All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talent.
— John F. Kennedy
Mike Petrilli kicked off an intense and illuminating debate recently (see here, here, and here) when he seemed to blame the lagging academic achievement of black children on teen mothers and fatherless families. This made me think about my own experiences as a single mother. I'm a white, two-time teenage mom who has been a single mom a long time.
I came from a two-parent family. We were not poverty level, but we still were only able to just get by. Vacations, summer camps, and SAT prep courses didn't exist in families like mine.
Becoming a teen mom, though, threw me full on into poverty. I eventually fought my way out but not because I'm different or special. Mostly because I got lucky.
I was able to finish high school at New Futures in Albuquerque, New Mexico, one of the first (and still few) schools for pregnant and parenting teens in the country. I moved to California, where community college and on-site childcare were free. In both places, I got the benefit of a supportive, responsive education system, and I began to see the potential of what I could achieve.
At first, my kids attended an inner-city school. My son's second grade class chewed through five teachers. Although there were great people at the school - including a "hero" principal - the environment was chaotic. I thought I needed to get my kids into an environment with higher expectations and aspirations, so I moved us to the suburbs.
Rent was more than half my income. I took a second job, and oftentimes, a third. I performed risky forms of calculus to somehow pay the bills and be present in my kids' lives. Every day, I bounced between two disparate worlds - the "leafy suburb" with the calm school and my job in the state juvenile corrections agency where student files contained testaments of the apathetic and unequal educational system for poor students, many from the very district from which we had just bolted.
What stressed my kids was not taking a yearly test that would let me know if they were, in fact, gaining the academic skills they needed to keep up with their more resourced peers, but trying to live up to "normal." Any additional costs - $350 for driver's ed, $125 for a yearbook, $82 for an AP exam, were a struggle. My kids didn't go to the summer camps all the other kids went to. I surely didn't go to the $150-a-plate school fundraising galas ($75,000 raised in just one event!). The micro-aggressions, like kids calling my son "Hershey," and a teacher asking "don't you have a husband?" reinforced that we existed on the ragged edges of the social fabric of the community.
My trust in the district began to fray when the kids were in middle school. I watched as the inner circle kids got access to the best teachers and the extra-curriculars, and as the district awarded a college scholarship to a child of one of the wealthiest families in town. I watched as other kids - those that lived "down the hill" near us - faded into the background
It became clear to me that the number one priority for many parents in the district was making sure their kids were on top. For the district, it was perpetuating the inner circle of privilege and protecting their reputation.
I was lucky eventually to find an amazing charter school - the type accused of existing primarily for the benefit of wealthy people who are accused of wanting to privatize education - that changed my daughter's life. The school assures everyone is treated fairly and feels included. A huge bonus is that the school's racial and socioeconomic diversity more closely reflects our values.
The amazing teachers at her charter school are paid, on average, $35,000 - less than half the $73,000 average the district teachers are paid. One reason for this is because the district contributes to a Robin Hood-in-reverse lobbying organization that successfully gets wealthy districts in the state more state funding than they should according to the state formula.
What this means for ESEA
During the initial Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) hearings in 1965, Robert Kennedy passionately fought for federal accountability because history had proven that schoolmen were pretty good at protecting their own interests as well as those with influence within communities. Kennedy - and his own brother Ted nearly 35 years later - knew full well that low-income and marginalized kids didn't have a well-organized and well-resourced advocacy machine standing up for them. They still don't now.
Fifty years later, our country still hasn't fully addressed educational inequality because framing poverty in terms of morality allows people to avoid acknowledging their part in perpetuating it. The "Drive Like They're Your Kids" signs imply that people won't be cautious unless the well-being of their own kids is at stake. Our social policies reflect this individualistic thinking. Many other industrialized nations established universal policies to assure all children get equal resources and opportunities (e.g. family leave, high quality early learning and child care, college) decades ago. In our country, many parents still have to work two or three jobs in order to live in a "good" school district, and way too much depends on luck.
I'm incredibly grateful for the educational opportunities that played a huge difference in my life. But the reality is that our public education system doesn't provide an equal opportunity to all. All the talk about single-parent families and parents that don't care ignores the structural and interactional power imbalances people experience in daily life.
It's worth taking another moment to reflect on the Kennedy brothers' legacies. With the Edward M. Kennedy Institute opening in Boston yesterday, I can't help but think what he would say today. Perhaps that in order to change people's consciousness - getting one group of people to intuitively believe that other peoples' children are as valuable as their own, and getting another group to actually experience a system that is truly fair and actually works for people like them so they'll buy into it - we need our policies and practices to reflect those values.
-Marianne Lombardo, Policy Analyst
The GAO released an important report last week on financial aid to prospective and current teachers who serve in areas of high need. It got zero attention. It's not surprising given that the report is dense and obtuse even by GAO standards. The ledes are buried at fracking-level. But anyone who is interested in getting teachers to where they're needed will find actionable information. The key? Follow the money.
But first, let's discuss the findings. Much of what GAO emphasized is not new:
- TEACH grants - that provide up to $4,000 per year in tuition assistance to students enrolled in participating teacher preparation programs who agree to teach in low-income schools and high-need subjects - have a 19% utilization rate.
- The Stafford Teacher Loan Forgiveness program - through which teachers that serve in low-income schools or high-need subject areas like math and science, or have expertise with English Language Learners or students with disabilities - can get up to $17,500 in forgiveness, has a less than 1% utilization rate.
- Grant conversion to loans. A third of TEACH grant recipients have not fulfilled service requirements and have had their grants converted to loans - what many call a "gr-oan." This creates a burden on these students and fails to reach the program's goals. This is, however, significantly lower than the Administration's projected conversion rate of 75% (down from an earlier estimate of 80%).
One featured finding that is new:
- Of the 36,000 Teach Grants converted to loans, more than 2,000 were converted erroneously.
What comes pages later is that more than half of TEACH grants were converted erroneously because the servicer violated program requirements. If there is a perverse financial incentive for the servicer to convert illegally, the GAO doesn't mention it. But it's well worth looking into.
All of these issues make me fear that Republicans who already declared last week that they want to bomb education spending back to the 20th century will see these teacher financial aid programs as easy pickings, especially with the Higher Education Act up for reauthorization after the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
But that would be a huge mistake. First and foremost, there's a ton of money on the table:
- About $600 million was allocated in TEACH grants between 2009 and 2014.
- More than 298,000 teachers (a number equivalent to 10% of the current U.S. teaching force) received loan forgiveness from the Stafford and Perkins Teacher Loan Forgiveness programs since their inception.
- GAO - inexplicably - does not give dollar numbers for loan forgiveness, but here's a back-of-the-envelope estimate:
- $5,000 (the minumum amount of Stafford loan forgiveness) x 298,000 teachers (who have gotten forgiveness through Stafford or Perkins) = $1.5 billion.
It would have taken the GAO a few seconds longer to do something more precise than the 22 seconds it took me to do the above on the back of a proverbial envelope.
The Race to the Top Equity program in the Administration's 2014 budget - which covered equity in everything from pre-K to college access - had a proposed funding level of $300 million and did not get a dime in 2014 appropriations. It's frustrating that we have billions in real funding for teacher equity that people could be building efforts around but aren't.
So, what to do? Let's get the finger-pointing out of the way first. There's plenty of blame in the GAO report to go around. Almost everyone is falling down on the job (including the GAO). For each set of players, it's a question of priorities rather than capacity:
- The Department of Education (ED) is mismanaging everything from basic accounting controls to program performance standards to oversight of servicers to outreach and consumer service;
- College and university leaders made some valid criticisms. It's hard to make sure students have good information about opportunities and responsibilities. But those commenting are supposed to be in the business of education and professional preparation. An ambitious program would seamlessly combine a teacher residency in a low-income school with TEACH grants and loan forgiveness. Where is such a thing to be found?
- School districts and teachers unions seem neither to be looking out for their best interests nor those of their workforces and members.
Here are two items I'd put at the top of the list for ESEA reauthorization:
- Simplify Requirements. It would be simple for Congress to make sure federal loan forgiveness programs don't get in each other's way. Stafford loan forgiveness, Income-Based Repayment (IBR), and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) all have distinct purposes. They are not duplicative, but they are too interdependent. You can read all about it on pp. 23-25, but long-story-short: choosing IBR affects potential Stafford Loan forgiveness amounts; and, teachers who get Stafford loan forgiveness are not eligible for PSLF.
The rules are complicated and confusing. And they break the three inherent promises of each program. If we are serious about recruiting great teachers, we should not make them choose between cheaper monthly loan payments, capped forgiveness at five years, and erasure of debt at ten. It's going to take that and a lot more. The easy solution is not to let participation in any one program affect eligibility in the others.
- Unleash Innovators. You can, as they say, legislate good policy but you can't legislate behavior. Congress should try and figure out how to facilitate more responsibility and imagination on the part of those who should and could be doing more to make these programs work for their intended beneficiaries: teachers taking challenging assignments and students who need access to high-quality teachers.
Mostly, however, teachers, high-need schools, and low-income students would benefit greatly from some fresh thinking and new energy. We can do this while also making more teachers eligible for these programs if we open them up to those prepared by entities other than colleges and universities.
Unlike traditional teacher preparation programs (that have gotten hundreds of millions in direct federal funding through which they promised, but did not deliver, big change), many alternative preparation programs based outside of colleges and universities have direct relationships with the schools where their trainees are placed. Some schools and school networks also run the programs that train their teachers.
The Higher Education Act reauthorization offers a rare opportunity to do big things to compensate great teachers who take on challenging teaching roles. Anyone who cares about that should pay close attention and follow the money. If not, someone else may decide to take it off the table.
A gob-smacking statistic on high school dropouts was put forth by Bob Balfanz and Nettie Letgers several years ago that changed the debate about the high school dropout issue. Some 2,000 high schools account for half of the nation's high school dropouts.
In the wake of that finding, Education Secretary Arne Duncan invested upwards of $4 billion in the turnaround School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. Disclosure: statutory authorization originally drafted by our own Charlie Barone. SIG funding goes to the bottom five percent of K-12 schools nationally, but approximately half of those schools are high schools. And while the results have been mixed overall depending on local fidelity to the most directive of federal interventions, the high school dropout rate has improved. Markedly.
If only a gob-smacking statistic could generate the same kind of reaction to the college dropout problem. Disturbing college completion statistics abound. Consider for example that 105 four-year bachelor-degree granting colleges have dropout rates among first time, full-time freshmen in excess of 85 percent. That's right - 85 percent - and that's measured over a period stretching six years from initial enrollment. Some folks may remember a time when you were expected to complete college in four years.
There are two disturbing reactions to that statistic you get the college dropout factory statistics from politicos and educators in private. The first is "what percentage of those are HBCUs?" Well, it turns out Historically Black Colleges and Universities educate about account for about 10 percent of high dropout colleges - not a huge percentage. The majority of college dropout factories are for-profit colleges. Eleven percent of college dropout factories are public colleges and a larger proportion are non-profit private schools.
The second reaction you get to the college dropout factory statistic is "well, those schools 'serve' high minority, high poverty students." Turns out though that there are colleges that serve very similar students that get substantially better results. Not great results, but better than an 85 percent plus dropout rate.
In fact 9 times out of 10, a four-year bachelor-degree granting college with a graduation rate below 15 percent falls in the bottom of its institution peer group - that is similar colleges with students with similar levels of academic preparation as measured by SAT/ACT and high school grade point average.
The soft bigotry of low expectations has no place in K-12 or higher education. And the recipe for improvement remains the same: resources and reform, including accountability for results. It works. It just takes courage and fortitude.