Improving Higher Ed Outcomes Starts With Smart Data

Below is the first in a four-part series exploring how high-performing colleges and universities use data to improve student retention and graduation rates. Detailed lessons from eight institutions are shared in our higher education practice guide. This series highlights how some of those colleges have made progress and how others can follow their example to increase student success.

I recently travelled to Lexington, Ky., for a retreat and planning session of chief academic officers from the states’ public colleges and universities. The Kentucky public colleges have increased their graduation rates significantly in recent years — up 7 points (to 51 percent) since 2005. Likewise, the rate for transfer students has jumped 12 points to 65 percent.

But these public institutions, like the vast majority of colleges nationwide, see low-income students and students of color graduating at lower rates than their peers. It’s a problem plaguing many colleges, and these gaps in degree completion continue to persist despite the efforts of the campus leaders at the Kentucky meeting.

My role at the retreat was to introduce Ed Trust’s higher education practice guide. Written for university presidents and provosts, the guide profiles eight high-performing and fast-gaining institutions that have used data to engage campus stakeholders and create a problem-solving culture focused on improving student success.

The lessons from these leaders are distilled to 10 analyses that can be replicated on any campus. The idea is to, first, ask questions about barriers to graduation and then, second, use data to identify and remove obstacles students face on the path to degree completion. These are tools to help university leaders orient institutional resources to more fully support students in their academic pursuits.

As the Kentucky provosts digested the lessons from the practice guide, they began to speak of initiatives on their campuses to improve graduation rates and close gaps. These strategies included summer bridge programs, freshmen learning communities, and intrusive academic advising.

Research shows that improved student success is not the result of one singular program or policy. But many colleges have fallen prey to the “spaghetti approach” — throw a bunch of programs at the problem and see what sticks. High-performing colleges have taken a different approach: Use data to create targeted initiatives with the support of senior leaders and execute with fidelity.

In the next several days, we will publish a series of blog posts that take a closer look at the leading institutions profiled in the practice guide. Each campus faced different challenges, but each used data to answer questions and engage stakeholders in a problem-solving quest.

Check back later this week, when we explain how Georgia State University diagnosed the causes of its low graduation rates.

#AccessMeans Opportunity for All Students

A national social media campaign is showing that, while sometimes tagged as lazy, this generation of millennials — especially those of color — are breaking down barriers and dispelling myths that have plagued their communities for years. In the past decade, the percentage of black students going to college has gone up 63 percent; for Latinos, it’s up 38 percent. (And did you hear about Kwasi Enin, the first-generation American who got into all eight Ivys this year?) Continue reading

Gainful Rule Is Exactly What Students of Color Need

Enough with the argument that the proposed gainful employment regulation is a disservice to black, brown, and low-income students. What the National Black Chamber of Commerce has billed as unfairly targeting students of color is, in reality, an opportunity to better the institutions that serve them. The regulation would finally develop minimum standards for cost and quality for thousands of career education programs, many of which leave students hugely underprepared for work and in a deep hole of debt that is almost impossible to climb out of.

A majority of career education programs at for-profit colleges — 72 percent — produce graduates earning less on average than high school dropouts. That’s a lot of African American, Latino, and low-income students who are being poorly served by programs that promise to prepare them for “gainful employment in a recognized career.” The department’s new rule would ensure that students who are taking on this much debt are also prepared to find work so they can reasonably pay off their debt. If not, the career education programs that fail to prepare students for gainful employment and show no improvement would eventually lose their eligibility to receive federal financial aid. Continue reading

Less Testing Is Not the Answer

Lumped in with the controversy around the Common Core State Standards is an anti-testing sentiment that fails to understand the repercussions of eliminating useful, regular feedback about students’ progress. From anecdotal stories of parents pulling their children out of school during testing to a bill pending in Congress that would severely limit the regularity of assessments, the anti-testing movement might sound loud, but it represents just about one-quarter of parents.

Other parents — like this Portland, Ore., mother — want standardized feedback on their child’s academic progress. But the bill in Congress, sponsored by Reps. Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), seeks to undo that by reducing the number of federally mandated tests to only one per grade span (meaning one test each in elementary, middle, and high school). The anti-testing movement might think this sounds good, but in practice, it could damage transparency in student achievement. Continue reading

It’s Not All Rosy in PISA Problem-Solving Data

The conversation around the new data from the Programme for International Student Assessment on students’ problem-solving abilities has demonstrated, once again, how overall averages can paint a too–rosy picture by masking serious gaps between groups.

Overall, American 15-year-olds perform above the international average on problem-solving, are less likely to be low performers than their peers, and are especially strong on interactive tasks. Given other PISA data showing that U.S. teens have average reading and science skills and below-average math skills, these findings are encouraging.

But here’s what few are discussing: Continue reading

From Cowboys to Pit Crews

I’ve spent 10 years focused on the lessons that high-performing and rapidly improving high-poverty schools have to teach us, and what I’ve found is that they have all achieved a level of coherence that eludes many schools. All the systems and processes work together in service of helping all kids learn.

I find myself increasingly interested in how schools make the transition from the way they are traditionally organized — around the isolated individual practice of teachers — into coherent organizations where teachers work together to pool their expertise in the service of their students.

It is the same transition that, in medicine, surgeon and writer Atul Gawande has called going from a cowboy mentality to that of a pit crew.

In this week’s Huffington Post column, I give an example of a school that is working to make that transition — and I’m crossing my fingers that it will be successful.

The Achievement Gap Affects High Achievers, Too

As I journey around the country talking with educators working hard on “closing the achievement gap,” I have come to realize that the top tier of achievement is not the main priority in most schools. Indeed, for most educators, their work is focused at the other end of the achievement spectrum: bringing the bottom kids up.

Improving the knowledge and skills of our lowest performing students is hugely important, and I will never suggest otherwise. Far too many children — disproportionate numbers of low-income students and students of color among them, but many white students as well — have such low reading and mathematics skills that they will be forever locked out of decent jobs and full participation in our democracy if we don’t do something different, and do it fast.

We will, however, never close the achievement gaps that many are so committed to closing if we focus only on bringing the bottom students up. Simple mathematics makes that clear. If we are going to get these gaps behind us, once and for all, we have to bring our middle-achieving, low-income students and students of color higher, and move our higher-end students higher still. Continue reading

Why the Ryan Budget Is Bad for Pell Grant Students

Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, released today, offers up severe cuts ($791 billion over 10 years) to education and other non-defense programs, namely some of the financial assistance available to help students and families pay for college. Here are three reasons Ryan’s proposal is bad for Pell Grant recipients: Continue reading