or the state-provided counts are more accurate. States that define English-language proficiency more loosely might be at a distinct advantage for raking in funding from a system that required states to find and count their own DLL students. There are obvious (and concerning) incentives encouraging states to overcount, given that not all districts provide great services to their DLL students. However, it is apparent that certain types of districts are likely at a greater disadvantage because the Department of Education relies on the ACS data. In particular, undersampled states and districts are probably losing out on some funding, and some larger states and districts with more accurate samples included in the ACS may be benefitting as a result.

    So how will Congress address these issues? Check back with EdCentral on Tuesday for Part III of our Title III series. Click here for Part I.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • November 20, 2014 05:01 PM AAUP Questions Cuts at U. of Southern Maine

    A national organization representing thousands of university professors is criticizing program cuts and faculty layoffs at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

    In a letter addressed to President David Flanagan, the American Association of University Professors questions the severity of the university’s financial woes. AAUP, which was founded by philosopher John Dewey, says the actions being taken are in “blatant disregard” for tenured faculty.

    Citing low enrollment and a $16 million budget deficit, administrators have eliminated five majors and more than 50 faculty members.

    Maine isn’t alone. As states defund public higher education, colleges and universities have made steep cuts while also increasing tuition and fees.

    Earlier this month, President Flanagan told On Campus that cutting and consolidating programs was emotional but essential to the university’s survival.

    “It was going to be necessary to balance the budget in order to have any kind of future as a higher education institution,” Flanagan explained.

    Listen to our original story:

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

  • November 20, 2014 04:00 PM Wasting Time on the Internet, for Penn Credit

    This had to happen eventually. Kenneth Goldsmith—the poet famous for wearing that suit to the White House in 2011—will teach a course at the University of Pennsylvania in the spring called “Wasting Time on the Internet.”

    And this is no gimick title designed to hoodwink kids into signing up for some boring psychology elective. No, it really is a course about wasting time online.

    As Goldsmith writes in the New Yorker:

    Come January, fifteen University of Pennsylvania creative-writing students and I will sit silently in a room with nothing more than our devices and a Wi-Fi connection, for three hours a week, in a course called “Wasting Time on the Internet.” Although we’ll all be in the same room, our communication will happen exclusively through chat rooms and listservs, or over social media. Distraction and split attention will be mandatory. So will aimless drifting and intuitive surfing. The students will be encouraged to get lost on the Web, disappearing for three hours in a Situationist-inspired derive, drowsily emerging from the digital haze only when class is over. We will enter a collective dreamspace, an experience out of which the students will be expected to render works of literature. To bolster their practice, they’ll explore the long history of the recuperation of boredom and time-wasting, through critical texts by thinkers such as Guy Debord, Mary Kelly, Erving Goffman, Raymond Williams, and John Cage.
    Nothing is off limits: if it is on the Internet, it is fair play. Students watching three hours of porn can use it as the basis for compelling erotica; they can troll nefarious right-wing sites, scraping hate-filled language for spy thrillers; they can render celebrity Twitter feeds into epic Dadaist poetry; they can recast Facebook feeds as novellas; or they can simply hand in their browser history at the end of a session and present it as a memoir.


    I suppose there really is something important to about understanding how we spend time online when we’re not doing anything productive. It really does take up a lot of our days. (Hey, if you’re reading this between roughly 10 am and 6 pm on a weekday you’re wasting time, too.)

    Still, I’m little confused as to how the class works. Do students just sit in class and screw around on their laptops for three hours? That’s an awful lot of time. I think I might get bored with that. I guess students could edit Wikipedia articles.

    It’s worth noting that Goldsmith is well experienced in offering counterintuitive ideas for academic credit. For a decade he’s taught a writing class where students are “forced to plagiarize, appropriate, and steal texts that they haven’t written and claim them as their own.“ For a final assignment he apparently makes students buy one of those sketchy essays written by people for money and then stand up in front of the class and pretend they wrote it.

  • November 19, 2014 02:00 PM Study Abroad: Not Enough of it, and It’s Mostly Rich Kids

    The Institute of International Education recently released Open Doors, its report about the state of international education, or study abroad, around the world. There are several trends worth discussing here, in particular an increase in the number of students studying in foreign nations, but in general it appears study abroad isn’t that common. It’s mostly just rich kids doing it, and a whole lot of students (at least the American ones) aren’t even learning a foreign language when they go to school in another country.

    The report, the organization’s first since 2000, indicated that there’s an upward trend in students studying abroad. In the 2012-13 year some 289,408 American students were studying in foreign countries. That’s a 2 percent increase from the pervious year and the numbers are now at a record high. But it’s still pretty uncommon. Only 9 percent of American undergraduates got any international education.

    This is in comparison to students from abroad, who travel and study in foreign countries much more often than Americans. There are some 886,000 now studying in the United States, an 8 percent increase from the previous year. Foreigners make up 4 percent of U.S. college students.

    The United States is the top destination for international students who study abroad. It hosts more of the world’s college students than any other country in the world. Half of international students studying in the U.S. come from China, India, and South Korea.

    Interestingly, while more American students are studying in Asia than in the 2000 report—5 percent are studying in China and 2 percent are in Japan—traveling far away to explore radically different cultures and learn a new language is pretty rare. The top destination country for Americans studying abroad is… the United Kingdom (other top countries include Australia and Ireland). That’s a trip that, frankly, hardly seems worth the cost.


    And the cost seems to be pretty high, perhaps explaining why the experience isn’t more common. While the Institute for International Education explained that “in today’s increasingly globalized workplace [9 percent of Americans studying abroad]… is far too low,” because “international experience is now one of the most important components of a 21st century resume” the strategy for increasing participation seems a little weak.

    A representative from the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs discussed a program, the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, that exists specifically so that low income students (those receiving Pell grants) can get money to study abroad, but this is still likely to remain pretty uncommon. Children from low-income families don’t study abroad for the same reason their families didn’t take a spring vacation to France when they were kids: traveling to foreign countries is really expensive.

    The organization, while it discussed the importance of “increasing” the number of low-income Americans who had the experience of traveling about in college, didn’t know what percentage of American college students studying abroad currently get Pell grants or were otherwise designated as coming from poor families.

    Check out the organization and its report here.

    [Note that international education here didn’t just mean the traditional junior year abroad. It also included graduate students studying in foreign countries and international students who went to the United States for four years to earn a bachelor’s degree. It also included people who didn’t even earn academic credit abroad and may have taken a semester off of college to work or volunteer abroad.]

  • November 19, 2014 12:35 PM A Cynical Game that College Admissions Offices Play

    Kudos to Amanda Graves, a high school senior in New Jersey, for calling attention to one of the most cynical games that selective colleges play to boost their prestige.

    In a column in the Washington Post on Monday, Graves wrote about how she has received letters and emails from top colleges urging her to apply to the schools. For example, Yale University sent the following message to her in September:

    Dear Amanda,

    As the Dean of Yale College, I write to congratulate you on your academic success and to introduce you to Yale’s diverse opportunities and communities…As you consider your college options, I hope that Yale remains among your top prospects.

    It sounds like Yale really wants to admit her. But Graves, who admits to being “a fairly average” student, was not convinced:

    My grades are nothing to brag about, and I didn’t qualify for the National Merit Competition. I haven’t lead a team sport, conducted scientific research or been in all-state band. My mom might tell me I’m brilliant, but I’m not even in the top quartile at my public high school.

    After doing some research, Graves learned that Yale sends such solicitations to about 80,000 high school students a year to fill a class of 1,300. The university rejects nearly 94 percent of students who apply. She wrote:

    Immediately, that grandiose vision of me, strolling through New Haven in a bulldog sweater, conversing about important intellectual matters with my esteemed peers and professors, was halted by an abrupt reality check.

    Graves recognizes that selective colleges that inundate students with personalized letters and emails urging them to apply are not necessarily contacting them because the schools intend to admit them. In reality, colleges often encourage students to apply so that they can reject them.

    As my colleague Rachel Fishman and I wrote in Washington Monthly’s College Guide this fall, the aim of the game for these colleges is to boost the number of students who apply and can be rejected. By doing this, the schools see their acceptance rates fall, making them appear to be more selective – which helps them rise up the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

    These types of tactics feed into the frenzy of college admissions that leads students to apply to as many schools as possible, even if they don’t have a chance of being admitted to many of them.

    This may be an effective strategy for schools in terms of gaming the college rankings. But it is unfair to the students who are being hoodwinked. As Graves wrote, these e-mails and letters give students “a false sense of hope” that is dashed as the rejection letters pile up.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • November 19, 2014 12:30 PM Financing Dual Language Learning: Here’s How it Works

    States are facing considerable challenges in meeting all children’s educational needs, especially given growing numbers of low-income and dual language learners (DLLs) in schools. For the most part, states and school districts bear the responsibility for serving DLLs. But the federal government, although it pitches in only about $723 million, has taken on a growing role in educating DLLs–albeit a still-controversial one.

    Since 1968, shortly after ESEA first became law, lawmakers provided competitive grants to states for the development of bilingual education efforts. But by 2001, it was clear that the ranks of students who didn’t speak English fluently weren’t being well served by the districts and states in which they attended school. Subpar academic outcomes remained a persistent problem. With No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on improving outcomes for all students–including subgroups of students who were low-income, minority, or had limited English proficiency–it was clear that states would need to step up their game. So in that law, lawmakers transformed the federal program entirely.

    As of the last ESEA reauthorization in 1994, bilingual education grants were housed in Title VII of the law. They were designed to help school districts improve their instruction of students with limited English proficiency so that they could improve their English fluency (and, the law says, “to the extent possible, their native language”) and their academic performance outcomes. Districts, early childhood education programs, and teacher preparation programs were eligible to win the competitive program. The winners got two-year grants to build out their bilingual education programs or five-year grants to implement schoolwide or district-wide programs.

    After the No Child Left Behind reauthorization was completed in 2002, it was an entirely different story. Title VII, the English Language Acquisition grants program, was relocated to Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act–and more importantly, it became a formula-funded program, rather than a competitively funded one.

    Formula-funded programs, by definition, are designed to ensure greater equity across the country. In a competitive grant program, there are necessarily winners and losers; those who receive funding, and those who don’t. A formula program may advantage some districts over others by weighting factors differently, but it provides at least some base level of funding to all districts. And by requiring some consistency across states in the use of funds (for example, to develop English language proficiency assessments), ensuring all states receive the dollars also broadens federal oversight to all states. So making the dual language learner funding available through a formula rather than a competition meant that virtually all districts had the benefit of those dollars–and all districts could be held accountable for their outcomes.

    The new formula awarded funds to all states according to their share of dual language learners compared with the rest of the country (80 percent of the formula) and their proportion of immigrant children compared with the number of immigrant children nationally (20 percent). Even the states with the smallest awards got at least $500,000. States have to distribute the funds to school districts on a similar basis: the share of DLL children in the state identified by each district. Districts that would receive a grant of less than $10,000 are disqualified from receiving any funds.

    But the new version of the law isn’t without problems. A suite of research has demonstrated inconsistencies and inequities in the formula. We’ll be exploring those inequities in a blog series over the next several weeks; check back with EdCentral on Friday for Part II of our three-part Title III series.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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