Saturday, January 31, 2009

Integrating Suburban Public Schools / An Old Idea in a New Era

For the past several years, I’ve conducted alumni interviews for my undergraduate college, Brown University. Yesterday afternoon, I met with a student from a Prep for Prep-like program who attends an elite private school. Our enjoyable conversation jumped from New York architecture to the rigors of commuting to the challenge of independent learning. He’s an impressive kid, and he’s certainly come a long way—from an immigrant working-class community in Queens to being a serious candidate for Brown admissions. I’m rooting for him.

With the success of Prep for Prep placement organizations in setting so many low-income middle school students on the track to elite college admissions through the mechanism of well-known private schools, it’s a shame that we haven’t yet crafted an equivalent way to send low-income urban students across city borders to high-achieving suburban schools in such a way that is not reminiscent of acrimonious court-ordered desegregation efforts.

How can we revive the idea of integrating suburban schools? With incentives from states to cover the gaps in educational expenditures; private donors stepping up to the plate; and Prep for Prep running a rigorous selection and support process, I believe that suburban politicians and schools leaders would support the initiative if it could be made a win-win for everyone. A privately funded pilot test could get the ball rolling.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Capacity-Building / CUNY Plans a New Community College

Monday’s Times includes a report on a plan for a new CUNY community college in Manhattan enrolling 5,000 students, while today’s Times reports that the stimulus package proposal includes $6 million for higher education infrastructure projects. The new community college is probably not “shovel ready” yet, but who knows?

Following through on the recommendations of the Gates-funded study that I wrote about here on Monday, the majors at the college will be “limited to about a dozen fields with robust job opportunities” and all prospective students will be required to interview to “know what will be expected of them.” In addition to these plans, CUNY should co-locate non-degree certificate programs at the college, as the Gates-funded study suggested that certificate programs are often a better route out of poverty and low-income jobs than associate degrees.

Monday, January 26, 2009

New 2009 Research from the Gates Foundation

Florida not only has fantastic winter weather (my first-hand reporting confirms 80 degree temperatures in early January) and great football (go Gators!) but also the nation’s most comprehensive K-16+ student data system, allowing researchers to follow students from Florida’s public schools though college and into employment. Using longitudinal student records from the data system, the Hudson Institute and CNA have a produced a new Gates-commissioned study. A few of their findings are:

  • Florida students with A GPAs are twice as likely to attend college as C or below students (79 percent versus 39 percent).
  • 25% of Florida 9th graders participating in the Federal School Lunch program will go onto graduate from high school and enroll in college within two years of graduating, compared to 39% of non-Federal School Lunch participants.
  • Florida students who complete associate degrees or certificate programs in heath care earn $45,968 per year on average, compared to $26,812 for those completing associate degrees or certificate programs in the humanities.
  • Florida students in the Federal School Lunch program who complete college degrees have 8.4% lower post-college earning than non-Federal School Lunch students--$34,563 compared to $37,727—with most of the difference attributed to the differences in the type of degrees obtained (AA, BA, graduate degrees).

The study’s recommendations include providing information to low-achieving, low-income high school students about the earning power of associate degrees and certificate programs in high-return fields, like health care. One of the study’s lead authors told InsideHigherEd, “All we’re trying to do is find what C students can do most productively at the point they leave high school. The investments we’re currently making in the two-year-college system are extremely important, and the message that comes across very clearly is that too many students are leaving high school without having a terrific high school experience, then are going to community colleges and repeating some mistakes they’ve already made.” Well said.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama / “Our schools fail too many.”

In Obama’s inaugural address, he boldly said, “Our schools fail too many.” Kevin Carey of Education Sector applauds the phrasing. As an Obama supporter, it pains me to say that I don’t like his choice of words. I would have preferred, “Too few students achieve at the highest levels,” or “Our schools and communities must do much more,” or “Our politics limit our commitment to equity and excellence.” Obama’s bold statement vilifies the many highly competent and hard-working teachers and administrators who work in low-achieving schools and run up against the walls of limited funds and the enormity of the challenge. I’m also bothered by the statement’s reinforcement of the mythical idea that if only our schools were better, all the baggage of homelessness, poverty, and race would be overcome. The truth is that the failure of economic policy, health care policy, immigration policy, housing policy, and more make it Herculean for our schools to be complete gap-closers. Ultimately, it’s our politics and priorities that are failing too many.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

College Success Factors Re-Explored

Accoridng to the Advisory Committee on the Student Financial Assistance, 0% of college-qualified high school students do not enroll in college immediately after high school. Why? Traditional explanations have focused on the limits of financial aid and how little many low-income high schools students know about the benefits of college-going and the steps of the college admissions process.

For low-income high school students who do enroll in college, few graduate within reasonable amounts of time, as revealed by recent reports from Boston and Chicago. Why? Traditional explanations have focused on financial aid as well as weak pre-college academic preparation that pipelines students into the educational graveyard of remediation.

A September 2008 study by Child Trends brings to light additional explanations for why students fail to access college or succeed once there. The study finds that the college readiness literature has mostly overlooked three key developmental competency areas—physical, psychological, and social—that predispose college success.
"College readiness criteria could be expanded to include healthy behaviors, avoiding risky behaviors, positive mental health, resilience, a strong work ethic and moral character, social competence, and creativity. The addition of these attributes would help youth prepare to optimize their success, healthy development, and experience in both college and the workplace."
The task of raising success-ready youth falls on the shoulders of parents, schools, afterschool programs, community organizations, and religious institutions. “It takes a village,” is the old saying. “It takes a nation in service,” is the new one.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Philly Road Trip / Philly’s Bruising Education Politics

I’m back from a trip to Philadelphia, where I picked up a copy of The Notebook, a terrific independent paper focusing on Philly’s public schools. The Notebook’s latest issue profiles new Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s plans to transform the Philly schools. Ackerman speaks in crisis terms about the state of schooling in the nation’s sixth largest city:
“The future for far too many of our poor students of color who attend our public schools is up for grabs. For some, it is teetering precariously. Unless those of us entrusted with their educational well-being take unprecedented actions on their behalf, they will not get a second chance.”

Ackerman, in planning her next steps, is talking about redistributing resources to schools in accordance with student needs, especially to failing schools. In a time where the funding pie is not growing, reallocating funding is a zero sum game. As Ackerman waits to roll-out her reform agenda, the language of crisis is rallying support for change, but will it be enough to quickly steamroll over those schools and communities who will lose funds? In New York City, Joel Klein announced school budget cuts in May 2008, with the cuts disproportionately hitting middle-class schools like Stuyvesant and Townsend Harris, but it was done (1) quietly, (2) with Klein acknowledging the “pain” and not relishing in the redistribution, and (3) in the context of a Keep It Going we’re-making-progress vocabulary. Maybe Ackerman should look to Klein’s strategy for guidance, as change doesn’t always need to be loudly announced.

p.s. The Eagles are down 24-19 but rallying. Go Donovan!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Student Life Arms Race / Can It Be Stopped?

A new study by the Delta Project reports that the percentage of university budgets going towards instruction expenses is decreasing while tuition and net student costs are increasing. The Delta Project advocates for greater college affordability by controlling costs (read: layoffs). Going beyond the eliminate-the-climbing-wall argument, The Delta Project asks us to re-think the value of student life staples: writing centers, psychological counseling, computer labs, and student advising. But in re-thinking these amenities, I get sidetracked because I start thinking about how college students—and prospective students—simply demand that their colleges provide robust student life programming and academic support. The Delta Project’s focus on colleges’ wisdom in supplying student life features overlooks the unstoppable momentum of student demand. If one college eliminates a climbing wall, another college will create one to capture the students for whom a climbing wall is important. And apparently, there are many of them.

Computing Power / NYCDoE Buys a $75 Million Special Education Data System

In New York State in 2007, 31% and 34% of special education students passed the English and Math Regents Examinations respectively. A Regents diploma is not a graduation requirement for students classified with learning disabilities, who can graduate by passing the Regents Competency Tests (RCT) or meeting the requirements of their individualized education plan (IEP).

I’m not an expert—or even knowledgeable at all—about how to set achievement benchmarks for special education students, but it’s obvious that a new $75+ million special education data system just purchased by the city will help get educators and advocates on the same page regarding student learning plans. I like to think that the transparency of a data system that allows for analysis of how well teachers, schools, and programs are doing with special education students will work to forestall a slippery slope of lower and lower expectations for students from whom less is already expected. The fear is that a greater focus on numbers will incentivise re-classifying under-achieving students downward on the special education scale rather than challenging them to achieve their best.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Duncan’s Confirmation Hearing

I caught small bits of Duncan’s confirmation hearing here this morning. He focused on his own feel-good story of growing up as an assistant in his mother's inner-city tutoring program. As far as substance, which there wasn't much time for between the praise the senators heaped upon him, he spoke about teacher recruitment, merit pay for teachers, and the "extraordinary" challenges of creating better schools.

The big disappointment is how little focus there was on higher education and frankly how little Duncan knows about higher education. In response to one question about using federal work-study funds to support tutoring programs for low-income students, he said that he had just learned about the federal work-study program and that he needs to learn more. Definitely.

Higher Education’s Supply-Demand Problem

Secondary education is moving towards a “college-education-for-all” mantra, yet higher education is not funded adequately to meet increased demand. Anthony Carnevale, the Director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, explains the problem in yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed:
"The scale of our public commitment to postsecondary education has outrun the scale of our public financing policies."
The result of under-funding higher education, according to Carnevale is swelling “second rate” public colleges characterized by increased class sizes, limited course offerings, little academic counseling, and rising tuitions and fees. The pressure on these colleges is immense, and right now, we mostly stand by as they buckle under the strain of increased demand and fail to adequately educate students.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Money Matters: Why Financial Literacy Education Shouldn’t Be Left to Suzie Orman

The New York Times recent “Debt Trap” series included some alarming statistics:

Schools and universities need to address the problem of American indebtedness by teaching students basic financial concepts, including business math, balancing a checkbook, opening a savings account, avoiding credit card debt, and investing in the stock market.

A call for education, of course, shouldn’t minimize the need for more regulation. Banks shouldn’t be permitted to sign up consumers for mortgages that they can’t afford; credit card companies shouldn’t be allowed to charge $35 late fees; and universities shouldn’t be complicit in hawking credit card offers to students.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

"I'm Now Going to the Talk to the Millions of Schoolchildren Watching Today"

News reporters increasingly put the word “deeper” before the word “recession.” These are pessimistic times, making me miss the energy and enthusiasm of “Yes, We Can.”

Many schoolchildren will be tuning into the upcoming inauguration while at school, so I hope that Obama will speak very directly to kids, highlighting an anecdote of a young person embodying the “Yes, We Can” spirit and challenging all of us to contribute to the betterment of our communities and ourselves. Imagine hearing about a high school student running a neighborhood business, a middle student class reducing their school’s carbon footprint, or a college student running a middle school chess club. If done well, it will be a powerful moment in many schoolchildren’s lives. (Not as corny as it sounds here.)

For more inauguration speech ideas, check The Huffington Post and an op-ed in The Washington Post by the founders of the KIPP network.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Closing Time / A New York City High School Will Phase-Down

The NYCDoE will close Bayard Rustin High School for Humanities, a troubled large comprehensive high school on West 18th Street, in 2012, phasing-it down year-by-year until then.

InsideSchools says that many of the teachers leaving today looked depressed, and on GothamSchools, a student named Luke angrily denounces the DoE:
The school received a report grade of F, has had high teacher turnover, and was roiled by a Regents grading scandal--all things that make the closure seem inevitable. When schools close, it is sad for students, teachers, and staff, even those who support the closure. I visited Rustin on three occasions, barely getting to know the school, yet I still feel a sense of loss.

The shuttering of Rustin reminds me of a fantastic New Yorker article on the instability that befell students left in the lurch by the closing of a low-performing Denver high school. Many of the students profiled in The New Yorker article got lost in the transition, eventually dropping out, with Denver school officials explaining the tragedy as the “collateral damage” of school improvement.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Financial Aid / Shopping Around for the Best Deal

Financial aid is a big guessing game, the luck of the draw, one of the last great mysteries in life…You get the idea. With January as a big FAFSA month, I’ll take this time to explain why financial aid is so messy—why when a student asks how much college will cost them, it’s impossible to predict.

Universities have different sum totals of financial aid to award, based upon public financial aid dollars and the institution’s own allocation of resources to financial aid. In general, universities flush with resources shower financial aid grant dollars on admitted students while universities not so well-resourced offer admitted students much smaller packages weighted towards loans rather than grants.

In the last decade, elite higher education, buoyed by high investment returns and driven by competitive pressures to enroll high-achieving students, has pulled away from the rest of higher education in the quality of financial aid, with some schools like Harvard, Brown, UVa, and Penn offering free educations to low-income students. Kudos to these institutions!

In the world of non-elite higher education, many less well-endowed institutions have accelerated their use of merit-based scholarships to recruit students with high SAT scores, high grades, prized athletic talents, and sought-after diversity. In 1994, a survey by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors found that merit aid constituted 27% of all institutional aid funds, and need-based aid was 66%. In 2007, merit aid increased to 43% and need based aid shrank to 49%. With merit aid so sizable, “financial aid” is effectively a pricing strategy and enrollment management tool used to optimize the number of applications, matriculations, revenue, SAT score averages, and diversity.

What can students expect to get from the colleges to which they are admitted? It’s hard to tell, because it depends not only on their family finances and the cost of attendance but also their grades, test scores, extracurricular skills, and ultimately how attractive they are to the institutions to which they have applied. In other words, college is variably priced, and financial aid awards vary within many institutions for students of similar means.

In this environment of extreme differences in university financial aid resources and the acceleration of variable pricing, students benefit from applying to many institutions to see what aid award offers they get. Students need to shop around! The challenge is that seeking out a college education is a lot more time-consuming, stressful, and life-shaping than most other shopping exercises.

Friday, January 2, 2009

SAT Test Craziness / Taking the SAT Three, Four, Five Times (or Just Twice)

While the Class of 2009 is clicking “Refresh” on, The Times has turned its attention to the Class of 2010, the first to take the SAT under the new Score Choice policy that allows students to hide SAT scores from their college choices.

“In practice, it will add more anxiety, more confusion, more testing for those who can afford it and more coaching,” said Brad MacGowan, a college counselor at Newton North High School in suburban Boston and a longtime critic of the College Board and standardized testing.

The College Board spends much time on developing the pipeline of high-achieving students of modest means, but in this case, The College Board will not be changing its fee waiver policy, which allows low-income students to take the SAT for free twice. While Newton North students will be able to take the SAT three, four, five, even six time, low-income students will be capped at two free administrations.

When The College Board does the equivalent of sticking its foot in its mouth, I understand why many school counselors, not really aware of the content differences between the SAT and ACT, recommend that students jump ship on the SAT and choose the ACT.

School-University Pipeline will be on vacation until Tuesday, January 6th. Happy New Year! Better—and tanner—posts will return on Wednesday, January 7th!

Counting Down to the Common Application Deadline

The highly selective college application season for the Class of 2009 ended with a New Year’s Eve party at So many students were aiming to meet January 1st application deadlines that the Common App website experienced slow-downs on December 30th and 31st, sending students and parents into near-panic. There will always be procrastinators, especially among high school students! I wonder how the New Year's Day party compared to the New Year's Eve party.