Staying Optimistic in the Midst of Dysfunction

When I feel overwhelmed about the madness in Washington, I have a time-tested strategy: I get myself as fast as I can to a high-poverty school that is hitting it out of the park for poor kids. When I talk with well-supported teachers who have seen their children soar, and when I talk with the kids themselves and hear the pride in their voices and see the new confidence in their eyes, I get renewed energy for the never-ending battles to provide education of consistently high quality to all of America’s children.

But over the course of the last week, I’ve gained new energy — dare I even say optimism? — from a different source: education leaders who truly do exemplify what leadership is supposed to be about.  Those who have the courage to do the right thing, even when it’s hard and the path forward is unclear.

The first encounter surrounded the release of our report on problems in the state accountability systems approved under the secretary of education’s authority to waive provisions of No Child Left Behind. As those who read that report know, we found much to like about the new accountability systems. Unlike earlier approaches, these rating systems often measure not just proficiency but growth and improvement over time. And they include measures of college and career readiness beyond just test scores. But we also found that the signals around gap-closing had been substantially weakened, and schools are now able to earn high ratings despite low performance and/or growth from some groups of their students. Not good news.

As is our tradition, before the report went public, we shared our findings with leaders from the states whose data we examined so they would not be caught unprepared. We knew, of course, that our findings would be hard to hear. And we knew that, for at least some of them, the timing was horrible, coming so close to what are often very contentious statewide elections. So we just gritted our teeth and waited to be yelled at.

Imagine my surprise when the first response to my email — from Terry Holiday, the commissioner of education in Kentucky — was (and I hope he won’t mind my sharing):

“Great timing Kati. We have similar concerns, and our state board will be revising our state accountability model over coming months. Would Ed Trust have interest in coming to a Ky state board mtg to review analysis and propose possible recommendations – probably early December?” 

And the follow-up call between his team and ours was even better, a genuinely open exploration of what the state might do to strengthen both the signals and the supports schools get.

Despite a lot of very impressive work by Terry and his team, Kentucky has had its share of pushback recently, on everything from Common Core and testing to teacher evaluation. So they couldn’t have wanted another problem to work its way into public view, especially one with the potential to ignite racial tension. But instead of trying to keep it hidden, the commissioner embraced shining some light on it. That, of course, is the way problems get solved, instead of just hidden away. That’s what real leaders do.

Interestingly, I saw that same kind of leadership among a group of higher education leaders gathered for the day in a conference room in a Long Beach hotel.

It has been awhile, I have to confess, since I found a group of higher education leaders inspirational. It seems that many in the sector have lost sight of their public mission. In the pursuit of ever-higher rankings, they have shifted resources away from low-income students and toward the wealthy, exacerbating inequality rather than doing their share to put the American Dream within the reach of the poor.

But this group — campus and system leaders from the huge California State University system — has a very different history and aspirations for the future that focus squarely on broadening opportunities for California’s large and growing communities of color. Once again, our role with them could have activated all of their defenses because we came with data — lots of it — suggesting that while having made progress, their work to date had been insufficient relative to need, that they needed to redouble their efforts to better serve their low-income students and students of color, and that new improvement and gap-closing goals were necessary to give focus to that strategy.

Instead of reacting with anger, however, or just pointing the finger of blame back at the state for serious budget cuts, these leaders — both administrators and faculty — owned the problem and pummeled us and each other for best practices in solving it. And instead of plotting to reach their graduation rate goals in the tried-and-true way in higher education — by becoming more selective and keeping less-prepared students out, something that would be quite easy for many of them as their campuses are flooded with more applicants than they can accommodate — they strategized with each other on how not to do that, keeping their eyes squarely focused on the first-generation college students for whom Cal State has been the most important path up.

Sure, there were a few in the room who were skeptical — who wanted to pick at the data we brought them instead of stepping up to the challenges it suggested. But system Chancellor Tim White — who, in an earlier leadership role, led the University of California’s Riverside campus to completely close the black/white graduation rate gap — told them he would brook no excuses. That California’s big and small communities depended on CSU to help a broader swath of their citizenry earn bachelor’s degrees and that they would, indeed, deliver.

So yes, the dysfunction in Congress still makes me crazy. And the smarty-pants in think tanks, for whom being smart is vastly more important than changing things for the better for kids, still make me want to stick pencils in my eyes.

Yet there are people out there who give me hope. Usually they are the teachers and principals in hit-it-out-of-the-park high-poverty schools. But this week they are the leaders with the courage to step into problems instead of running away from them.

When Schools Don’t Understand the Power of Data

Back when I was a high school parent, I served on the school improvement committee. I kept asking for data on achievement, attendance, test results, and so forth, but it was early on in the life of data use for schools, so mostly I was met with blank looks.

Finally, one year, to fulfill a requirement for a grant from the state, the school gave reading tests to all the incoming freshmen. The resulting data were presented to the committee.

As I recall, about one-third of the incoming students were reading at a college level, one-third were reading at or a bit above the eighth-grade level, and the rest of the students were reading at lower levels, with a horrifying number reading below the third-grade level.

I asked the principal what he was going to do to respond to the data, and he said that there was nothing to do. But, he added, the data did explain the high school’s low graduation rate.

That was an example of an educator using data simply to explain failure rather than to look for what the school could do to make things better, and I suspect it happens far too frequently.

In Huffington Post this week, I talk about some of the more effective ways school leaders should look at data.

(And if you who would like to meet educators who use data to spur improvement, rather than explain failure, you should come to the Education Trust 2014 National Conference Nov. 13-14 in Baltimore. The conference will feature quite a few of them.)

How to Strengthen School Accountability

“Count me among those who applaud the new guidance from the U.S. Department of Education on enforcing fair access to critical educational resources. For far too long and in far too many places, the deck has been stacked against students of color: fewer experienced teachers; less instructional time; fewer teaching resources; antiquated technology. It’s long past time that we turn these patterns around and deliver on the American promise.

But unless the secretary of education takes advantage of the opportunity he will have later this month to reverse an ill-fated decision he made three years ago, there is great risk that schools and districts will get the wrong message: that low achievement for some groups of children doesn’t matter so long as resources are equal. Not a legacy, I suspect, that either the secretary or his boss wants. …”

Read the full column, “Driving for Equity – in What?” here.

A School’s Traditions Demonstrate Its Values

When I visit a school, I am always struck by the traditions and rituals that help establish the school’s identity and signal what a school values.

Most high schools have lots of traditions around athletics, for example. We’re now in homecoming season, which was certainly a big deal at my kids’ high school.

It’s in the non-sports traditions that you can see the real values of a school, though. Continue reading

What Happened With Cohort Default Rates?

The U.S. Department of Education recently released student loan cohort default rates for colleges and universities. Schools with rates of 30 percent or more for three consecutive years (and those with 40 percent or more for one year) were in danger of losing federal financial aid. In the end, the list included only 21 schools. Why was that?

The department made a last-minute change to the calculation that determines student loan cohort default rates — making the already-imperfect measure even less perfect. Continue reading

Broad Prize Lessons From the Middle Seat

On a recent flight to Atlanta I was stuck in a middle seat, which I initially viewed with dismay but soon grew to appreciate.

The person on my left saw that I was reading Fifteen Thousand Hours, prompting her to reveal herself as a recently retired educator who had been a high school teacher for many years before working at the state level in Georgia. She and I got to talking about education, at which point the young woman on my right introduced herself as an elementary school teacher in Florida. Continue reading

A Next-Generation Design for Federal Financial Aid

This morning, we’ll be hosting a panel discussion about better targeting federal financial aid, work-study dollars, and other funding to more effectively benefit students and taxpayers. It’s a culmination of four policy proposals released this year (from four entities, Ed Trust included) that provide policy recommendations for creating a next-generation design for our nation’s financial aid system.

All of the work is wrapped up in Beyond Pell, the paper we’re releasing today and discussing at the event. Beyond Pell pushes for a 10 percent affordability guarantee for low-income students — meaning that any student who is eligible for a maximum Pell Grant (those from families with incomes of $23,000 or less) should not have to pay more than 10 percent of family income each year to go to college. (Currently, maximum Pell Grants are $5,645, so any remaining tuition, fees, or other academic expenses are paid for out-of-pocket.) Continue reading