Any long-time reader of this blog knows that we think preparing students for the academic rigors of post-secondary education is a critical ingredient in the college success equation. However, the financial barriers to college enrollment and completion can’t be underestimated by anyone (or any organization) serious about trying to increase the college completion rates in this country.

That’s why I found this column in the Hechinger Report by Chris Lehmann, the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, particularly moving. Lehmann says this was one of the best years yet for Science Leadership Academy when it came to college acceptances – and yet moving from acceptance to enrollment was an open question for many students due to issues with cost. Lehmann describes sitting with one student who had been accepted to her top-choice college, but was facing the prospect of taking on $200,000 in student loan debt in order to enroll – a loan burden that would require her to pay $1,500 a month until she was 52.

Lehmann argues that colleges have a moral responsibility to put together aid packages that allow students access to a college education – and the opportunity that comes with it – at a price that doesn’t saddle them with ruinous debt payments for decades after graduation.

Frankly, I think it’s a pretty fair argument. The professional world is increasingly weighted toward people with college degrees; limiting access to those degrees only to those who have significant financial resources is bound to create an even more financially polarized country than even the current state of affairs. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I think it’s an issue we can’t lose sight of as we work to ensure that all students are on a path to college success.

You don’t need me to tell you that college is expensive (and getting more so). To cover the cost, students are taking out staggering amounts of student loans that leave them, in some cases, with a college degree in one hand and a pseudo-mortgage payment in the other.

Needless to say, it’s hard for students to get a financial leg up if they’re throwing a disproportionate amount of their income at their student loans for the first 10 (or 20 or 30) years after they graduate. In Colorado, the state Legislature has come up with a novel proposal for how to help new graduates clear the obstacle of student loans while also building up the state’s talent pipeline in high-need areas.

In short, the state wants to give STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) businesses a tax credit of up to $200,000 a year if those businesses help their workers pay off student loans, up to a maximum of $5,000 per employee per year. There are a few caveats about what employees are eligible (including that it’s limited to workers making less than $60,000 a year), but it sounds like an interesting, win-win way to help students and the state’s economy.

While there’s no doubt that a student’s academic readiness for college plays a huge role in whether he will persist through to graduation, we shouldn’t underestimate the financial barriers to completion as well. Programs like the Colorado proposal not only help students with their loans but also provide incentives that can help align the college experience with the needs of the workforce.

This week, we released an essay written by our Senior Field Consultant, Larry Stanton. The essay, titled “Doing It Your Way: Building a Strong SEA SIG Application,” focuses on the recently released updated School Improvement Grant (SIG) rules. State education agencies (SEAs) have until April 15, 2015, to submit their updated applications to the federal government. See below for a snippet of the essay, which provides advice for SEAs on these applications gleaned from four years of work with SEAs, and click here to read the full essay!


State education agency (SEA) leaders can no longer complain that the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) transformation model is too easy and the turnaround and restart models are too hard. In February 2015, with some prodding from Congress, USDOE responded to complaints about the models by essentially saying, “OK, do it your way.” By adding a planning year, inviting states to propose a state-determined model, extending the maximum grant term to five years and encouraging more local education agency (LEA) involvement in SIG schools, USDOE is giving SEAs the opportunity to describe “their way” in their applications for Sec. 1003(g) School Improvement Grant (SIG) funding due on April 15th.
This opportunity raises a handful of questions for SEAs: What should they be thinking about as they build their applications for SIG funding to USDOE? Should we develop a state-determined model? What should happen during a planning year? How do we get schools and LEAs to choose a model aligned with school needs? Based on our experience working on school improvement with 15 SEAs over the past four years, we encourage states to consider the following ideas contained in this essay.

While there’s been a lot of attention paid this week to a just-released OECD report on gender gaps, I found myself captivated by another OECD report, the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS).The results from the 2013 survey were released last year, but I just stumbled upon them thanks to a webinar hosted by the American Institutes for Research.

The TALIS 2013 was a survey of junior high teachers (roughly grades seven through nine) from 34 participating OECD countries. They were asked about topics such as classroom conditions, professional development, teacher appraisal and feedback, and teacher job satisfaction.

The first interesting thing about this survey isn’t even one of the findings. It’s that, alone among the 34 participating educational systems, the U.S. failed to achieve the response rate required by the TALIS data standards. The U.S. results were deemed to be valid enough to be reported – but not to be included in the international average or any of the indices in the TALIS database. I’m not sure exactly what conclusion to draw from this – U.S. teachers have less time than their international counterparts? Less interest in international surveys? – but it stood out to me.

Other interesting tidbits from the report:

  • U.S. teachers spend the most time actually teaching: 26.8 hours a week, or almost 60 percent of their overall work week. (At the other end of the spectrum? Norway, where teachers only spend 15 (!) hours teaching each week.)
  • While more than nine out of 10 U.S. teachers participated in some type of professional development within the last year, the bulk of that PD took the form of courses or workshops, or education conferences. Relatively few U.S. teachers (13.3 percent) conducted observation visits to other schools; this is below the international average (19 percent) and well under countries like Japan (51.4 percent) and Iceland (52.1 percent).
  • A lot of U.S. teachers report they are satisfied with their jobs – 89.1 percent – but only a third of them said they thought the teaching profession was valued in society. Interestingly, they were above the international average on that, but well below countries like Finland (58.6 percent) and Korea (66.5 percent).

There are a lot more figures to explore in the findings from this survey. I highly recommend you check it out to learn a bit more about how U.S. teachers are viewing their profession these days.

Congratulations to all of my fellow Boston-area commuters on surviving another week! While I’m hoping against hope that the storm forecast for this weekend gives us a pass, it’s looking likely that I’ll be stuck inside again. If you’re in the same boat, pass the time by checking out some of the most interesting things I read this week.

Rich School, Poor School: Looking Across the College Access Divide (NPR): The juxtaposition of two very different schools in the Detroit area: Cranbrook Schools, the $30,000-a-year alma mater of Mitt Romney, and Osborn Collegiate Academy of Math, Science and Technology, a public school that enrolls many students who could be the first in their families to attend college. This story highlights the growing disparity in the level of college counseling high school students receive. Not surprisingly, wealthier, suburban schools (not to mention private schools) tend to have more counselors and/or counselors with more training and experience; poor urban and rural schools are more likely to have counselors overburdened by large caseloads and with little formal training in college admissions. What does this mean? The students who need the most help navigating an increasingly complex college admissions process get the least assistance – which can exacerbate the already troubling income-based gaps in post-secondary achievement (see more on that in this story from last week’s weekend reads).

Saving School Choice without Undermining Poor Communities (The Atlantic): Chief among the many contentious issues in the NCLB reauthorization debate is whether federal funds for low-income students (i.e., Title I funding) should be “portable” – allowed to follow students to schools they choose. Republicans are largely in the let-the-funds-go-with-the-students camp, while most Democrats take the opposite position (shocker). Research has shown that reducing socioeconomic isolation – the effect that’s created when low-income students attend a school that enrolls almost entirely other low-income students –is more effective at improving the academic performance of low-income students than keeping them enrolled in a high-poverty school but spending more money on them. Given that, the article argues that structuring portable Title I funding so that it encourages wealthier public schools to recruit low-income students could reduce economic segregation and lead to larger improvements in student outcomes. I’m not entirely sure I buy the argument (what happens to the students left behind at the low-income schools? Do they all transfer? More details needed.) but it’s certainly an interesting read.

The Promise and Failure of Community Colleges (The New York Times): Community colleges have been getting a lot of attention recently, what with President Obama’s proposal to give students two years of community college for free. This article agrees with the president that community colleges have a lot of promise as a pathway to middle class stability for the huge percentage of American students who have neither the money nor the grades to go right to a four-year university. However, what Obama’s proposal ignores (or at least skirts around) is that community colleges aren’t doing a very good job at fulfilling that promise: only 35 percent of community college students attain a degree with six years, and the graduation rates have been declining over the past decade, according to the article. While the real solution to this problem probably lies in high schools or even earlier in the academic trajectory, the articles argues against giving up on community colleges, pointing to a successful experiment at City University of New York that doubled the three-year graduation rate for the most disadvantaged students.


As the debate over the Common Core and Common Core-aligned tests rages on, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education has entered the fray with a new report that compares the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS – the standardized test created by the landmark Massachusetts Education Reform Act – with the PARCC assessment. The report looks to answer one key question: which test does a better job of determining whether kids are “college- and career-ready”?

The – somewhat cautious and hedged – answer is the PARCC, according to the report. To be fair to MCAS, the report acknowledged that the test wasn’t designed for that purpose; it was merely intended to assess whether students were proficient on the state’s 10th grade English language arts and math standards. PARCC, born as it was in an era of heightened focus on college success, is explicitly designed (at the high school level) to assess against college- and career-ready standards. Also unlike MCAS, which was designed and rolled out in bits and pieces, PARCC is being built all at once, which makes it easier to ensure that the elementary and middle-school exams are vertically aligned and do a good job at gauging a student’s progress against those college- and career-ready standards. The report does acknowledge that it’s a little bit difficult to judge PARCC as the first full-scale administration has yet to happen and much of what we know about the test is what it promises not what it actually does.

The MBAE released the report in the hopes of informing the discussion in the months leading up to the Massachusetts Board of Education’s decision next fall on which assessment to use in Massachusetts schools. It should be a very interesting issue to follow.

For more on the MBAE report, check out this post from EdWeek.

With the whole East Coast buried under historic amounts of snow (or possibly buried – I’m writing this Monday, so I suppose the storm could have diverted!), there’s going to be a lot of shoveling going on today. And since the best part of shoveling is warming up afterwards with a mug of hot chocolate and something good to read, here are three reports worth checking out on your snow day:

Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success (Association of American Colleges and Universities)
The results of a survey of both senior executives and college students about what skills and knowledge college graduates need to succeed in the workplace (and whether, in fact, college students do possess those skills and knowledge when they graduate) found pretty strong alignment between the two groups on the importance of key learning outcomes and the applied learning experiences. However, while 74 percent of students think college and universities are doing a good job preparing them for entry-level positions, only 44 percent of employers think the same.

Breaking Down Walls: Increasing Access to Four-Year Colleges for High-Achieving Community College Students (Jack Kent Cooke Foundation)
Structural barriers at both two-year and four-year institutions make it difficult for community college students to go on to complete a four-year degree, even for those students who have demonstrated success at their community colleges, according to this report. Making it easier to students to transfer – and giving those students the support they need to be successful – would give four-year colleges access to a pool of high-performing applicants and would allow more students to fulfill their academic potential, according to the report.

The Seat Pleasant 59 (Washington Post)
This three-part series in the Washington Post from a few years back is well-worth a read. It’s about a group of students who in 1988 were fifth graders at Seat Pleasant Elementary, a school serving one of Prince George’s County’s poorest neighborhoods, when two wealthy businessmen promised to pay for their college educations. The series documents what happened to these students, who were, essentially, part of a social experiment.

Happy 2015! Due to some scheduling changes, our post on the edu-trends to watch out for in the coming year has been postponed a week. In the meantime, however, I wanted to highlight an interesting article that I came across in the NY Times on teaching trends in higher education science courses.

As we’ve written about on the blog before, there is a looming STEM shortage in this country: more jobs requiring STEM skills and knowledge, and not enough highly skilled STEM graduates in the pipeline. There are many factors playing into this shortage, but one issue is that many of the students who start college on a path to a STEM major don’t stay the course. According to the NY Times article, 28 percent of students at four-year colleges start out in a science, engineering or math major, but only 16 percent of bachelor’s degrees are granted in those areas.

The article highlights colleges and universities that are trying to do something about that attrition rate by changing the way introductory science classes are taught, shifting from a traditional “chalk and talk” approach to a style that emphasizes student engagement and small groups. While it sounds like it is still early days for this new style, there is some evidence that it could have a positive effect on student learning: the University of Colorado reported in 2008 that, among students in an introductory physics course, those that participated in the “transformed” classes improved their scores by 50 percent more than those in traditional classes, according to the NY Times article.

A change in teaching style at the post-secondary level isn’t likely to solve the STEM shortage all by itself, but it’s certainly an interesting approach to ponder.

This month, we continue our news round-up feature with a recap of election results and their potential impact on education.


Last month, Americans turned out to vote in the 2014 midterm elections. As the results rolled in, we learned that at the federal level, Republicans maintained control of the House and won control of the Senate. At the state level, a handful of historically blue states (including Illinois and Massachusetts) elected Republican governors. And in states with elected state education chiefs, the majority of elections resulted in wins for Common Core opponents (see EdWeek’s coverage of the chiefs’ races state-by-state here).

What does this mean? In terms of the U.S. House and Senate, it could end gridlock, though depending on your political stance that could be good or bad. Most notably for the education world, with the Republicans claiming a majority in the Senate, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is poised to become the next chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

We rounded up a few video and written forecasts on what the elections will mean for education come January:

  • Barely one week after the elections, EdWeek hosted a day of panels and speakers, sharing expert opinions on the potential impact of the elections over the next few years. Click here for an archive of panel videos.
  • Similarly, the Alliance for Excellent Education hosted a panel the week of the elections, with a spin that policy wonks may find especially interesting. Click here for a transcript and video of the panel.
  • Meanwhile, at U.S. News, Rick Hess and Mike McShane summed up the potential impact on education as a loss for unions (with the exception of California), and ponder the meaning of the silence on the Common Core in many candidates’ campaign platforms. Click here for the full post.


Last summer, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released a report on teacher preparation programs, finding that very few rate high on a five-star scale.  Now, the organization is out with a new report, entitled Easy A’s and What’s Behind Them, that finds the rigor we expect to find in children’s classrooms across the country is missing from the programs that train the teachers who will stand in the front of those classrooms every day. Specifically, the types of assignments – typically opinion-based rather than founded in critical thinking – that lead to higher grades are far more common in teacher preparation courses than in courses for any other major across more than 500 colleges and universities studied. In fact, the report notes that in almost 300 (58%) of the institutions studied, grading standards for teacher preparation programs are far more lenient than for other majors on the same campus. As a result, many students in teacher preparation programs are leaving college and going into the classroom unprepared.

The report offers recommendations that sound very similar to what a school partner might recommend to the principal of a struggling school: identify common standards so children are being graded fairly; listen to teachers to ensure coursework is strong and criterion-referenced as opposed to solely opinion-based.

Standards” is becoming an increasingly prevalent word in the education world. Let’s make sure it applies not only to the classrooms in which teachers teach, but also to the programs that prepare our future teachers.

The economy is expected to add about 1 million new STEM jobs by 2022, yet the U.S. has one of the lowest ratios of STEM to non-STEM bachelor’s degrees in the world.  That’s a serious STEM shortage, according to an issue brief released last week by Public Impact. The report mirrors a point we’ve written about before: that it’s widely argued that the U.S. educational system is simply not churning out enough highly qualified STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates to meet the needs of U.S. employers.

Why is this? Students aren’t being adequately prepared by our K-12 systems to pursue STEM degrees once they land in college, according to Public Impact.

Again, why? Public Impact posits that one big reason is a serious lack of skilled STEM teachers – and the numbers it cites are pretty compelling:

  • Twenty-five thousand new STEM teachers are needed every year – and yet fewer than 9,000 highly qualified high school students say they have any interest in going into teaching.
  • Only 10 percent of education majors in the bottom 25 percent of university education schools are taking the courses they need to teach middle school math – and yet that same pool of education schools produces 60 percent of middle school math teachers.
  • In 2013, only 30 percent of eighth graders had math teachers who had majored in math.
  • More than 40 percent of high school STEM teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

Lots of people and groups recognize these troubling statistics and are trying to do something about them, including the 100Kin10 collaborative (of which Mass Insight Education is a partner), which aims to get 100,000 STEM teachers into U.S. classrooms within a decade.

Public Impact’s proposed solution is the creation of what they call an Opportunity Culture – developing new models that redesign jobs or use technology to attract more highly qualified candidates into STEM teaching jobs and then to place those teachers into high-leverage situations where they interact with a large number of students.

We’re excited to see where Opportunity Culture has proven success and then how replicable the approach is. The success of our AP/STEM program stems in part from exposing more students to a rigorous AP curriculum – but also from allowing high-quality AP teachers to reach more students. It’s encouraging to learn about other initiatives that, coupled with our own, could put more students on a path to postsecondary success and increase the number of qualified STEM graduates.

This month, we’re holding off on our news round-up until after Election Day (remember to get out and vote!).

Instead, today’s post will focus on an event Mass Insight Education hosted last week for its College Success Communities.


Last week, we hosted a convening for six of our College Success Communities (CSCs) from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Louisiana. Participating districts brought teams that included teachers, school faculty and administration, district leadership, and community members (e.g. local university leadership or school committee members). Over the course of two days, the teams spent time learning how to work together as a team, improving their ability to engage the public in their reform efforts and – most importantly – developing strategies and action-oriented plans for preparing their students for post-secondary success.

By the end of the two-day event, we realized a few things:

  • First, change is not easy. However, when people are given the opportunity to step away from the everyday churn of their districts, it becomes a lot easier for them to escape the constraints of the status quo and, especially with an array of stakeholders at the table, to strategize a way around everyday obstacles.
  • Second, these particular groups of stakeholders very rarely (if ever) have the time to sit down together and spend time thinking as a group. At our event, teams were given the opportunity to examine student achievement data in a group that most likely had never done so together prior to last week. As a result, teams were able to see patterns in the data they hadn’t before, allowing them to identify major areas for growth and plan around where students needed the most support, whether increasing test scores in the middle grades or gaining the skills necessary to persist in college.
  • Lastly, communication and public engagement are extremely important in local education initiatives. Unfortunately, there often isn’t enough time for leadership, teachers, and the community to come together and get on message. When polled on the importance of community engagement and communication, participants rated it an average of 8.8 out of 10, with 10 being the most important. But when we moved into a discussion about how they implemented communications practices, we heard a lot of qualifiers such as, “when there’s time…” or “in theory….” Out of this discussion, the group as a whole came to the conclusion that telling a story of why a school or district is making certain decisions is incredibly important. Even if there isn’t explicit time in a principal or superintendent’s schedule, they can still have an impact by ensuring that everyone is speaking the same language when engaging the public and telling the story.

Overall, working with and listening to the CSC district teams over the two days showed us that there is a lot of excellent work going on in districts across Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Louisiana. It also showed us the importance of engaging a wide range of stakeholders in planning for a district’s future. We are glad to have been able to provide that opportunity to our CSC teams.