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.

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.

MCAS or PARCC?

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.

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.

Did you know that community colleges across the U.S. enroll more undergraduates than any other post-secondary sector? Nationally, 42 percent of undergraduates in 2012-2013 were enrolled in community colleges. During the 2012-2013 school year, there were 10 states in which 50 percent or more of undergraduate students were enrolled in community colleges, according to a research brief produced by RTI International for The Completion Arch. The Completion Arch is a web-based tool, launched by RTI International this fall, that captures data on the progress and success of community college students.

Clearly community colleges are a critical segment of the post-secondary landscape in the U.S. Yet according to data on The Completion Arch, in 2012 the national three-year graduation rate* was less than 25 percent. The Completion Arch argues that six-year completion rates – which capture students who attained a certificate, an associate’s degree, or a bachelor’s degree within six years after starting at a community college – is a better measure, since it captures students who are enrolled part-time or not enrolled continuously. That rate is slightly better, at 34 percent, but still (I would argue) much too low. (An additional 11 percent of students successfully transferred to a four-year institution, where they were either still enrolled or had left.)

The Completion Arch offers a tremendous amount of data on a state-by-state basis, which makes for really interesting browsing. I hadn’t realized until reading through the data that community colleges accounted for such a significant percentage of the country’s undergraduate enrollment – nor had I realized what variation there was in enrollment from state to state. Given what a significant role community colleges are clearly playing, it’s critical to reach a better understanding of how students enroll and progress toward graduation – or don’t! – in order to achieve our overarching goal of College Success. The Completion Arch seems like a much-needed way to increase transparency into this topic.

*Three years represents 150 percent of the “normal time” (i.e., two years) to graduation

The Center for Education Policy released a new report last week capturing findings from a large-scale survey of district leaders on the Common Core State Standards and the implementation of those findings. The findings capture some real shifts among district leaders from the first CEP survey on CCSS back in 2011 and contain a mix of good and bad news.

The good news: Despite wavering public support, district leaders have largely embraced the new standards and believe they will lead to improved student skills. There is near universal agreement among district leaders that the Common Core standards are more rigorous than the standards previously in place in their states – a huge shift in opinion from 2011 when a slight majority felt that way.

There is also increasing recognition among district leaders that the new standards will require fundamental changes in instruction. Almost 90 percent of district leaders agreed about the need for a new approach to instruction in 2014, compared to just 50 percent in 2011.

The bad news: Implementation continues to be a challenge. Most districts will not hit major implementation milestones – implementing CCSS-aligned curricula, adequately preparing teachers to teach the CCSS, having the technological infrastructure to administer CCSS-aligned assessments – until this school year or even later. District leaders cited a number of reasons for these implementation challenges, including resources, time, and internal/external resistance, but it does look, based on these survey results, like many, many districts will not be able to get all the pieces in place before consequences kick in for student performance on CCSS-aligned tests.

Our take: As MIE President Justin Cohen pointed out in a blog post earlier this fall on the Common Core roll-out, while there have been substantive problems with the rollout of the standards, there have also been immense problems in communicating with the public about the shift. Had communication been better, district leaders might be better positioned today to take on the implementation.

There are a lot of other data points in the report, so it is well worth a read. CEP is also planning to release subsequent reports with additional findings from this survey on other aspects of district implementation, so keep an eye out.

Our monthly news roundup continues below with September’s highlights.

Boston gets first education chief. Early last month, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced Turahn Dorsey as the city’s first “chief of education.” The city’s mayors have typically had education advisors; however this is the first position of its kind.

“Education at a Glance 2014.” Findings from the OECD’s newest report are, as usual, pretty grim for the U.S. Among the major findings:

  • Other nations are outpacing the US’s higher education attainment growth rate;
  • The U.S. was one of only six countries to cut public spending for education between 2008 and 2011; and
  • S. teachers spend more time teaching in the classroom than teachers in other countries, though their salaries are not competitive with other nations.

Turnaround for kids. A new report out of The Ounce of Prevention recommends a new set of turnaround metrics to encourage earlier investment in school improvement. Based on the new proposed draft SIG guidelines, there may be a role for this in the next iteration of SIG.

Massachusetts launches a new college success conversation. Last week, we hosted a College Success Research Forum, at which we issued a call to action to commit to two goals for this year’s seventh graders: 1) double the number of low-income students graduating from college; and 2) double the numbers of students earning a STEM degree. Join the campaign now!

They exist, they just aren’t ready. A new report prepared by the FSG research group found that yes, the number of STEM graduates is growing, but a gap exists between the level of preparation these college graduates received and the skills that STEM employers require.

The most shocking thing I learned from the American Institutes for Research’s new report by Dr. Gary Phillips? The gap in expectations between states with the highest performance standards and those with the lowest standards is equivalent to three to four grade levels. That’s double the national achievement gap between white students and black students.

Unlike with achievement gaps, however, this expectations gap is a little harder to spot through a quick read of test results – and that’s because states with the lowest performance standards tend to have the highest proficiency rates, according to AIR’s report. If you set the bar really low, more students are going to get across it.

It is only by introducing a common scale – which AIR did by benchmarking the states’ performance standards against international standards – that it’s possible to truly compare proficiency rates from state to state. What AIR found when they did this was that states with the highest standards also had higher student performance.

Why is this important? As AIR puts it in their report, “The lack of transparency among state performance standards leads to a kind of policy jabberwocky: the word proficiency means whatever one wants it to mean. … This looks good for federal reporting requirements, but it denies students the opportunity to learn college and career readiness skills.”

According to AIR, the Common Core State Standards are a critical first step, but they are not sufficient to close the expectations gap. In addition to challenging content standards (i.e., what is taught), states also need to set consistently high performance standards (i.e., what is tested). Without the latter, states will still be able to post artificially high proficiency rates while graduating students who are not adequately prepared to be successful in college or career.

As AIR notes in its report, however, support for the Common Core State Standards has been eroding, and the number of states planning to conduct common assessments based on those standards has dropped precipitously. We’ve posted before (courtesy of Mass Insight Education President Justin Cohen) on the bumpy road of the Common Core roll-out – for a refresher on that post, click here.

And for more on the Common Core implementation, Learning First has been conducting a great series of podcasts with people who are working hard to get it right: give them a listen for some really interesting insights into the implementation process.