• September 19, 2014 02:40 PM Harvard Business School, Heal Thyself

    Recently I wrote about a study performed by Harvard Business School assessing the way American business leaders feel about inequality in America. Somewhat surprisingly, HBS alumni indicated it’s a problem.

    As a piece at Al Jazeera put it, alumni believed that “the weaknesses in elements that drive prosperity for the average American indicate that the American economy requires a strategy in order to do its full job.”

    But former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has an interesting point to make in reaction to the same study. As the headline in an article he wrote for Salon put it bluntly: “Harvard Business School is ruining America.” Reich:

    …The authors neglected to include a discussion about how Harvard Business School should change what it teaches future CEOs with regard to this “profound stake.” HBS has made some changes over the years in response to earlier crises, but has not gone nearly far enough with courses that critically examine the goals of the modern corporation and the role that top executives play in achieving them.
    A half-century ago, CEOs typically managed companies for the benefit of all their stakeholders - not just shareholders, but also their employees, communities, and the nation as a whole.

    We know this story, right, how the American CEO changed?

    But starting in the late 1970s, a new vision of the corporation and the role of CEOs emerged - prodded by corporate “raiders,” hostile takeovers, junk bonds, and leveraged buyouts. Shareholders began to predominate over other stakeholders. And CEOs began to view their primary role as driving up share prices.

    As Reich emphasizes, however, HBS has a lot to do with this new model.

    So it would seem worthwhile for the faculty and students of Harvard Business School, as well as those at every other major business school in America, to assess this transformation, and ask whether maximizing shareholder value… continues to be the proper goal for the modern corporation.

    They learn a lot of these tactics at schools like HBS.

    He points out that this inequality is not some independent unfortunate occurrence in reaction to which HBS alums can just sit around bemoaning the mysterious problem. Oh, goodness, how did this darn thing happen?

    Um, the grand thinkers at Harvard Business School kind of caused this.

    For years, some of the nation’s most talented young people have flocked to Harvard Business School and other elite graduate schools of business in order to take up positions at the top rungs of American corporations, or on Wall Street, or management consulting.

    Now, it’s not specifically Harvard’s fault so much as it is a general trend in economics and business that favors maximizing shareholder interests and ignoring everyone else’s. And Reich, at any rate, is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley is also is home to the Haas School of business, which is equally at fault in this predicament.

    But it’s not that business schools dramatically changed to produce CEOs who were worse. Prior to the late 1970s the average American CEO didn’t go to business school at all. HBS was founded in 1908, but the glory of HBS, and the proliferation of American business schools, dates from the latter half of the 20th century. The corporate raider CEO grew up at the same time all of these aspiring businessmen decided an MBA was a good idea. American capitalism seemed to get along pretty well without any damn MBAs.

    Is it really “worthwhile for the faculty and students of Harvard Business School… to assess this transformation?” Should they even exist? The transformation is not just tied up in the intellectual work of American business schools; it appears pretty closely connected to such institutions’ very existence.

  • September 18, 2014 01:00 PM Why Do Colleges Expect Endowment Managers to Be Wizards?

    The hardest jobs at prestigious universities might not be those performed by academics or traditional administrators. The heavy lifting, the impossible job, might be that of the endowment manager, the money guy. He’s got to fix everything.

    According to an article in the New York Times:

    Miscues by university management and more tepid investment returns have pulled down Harvard’s results, culminating in the June resignation of Jane L. Mendillo, the chief executive of the Harvard Management Company, who started just before the market collapse in July 2008.
    The performance of Ms. Mendillo, who is leaving at the end of the year, illustrates not only the vicissitudes of investing but also the revolving-door aspect of an operation like the Harvard endowment, where retaining top talent can be difficult because of the intense scrutiny and the availability of bigger paychecks elsewhere.

    And what did Harvard need Medillo to do? Well, basically exactly what David F. Swensen did at Yale in the 90s: make a lot of money with private equity and short-term, risky investments. He made the school much richer. And then Jack Meyer did the same thing at Harvard. This changed everything at America’s most prestigious colleges.

    “The pressure on people in that kind of institution is tremendous from people who want to see good results all the time,” said Keith Ambachtsheer, who runs an education program for nonprofit board members at the University of Toronto. “There’s no patience for the fact that managing endowments is a long-horizon enterprise that naturally involves occasional periods of disappointing results.”

    Critics often accuse academics of not understanding business or the bottom line. They just want to sit and their ivory towers and think about impractical subjects. Meanwhile, out in the “real world” we’re all busting our humps trying to meet demands and make money, right?

    It turns out there might be another way universities don’t understand business. It appears that one of the problems of colleges with regard to money is that they often fail to understand that downturns don’t always mean a crisis. From the article:

    One former official of Harvard Management compared the endowment’s cautious, defensive style in the Mendillo years to a soccer team that tries to keep possession of the ball instead of taking shots on goal. Many of the company’s alumni called Ms. Mendillo more of a steady, capable manager than a visionary investor.

    Harvard will report a 15 percent return for the last fiscal year. Mendillo matched the school’s long-term record of 11 to 12 percent annual returns during her time in the job.

    Isn’t a steady, capable manager exactly who you want to run a $32.7 billion endowment? A “visionary investor,” after all, could lose a school a lot of money.

  • September 17, 2014 06:02 PM How Vocational Education Leads to College

    Often when Americans think of vocational education they tend to rather look down on it. Particularly for Americans from professional backgrounds, voc-tech signifies manual labor and the sort of classes students take when they’re not going to go to college, and when they don’t really have any options.

    The reality is more complicated. And a little more inspiring. It turns out students who attend vocational high schools often matriculate at 4-year colleges.

    According to a piece in the Boston Globe:

    Once viewed as a place for student slackers with no college ambition, Massachusetts vocational high schools are increasing academic standards, offering honors classes, and producing more college-bound students than ever before.
    During the past five years, the percentage of vocational school graduates attending four-year colleges rose at schools across the state, including Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School in Easton, Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlborough, and Joseph P. Keefe Regional Technical School in Framingham.

    The article explained that at two of the vocational schools, four-year college enrollment increased from about 15 percent to nearly 30 percent in the last five years.

    That’s because, while “vocational” might be in the name, the real subjects taught at the school are demanding and intellectual. They’re just practical, too. Many vocational schools are heavily math and science focused, for instance, and students who attend such schools are perfectly capable of succeeding in demanding bachelor of science programs.

    It’s unclear what’s driving this. It may be that companies are just demanding more education for the same jobs. As the article put it, “employers are requiring a higher level of education for many of the fastest-growing career sectors, such as information technology, environmental studies, engineering, biotechnology, and health care.”

    But vocational high schools are getting better, too. And the graduates of voc-tech schools seem perfectly capable of succeeding in college.

    This is a point often made by education reformers, for instance. The skills necessary for success in good vocational jobs are the same damn things you need to succeed in college.

    Indeed, it appears many students seek out vocational programs simply because such programs are a good way to find focused, high quality classes to learn the material that interests them.

    It doesn’t just mean wood shop anymore. Now it means chemistry and calculus.

    But then, maybe the voc-tech kids have known that for years. It’s only now that we’re started to try to pay attention to the success of all high school student that we’re figuring out lots of vocational programs are good.

  • September 17, 2014 11:27 AM Colleges Let Taxpayers Help Poor Students While They Go After Rich, Report Says

    In what it calls “an elaborate shell game,” universities and colleges are shifting their financial aid from low-income students to high-income ones to bolster their prestige and raise them up the rankings, a new report says.

    Meanwhile, according to the report by the nonprofit, nonpartisan New America Foundation, universities are leaving their poorest families to vie for a piece of billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded Pell Grants.

    Because of this, the federal government continues to spend more and more on Pell grants, which now total more than $32 billion, yet the lowest-income students end up borrowing more money than ever to pay for their higher educations.

    To substantiate its argument that universities and colleges are substituting Pell grants for their own financial aid, the report relies on previously published research.

    But it also cites new data showing that the proportion of private, nonprofit universities and colleges that now charge the poorest families $15,000 or more in tuition and fees—even after financial aid and discounts are accounted for—is rising sharply. That means the neediest students are paying an amount that equals at least half of their families’ annual incomes.

    The universities, the report says, “with their relentless pursuit of prestige and revenue,” are using their financial aid not to help low-income students, but to attract affluent students with good grades who can improve their positions in the U.S. News and other rankings, and whose families can afford to pay the rest of the tuition.

    Ninety-five private colleges with endowments of more than $250 million charge low-income students an average net price of more than $10,000 apiece, the report says, while 60 charge more than $15,000. Another 33 charge more than $20,000 and 11 charge more than $25,000 each to students whose families earn $30,000 or less.

    The trend is not confined to private institutions. Forty percent of public universities and colleges also now charge $10,000 or more a year to students from families in the $30,000-or-less income bracket.

    “This is one reason why even after historic increases in Pell Grant funding, low-income students continue to take on heavier debt loads than ever before,” the report says.

    Not all colleges and universities are following this trend, the report says. It says low-income students make up a comparatively high 15 percent or more of the enrollment at 24 private, nonprofit institutions—some very wealthy, others small, and others religiously affiliated with missions of serving low-income students—that still manage to charge them $10,000 a year or less.

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • September 16, 2014 03:41 PM Nine Years After Katrina, We’re Still Asking the Wrong Questions About Education

    “Is the educational system better now than it was pre-Katrina?” It’s the question I hear more than any other. But the typical responses around test score growth miss how we should measure school performance in New Orleans.

    It’s just over nine years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August 2005, and we’re still asking the wrong questions.

    Rusted scissors, coins and other debris sit on the floor of an elementary school in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans, La. File Photo.  (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

    Rusted scissors, coins and other debris sit on the floor of an elementary school in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans, La. File Photo. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

    The operative question is are people in poverty better prepared for a disaster than before Katrina? I’m not talking about whether or not the city’s evacuation plan has improved. I’m asking if our impoverished neighbors have a greater likelihood of getting in cars, with gasoline, driving to North Louisiana, staying in hotels, eating, potentially enrolling in other schools or colleges and then eventually driving back to New Orleans, rebuilding their homes, getting business loans and having political influence to direct their own recovery?

    In other words, is the realness of Katrina taken into consideration in our school reforms? Are we maximizing the opportunities that school reform gives us to equip New Orleanians for life? When you’ve been through a disaster like Katrina, preparedness is true to life.

    The nation looks to New Orleans for advice on education, but they need to be reminded why New Orleanians need better public schools. Around 100,000 people were held inside New Orleans, unable to escape for days. But let’s be clear, if Katrina didn’t barrel down the Gulf, a high percentage of that number couldn’t have left if they wanted to.

    Floodwater didn’t trap 100,000 New Orleanians.

    Katrina just exposed the greatest public policy disaster in the United States. It’s the same public policy disaster that lies in wait within many American cities. I used to say the failures of our educational system trapped largely black and brown bodies inside the Superdome and city. While the­re isn’t research that can tell us what school type those who were forced to huddle in the Superdome attended. It’s safe to say public schools failed them. However, policy failures in transportation, healthcare, policing and housing joined education to limit people’s ability to get out of harms way.

    Over the last few months, I’ve released columns in the Washington Post and the Hechinger Report that essentially challenge if New Orleans and education reform are maximizing their opportunities to address what really traps people. These pieces have been met with extreme praise or criticism. The common theme among the criticisms is that schools can’t and shouldn’t treat all social ills.

    Likewise, I’ve been told that school reform must focus on the needs of the child. As one person wrote me, “Schools aren’t jobs programs. He continued, “You’re being unreasonable in your expectations of schools.”

    I’m being unreasonable in my expectations of schools.

    When Mayor Ray Nagin and the Bring New Orleans Back Commission revealed that some neighborhoods would come back as green space, it’s wasn’t unreasonable to ask that an elected official represent a neighborhood school.

    When about half of the black male population is unemployed during a time of rapid economic expansion, it’s not unreasonable to demand that schools hire black teachers. It’s not unreasonable to ask federal innovation grants to encourage local historically black colleges and universities to create pipelines to enter teaching careers.

    With a child poverty rate of 42 percent compared with a national rate of 23 percent, it’s not unreasonable to examine the amount of loan debt incurred by low-income public school graduates.

    The current performance gap between 4th-grade and 8th-grade black and white students on the more reliable National Assessment on Education Progress (NAEP) isn’t substantively different from the gap in the 1992. So it’s not unreasonable to question the steep incline on Louisiana’s statewide exams.

    As important as our current school reforms are to the future of the city, the impact of its graduates won’t be felt for decades. Two-thirds of New Orleans’ 2025 labor pool is expected to be working-age adults, meaning — if we want to become a more literate and productive city — we must make significant investments in the adults who share their fates with children. It’s not unreasonable to examine adult educational progress as measures of success.

    When 1 in 7 black men is either in prison, on parole, or on probation, it’s not unreasonable to demand that schools stop the practice of expulsion and suspension. It’s not unreasonable to see forcing students to walk on white lines or even wearing uniforms as criminalizing.

    In a city that is one of the most conducive for start-up businesses, which schools are, it’s not unreasonable to ask the state to limit vouchers to black owned, effective schools.

    Whites are twice as likely as blacks to have at least an associate’s degree (25 years and older). It’s not unreasonable to question if reforms are impacting college readiness. It’s also important to question colleges and universities to see if they are making changes to graduate underrepresented groups.

    In a city where whites earn twice as much as blacks, it’s not unreasonable to demand that a disadvantaged business enterprise program (DBE) for the multibillion-dollar school construction project be as effective as student learning. Schools should be required to enter long-term professional service contracts with black and brown-owned food service providers, bus companies, accountants and banks.

    How many people have to be killed, fired and jailed for it to become clear that black skin is associated with bad. So it’s not unreasonable to say that black teachers need protection. Implicit bias and unconscious discrimination as well as outright discrimination impact who is hired, fired, recruited, and yes shot.

    In New Orleans, whites represent approximately 35 percent of the total population but approximately 60 percent of private and parochial schools. Blacks represent about 90 percent of the public school population. It’s not unreasonable to provide incentives for public schools to actually look like the public.

    Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. John Dewey said these words decades ago. Dewey knew that limiting education to technical matters of curriculum and instruction defied the essential reason why schools exist - the community. Fixing schools is a means to that broader end, and any school reform that doesn’t explicitly uplift parents, local businesses, and other stakeholders is a reform that is destined to fail. We must close the community gaps that make New Orleans the tale of two cities.

    If we created a school for community growth index, how would New Orleans schools rank? School measures must speak to the individual and social needs of the community. Leading up to the 10th Anniversary of Katrina, I will examine education in a reasoned attempt to create measures that examine educational systems impact on the day-to-day realities of families and communities in New Orleans.

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • September 16, 2014 09:49 AM Loan Forgiveness for Teachers: Let Us Count the Ways

    Back in 2007, Congress passed a law establishing the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), allowing people who work in qualifying public service jobs to receive student loan forgiveness–tax-free–after the equivalent of 10 years of payments. And with a new version of income-based repayment (IBR) implemented by the Department of Education for borrowers with loans taken out after the fall of 2007, many of those public servants are able to pay far less for those 10 years than they would under other repayment plans.

    Among the potential beneficiaries of the PSLF program: public school teachers. Of education majors who graduated with debt from an undergraduate program in 2012, a Department of Education survey found that the typical debt load was about $22,000–still below the national average for all undergraduates. That’s a significant increase from yesterday’s teachers: Just four years earlier, the median undergraduate debt was only $16,500, meaning 2012 graduates saw a one-third increase in the typical debt load in less than a decade. With IBR, those teachers’ payments are–by definition–always affordable, capped at 10 or 15 percent of their income, less a cost-of-living exemption. With PSLF, those borrowers are likely to have some of the loan forgiven, so they never fully repay it.

    As my colleagues Jason Delisle and Alex Holt demonstrated in their recent paper Zero Marginal Cost: Measuring Subsidies for Graduate Education in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, teachers with a master’s degree fare even better in PSLF. They have higher debt levels (combined private and federal, undergraduate and graduate debt for a master of education effectively doubled between 2008 and 2012 alone, from nearly $34,000 in 2008 to nearly $51,000). That means they’re likely to get more forgiveness.

    In fact, they found that borrowing any amount of federal student loans over $17,000 will mean no additional out-of-pocket costs for teachers earning the typical income. For teachers earning at the 75th percentile for their fellow peers with a master’s degree, they’ll receive forgiveness for any debt over $23,000. Both figures are well below the typical debt level for that category of teacher.

    But the substantial benefits available to teachers through PSLF aren’t the only ones Congress has created. Last year, more than $250 million in federal student loan debt held by more than 31,000 teachers was forgiven under a separate provision, the Federal Stafford Loan Forgiveness for Teachers Program.

    Stafford loan forgiveness for teachers provides up to $17,500 in loan forgiveness to teachers in high-need subjects–namely, math and science in high schools and special education in elementary schools. Teachers are eligible for forgiveness after teaching full-time for five consecutive school years in certain low-income public schools. And teachers for other subjects who teach in high-poverty schools are eligible for $5,000 in loan forgiveness.

    Of course, those loan forgiveness options may not entirely erase debt for the typical teacher who borrowed federal student loans for a master of education program. Only $17,500 is eligible for forgiveness — and after only five years of payments, that may not cover the full costs of graduate school. And the benefits of Stafford loan forgiveness for teachers are much more targeted, allowing only for high-need teachers in high-need schools. But the program still goes a long way toward covering the costs of college for many teachers, and in a shorter time frame even than Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

    All this raises the never-ending problem of duplication, confusion, and hard-to-access benefits woven throughout the federal student aid system. Some college graduates who want to be teachers can receive Stafford loan forgiveness after 5 years, or most teachers are eligible to receive public service loan forgiveness after 10 years. They can access TEACH Grants, which convert from grants to loans if they fail to meet their service requirements. They can earn increasing amounts of loan forgiveness for the Perkins loans issued by their institution of higher education in each of five years. And there are myriad other caveats, particulars, and overlapping benefits they’ll need to know if they want to successfully navigate the federal student aid system.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • September 16, 2014 09:46 AM Child Care Reauthorization 20 Years in the Making Underway

    Political commentators may have spoken too soon about the “do-nothing Congress.” There’s been a veritable torrent of education-related legislative activity this summer, and lawmakers wrapped up that work today with an easy ‘yes’ vote in the House on the carefully negotiated Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) reauthorization bill.

    The Senate passed a version of CCDBG back in March, and then sent it to the House. There’s been a quiet standoff since then, with the House insisting it wouldn’t consider the CCDBG bill until the Senate agreed to take up the Strengthening Education through Research Act, which the House passed in May. Finally, last week, House and Senate education leaders reached an agreement that would move both bills forward, so quickly that the House voted tonight to pass the bill. It’s a big win for the child care law, which hasn’t seen a comprehensive reauthorization since 1996–three presidents ago.

    It’s a big win for the child care law, which hasn’t seen a comprehensive reauthorization since 1996–three presidents ago.

    The new version of the law, although far from perfect, would unquestionably mean much-improved child care opportunities for low-income families. Arguably the new CCDBG’s greatest strength is that it would allow for higher-quality care for children and it would grant parents the opportunity to find and sustain employment.

    Two changes in particular would make a big difference for parents: redetermination periods and reimbursement rates. As is, states (and sometimes localities) set their own time periods for redetermining parents’ eligibility for the child care subsidies. The new law would create a minimum 12-month eligibility period, so parents of young children remain eligible for a year, no matter changes in their work circumstances. That creates big barriers in the form of completing reams of paperwork, juggling schedules, and potentially losing access to care, even mid-job search, for families in the nearly half of states that confirm parents’ eligibility every six months.

    When it comes to reimbursement rates, right now providers often aren’t compensated for a child care slot if that child is absent. The new CCDBG bill asks that states reimburse even for missed days, “to the extent practicable.” That way, kids who get sick or parents who need to change their schedules–and their child care providers who might miss out on a day of payments if a child is absent–aren’t punished for missing a few days in the classroom. But since the provision doesn’t mandate it, it’s questionable whether states will even take this on in any serious way. Those policies are already wildly inconsistent across states, and Congress’s encouragement rarely means much if it’s backed up by neither a carrot nor a stick.

    Aside from those critical logistical changes that might improve families’ experiences dramatically, the CCDBG bill makes other changes that would increase the quality of care most children get, too. First, there are lots of new safety requirements, including–for the first time–mandatory annual fire, health, and safety inspections for unlicensed child care providers. (Many states allow providers to operate legally without a license; for example, as of 2012, 27 states didn’t require a license if the provider cared for fewer than four children, and 17 states allowed some form of an exemption for religiously operated child care.) That could be a big deal for the 17 percent of CCDBG recipients who spend their day in the care of license-exempt providers. Inspections of licensed providers would be subject to the same annual fire, health, and safety inspections; a pre-licensure inspection; plus a host of other metrics, which are mostly to be determined by the states to match the state licensing requirements.

    And although the requirements are pretty weak, the House CCDBG bill includes a previously unseen focus on behavior-related issues. States would have to publish their policies related to expulsions of preschool-aged kids; and they could elect to use some of their quality-improvement funds to give better training to providers around behavioral issues. It’s far from the kind of arm-twisting that makes states take notice. But it does start to address some concerning data released earlier this year by the Department of Education showing racial inequities in suspensions and expulsions even for 3- and 4-year-olds. And as my colleague Laura Bornfreund has been noting for years, discipline of that type is particularly ineffective for such young children–so training around these issues could help providers understand better methods of managing children’s behavior and stop relying on suspensions or expulsions.

    In a twist from the past few years of sequestration and budget cuts, the House promised some new money to implement the law. Funded at just shy of $2.4 billion for the current fiscal year (plus another $2.9 billion in mandatory funding), the House authorizations would set funding at the same level next year, then phase in increasing amounts up to $2.7 billion in 2020 — an increase of about $400 million over the next six years.

    Of course, that’s probably not enough for states to increase quality as much as the feds hope they will without bearing substantial new costs themselves. Currently, states are required to set aside just 4 percent of funds for quality improvement activities like implementing a Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) to rate providers or conducting training activities (more for fiscal year 2014, per the 2014 funding bill). The new set-aside will phase in over the next five years to 9 percent–hardly an impressive-enough amount to cover the costs of all the increased quality improvements. Another 3 percent of funds each year are reserved explicitly for quality improvement in infant- and toddler-care programs.

    This new CCDBG bill, which has bipartisan support, leaves most of the specifics about child care quality standards in the hands of the states.

    Finally, the House hopes to have the government start evaluating its own investments. The GAO is required to publish a report every two years assessing how many families have been placed on waiting lists for CCDBG vouchers. And the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the CCDBG programs, together with the Department of Education, have a year to evaluate all early childhood programs (for children under the age of 6) across the federal government and make suggestions to reduce overlap in programs.

    The original version of CCDBG, was reauthorized nearly two decades ago with details on federal financing but very minimal safety and quality requirements. This new CCDBG bill, which has bipartisan support, leaves most of the specifics about child care quality standards in the hands of the states, which could make for uneven opportunities for children in different states. But it significantly ups the minimum requirements, so that the 1.5 million children who receive care through the program–and their families–will have better opportunities to be cared for, to learn, and to work.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • September 15, 2014 12:02 PM Common Core Math Standards Add Up To Big Money for Education Companies

    The politically controversial standards curriculum standards known as the Common Core have been in the headlines for months, in Louisiana and across the country. But for most teachers and educators the standards have been quietly transforming classroom instruction for years. And for textbook publishers and other vendors, the new standards add up to new business. Sarah Carr reports on the dizzying array of new education products that claim to be Common Core aligned.

    When thousands of math teachers descended on New Orleans earlier this year, two words proved more seductive than chocolate. Or sex. Or even quadratic equations.

    Common Core.

    The teachers were in town to attend the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics annual conference. The exhibit hall featured endless booths stocked with Common Core textbooks, Common Core legos, Common Core geometry sets, Common Core MOOCs (which stands for massive open online courses). There were even flying robots that vendors said could help children learn the Common Core.

    “We sometimes laugh and say that Staples is going to make a lot of money on a rubber stamp that says ‘100 percent Common Core-aligned,’” said Linda Gojak, the council’s former president.

    Greta Anderson, a 5th grade math teacher at New Orleans' Dibert elementary school, has helped her peers adjust to the new Common Core curricular standards. (Photo: FirstLine schools)

    Greta Anderson, a 5th grade math teacher at New Orleans’ Dibert elementary school, has helped her peers adjust to the new Common Core curricular standards. (Photo: FirstLine schools)

    Gojak chuckles when I ask her if vendors feel pressured to put the Common Core stamp on their products.

    “If they want to sell it,” she says.

    A few companies are using the Common Core craze as a reason to sell more stuff and make more money. Stacy Monsman, a math coach in an Ohio school district, noticed a glut of products almost immediately.

    “When Common Core comes out, literally within a few weeks you saw materials with that sticker on it and there’s no way, the Common Core just came out,” she said. “There’s no way that a good thorough job could have been done to truly incorporate everything into some kind of material.”

    But Gojak and others say most vendors really want to align their products with the Common Core — whether they are textbook publishers who are rewriting lesson plans, or the creators of MOOCs aimed at explaining the standards to teachers. But all this change takes time.

    So in the short term, at least, teachers need to be cautious consumers, said Greta Anderson, the chair of the math department at New Orleans’ Dibert elementary school.

    “Everything is saying right now that they are ‘Common Core-aligned’ and some things are really top notch and others aren’t,” Anderson said. “It takes deeply knowing the standards. It takes looking at the whole package and not just the best sample unit that’s out there.”

    One red flag that Anderson and Monsman have spotted? Math programs with too many gimmicks and shortcuts. The Common Core calls for students to grapple with challenging math on their own, writing out the steps. So a math program that promises to teach students math by having them memorize simple rhymes? It’s probably about as legit as…diet deep fried ice cream.

    “We don’t want shortcuts,” says Anderson. “We don’t want gimmicks to get kids through a year of standardized testing. We want them to deeply understand the math.”

    In Louisiana, state officials are trying to help schools and districts sift through all the new curricula and textbooks. Two years ago, the state was hoping to purchase new textbooks aligned with the Common Core. Officials conducted an extensive review of existing materials. The results were discouraging, says Rebecca Kockler, the assistant superintendent of academic content at the Louisiana Department of Education.

    “We didn’t feel as if there were any programs that were submitted to us that were fully aligned to the standards or would support a teacher to teach the standards,” she says.

    Kockler helped create a team to assess curriculum materials as they come out, ranking them based largely on how well they align with the standards. A few are in “Tier 1,” which signifies the best alignment and quality, but most do not meet that bar. They might use those inappropriate math gimmicks, for instance, or include reading samples that are too easy.

    Districts have been making these decisions for a very long time,” says Kockler. “We’re just trying to help give them the information they need to make the most informed decision.”

    Not surprisingly, Louisiana districts have flocked to the few Tier 1 vendors. But Kockler says the department, which has been focused on grading textbook and curriculum programs, is just starting to grade other products. That means schools are largely on their own when deciding what legos to buy or which MOOCs to sign up for.

    “It’s like going on the Internet,” says Gojak. “There’s some cool stuff you pull down and there’s some junk you pull down. And you have to know what you are looking for.”

    Louisiana officials are not only ones to start ranking curriculum materials. Just last month, an organization comparing itself to “Consumer Reports” said it would begin posting free reviews written mostly by teachers of textbooks and other materials.

    The exhibition hall at the math teacher conference was, as Gojak put it, like Toys ‘R’ Us for teachers.

    “These are very popular,” one vendor told me. “They currently sell for $13.95. These are usually used in pocket charts in front of the classroom. We have a lot of teachers looking to grab these.”

    The vendor sold laminated placards with Common Core standards written on the front, and the words “I can” written on the back. That way, students can keep track of which standards they have mastered. But before that happens, their teachers must master the standards and become savvy shoppers. Otherwise, they might find themselves stuck with a whole lot of useless gadgets and a bad case of buyer’s remorse.

    Technical production was provided by Mallory Falk.

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • September 15, 2014 11:55 AM What U.S. Schools Can Learn From Poland

    By any measure, Poland has made remarkable education progress since the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the most recent 2012 international tests of 15-year-olds, known as PISA tests, Poland ranked 9th in reading and 14th in math among all 65 countries and sub-regions that took the test. It used to be on par with the United States, a mediocre performer. In math, for example, Poland gained 2.6 points a year between 2003 and 2012 while the rest of the world, on average, remained unchanged.

    And on Sept. 9, 2014, when the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released its annual indicators, “Education at a Glance 2014,”  another important indicator appeared: Poland’s college graduation rate is soaring.  In 2012, 25 percent of Poland’s adults held a college degree, up from only 11 percent in 2000. At that rate, it could soon eclipse the United States, where more than 40 percent of adults have a college degree (this includes two-year degrees).

    “Poland is an interesting case study,” said Andreas Schleicher, director of education at the OECD. “It used to be modest. It  is now at the frontier, in little more than a decade.”

    How did Poland do it? Its political leaders scrapped their Communist-era education system back in 1998. Instead of the state sorting students into vocational tracks, it opened the system up and allowed students to make their own choices. Dismantling a central command system is not required in most countries, but others countries can learn from Poland, Schleicher says, in two other ways: educational improvements can happen relatively quickly and relatively cheaply.

    “For other countries, Poland highlights that what’s really possible in a relatively short period,” Schleicher said. That upends the conventional wisdom in education that real progress is slow and incremental. Also, “None of this has been achieved by putting more money into the system,” he said.

    Although spending per student has in fact gone up  in Poland (largely because of declining birth rates and a declining student population), the growth in per-student spending remains well below the growth in education spending in other countries. (Click on the chart below, also from the 2014 Education at a Glance publication, to see a larger version).


    OECD spending per student


    Fast education results on a modest budget are alluring. And it will take more scrutiny of the Polish education system to understand what teachers are doing there. Classroom culture and student behavior may play a role. Polish teachers spend less time keeping order in their classrooms than teachers in any other nation, according to the OECD’s teacher survey (TALIS 2013).

    But instructional time seems to be a key factor. A 2006 World Bank analysis credited initial rise in Poland’s PISA reading test scores, in part, to increased hours of classroom instruction. It noted that back in 2000, Polish students spent fewer than four hours a week reading and writing, but that by 2006, more than three-quarters of Polish students were spending more than four hours a week reading and writing.

    Schools in the United States experimented with increased instruction time in the basics during the Bush administration, but have since retreated. Back in the 2000’s, No Child Left Behind policies that mandated student testing prompted a majority of school districts to increase instruction time devoted to the two tested subjects: reading and math. (Source: Center on Education Policy, NCLB Year 5: Choices, Changes, and Challenges: Curriculum and Instruction in the NCLB Era). But parents protested that other subjects, especially science, social studies and the arts, suffered. A majority of states have since received waivers from the testing requirements.

    Apparently, parents in Poland did not feel the same way.

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • September 15, 2014 11:11 AM Book Review: Can Pre-K Address Income Inequality?

    As we at EdCentral have often written, the political buzz around pre-K is stronger now than ever. Much of this recent momentum is a result of compelling economic research suggesting that high-quality early education programs can improve children’s progress measured against a bevy of different academic and social indicators stretching to—and beyond—high school graduation. High-quality pre-K can improve these students’ adult earnings and their likelihood of getting a diploma. It makes it less likely that they’ll have children out of wedlock, be arrested, or go on public assistance. And in the short-term, it supports increased parental employment by giving parents a safe, educationally-rigorous place to put their children during the workday.

    It almost seems too good to be true! Pre-K put three women on the moon in the 1940s (But the news media, as is customary, wasn’t paying attention to early education, and missed the whole thing)! Pre-K is also the secret catalyst required for cold fusion!

    Ok. Those last two aren’t strictly based in research. But the point stands: the rewards of investing in pre-K are enormous. And Tim Bartik’s new book, From Preschool to Prosperity: The Economic Payoff to Early Childhood Education, offers even more evidence supporting public pre-K investments. After a comprehensive, accessible treatment of the case for public investment in high-quality pre-K, Bartik outlines a “full-scale proposal for early childhood education.” His proposal includes universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds in addition to developmental child care, pre-K, and home visiting programs for children from low-income families in the years before pre-K. He calculates that

    For low-income families, this proposal would offset most of the increased income inequality since 1979; for middle-income Americans, this proposal would offset one-sixth of the increased income inequality.

    Bartik’s proposal is more than just pre-K, but given the growth in income inequality over the last 35 years, that’s still a big promise. The earnings of low-income households would have needed to increase by 31 percent (in real terms) over that period to keep pace with “the growth of average household income.” Bartik estimates that high-quality child care and pre-K for low-income families could raise adult earnings 26 percent for children from these families. Home-visiting programs might also add to that a bit.

    Your enthusiasm mileage may vary on this, given your views of the politics of income inequality. As Bartik puts it, his proposal could help with “offsetting recent inequality trends,” which is not the same thing as settling them for good. But his calculations offer new ways of talking about pre-K beyond the now-familiar “every dollar spent on pre-K returns $10 in savings and benefits for society.”

    And that analysis really exemplifies the core strength of From Preschool to Prosperity. While early education has gotten hot enough in recent years to attract the mainstream media, their coverage often glosses over (or misrepresents) research on which policies work best. There’s a reason for this—good studies on pre-K’s effects are technically-complex and can be a strenuous read. Bartik bridges the distance between accessibility and expertise. From Preschool to Prosperity is supremely organized and readable, but it’s also jammed full of useful information. It’s the book for anyone who’s been following New York City’s pre-K expansion…and wants to know why it’s such a big deal. It’s the book for anyone who’s heard the (aforementioned) stats on the return on investing in pre-K…and finds themselves wondering just how researchers come up with those numbers.

    Honestly, it’s a great book for anyone whose interest or expertise in early education doesn’t extend to knowledge of cutting-edge economic research in the field. Readers will finish the book better able to explain the “why” and “how” of high-quality pre-K. That’s information worth having, since pre-K’s political prominence hasn’t necessarily translated into more high-quality pre-K seats for American students. And we don’t need sophisticated research to know that ineffective rhetoric supporting access to high-quality pre-K does nothing for kids.


    Disclosure: I offered comments on an earlier manuscript version of From Preschool to Prosperity.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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