Friday, March 20, 2009

Bearing Bad News / Counselors Must Make Low College Graduation Rates Transparent

Why do so many students matriculate in colleges with such poor graduation rates? A key factor is that many students are unaware of college graduation rate information and how their college choices affect their chances of degree completion. A new paper by Northwestern researchers James Rosenbaum and Jennifer Stephan applies the term “poor completion transparency” to the obfuscating maze between high school and college and then employment. According to Rosenbaum and Stephan, the many confusing degree options in our varied higher education model combine with weak college counseling to create poor completion transparency.

To address the transparency problem, Rosenbaum and Stephan call for better counseling to inform students about the labor market prospects associated with each college option. In this vision, college counseling needs to provide students with blunt, dream-killing facts about future prospects. It’s a bitter pill to swallow.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Friday Night Lights / “College” on TV

Friday Night Lights is the one show on TV that I make it a point to watch. (If I miss an episode, I catch it online.) Set in Dillon, TX, the high school football drama captures the coming of age of a cast of characters more authentic than anywhere else in tv-land.

The aspiration of college-going and the striving towards college is a consistent theme of the show. For Lyla, Landry, Smash, and Tyra, college is the way out of provincial football-obsessed Dillon.

In the most recent episode, Riggins, the star running back who has partied away his high school years, is offered an on-the-spot athletic scholarship to a Texas state college by a football scout. Paraphrasing, Riggins says to his girlfriend, “You know, there’s paperwork to complete, but it’s basically a done deal.” The double-standard in admissions for college athletes and the irresponsibility of college scouting is vivid.

The most tragic part of Riggins’s college acceptance is his lack of college readiness. If there was a “College Years” sequel to FNL, a story line would be Riggins’ complete lack of college preparation and its consequences, i.e., struggles with grades and problems with meeting academic eligibility standards for athletics.

Friday, March 6, 2009

College Knowledge Know Before You Go

A high school senior who I spoke with recently did not have a clue about how long term papers are in college courses; another was vague on the differences between a major in visual art and one in graphic design; and another was completing her FAFSA but unaware of financial aid basics, like loan repayment terms. These instances demonstrate a critical need to strengthen seniors’ college knowledge before they decide which college to attend and before they head off to campus in the fall. Of course, college knowledge education shouldn’t wait until the spring of senior year, but when the knowledge is not there, last chance remediation efforts are critical.

A few important things that students should know include that it is possible to appeal a financial aid decision, that free tutoring is available at most colleges, that registering for classes promptly is important to claim a seat, and that approaching professors immediately about problems is the best way to address those problems. A math professor and blogger adds a few items to this list, including healthy nutrition, time management skills, and academic integrity standards. For schools with advisory periods, advisory is the perfect time to talk through the benefits of college-going as well as the stresses of college life and overcoming them. Additional means to educate students include posted bulletin board information, booklets distributed with graduation event details, and a presentation on college success skills during the year’s final senior parent meeting.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Simplifying the FAFSA by Simplifying Financial Aid

When I’m asked to complete a form, I get nervous. What if I fill something out wrong? What if I make a careless error? No matter how simple the FAFSA gets, the form is still going to be an intimidating experience for students and parents. Why? Because all forms are scary.

But that doesn’t mean that reform is not needed. To make getting started with the FAFSA easier, one popular and positive idea is to consolidate the many financial aid programs (Pell grants, SEOG grants, Direct Loans, Perkins loans, and Stafford loans) into one grant program and one loan program. Earlier this week, Secretary of Education Duncan announced his intention to make the Department the primary issuer of student loans, nationalizing what is now a competitive marketplace of private lenders. Under the plan, which is strongly contested by private lenders, the Department of Education would increase lending through its Direct Loan program to $60 billion annually, up from $13 billion last year.

I imagine that Duncan and his team will soon announce their FAFSA simplification plan. What I already like is that they’re focusing on not just the form but the whole process.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Remaking Schools with a National Service Afterschool Corps

Two good ideas—national service and extended day—are converging. In this speech before Congress earlier this week, President Obama spoke about a “new era of responsibility” and called for extending national service, and in an interview with CNN, Secretary of Education Duncan talked about extending school days and school years, saying, “Where students have longer days, longer weeks, longer years -- that's making a difference." National service is the perfect low cost mechanism for growing afterschool programs, summer camps, and summer youth employment efforts. With thorough management, training, and support, national service volunteers can, in the words of President Obama, “remake America.”

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Number Crunching / Chicago’s K-16 Data System Reveals Low College Graduation Rates for CPS Grads

A new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) titled Barriers to College Attainment: Lessons from Chicago examines the gap between college aspirations and college attainment for low-income, urban high school students, this time in Chicago. The January 2009 report draws on data from the National Student Data Clearinghouse and reveals, among other things, that only 45 percent of Chicago graduates who enrolled in a four-year college during the year following high school graduation attained a four-year college degree within six years. The report echoes the dismal findings of a study in Boston on the college attainment of Boston Public School graduates that I wrote about here. The report calls for the widespread adoption of data systems that track and make transparent high school students’ post-secondary educational choices, concluding, “We simply cannot ask high schools to focus on the college readiness and postsecondary outcomes of their graduates if they do not know what happens to their students after they graduate.”

Up to this point, neither the Boston Public Schools nor Chicago Public Schools has provided much visibility to the new data that’s been uncovered. In a cursory look at high school profiles on the BPS website (example here) and the CPS website (example here), I found no information on the schools’ post-secondary college enrollment and attainment, although the CAP report says, “CPS has made college readiness indicators and college enrollment a central part of their high school accountability scorecard.” The data is dismal and shocking, and I fear that the efforts to sweep it under the rug have been greater than those to put it into the broad light of day where it can be used by principals, teachers, counselors, parents, and policymakers. Greater visibility to the post-secondary education data by CPS and BPS would be a step forward in convincing other school districts to match student data to the National Student Data Clearinghouse.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Drilling Down Into the Stimulus / $12.2 Billion for Special Education

The irony of special education is that children and parents tend not to want an education that is special. The instructional benefits of the classification, including pullout/push-in time with specialists and smaller classes, are typically not embraced by children and parents because of the stigma of the classification and how the classification reifies itself to create internal self-doubt in the child. Ultimately, the classification as learning disabled or emotionally disturbed is often seen by parents and children as more harmful than helpful--and they may be right. The meta-studies of special education conclude that the benefits of special education are questionable. In New York State, the percentage of special education students who earn a Regents degree in four years is 5 percent, a number that’s hard to view as a success under any circumstances.

Special education services might not successful because they are not provided well, and that seems to be the case in New York City, as GothamSchools has posted articles on limited Advanced Placement choices for students in Collaborative Team Teaching classrooms, limited kindergarten options for special education students, and poor data management of special education records. The $12.2 billion stimulus funds for continued grants under IDEA are an opportunity to address problems and also shape a more positive future for special education

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sorting Out the Education Stimulus

The $787 billion stimulus package includes $100 billion for education—an unprecedented amount.

The roller coaster of the past few weeks has been crazy. Governor Paterson called for $9 billion in state spending cuts in December, including $700+ million in education cuts. Then in late January, Mayor Bloomberg announced a $4 billion city budget deficit and threatened 15,000 teacher layoffs. Now that the political theater’s climax has been reached and the stimulus has passed, New York State schools will see increased rather than decreased education funding. According to The Times:

“The $2.5 billion the state is expected to receive to restore education cuts…more than cover[s] the $770 million in reductions the governor had called for.”
Senator Chuck Schumer says, “Any way you slice it, this bill is great for New York.” A pot this big will not only stabilize school budgets but also will change education in profound ways.

UPDATE: But not so fast! The drama continues. No one seems to really know fully how the stimulus is going to be spent. See here for the New York City politicking and here for an inside look at Ed Secretary Duncan's hothouse.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Beginning of the Pipeline / Where to Read About Elementary Education

Education news is almost always about secondary education and higher education. Middle school is lost in the muddle, and elementary school seems just too elementary. Why particularly is the focus disproportionately on high ed and high schools rather than elementary schools? One reason is that news follows tests results, just like business follows earning reports. While there are so many tests facing high school students (high school entrance examinations, the SAT, the ACT, the Regents, and Advanced Placement exams, to name a few), there are so few tests in elementary education. In New York State, elementary students take a high-stakes test in fourth grade.

With elementary education needing some attention, I point to a couple articles that highlight the instructional battles in elementary schools. New York Magazine in 2006 reminded us that the Reading Wars are not yet over and The New York Times, also in 2006, synthesized the reformist education pedagogy of the elementary school charter networks (Amistad, KIPP, and Achievement First). If you haven’t read these articles, do so – Theses are two of the best pieces of education journalism I’ve read, and how students fare in the early stage of the education pipeline shapes their trajectory through its later stages.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What’s New? Cultures of Success at New Schools

Too often we say to students things like, “You can become whatever you want to—a doctor, lawyer, scientist, teacher, journalist, artist, entertainer, politician, entrepreneur, etc.,” but it’s an empty platitude. We know that at Brandeis High School, which is closing down, more students become high school dropouts in the short term than computer programmers, investment bankers, and biotech engineers. The on-time graduation rate at Brandeis last year was 35%.

Brandeis High School will be replaced by three new schools. At each of these schools, the principals can gather their new students and say, “We’re going to provide you with the tools, inspiration, rigor, intensity, support, and love so that you WILL become doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, etc.” There’s no history to refute the possibility that the students will go on to achieve the highest levels of success, so it seems tangibly possible in a way that it does not at Brandeis today.

In new schools, there’s the “anything is possible, sky’s the limit” energy and excitement that puts students and teachers in the mindset of success. The message that everyone will be successful and achieve at high levels, becoming masters of the universe, can be relentlessly repeated and reinforced. A few methods by which the new Brandeis schools can do this include naming classrooms after Ivy League colleges, posting career information on display boards in hallways, propagating inspiring chants and slogans, inviting motivational speakers to talk about goal-setting, and setting up mentoring programs with corporate partners.

The practices and culture of successful charter schools, Urban Assembly schools, and other small schools, like Bronx Lab, Bronx Leadership, and the Young Women’s Leadership schools, were created in the founding moment of new-ness, demonstrating that in some cases, like that of Brandeis, the best school reform is complete school overhaul.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Read This / Intervening Early to Prepare Successful Readers

Imagine being an eighth grade student and not comprehending a written text. On the National Assessment of Education Progress (1998), 26% of eighth graders failed to meet the “Basic” standard of answering correctly explicit comprehension questions and a minimal number of interpretation questions about a basic text.

For the vast majority of eighth graders struggling with reading, that struggle is nothing new. Approximately 75% of students identified with reading problems in third grade are still reading disabled in the 9th grade, and 88% of poor first grade readers are still poor readers in eighth grade.

It’s fair to blame middle schools for not closing the gap, but middle schools face the steep obstacles of reversing the emotional, psychological, and behavioral effects of years of poor school performance.

Closing the gap in reading early—through pre-k, reading intervention programs, and research-based reading instruction—can nip educational failure before children indelibly feel like educational failures.

As the debates about school governance, i.e., mayoral control and charters, and school models, i.e., KIPP and GreenDot, continue, it might be wise to drill down into a classroom and see that early intervention to assist struggling students can make a difference in preventing future deficits—in any classroom.

Monday, February 2, 2009

First & Goal / The Universalization of Pre-K

Fifty-one percent of 3-year olds and seventy-four percent of 4-year olds are in some form of pre-k, with programs including the federal Head Start program, state-funded pre-k, and private pre-school programs. In 2007, one million 3 and 4-year olds attended state-funded pre-k programs, up by 80,000 from 2006.

The percentage of children without access to pre-k varies from state to state, with twelve states having no pre-k programs, and the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) writing, “The chances for a child to benefit from state pre-K are largely determined by the state where he or she lives.” In states with pre-k systems, children without pre-k are largely from families with too much income for federal and state income-qualified programs and not enough income to afford private pre-school tuitions. A November 2008 Pew-funded report coins the gapping of the middle-class the “Pre-K Pinch” and advocates for increasing access to high-quality state pre-k.

"Many economically-advanced countries provide free preschool for all children," says Sara Watson, senior officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts, a key NIEER funder. "If the United States is to remain competitive in a global economy, we cannot lose a single child. We must invest in preschool education that will help put every child on the right track to succeed."

The universalization of pre-k will be an education leap forward on the scale of the GI bill and the Pell grant, but for now, the movement towards a tipping point of universality is in limbo and depends on the stimulus and state budget decisions. In one scenario, states will keep their pre-k funding budgets stable thanks to a Washington bailout while additional stimulus favored by the Democrats will create 350,000 new pre-k seats (while creating 15,000 early childhood teaching and teaching assistant jobs). In a grimmer scenario for pre-k, Republicans will gut pre-k from the stimulus legislation and the bailout for the states will leave some particularly hard-hit states with budget shortfalls that trigger decreases in pre-k funding level. Whatever happens over the next two weeks, in the years ahead, the country will likely redefine formal schooling as beginning at age four—and eventually at age three.