Profits, Pell Grants, and College Degrees

Do for-profit businesses have a legitimate role in ensuring more Americans secure that college degree that is quickly becoming a non-negotiable in today’s economy?  With commercials for the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University on what seems like a constant loop on television, it is a question few ask.  We seem to assume, in today’s day and age, that for-profit institutions of higher education are a permanent part of the landscape, quickly becoming no different than distinguishing between public and private colleges.

Discussions of academic quality, growth, and such was left to the regional accreditation bodies.  Yes, we’ve targeted the diploma mills who exchanged checks for diplomas.  But if a for-profit could convince a team higher ed officials (most from traditional NFPs) that they had a legitimate plan, they were in business.  Some focused on a particular state or geographic region.  Others, like Phoenix, went national.  And some have focused exclusively on online education (though, interestingly, it can be more difficult to get accreditation from the online authorizing body than from a regional accreditor).

Yesterday, though, Bob Shireman — U.S. deputy undersecretary for education — changed the game.  As reported here by Inside Higher Education, Shireman took issue with growing enrollments at for-profits, increased profit margins at such institutions, and a flawed regulatory process that doesn’t necessarily protect the rights and needs of the student.  He even went so far as to suggest that higher education could be headed the way of Wall Street, with some gaming the system.

Shireman’s comments have been a long time coming.  A champion of affordable education for low-income students and a strident opponent of unnecessary college loan debt, Shireman has long been a leading advocate for the consumer — the adults or young adults who are seeking to better their lives with postsecondary degrees.  And he knows better than most that the approval systems for college approval — at the federal, regional, and state level — are seldom focused on academic quality or return on investment.  Instead, they are often the playground of lobbyists, lawyers, and consultants.  (And that is true for for-profit and not-for-profit institutions alike.)

Over the past year, Shireman and company fought hard to increase funding for Pell grants and make college generally more affordable for all.  Those outside of the system expect that these additional dollars are likely going to State U and local community colleges.  But Shireman pointed out a funny thing has happened between intent and execution.  Corinthian Colleges’ revenue from Pell grants has increased 38 percent in the first three quarters of the fiscal year.  DeVry has seen their share jump 42 percent.  Similar gains have been posted by ITT, Strayer, and others.

His remarks touched on the three legs of the higher ed stool — the feds, the states, and the regional accreditors — to work together to ensure quality and efficiency.  But after spending some time in the for-profit higher ed field years ago, Eduflack would like to add one more box to check on the ol’ forms.  That box is ROI.

With Pell grant dollars increasing even in difficult budget times, we should all be committed to ensuring that these precious dollars are actually yielding return on investment.  If the objective is to break down financial barriers and get more kids into college, then the ultimate goal should be to ensure that those kids are actually leaving school with a degree in hand.  The experience of higher ed is important, but leaving school halfway through is a lost opportunity for both the student and the Pell grant system. 

We shouldn’t have an issue with Corinthian and DeVry and the rest if they are enrolling more students and more students are thus earning an accredited college degree.  We should, though, take major issue with colleges and universities who are reaping huge financial benefits from the system, but aren’t actually educating the customers they are serving.  And at the end of the day, that education is measured by degree completion.

This is not just an issue for for-profits, it should be true for any institution operating in the postsecondary space.  Doesn’t matter if you are a NFP research university, state college, community college, private liberal arts school, or a career college, a degree is a degree.  Students enroll in college to earn a degree.  They earn a degree to secure a job.  When they secure a job, they can then pay off those student loans and generally contribute to the economy and society.  And so is the circle of college life, as those loans are repaid and the money given to the next generation of students.

Last month the American Enterprise Institute released a new report showing that just over half of Hispanic students earn a bachelor’s degree six years after enrollment.  That means nearly half of all Hispanic students who go on to college spend their money, family funds, scholarships, grants, and loans on an education that never offers the ultimate ROI.  They may finish up with some great stories, good friends, and wealth of experiences, but what does it mean without the degree?

If Shireman and company really want to change the way higher education does business and ensure that the interests of the customer — the student — are truly addressed, they would find a way for at least one of the stool’s three legs to factor in graduation rates as part of their evaluation and approval process.  Those schools that take Pell grants should make sure that Pell students are graduating with degrees.  If they aren’t, why not?  And if they aren’t, should we really allow them to increase their profit from these federal grants, if they are failing to live up to the expectation that such grants (and loans) are intended to help students earn college degrees?

RttT Part Two: This Time, We’re Serious

Now that the dust is settling on the recent Race to the Top Phase One announcement (go Tennessee and Delaware!), the remaining states in the union are starting to get serious about their Phase Two apps.  In the last day or so, we’ve now seen that Kansas has decided to opt out  of the Phase Two process, while Phase One finalist Colorado is making additional legislative changes  to look more appealing to judges. 

When the two winners were announced last month, Eduflack (and others) wondered how much help the two winning applications could provide to those seeking Phase Two dollars.  With unique demographics, political situations, and hungers for school reform, there are few states that could just do a “search and replace” with apps from either the First State or the Volunteer State and expect to win the day.

While a great deal has been written about the Phase One apps, particularly, the two winners, the folks over at The New Teacher Project (a org that is in both of the winning apps, I believe) has provided a solid analysis of what the applications can really tell us.  The full analysis can be found here .

Among the most interesting of TNTP’s findings are its seven lessons learned:
* Reform must reach statewide and beyond the four-year grant period (so we must have a continuity plan after the federal dollars dry up)
* Implementation must be certain (no contingencies allowed; it is all or nothing)
* Plans must be clear (this was particularly clear in the Minnesota critique)
* Local advantages are key (the cookie-cutter reform effect doesn’t work)
* Points can be won and lost in unexpected places (with insufficient progress on data systems and lack of a STEM plan singled out)
* On Teachers and Leaders, bold policies are rewarded (but it doesn’t carry the day, as TNTP notes with both Louisiana’s and Rhode Island’s particularly strong and bold teacher plans)
* Borrow concepts, do not cut and paste (with Eduflack still waiting to see if there were perceived Phase One content similarities between applications prepared by the same consulting companies) 

The TNTP analysis also offered a few cautions for judges and the U.S. Department of Education when it comes to Phase Two reviews.  Based on its analysis of the Phase One finalists, TNTP voices real concern over four issues: 1) lack of differentiation of scoring; 2) inflated scores; 3) deviation from scoring guidance; and 4) excessive influence of outliers.

When EdSec Arne Duncan announced the Phase One winners, he made clear that RttT was going to be an exclusive club for a select number of states.  That’s why states like Kansas have already opted out of the second running, and while other states are likely considering the same.  And it has to have many states, particularly those who didn’t make the finalist cut first time around, wondering if it is worth the time and effort to comprehensively overhaul their plans for this go-around.

Whether one was a finalist in Round One or not, each and every state preparing a Phase Two app needs to ask itself a few key questions.  Are we committed to real, substantive, and long-term change and improvement?  Are we prepared to pay for such improvement, both now and in the out years?  Do we have the relationships, partnerships, and promises to truly change the tires on a racecar going 195 miles an hour?  Do we have the legislative support for what will likely require more changes?  Do we have the intestinal fortitude to follow through on our plans?  Are we willing to be truly bold?  Are we willing to stand behind what is right, even if it may be unpopular?  Are we able to continue these plans, even if we have a change in governor, state legislature leadership, or with the state board?  Are we able to demonstrate our plan has been effective, and to measure that effectiveness based on student test scores?  Are we truly ready to lead, without the cover of other states doing the exact same things?

If a state can answer yes to all of the above, without hesitating, it is likely on the right track.  If not …

Building a Better Performance Assessment

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education officially announced that $350 million designated under the Race to the Top program would be made available to several consortia to develop student assessments aligned with the common core standards states are expected to adopt later this year.  The big question many of those watching the assessment discussions are now asking is how different will these next generation assessments be compared to the state tests that have governed the NCLB/AYP era.

Even before taking office, President Obama often expressed frustration and dismay with “bubble tests.”  A little over a year ago, as part of his education transformation agenda launch, the President stated: “I am calling on our nation’s governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking, entrepreneurship and creativity.”

So now that that $350 million is about to hit the streets, what exactly does moving beyond the bubbles on the test look like?  That was one of the questions that the National Academy of Education and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) asked at a policy forum yesterday titled, “What Do We Know About High Quality Performance Assessment?”

The forum spotlighted a series of new research papers released by SCOPE as part of a Ford Foundation-funded effort to focus on the performance assessment issue.  The full documents can be found here .
The takeaways from the SCOPE papers focused on three key issues researchers recommended that next-gen performance assessments needs to address:
* Careful task design based on a clear understanding of the specific knowledge and skills to be assessed and how they develop cognitively
* Reliable scoring systems based on standardization of tasks and well-designed scoring rubrics
* Methods for ensuring fairness based on the use of universal design principles

While NAEd and SCOPE were all about the research, perhaps the most provocative part of the forum was the policy discussion.  Jack Jennings, the long-time President and CEO of the Center on Education Policy, suggested that accountability efforts should be put on hold for the next three or five years until we have a better understanding of what we know and what we need (particularly coming out of the AYP era).  Jennings suggested piloting a range of assessment strategies (the inspectorates advocated by the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, next gen AYP tests, portfolios, performance assessments, etc.), letting states try one, and then evaluating where we are after a few years.

Chris Cross, the President of Cross & Joftus and former Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, quickly noted that the genie is out of the bottle when it comes to testing and assessment, and the only choice is to continue moving forward.  And Cross is right, taking a step back or shuffling sideways provides no value at this stage of the school improvement game.  The game is all about improving our testing and assessment efforts, not providing a cooling off period for folks to ease up on accountability.

So where does this leave us?  First, we need to recognize that all of these issues found in ESEA, RttT, and other federal programs are not islands unto themselves.  If we are serious about building a better performance assessment system, that means finding stronger ways to integrate curriculum, teacher development and supports, standards, and tests.  

Second, we need to pay more attention to how such assessments are scored.  There is tremendous work currently being done with regard to innovative, machine-scored items on fixed and adaptive forms.  Such work needs to be central to the assessment consortia and their plans for our coming common core world.  At the same time, we need to spend greater effort getting actual classroom teachers in on the scoring, using it as professional development tool.

Perhaps most importantly, though, we need to recognize that we don’t have much time to wait here.  The flaw in Jennings’ model is that waiting three or five years means losing an entire generation of students to gaps, cracks, and failures.  Instead, we should be accelerating our efforts to get better tests, aligned with common standards, into our states, districts, and schools as quickly as possible.  Build off of what is working and those pockets of promising practice.  Move from bubble sheets to computers (complete with open-answer questions).  Figure out how we go from just knowing the right answers to knowing what to do with the right answers after test day is done.  Act now, with a commitment to continuous improvement.

(Full disclosure, Eduflack has helped Stanford University School of Education with the launch of SCOPE.)

Come Together …

A lot of paper tends to pass over Eduflack’s desk in a given week, and these past few days has been no exception.  One thing that caught my eye was from the Coalition for Community Schools, promoting its 2010 National Forum up in Philadelphia this week.  Full information can be found here, at the Coalition’s site.  (And the good news is that the video is still accessible, particularly if you can get beyond the hair removal commercials at the beginning.)

The issue of community schools, including the integration of issues like health, safety, and general public welfare, is always an interesting topic.  It is also one that gets lost in the current era of test scores and accountability.  But the holistic approach to education is not what caught my attention, no.  Eduflack was a little taken aback to see that NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and AFT President Randi Weingarten joined together to speak in one voice on the importance of community schools and the conditions needs for effective teaching and learning.
On most issues, we tend to see NEA and AFT pitted against each other.  NEA, the larger, is the voice of the status quo.  AFT, thanks to the Al Shanker reputation, is the rebel or the boat rocker.  AFT is more willing to compromise with the “opposition.”  NEA stands firm on its ground, no matter the opposition.  AFT is seen as the representatives of urban teachers, NEA of the suburban.  Fair or no, we are regularly comparing the two teachers’ unions, looking for differences, splits, disagreements, and other perceived chasms in the land of teachers.
But here they really did seem to speak with a united voice, so much so that one can remember the good ole days when Bob Chase and Sandy Feldman were trying to merge the two organizations into one superpower.  One supposes that threats of eliminating teacher tenure, throwing aside past collective bargaining agreements, and reconstituting views of teacher effectiveness can really help sharpen an understanding of who one’s friends are.  
From Weingarten: “Especially in these tough economic times, schools must be places where children can be nurtured and educated.  We know that teachers can’t do it all, but through partnerships with other groups and agencies, community schools can address out-of-school factors like poverty and stability at home that research shows affect two-thirds of student outcomes.”
And from Van Roekel: “As educators, we know that the development of the whole child extends beyond the walls of the classroom.  We must harness the coordinated power of social services, parental engagement, service learning opportunities for students, extended learning and afterschool programs to ensure our children’s successes.”
Regardless, it is worth watching the Weingarten/Van Roekel session, if for no other reason than to see the kumbaya.  They both remind you of Helen Lovejoy, the famed voice of reason on the Simpsons … “won’t someone please think about the children!”  
So congrats to the Coalition for Community Schools for bringing the two together with a shared voice (and if I am wrong about how often the two join together in chorus, please let me know).  Now if only we can find similar common ground on teacher incentives measures or ESEA reauthorization …

Great Teachers, New Contracts, and Incentives, Oh My!

After a few days, the dust is finally settling on the supposed deal between Michelle Rhee and the teachers’ union in Washington, DC.  By now, we’ve all heard the Cliff Notes version — significantly increased teacher pay, performance bonuses, elimination of full protection of tenured teachers’ jobs from budget cuts, huge financial assistance from national philanthropies.

A year ago, we thought the deal was dead as a doornail.  Earlier this week, a tentative agreement was reached (the members of the DC union still have to vote.  As always, Bill Turque of The Washington Post has terrific coverage of the issue, starting with the announcement story from earlier this week here and a very interesting story this AM about how former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke served as consigliere to bring this final deal over the finish line.
Whether intentional or not, the trio of chairs for the Education Equality Project — NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, UNCF President/CEO Michael Lomax, and NCLR President/CEO Janet Murguia — weigh in on the general topic this morning’s Washington Post in a strongly worded commentary on the need for “great teachers” in historically disadvantaged schools.
The EEP trio offers up a three-point plan on great teachers and improved student outcomes:
* Attract teachers who performed well in college
* Create systems that reward excellence (including making it “easier to remove teachers who are shown to be ineffective”)
* Do more to attract teachers to high-needs students, schools, and subject areas (including ELL and special education)
Obviously, this is not the first time we have heard these tenets from EEP, but today’s treatise may be the clearest and most direct explanation of the EEP platform.  It also becomes clear, when you look at the reports of the DCPS teacher deal, that Rhee was calling plays directly from the EEP playbook (or would that be from Chancellor Klein’s), seeking to model after some of the more successful policy and rhetoric on the issue of teacher quality and the incentivization of effective teaching.
It is also incredibly difficult to quibble with these three points.  Who is opposed to attracting successful students into the teaching profession?  Who doesn’t believe we should reward excellence, regardless of field?  And who doesn’t see the need to get our best teachers in the areas that need them the most, including historically disadvantaged schools and subject areas that have long been neglected.
But the devil remains in the details.  How do we sustain — over the long term — incentives for teachers, knowing that philanthropic and government support for teacher quality efforts may wane in a year or five?  When the outside support dries up, are our states and school systems positioned, financially, to continue to support those systems that are rewarding excellence?
How do we transfer that recognized excellence to the schools, classes, and students that need them the most?  For decades, many have talked about National Board Certification and how National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) were the best of the best.  Through federal dollars and private supports, NBCTs were financially incentivized to seek seek certification and stand as an NBCT back in their schools.  But there is still much disagreement on the impact of NBCTs, both as to whether they increase student performance AFTER teachers have gone through the certification process and if NBCTs are more or less likely to relocate to the schools that may need them the most.
But the real head scratcher is the issue of attracting teachers who performed well in college.  Based on the rhetoric, we are clearly looking at the Teach for America model, believing that academic superstars will make the best K-12 teachers.  EEP even offers up the urban legend that most teachers come from the bottom third of college graduates (Eduflack has heard the statement time and again, but has yet to see the research that actually proves it).
Without question, we need smart teachers in our classrooms, particularly in those classes that have been struggling for far too long.  But good teaching requires both book smarts and “street” smarts.  Good teaching requires educators who know the subject matter (their math, science, history, or English) but also know the pedagogy behind it.  Good teaching requires educators who can pivot off the “script” when faced with a challenging student or a challenging classroom.  Good teaching requires educators who understand what good teaching is, moving beyond the content knowledge and making those connections between teacher and student that can last a lifetime.  Such qualities cannot necessarily be taught through a textbook, an online course, or a pedagological bootcamp.  But they are qualities that are non-negotiable when it comes to good teaching.
As DCPS heads down the strongest path to date on teacher quality and teacher incentivization, and as EEP and others continue to spotlight the need to recruit and reward great teachers, we can’t lose sight of what comprises great teaching.  Test scores are, and always should be, an important part of how we identify effective instruction.  But there are other elements — both inputs and outcomes — that need to be factored in as well.
The EEP trio is absolutely right, schools and teachers are the differentiators between a good education and a lousy one.  And they couldn’t be more right when they say:

Different teachers get very different results with similar students. So as reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is considered, we should look closely at those whom we attract and retain to teach, with regard to their quality and to ensuring that they are distributed equally across our school districts. If we can do those things, we could at least make Detroit students perform like those in Boston, and make Boston students do a lot better.

Different teachers do get different results with similar students.  Our goal should be identifying why those teachers in Boston are doing a better job than those in other cities.  And then we need to replicate, replicate, replicate both the inputs and the outcomes.  It isn’t just about how Boston attracts those teachers, it is about the training and support those teachers receive.