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All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talent.quote

— John F. Kennedy


The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations Has No Place in K-12 or Higher Education (Part 2)

By Mary Nguyen Barry, Policy Analyst
     Michael Dannenberg, Director of Strategic Initiatives for Policy  

We've been hard in our opposition to recommendations by organizations calling on the Department of Education (ED) to adjust the results of their planned college ratings system based on immutable student characteristics. So called "risk adjustment" proposals effectively suggest there be different expectations for different groups of students based on demographics alone.  It's what former President George W. Bush decried as the "soft bigotry of low expectations."

But it's not enough to be opposed to those who call for risk adjustment.  Instead, we offer an alternative for ED to consider: compare unadjusted outcomes of similar colleges serving students with similar levels of academic preparation.  That's different from demographic characteristics per se.

From an accountability perspective, it makes very little sense to compare an outcome, like graduation rates, at a college like Hofstra University in New York with those at Harvard University. Those two schools enroll students with completely different levels of academic preparation, not to mention are institutions with vast differences in size and wealth.

Hofstra University, and all colleges, should be compared to similar colleges that serve similarly prepared students. When one does this "peer institution" comparison, you see that while Hofstra University graduates its first-time full-time students at a rate similar to the national average (61 percent compared to 59 percent), Hofstra University underperforms almost all of its peers in educating its students. Hofstra does an even worse job educating its underrepresented minority students as compared to its peers: just over half (54 percent) graduate within six years.

A peer comparison analysis would ask why do similar colleges with students with similar levels of academic preparation, like Syracuse University and Fordham University, both also in New York, graduate their students at much higher rates? 

The same peer comparison analysis can also identify extremely poor performers. We've found that 9 times out of 10, a college with a graduation rate below 15 percent falls in the bottom of its peer group. These are the colleges - and there are over 100 of them - that ED's rating system should identify and warn students and families against.

In short, whereas a risk adjustment model embraces different and lower expected outcomes for some students, based on race for example, a peer institution comparison technique avoids the embrace of artificially deflated expectations. 

The trick is how do you identify peer groups of similar institutions.  For the above analysis, we used the College Results Online (CRO) algorithm identifying peer groups.  It has been peer reviewed and in use for 10 years.  We suggest ED use a similar algorithm, but with a slight modification to remove the consideration of student wealth.  We submit that ED should only consider key institutional characteristics such as students' academic preparation, as measured by entering freshman high school GPA and SAT/ACT score, and institutions' size, sector, admissions selectivity, and funding levels when constructing peer groups for accountability purposes.  Once created, ED should:

  • Identify high, middle, and low performers among the ultimate outcomes it chooses for access, affordability, and success; aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
  • Measure an institution's improvement over time by examining changes in its position within its peer group. Consider San Diego State University, for example, that steadily rose from the bottom third of its CRO peer group in 2002 with a 38 percent six-year graduation rate to the top third of its peer group since 2005, with a graduation rate now at 66 percent; and aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
  • Guard against perverse incentives by rewarding successful access, affordability, and success outcomes among disaggregated groups of underrepresented students, such as racial minorities, low-income students, adult students, and upward transfer students. That's what many states' performance-based funding systems - like Tennessee, Ohio, and Indiana - do.

Finally, in order to encourage positive decision-making among students and families, we recommend that ED create a second tailored peer group for presentation purposes to consumers. This second peer group would compare schools to other colleges a student is likely to apply. That's because a student's choice set - which may be driven by factors like geography or reputation - likely differs greatly from a national peer group of colleges that serve similarly academically prepared students. These informative consumer selection peer groups can be constructed based on groups of colleges that students list on their FAFSA applications and/or on their ACT and SAT submissions.

By following this two-level, institution peer group approach, ED can ensure its rating system is both fair to institutions and helpful to students and families.  

College Ratings & Higher Ed Accountability (Part 1)

By Mary Nguyen Barry, Policy Analyst
     Michael Dannenberg, Director of Strategic Initiatives for Policy 



This past Monday, Education Reform Now submitted recommendations to the Department of Education (ED) regarding the President's proposed college ratings system. In case you don't want to dive into our 12 pages of comments, we'll give you some highlights over the next two blog posts. First up: A general overview.

The Good

Overall, we support the concept and need for a federal college ratings system.

Despite improvements over the past 50 years, the American higher education system still calcifies economic inequality rather than acts as an engine of socioeconomic opportunity. College access for students from low-income families has improved, but the gap in degree completion rates between those from low and upper income families has grown. Rising net prices, driven by state higher education funding cuts, have outstripped growth in wages for the poor, working-class, and even middle-income families. The result is heavier debt burdens, especially among low-income families, that are exacerbated by low completion rates and a long time to degree even among those who do complete.

We support rating colleges as "high-performing", "low-performing," and middle.

Not all colleges contribute equally, nor solely, to overall postsecondary education underperformance. There are high-performers - colleges that buck the trend and enroll and serve students from low-income families well - and low-performers - colleges that act as "engines of inequality," "college dropout factories," or "diploma mills." It's much easier, in the initial rounds, for ED to identify the "best and worst" colleges and to leave more nuanced gradations for later iterations of the ratings system.

We support using the ratings system to drive improved accountability and information to consumers.

The three-tiered rating system lends itself to rapid accountability provisions. We've suggested previously that the federal government at least begin the accountability process by identifying the "worst of the worst" colleges on a variety of access, success, and post-enrollment success metrics. These colleges should lose access to certain federal grant, loan, and tax benefits.  Or, at the very least, they should be subject to a loss in competitive standing when pursuing non-formula based discretionary grant funding and separately, heightened scrutiny, including Department 'program reviews' of regulatory compliance.

On the consumer front, students and families need clear indications of a college's performance along a streamlined set of outcome measures. The identification of the "worst of the worst" colleges would also send a bright signal to consumers that these are institutions that should be avoided. We'll discuss in more detail in the next blog as to how the Department's ratings can serve both accountability and consumer purposes.

The Bad

We do not support ED's consideration of proposals to adjust outcomes for student characteristics or institutional mission.

We cannot stress enough our philosophical opposition to proposals (like the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities') that call for adjusting institutional outcomes based on personal student characteristics. Such "risk adjustment" consecrates a different set of expectations for different groups of students based on immutable characteristics, such as race and gender. It could also allow colleges to escape responsibility for providing quality service to every student they voluntary enroll. It's what former President George W. Bush referred to as "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

Never before has there been any outcome adjustment in federal higher education policy.  In fact, the Obama administration firmly rejected this approach in the past during the gainful employment debates. ED insisted back then that it was appropriate to hold all institutions to certain minimum standards irrespective of student demographics. ED should apply that same principle in the context of a ratings system applicable to all degree-granting institutions of higher education.

What would an alternative be? Unadjusted outcomes should be compared among similar colleges serving similarly academically prepared students. This can be accomplished by creating "institutional peer groups." We'll discuss in more detail how that would work and highlight individual performers in our next post.

Over 25 Groups Back Obama Teacher Prep Reg:
"An Education Equity Mandate"

By Hajar Ahmed

The Obama administration's teacher education reform plan won an influx of support from more than 25 education advocacy and service organizations this week.  Advocacy groups that haven't been aligning of late with respect to K-12 school accountability issues all echoed the same theme in comments submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. 

Groups including Teach For America, the Center for American Progress, Deans for ImpactEducation Trust, and the California Business Round Table all called for the Obama administration's teacher preparation rule-making plan to go forward and for States to rate teacher education programs based first and foremost on teacher candidate outcomes, including candidate performance in PK-12 classrooms.  The largest coalition, led by Democrats for Education Reform, called for the Education Department's final rule to:

  • Ensure use of multiple measures by states in rating traditional and alternative route teacher preparation program effectiveness;
  • Ensure that no state rate a program as effective or higher absent evidence that teacher candidates go on to generate satisfactory student learning outcomes in K-12 classrooms;
  • Encourage states to create at least four teacher preparation program evaluation performance categories (i.e. low-performing, at-risk, effective, and highly effective) that meaningfully differentiate preparation programs; 
  • Establish a link between state program evaluation results and institutional eligibility to participate in the TEACH "grant/loan" program; and 
  • Require states to report publicly to prospective teacher candidates, employers, and others teacher preparation program evaluation results.

Notable is that supportive groups still called for a number of improvements in the Education Department's regulatory effort, including ensuring that State teacher preparation program evaluation efforts be driven by a "rigorous and streamlined" set of requirements. Advocates called for an assurance that all teacher preparation programs be evaluated on an equal basis and for a removal of carve-outs based on subject matter (the NPRM exempts STEM programs).  The DFER led group also called on the administration to drop the requirement that States survey program graduates and incorporate student growth data in non-ESEA required tested grades and subjects.

Below is a list of groups that submitted supportive comments to the Department of Education.  At least 200 individuals submitted similar supportive letters as well. 

A+ Denver
Aspire Public Schools
Association of American Educators
California Business Roundtable
Center for American Progress
Civic Builders
Deans for Impact
Democrats for Education Reform
Education Reform Now
Ed Trust
Educators 4 Excellence
Great Oakland Public Schools
Green Dot Public Schools National
Kevin Carey, New America Education Policy Program
National Council on Teacher Quality
Reading and Beyond
Relay GSE
Students Matter
Success Academy Charter Schools
Teach for America
Teach Plus
The Mind Trust
Third Way
Urban Teacher Center

Teacher Preparation Coalition Comments Sign On Letter


Obama's Free Community College Plan: Better Than You Might Think

By Hajar Ahmed, Education Reform Now Policy Intern and 
     Mary Nguyen Barry, Education Reform Now Policy Analyst

In tonight's State of the Union address, President Obama will argue for his proposal to make community college tuition-free for all students. (Disclosure: Before Obama's proposal was unveiled, Education Reform Now noted our general support for the principles and rhetoric underlying the plan -- increased financial support for college access and affordability along with an accompanying expectation of heightened personal responsibility from aid recipients.) 

The strongest argument critics of the Obama free community college tuition proposal have made so far is that it's not targeted to needy students and instead constitutes a boon for those from middle-income and wealthy families. But our review of the data suggests otherwise. Federal demographic data indicate that community colleges cater far more to underrepresented minorities, first-generation, and low-income students than traditional public four-year and private, non-profit four-year colleges.  

Below is a more detailed breakdown of the income distribution of certificate- or degree-seeking undergraduate community college students. Low-income students make up almost two-thirds of all students that attend community colleges while those from families with incomes above $117,500 (the top 20% of families nationally) account for barely six percent of all community college students.  

But here's the real eye-opener.  Critics of the Obama plan contend that low-income community college students already get Pell Grants, which at the current maximum level of $5,730, is more than enough to cover community college tuition.  Set aside the common reply that the Obama plan would open up Pell Grant aid to community college students for use on room, board, and other expenses.  

It turns out that according to the same federal data, while 66 percent of students enrolled in a certificate or degree program at American community colleges have family incomes low enough typically to qualify for a Pell Grant (below $50,000 a year), only 39 percent of current community college students receive Pell Grants. In other words, 27 percent of current community college students who are from low-income families are not receiving Pell Grants to help pay for tuition, fees, room, board or any other college expenses.  This Pell Grant enrollment gap at community colleges is more than twice as large as the gap at traditional public four-year institutions and private, non-profit four-year schools.  David Baime, Senior Vice President for Government Relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, calls the gap "a little tragedy."  

We surmise the community college Pell Grant gap is due in part to a combination of low awareness about federal financial aid opportunities among community college students and a daunting federal financial aid application process.  Many students may not realize that the Pell Grant is available to help pay for all college expenses - including tuition, textbooks, and non-campus room and board. They may think Pell aid is available only for tuition at high tuition schools.  Nearly half of community college students are enrolled part-time or less-than-half-time.  Many of them may not realize that the Pell Grant is still available on a pro-rated basis, and therefore never file a federal financial aid application.

The bottom line: With over two-thirds of current students at community colleges being low-income, we can expect they'll be the largest group of students to benefit from the Obama proposed free tuition policy.  And for almost one-third of those low-income students, the Obama free community college tuition plan is likely to constitute the only federal financial aid they'll claim. 

If students from high-income families were likely to be drawn to community colleges by low-tuition as compared to a four-year school alternative, they'd already be flocking to community colleges.  But they're not.  The Obama community college plan would deliver for students from families that need the help the most.  Assertions otherwise are bunk. 

All Students, One Standard

By Mary Nguyen Barry, Education Reform Now Policy Analyst

Ever since President Obama proposed a new college ratings system that would determine different levels of federal aid for high and low performing institutions, colleges and their lobbyists have cried that it's an "impossible" task or that any ratings system must include a "risk adjustment" for student characteristics.

But it's not impossible to rate colleges based on access, affordability, and student success measures.  Guidance counselors and others have used the web tool College Results Online for the past 10 years.  And yes, the final Obama system should adjust college ratings for student characteristics - but not in the way the no-college-accountability crowd wants.

Because what critics really mean by "risk adjustment" (but only say in private) is that the Administration should have lower graduation expectations for some students based on their race or family income.  That's what George W. Bush, for all his failures, was right to criticize years ago as the soft bigotry of low expectations.

President Obama's new college ratings system should adjust for student characteristics by considering students' academic preparation, not immutable characteristics like race and gender or factors out of their control like parental education and family income. On top of that, the ratings should adjust for institutional characteristics - like size and funding.  It wouldn't make sense to compare graduation rates at Southern Vermont College with those at Harvard University.  Those two schools enroll students with completely different levels of academic preparation, not to mention their differences in size, wealth, and selectivity. But it makes all the sense in the world to compare Southern Vermont to similar colleges that serve similarly prepared students in terms of SAT/ACT scores and incoming high school grade point average - two important factors that impact completion. 

When you do that "peer comparison," you'll see that Southern Vermont does a middling job of its educating its students: only one-third (35%) of full-time students graduate within six years of initial enrollment.  But it does a particularly poor job of educating its underrepresented minority students - only 17 percent graduate within six years. Defenders may want to attribute these low graduation rates to the fact that 60 percent of its freshmen are from low-income families, 15 percent are from underrepresented minority groups, and that many are weakly prepared for college, with a median SAT score of 925 out of 1600.

But that can't explain why their peer colleges - like Anna Maria College and American International College, both in nearby Massachusetts - graduate their students at much higher rates. Anna Maria graduates nearly half of its students (47 percent) and one-third of their minority students (31 percent). And though American International College has similar overall graduation rates (39 percent) to Southern Vermont, they graduate their minority students at a rate over twice at high (38 percent). Both of these colleges also serve high proportions of low-income, underrepresented minority students with low academic preparation.

Examples like these abound. And what's helpful about the peer institution comparison technique is that it does a particularly useful job of identifying extremely low-performers. In fact, 9 times out of 10, a college with a graduation rate below 15 percent will fall in the bottom of their peer groups as identified by College Results Online.

Private Truett-McConnell College in Georgia, for example, was at the bottom of Southern Vermont's peer group with a 9 percent six-year graduation rate. Meanwhile, peers like Averett University in Virginia and Cazenovia College in New York graduate their students at much higher rates (40 percent and 47 percent).

Or consider Texas Southern University (TSU), a public university in Houston, Texas, with its 12 percent graduation rate.  Peer colleges - like Prairie View A&M and North Carolina Central University - graduate their students at rates more than three times as high, at 36 percent and 43 percent.

Even the for-profit, Phoenix-based Western International University with its 3 percent graduation rate can look up to the higher graduation rates of many of its for-profit peers. 

The Obama administration doesn't need a contentious risk adjustment formula linked to family income or immutable student characteristics to rate college performance. It should simply identify high and low-performers based on how they stack up to peer institutions serving students who are similarly academically prepared.

Students who are of color, are the first in their families to go to college, or come from low-income families aren't a risk.  They're individuals.  On the other hand, the data shows that some colleges are a risk, because absent any magical statistical adjustment their graduation rates are both appallingly so low and overwhelmingly worse than peer institutions serving similar students. Those are the institutions the Obama college ratings system should warn people against.  And if bottom performers can't turn around with notice and assistance, they eventually should be shut down.  No excuses.

New Strategy Brief: The High School-Higher Ed Nexus

Over the last several months, top Democratic officials have asked for our thoughts on how to respond to the public's thirst for improved levels of college affordability. You can find here our suggested strategy in quick to read powerpoint form.  

Our recommendations are geared toward federal policymakers, but the underlying principles are applicable and in many cases already have been embraced at the state and local level.  Models can be found with promising results in Indiana, North Carolina, and Michigan.

Early signs are  that we can expect more nationally on this issue starting as soon as this week.  Stay tuned.

The Obama Teacher Education Accountability Regulation

Last week, the Obama Administration officially released the text of its draft teacher education accountability regulation. In case you missed it, or as the young people write ICYMI, linked below is a run down of media coverage and our handy-dandy pull of notable passages and quotable quotes appearing in various articles.  

Newly released today, Education Reform Now highlights opposition arguments to the regulation and offers a set of responses. The general public has 60 days from the date of release to submit comment to the U.S. Department of Education on text that it believes should appear in the final regulation.

Strap in.

Teacher Prep NPRM Coverage.pdf

New Policy Paper: Teacher Education Reform 1.0

Education Reform Now has been among the leading public policy groups advocating for dramatic reform and improvement to teacher education.  We have been asked by media and others what change to teacher education policy should look like.  Our Director for Strategic Initiatives and a former senior advisor in President Obama's Department of Education, Michael Dannenberg, offers a sneak peek at why and how the administration's long-awaited teacher preparation regulation might "reward the good, improve the middle, and turnaround the bad."

NY Daily News Op-Ed: Elite colleges or private clubs?

Kudos to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg for a campaign he announced last week: His charitable foundation and others will fund more college counselors and outreach services to get thousands more talented, low-income students to attend, and graduate from, high-quality colleges.

That's urgently needed to live up to the American ideal of equal educational opportunity. Despite the fact one in five students with a top score on the ACT exam comes from a working-class or low-income family, you are 25 times more likely to bump into a rich kid than a poor one on the campuses of America's 173 most selective undergraduate institutions.

But outreach and financial aid are of limited use if top-flight colleges systematically pass over talented, low-income students. The dirty little secret about higher education is that, despite well-marketed outreach and generous financial aid programs, many wealthy colleges embrace policies that undermine low-income students' chances of ever being admitted, much less enrolled.

Until we confront those bad habits, we'll only attack the problem around the edges.

Perhaps the most nefarious ways elite colleges reproduce more here

Baltimore Sun Op-Ed: College presidents' pay should be tied to academic success

On Friday, Maryland became the first state to set minimum academic performance standards for Division I coaches and athletic directors to qualify for salary bonuses. In an era when NCAA football and basketball are big business, Maryland is rewarding at least minimum academic grit alongside greater athletic glory. Every state should do the same.

But at a time when our country confronts a significant shortfall in college degrees, unacceptably low graduation rates for working-class students and students of color, and unprecedented levels of student debt, why not tie the pay of all college leaders to student success?

Click here to read more. 

Testing 4,5,6

As I mentioned yesterday, I do not think testing is guilty of every charge leveled against it, particularly the accusation that it narrows the scope and content of what is taught in classrooms. However, I do think we should look at ways to make testing more efficient and less burdensome. 

Read more....

Testing, 1, 2, 3

The first time I realized No Child Left Behind was controversial was when, a year out of college, I found myself at a Democratic fundraiser in a hip Denver loft. The keynote speaker was the late Ann Richards, and she was rallying the crowd with slogans like, "all No Child Left Behind does is make sure no child's behind is left." I had no idea what she was getting at.

Read more....

In search of a common denominator

As many parents who have moved from one state to another can tell you, there can be substantial differences in content and rigor of schools from one place to another. In 2010, Andrew Rotherham wrote, "states, school districts, and in some cases individual schools are allowed to set both their academic standards and the tests to determine whether students are reaching them." The American Institutes for Research conducted a study in 2009, which concluded, "What students are expected to know in one state may be up to four grade levels behind the expectations set in another state."

Read more....

Boston Voter Poll: Attitudes toward education reform, charter schools

Education Reform Now, in partnership with the Benenson Strategy Group, recently polled Boston voter attitudes toward education reform in the city, charter schools, public education, politicians' handling of education, and voter priorities. The poll can be downloaded here. (Crosstabs are here.)