We cover inequality and innovation in education with in-depth journalism that uses research, data and stories from classrooms and campuses to show the public how education can be improved and why it matters.
In this file photo, kindergarteners listen as teacher Amy Holland reads on the first day of school at Nancy Ryles Elementary School in Beaverton, Oregon. AP Photo/Matt Rourke
By all accounts, I wasn’t supposed to succeed in life. I was raised by my grandmother in a poor Philadelphia neighborhood after being orphaned at birth by teenage parents who were unable to care for me. I attended high-poverty neighborhood public schools.
But my grandmother, a loving woman with a third-grade education who could read and write only her name, created a space in our small house where I could study and read. My teachers made me love reading, and my grandmother backed up their work with her constant support of my academic pursuits.
We must ensure that our youngest learners are taught how to read. The research is clear: Children who struggle to read in the early grades rarely catch up with their peers. They are far more likely to suffer low self-esteem, they increasingly fall behind in other subjects and they likely won’t graduate from high school. For children who live in poverty, struggles with early literacy are often devastating.
Research shows that low-income children who cannot read at grade-level by third grade are six times more likely to drop out of high school than their more affluent peers. On the flip side, research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that children who read proficiently by the end of third grade are more likely to graduate from high school and to be economically successful in adulthood.
When I became a teacher — and eventually a principal and chief academic officer in Philadelphia schools — I knew that early literacy had to be one of my top priorities. It is the underpinning of so much of what we do in schools. I still remember my excitement to borrow books from the school library so that I could better understand life beyond my poverty-stricken world.
Five years ago, I took the helm of eight struggling schools educating 5,000 students in Philadelphia’s Universal Schools, a group of charter schools with lagging academic scores, high principal and teacher turnover and nonexistent parental involvement. Like most new school chiefs, I immediately dug into the data to find out what was happening. While all of it was troubling, I was thunderstruck: Only about a third of our third-graders could read on grade-level. Why couldn’t we teach our students to read proficiently by the end of third grade?
“I was thunderstruck: Only about a third of our third-graders could read on grade-level. Why couldn’t we teach our students to read proficiently by the end of third grade?”
For me, this challenge was as much personal as it was professional. With my grandmother’s voice in my head, I launched the Universal Early Literacy Initiative with the support of a five-year grant from the William Penn Foundation. We partnered with the Philadelphia-based Children’s Literacy Initiative to provide K-3 teachers with professional development on high-quality literacy and instructional strategies, as well as individualized coaching.
We saw great results. Third-grade reading proficiency rates improved across most Universal schools from 10 to 20 percentage points during the five years of the initiative. What’s more, classroom instruction improved because of the personalized training that each teacher received in high-quality literacy and instructional strategies.
But our improvements, while important, were simply not enough. We didn’t see the systematic changes that would lead to long-term improvement. There were many missed opportunities, and many of our students made it out of third grade still unable to read proficiently. We realized quickly that early literacy requires a much more comprehensive approach from schools than just professional development and instructional coaches for teachers. Those are important, but they alone can’t solve this stubborn issue. Here’s what we are doing in the second phase of our work:
1. It truly takes a village: Our approach needed to go even deeper on parental and community engagement. For our students, as it was for me, it’s not just about good teachers or a caring family — it’s the two parts of students’ lives working in tandem to ensure success. So, we have brought in volunteers from community partners in our neighborhoods to work with students and families on reading. In one school, the partner is a local church that many families attend, which means students are getting encouragement during the week and on Sunday, too.
2. Leadership is key: It can’t just be about the central office dictating what’s happening — principals must have buy-in and a strong commitment to this very difficult work of ensuring every student can read on grade-level. In phase two, our principals are leading the literacy work with staff that was previously done by outside coaches. Principals also get extra professional development around literacy instruction. We added a reading specialist to the staff of every school to work directly with the principal.
3. Curriculum matters: We updated our literacy curriculum in phase one, but we needed to do more, based on our data analysis. In the second phase of our initiative, we have added deeper phonics to our instruction so that students can better master the basics of reading.
We will continue this mission with a greater understanding of what it takes to be successful and the difficult work that goes into ensuring all students are successful. I know that we have a tall mountain to climb, but I see the hope and promise every day when I look in the mirror. We can win this fight for all children.
Dr. Penny Nixon is superintendent and senior executive vice president of the Universal Companies charter school network in Philadelphia and a member of the Chiefs for Change Future Chiefs program, which aims to build a pipeline of talented, diverse future leaders of America’s school systems.
Students at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School benefit from personalized learning and two hours per day of small group instruction. Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report
Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!
BROOKLYN, N.Y. – The longer students attend Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School, the better they do.
Many enter in sixth grade performing years behind grade level. By the end of middle school, though, they’re doing better than their peers in District 13. And that’s despite the fact that nearly 30 percent of Brooklyn Lab’s students have disabilities that qualify them for special education services – double the portion of students in District 13 who do.
Brooklyn Lab, which opened in 2014 and serves students in sixth through 10th grade on its way to expanding into a full high school, stands out in a charter sector that has been criticized for pushing out students with complex learning needs. These students may need more time and help from teachers, and they may not test well, thus bringing down a school’s overall performance, which can threaten a school’s reputation and even charter renewal.
This five-year-old school in downtown Brooklyn – which has students in sixth through 10th grade on its way to expanding into a full high school – has developed a reputation for serving children with learning disabilities, in part because of its commitment to personalizing learning. All students progress at their own rate, not in grade-by-grade lockstep. Teachers get the training and information they need to give all students targeted, individualized supports. That’s the way special education was designed to work. And at Brooklyn Lab, the historical expertise from the special education field finds a logical home in the more recent trend to customize learning.
Olubunmi Aweldwa’s son is a sixth grader at the school this year. In other schools, she said, she got the impression teachers found her son difficult to work with and wanted him to transfer.
“Brooklyn LAB is willing to work with him,” Aweldwa said. “And they see his strengths. They believe in his ability to learn and his ability to grow.”
Aweldwa’s son transferred from District 75, the citywide district that exclusively serves kids in special education. At the beginning of the year, Brooklyn Lab assessed his capacity in reading and math and found him to be performing at a first-grade level in English language arts. By the beginning of January, his proficiency had jumped to the mid-third-grade level. In math, he grew from the second- to the fourth-grade level in the same timeframe.
Helping students achieve such growth is personal for Eric Tucker, co-founder and director of the school. Tucker’s learning and attention issues weren’t diagnosed until college, when he found out he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, dysgraphia and language acquisition delays.
Tucker and his co-founder and now wife, Erin Mote, designed their school to be as broadly supportive as possible. Every student gets small-group instruction for two hours each day. While in other schools, students may face a stigma for getting extra attention, it’s the norm at Brooklyn Lab, whether students are behind or not. Because students spend so much of the day in small groups, educators have plenty of opportunities to coach students who are behind, without making it obvious to their peers that they’re doing so.
“We avoid the optics of having kids being pulled out of a full-group classroom,” Mote said, adding that this can be particularly important for image-conscious middle-schoolers.
It’s possible to have so much small-group time because Brooklyn Lab has extra adults in the building. Thanks to a teacher residency and a fellowship program, it has enough instructors to have every class be co-taught. These programs have the added benefit of creating a pipeline of certified teachers who get trained in Brooklyn Lab’s philosophy.
“When you look at the data point, it feels hopeless. But we can pinpoint core skills and say it’s actually not that bad – if a student can learn long-division properly, they can jump grade levels.”
Greg Rodriguez, school director in one of Brooklyn Lab School’s three buildings
Core to that philosophy is the idea that everyone has jagged learning curves. Some students excel in one subject while struggling in another, or they excel in math, generally, but haven’t yet mastered spatial reasoning, for example. Teachers at the school operate with the understanding that all learners have strengths.
“We focus on strengths and build on areas where they have gaps,” Tucker said.
In the school’s first year, Mote built a data system called Cortex that allows teachers to track how students do on individual standards across every subject and grade level. The system also serves as a platform for students to complete assignments teachers select specifically for them, based on their skill level on any given day. Through a separate nonprofit, InnovateEDU, Cortex is now used by 30,000 teachers, students and administrators from around the country.
Through easy-to-read data dashboards, teachers can see what standards students have mastered and whether their learning trajectory is trending in the right direction, plateauing or on the decline.
Greg Rodriguez, a school director in one of Lab’s three buildings, said the focus on such granular data can be motivating for teachers, particularly in working with students who are years below grade level.
“When you look at the data point, it feels hopeless,” Rodriguez said. “But we can pinpoint core skills and say it’s actually not that bad – if a student can learn long-division properly, they can jump grade levels.”
The focus on foundational skills that support grade-level performance is one reason why its older students perform relatively well and why students’ growth scores are so impressive.
Lab also requires mastery from students. The cutoff for passing is higher than in traditional schools. That requires more work from students, but Amir El, a ninth grader who has been at Lab since sixth grade, said the grading system is more honest. Other schools, he said, pass students who just scrape by with a 60 or 70.
“Then you think you’re doing well,” Amir said. “You go to the next grade, and the next grade. In sixth grade, it’s like, I don’t understand this. How do I do this?”
The focus on mastery aims to avoid sending students on to more advanced work before they’ve learned the prerequisite material. Besides the extra one-on-one or small-group support, students get a longer school day and year to work at achieving mastery. And Lab teachers urge them to rise to the challenge; the rigorous, college-prep curriculum aims to prepare all students for advanced coursework.
Of course, personalized instruction is key to making that possible.
“Ultimately there are a lot of new and exciting tools and practices that are being developed under the banner of personalized learning, and there’s tremendous resources and expertise that special education can bring to the table,” Tucker said. “We believe those two professional conversations being in dialogue and being approached in unison is one promising path to make sure that we are better meeting the needs of all learners.”
More low-income students are getting into college than ever before. That’s the good news. The bad news? They’re not getting out, and those who do often have nowhere to go.
Decades-long efforts to increase college access for low-income students have worked: as of 2016, the enrollment gap between low-income and wealthy students has narrowed to just 16 percentage points. However, graduation rates haven’t increased commensurately: College graduation rates for low-income students increased by only 3 percentage points, from 6 percent to 9 percent, between 1970 and 2015.
Why haven’t graduation rates grown with enrollment rates? Consider the various hurdles to college completion: financial obstacles, family obligations, confusing bureaucracies, academic preparation gaps, and even general changes in plans. These difficulties are scarcely addressed, though, because the conversation focuses on getting students into college, not seeing them through to degree completion or eventual job security. While there is no silver bullet that will solve the issue, there are steps that can move the needle beyond college access and toward college success.
The College & Alumni Program (CAP), which will convene educational professionals from across the country at its first ever College Success Institute this May, found this can be accomplished by focusing on three critical elements: reducing debt incurred, limiting time spent in college, and focusing on the end-goal: what the student plans to do with a degree after graduation.
Many low-income students don’t have a financial safety net, and often their parents don’t have the financial literacy skills needed to navigate financial aid forms, calculate payments or create budgets. Put simply: money management is difficult and not often taught, especially when parents are living paycheck-to-paycheck themselves. As a result, many low-income students are left to try and figure out how to finance a college degree themselves. Quitting college due to payment issues often results from having no sustainable plan to finance their education from the beginning. If you weren’t taught budgeting skills at home or in school, where do you pick them up?
To minimize the risk of a student leaving college because of financial challenges, work must begin in high school. High school counselors can have a significant impact by educating students about what’s possible and helping them balance their lists of prospective colleges with affordable options: schools that have strong graduation rates, high freshmen retention rates and low average student debt.
Once on campus, students must continue their financial education. They can talk with staff at the financial aid office or tap into online resources, including organizations like uAspire and NerdWallet, and individual experts such as Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey, for assistance in financial planning.
The first challenge to finishing on-time is scheduling: some students don’t know how to organize their course load for success or know what classes to take that count toward their degrees. For example, many colleges define a full-time load as 12 credits per semester, but students typically need 15 units per term to graduate in four years. College advisors must play active roles in helping students manage their course loads so they are not hit with a “surprise semester” or a full fifth year.
Other students face pressure to work while in school to support themselves and/or their families. In fact, about 40 percent of undergraduates work 30 or more hours a week, above the 25-hour threshold that research shows negatively affects academic performance. Thus, it’s important for college advisors to effectively counsel freshmen not to work part-time during their first term in college unless they absolutely must.
Second, after college, it’s time to get a job. But how? Many low-income students don’t receive guidance about entering a professional career. What’s an internship, and how do you get one? How do you write a cover letter? What’s an “informational interview”?
As an example, my colleague recently coached a college student whose only work experience was in a movie theater. In a mock job interview, the student said his favorite part of the job was free popcorn. If he’d said that in a real interview, he probably wouldn’t get the job. But no one had talked to him about the interview process before, and he didn’t have any professional role models. It wasn’t the student’s fault that he didn’t know how to answer the question appropriately.
By emphasizing how to make the most of students’ three summers during college and key times to learn outside the classroom, advisors can help students acquire the skills necessary for career placement. To leverage this time wisely, college advisors should help students visualize their futures. What is their “dream” job? Then, they can help students research what that might look like in the real world and plan how to build the skills necessary to earn a place in the field. Campus resources, such as the career center, or online resources like LinkedIn (and alumni networks) can be utilized to help low-income students gain exposure to the career search process and potential professional mentors.
Finally, for low-income students, college success is often hindered by a lack of exposure. When you don’t know there’s a financial system, you can’t maneuver within it. When you don’t know there’s a professional development pathway, you can’t get on it. If you knew better, you’d do better. As adults, we must fill in the blanks and help students learn the unwritten rules of life during and after college.
Melissa Fries is an expert in college access, preparation and success for low-income and historically underrepresented students. As executive director of CAP — a program of the Making Waves Foundation — Fries empowers more than 650 students to complete their college degrees in a timely manner with minimal debt.
Snowman art adorns the wall of a public preschool in Idaho City, Idaho. Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report
Ivanka Trump has waded into the child care debate again with vocal support for a proposed one-time influx of $1 billion to the federal Child Care Development Fund, which provides states with money for subsidizing care. The money, which is listed in addition to the $5.3 billion for child care also included in the White House’s proposed budget, would be available to states willing to compete for it in part by eliminating requirements or regulations that can make it harder to run child care businesses or that drive up the cost for parents.
The likelihood that the president’s proposed budget passes the House is essentially zero. Still, the idea that child care’s woes — low pay, lack of facilities, decreasing availability of infant and toddler spots, rising costs for parents — could be addressed by weakening state regulations still managed to create a bit of an uproar in early education circles.
“Asking states to dilute [regulatory] protections as a requirement of a competitive grant program jeopardizes the safety and well-being of children,” wrote Catherine White, the director of child care and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center. “It creates a race to the bottom by incentivizing states to permanently remove the greatest number of basic protections for children in exchange for temporary new funding.”
In fact, even accounting for tightened regulatory oversights added by the bipartisan Child Care Development Block Grant renewal in 2014, child care regulations nationally tend to be laxer than experts recommend.
“Asking states to dilute [regulatory] protections as a requirement of a competitive grant program jeopardizes the safety and well-being of children.”
Catherine White, NWLC
In 2017, The Hechinger Report and Columbia University’s Teacher Project conducted a 50-state scan of child care regulations. We also pulled from research conducted by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. We were specifically looking at regulations that affected 2-year-olds but our findings shed light on state regulations as a whole. Here are some of the key takeaways from that work:
While most states have basic safety regulations in place, there are few regulations governing what constitutes educationally enriching and developmentally appropriate care. The Hechinger Report–Teacher Project review found just six states that require caretakers to follow clear guidelines on developmentally appropriate learning strategies for children from birth to age 3.
In most states, anyone with a high school diploma is eligible to work as a child care provider. Twenty-three states have absolutely no minimum education requirements for home-based child care providers.
In 23 states, including Louisiana, Maryland, New Mexico, Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, and Washington, the maximum required teacher-to-student ratio for toddlers is 1:10 or higher.
President Trump has proposed cutting over $2 billion in funds for professional development and career growth and replacing them with vouchers for trainings that go directly to teachers, thereby circumventing district- and school-level bureaucracies.
While this proposal may make for some positive headlines, it won’t actually help teachers grow professionally or better meet their students’ needs. In fact, that’s exactly what Education Secretary Betsy DeVos heard from me and five of my colleagues from around the country when she first proposed this idea to us in a meeting four months ago.
Connecting teachers to excellent professional development opportunities takes more than money. Rather than just handing us a check, the Education Department must fully fund Title II in a manner that encourages teachers and administrators to work as teams to master the best practices that meet their students’ needs.
Early in my teaching career, one of my principals tried this same tactic, putting choice for professional development directly in the hands of teachers. Each teacher was given a budget for his or her own professional development for the year and encouraged to find opportunities and expense them to the school. Although I was initially excited about this freedom, I ended up feeling isolated and struggled to find new ideas tailored to my needs as a relatively inexperienced teacher and to the students in my classroom.
Eager to learn and master new strategies, I used some of my budgeted funds to attend a local organization’s workshop for mathematics teachers. I found what I learned interesting, but I wasn’t sure how to put it into practice. Hoping my math department and I could help each other implement new methods, I encouraged colleagues to go to the next training, but was never able to coordinate this, and so we were not able to try out those new strategies with students.
In fact, when I checked in with other teachers at my school at the end of the year, I found that very few had used their allotted money. The younger teachers had felt overwhelmed and didn’t know what opportunities were available, let alone which ones would be most beneficial. The more experienced teachers felt swamped with their school and family responsibilities and so this opportunity largely fell off their radars. Not only did this leave unspent the money meant to improve our teaching, but it also left us alone and static in our practice. We needed a solution that could build our sense of community, support us in making needed changes, hold us accountable and, most importantly, help us set specific and shared goals.
My experience stands in stark contrast to more recent opportunities for professional development where these factors have been present. When my current school adopted a more rigorous, evidence-based math curriculum, our department was genuinely supported in learning new skills and strategies.
Our administration worked with us to carve out team time during the day to design a curriculum that would bridge what we were then teaching with the new curriculum. The school’s academic coach worked with us to guide our decisions and follow up with our curricular shift. Together, we observed teachers who had already implemented the curriculum and who served similar students. We asked questions, planned together and gathered resources to bring back to our classrooms.
Because we had worked through these changes as a team, if I struggled with a new concept, I could walk down the hall and ask another teacher for advice. Today, when one of my peers needs help, because we have a shared understanding of our goals for our students, I can observe their classes to provide feedback so they can get through any rough patch and best help their kids.
My experience is a testament to the fact that when it’s intentionally planned, implemented and supported, professional development for teachers can have a lasting impact on the way that teachers work together. The strategic and collaborative elements of good professional development allow teachers to pull together and see which supports they need to meet the specific needs of their classes and schools. For the sake of students, I hope DeVos listens this time.
Critics have attacked Big Pharma for widespread biases in studies of new and potentially profitable drugs. Now, scholars are detecting the same type of biases in the education product industry — even in a federally curated collection of research that’s supposed to be of the highest quality. And that may be leaving teachers and school administrators in the dark about the full story of classroom programs and interventions they are considering buying.
Sign up for Jill Barshay's Proof Points newsletter
An analysis of 30 years of educational research by scholars at Johns Hopkins University found that when a maker of an educational intervention conducted its own research or paid someone to do the research, the results commonly showed greater benefits for students than when the research was independent. On average, the developer research showed benefits — usually improvements in test scores — that were 70 percent greater than what independent studies found.
“I think there are some cases of fraud, but I wouldn’t say it’s fraud across the board,” said Rebecca Wolf, an assistant professor in the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of the draft study. “Developers are proud of their products. They believe in them. They’ve worked hard in developing these products. They want a study that puts the best face forward.”
Biased research matters because current federal law encourages schools to buy products that are backed by science. In order to tap into federal school improvement funds, for example, low-achieving schools with disadvantaged children are required to select programs that have been rigorously tested and show positive effects.
The study, “Do Developer-Commissioned Evaluations Inflate Effect Sizes?” was presented at a March 2019 conference session of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness (SREE) in Washington, D.C. The paper is a working paper, meaning it has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal and may still be revised.
Wolf and three of her colleagues analyzed roughly 170 studies in reading and math dating as far back as 1984 that are part of the What Works Clearinghouse. That’s an archive of research that the U.S. Department of Education launched in 2002 to help educators decide which educational products to buy. It is by no means a complete or an exhaustive collection of educational research but a group of high quality studies curated by experts. The studies track test score gains and compare students who got the intervention with those who didn’t.
More than half, or 96, of the studies were conducted by independent researchers while 73 of them had some sort of insider connection with creating or selling the product. Wolf labeled the research a “developer” run or funded study if the inventors, distributors or an employee of the developer or distributor were involved in the research. Studies were considered developer studies even if the developer didn’t directly conduct the research but commissioned an outside researcher to carry out the study.
Wolf took many aspects of the studies that can lead to bigger student gains into consideration. For example, a personal tutor tends to produce larger student gains than a curriculum used by an entire classroom. Kids in younger grades tend to see bigger improvements than older kids. Smaller studies on fewer students are more likely to show a bigger bang than larger ones. But even within a host of subcategories, Wolf found that the developer studies still pointed to larger benefits than the independent studies.
Replication studies are relatively rare in education research but both developer and independent studies were available for 18 of the reading and math interventions. When Wolf compared these independent and the developer studies side by side, the developer studies tended to post 80 percent higher gains for students for the same educational product.
There are a number of reasons for why developer studies tend to show stronger results, according to Wolf, whose full time work is to evaluate educational programs. The first is that a company is unlikely to publish unfavorable results. Wolf speculates that developers are more likely to “brand a failed trial a ‘pilot’ and file it away.”
A second common issue is how students are kept out of experiments. Timothy Shanahan, a reading specialist and a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, shared an anecdote before attendees of the March 2019 SREE conference. He recalled a reading study where struggling students who didn’t complete the program were excluded from the treatment group. The comparison control group, of course, kept the low achieving readers and their low scores, making the intervention look more successful. Wolf also found these sort of “sample selection” differences when she compared developer and independent studies side by side. One developer study decided to exclude some students from the treatment group after randomly being selected for it. These details are often in the study’s fine print but educators would have to look for them.
Developers often create their own yardsticks for measuring student success, devising their own assessments to go along with their programs. That might allow an education product company to measure what they’re teaching more precisely. But those same gains are often not evident in a reading or math assessment given to all students each spring.
These research choices that lead to bias seem to be an open secret in education research circles. Wolf said she asked researchers who heard her presentation if they were surprised by her conclusions. “Every single person said ‘no.’ If you’re in the work of program evaluation, you can see why these things might happen,” said Wolf.
This isn’t the first study to detect bias in education research. The problem of hiding unfavorable results from publication was documented as far back as 1995. In 2016, one of Wolf’s co-authors, Robert Slavin, wrote about the positive results that researchers get when they devise their own measures to prove that their inventions work. In that same year, another group of researchers also detected a developer bias in a smaller group of studies about math programs that are part of the What Works Clearinghouse collection. This new Hopkins study addresses some questions about that analysis and confirms the conclusion that when people study their own inventions, the results are stronger.
Solving this bias problem won’t be easy. Some advocate for pre-registration, something that the field of medicine uses, in which study authors describe the design and measures to be used ahead of time. SREE launched such a registry in 2018. That makes it harder for developers to tweak their study design on the fly when the students aren’t faring as well as they had hoped. However, schools are complex places and it’s often necessary to make adjustments to an experiment when something isn’t working with teachers or school-day schedules.
Wolf argues that educators should pay more attention to whether the research is independent. In her research for this study, developer funding wasn’t always disclosed and she often had to contact researchers to learn these details. Wolf said these conflicts of interest should be highlighted and disclosed up front.
Sunlight is a remedy just as in the pharmaceutical industry.
This story about education research was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
Moises Urena a SUNY student who grew up homeless lobbies for increased state aid during a visit to the Capitol Wednesday March 8, 2017 in Albany, NY. Photo: John Carl D'Annibale / Times Union
For the past week, America’s fleeting attention span has been captured by the sprawling college admission bribery scandal unveiled by the Justice Department, sparking talk of how untold numbers of the wealthy and famous use fraud to get special treatment for their children, in a supposedly meritocratic system. The revelation of this particular scheme comes at a time when “free public college” has become a central tenet of the progressive left’s platform.
Having a robust higher education plan is now a prerequisite for any 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, and several states have already built public programs that heavily subsidize post-high school tuition. Those developments have come in response to a growing recognition — as the student debt crisis has anxiously trod into trillion dollar territory — that loans often enable students to finish programs but then leave them financially hobbled and unable to fully contribute to the economy.
Less recognized but just as devastatingly widespread is the unaddressed shadow crisis of nontuition costs, like housing, food, books and transportation (as well as child care). These necessities — often rendered ancillary fees by rich or upper middle-class parents who can pick up the tab as their children focus on classes — are rarely covered in even the most generous of states.
The gap in funding has passively created a disincentive for members of working-class communities, particularly those of color, to enter higher education. Those who enroll instead of taking up the stagnant wage work that, ironically, they are told college will help them escape, often risk financial doom.
For lower- and middle-income students “free public college” isn’t truly free if only tuition is taken care of. According to the College Board, nontuition expenses took up over two-thirds of the average budget for community college students in the 2017-18 school year. For many students from humble backgrounds in four-year programs, the cost breakdown is similar. But currently, as a result of largely neglecting college expenses beyond tuition, too many states are generating perverse outcomes regarding who receives public aid.
In 2018, researchers at the Education Trust found that in many states free college policies actually end up providing more resources to upper-middle-class students than more needy ones. A similar study that zeroed in on Tennessee’s community college program showed that about half of qualifying students received no aid at all. Meanwhile, a student from a family earning over $160,000 annually could receive more than $1,400 in state subsidies.
Odd disparities like this exist because tuition-based programs generally come with a crucial condition: The state will only cover tuition not already covered by other grant aid, like Pell Grants. (Among those zero-dollar qualifying students in Tennessee, 98 percent were Pell recipients.) In a vacuum, this is a reasonable, targeted policy meant to ensure that states with tight budgets aren’t spending unnecessarily.
But in practice, this narrow focus undermines the goal of affordability for all. If low-income students can often manage tuition with federal grants and aid, and living expenses —including the cost of studying instead of working — are instead their problem, shouldn’t states shape policy accordingly?
In Missouri, for instance, the median family income was about $50,000 in 2016, but more than one-third of the recipients of its 2017 community college-based program were from families with incomes over $100,000. There’s nothing inherently wrong with assisting families with pay in that range. Few will deny that two-income middle-class households are feeling squeezed, too.
But if finite funding is the reason these programs are limited in the first place, it seems clear that those limited funds may be better spent reducing the nontuition expenses of lower-income students.
Much of this misplaced prioritization has consequences that go beyond bad optics. According to The Hechinger Report, in 2017 alone, “nearly a million low-income students who applied for and were found eligible for state financial aid for college never received it, because states ran out of money.” The report estimates that the actual numbers are much worse, but that we are largely in the dark because many states don’t keep track of the students they have to turn down. We do know, however, that in 10 states — including blue ones like Oregon and Illinois as well red ones like Kansas — over half of students eligible for state grants didn’t receive them because resources ran out.
In the sphere of four-year education, things are especially dire. The maximum Pell Grant — which provides an invaluable assist for many community college students — now covers, on average, less than a third of the cost of attending a four-year public college or university. In a Darwinian twist, the cost of living is typically only offset only by selective merit stipends, available only for those lucky few who manage to attain scores that outperform advantaged students (who usually have accelerated schooling and tutoring).
A 2018 report by the National College Access Network concluded that the average Pell grant recipient in 16 states and Puerto Rico can’t afford to attend a four-year public college and live on campus, even with grants, aid, loans and working full-time over the summer.
Instead of wrestling with the urgent implications of these realities, debates in policy circles often skip straight to the supposed silver bullet of establishing a universal set of benefits to all students, with no accounting for financial resources — the thin subtext being that low-income people will need the buy-in of powerful upper-middle-class parents before education funding policies can be passed by legislatures and win sustained support among voters.
But states — which cannot, like the federal government, print money — have unique fiscal constraints that limit the possibilities of universal programs. And while Congress could solve everyone’s woes with sweeping universal legislation, that’s unlikely to pass any time in the foreseeable future. Altogether, it means there are real distributional trade-offs that must be made.
The Century Foundation explored this dilemma and found that free college programs, including those in states like Oklahoma that targeted low-income students, did not just survive but even grew in the face of a recession, despite other state-level cuts. The 2018 Ed Trust analysis also showed that college subsidy policies in Maryland, Oklahoma and Indiana, which targeted low-income students, better benefited students of color.
The wide uptick in tuition-support programs over the past decade is something to be celebrated, not overlooked. They’ve already helped partially close the gap. But we’d also be wrong, as a society, to not see the holes embedded in that progress that can still be addressed.
“In many states free college policies actually end up providing more resources to upper-middle-class students than more needy ones.”
A bill announced by Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, earlier this month proposes a state and federal partnership to provide debt-free college tuition for all, but it also prominently features support that goes beyond tuition for students who need it. It will stall in his Republican-controlled chamber, but its generous, genuine consideration of living costs can still serve as a blueprint for states.
This spring — even as we congratulate those students opening their acceptance letters with glee — we can’t forget those young people who get in, but won’t be proudly posting their letters online, for no reason but the size of their parents’ bank accounts. That thought will remind us that we have to do more than tell children that anything is possible if they work hard in school. We’ll have to ensure that’s actually true — for all of them.
Formerly homeless, Dorothy Gorder now is living with her 3-year-old son and their cat in an apartment she got with help from the local housing authority and the community college she attends. Katie G. Cotterill for The Hechinger Report
Four years ago, Dorothy Gorder was living under the I-5 bridge in downtown Seattle. Addicted to meth and heroin, she lived in makeshift shelters fashioned out of cardboard boxes and pallets, draping clothing to block out the wind. Her car had been stolen.
Gorder left behind a son in Montana, who was living with his grandmother. A daughter to whom she’d given birth while homeless was taken away and adopted by a foster family. Then she got pregnant again, with another son, and resolved to turn things around.
Now Gorder is on track to earn an associate degree in June in the high-demand field of logistics. She also has a place to live: a two-bedroom apartment in Tacoma.
It was Tacoma Community College, or TCC, that helped her finally find a home for herself and her youngest son, now 3.
Gorder was able to move into her apartment thanks to a rental voucher she received through the College Housing Assistance Program, or CHAP, a collaboration with the Tacoma Housing Authority, which provides vouchers for subsidized rent to 150 students who are, or may become, homeless.
In a survey, 12% of community college and 9% of university students reported they were homeless.
“I’ve been doing awesome ever since,” said Gorder. “I finally was given an opportunity to be clean and sober and have my son.”
Widely reported research has shown surprising levels of hunger and homelessness among American college and university students. Some have been found living in their cars in campus parking lots; others rely on food banks, often stocked by classmates.
Now colleges and universities themselves are pulling together more permanent solutions, often in collaboration with local housing authorities and nonprofit partners.
Ed Mirecki, University of Washington-Tacoma’s dean of students. “Higher education is not a social service agency,” he says. “But on the other hand, if we really are focused on increasing access and providing these (educational) opportunities for students, we have an obligation to help support their success.” Katie G. Cotterill for The Hechinger Report
“Higher education is not a social service agency, and we recognize that,” said Ed Mirecki, dean of students at the University of Washington-Tacoma, or UWT, which began a program in January with the local housing authority that reserves 52 “micro-units” — 255 square feet apiece — for homeless students or students at risk of becoming homeless.
“But on the other hand, if we really are focused on increasing access and providing these [educational] opportunities for students, we have an obligation to help support their success and that means creating these support structures around affordable housing and food insecurity.”
Some of the solutions are being driven not by universities or colleges, but by their students.
Louis Tse was a Ph.D. student at UCLA when he noticed classmates sleeping in random places on campus. He and other students eventually started Bruin Shelter, now known as Students 4 Students, which offers 10 beds in a Santa Monica church for homeless students from colleges and universities all over Los Angeles.
“If we really are focused on increasing access and providing these [educational] opportunities for students, we have an obligation to help support their success and that means creating these support structures around affordable housing and food insecurity.”
Ed Mirecki, dean of students, University of Washington-Tacoma
The program at UWT was spearheaded by student government leaders who reached out to the housing authority and Kōz Development, a private developer. The housing authority pays Kōz a lump sum every month to subsidize the 52 units. The university, which has had a long informal relationship with the housing authority, is now working on institutionalizing the collaboration.
Daniel Eatherly, the University of Washington-Tacoma student government director of legislative affairs, led a push for the university to help its homeless students find housing. Katie G. Cotterill for The Hechinger Report
Daniel Eatherly, a senior business major and the student government’s director of legislative affairs, wanted to find a fix after learning about the prevalence of housing insecurity on his campus.
“The university doesn’t have the funds to do this [by itself], so we wanted to create a housing partnership,” he said. “We wanted to leverage our unique position as students to help make that into a reality.”
That’s among the many problems still standing in the way of helping college students who are homeless. Another is a simple lack of affordable housing in places such as Tacoma, where high rents have begun to spill over from Seattle, only 30 minutes away.
University of Washington-Tacoma Dean of Students Ed Mirecki, left, talks with Armen Papyan, president of the student government, and Daniel Eatherly, its director of legislative affairs. Students at the university pushed the administration to help their homeless classmates find places to live. Katie G. Cotterill for The Hechinger Report
“It’s really hard to use a voucher in this market, because landlords have been picky,” said Tacoma Housing Authority project manager Aley Thompson.
Then there’s the challenge of gathering the paperwork required for a housing voucher. “Sometimes I’m helping them get birth certificates for their kids or Social Security cards because as a homeless person they have lost or had everything stolen,” said Marybeth McCarthy, who helps homeless students at Tacoma Community College.
Homeless students also may be up against the stigma of previous evictions or criminal histories, or may not be able to afford move-in costs. Tacoma Community College’s foundation helps qualified students at least pay any deposit, which is in most cases refunded to the college when the student moves out.
The magnitude of the problem is giving new momentum to this work.
California State University Long Beach and Ohio University have begun accepting food stamps at on-campus stores. The University of California system has rolled out an initiative to enroll eligible students in CalFresh, the California food stamp program.
As part of a $3 million campaign to reduce youth homelessness in Massachusetts, a pilot program matches community college students with nearby universities that have available dorm beds. Eligibility for the program, called the Massachusetts Student Housing Security Pilot, is limited to students 25 or younger who do not have families. So far, 20 formerly homeless community college students have moved into the residence halls at four public universities.
In Tacoma, the housing authority provides an average monthly subsidy of $530 for up to three years or until participants graduate. It’s still having trouble keeping up with the need for low-cost housing. It even bought two buildings near the community college campus and converted them to low-income housing that prioritizes students who are homeless or might become homeless. “But in this market, it’s not enough,” said Thompson.
While the programs in Washington State target homeless students, others focus more broadly on low-income ones.
The Southern Scholarship Foundation, for example, provides 450 low-income students with rent-free housing in its 25 residences, some of which sit on land the foundation leases at a nominal rate from the University of Florida, Florida A&M, and Florida Gulf Coast universities.
An evaluation at one community college showed students who got rental assistance were almost four times more likely to remain enrolled than those who didn’t.
The students cook and clean together, participate in community activities and pay about $950 a semester to cover food and utilities. Forty percent graduate with no debt and another 48 percent finish college owing less than $10,000, according to surveys of alumni of the houses.
“My dad’s a city worker and my mom is a librarian at an elementary school, so there’s not too much to go around for college,” Harden said.
Harden moved into a Southern Scholarship Foundation house next to the campus, with 28 women, in the spring of 2018. “I’ve gone from having to miss things like office hours to being able to move literally across the street from my university,” she said.
The University of Washington-Tacoma, which began a program in January with the local housing authority that reserves 52 “micro-units” — 255 square feet apiece — for homeless students or students at risk of becoming homeless. Katie G. Cotterill for The Hechinger Report
UWT’s Mirecki and Shawn Woodin, the scholarship foundation’s CEO, both said that addressing affordable housing isn’t something higher education institutions are able to do on their own, partly because of the infrastructure needed.
The University of Washington-Tacoma, for instance, bought a 300-bed apartment building a few years ago, but because it was underwritten with bond debt, the university can’t offer subsidized units. Solutions require partnerships with housing authorities, private developers and nonprofits, advocates say.
As for Gorder, having a secure home for herself and her son has brought her close to finally graduating. She’s mentoring other parents who have experienced homelessness and addiction and has testified in support of a housing bill before the Washington State legislature.
“I have a safe place that’s quiet enough for me to study. My grades have stayed up pretty high,” she said. “In fact, they’re rising.”
The campus of Georgetown University is shown March 12, 2019 in Washington, DC. Georgetown University and several other schools including Yale, Stanford, the University of Texas, University of Southern California and UCLA were named in an FBI investigation targeting 50 people who allegedly participated in a bribery scheme to accept students with lower test scores into some of the leading universities across the United States. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
The revelation by the FBI that more than 50 people are charged for fixing admissions decisions in elite colleges may be the “largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted,” but it’s a crime that’s indicative of the reality that America has never had a merit-based system for college attendance. American higher education has always been rigged for the wealthy. The folks charged in the “Operation Varsity Blues” FBI probe, including admission officials, athletic coaches, and 33 wealthy parents, reflect the egregious lengths families will go to in order to maintain enclaves that reproduce inequality.
The high-flying corruption alleged in this recent case should put a spotlight on the current efforts to dismantle affirmative action. Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, a lawsuit filed in the Massachusetts District Court in 2014 against Harvard College’s admissions practices, was heard by the Supreme Court in February of this year. The lawsuit claims that the university practices a discriminatory quota system that unfairly penalizes students of Asian descent who have the highest test scores among the major racial categories. Harvard argues that it exercises its constitutional and moral right to set diversity goals and considers race in admissions decisions in order to reach them.
Rachel Kleinman, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told The New York Times that opposition to affirmative action plays to “this fear of white people that their privilege is being taken away from them and given to somebody else who they see as less deserving.”
Actually it’s wealthy parents who are robbing underrepresented groups opportunities to climb the social ladder.
The U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, remarked at the press conference outlining the Operation Varsity scheme that the indictment is “not talking about donating a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter” but instead “talking about deception and fraud.”
“I honestly don’t know what’s worse — giving a donation for the sole purpose of getting your child admission to a university or paying a bribe.”
But beyond the question of illegality, I honestly don’t know what’s worse — giving a donation for the sole purpose of getting your child admission to a university, or paying a bribe. The Operation Varsity Blues scandal has revived the sordid story of how top Trump aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner got into Harvard University: His father, Charles Kushner, made a $2.5 million donation, according to Pro Publica editor Daniel Golden in his 2006 book The Price of Admission. While elite parents have traditionally helped their children in the college admissions process through legal channels, the new investigation found evidence of fraudulent SAT scores, falsified athletic experience, and fake diagnoses to secure testing accommodations. A fake athletic profile for one USC basketball recruit allegedly listed the 5’5’’ candidate as 6’1”.
As a former track and field coach, I know most people don’t realize that athletic departments are extensions of the admissions offices, often lacking the same restrictions as the central college office. Coaches have much more freedom in who they can recommend for acceptance at the institution. Especially at small, liberal arts institutions, coaches put “butts in seats,” as we used to say. From my experience, when general enrollment is down at a small college, the number of “athletes” often goes up.
Based on what we’ve learned from this probe, it is clear we need to shut down conversations about black athletes who are taking up spots. Typically, stories about athletics and admissions feed a narrative that black athletes are taking spots that would otherwise go to more academically deserving students. But according to the indictment, several students who had never even been in crew were admitted to rowing teams. Students were Photoshopped pole vaulting and playing water polo. The student admitted for pole vaulting allegedly didn’t even know he had been admitted as a track athlete, and became confused when his USC advisor asked him about track and field during the orientation.
It’s the wealthy people who are crowding out students who would benefit from the alleged gateway to the middle class. In 2017, the New York Times reported the Equality of Opportunity Project’s findings on the income levels of students at various colleges. Enrollment at 38 colleges in America is comprised of more students from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent. There are approximately 5,300 postsecondary institutions.
In a report for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, an organization which gives scholarships to students who demonstrate financial need, researchers Jennifer Giancola and Richard Kahlenberg found that “high-achieving students from the wealthiest families were three times as likely to enroll in a highly selective college as those [peers] from the poorest families (24 versus 8 percent).” (The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is one of the many funders of the Hechinger Report.) Low-income, high-achieving students are often discouraged from applying to selective colleges for reasons ranging from sticker price to culture shock.
Several CEOS were among the parents who were charged in Operation Varsity Blues, including Manuel Henriquez, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Hercules Technology Growth Capital and Robert Flaxman, founder and CEO of real estate development firm Crown Realty & Development, and Hollywood stars such as actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. The 33 parents allegedly paid between several thousand and up to $6.5 million to an intermediary “fixer”, William Singer, CEO of The Key, a company that claimed to help students improve their standardized test scores, who then allegedly used bribery to secure their children’s admission. The indictment accuses current and former athletic coaches from Stanford, Yale, Georgetown, UCLA, USC, Wake Forest, and the University of Texas at Austin of accepting bribes to admit students. Three teachers and test administrators are also implicated.
The scions of the wealthy aren’t naturally smarter. Even when the rich don’t bribe college officials, they influence the composition of who can attend by paying for SAT prep, tutors and tuition in elite boarding schools that give some students more access to college prep courses and exposure to the requirements needed for admission to elite universities. When students still can’t make the grade, their parents will tilt the scales even further.
Elite colleges have always been finishing schools for the rich. From their inception, they prepared white men for society. Blacks and women had to fight to integrate colleges and universities. White elites who attended postsecondary institutions in the past, as many who attend them now, were not the smartest or the fastest. They did, however, come from families of upper-crust land owners who didn’t have to prove their merits on a level playing field.
In an earlier column about affirmative action, I wrote, “The historic denial of education to African-Americans, like other manifestations of racism, didn’t magically end when slavery was officially abolished, and black people today still carry the financial, social and political burden of the past. But while black students were being denied admittance to their choice of college, white people were being ushered in on the basis of privilege, not necessarily fairness or merit.”
The people named in the FBI probe are as wrong as the day is long. But as long as universities don’t make economic and racial diversity an essential goal of admissions, a so-called merit-based system will always create perverse incentives for rich people to cheat.
Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!
If a student’s family gets evicted, her teachers may never know. If a student’s parents initiate a divorce, if someone dies or goes to jail, if a caregiver loses a job – all these things affect a student’s ability to focus on school, get homework done and even show up to class. Yet if students aren’t forthcoming with the information, schools can miss the signs. Teachers may see a child acting out and address the behavior problem without digging deeper. Absences may pile up without anyone figuring out what’s causing them.
In Kansas City, a new citywide partnership aims to improve the capacity of both schools and nonprofits to serve students well. The school district has long shared some of its student data with trusted community partners, but now those data-sharing agreements are getting turbocharged, thanks to new software designed to create a holistic view of individual children by bringing together data and insights from all the organizations that serve them. Kansas City is the first community to try out Apricot 360, a platform developed by the software company Social Solutions and made more affordable by a $59 million commitment from the Ballmer Group, a nonprofit focused on improving economic mobility.
Once all the right data-sharing agreements are in place, Apricot 360 will automatically integrate data from the Kansas City Public Schools and nonprofits like the Local Investment Commission (LINC), which operates before- and after-school programs along with specialized support services for foster and court-involved youth. Besides offering a more effective platform to track their own programs and their impact, the partnership means each agency has access to extra data about students that can help them tailor their services. If a student is struggling in math class and her grades reflect that, an after-school program leader can offer more support even before it’s requested. If a student consistently shows up to after-school programs but not to school, educators will have a way to take note.
“Are our interventions working? Are some working better than others? Are some working in tandem?”
Mike Reynolds, chief research and accountability officer at Kansas City Public Schools, on new software enabling the district to share student data with local nonprofit service providers
Brent Schondelmeyer, deputy director of community engagement for LINC, said data sharing can be challenging because everyone stores their data differently. It takes a lot of time to make sense of another organization’s information. Apricot 360, he said, will allow everyone to spend a lot more time serving kids rather than assembling data.
And he expects the sheer power of the technology to make people more ambitious about how they serve kids.
“In some sense, the opportunity here is that we have ways to do better and we can do better,” Schondelmeyer said. “It used to be I couldn’t do this because the technology didn’t permit it.” Now, he said, he and his colleagues have to catch up with the technology.
The citywide partnership is in its earliest stages and the schools and nonprofits are still deciding what data to share. In some cases, there are ethical questions about what is right to share. LINC, for example, collects data about who is on food stamps or receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. There will have to be discussions about who really needs what information. Schondelmeyer, though, sees great potential in the ability to pay attention to new data, connecting it for the first time to the educational achievement of students.
Social Solutions has a team of data scientists ready to spot trends in the data and build out the predictive power of the tool. Eventually, their insights will help identify students who are at risk and recommend interventions.
Mike Reynolds, the chief research and accountability officer at Kansas City Public Schools, said the new software will also help the district determine whether it’s getting a return on investment for certain initiatives. This year, for example, the district poured money into supporting students’ social and emotional needs. The data-tracking capabilities of Apricot 360, even without the citywide partnership, expand the district’s capacity to assess its own internal programs. And with the partnership, it’ll give the district a better sense of which out-of-school programs are the most effective, he said.
“Are our interventions working? Are some working better than others? Are some working in tandem? Are certain providers having a greater impact on certain segments of the community than others?” Reynolds mused. All of these questions, he hopes, can be answered by the new software one day.