Requiring Quality in Our PreK Programs

What, exactly, is the future of the federal
investment in public education?
 
For months now, we have tried to cobble together an answer to that
question, using presidential campaign rhetoric, economic stimulus package
priorities, and now Presidential budget decisions to help us see where we are
headed as a nation.
   Since
assuming his position in late January, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has
provided us little more detail, sticking mostly to the talking points on
stimulus and education’s impact on the economy. 

But few seem to have a clear sense of what the
U.S. Department of Education has in store for the future, particularly the
reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
  The general agreement is that
reauthorization could happen as early as this fall and as late as the summer of
2010, but it is indeed coming.
  The
common logic is NCLB will stay relatively intact.
  Along the way, we hear about efforts in Washington, DC to
construct more comprehensive reading legislation (to replace Reading First) and
a framework for national standards (expected to be delivered by Achieve to
Duncan in the coming weeks), but where, exactly, will our future priorities
lie?

Recently, Duncan and his lieutenants have been
focusing on four key policy pillars on which the new U.S. Department of
Education is constructed.
  First,
implementation of college and career-ready standards and assessments.
  Second, creation of comprehensive data
systems that track students throughout their education career and track
teachers back to schools of education to better understand which programs are
producing teachers that make a difference.
  Third, recruitment, preparation, and reward of outstanding
teachers, paying more to teachers who work in tough schools.
  And finally, turn around of chronically
underperforming schools.

What figured prominently during President Obama’s
campaign – but what seems to be missing from the core tenets – is early
childhood education.
  Early and
often, Obama campaigned on the notion of a strong national commitment to early
childhood education.
  Instead of
just focusing on access and an expansion of current programs, the President
seemed focused on committing to quality just as much as he committed to
quantity.
  The talk was not
universal preK; the rhetoric was high-quality preK.

But what, precisely, is high-quality early
childhood education?
  For decades
now, many have viewed the 800-pound gorilla in the ECE room – Head Start – as
being little more than glorified babysitting.
  Instead of using the time to help disadvantaged or
low-income students get a jump start on their academic futures, Head Start just
focuses on the “social” aspects.
 
We make our youngest learners more comfortable with existing in a
learning environment.
  The
pre-reading and pre-math skills such learners needed simply come once they
officially entered kindergarten – and entered miles behind their academically better-off
peers.

In recent years, we have watched the universal
preK movement transform from the hare into the tortoise.
  Supporters of universal preK have
watched new plans ground to a halt and have seen existing programs slowed or
scaled back, all because of a smaller pot of resources going education
needs.
  Smaller state budgets,
caused by less-than-planned real estate taxes, have forced some tough decisions
when it comes to public education.
 
And early childhood education was one of the first on the chopping
block.

Last month, the Pew Center of the States
released
Leadership Matters: Governors’ Pre-K Proposals Fiscal Year 2010.  Looking at recent education budgets
proposed by the current state chief executives, Pew found that our greatest
fears are likely not going to be realized (unless state legislatures have
anything to do with it).
  Despite
our states’ economic struggles, 14 states are proposing increases in early
childhood education investment.
 
Thirteen states are proposing to level fund programs.  And three states are looking to
establish preK efforts where there currently are none.
  All told, our nation’s governors intend
to boost FY2010 investment in early childhood education by 4 percent over
2009’s commitments.

The Pew study only tells half the story,
though.
  The other 50 percent still
has yet to be written.
  Sixty
percent of our states are looking to start, continue, or strengthen their
investment in preK.
  But what are
they investing in?
  How do we
ensure that we are investing in high-quality early childhood education?
  How do we measure return on investment
in preK?
  How do we make sure our
youngest learners are gaining the academic building blocks needed to succeed
throughout their academic careers, overcoming some of the learning gaps that
have long dogged disadvantaged students and have long dug a deep scholastic
trench between the haves and have nots?

The doubting Thomases would say one cannot truly
quantify results in early childhood education.
  But we know that to simply be incorrect.  When it comes to pre-reading, we know
the letter recognition and vocabulary skills three- and four-year olds can gain
to prepare them for the research-based K-4 reading instruction that will
transform them into proficient, confident readers.
  We know the numeracy that all students need to know to
maximize the start of their K-12 experience.
  And we know the core skills all students require to be ready
to learn when they pass through those kindergarten doors for the first time.

So what, then, does quality look like?  We can turn our gaze to two unlikely
places – Washington, DC and Texas – to provide us some real insight into
high-quality, effective preK instruction.
 
In Washington, the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation,
through the DC Partnership for Early Literacy, is working in some of our
nation’s capital’s lowest-income communities, yet posting significant gains on
student early reading achievement.
 
Based on standardized, nationally normed assessments, AppleTree students
gained 21 percentile points in vocabulary proficiency, placing them higher than
the national norm and more than doubling the gains demonstrated by students in
DC Head Start classrooms.
  Among
AppleTree’s lowest 50 percent of students, learners posted even more impressive
gains – 26 percentile points, nearly tripling typical Head Start results while
working with students from similar demographics.

In Texas, the Children’s Learning Institute,
through its Texas Early Education Model (TEEM), is now working with more than
61,000 young learners across 38 communities in the Lone State State.
  There, students are achieving and
demonstrating progress in key literacy skills, including phonological
awareness, rapid letter naming, and vocabulary development.

These two programs are not merely the exceptions
to the rule.
  They are worth
acknowledging for two reasons.
 
First, they are demonstrating results.  Both AppleTree and TEEM help define what high-quality early
childhood education is, how we can measure it, and the sort of results we
should expect from effective preK.
 
More importantly, though, both programs also demonstrate that our
youngest learners can benefit from the same policy pillars that Secretary
Duncan is putting in place for our K-12 systems.

In early childhood education, we also see that
standards and assessments are key, particularly if we expect to demonstrate and
measure the results that define quality.
 
In ECE, we also see that data systems are key, providing educators and
policymakers the information necessary to bridge three-year-old programs to
four-year-old programs to kindergarten and beyond.
  In ECE, we know that effective teachers are the key to a
quality program, and early childhood educators must be well trained, well
supported, and constantly encouraged to improve their practice and improve
their knowledgebase.
  And in ECE,
we know that our most disadvantaged students – those from historically
underperforming neighborhoods – are the kids that most benefit and most need a
high-quality, academically focused preK experience.

Nationally, we believe that every child should
have access to a high-quality education.
 
We believe that student achievement is king, and all learners should be
proficient and should be able to demonstrate that proficiency, both in the
classroom and on state and national assessments.
  We believe that a strong public education is the gateway to
a strong future, both for the individual and society.
  And we believe, or should, that we must hold our systems
accountable for the quality and effectiveness of the education they deliver.

Such belief systems should not be restricted to
our K-12 systems, or even more narrowly construed for grades 3-8 when we
measure AYP.
  If we expect to
transform every child into a successful learner, we also need to implement the
quality, accountability, and teacher effectiveness into our preK systems.
  As our states look to invest in the
future of early childhood education, as the Pew Center indicates, we need to
make sure this money is going toward good programs that demonstrate true
ROI.
  We need to look at programs
like TEEM, AppleTree, and others to guide our decisions.
  Demanding early childhood education is
no longer enough.
  We should be
demanding quality – and results – for our youngest learners as well.
 


Let’s leave the babysitting to teenagers seeking
some extra spending money.
  Our
early childhood education programs should be focused on providing the academic
frameworks that empower even the most disadvantaged of students to achieve in a
school setting.



ARRA: Rise of the Charters

Can one make lasting improvement working solely within the confines of the status quo?  That seems to be the question the US Department of Education, particularly EdSec Arne Duncan, is asking as additional details on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and our federal education policy come into crisper focus.

In recent weeks, the education community has “discovered” that ARRA included language requiring states to boost their charter school cap, essentially requiring the expansion of charter offerings if states want access to all of the new economic stimulus money.  Couple the details of ARRA with recent speeches by Duncan and hires of those with backgrounds that include organizations such as the NewSchool Venture Fund, and we are starting to see that the limits of the status quo simply will not hold.
Today, the EdSec went all in on the topic.  Addressing the media on how to turnaround our lowest performing schools, Duncan cited the value of “real autonomy for charters combined with a rigorous authorization process and high performance standards.”  Among the stats used by ED this afternoon:
* 10 states currently do not have laws allowing charter schools;
* 26 states put artificial caps on the number of public charter schools (with President Obama calling on states to lift those caps);
* The Maine state legislature is debating a bill to establish a pilot program for its first charter schools (though this afternoon’s headlines looked like the legislature would reject the proposal and risk losing its education stimulus dollars); and
* Tennessee refuses to lift its charter enrollment restrictions while Indiana is considering a moratorium on new charter schools.
And that status quo question?  Duncan seemed to answer that this afternoon as well.  “I am advocating for using whatever models work for students, and particularly where improvements have stagnated for years,” Duncan said.  “We cannot continue to do that same thing and expect different results.  We cannot let another generation of children be deprived of their civil right to a quality education.”
While one has to question Duncan’s definition of insanity to be used as a justification for expanding our charter laws, he does have a point.  And all this talk is bound to generate a great of attention, particularly with the positive press generated by charters like KIPP and the Gates Foundation’s likely intention to provide a $125 million “deep dive” into a “network of charter schools” in the Los Angeles area (can we all say Green Dot?).  The real challenge, then, for Duncan, Obama, Gates, and others is to ensure that this is not an either-or situation.
In the early days of the charter debate, opponents of public charter schools fought the good fight, accusing school districts of looking to replace traditional public schools with these new charters.  Over time, we have witnessed that the best of our charter schools are in communities where they complement the traditional publics.  Strong charters, with strong accountability, offer greater opportunity.  They can raise quality.  They increase choice.  And, if held to high standards, they contribute to student achievement gains and can be a useful lever in turning around our lowest performing school districts.  They can also give families and students a choice in communities where previous choice was between one failing school and another.
Ultimately, the EdSec is right in seeking to include charter schools in our Race to the Top funds.  if we are to turn around persistently underperforming schools, we need to do something different.  We can’t simply pump more dollars into historically troubled schools and expect that student achievement will improve.  After all, we’ve tried that approach for decades now.  How has it worked so far?
But we also must recognize that charters are not the magical elixir that will aid any district in need.  We can point to plenty of school districts with liberal charter policies but poor student achievement (just look at our nation’s capital).  Charters work when they take a firm line with regard to structure, expectations, and accountability.  Such a line isn’t for everyone.  Too often, we make compromises, offering charter schools destined for many of the same failings their traditional publics are suffering through.  If the Race to the Top is going to work, we need new ideas and new approaches.  But we also need the research and accountability behind them to ensure success.  Otherwise, we will keep throwing good money after bad, doing more of the same and expecting a different outcome.  With the stakes as high as they are, that, my friends, really is insanity.
 
   
 

Tale of “The New Global Student”

At Eduflack, we spent A LOT of time talking about the education continuum.  How do we ensure that the educational pathways we are offering today’s students will lead to tomorrow’s jobs?  What do we do in middle school to bolster one’s chances of graduating from high school?  What do we do in high school to show more students they are capable of college-level work?  How do we ensure that virtually all students are equipped with the postsecondary learning necessary to secure a good job in our 21st century economy?

Along the way, we talk about a great number of issues, including dual enrollment, early college, 21st century skills, and STEM education.  We look at programs like IB and AP.  We even try to advocate for stronger measurements and greater accountability to ensure that our students are gaining the skills and knowledge they need to compete, regardless of their race, socioeconomic status, or Zip code.
During the past year, Eduflack has developed an online relationship with a voice bringing a vastly different opinion to the discussion on the P-16 continuum.  I’ve found her ideas interesting, but not nearly as fascinating as the personal narrative.  For those who don’t know Maya Frost, you have to first learn the family story.  Back in 2005, Maya and her husband decided it was time for a change.  Both were working good jobs, but they weren’t breaking six figures in combined income.  They seemed tired of the rat race and yearned for something a little different.  So they “decided to sell everything and move abroad.”  Nothing altogether strange about that.  From time to time, even Eduflack has considered just dropping all of this, moving the Grand Cayman Island, and opening up a gourmet cupcake shop for natives and tourists alike.
The catch here is that Maya had four teenage daughters at the time.  For most of us, that would be the roadblock to prevent the “dream.” What about school?  What about the SATs and getting ready for college?  How do you navigate college visits?  What about the prom?  All logical questions from naysayers like me.  But it didn’t stop the Frosts.  They picked up an moved to South America anyway, seeing it as a family adventure.  And the resultant story is a fascinating one.
This month, Three River Press released Maya’s book about the process — “The New Global Student: Skip the SAT, Save Thousands on Tuition, and Get a Truly International Education.”  The book is an incredible read, providing great stories, good guidance, and a different view on how we really prepare our kids for the future.  Maya has gone with the tagline “Good-bye Old School, Hello Bold School,” and when you read her story, you understand how appropriate the line is for her story and her recommendations.
But what about those poor four Frost girls, the ones ripped from their cozy American high schools and forced into a South American world of intrigue, new experiences, and the great unknown?  They have managed to get by.  The oldest graduated from college at 19 and has worked for the Gates Foundation and as a health educator.  At 22, she’s wrapping up her master’s in public health while working at a community health clinic in Harlem.  Daughter two has studied in numerous countries, earned her BA in the United States at the age of 20 and is working at two internships in the communications field (yeah!).  Daughter three used a number of learning opportunities, including private tutors and lessons, and will earn a dual major bachelor’s degree at the age of 19.  Daughter four never actually attended high school, but has used her learning experiences to earn a scholarship, a teaching assistantship, and two years of college credit at a NY IHE, and she is just 17 years old.
Few of us would ever have the, er, stomach to do the sort of thing that Maya and her family did.  But in reading The New Global Student, one can see how it is possible if one really wants to.  It doesn’t take a trust fund.  It doesn’t take a network of experts and tutors to guide you along the way.  It doesn’t require friends in high places to make sure you can “explain the situation” to American universities.  It just takes a little work, flexibility, exploration, and a whole lot of embracing of the unknown.  It also take an unbending positive attitude, of which Maya is a textbook definition.
Such options are hardly for anyone.  In fact, I would say it takes a very special family to be able to do what the Frosts did and do it as well as they did.  And I am thrilled it has been particularly successful for the four girls.  Whether it is the unworn path you truly seek or are justing looking for a new perspective on the silliness of helicopter parents, violin lessons for first graders, and hyper-competitiveness for slots in NYC preschools, The New Global Student is worth a read.  It provides an interesting perspective on what parents can do to provide their children learning opportunities, particularly beyond the confines of the walls of the traditional red brick schoolhouse.
 

How the ARRA Times Change

Just a few short months ago, educators with brimming with enthusiasm about the potential economic stimulus funding would offer.  We talked about those new programs that could be pursued.  We discussed how existing efforts could be broadened and expanded.  We dreamed about the possibilities of doing using the “startup” money found in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to do new things designed to spark innovation in the classroom and long-term academic improvement in the student.

Lately, reality has set in.  We’re seeing that most education stimulus moneys are likely going to pay for existing programs and existing teacher salaries, not to buy new books or acquire some new technology that could be the missing link between proficient and not.  And as the folks over at Politics K-12 have been reporting, some states are really struggling to get in those basic applications demonstrating how the State Fiscal Stabilization Funds (the $44 billion that is already at the mid-point of distribution to the states) is being spend by SEAs across the nation.  With state budgets on a steady decline, state decisionmakers are having difficulty determining which existing programs warrant the life preserver that is ARRA, particularly those efforts aimlessly floating through our K-12 systems.
Before the stimulus legislation was signed into law, states like Virginia got even more ambitious, developing websites before the ARRA money was even signed into law, soliciting proposals and applications from organizations and individuals across the state focused on how they could use stimulus dollars to boost the economy and make a difference for the state’s long-term prosperity.  Other states followed suit, and in education, many a school district was asked to develop their wish lists on how the money would be spent.
Now, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine is sending the following to all those not-for-profits, corporations, and individuals who had ideas on how this new money could be used in innovative and new ways, adhering to both the letter and the intent of ARRA:

Thank you for your interest in funding available to Virginia through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Both transparency and accountability are core requirements of ARRA-and I am pleased to update you on the Commonwealth’s progress on projects and proposals related to the Recovery Act.

 

As you may know, my administration launched stimulus.virginia.gov earlier this year to gather project ideas from individuals, groups, and localities for potential funding through ARRA. Between February 10 and the March 6 submission deadline, more than 9,100 project proposals totaling $465.6 billion were suggested through the website. Since then, these proposals have been sorted and sent to the appropriate Cabinet Secretariat for evaluation.

 

Virginia‘s General Assembly incorporated ARRA program funding that is administered by agencies into the state budget and directed it to specific activities. The Recovery Act alsoincreased funding to existing federal programs rather than allowing states to fund projects from a large discretionary fund. As a result, what little discretionary ARRA funding that existed was used by the General Assembly to address Virginia‘s projected budget shortfall. While these decisions around ARRA and the state budget-which I signed into law on March 30-are continuing to ease the economic downturn in the Commonwealth, they also mean there is no discretionary funding available to dedicate to specific projects.

 

Currently, under each Cabinet Secretariat
, state agencies are working with their federal counterparts to implement ARRA funding for programs ranging from education to 
water quality, totransportation, to energy. These programs require that all project ideas meet specific criteria and be formally submitted through traditional federal funding processes. In most cases, these processes are now complete and work is ready to begin. Most of the projects that were funded via traditional federal measures were submitted as a project idea.

 

Although there are many other project ideas that could contribute to our economic recovery, a number of proposals we’ve received-including private business investment and tax reduction-fall outside the scope of ARRA funding provided to the Commonwealth.

 

I strongly encourage you to monitor the stimulus.virginia.gov website for information on projects being funded by the ARRA and to explore potential opportunities through the competitive grants process. Some projects submitted through stimulus.virginia.gov not selected for ARRA funds may be eligible to apply for a competitive grant directly from a federal agency.

 

Thank you again for your input. I always appreciate hearing from citizens of the Commonwealth and will take your thoughts and proposals into consideration as we work to get our economy back on track through ARRA. Please do not hesitate to contact me via my web form, and find out more about my initiatives on my web site at www.governor.virginia.gov.

 

Sincerely,

Timothy M. Kaine

Governo
r of the 
Commonwealth of Virginia

Please note that the bold for emphasis is not coming from Eduflack, it is coming from Governor Kaine himself.  In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the economic stimulus package does not provide for any discretionary funding for specific projects.  That’s policy-speak for every dime of money is being plowed into existing programs already codified on the books.  In education, that means that the same programs that Virginians to a whopping 34 percent proficiency on the eighth grade NAEP are the same programs now gaining additional funding (and expected to propel us into the promise land of student success and opportunity).
It is hard to find fault with just Kaine here.  He is a lame-duck governor, with his term completed in six short months.  He was given a bad budget and had to do the best with what he could, both in original negotiations and in the veto session.  And it is a shame that a governor who entered office three and a half years ago with a strong plan for universal preK has been stymied every step of the way by a part-time Legislature that just didn’t agree, and then was hamstrung by the bottom falling out of his state’s budget, particularly those tax receipts that looked so rosy at the start of the term.
 
I recognize this is only Virginia, but these decisions are likely being made by states across the union.  New money is being pumped into the status quo.  New dollars are being thrown into ineffective programs.  All because it is easier to fund what which is on the books versus identify better ways to change horses and fund new discretionary efforts that could make a difference.
Or perhaps we’re just waiting for the Race to the Top and Innovation Funds to kick in, believing that $5 billion or so is the magic elixir to all that is ailing our public schools?

Improvement, Incentives, and EdSector

Multi-day, online, interactive education events seem to be all the rage lately.  This week, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills kicked off a two-week cybersummit on 21st century skills.  Not to be outdone, the folks over at Education Sector are hosting a three-day online discussion on No Child Left Behind and incentives.
Never one to shy away from the issues, Education Sector is billing the event through the following frame:
“NCLB requires states to establish annual performance targets and hold schools accountable for improving student performance. Currently, great attention rests on motivating school improvement through negative incentives. But NCLB also requires that states establish rewards for schools demonstrating excellence, a part of the law that has been largely ignored. The Department of Education’s $5 billion in “Race to the Top” and innovation funds has reignited a discussion of the role of positive incentives in motivating and supporting school reform efforts. With this boost in funding, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has a chance to reward what he refers to as “islands of excellence” in school achievement and build on those proven success stories.” 
The EdSector forum is particularly interesting in light of this week’s announcement on the intent to establish common, or national, education standards (and the lack of an announcement of the measurement and accountability surrounding the latest push).  EdSector’s Andy Rotherham will host Sir Michael Barber of McKinsey & Company (the folks who recently brought us the economic impact of the achievement gap study), Sandy Kress (the godfather of modern accountability measures), and Dominic Brewer, professor at the University of Southern California.
Interested parties can participate in the discussion here.  EdSector is providing plenty of opportunity for those who want to be a part of the solution or those who want to just learn more about the issue to offer their comments, questions, and opinions, to this blue ribbon panel.  It’s worth checking out.

Getting Halfway to the College Moon?

During his first official address to Congress back this winter (remember, trivia folks, it was not a State of the Union), President Barack Obama made the bold promise that, by 2020, the United States would have the highest percentage of college degree holders in the world.  Recognizing that postsecondary education is quickly becoming a non-negotiable for success in today’s economy (let alone tomorrow’s), it is a promise we need to back up.  And Obama did so recognizing that to get there, we need to turn out millions upon millions of additional college graduates on top of current levels.

So how do we accomplish that?  Improving high school graduation rates, particularly with historically disadvantaged students is a good first-step gateway.  Dual enrollment programs, where we help today’s students see they are capable of doing college-level work helps.  Boosting the number of first-generation college-goers is another.  But how about actually getting those students who enroll in college to actually earn the diploma?  That seems like a no-brainer.
Unfortunately, according to a new report released this AM from the American Enterprise Institute, it seems that a student enrolled at an institution of higher education has only a slightly better chance of earning a degree than an individual who stops at campus for direction, a t-shirt, or a restroom break.  According to AEI’s new study, Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (and Which Don’t), only 53 percent of college-goers have a diploma six years after starting the process.  Don’t forget, college is intended to be a four-year endeavor.  So even when we give today’s students two extra years, only half of enrollees manage to actually gain that intended sheepskin.
The numbers get even scarier when you drill down.  For those postsecondary institutions with the least selective admissions criteria — or those dubbed “noncompetitive” institutions — only 35 percent of students graduate within six years.  Even among “competitive” schools, those falling in the bottom 10 are only graduating 20 percent of their kids in six years.
Not surprisingly, the highest graduation rates lie with the most competitive schools.  Grad rates decline as we move down the scale, from highly competitive to very competitive to competitive to less competitive to noncompetitive.
The AEI report presents top “honors” to 10 schools, identified as noncompetitive that scored the lowest when it comes to six-year graduation rates.  Mountain State University in West Virginia (18%), Bellevue University in Nebraska (18%), Heritage University in Washington (17%), University of Houston in Texas (16%), National American University of South Dakota (15%), American InterContinental University in Georgia (13%), Miles College in Alabama (11%), Jarvis Christian College of Texas (10%), Carlos Albizu University of Florida (10%), and Southern University in Louisiana, with a whopping 8 percent.  These schools were all found to be noncompetitive, with the lowest grad rates — a destructive combination.
For those who think money buys success, eight of the 10 lowest-graduating schools are private institutions, with the University of Houston and Southern University being the only public schools to make “the list.”
But we don’t want to just pick on the noncompetitive schools.  In those schools dubbed most competitive, we see a similar trend.  EIght of the 10 schools with the lowest graduation rates are private schools (Webb Institute, Reed College, Tulane University, University of Miami, George Washington University, Scripps College, Case Western Reserve University, Connecticut College, Occidental College, and University of Rochester.  The two publics with the lowest rates are both service academies — the US Air Force Academy and West Point.  For those two, we’d like to think that the standards outside the classroom are the reason for the lower-than-average grad rate among peers, and you don’t have a high proportion of students at Army or Air Force on the seven- or eight-year BA plan.  So let’s give the Air Force Academy and West Point the benefit of the doubt here.
What’s even more disturbing though, particularly when we consider the challenge issued by President Obama and current efforts to close the achievement gap in this country, are graduation rates on the campuses of our competitive Historically Black Colleges and Historically Hispanic Colleges.  For competitive HBCUs (33 were studied) the six-year grad rate is only 36.5 percent.  For IHHEs (30 schools studied), the numbers were slightly better, 44.3 percent.  The only bright spot (if you can dare call it that) in the disaggregation is that HBCUs are relatively level when it comes to graduation rates, with less competitive schools graduating 34.7 percent of their students and noncompetitive schools graduating 37.1 percent of their students, meaning a student at an HBCU has a relatively equal chance of graduating, regardless of the institution’s competitiveness classification.  On the flip side, with noncompetitive IHHEs, only 19.8 percent of students are graduating in six years.
What does all this tell us?  First off, if our goal is to increase the number of college degree holders in the United States, we need to start with the customers we have.  Forget the need to push more students onto the college path.  We first need to address the 47 percent of current pathwalkers we are failing.  There are no excuses for one’s change of earning a college diploma once in college to being the same as winning a coin flip.  Access is clearly not an excuse, and money certainly shouldn’t be.  We need to do a better job of finding out why these enrollees are not graduating, and then act (either institutionally or nationally) to reverse the trend and prioritize degree attainment over college going once and for all.  Despite what some may say, the postsecondary experience is not nearly as important as the credential.  We owe it to every student who passes through a college’s doors to make sure they leave with a degree.
Second, we need to take a much closer look at how we are serving our historically disadvantaged student groups.  Institutions are to be applauded for making more opportunities available to students of color and providing programs and institutions themselves to better meet student needs and expectations.  But competitive HBCUs should do better than one in three graduating.  And competitive IHHEs need to better than two in five graduating.  This is particularly true when the average competitive IHE is turning out grads at nearly double that rate.
But if the numbers tell us anything, it is that the college graduation problem is one that is color blind and income oblivious.  The real problem here is competitiveness and return on investment.  After decades of convincing every family that their child should go to college, we’ve literally build a college or university for every student.  As a result, the correspondence schools and diploma mills of the past have given way to noncompetitive institutions with open admissions and a come one, come all mentality.  For too many of those schools, the tuition check is the end game, not the diploma.  An enrolled student is a steady stream of income.  There is no incentive to graduate students.  Schools aren’t being held accountable for their graduation rates.  Perhaps they should, but they aren’t.  And that shows in the AEI data.
When he took office nearly half a century ago, President John F. Kennedy made the promise we would send a man to the moon.  As we’ve often heard, this was an audacious goal designed to spur interest and investment in the space program in general.  Obama has don
e the same thing, albeit with less fanfare and public enthusiasm, with his promise to be tops in the world when it comes to college degree holders.  With Kennedy, we couldn’t just go halfway to the moon and back.  It was all or nothing.  
The same is true for Obama’s college pledge.  We have 11 years to get to the postsecondary moon.  Only this time, we aren’t starting from scratch.  First order of business is getting those students who are already in the system graduated.  Improving that 53 percent grad mark to 75 percent gets us far closer to our goal.  
But if we are going to have postsecondary impact for decades to come, we need to take a close look at the product we are selling.  Noncompetitive schools with no accountability and little ROI hurt us all in the long run.  There is no getting around it.  Yes, every student needs some form of postsecondary education to succeed in the 21st century economy.  After all of these years, who knew we needed to say that education needed to bring with it a modicum of quality.  For those who say the accreditation process is too difficult or onerous, this data should give them a great deal of pause.  If anything we need to be tougher on our IHEs and expect more.  Otherwise, we may simply be sliding into a game of rock-paper-scissors to see if we earn our diploma or not. 

What Does Common Standards Mean to a State?

For those wondering exactly what today’s announcement that 46 states and the District of Columbia signed on to the National Governors Association’s and the Council of Chief State School Officers’ effort to develop comprehensive common education standards (or national standards for those unafraid to exert the federal role in public education improvement), take a minute to check under the hood of this national standards ride we are about to buy, California style.

Penned by Cali Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Board of Ed Prez Ted Mitchell, and State Supe Jack O’Connell, the Golden State has put its name on the dotted line to “develop common core standards” and “participate in the international benchmarking efforts.”  No surprise, California seems to believe its current standards are likely the bar by which national standards should be measured, making clear the state “cannot commit to adopting [common standards] until we have determined that they meet or exceed our own.” 
The California brain trust has a few other ideas for those leading the common standards effort back in our nation’s capital.  Check out the full letter here: California Common Standards Letter
If this is the sort of non-commitment commitment we’re starting off with, we still have a few steps to go before we are asking our states and districts to actually adopt a common set of national K-12 education standards, complete with the assessments and accountability that need to accompany them.  Miles and miles to go, my friends, but we are taking steps forward.  

What’s in the Cards for 21CS?

In recent months, we’ve had a great deal of debate on the future of 21st century skills and their role in a public education system that focuses on accountability and quantifying student achievement on the core academic subjects.  This week’s announcement of planned national academic standards only further muddy the future of 21CS.

As Eduflack has written time and again, 21CS skills are an important component to 21st century learning, particularly if we are to give STEM education the emphasis and the due that it so richly deserves.  But as I’ve always looked at it, it is not about teaching 21CS as course content, it is about using 21CS as a delivery system for the ELA, math, science, and social studies that our students have needed, do need, and will need in order to maximize their K-12 experiences and be on a pathway toward real opportunity.  At the end of the day, 21CS is about how we teach, not what we teach.  For me, it is about ensuring that our current learning environment does not devolve into one where we are unplugging and deskilling our students.
But don’t take my word for it.  Check out what the folks over at the Partnership for 21st Century Skills are up to here.  For the next two weeks, are hosting a cybersummit on 21CS.  As of the kickoff this morning, they have more than 1,700 folks registered to at least take a peek at the current discussion and content around 21CS.  It may be worth checking out, particularly for those who may have their doubts.

The Slow March Toward National Standards

For months now, the education chattering class has been talking about the behind-the-scenes efforts by the US Department of Education to craft national education standards.  We’ve heard that Achieve was slated to deliver draft math and reading standards to Maryland Avenue by early summer, with plans for a thorough and robust debate leading up the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

In this morning’s Washington Post, Maria Glod reports that 46 states and the District of Columbia have signed onto the K-12 national education standards movement, offering “an unprecedented step toward a uniform definition of success in American Schools.”  The full story can be found here.   
The thinking here is a simple one.  In this era of AYP, it only makes sense that we have a single yardstick by which to measure student achievement, starting with math and reading.  For years now, we’ve heard how students are knocking it out of the park when it comes to state assessments (just look at elementary reading in Mississippi), but then we fail to see the progress when it comes to annual NAEP scores.  The common thinking is that some states have dropped their bars so low in order to demonstrate student achievement and student growth that some state tests have become complete irrelevant in determining actual student achievement and success.
So now National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers have brought together most of the states to help develop these common standards for academic performance.  Most states have already anted in.  The only holdouts, according to WaPo, are Texas, Alaska, Missouri, and South Carolina.  Their reason?  These Republican-controlled states are touting the need for local control of the schools, and national standards run contrary to local decisionmakers determining what is best for their local residents.
The current plan is to roll out “readiness standards” in July, benchmarks for high school graduates in reading and math.  Then folks would build out the grade-by-grade needs to reach those readiness standards.  It is important to note that the 46+ states have simply agreed to the process.  They would then need to agree to, adopt, fund, and implement the standards once they are developed.  So we are still a good ways away from national standards even being close to national policy.  Why?
First, every expert, quasi-expert, and member of the chattering class is going to want to get in on this discussion.  Everyone has ideas as to what should be in national standards.  Every political and ideological group will want to get in on the process, running the risk of taking a bold move and watering it down so much to appease all of the audiences that believe they should have a seat at the table.
Second, many will raise concerns that we are only addressing math and reading.  LIke AYP, this push is focusing on the corest of the core subjects.  But can we really have a true national standards system without addressing science, social studies, and foreign language?  In a month when NAEP is actually releasing national art education data (scheduled for June 15), can we settle for just reading and math?  Many an expert or an expert in training will call for a comprehensive system that addresses all academic subjects, worried that an initial focus on math and reading means we only value the two subjects and will only hold states and schools accountable on these two measures (much like we have with AYP).
Third, we need to give standards real teeth.  In many ways, national standards serve as a wish list for public education in the United States.  To put real power behind it, we need to develop and implement actual tests aligned with those standards.  Such tests seem to be the third rail of public education.  We fret about the costs, we worry about the quantitative and qualitative, and we struggle with the notion we are implementing another “high-stakes” test on our kids.  The end result?  We could end up with a lovely policy document outlining our national education expectations, but lacking a tangible way to transform that policy into instructional reality with real measurement and accountability.  National standards only work if we have one strong test that is implemented and enforced EQUALLY by all of the states.
Fourth, states actually need to agree to the final documents … and put them into practice.  In 2005, all 50 states agreed to common high school graduation standards, shepherded through the process by NGA.  At the time, every governor in the country agreed to a measure that called for grad rates to be calculated as the number of ninth graders who secure a diploma four years later.  We’re now four years later, and the majority of states have failed to actually implement the formula.  (In part because those who have have experienced a drop in their statewide grad rates.)  Former EdSec Margaret Spellings tried to institute the new grad rate through federal regulation, but the current talk about town is that EdSec Duncan will be turning back Spellings’ Christmas Eve Eve decision, leaving grad rate determination to the states.  So even if every governor in the country agrees to the idea of standards in principle, they all need to sign off on the final decisions and actually move them into practice, replacing the patchwork of states standards of various strengths and scopes with one common national standard.
Currently, the Nation’s Report Card — or NAEP — is the closest thing we have to national standards.  But as we take a look at the NAEP results, we see many a disturbing data set that must be addressed in developing national standards.  It stands to reason that NAEP measures for reading and math proficiency would be pretty close to national standards in the same subjects.  So what does it mean when slightly more than half of all U.S. fourth graders can score proficient or better on the NAEP reading exam?  What does it mean when only about a third of eighth graders are score proficient or better, and the best state in the union is clocking in at 43 percent proficiency on eighth grade reading?  And what do we do about the persistent achievement gap, particularly the 20-plus year problem we see in 11th grade math and reading?  How do we make sure that all students — even those from historically disadvantaged groups — are performing against the national standards and achieving?  When we set national standards, the goal needs to be all students hitting the mark.  We cannot and must not settle for a system where the majority of kids fail to achieve proficiency, and we still see that as a sign of a successful public school system.
Yes, Eduflack is a pessimist by nature.  But I also believe that today’s NGA/CCSSO announcement is a positive step forward.  In today’s transient society, with students changing schools and states as families change and jobs shift, we need some guarantees that a fifth grade education is the same, regardless of area code.  We need some promise that a high school diploma means the same thing, regardless of Zip code.  This is a non-negotiable if we are to prepare all students for the opportunities before them, particularly if we are looking for them to hold their own on international benchmarks such as TIMSS and PISA.
Obviously, the devil is in the details.  We need to get all states to overcome the notion of local control and embrace the guidance and framework of national standards.  We need to construct effective tests that move those standards into practice.  We need to move beyond just math and reading and ensure that all academic (and even those some would deem non-academic) are measured as well.  We need to give equal billing t
o elementary, middle, and secondary learning standards.  And we need to ensure that if all students are to be held to the same national standard, they all need to have equal access to the same educational resources.  That means national standards, if you will, when it comes to early childhood education, high-quality teachers, and other such measures.
But we are moving forward.  We just have to keep that momentum going, transforming challenges into opportunities and not allowing roadblocks to divert our attention (and subvert our public will) in the process.  If we believe that every student in the United States requires a high-quality, effective education, we need to measure every student with the same yardstick.  Quality and effectiveness should be universal, not subjective based on state borders.  National standards starts making that goal a reality.