13th Grade Dual Enrollment?

We often bemoan the lack of connection between K-12 education and higher education.  While we like to talk of the P-20 education continuum, we still can’t get away from the reality that these are two very different, very separate systems.

Over at Hechinger Report, Joanne Jacobs relays the story originally reported in Community College Times of school districts in Oregon and Colorado that are strengthening the connections between K-12 and higher education, offering a fifth year of high school while earning a first year of college credits.

On the latest Eduflack Yack, we opine on the importance of dual enrollment and maximizing those high school years, while asking some important questions on who should be paying for that first year of postsecondary education …

Buckeye-Style E-Learning

At its heart, is e-learning about improving educational opportunity or lowering instructional costs?  Last week, Eduflack was talking with a school district in West Virginia.  Following a growing wave, school districts in the Mountain State are prohibiting new textbook purchases in a tough budget environment.  As an alternative, districts are being directed to use e-learning to replace textbook adoptions and ensure students have up-to-date learning materials.

But in a district that doesn’t have the technology to deliver optimum e-learning, is such digital instruction really a cost saver?  Do we get around that $100 textbook, which is usually good for seven or nine years, by purchasing a low-cost laptop (which have to be replaced often due to loss, breakage, or general wear-and-tear) and then purchasing the curriculum and other instructional needs?  Are there enough high-quality open educational resources (OER) to secure the free digital instructional materials to effectively replace a textbook and its supplementary materials?  And does making the shift from paper to electronic actually boost student achievement and school effectiveness?
These are some of the questions that many are working to find answers to.  Late last year, the Foundation for Excellence in Education released its Digital Learning Now! report as part of the coming out of its Digital Learning Council.  The report offers up 10 reccs for high-quality digital learning.  Written specifically for governors and state-level policy makers, the Foundation makes clear that real action on e-learning is going to happen in state capitals, and not necessarily in our nation’s capital.
Next week, it looks like the discussion is going to drill down even further.  Some of the true leaders in e-learning will gather in Columbus, Ohio to talk about how digital learning can have a positive impact on education in Ohio and in the United States.  Those in politics know that as goes Ohio (or maybe Missouri), so goes the nation.  We also know that the Buckeye State now has a new, cost-conscious governor and a state budget in need of significant reductions.
So on Tuesday, leaders from Ohio’s business and education sectors, as well as the community at large, will hear from folks like Bob Wise, former West Virginia governor and current President of the Alliance for Excellent Education: Andy Ross, the GM of Global Services for Florida Virtual School; and Tom Vander Ark, partner at Vander Ark/Radcliff and e-learning connector extraordinaire.  They’ll also hear the Ohio perspective from KnowledgeWorks CEO Chad Wick and Ohio Education Matters ED Andy Benson.
Why is this summit important?  For one, it signals that a state like Ohio is serious about re-imagining the K-12 experience and exploring what a 21st century education really looks like.  More importantly, though, it is looking to do so through a practical lens, where the hopes and aspirations of e-learning will be explored through the very-real view of the very-scary Ohio budget.
We also know that if the intellectual firepower speaking from the rostrum in Columbus on the 25th can’t figure out how to make this work in Ohio, no one can.  Florida Virtual School is the gold standard when it comes to online learning in the K-12 environment.  Vander Ark/Radcliff has led the primary drumbeat for successful digital learning leadership, particularly at the state level.  And KnowledgeWorks has successfully led change in Ohio’s high schools through its Ohio High Schools Transformation Initiative and its NewTech Network.  So it looks like the e-learning A team will be in the house, ready to “dot the i.”
Hopefully, we will see a real action plan coming out of this Learning Unbound summit.  A plan that Ohio Gov. John Kasich can adopt as part of his leaner, ROI-focused budget and a plan on which other states can model their own e-learning opportunities.  That isn’t too much to ask for, is it, A focused plan of action coming out of a positive day of rhetoric?

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. 

STEM, CCs, and Opportunity

The power of STEM, science-tech-engineering-math, instruction is virtually limitless.  In our 21st century workforce, we know that all employees need both a common knowledgebase and key skills.  What may have sufficed a few decades ago, or even a few years ago, just does not cut it these days.  If one is to contribute to the economy, one needs an understanding of technology and abilities in critical thinking, teamwork, and problem-solving.  Virtually every new job being created these days requires some form of postsecondary education, those career certificate programs or college degrees that ensure successful students are proficient in core subjects such as math and science.  If one is looking for the entrance to a successful and productive career, these days it is starting with that STEM entrance sign.

Unfortunately, there are often a lot of misperceptions about STEM and its intended audience.  We first think that STEM is only for those seeking to be rocket scientists and brain surgeons.  Untrue.  Good STEM programs are for every student, as all learners benefit from being STEM literate.  We think that STEM is a high school issue.  Untrue.  There are some really successful K-8 STEM efforts (just look at some of the work being done in states like Minnesota).  There are some incredibly successful STEM efforts being undertaken at our institutions of higher education, both for those seeking careers in the STEM fields and those just looking for a leg up in their own individual pursuits.
Perhaps one of the greatest STEM urban legends is the notion that STEM skills and STEM literacy are only concerns for our current students.  As evidenced by today’s USA Today article on laid-off workers heading back to school, nothing could be further from the truth.  Those who have been adversely affected by the economy (which at this point is just about everyone) are now looking to retool and reskill, pursuing new educational opportunities so they can get into new career fields with current job opportunities and significant long-term potential.
Historically, we see this sort of behavior during many of our nation’s economic downturns.  The economy goes south, unemployment rates edge up, and more and more people turn to IHEs — usually our community colleges — to fill the gaps and improve their chances of success.  Sometimes it means acquiring some new skills to complement existing degrees, certificates, and work experience.  Sometimes it means a complete change, with former airline mechanics becoming nurses or bricklayers becoming graphic designers.
Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, our nation’s giant piggybank for economic stimulus, $1.7 billion is available for adult employment services and training programs.  As USA Today reports, recently displaced workers are looking to tap this aid to take advantage of community college and vocational programs to give them the 21st century skills necessary to secure and succeed in 21st century jobs.
To some, investment in these sorts of vocational education programs is like throwing money down a black hole.  Once and future workers pursue certificates and degrees in a wide range of topics and interests, with little regard for local community economic needs or a true understanding of the employment landscape over the next decade.  We use such funds to pursue personal interests and passions, rather than to truly retool and gain the skills necessary to take a step forward and add a layer of knowledgebase and security to their future.
is it an unfair assumption?  Absolutely.  Over the past few decades our community colleges have done yeoman’s work in providing the sort of retraining programs our workforce needed to remain skilled, knowledgeable, and effective.  As the technology changed, the CCs were there to offer courses in everything from basic computing to complex machinery and technologies.  Some of our best environmental programs are found in CCs.  And we could keep going.
So what does this mean for us now, in 2009?  Put simply, our community colleges are the front lines for effective STEM education.  Those heading back to school are looking for practical skills that will get them back into the workforce and back into jobs with a future.  STEM is the answer.  Those heading back to community colleges are looking for skills that are attractive to employers and needed by their local industries.  STEM is the answer.  And those looking to reskill and retool want to invest their time in courses and programs that represent future opportunities, not the lessons of the past.  STEM is the answer.  As we look at community colleges’ role in the P-20 education continuum, particularly as it related to those re-entering the education gateway, STEM is the answer.
Moving forward, it is essential that we effectively link STEM education, our community colleges, and the students and potential students they are seeking to serve.  How do we do it?  First, we need to strengthen linkages between K-12 and higher education, allowing more current students to see the value and impact of a community college education.  The CCs are not simply for remedial postsecondary courses or as cheaper gateways to a four-year institution.  They offer their own value and their own impact.  These linkages are already being established across the nation, as high schools and community colleges are working together on early colleges and other dual-degree programs, allowing more young people to see the strength, value, and opportunity found on their local community college campuses.  And these linkages often focus on STEM-focused courses.
Second, we need to better link our community colleges with local industry.  We need to do the gap analyses to understand the current employment pipeline and where we may be lacking in skilled employees to fill those new jobs.  What can community college do to help prepare future workers for those future jobs?  We need to better understand our assets.  What programs do our CCs currently offer?  How do they align with employer needs?  How do we build the linkages between the two?  How do we build partnerships so employers use their local CCs for worker training programs, retraining efforts, and as impactful pipelines of skilled future employers?
Most importantly, though, we must continue to strengthen the STEM offerings in our institutions of higher education.  There is simply no getting around it.  STEM literacy is an essential component to gainful employment in the 21st century.  Today’s — and tomorrow’s — workers must think differently, work smartly, and adapt to the ever-changing environment around them.  That requires a core understanding of the math, science, and technology that does into even the most unlikely of STEM jobs.  That requires the 21CS that often accompany an effective STEM education.  Even those looking to work alongside their fathers and grandfathers on the assembly line or at the construction site require a STEM literacy that was never required of generations past.  A union card is no longer enough for some jobs.  STEM proficiency needs to accompany that union bug if our workers are going to compete, innovate, and outperform industry competitors around the globe.
Kudos to those who have already recognized that, those employees or the recently laid off who are already turning to schools and vocational programs to better equip them for the opportunities of the future.  Kudos to community colleges and other IHEs who are meeting the challenge and providing relevant, effective programs that align with industry needs and expectations.  And kudos to those who see that STEM is at the heart of the future of both.
Eduflack doesn’t seek to evangelize for S
TEM (at least not all of the time), but sometimes we need to sing loudly from the STEM hymnal.  Today’s students need STEM as part of their educational pathway, providing the knowledge and skills they need both in school and in career.  Today’s employees need STEM to stay relevant and adaptable to a changing economy.  And today’s employers need STEM to ensure they current and future workforce possess the skills to contribute to a thriving, growth-focused economy.  STEM education is at the heart of all of it.  We just need to ensure that community colleges and industry keep the blood pumping.

School Improvement, the Gates Way

Over at the Washington Post this AM, Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt asks the multi-billion-dollar question, How would Bill Gates repair our schools?  Reflecting on a recent interview Gates had with WaPo, Hiatt opines that Gates is an advocate for the sort of reforms that EdSec Arne Duncan and DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee evangelize.  He points to the status quo — collective bargaining agreements, tenure, resistance to charter schools, and opposition to pay for performance — as some of the great roadblocks that Duncan, Rhee, and even Gates face in their quest to improve public education.

Eduflack agrees that, for the most part, Duncan and Rhee must play within the system.  For all of this talk about innovation, Duncan must still balance the concerns voiced by traditional groups such as AASA, NSBA, the teachers unions, and others.  As for Rhee, all but the good chancellor have recognized that the American Federation of Teachers is not simply a work-around, and is a reality that must be talked to, dealt with, and respected.  In both cases, innovation and improvement can only come with, to a great degree, buy-in and support from those considered a part of the education “status quo,” the very component so many of us point to as the roadblock to real, significant change.
But Bill Gates, and the Gates Foundation, are a completely different story.  In recent years, the Gates Foundation has invested billions of dollars into our public schools.  It has experimented in small schools and has staked its claim in high school reform.  It has supported dual enrollment and early college programs and invested in libraries and other resources.  Now, it embarks on a path of human capital, seeking to invest in the teachers and administrators that are a necessary component to school turnarounds and school improvements.
So who says Gates has to play by the rules and the confines of the current system?  After all, this is a man who released a box full of mosquitoes as an international conference so all could feel the possible threat of malaria.  This is a man who built a global corporate giant out of his garage by refusing to abide by mores and by never hearing the word no.  This is a man who is investing significant wealth into American public education, despite so many people telling him it was a lost cause and he was throwing his money into a pit that will never yield a return.
To date, the Gates Foundation is thinking about the right issues.  School structure.  Teacher training and support.  Rigor and relevance of instruction.  Connections between K-12 and the workforce.  Pay structures that reward success.  Student assessments and standards.  Return on educational investment.  The Foundation has tried to implement these issues in a number of ways, trying pilot projects across the nation, looking for promising practice, and hoping to find real solutions that can be adopted at scale across the United States.
The latter is the most important point for reformers.  How do we adopt proven solutions at scale?  To date, we are tinkering around the edges.  We can point to achievement gap solutions in Ohio, early college successes in the JFF network, and virtual options in Texas, for instance.  These issues have come, in large part, from working within the system, as Gates seeks to supplement existing efforts and provide the funding to do more within the current system, essentially layering potential solutions on top of systems that may well be broken at their core.
More than a year ago, Eduflack reflected on this same issue.  How can Gates get more bang for its buck?  How can it move from tinkering to dropping a brand-new engine into our public schools?  How does it move from supplementing what is broken to supplanting?  How does it use its power, vision, and checkbook to literally build that better mousetrap.
In recent months, Bill Gates has laid out his vision for what our schools need to improve.  That vision is reflected in Hiatt’s piece this morning.  Flexibility in structure, evidenced by a greater need for charter schools.  Flexibility in human capital, evidenced by new formulas for training, hiring, and rewarding teachers.  Strong standards by which all students are measured, ensuring all students are embracing both the relevance and rigor of 21st century education.  And an unwavering commitment to success, whereby dropout factories are a thing of the past and dropping out is viable option for no student and no family.
So it has me back to my original thinking.  Forget about supporting existing school districts and trying to layer new programs on top of old, failed efforts.  Now is the time for Gates to be bold and different.  Now is the time for the Gates Foundation to chart a different course.  Now is the time for Gates to reject the status quo, and chart a completely new path for K-12 education in the United States.
It is a simple one.  Gates needs to get in the business of empire building.  Instead of investing in urban school districts and trying to overcome decades of problems that have become ingrained on the schools’ DNA, Gates needs to begin building alternative school districts.  That’s right.  Forget charter schools, we need charter districts.  If the current model is broken, as Gates claims, the answer is not to fix.  The true answer is to create a better one.  Move into an urban center and set up a K-12 charter district.  Determine the most effective, research-proven curriculum.  Train, hire, and support the best teachers.  Reward those teachers properly.  Apply strong standards to every student, accepting no excuses and demanding proficiency and success from all.  Better align our elementary, middle, and secondary school programs.  Engage students early on, so they see the relevance of their academic pursuits.  Offer internships and externships so all students see the career opportunities before them.  Build the buildings, implement the learning structures, acquire the technology and learning materials, and do what is necessary to get us to success.  No boundaries to prevent us from doing what is necessary.  No excuses to fall back on.  
These new school districts can build on the successes of Gates programs to date.  They can take the best of Early College High Schools, of the Ohio High School Transformation Initiative, and of Green Dot Schools.  They can also build on the efforts of KIPP and Teach for America and even from school districts like NYC that are truly thinking outside the box.  They can borrow and steal from the very best in school reform, community engagement, corporate innovation, and some of the news ways of thinking coming from small, nimble not-for-profits.
Then take this new system and provide families the choice.  Those who wish to remain in the traditional school district that has served their family for generations can do so.  Those who are seeking new options, those who are seeking new opportunities, those seeking more choice can opt for the Gates route.  It is about providing options and choice.  If implemented properly, such choices not only offer a strong Gates model, but the competition forces traditional school districts to act differently, improve, and meet the demands of their current customers — the families.  If done well, the rising Gates tide would lift all schools — traditional publics, charters, and privates alike.
I know what many are thinking — what an absolutely ridiculous idea.  Funders don’t do such a thing.  They provide resources to support the current infrastructure. They fund new projects and new ideas.
 They supplement, they don’t compete.  Yes, that may have been the way we have traditionally worked, but does it need to be that way?  Do philanthropies need to simply serve as advisors, consultants, and checkbooks, or can they get more active?
When Bill Gates built Microsoft, his mature business model was not to simply advise IBM on the operating software they needed.  He determined the status quo — both in terms of hardware and software — weren’t cutting it.  He tried working as part of that system, and it just didn’t work.  So he turned the industry on its head, positioning software as the driver in the technology industry.  Microsoft became Microsoft because he offered consumers a choice, and he offered them a better one.  After a while, it was no choice at all.  If one wanted to succeed in business, one had to use Microsoft products.
So why can’t we do the same in education?  Why can’t Gates use its investment to build a better school district?  Take all of those great minds that have been assembled at the foundation, and do it differently and do it better.  From the top down and the bottom up, build a school structure that is both student and teacher focused, geared toward real results, and not beholden to the status quo or the ways we used to do it simply because that is how we used to do it.
Could this path be a complete failure?  Absolutely.  The Foundation could get into the middle of it and find that curriculum selection, teacher training, and CBAs are far more difficult than they ever envisioned.  They could discover that managing buildings or dealing with operational issues is not what they want to do.  They could realize that human capital management is simply too difficult a nut to crack, particularly if they are not in charge of the pre-service education that delivers the teachers to their door.  They could even find that the first or second generation of this experiment is a failure, and they have to keep changing and adapting on the fly to meet goals and deliver on their promises to the community.  And, shudder, they could even find themselves lapsing into models and behaviors far too similar to the school districts they are trying to change and offer an alternative to.
Or it could just work.  Gates could pick a four or five cities, invest significantly in those cities and demonstrate how district-wide change can happen at the city, school, classroom, and student level.  They could identify those best practices that can indeed be replicated at scale in districts throughout the nation.  They can find a way to build better pathways and make real opportunities available to more students in need.  They can truly build a better learning environment, particularly for those who have been dealt a bad hand for far too long.
Let’s face it.  If anyone can do it, Gates can do it.  And at this point of the game, not trying is far worse than the risk of failure.  If the EdSec is going to stake a number of school districts with the funds to Race to the Top, why can’t Gates do the same?  We let ED fund internal improvements designed to improve current districts.  Gates funds the construction of new school districts focused on 21st century needs and expectations.  And we see who provides a better education, and a better ROI.  Let the best model win.
Now that’s a race any reformer would watch, from pole to pole.

Actually Getting Kids to College, or Just Talking About It?

By now, Eduflack readers know two evident truths about successful communications.  The first is we must raise awareness about the problem and what people know about it.  The second is we must drive audiences to action, getting them to change their behaviors to fix said problem.  It is modern-day advocacy.  Being informed is no longer enough.  If we aren’t taking the action steps to improve student achievement, then any “PR effort” isn’t worth its salt.

For years now, we’ve screamed from the rooftops that each and every child in the United States required a college degree.  The U.S. Department of Education said that 90 percent of new jobs demanded some form of postsecondary education.  We’ve talked about the problems of dropout factories and business’ need for a college-educated workforce.  We’ve discussed 21st century skills and the learning needs one acquires after high school.
Earlier this week, the KnowHow2Go campaign released new public survey information on its efforts to boost public awareness of its efforts to inform eighth to 10th graders on the need for college.  The results include:
* More than one-third (35 percent) of students say they are regularly taking steps to prepare for college (up from 26 percent in 2007)
* Nine in 10 students (91 percent) have spoken to an adult about college prep, up from 80 percent
* Six in 10 students (63 percent) have seen or heard of KnowHow2Go and its advertising campaign
* Eight in 10 students (81 percent) said they were familiar with the courses needed for college, up from 70 percent two years ago
The data points are interesting, don’t get me wrong, but what do they really tell us?  As we are improving our ability to inform students, are we actually changing student behaviors?  Unfortunately, we just don’t know.  This data seems to raise just as many questions as it provides answers.
One-third of students are taking steps to prepare to college.  Interestingly, one-third of high school students will go on to college.  And one-third have gone on to college for decades.  What does that mean?  In 2007, those students who were likely going on to college didn’t know they were taking the steps necessary to get there.  So now those same students know they are asking the right questions and getting the right information.  But what are we doing for the two-thirds of ninth graders who will never go on to college?  What questions are they asking?  What steps are they taking?  And why aren’t they doing what it takes to prepare for postsecondary education?
Ninety percent of students have spoken to an adult about college.  What about that remaining 10 percent?  What are they talking about?  Who are they talking to?  And how are we defining an adult?  Based on my previous research with high school students on whether or not they go on to college, the vast majority of students say they trust their parents first and foremost when it comes to college decisions..  Guidance counselors usually rank near the bottom of adults when it comes to those voices they value.  So are these students talking to parents and trusted adults, those they may actually listen to, or are they talking to the guidance counselors and such that they will immediately discount?
Eight in 10 students are now familiar with the courses needed for college.  But are they taking them?  Again, information is great, but are students acting on the information?  Are they enrolling in higher level science and math classes?  Are they taking dual-credit opportunities?  Are they taking the ACT or SAT test?  Are they passing their state proficiency exams? It is one thing to say we know what we need to do.  It is something completely different to actually do it.
What do we know?  We know that only a third of today’s ninth graders will go on to postsecondary education.  We know that of those who enter college, more than half are unprepared for college-level work, evidenced by the high numbers of students requiring remedial math and ELA courses.  We know that a third of students are still dropping out of high school, and those numbers reach almost 50 percent in our African-American and Hispanic populations.  We know that drop-out factories are still far-too-prominent in too many of our urban centers.
I give KnowHow2Go credit for boosting awareness of the issue.  Based on their data, their message is getting out there and students are more aware of the issues (at least those students who are participating in the survey).  But how is that awareness being used to actually change public behavior?  How do we use that awareness to boost high school graduation rates?  How do we use it to close the achievement gap?  How do we use it to actually boost the college-going rate, particularly among minority and low-income students?  How do we get more students to pursue the multiple pathways of postsecondary education?  How do we move this newly acquired information into real action that is improving student achievement and preparedness for the opportunities in the 21st century workforce.
Growing up, GI Joe taught Eduflack (and many others) that knowing was half the battle.  He was right.  KnowHow2Go has done a good job of informing students of the questions they need to ask and the issues they need to think about.  But what are they doing with that information?  Success only comes when we can show more students are actually going to college.  Success only comes when we demonstrate that students are actually taking the courses they need to go on to college.  Success only comes when we have tangible results to show for it, real results tied to grad rates, college preparedness, and the number of students gaining postsecondary degrees.  Success only comes when we fight that other half of the battle.  And far too many of us still need to gear up for that fight. 

Seeking Measurable School Improvement in the Buckeye State

We like to believe that the federal level is where all the action is when it comes to education improvement.  It’s easier to wrap our hands around, with one national policy to keep an eye on.  And it is cleaner when it comes to funding, as we just watch federal funding streams and an annual appropriations bill that has stayed relatively level-funded for much of the past few years.  In reality (as EdSec designee Arne Duncan will soon realize), the feds only account for about eight cents of every dollar spent in the classrooms.  The federal level may be the rhetorical brass ring, but the real action (especially these days) is happening at the state level.

Don’t believe Eduflack?  We all know we’re asking our schools to do more and more these days.  Close the achievement gap.  Make AYP.  Boost the grad rate.  Hire and retain effective teachers.  Collect and use meaningful data.  All is in a day’s work for our schools.  Our current economy is putting a major wrinkle in our plans to do more and achieve more.  According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 27 states have cut education because of the economic recession.  We’ve read about the 9 percent cut offered in Alabama.  We were disappointed by the hundreds of millions of K-12 cuts proposed in our home state of Virginia.  We’re also seeing significant K-12 cuts either implemented or proposed in states such as California, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio, and New York.  These cuts are real, and our students will be feeling them.
These past few weeks, Eduflack has been paying particular attention to the state economic realities, particularly in Ohio.  The Buckeye State has a new state superintendent — Deborah Delisle, the former superintendent of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district.  Delisle doesn’t seem to be deterred by these budget issues, as least according to a new piece from Cathy Candisky and the Columbus Dispatch.  www.dispatchpolitics.com/live/content/local_news/stories/2008/12/19/copy/delisle.ART_ART_12-19-08_B9_93C9GRJ.html?adsec=politics&sid=101  Candisky depicts a real school improver in her piece, despite a possible $2 billion cut to public education in Ohio’s upcoming two-year budget.
What is Delisle focusing on?  Teacher quality, drop-out rates, and achievement gaps.  She’s looking at replacing the Ohio Graduation Test with a college entrance exam, recognizing that graduation is one thing, but having kids prepared for college is something completely different.  She wants mentoring programs and a highly-qualified teacher in every classroom.  She wants to boost student quantitative measures while maintaining (and we presume increasing) students’ general love for learning.  And she recognizes her battle lines are being drawn in her urban districts, the low-income, low-family-education centers just like those she just arrived from.
Why is this important?  What Ohio and Delisle face is really a microcosm for what we collectively must address.  Her agenda is remarkably similar to what EdSec in-waiting Duncan will likely announce and what the Obama campaign had laid out.  Her challenges are near identical to what other states — like Pennsylvania, Florida, New York, Georgia, Arizona, California, and others — must face.  And she is doing so in a budget scenario that would be considered doomsday by far too many chief state school officers.  Yet she is rising to the challenge and not backing down.  Delisle is spotlighting the need for communications and better sharing of information, and isn’t claiming that the absence of increased budgets will keep her from achieving her goals.  She really is looking to build a “world-class education system” in Ohio, and she’s offering no excuses to get there.  And as we know from our politics, as goes Ohio, so goes the nation.
Fortunately, Delisle is not doing it alone, and she’s got some real successes to build on.  Yesterday, KnowledgeWorks Foundation released data on its high school improvement efforts in Ohio, embodied in its Ohio High School Transformation Initiative (OHSTI) and Early College High School (ECHS) efforts.  Over the last six years, KnowledgeWorks (along with the Gates Foundation and others) has worked with some of Ohio’s most struggling high schools.  Working with more than 25,000 students and 2,000 teachers, KnowledgeWorks has some pretty impressive data to talk about.  The graduation rates in OHSTI high schools is up 31%.  The graduation gap in OHSTI schools, compared to all of Ohio high schools, closed by 77%.  89% of OHSTI sites reported an increase on math and reading pass rates on the OGT.  ECHS students earned more than 10,000 college credits, with ECHS 10th graders outperforming the state average on the OGT’s reading, writing, math, social studies, and science portions.  The full announcement can be found here — www.edworkspartners.org/pr121908.aspx  (Full disclosure, Eduflack has been working with KnowledgeWorks on this important initiative,)  
These are real results in schools that many would have given up on years ago.  These aren’t cherry-picked high schools or those with the resources to supplement and enhance at will.  These are urban schools in communities that have gotten poorer and have watched family education levels drop over the last five years.  So if it can happen in KnowledgeWorks schools, it can happen just about anywhere.  The OHSTI and ECHS effort gives Delisle and other state superintendents a clear blueprint on the multiple pathways available to improve our high schools, and how those improvements can both improve grad rates and provide postsecondary options to those who never envisioned it.  More importantly, it gives Delisle clear data that proves her state mission is achievable, assuming school districts follow the right path to improvement.  And she should know, her former district was part of the OHSTI network.  Who knows better?

Failing to Meet Our Parents’ Expectations

Earlier this month, we had the American Council on Education release data showing that today’s students are attaining less education than their parents.  At the time, I took that to mean that many students stopping at their BAs have parents with advanced degrees, the kids of BA parents are wrapping up at the associates level, and some children of college grads are settling for just a high school diploma.

Over the past decade, particularly over the past three or so years, it seemed pretty clear to Eduflack that there was universal agreement, at least among adults, that a high school diploma was a non-negotiable in today’s world.  I’ve even say that every student requires some form of postsecondary education — be it training program, community college, or four-year degree — if they are to compete and succeed in the 21st century economy.  We may say it, but the Education Trust’s latest report is enough to send a chill down my eduspine.
If you’ve missed it, CNN.com has the story — beta.cnn.com/2008/US/10/24/dropout.rate.ap/index.html.  The headline says it all.  Kids are less likely to graduate than their parents.  What the headline is missing, but the lede provides, is that we are now talking about HIGH SCHOOL.  Today, in 2008, teenagers are less likely to graduate from high school than their parents were.  And according to the EdTrust numbers, one in four kids is dropping out of high school, a number than has held steady for a half-decade now.
This story should be a punch in the gut to all of those who have been working on high school reform efforts for the past decade.  After all of the time and money and attention and effort that the Gates Foundation and the Alliance for Excellent Education and Jobs for the Future and the National High School Alliance and others have poured into improving the high school experience, we still haven’t convinced our young people that a high school diploma is a worthwhile goal.
Yesterday, we heard the EdSec talk about the importance of a common high school graduation rate, so we know where every state stands when it comes to handing out the diplomas.  Alliance President Bob Wise likened it to Fedex, providing us real-time data to understand where every student is along the continuum.  But according to EdTrust, even when we let each state set their own rates (and some set the bar awfully low), only half of states are hitting the mark.  Once every state adopts the NGA formula mandated by the U.S. Department of Education, state grad rates are likely to fall in the short term (and not just hold) in a great number of states.  It becomes hard to hide behind the data when you don’t get to set the data collection terms.
Don’t worry, I am not hear to rant (or to continue to rant) about what we need to do to make high school more rigorous or relevant or how to better capture data.  We have enough of that information from those individuals and organizations that have dedicated their work lives to the process.  One just has to look at a state like Ohio, both through its OHSTI and ECHS efforts, to see how you improve the secondary school experience.
No, the EdTrust data isn’t a clarion call for yet another round of ideas on high school reform or redesign.  Instead, it is a clear and unquestioned alert that we need to do a better job communicating with today’s young people.
Speak to many involved in high school redesign efforts, and they will talk about their work with school administrators, teachers, and state policymakers.  They’ll talk about the role of the business community.  Some may even mention a parent or a member of the clergy.  But when it comes to talking about primary audiences for high school reform, we often take students — the end user and ultimate customer — for granted.
All the reform and improvement in the world doesn’t mean squat if the student doesn’t see the value and importance of it.  And the only way we can effectively communicate that value is to communicate with the students themselves.
Are kids dropping out because class is too hard or because it is too boring?  Are they dropping out to pursue a job opportunity or because they want out of school?  Are classes fun and interesting?  Do they have career plans?  Are they getting classes that align with those career plans?  Do they know what it takes to secure the job they want?  What do they deem a good job?  Are they engaging with their teachers?  Are they using technology?  Do they see high school dropouts who are succeeding?  Who are they getting advice from?  What’ll it take to keep them in the classroom?
Over the years, Eduflack has done more than his share of focus groups with high school students.  Each time, I am surprised by how we underestimate them and their views on the value of education.  Often, these sessions are the first time a 15-year-old has been asked by an adult what their goals are and how they get there.  I’ve spoken with kids in some of the poorest areas in our nation, urban and rural, and I can tell you one thing — every kid knows dropping out simply isn’t an option.  They know it is a wasted opportunity.  And they know it means a future of struggle.
So what do we do about it?  As a nation, we have invested billions of dollars into high school redesign efforts, working to improve instruction, delivery, measurement, rigor, and relevance in our secondary schools.  We’ve made great strides.  But the EdTrust numbers and last year’s study on dropout factories tells us we still have a long way to go.  
We don’t need more redesign.  We need a better sales job.  We need state policymakers and superintendents to better understand what works, both to increase the grad rate and boost student achievement on the state exams.  We need teachers to better understand how to relate to today’s students, connecting lessons in chemistry or history or English to student interests and student desires.  But most importantly, we need to sell students on the notion that this is just the first major step down the path they want to take, that they need to take.
Students need to better understand that secondary and postsecondary education are requirements for a good job in this economy.  Students need to know dropping out is never a viable choice.  Students need to know the career and life options before them, and the education required to get them there.  Students need to be challenged, both in terms of curriculum and its delivery.  Students need choices and options, whether they be honor students or struggling learners.  Students need to value a high school diploma as much as their parents or grandparents do.
It is easy to lecture at a kid and tell them this is important.  It is even easy to inform them on why they need to stay in school and why they need to take their education seriously.  And it is somewhat comforting to know that we don’t need to overly worry about three out of every four students out there.  But for that remaining 25%, we need to take bold action to change their minds and change their behavior.  We need to get them to stay in school.  That doesn’t come by changing the drop-out age to 18 or mandating exit exams for all.  That comes from communicating the value and need of secondary instruction.  That comes from engaging today’s kids (and often before they get to high school).  It comes from selling kids on school and their future.  
We may think we are doing it, but the data shows we clearly are not.  Instead of communicating with students, we are speaking past them.  We need big change, at least when it comes to the attitudes of young people.  Without it, our schools, our economy, and our nation will never live up to the sta
ndard we set or the potential we have.

A College-Ready Culture

Thanks in large part to the funding and attention provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, much of the past five years in education reform has focused on improving high schools.  We’ve seen programs large and small looking for ways to improve rigor and relevance of high school instruction.  We’ve looked at small schools.  We’ve tried to tackle the high school dropout rate and the issue of dropout factories.  We’ve even looked at career education and career academies.  Lots of great ideas that have worked in a lot of well-meaning communities.  But much of it steps along the path of finding a high school improvement model that can truly be implemented at scale.

Why is scale so important?  Scale demonstrates that the reform can have an impact on the nation, and not just the community it is launched in.  It shows real reach and real opportunity.  Don’t believe Eduflack?  Check out groups like KIPP and Green Dot, and it is a discussion of scale.  Look at programs like Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools, it is about scale.  Innovation looking to truly improve public education is all about scale.  It’s about reaching as many people as possible and impacting as many schools and districts as allowable.
Last year, Eduflack was privileged to work with the National Governors Association on its Honor States Initiative, a Gates-funded effort to develop and cultivate meaningful high school reforms at the state level.  In many ways, the Honor States effort was one of the closest we’ve come to identifying a program that truly could be adopted and adapted at scale.  Working with 10 states (and their respective governors and state departments of education), NGA empowered states to implement state-level solutions to issues like grad rates, STEM, increased AP, and graduation requirements.  Equip all states with a similar set of tools and resources and supports, let them tackle the top issue preventing them from improving the high school experience, and help them solve the problem.  With flexibility and personalization, the Initiative provides a scalable model for state-level school improvement, a model that can be followed by all 50 states, regardless of where they get their funding.
As we dig deeper into scalability, though, particularly when it comes to high school improvement, it all comes down to tackling the high school dropout rate and boosting the college-going rate.  Most in education can agree that postsecondary education is a necessity in today’s economy and today’s world.  But with a third of today’s ninth graders dropping out of high school (and almost 50 percent of them in urban centers), and with a third of high school graduates never earning a postsecondary degree or certificate, how do you implement a national solution to reverse the trend?  How do you build a college-ready culture?
Today, College Summit (www.collegesummit.org) — a not-for-profit focused on college-going rates and postsecondary planning — announced a new partnership with the Gates Foundation to focus on “preparing all graduating high school students for college and career success.”  The goal is to get more students, particularly those in underserved populations — onto the college path as quickly and as permanently as possible.
Why is this important?  It is possible that the College Summit model could evolve into a scalable solution for reducing the dropout rate and getting more kids into college.  Why?
* It begins with a focus on ninth grade.  Look at the data, and we see that dropouts come in the ninth grade.  Once a student makes it through that first year of high school, the likelihood of sticking around for the remaining years increases exponentially.  But far too many programs focus on the upper grades of high school, spotlighting rigorous courses in 11th or 12th grade only.  By then, it is simply too late to focus a student on the college path.  If Eduflack had his druthers, we’d start even earlier than the ninth grade, beginning college prep in middle school.
* It is a collaborative process.  If we are to change the college-going behaviors of at-risk students, we need to do more than change those students’ thinking on the value of college.  We need to engage teachers and counselors.  We need to include parents and families.  We need to construct a collaborative discussion that focuses on the problem, the need for a solution, and a discussion of practical, implementable solutions.
* Geographic mix.  College Summit has assembled an interesting list of 13 regions it will start this effort in.  Yes, it includes the traditional urban bellweathers like New York City and Miami.  But it also includes B-list urban districts like Oakland, leadership-challenged districts like St. Louis, and innovation-focused districts like Indianapolis.  And it throws communities like Kanawha County, WV in, to boot.
* They are focusing on the whole school.  The goal here is to change the culture.  How do we get the whole school to transform into a school singularly focused on the path to postsecondary?  How do we ensure all students see a high school diploma and a postsecondary degree as necessary tools for a good job and a successful life?  This isn’t about pulling out specific students or targeting specific populations.  It is about the entire community.
Much is still left to be seen.  What are the hard goals three years from now?  Five years from now?  What rubrics will we use to measure the success of the program?  How will we ensure the 13 regions collaborate and learn from each others’ experiences?  How do we ensure innovations like online education and STEM are included in the process?  How do we make sure the best or promising practices gleaned from this experiment can be applied to more and more communities, offering a truly scalable solution to college readiness?
Lots of questions, yes.  But important questions worth the ask.  No doubt, the issue is one we need to address.  How do we identify and adopt national solutions to our dropout and college-going crisis?  Here’s hoping College Summit may be on to something.

Let’s Make Dropping Out Illegal!

By now, the numbers are ingrained on the souls of most education reformers.  Nearly a third of all ninth graders will not earn a high school diploma.  In our African-American and Hispanic communities, that number statistic rises to nearly 50 percent.  Imagine, a 50/50 chance of earning a high school diploma of you are a student of color.  The statistic is so staggering, there must be something we can do.

In today’s USA Today, we have the dueling editorials on a potential solutions — raising the drop-out age.  The line of thinking here is that if we raise the age a student must be in order to drop out of high school to 18, we can turn this crisis around.  Think of it.  Require, by law, every kid to stay in school until they are 18, and the drop-out rates will dramatically shrink.

Of course, 17 states already have such compulsory school attendance laws, with one more going online next summer.  Do we believe that those states — which include California, Louisiana, Ohio, and Texas — are not struggling with dropouts?  Are grad rates not an issue in LAUSD or New Orleans or Cleveland or Houston?  Of course not.  Those cities are facing the realities of drop-out factories, just like most major urban centers, even if drop-outs need to be 18 to officially leave school.

If we know anything about teenagers, it should be that mandates don’t change behavior.  A 17-year requirement doesn’t keep the average 10th grader from seeing an R-rated movie.  A 21-year age requirement doesn’t keep seniors from taking a sip of beer or a slug of Boone’s Farm.  We have underage driving. We have illegal drug use.  Kids will go after what they want, regardless of the prohibitions or the consequences.  The challenge — and the opportunity — is to convince them to make a good decision.  We don’t chain them to their high school desks, we need to demonstrate to them that they want to stay and they need to stay.

So how do we do that?  Last month, I made reference to some focus groups I did with students on the value and need for high school.  Robert Pondiscio and the folks over at the Core Knowledge Blog (http://www.coreknowledge.org/blog/) hoped they would soon learn a little more about Eduflack’s experiences.  So here goes.

Back in the fall, I spent weeks meeting with eight, ninth, and 10th graders from a state that is pretty representative of the United States.  Strong and not-so-strong urban centers, along with booming suburbs, and struggling rural areas.  A strong commitment to K-16 education, yet major industry leaving the cities and towns that have long depended on it.  Educators and business leaders committed to improvement, yet students not sure what opportunity would be available to them.

My goal was to learn what low-income students thought of their high school offerings and their opportunities for the future.  I didn’t spend my time in the suburbs or with the honors or college prep students.  I met with poor urban students, and I met with poor rural students.  Most came from families where college had never been an option.  And all came from homes with a very real fear that this generation may not be as successful as the generation before it.

I planned for the worst.  I expected students to justify, or even respect, dropping out.  How good union jobs could be found without a high school diploma or how gangs and other outside influences made school a lesser priority.  But what I heard during this experience gave me hope, and made it clear we can improve high school graduation rates simply by boosting relevance, interest, and access.

What did I hear?  In general:

* Students understand and appreciate the link between high school and “good” careers.
* For virtually all students, dropping out is not a productive option.  For many, they don’t even think you can get a fast food job today without that diploma.
* Students know relevant courses such as those found in STEM programs are key to obtaining meaningful employment after school.
* They are eager to pursue postsecondary opportunities while in high school.  They may not know anyone who has taken an AP or dual enrollment course, but they know it has value.
* Students want more career and technical education offerings.  They know these are relevant courses that link directly to future jobs.

And what more did Eduflack learn?  The greatest obstacle we face is awareness.  This isn’t about requiring kids to stay in school.  This is about opening opportunities and helping them see the choices and the pathways available to them.  Today’s high schools are not one-size-fits-all.  And that’s OK.  Today’s students want to know what’s available to them and what aligns with their aptitudes and their interests.  They want a consumer-based educational experience.

Parents still play a key role in this little dance, as does the business community.  Students expect their parents to push and guide them.  They may not always listen, but students know they need their parents with them as they head down those pathways.  With businesses, students just want to learn about the opportunities.  What is needed to become a physician assistant or a manager at the local manufacturing plant or a graphic designer.  Today’s students do have career aspirations, but most of them have never met someone who holds that job nor do they know what is needed to achieve such a position.  Now is the time for businesses to educate their future workforce.

I’ve done similar focus groups across the nation over the last decade, and the findings have been remarkably similar.  Students have a far better sense for their futures than we give them credit for.  They know it will be hard.  They know they’ll need help.  But they know there are multiple pathways available to them.  They just need their teachers and parents and priests and community leaders to see it to.

These kids aren’t dropping out of high school because it is too hard or because they are finally old enough that they can stop going to school and stay at home and watch TV all day.  They leave because they don’t see the relevance.  They don’t see how the classes they are taking crosswalk to their career or life goals.  They don’t believe postsecondary education may be possible for them.  They don’t believe they have the ability to gain access to those multiple pathways. 

Raising the drop-out age won’t change that.  If we want more students to stay in high school, earn their diplomas, and pursue postsecondary education, we need to inspire and motivate them.  We need to give them hope.  We need to demonstrate that high school is the first step toward a happy and successful life.  It needs to be relevant.  It needs to be interesting and engaging.  And it needs to lift up all students, not talk down to them with mandates and lowered expectations.