Adult education’s existential crisis

This is the second of a two-part series on adult education in California.  Click here to read part 1.

Adult education in California is nearly as old as the state itself. Today, the program that has helped millions of people learn English, earn a GED, and receive job training for 156 years is facing extinction. A new report released today by EdSource concludes that these schools, which provide second chances for the state’s most needy adults, “are as much at-risk as many of the people they serve.”

The report, aptly titled At Risk: Adult Schools in California, surveyed the state’s 30 largest school districts and found that 23 had made significant cuts to their adult education programs. In many cases, they lost at least half their funding. One of them, Anaheim Union High School District, shuttered its 73-year-old adult school.

“The important thing to remember is that these adult school programs are serving a population that really falls through the cracks,” said Louis Freedberg, Executive Director of EdSource. “This is a population that needs basic education in basic skills, that needs help with English as a Second Language, and for whom there is really no other place to go to get these basic services.”

Adult ed cuts in 30 largest districts.  (Source:  EdSource)  Click to enlarge.
Adult ed cuts in 30 largest districts. (Source: EdSource) Click to enlarge.

These draconian cuts have taken place in just the past three years. Until 2009, adult education funding was protected as a categorical program, meaning districts could not use the money for any other purpose. But that February, faced with a massive budget shortfall, the Legislature and Gov. Brown removed 39 programs – including adult ed – from this restriction and gave school districts flexibility to use the funds wherever they were most needed.

A survey of several hundred school districts conducted by the adult education program in Montebello Unified School District found that about 40 have closed or are planning to shut their adult education programs, and estimated that, statewide, districts have redirected about 60 percent of the $773 million in adult education funds to the K-12 system. At the same time, enrollment dropped from 1.2 million students to about 700,000.

“We were actually growing before the cuts started,” said Pam Garramone, principal of Sonoma Valley Adult School, which closes at the end of this month. Garramone said there were six adult school agencies in Sonoma County before flex started; now there’s only one, Petaluma, and it doesn’t have the capacity to accommodate the 10,000 people who have been shut out.

Farewell message on Sonoma Valley Adult School site. (click to enlarge).
Farewell message on Sonoma Valley Adult School site. (click to enlarge).

Garramone said her district has always been very supportive of adult education, but was placed in an untenable position. “Our budget situation was just so drastic that every single thing that was on the list to be cut was painful for them, and they’re looking at even more cuts next year, so the decision to finally close adult education they just felt had to be made,” she said. “And I really don’t blame them; I didn’t necessarily agree with it, but I certainly don’t blame them for the decision.”

She blames the Legislature. Adult education should never have been flexed, said Garramone. Even though categorical flex is supposed to end on June 30, 2015, few people expect to see the money again. Indeed, Gov. Brown’s proposal for a weighted student funding formula would make categorical flexibility permanent.

Paul Hay, the superintendent of San Jose’s Metropolitan Education District (MetroED), told EdSource if weighted student funding is approved, “adult education is dead, gone, over, and will never come back in the state.”

MetroED’s enrollment plunged from 10,000 to 2,000 after it closed more than 50 programs, two major campuses, and all its community outreach centers except for a program for disabled adults.

Societal impact

The adult education program in Oakland Unified School District was among the hardest hit without being closed.  It has been cut by more than 90 percent since the start of flex, losing $11 million of a $12 million budget which necessitated shutting two campuses and canceling English as a second language courses as well as its high school credit recovery program.  The GED classes are still thriving, however, and graduated 95 students last year.

“When we were cut our numbers were at the highest they’ve been, this would have been our best year ever,” said Chris Nelson, director of the district’s adult education programs and president of the California Council for Adult Education.  “It’s ironic now that the economy is so bad because it’s during times of high unemployment that people seek education programs.”

Donita McKay standing outside the Oakland adult ed computer literacy RV. (Click to enlarge).
Donita McKay standing outside the Oakland adult ed computer literacy RV. (Click to enlarge).

Donita McKay is studying for her GED and taking a computer literacy course through Oakland’s adult education school.  McKay is 49 years old, a single mom with four children, and a ninth-grade drop out.   She said being back in school has opened her mind and given her a different outlook on life.

“Education is important because when you don’t have it you’re so limited,” said McKay.  “I always tell my children, get your education, because I didn’t really get all mine, so and you see where I’m at.  They hear that from my mouth everyday.”

Sitting at small workstation in an RV retrofitted as mobile computer classroom, McKay said she’s considering becoming a teacher one day, “because I always like to give back and give what I learned, because it reminds me I used to be like that.”

Oakland has all the challenges of any big city.  English is not the first language for about 40 percent of the population and in some neighborhoods the high school dropout rate is a staggering 60 to 70 percent, said Mayor Jean Quan, who spent twelve years on the local school board.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan (Click to enlarge).
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan (Click to enlarge).

“What I really worry about is California creating a permanent underclass,” said Quan.  “This is one of the ways out; this is one of the second chances that people have, and if people don’t have at least a high school degree it’s very hard to even get a good paying blue-collar job.”

Not dead yet

Gordon Jackson is head of the Adult Education Division of the California Department of Education.  He said the mission of adult education is to advance the “economic, workforce development and societal goals by preparing adult learners for college, career and civic responsibility.”

It’s a critical goal, but one that doesn’t have critical support.  Although adult education programs are run by both K-12 school districts and community colleges, it’s not the core mission of either.  So, it’s taken some time for advocates to organize, but they’ve started considering alternatives on a number of fronts.

Several proposals are being floated said EdSource’s Freedberg.  One idea is to combine resources and establish regional centers.  Another, put forth by the state’s Little Hoover Commission, recommends turning over responsibility for adult education to community college; even thought they

Gordon Jackson, Director of Adult Education Division, CA Dept. of Education. (Source:  CDE).
Gordon Jackson, Director of Adult Education Division, CA Dept. of Education. (Source: CDE).

are facing their own massive budget cuts.  And a third plan, already underway, is to lobby the Legislature to remove adult education from categorical flex and from the governor’s weighted student funding formula.

“There are times when I would like to sit next to somebody at Starbucks and moan and groan and say I cannot believe that there are adults in this world of ours at the legislative level and other places who don’t really understand what it means to demolish an infrastructure, what it means to do this to California’s future,” said Jackson.  “I can bemoan that and have a really intense pity party for a while, until I need to focus on what needs to happen.”

CA millions of degrees short

Business and civic leaders weighed in on the condition of California’s university and college systems with an urgent warning that without a significant increase in graduation rates, the state will lose its prominence as an economic contender.

A new report released Thursday by the California Competes Council found that the state needs 5 ½ million new college degrees and technical certificates by the year 2025. But, without major changes, California will fall 2.3 million short.

(Source:  California Competes and U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 American Community Survey).  Click to enlarge.
(Source: California Competes and U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 American Community Survey). Click to enlarge.

“We need to provide our young people with the tools, not only to live a good life and be good participants in our state, but to also fuel our economic engine,” said Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster, chair of the Council, during a conference call with reporters.

The Council’s report, entitled The Road Ahead: Higher education, California’s promise, and our future economy, is the third in a confluence of reports focusing on improving success at the state’s community colleges this year, this time from the perspective of business and civic leaders. In January, the Community College Board of Governors approved a package of 22 recommendations developed after a year of meetings and public hearings by the Student Success Task Force.

A month later, the Little Hoover Commission, the state watchdog agency, released its recommendations for community colleges in Serving Students, Serving California.

All three reports share some ideas. They would give more independence to the Chancellor’s office, provide more support for new students, and call for greater accountability. The Council states up front that it supports the recommendations of the other two groups, but goes on to say that they “do not go far enough in addressing the lack of accountability in the system caused by dysfunctional governance.”

They call their report a blueprint for the governor and State Legislature and lay out steps the state must take “to restore California to national and international prominence as a producer of high-quality college graduates.”

More and better quality degrees

Producing 5.5 million new graduates by 2025 means increasing the number of degrees and certificates by a little over 4 percent a year. The Council says this could be accomplished by better research into the types of jobs and qualifications needed to fill them in different regions of the state. The report notes that “there are increasing numbers of good jobs across a range of industries that demand skills gained in credential programs of less than four years,” and that “the state should identify majors that are a priority.”

Community colleges are a key strategy in meeting the demand. With about 2.6 million students, they are the largest higher education system in the nation, but rank second to last in completion rates, according to the report. That combination makes community colleges the low-hanging fruit, as it were.

“Improving attainment rates for transfer, degrees, and certificates at community colleges could address a third to half of the 2.3 million graduate gap,” write the Council members.

The authors also caution against losing sight of quality. Doing things on the cheap, such as increasing class sizes, could backfire by producing graduates without the analytical and critical thinking skills they’ll need to be successful.

Create a Higher Education Investment Board

Remember CPEC, the California Postsecondary Education Commission? It didn’t work out so well and Gov. Brown disbanded it last year. The Higher Education Investment Board would be CPEC with teeth.

It wouldn’t be a governance body, said Robert Shireman, director of California Competes. Like CPEC, it would collect information and data from campuses about the number of degrees granted from each campus, how much it costs to educate students for different degrees, and what the workforce needs are for different regions of the state, and use that information to advise the governor and Legislature on policy.

Unlike CPEC, the Board would have authority to compel each campus to respond to its requests for data because it would also have control of student financial aid, like Cal Grants.

“Campuses did not have any incentive to respond to requests of CPEC because there weren’t any consequences,” said Shireman. “The scholarship program is a hook into institutions that they need to be responsive.

Streamline governance

“The statewide Board of Governors should amend its regulations to restore clear accountability to local boards of trustees and to the administrators who report to them.” – California Competes.

In a significant shift from the other two reports, the Council proposed reconfiguring the management structure of community colleges to give local Boards of Trustees more power over policy.

Currently, under AB 1725, passed in 1988, local community college districts must ensure that faculty, staff, and students are allowed to participate in governance. Two years later, the Board of Governors went further with regulations that call for “mutual agreement” between the local trustees and faculty senates on issues pertaining to curriculum and academic standards.

The Council, while acknowledging that faculty input is important, said that by giving academic senates equal authority, it’s nearly impossible to reach any agreements.

“We really debated on the governance question and came away with the feeling that the accountability structure of community colleges really needed to be strengthened in order to move forward and address this gap in degrees and certificates,” said California’s former legislative analyst and council member Elizabeth Hill.

As far as the statewide academic senate is concerned, the Council based that recommendation on a blatantly mistaken understanding of the regulation. “My jaw dropped when I read that section of the report,” said Michelle Pilati, president of the statewide Academic Senate and a professor at Rio Hondo College.   “It’s disappointing to see that the authors of the report did not adequately check their facts.” Except for the changes implemented by the Board of Governors in 1990, Pilati said local trustees can opt to reach a mutual agreement with their faculty senates, but are under no obligation to do so.

Members of the student senate took issue with the portrayal of faculty as the obstacle to change and cautioned against using divisive language. “It’s a mischaracterization and in line with all the other demonization of teachers that we’re seeing in K-12,” said Rich Copenhagen, a student senator from the College of Alameda. “Unfortunately I think this report falls into that, and I don’t think that’s a very healthy way of dealing with our problems.”

The Community College Chancellor’s office said it supports any effort to improve completion rates, but was noncommittal on the report’s recommendations and instead directed attention to the Student Success Task Force. Some key proposals from the task force are already making their way through the State Legislature in SB 1456, the Student Success Act of 2012.

SIGnificant improvementS

John Fensterwald contributed to this report.

California received a double dose of good news this week about the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced yesterday that a $63 million check is in the mail to cover the second-year funding for schools awarded SIG grants in round two. And, perhaps more promising, a new study found that student test scores in SIG schools showed significant improvement in the first year.

Schools that implemented SIG-funded reforms increased their API scores by an additional 34 points beyond what would have been expected if they hadn’t received the funding and implemented a schoolwide reform. That amounts to a 23 percent jump toward closing the gap between their API scores and the state’s goal of 800 points, according to the study, “School turnarounds: Evidence from the 2009 stimulus.”

“The results were striking; it was more than we would expect to see at this point,” said Stanford University education professor Edward Haertel, who provided feedback on an early draft of the study.

Small API differences separated some SIG and non-SIG schools. (Source: School Turnaround report).  Click to enlarge.
Small API differences separated some SIG and non-SIG schools. (Source: School Turnaround report). Click to enlarge.

The author, University of Virginia researcher Thomas Dee, analyzed achievement in 82 of California’s 89 schools that received grants in the first SIG cohort. He eliminated those that chose to reopen as charters or to shut down completely. Dee found the biggest differences between schools butting up against each side of the eligibility line; on one side were those whose baseline achievement was just low enough to make them eligible for SIG grants, and on the other side, almost close enough to touch, were schools whose scores were just high enough to make them ineligible.

In addition to receiving SIG funds, the schools that improved the most were almost exclusively those that implemented the turnaround model, the most severe change short of shutting down. Turnaround schools are required to replace the principal and at least half the teaching staff. Just 29 schools in California’s first cohort chose that model. Nationwide, 20 percent of SIG schools were turnarounds.

“This underscores the role of school culture and a break with a past of low expectations,” said Dee. “It could be that the turnover in staff was catalyzing that change.”

Still, Dee hadn’t expected the improvement to be so strong. He had followed the painfully slow process of awarding SIG grants in California and knew that many schools got a late start on implementation. “Schools were told they won the awards once they were in session or were about to start. Elements of their plans could not be implemented in the first year,” explained Dee. “That is another reason why results surprised me.”

California received more SIG funds than any other state from the U.S. Department of Education’s $4 billion program. In the first round, which started two years ago, the state received $416 million, about $1.5 million for each school in the three-year program. Since then, another $129 million has been awarded to 36 schools in cohort two.

Don’t overlook the buying potential of those funds in contributing to the API improvements, said Fred Tempes, director of the California Comprehensive Center at WestEd, which is helping the State Department of Education with SIG implementation.

“When you have a lot of money then you can actually pay people to sit down and do the formative assessment exams, have coaches go in and look in the classrooms and make sure that people are actually following the reorganized curriculum.  So I suppose you could go faster,” said Tempes.

Plus, the first year is always the easiest to show improvement because a bunch of small tweaks can go a long way, Tempes said.  “You tighten up the curriculum, you institute some formative assessment that’s common to everybody, and it’s just kind of the low hanging fruit syndrome.”

What happens next may offer a clearer picture into the sustainability of the reforms. Dee calls it the “fade out” period that occurs after an initial big jump in scores, and intends to keep following California and other states to see what happens after SIG runs its three-year course.

Even Secretary Duncan tempered his delight – a bit – and urged patience.  “These data are still preliminary. Several years of data will be needed to demonstrate robust, long-term growth in student outcomes in SIG schools,” said Duncan in a news release.  “But Dee’s careful study belies the conventional wisdom that little can be done to significantly boost student achievement in low-performing schools.”

An overdue recognition that teachers must be partners in education reform

This much we know. Never before has there been so much attention focused on teachers and teaching. And, according to the latest MetLife Survey of the American Teacher report, teachers’ satisfaction with their profession is down. Way down. These findings are particularly worrying given that there is a need to recruit two million new teachers into the profession over the next 10 years, and attracting talented people to the teaching profession in sufficient numbers has become difficult in California.

Yet, I am more hopeful than ever before about the future of the teaching profession and the direction of education reform. Why such optimism?

I’ve seen a renewed focus on capturing the voices of educators and making sure their experience and expertise helps shape education policy and school improvement. And there is greater acknowledgment that teacher evaluation must be viewed as one facet of comprehensive talent management systems that need to also focus equally on hiring, supporting,  and advancing teachers.

Let me explain.

On Feb. 15, I was encouraged to hear U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invite teachers and principals across the country into a national conversation focused not on one silver bullet solution but on fixing many systemic issues in education. In his remarks about the RESPECT Project (Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching), Duncan said, “As we fight to strengthen our nation economically, as we fight for greater social justice through strong and genuine educational opportunity, the voice of teachers has never been more important.”

I couldn’t agree more. At New Teacher Center, we have surveyed more than one million educators about their perceptions of teaching and learning conditions in their schools and districts. This is part of our Teaching and Learning Conditions Initiative, which captures the voices of educators as a means to provide policymakers at the state, district, and school level with broad and detailed insight into teaching and learning conditions – as well as the data and tools for data-driven decisions on policy and practice. Education leaders in Massachusetts, North Carolina, Metro Nashville, Tennessee, New York, Rhode Island, Ohio, and Indiana are working with us this spring to launch six Teaching and Learning Conditions Initiative surveys to document and analyze the teaching and learning environments in schools, supporting the development of data-driven improvement plans aimed at advancing student learning.

Through this work, we learned that conditions for teaching and learning are key to increasing student achievement and creating a more stable teaching force, but that considerable gaps exist between the perceptions of teachers and administrators regarding whether key teaching conditions, like sufficient planning time and availability of resources, are present. Administrators are likely to view teaching and learning conditions in their schools more positively than the teachers in those same schools. It is critically important for policymakers and education leaders to actively seek teachers’ perspectives, and to initiate conversations that lead to meaningful change.

So I was thrilled when Duncan described a goal to engage directly with teachers and principals all across America to develop pioneering innovations in the way we recruit, select, prepare, credential, support, advance, and compensate teachers and school leaders. “We need mentor teachers, master teachers, and teacher leaders supporting younger colleagues, and driving school decisions around curriculum, scheduling, and staffing,” he said, making it clear that supporting new teachers is a critical piece of the RESPECT Project. I hope that, as we progress into a presidential election and explore reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Congress and the president allocate funding to support this powerful idea.

Just a week after the RESPECT Project launched, Bill Gates had an op-ed in the New York Times that decried publishing teachers’ individual performance assessments and emphasized instead the use of evaluations as a means for teachers to get specific feedback or training to help them improve. He highlighted the need for collaboration and for school leaders and teachers to work together to get better. Two Massachusetts teachers made the same case earlier this year on the Impatient Optimist blog in a post entitled “Teachers Want to Learn, Too: Evaluations We Believe In.”

I was happy to see New Teacher Center’s partnership with Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) to build a comprehensive talent management system (which was recently validated with funding from a federal SEED grant) referenced in this great Gates op-ed that concludes, “Developing a systematic way to help teachers get better is the most powerful idea in education today. Let’s focus on creating a personnel system that truly helps teachers improve.”

It is so encouraging to think we may finally have turned a corner and put behind us oversimplistic ideas on how to improve education. So many others are now advocating for what New Teacher Center – and so many teacher leaders across the country — have long held to be true: We must focus on developing effective teachers in addition to recruiting, hiring, and evaluating them.

What makes you optimistic about the future of education?

Ellen Moir is founder and chief executive officer of the New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit organization that she created in 1998 to improve student learning by accelerating the effectiveness of teachers and school leaders, especially in underserved areas. Today this organization has a staff of over 150 who work closely with educators and policymakers across the country to ensure that the nation’s low-income, minority, and English language learners – those students most often taught by inexperienced teachers – have the opportunity to receive an excellent education.

Students can’t get “passed” math

Every year about 220 students at De Anza College in Cupertino voluntarily sign up for a yearlong double dose of math classes. It’s not easy to get in; about 700 students at the community college apply for the program, known as Math Performance Success (MPS). The main requirement for admission – besides applying early – is having a bad history with math. These are students who have failed a math course once or twice, or who have dropped out of the class.

Over three consecutive quarters, the program takes students from basic skills, such as elementary algebra, through college-level statistics, which is one of the required courses for students planning to transfer to the University of California or California State University. Over nine years, from 2001 to 2010, pass rates for MPS students were 18 to 28 percent higher for each course than for students in the traditional sequence.

It’s a resource-heavy program. Students get tutoring, counseling, and extra-long classes. For faculty, there’s built-in collaboration among fellow teachers and with support staff. In most California community colleges, just 55 percent of students taking college-level math classes will pass them with a “C” or better; a new report from EdSource found that rate hasn’t really changed in 20 years.

There’s been a lot of research on the sorry rate of completing basic skills classes, but the EdSource study, Passing When it Counts, reveals that even students who are deemed ready for college

Passing rates of college-level math by race and ethnicity. (Source:  EdSource) Click to enlarge.
Passing rates of college-level math by race and ethnicity. (Source: EdSource) Click to enlarge.

math are struggling to pass. Those rates vary by race and ethnicity. African American students passed 41 percent of the time; Latino students had a 49 percent pass rate; it was 60 percent for white students and 65 percent for Asian students. But those figures only apply to students who remained in the courses; between 18 and 30 percent dropped them.

“You probably find the same thing in every state, because math is a huge stumbling block,” said Nancy Shulock, director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at Sacramento State University. “I don’t know when and why this country got into such a math phobia, but it’s a terrible problem.”

Her own research found that how well and how quickly students complete college-level math in community college turns out to be a strong predictor of success. Steps to Success, a 2009 report that Shulock co-authored, found that students who passed college-level math within two years after enrolling in a community college were nearly three times as likely to earn a certificate or degree or transfer to a four-year college as students who didn’t finish in that time frame.

Schools matter

In addition to the gap by race and ethnicity, EdSource also found a significant disparity among colleges themselves. At 21 of the state’s 112 community colleges, less that half the students who were enrolled in college-level math passed the classes. At 26 colleges, more than 60 percent passed. (Click here for an interactive map showing pass rates for each college.)

Variations in passing rates by community college. (Source: EdSource). Click to enlarge.
Variations in passing rates by community college. (Source: EdSource). Click to enlarge.

Although the study didn’t explore this inconsistency in detail, researcher Matthew Rosin writes that “possible reasons for this variation include students’ backgrounds and how long it has been since they last took a math course, the quality and ongoing evaluation of instruction, and how students are placed into these math classes.”

It may also be a factor of geography. In communities hit hard by the economic downturn, students may also be working full time and dealing with the stress of earning enough to pay the rent, feed their families, and pay for child care.

Sacramento State’s Nancy Shulock suggests something else at play: how math is being taught. De Anza’s program is one example of an innovative method. Nationally, there’s a movement toward contextualization, incorporating math into career programs and other subject areas. “Nationally, there’s a lot of effort going on about the ways to teach math,” said Shulock.  “The research is showing that students can engage more if there’s something that makes them see this is not just a math problem.”

Linking foster youth and academics

A first-of-its-kind statewide longitudinal study comparing students in foster care with similar students who were never in the foster system is underway, using a unique linking of data systems that protects students’ privacy while identifying the barriers to academic success for foster youth.

Of the more than 59,500 foster youth in California, about 37,000 are school age.  They tend to do worse academically than other students, and are twice as likely to drop out of high school. Researchers hope the study will pinpoint when and where the problems begin that cause many foster youth to struggle in school.

“It will help us understand the different pathways that foster youth have,” said project manager Kristine Frerer, with UC Berkeley’s Center for Social Services Research (CSSR). “Are there junctures where foster youth take a different pathway? Are there areas where we can be more supportive in terms of policy or practice.”

Encryption Process for Foster Youth Study. (Source: Center for Social Services Research, UC Berkeley) Click to enlarge.
Encryption Process for Foster Youth Study. (Source: Center for Social Services Research, UC Berkeley) Click to enlarge.

Using encrypted data almost as hard to crack as the Enigma code, CSSR linked foster youth in the state’s Child Welfare Services Case Management System with nearly identical non-foster youth in Cal-PASS, the only system in the state that collects data on individual students as they move from kindergarten through college. Although Cal-PASS is voluntary, 8,275 schools in 446 districts participate, along with every community college and University of California campus, and all but four California State University campuses.

The two groups of students were matched by a number of variables including grade, gender, race, ethnicity, special education, poverty, and performance level on the California Standards Tests.

The study is divided into three segments: elementary and middle school, high school, and college. Frerer said researchers are analyzing the first set of data right now.  It follows foster youth in high school to see how they compare with non-foster youth when it comes to graduating and going to college.

Missing links to higher ed

Educators anticipate that linking the two databases will make it easier to keep track of foster youth when they move, which happens with surprising frequency. Nearly a third of foster children are placed in three or more foster homes, and about 12 percent live in at least five foster homes, according to a 2001 study by CSSR.

Pamela Hosmer said her district is trying to piece together records for a student who’s facing his 22nd move.  Hosmer is program manager of the Children and Youth in Transition department in San Diego Unified, which has one of the best student information systems in the state.  She said although the district has come very far in collecting data on foster youth, “there are still gaps in their credits and in their assessment scorecards; we still spend an inordinate amount of time tracking down records.”  The study will investigate how those transitions, moving from home to home and school to school, are related to foster youth outcomes in school.

Lauren Davis Sosenko, with the Institute for Evidence-Based Change, which is partnering with CSSR, said they’ll also profile groups of high-achieving foster youth to see “what foster youth who complete university or college look like demographically, and what other common experiences and outcomes they share?”*

What happens to foster youth in college has been relatively unexplored until now, but it’s becoming more important with the passage of Assembly Bill 12, the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, which allows foster youth to remain in the system until they turn 21.

At California State University, budget cuts, increasing tuition and a record number of applicants have already limited enrollment, thereby increasing competition.  “Students need to state their college plans as early as their freshman year in high school,” said Connie Hernandez Robbins, assistant director of the Guardian Scholars program for foster youth at San Jose State University.  But when they move around so much, foster youth often don’t get to finish classes and don’t have anyone at home looking out for them, supporting them and encouraging them to apply to college.

“The more we can have the two systems work together to identify when a youth is not in school and when they are in school, we can provide administrators at the different schools systems with information on how they help that student get back on track with their education,” said Hernandez Robbins.

Time on their side

Compared with the crawling pace of getting CALPADS, the statewide student data base, off the ground, progress on the foster youth data set has surpassed the one-minute mile.  We first wrote about the effort to link the two data system last February.  Last month, researchers released a pilot study entitled First Look:  Foster youth education outcomes in four California counties.

First Look provided some indication of the academic fissure affecting foster youth, but it was a limited study, a snapshot rather than a longitudinal video.  Still, it illustrated what many educators feared, that foster youth lag behind their classmates on every California Standards Test.  When those results are disaggregated, they breakdown according to similar lines as non-foster youth –   Latino, African American and special education foster youth score below all others, as do foster youth attending the poorest schools.

Initial results of the longitudinal report could come as soon as next month.  San Diego’s Hosmer is waiting for that before making any formal recommendations.  “Until we have the real data that comes from school districts, I think it’s still just going to be guesses, educated guesses.”

* The study is funded by the Stuart Foundation, which is also a funder of TOPed.

Besides anger, action and ideas can emerge from the worst of times

My anger grew this past weekend as I watched teachers demonstrate and heard story upon story of obscene class sizes, schools without counselors and librarians, and young men and women being laid off because they were foolish enough to follow their passion to teach our children.

Anger is a funny thing, though. It can be the dark side of depression and hopelessness, or it can be the bud of strategy. While now is clearly the worst of times, it is also the very best time to think, plan, scheme, and politick about the future of public education. Three aspects of the current condition make it so:

First, the mind and psyche need to flee the darkness. At historic times of darkness, we seek the light, because doing so gives us hope. The 37th Congress, meeting in the depths of the Civil War, passed the Morrill Act, which underwrote public colleges and universities across the country; the Homestead Act, which opened land west of the Mississippi to settlement; and the Pacific Railroad Act, which provided funds to link the coasts.

Second, bad times offer the opportunity to build differently. When times are flush, the public instinct is to do more of the same rather than to design something new. During California’s last big period of flush budgets, it poured billions into unsustainable class size reductions. Those funds may have temporarily helped a cohort of students—some of the same students that are now being frozen out of places at the state’s college and university system because of cutbacks—but they didn’t fundamentally change or challenge century-old practices. (The prospect of money again “coming in buckets” has been forecast by analyst Rob Manwaring.)

Third, thinking anew is the first stage of political action. Public education, particularly in the cities, has become a bad brand, something that no one wants to buy. Only with a better idea, and a clear notion of how to move toward it, will a viable political coalition be possible. Taxpayers in general, and business interests in particular, need to believe that education is worthy of investment. Labor in general, and the California Teachers Association in particular, needs to believe that better jobs for teachers can be had by moving forward

It is imperative to move forward. In an earlier post in this series, I described Learning 2.0, the next full-scale version of public education, and in subsequent posts I will describe some of its elements in more detail. I was brought to think anew about public education by a realization that our current system, Learning 1.0, is unsustainable.

The current system is unsustainable

The current situation is surely bad. But those of us who have studied urban districts, in particular, know that it has been bad for a very long time. Los Angeles Unified has bumped from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis since 1969. Jeffery Mirel’s history of Detroit locates the seeds of decay as early as the 1940s.

How can this be? California, like other states, has put a lot more money into its education system over the last 40 years, and those dour economists who crunch the numbers look up from their databases and accuse educators of simply being “rent seekers,” economic-speak for these-people-are-out-for-helping-themselves.

But if one probes inside the gross numbers, one finds the reason that the current system is vulnerable. Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, Paul Hill and Marguerite Roza show that the number of core classroom teachers per 1,000 students in 1999 was only slightly higher than it was in 1960. However, “other teachers,” which includes those in special education, increased from fewer than 2 to 37 per 1,000 students, and “other instructional staff,” which includes classroom aides, increased from 2 to more than 20. Overall, the growth of staffing in public elementary and secondary classrooms increased from around 40 positions to more than 100. Richard Rothstein has documented a similar change in school staffing patterns using data from district personnel records.

Much of the systemic cost increase is found in categorical programs, each with its own funding stream, and each with its own rules, enforcers, and expenses. A special education student, for example, is about twice as expensive as the norm. Current policy thinking, including Gov. Jerry Brown’s education platform, leans toward deregulation of categoricals, giving districts more control over how they spend their money.

Deregulation won’t do it. It will help, but the largest and most expensive of the categorical programs are guarded by both interest groups and civil rights law that trumps ordinary statutes and regulations. At best, deregulation will have a marginal effect. And even after deregulation, public education will still be saddled with the same system for producing learning that was designed in the early 20th Century. Our goal then was to someday graduate as many as 15 percent of our students from high school.

That’s why we need redesign.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teacher unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press. Readers can follow his writing at

Poverty + poor reading = dropout

Sometimes you have to wonder what the tipping point is for taking education research and moving it into action. It’s been years since educators recognized the importance of third grade as the year when children move from learning to read to reading to learn. Yet, reading proficiency for fourth graders in the United States has been fairly stagnant according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), rising four points between 1992 and 2009.

Children below basic in reading account for a third of all students, but are 63% of those who don't graduate from high school. (click to enlarge)
Children below basic in reading account for a third of all students, but are 63% of those who don't graduate from high school. (click to enlarge)

Now comes a new longitudinal report, about as unequivocal as this sort of research can be, showing a direct link between third grade reading and high school graduation. Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation followed nearly 4,000 students born between 1979 and 1989 until they turned 19. It found that children who are struggling to read in third grade are four times more likely to drop out of or not complete high school as classmates who are proficient readers.

Living in poverty overrides the future benefits of reading proficiency (click to enlarge)
Living in poverty overrides the future benefits of reading proficiency (click to enlarge)

Lead researcher Donald J. Hernandez, a sociology professor at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, released the findings last Friday at the National Education Writers Association meeting in New Orleans. Hernandez said that even though only about a third of students read poorly, they comprise “more than three-fifths of those who eventually drop out or fail to graduate on time.” Poverty increases that risk, creating the “Double Jeopardy” of the title.

Researchers surveyed  the children’s parents every two years to monitor the families’ economic circumstances, and separated them into three groups: those who have never been poor, those who went through some very tough times, and those who lived in poverty for more than half the years they were surveyed in. The children were also separated into three reading levels similar to the NAEP categories: proficient, basic, and below basic.

The poverty effect

When examined through the lenses of reading skills and poverty, Hernandez found that poor children account for 70% of the kids who don’t graduate. Students who read well but had lived in poverty for at least a year were as likely to drop out as children who weren’t proficient readers but had never experienced poverty. This bears repeating. There’s almost no difference (2 percentage points) in graduation rates between proficient readers who had been poor and the below-basic readers who had never lived in poverty.

Johns Hopkins University Researcher Robert Slavin, developer of the Success For All literacy program, who was also on the panel, added that 83% of fourth graders who receive free or reduced-price lunches – a measure of poverty –  are not reading at grade level. He says one reason is that they just don’t receive basic care and services, and argues that most of those kids could improve with easy solutions like tutoring, small group work, computers, and even access to eye exams and glasses. “If we don’t even solve the easiest problems, we’re in deep trouble,” says Slavin.

Add race to the mix and the picture is worse. “The [dropout] rate was highest for poor Black and Hispanic students, at 31 and 33 percent respectively – or about eight times the rate for all proficient readers,” wrote Hernandez in his report.

A holistic solution

“Teaching kids to learn is not a mystery,” says Slavin. “There’s no magic. We need a seriousness of purpose and a commitment.” What would that look like? Maybe a little bit like The Harlem Children’s Zone’s Baby College, where parents learn the importance of nourishing their children literally and literately.

“We like to say the child goes from the breast to the book in connection with their parents,” said panelist Sterling Speirn, President and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which focuses grants on early childhood development programs. Speirn says research shows that being read to in a home is strongly correlated to being ready to learn, and that breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life has literacy benefits. “Having a holistic approach for kids and families leads to tremendous results,” says Speirn.

It’s also crucial to link high-quality preschool to kindergarten-to-3rd-grade standards in order to maintain the benefits of PreK for low-income children. That’s a rarity these days. Just ask Bruce Fuller. The UC Berkeley professor in the Graduate School of Education has written extensively on the impact of quality child care in California’s poor communities. “These fresh findings should remind California educators and policy makers that a firm foundation in reading proficiency – including coming to enjoy reading and gaining new insights from reading, not simply testing well – is key to future success in school,” says Fuller.

Donald Hernandez wants to see the federal government get more involved by developing a policy promoting early literacy through third grade. Yet the budget shortfall threatens to cut funding and subsidies for quality programs, especially Head Start. The nearly 50-year-old national program designed to promote school readiness for low-income children was spared a 20% cut in the eleventh-hour temporary budget agreement worked out between President Obama and Congressional Republicans, but its funding is far from safe.

Kellogg’s Speirn expressed frustration at the lack of progress from policy makers. Here’s another “brilliant study by an academic,” said Speirn, but “it doesn’t seem to lead to changes.”

In retrospect, San Diego’s reading reforms worked

Former San Diego Unified Superintendent Alan Bersin is long gone, pushed out by a school board and teachers union that he alienated. But one positive legacy may be Blueprint for Student Success, a districtwide reading improvement program that was viewed sceptically at its start and largely dismantled by the time Bersin’s contract wasn’t renewed in 2005.

It turns out that it was more successful in improving reading skills  of elementary and middle school students than acknowledged at the time, though not in high school, where it was largely a failure. Researchers for the Public Policy Institute of California, which released a study of the program yesterday, believe it may be worth replicating elsewhere in the state.

Continue reading “In retrospect, San Diego’s reading reforms worked”

Grad rate falls 5 percentage points in a decade

Fifteen states saw a decline in their high school graduation rates from 1997 to 2007, and California, with a drop of 4.7 percentage points, from 67.4 to 62.7 percent, was the second worst, behind Nevada, according to  Education Week’s latest Diplomas Count.

The national graduation rate of 68.8 percent in 2007 was 3.1 percentage points higher than in 1997, though there was a slight decrease from 2006. Although California’s graduation rate lagged the national average in 2007 by a full 6.1 percentage points, each of its major racial and ethnic subgroups actually outperformed students nationwide in 2007.

Continue reading “Grad rate falls 5 percentage points in a decade”