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Category — Public Policy

Latest Study on Retention – No New Information

New study consistent with prior research on retention.

A new study, from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) Early Grade Retention and Student Success: Evidence from Los Angeles, has some public officials wondering if it is time to revisit the practice of retention.

It shouldn’t.

Retention is the name given to the practice of repeating an entire grade level. According to the study, having students repeat a year in the early grades helped numerous failing students reach proficiency in math and English.

The study reports that 41 percent of those retained reached full proficiency in math and 18 percent in English Language Arts (ELA). These percentages represented significant increases over the recorded proficiency levels of these students prior to repeating their year: 6 percent in math, and only 1 percent in ELA. Ultimately, the researchers insist that blanket school district policies prohibiting retention are misguided and that the practice might be more cost-effective in certain instances than ongoing interventions.

While this may seem to be news and ultimately positive support for the practice, the fact is that this latest study is consistent with prior findings. Repeating material has always been a method for helping students increase their proficiency.

The issue is that retention does not fix a fundamental issue – some students are much slower learners than others. Give these slower learners more time and they will demonstrate positive gains over time.

But unfortunately the issue of pacing remains an issue for these learners. Students who attend summer school or repeat a grade will demonstrate greater levels of proficiency entering the new school year. And when asked to perform the tasks that they have been practicing will generally match the performances of their peers.

But the discrepancies soon begin anew when the teacher begins covering new material. Unless the retained students are given additional time, they soon begin to lag behind their peers, once again unable to match the pace of their on-grade classmates. Not too surprisingly, at year’s end the slower learners demonstrate lower levels of proficiency than their peers.

Therefore, the practice of retention has little in the way of lasting educational benefits for the students being held back. One or even a second additional year does not “fix” these students, especially if the teacher continues to utilize similar instructional techniques.

Furthermore, the negative impacts of retention on the social development and self-esteem of youngsters is well-documented. Retained students have higher dropout rates, increased behavior problems and greater absenteeism.

According to educational researcher Linda Darling-Hammond, the social issues are easily understood. Ultimately, most retained students begin to get discouraged with school and over time, give up on themselves as learners.

Sadly, in the standards era, retention is once again being used by school districts. In some cases liberally. And the latest study that offers some short term gains will likely allow those already implementing the practice to continue to use it.

But of course, retention, in and of itself, is simply not the answer. Instead, schools need to find ongoing answers for dealing with the slow learner.

In all fairness, additional ongoing interventions that seek to help slow learners remain with their grade peers often prove more costly monetarily than simply retaining individual students. But given the overall negative impact of retention long-term, investing in rigorous, ongoing intervention is the right way to ensure children make appropriate progress, socially as well as academically.

March 29, 2011   5 Comments

Increasing College Completion Rates – Wrong Policy Emphasis?

Why Wisconsin Matters to All Americans

Barack Obama has been surprisingly silent regarding the turmoil taking place in Wisconsin. His muted response contrasts noticeably with his constant support for education in general and particularly his belief that America’s economic future is tied to increasing college attainment rates.

The importance of messaging can be seen by the changing view underway in households across the country. A recent MetLife survey (pdf) reveals that 75 percent of middle and high school students currently plan on going to college. That percentage represents a significant increase over similar polls taken in 1988 (57%) and 1997 (67%). Furthermore, 84 percent of students believe that there will be “few or no” career opportunities for those who fail to complete some higher education.

Sadly, these aspirations conflict with two emerging trends. First, only 69% of high school students are enrolling in two- or four-year programs following graduation and just 57% are completing their degree program within six years.

But perhaps more importantly, there is now a growing concern that the “college for everyone” mantra may well be a bad policy initiative.

False Assumption

The notion that education continues to be the critical component for future economic success went unquestioned for quite some time. With some data indicating (pdf) that over an adult’s working life a bachelor’s degree is worth a million dollars in additional earnings, the push for higher education attainment is a central theme of most government officials, not just President Obama.

Yet today there is emerging evidence to the contrary. The idea that all the jobs of the future will require even higher levels of skill is now being questioned by a number of individuals.

Paul Krugman, Princeton professor and New York Times columnist, recently asserted that the conventional wisdom is flat out wrong. Citing the work of Daron Acemoglu and David Autor, Krugman discussed the trend towards broad-based increases in employment in high skill and low skill occupations relative to middle skilled occupations, a development called job ‘polarization.’

Since 1990, it seems that the U.S. job market has been characterized by a “hollowing out.” That hole in the middle, as Krugman calls it, has actually been getting wider: high-wage occupations that grew rapidly in the 1990s have since slowed while growth in low-wage employment has accelerated.

In simplest terms computers excel at routine tasks but cannot handle tasks unless they can be defined by explicit rules. Therefore many kinds of manual labor (from driving trucks to cleaning buildings) cannot be replaced by technology and thus will always be in demand.

Furthermore, it seems that most of the automation that can be accomplished in terms of manufacturing jobs has been done but “computerized legal research and computer-aided medical diagnosis” are only just now emerging to replace workers.

A More Appropriate Policy Initiative

In conclusion, Krugman is anything but unequivocal in his assertions:

“The notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.”

Rather than push higher education as a policy initiative, Krugman insists our nation ought to venture in a different direction. According to Krugman, a society of broadly shared prosperity has really nothing to do with expanding educational opportunities for all.

Instead, it has everything to do with the ability for all Americans to “bargain for good wages” and to have “access to health care.” Which is why the developments in Wisconsin are so important to each and every American.

March 16, 2011   1 Comment

Time to Eliminate those Government Handouts!

There are a good many folks who believe (myself included) that our democracy can truly flourish only within a properly educated citizenry. That notion is deemed one of the fundamental reasons for government support for education.

We have railed time and again about the need for an educated public. We have taken the tongue in cheek approach with the likes of How Were the Apollo Astronauts Able to Walk on the Moon? And we have been downright negative about that failure in A Small-Minded, Easily-Swayed American Public.

Today we turn to a table that appeared in Keep Your Government Hands Off My Government Programs! by Catherine Rampell at the New York Times Economix blog. The table should not need any explanation but just in case, Paul Krugman provided this simple sentence in his summation, Medicare Recipients Against Handouts:

44 percent of Social Security recipients, and 40 percent of Medicare recipients, believe that they don’t benefit from any government social program.

Percentage of Program Beneficiaries Who Report They “Have Not Used a Government Social Program”
Program “No, Have Not Used a Government Social Program”
529 or Coverdell 64.3
Home Mortgage Interest Deduction 60.0
Hope or Lifetime Learning Tax Credit 59.6
Student Loans 53.3
Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit 51.7
Earned Income Tax Credit 47.1
Social Security—Retirement & Survivors 44.1
Pell Grants 43.1
Unemployment Insurance 43.0
Veterans Benefits (other than G.I. Bill) 41.7
G.I. Bill 40.3
Medicare 39.8
Head Start 37.2
Social Security Disability 28.7
Supplemental Security Income 28.2
Medicaid 27.8
Welfare/Public Assistance 27.4
Government Subsidized Housing 27.4
Food Stamps 25.4
Source: Suzanne Mettler, “Reconstituting the Submerged State: The Challenge of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era,” Perspectives on Politics (September 2010): 809.

This likely falls into the category of the “Apollo Astronauts” question and the proverbial you just can’t make this stuff up.

But it does beg a simple question – is this something else we can blame on K-12 public education?

February 14, 2011   No Comments

“I Have a Dream” about Governor Paul LePage

On Monday, the day most of America celebrated Martin Luther King Day, Maine Governor Paul LePage told reporters he did not want to discuss his “kiss my butt” response to concerned leaders of the NAACP. He also insisted that his last minute scheduling change to attend an Martin Luther King event in Waterville had nothing to do with the hullabaloo over his insensitive comments and his prior declination to attend any MLK events even if it was vintage material for the likes of Steven Colbert.

This very troubling trend by Maine’s Governor (on the campaign trail he had told fishermen that President Barack Obama could “go to hell”) continues an ugly pattern of verbal missteps. Unfortunately, barely two weeks on the job, Mr. LePage reinforced many of the concerns that the man’s sharp tongue was exceeded only by his quick temper.

But dare I say it. I have a dream and I am trying to remain hopeful. After all, this Republican Governor has expressed support for an educational idea that is so far removed from the Republican party we might expect members of his own party to utter a similar expletive in the Governor’s direction.

Putting Maine Back on the Educational Map

It seems that Mr. LePage is a strong proponent of the early college concept. For those unfamiliar with the term, early college refers to the transformation of four-year high schools to five-year programs whereby students can earn both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

This idea is contrary to current Republican rhetoric for three reasons. First and foremost, creating this initiative will require additional state spending on education. All Republicans, Mr. LePage included, recently ran their 2010 campaigns pledging to cut bloated government spending.

This idea also runs smack dab against the individualism the party promotes. It instead focuses on actions that would have the government investing in individuals so as to collectively benefit society.

And third, it is all about the future, about spending money now in an effort to build a better world for our children. It is the complete antithesis of the recent legislation, supported by both parties, a tax cut mantra that is all about the here and now.

Benefits of Early College Initiatives

Likewise, the concept has three significant benefits for students. First, the process eliminates one critical transition period for students. The success of the K-8 format over any other grade configuration is thought to be due to the reduction in transitions for youngsters.

Second, it focuses on small schools with high expectations and real rigor. The bottom line is that most students will rise to the expectations set forth for them if they are asked to do real, meaningful work that they can see truly relates to their future.

And allowing students the chance to earn an associate’s degree, free of charge, means that those of limited means could still have access to post-secondary education options. In fact, early college appears to be having the greatest impact on the traditionally under-served population, minorities and those without the monetary means to pursue higher education.

Corny, I Know

So yes, I have a dream, that maybe Mr. LePage has some of the vision that made Angus King so popular in our state. Early college could well be the single best way to begin to reduce the disparity in college attendance rates among the various socio-economic classes and minority students.

Yes, I have a dream, that Mr. LePage might be capable of seeing his vision through. This would be great news for the children of Maine, returning the state to a position of leadership nationally.

We understand that Mr. LePage is a man of his word – that may be why so many people were so upset with his comments to the NAACP. If he is in fact a man of his word in regards to early college educational initiative, he could well be known nationally for something other than his sarcastic comments.

Should he pull it off, bringing about the early college concept would bring him national recognition from very important people. I am thinking of those other than Stephen Colbert.

January 18, 2011   No Comments

Putting the Student Back in Student-Athlete

There are growing concerns about an out-of-control college athletic environment. Most of them center upon the enormous sums of money involved and the impact that these sums are having on common sense.

At the same time, many feel these sums of money, made from the sweat and efforts of young amateurs, have these institutions taking unfair advantage of their scholarship athletes. Some folks would contend that it is time to even pay these youngsters while they are toiling on the fields or in the gyms.

Bruce Smith has an idea that would actually provide the scholarship athlete a fair return on their services. After all, those 85 football players at Auburn and Oregon certainly created an awful lot of revenue for their universities.

Smith notes that the term student-athlete is a classic oxymoron. He quotes Charles Clotfelter (Is Sports in Your Mission Statement?) who had the audacity to suggest that for many colleges, sports might be “a core function of these universities” and that today several hundred American universities “are members in good standing of the commercial entertainment industry.”

But instead of attacking the current institution for what appears to be blatant hypocrisy, Smith offers a unique solution to one of the current problems, the fact that the demands of playing a college sport generally leaves precious little time for these young men and women to do what they are attending higher education for in the first place, to be a student.

For example, college football teams are theoretically limited in how much time a coach can demand of players, that 20-hour limitation (which excludes the time to travel to games) is by no means a realistic measure of the time commitment. A recent NCAA survey revealed that football players devoted more than 40 hours a week to practicing, playing, and training. Most agree that such a time commitment and level of effort is necessary for these individuals to be successful on their respective playing field.

As Smith notes, playing a college sport is the equivalent of a full time workweek for the average adult. But of course, there is that other lingering issue for these individuals, taking courses.

If one of these athletes were to take a full academic load of 15 credits, that athlete is supposed to expect a minimum of two hours of work outside of class for each one in. In tougher subjects, the expectation is often three to one. So a full course load theoretically translates to a minimum of 45 hours, or another typical workweek.

Smith asks simply, “Under such conditions, how crisply can anyone attack a problem set of nasty-looking differential equations?” But instead of criticizing the system, he states simply “what we ask of them strikes me as too much—or, at least, too much at once.”

He further notes that few of these athletes will have the ability to turn their game into a professional career yet they likely do not have the time to “take advantage of the array of opportunities college campuses offer them to develop both intellectual talents and leadership skills.”

Given that scenario, Smith suggests that universities “offer every scholarship athlete a voucher that would be redeemable for up to five years of free education and living expenses at the university that signs him or her to play a sport.” The number of free years would directly correlate to how many years the athlete was involved in the athletic program.

But instead of the athlete having to use it during his or her playing days at the school, Smith proposes that the voucher be good for a lifetime. In addition, Smith proposes that these scholarship athletes be able to also take courses tuition-free during their time they are playing their respective sport. Those courses would have no bearing on the lifetime voucher that has been promised.

In this way, those who have given their all to their university athletic program but do not make it to the professional level would actually be guaranteed the opportunity to get a full-fledged college experience even if it came after their playing days came to an end.

But even more radical, and the reason the proposal will go nowhere, is Smith’s idea that these athletes be allowed to take as few courses as they desire during their competitive season. During such time, Smith wants it to be the choice of the individual whether to be “either a student or an athlete, or a little of both.”

This of course comes up against the current notion that all athletes must carry a minimum number of credits to be eligible to play each season. But then again, while taking and passing courses is required, there are no specific requirements by the NCAA as to what rigor these classes must contain. Therefore it is no surprise that the vast majority of students playing college athletics are not earning a degree in engineering or computer science (the Wall Street Journal could not find a single college football player majoring in Physics).

It also sounds a bit like you would be paying players, at least providing an in-kind form of wages. But of course, that is precisely what the current system does; it just limits the in-kind remuneration (free tuition and room and board) to the years of athletic eligibility.

The idea would be extremely costly, but then again there appears to be little holding back the expenses currently being accumulated by big-time college programs. More importantly, it would provide athletes real additional flexibility and vastly increase each individual’s chance of succeeding.

It would of course also do one other thing according to Smith – it would put an end to the use of that oxymoron, the term student-athlete. And for that reason it deserves firm consideration – with a little tweaking regarding the expectations around taking courses while in season, the voucher option would finally give these athletes the return on their time and effort they truly deserve.

January 13, 2011   No Comments

A Small-Minded, Easily-Swayed American Public

Over the past month we are witness once again to the incredibly myopic view of our citizenry as well as that of our elected officials. We as a country are stuck in a collective rut, allowing ourselves to be swayed by the best sound bites reproduced over and over again on the cable news networks, the best Republican bites and worst Democratic offerings replicated repeatedly on Fox, the reverse on MSNBC.

Back in 2005, James McGann took a look at one of the places our ideas come from, the concept of a “think-tank.” McGann noted the famous quote offered by Bill Baroody Sr. of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

“The competition of ideas is fundamental to a free society.”

I could not agree more.

While reviewing this notion, McGann suggests that conservative think-tanks were created to “develop an alternative set of ideas …. intended to challenge the liberal orthodoxy that dominated policy debates in Washington and on college campuses throughout the United States. McGann notes that these institutions initially were able to achieve “their objective through thoughtful and independent analysis of policy issues.”

Since that time however, McGann sees think-tank agendas mirroring the emerging partisanship in Washington. Instead of looking at ideas with a healthy independent skepticism, McGann notes that these tanks are developing specific bents and simply leaning left or right ideologically depending on their affiliation.

Meanwhile, that partisanship has further devolved into two rather simplistic viewpoints: one – that the majority of think-tanks in the US are on college campuses and thus controlled by the liberal elite to promote their liberal agenda contrasted with the second – that conservatives have such deep pockets that they are simply spending their way towards the promotion of their conservative agenda.

McGann writes:

Such simplistic and one-sided explanations miss the big picture. They also enable the partisan merchants of fear on both sides to raise huge sums of money while providing a smokescreen for the shortcomings of their analysis.

Most importantly, McGann summarized seven environmental forces impacting the ability of think-tanks to provide independent analysis and advice. All sound terribly familiar to this concerned citizen.

· the development of partisan politics
· the growth of liberal and conservative advocacy groups
· the restrictive funding policies of donors
· the growth of specialised think-tanks
· the narrow and short-term orientation of congress and the White House
· the tyranny of myopic academic disciplines
· the growth of 24/7 cable news networks.

Our Economy

With that as a backdrop, we turn to one undisputed fact, that our nation’s economy continues to struggle. Unemployment rates remain an enormous issue despite the fact that our country is showing some signs of emerging from its collective funk.

Amidst that backdrop, we are hearing about a negotiated tax plan out of the White House, brokered with Republicans, one that President Obama is touting as a necessary step to ensuring that our economy does not slip backwards in the near future. The contrasting debate points feature the traditional Republican talking points regarding the need to reduce taxes and government spending against the Democratic talking points on protecting governmental programs that provide key safety nets for our citizens.

What we are witnessing represents some of the worst elements of McGann’s think tank analysis. In particular, we are seeing once again the immediate short-term orientation of both congress and the White House. This despite the recent election where many of the winning candidates ran on a platform of the importance of reducing the soaring national deficit.

I for one, would prefer a deeper discussion, one I thought our President would be able to bring forward. I voted for Obama believing he had the intellectual and leadership capacity to bring about policy that would move our country forward long term.

Here I turn to the white paper (pdf) of Larry M. Bartels of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Bartels points us first to a theme that is beyond dispute currently: the growing economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots in America.

Bartels notes that over the past thirty years that we have seen economic inequality grow substantially in the United States. He cites several measures of this discrepancy including the Gini coefficient. Bartels notes that this measure reveals an almost 25 percent growth between 1970 and 2000.

For those not enamored with this quotient, Bartels turns to another measure, the income share of the richest five percent of U.S. households. Here the number increased by more than one-third between 1980 and 2000.

Bartels revised this paper in 2004 so it does not discuss the most recent developments. However, the consensus is that there has been only a widening of this discrepancy over the last decade.

Of course, the most important question should be: is this discrepancy meaningful? There is a certain morality that one would question but we will skip that debate and turn simply to the economic one.

Are the tax cut policies espoused by Republicans and now also being reinforced by the White House good for our economy or do they primarily benefit the wealthiest Americans?

At the heart of the debate is yet another fundamental fact: our economy is driven primarily by consumer spending. So when it comes to a stronger economy, Bartels provides some very interesting data regarding our election priorities.

Over time, Bartels notes that have been real “consistent differences in patterns of real pre-tax income growth under Democratic and Republican presidents in the post-war U.S.” Here is what Bartels found:

  • Democratic presidents have produced slightly more income growth for poor families than for rich families, resulting in a modest decrease in overall inequality.
  • Republican presidents have produced a great deal more income growth for rich families than for poor families, resulting in a substantial increase in inequality.
  • Families at the 95th percentile of the income distribution have experienced identical income growth under Democratic and Republican presidents.
  • Those at the 20th percentile have experienced more than four times as much income growth under Democrats as they have under Republicans.

But if we focus on two issues that appear to be most relevant right now, Bartels found that the basis for these differences are attributable to partisan differences in two areas:

  • Unemployment, which has been 30 percent lower on average under Democratic presidents,
  • And GDP growth, which has been 30 percent higher on average under Democratic presidents.

It is these two factors that have also had the strongest impact on income growth at the bottom of the income distribution.

For this reader, these two elements are in significant contrast to the prevailing sound bite that dominated our recent election: tax and spend liberals are bad for the American economy. It also stands in remarkable contrast to Obama’s separation over the last month from his base towards the need for tax cuts to spur the economy.

But even more importantly, it is a clear indication that we have not elected anyone, our president included, who is ready to tackle big ideas. Instead, we have as McGann noted, a cycle that perpetuates short-term interests of all, politicians and the public alike.

Like many Americans, I will benefit personally from the negotiated tax plan. But also, like most Americans, I am disappointed with a president who was elected based on a collective belief that we might actually find ourselves focused on producing a future for our children and our country.

But as disappointed as I am with our President, I am more disappointed that people seem to be so easily manipulated. I am also wondering when we as Americans will once again insist that we have a government that is by and for the people.

The current tax policy debate reinforces that our government is unable to provide us the requisite leadership in these enormously challenging times.

And that we citizens are either too distracted or uncaring to hold these people accountable.

December 13, 2010   2 Comments

One Way Schools Could Develop Creative Thinkers!

It just might be time for K-12 education to make video games a fundamental part of the curricula.

Everywhere we turn these days we hear the same thing.

Our students need things we don’t teach and that our school structures do not allow for a focus on learning and thus all too often sustain the current social hierarchy. Some would insist that our schools are crushing every ounce of creativity from our young (see accompanying video).

In her article on “The Things We Don’t Teach,” Jenifer Fox quotes extensively from the publication “Tough Choices or Tough Times (pdf),” a document calling for the development of youngsters who are creative and innovative. The report further stresses the need for developing adaptable and cooperative workers who will be “constantly organizing and reorganizing in a never-ending array of teams.”

Fox hammers the current school culture:

“In an age when most jobs require intuitive decision-making, where more mental activities replace physical ones, traditional instruction and assessment is ineffective (i.e. the teacher demonstrates how to do something and the student who repeats the performance best receives a high grade). In the 21st century workplace, a new premium is placed on creative problem solving, teamwork and collaboration. Our schools will “bridge” students into the workforce when they begin to focus on developing student strengths and teach students how to bring those strengths to the teams they work on.

Using Video Games to Teach

We have noted on many occasions that one of the most intriguing options for the future of education is the use of video games to teach higher order thinking skills. We have offered our Eleven Video Games to Unlock Your Inner Genious as well as a suggestion as to how gaming behavior could be used to instruct students on the all-important scientific method.

To date we have read little about public K-12 education doing anything in the way of organizing their curricula around this idea and/or implementing the concept in the classroom in a meaningful way. But as always, higher education appears to be the first to grasp the idea and is at least seeing the option as a viable elective.

University of Florida students in the honors program now have just such an option. The video game “StarCraft” is used to teach critical thinking, problem solving and resource management skills in the online course IDS2935, “21st Century Skills in StarCraft.” Nate Poling, the UF doctoral student teaching the class, told news reporters that the game is a tool and a resource, that the game is an anchor in the same way that other courses might use a textbook to reinforce specific concepts. Poling believes that ultimately games can be a great teaching tool and cites his early infatuation with the popular Apple “Oregon Trail” option often made available to students during free time in elementary school.

For those unfamiliar with the game, “StarCraft” is a strategy game in which as many as eight players can compete online. Poling selected the game because it reinforces lessons related to balancing resources and the managing of risks, two skills important to anyone starting a business.

As homework the students are required to play the game for as many as two hours each week. Ironically, grading comes from typical educational formats – students must keep a log, write papers and do a final presentation.

iStock_000005207063XSmallIt’s just that everything centers upon the game: the log documents student attempts to play the game while the papers focus on the decisions students made while playing. But the one way that contrasts with traditional educational practices is that grading will not be correlated with student skills playing the game.

Of course, if one peruses the Internet, the web is loaded with specific references to this very course with the vast majority offering a “you must be kidding” tone. While the gaming community attempts to keep a straight face even as they use the story as a selling point, independent sites seem to focus on the “ha ha” concept, the proverbial, I too want to earn a bachelor’s degree in Starcraft.

But we have heard tell that the University of California at Berkeley began using “StarCraft” in the classroom last year while the puzzle video game “Portal” is among required material this fall for freshmen at Wabash College in Indiana.

Video Games as an Assessment Tool

It will no doubt take some time for the skeptics to be won over but it is interesting to note that the concept of stealth assessments is taking hold and here again video games could offer a key component to making the concept work. Stealth assessment recognizes that complications from test anxiety can make it difficult to capture specific abilities. In addition, traditional testing formats can’t help but bring in outside factors based on students existing knowledge or lack of specific knowledge in regards to a topic.

So as educators and independent assessors seek ways to measure skills like critical thinking, creativity, and persistence, new ways of testing those traits are developing. One such way is to allow students to immerse themselves in a fun activity and then watch how they behave.

Allowing a small group to play a video game reduces test anxiety even as it creates a setting where an observer can watch students interacting as they solve a complex task. Researchers insist that a lot of important stuff happens when individuals play video games.

Because every aspect of what transpires allows an educator to observe how students process specific tasks, such an option is being considered a possible method for assessing an individual’s higher order thinking skill level as well as a person’s ability to function as part of a team.

domestic lifeThis of course represents yet another step in the video game evolution – in the earlier arena discussed the game is used to supplement classroom instruction and thus help develop higher order thinking skills. In the second instance of stealth assessments, video games are utilized as a method for assessing what a student has acquired for skills.

The result is that video games could actually form that final critical educational bridge, the one that blurs the distinction between learning and assessment.

Time Has Come

In sum total, it is clear that at this time our schools are falling short in regards to developing the next generation of creative thinkers. No doubt, the time has come for new and innovative teaching options be explored.

But the radical nature of using video games as teaching and assessment tools doesn’t appear likely to fly in public education where the traditionalists are convinced that education involving video games has to be devoid of rigor.

So it will likely fall on some entrepreneur convincing some board to allow a new charter school to be created that focuses on developing 21st century skills. Imagine a school where reading, writing and arithmetic are integrated with technology, the world wide web and video gaming.

Of course, some basic skills will never change – the ability to read and write and think logically all remain important elements in any school. But at the same time, our future is dependent on developing yet another set of core skills centered upon the world wide web: the ability to research, think creatively and collaboratively problem solve.

The first set of entrepreneurs who can redesign schools around this theme and then contrast it with the limitations of traditional educational formats are going to make themselves a whole lot of money.

Because I have no doubt that video games and virtual worlds represent the future of learning.

November 21, 2010   No Comments

More Disappointing News on the Maine Educational Front

In my home state of Maine, a great deal of the recent election debate has been spent on one troubling national statistic. In its most recent set of rankings for the Best States For Business And Careers, ranked Maine 50th out of the 50 states.

The gubernatorial candidates had a field day while those in the Republican party seeking to regain stature in a Democratic controlled state played the I told you so card time and again. Not too surprisingly, our current Maine leadership simply asserted that Forbes had to be wrong with its assessment.

But while this business data saw much airtime, an equally troubling national ranking saw little in the way of real discussion. I am talking about the Project on Student Debt’s recent tabulation of the debt load status of the class of 2009.

Maine Student Debt

The State of Maine placed third highest overall with students graduating from four-year schools with an average debt load of $29,143. A full 65% of graduates left school with some debt level, a percentage that placed the state 12th.

Perhaps even more disappointing was the fact that two Maine Colleges made the national list as the worst for student debt. In what is likely a surprise for many, both schools making the list are public institutions.

Topping the debt load was Maine Maritime Academy where graduates left school with an average debt load of $39,237. That is more than 60% above the national average of $24,000 per student. Furthermore, nearly three out of every four graduates (73%) graduated with some form of debt.

Two other private Maine colleges, Husson and St. Joseph’s, also posted significant average debt levels: $33,010 and $36,071 respectively. Worse yet, seven out of every eight graduates (88 percent at Husson and 87 percent at St. Joseph’s) left with some debt level. As bad as these numbers are, neither school had the misfortune of making the Project of Student Debt’s list of high debt private institutions nationally.

But, the real kicker for me, was the second public school making the national debt list, the University of Maine in Orono. The land grant institution also made the Project on Student Debt’s list producing an astounding average of $30,824.

I say astounding as most would think that UMO, as the government supported state university, would be the best place for students of limited means to go. But with 77% of graduates leaving with some form of debt and a debt level 25 percent above the national average, UMaine is simply not affordable for students.

In contrast, Maine’s three elite, liberal arts schools, Bates, Bowdoin and Colby could boast averages lower than the national number despite these schools being among the most expensive to attend. Bates posted the lowest average debt of the three at $17,954 for 2009 graduates. Bowdoin finished with $18,382 and Colby $21,697. As for those leaving with some form of debt, 38 percent of Bates grads, 45 percent of Bowdoin and 41 percent of Colby students left with payments looming.

Northeast Does Poorly

A bit of consolation for some Mainers is that our New Hampshire neighbors actually fared worse. Average student debt for the graduates stood at $29,443 putting the Granite State second overall. Adding to the bad news, 72% of students graduating from New Hampshire Colleges had some form of debt, a percentage that placed the state fifth overall.

But schools throughout the northeast reported disappointing results. Vermont came in at number 5 with $27,786 while Rhode Island placed 8th at $26,573.

According to the Project on Student Debt, the increased debt load of students in the Northeast can be attributed to a couple of factors. First, both private and public four-year colleges in the Northeast have higher than average tuition rates.

Second, the report notes that a larger than average share of students in the Northeast attend private nonprofit four-year colleges instead of public. The result of these two factors, both controllable factors for students, produce higher average debt loads for students in this region of the country.

The bottom line is that students are partly to blame for this troubling result.

Overall Importance

While much election time was focused on the business data, higher education is critical to every state’s business future. In fact, it is interesting to note that three of the New England states with the highest student debt loads, Vermont, Rhode Island and Maine, placed 45th, 49th and 50th respectively in the Forbes ratings. Of course, it is tough to get any career started when you begin with significant levels of debt.

The consensus it that higher education plays the most important role when it comes to preparing students for the jobs of the 21st century. But that role will become limited if students cannot afford to attend.

Simply stated, Maine needs to do better by its children, beginning with its flagship university. With debt levels exceeding the national average at all public and private institutions by more than 20%, elected officials must take a good hard look at what is going on at the University of Maine at Orono.

In fact, the overall debt level coupled with the appalling data from UMO may ultimately be more important for the future of our state than the current abysmal business rating received from

October 31, 2010   1 Comment

College Costs – Higher Education Failing our Students

For a number of years there has been a growing consensus that we need to find ways to assess educational progress. That demand for accountability began initially in American public schools, but in recent years, there has been a much-needed push to shine a lens on higher education.

Unfortunately, whereas we once viewed American colleges and universities as exemplars for the entire world, in recent years the sheen has begun to erode. First came those reports of a system that was accepting only the best and brightest students yet was only graduating those students at rates that we will not accept from our high schools.

iStock_000007901834XSmallIn recent times, there has been a shift towards an examination of the extraordinary costs associated with earning a degree and the mountains of debt students have taken on in their effort to earn that coveted diploma.

New Online Tool

In regards to the latter issue, those interested in examining the cost-effectiveness of higher education now have access to a new cost-comparison tool. Thanks to the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity, and Accountability, it is possible for analysts to examine how thousands of the nation’s colleges and universities are spending their resources.

The Delta report – Trends in College Spending 1998-2008: Where Does the Money Come From? Where Does It Go? What Does It Buy? – focuses on the period from 1998 to 2008. Using that accumulated data, the folks at Delta have created TCS Online, a web-based application, that allows individuals easy access to individual institution details.

As for the soaring rates in tuition over the past decade, the Delta Project reveals some very important insights. Sadly, the results reflect poorly on our priorities as a nation and the priorities in place at our colleges and universities.

Those Ever-Rising Costs

One significant factor in the overall increase in costs centers upon the chase for students. According to the report, “sharp increases in spending between 1998 and 2003 by a handful of colleges and universities” created “competitive pressures on spending everywhere.”

But in most cases, college tuition is “not increasing because spending is going up. They are going up because of cost-shifting—meaning that instead of cutting spending in the face of revenue declines, institutions consistently shift to higher tuitions.”

To get at some hard numbers, “at public research universities, nearly all of the revenues from student tuition increases from 2002 to 2006 (92 percent) were used to offset revenue losses from other sources, primarily state appropriations.” Over that same period “the share of educational costs represented by student tuition rose from just over one-third to nearly one-half at public four-year institutions.”

It is important to realize that while our politicians, from President Obama on down the line to our local state representatives, pronounce their support for higher education, their actions speak differently. The findings of the Delta Project reveal a “shift away from public funding of institutions” meaning that new money to pay for increased costs must come from “tuition and fees, private gifts, and grants and contracts.”

Private universities are said to be doing better because they have actually decreased the percentage outlay for students. While still a positive step, students are paying between 75 and 85 percent of the full cost of their education at these more expensive institutions.

Wrong Priorities?

Sadly, while costs to students continue to escalate, “the share of educational spending dedicated to classroom instruction declined at all types of institutions from 2002 to 2006. The share of spending going to pay for instruction has consistently declined when revenues decline, relative to growth in spending in academic and student support and administration.”

Even more disappointingly, “this erosion persists even when revenues rebound, meaning that over time there has been a gradual shift of resources away from instruction and towards general administrative and academic infrastructure” including general academic support, student services, and maintenance.

As for those extra dollars helping more students, there seems to be one positive. Over the past ten years “spending per completion (certificates or degrees) has remained fairly steady at public colleges.”

Still, it is alarming to note that the student services category includes such items as intramural athletics and student centers. Here again, the dollars are instead chasing the students in the hopes of increased enrollments.

iStock_000011382993XSmall“This is the country-clubization of the American university,” Richard K. Vedder, a professor at Ohio University who studies the economics of higher education, told the New York Times. “A lot of it is for great athletic centers and spectacular student union buildings. In the zeal to get students, they are going after them on the basis of recreational amenities.”

Better Education?

There is little doubt that the United States has the world’s wealthiest postsecondary education system. According to the research of Delta, American institutions spend on average about $19,000 per student. That is more than double the $8,400 average cost of other developed countries.

Furthermore, community college costs average about $10,000 per student while private institutions average $35,000. Such numbers make it easy to see that our current system of higher ed is also perpetuating the stratification of our society.

The Delta report does not get at the heart of the quality of the educational product. But it does clarify that we have real problems embedded within our current system, especially if our goal is to help provide students from all walks of life a chance at a college degree.

Our politicians need to match their actions with their rhetoric and ensure adequate funding for our public colleges. But at the same time, those institutions of higher education need to find ways to cut costs that ultimately do not directly affect classroom academics.

July 13, 2010   6 Comments

Men’s Divison I Basketball Called Out for Poor Graduation Rates

Finally, the abysmal graduation rates being posted by some of the top college athletic programs has been receiving significant media attention. Whereas once upon a time we would see a lone wolf like Derrick Jackson of the Boston Globe call attention to this sorry issue, last week, none other than Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education and avid hoops junkie, weighed in on the frightful matter.

College Athletics – Where Are the Student-Athletes?

iStock_000004132716XSmallUnlike the professional sports world, college athletics is supposed to be played with student-athletes, with a certain amount of emphasis on the word student. Instead, sadly, many colleges are using athletes, particularly young black men, to bring in millions of dollars of revenue for their respective institutions. Not only do these institutions not pay these youngsters, they do not even provide them the education they promised.

Of course, truth be told, graduation rates at most colleges are quite poor for for the entire student body. In most cases, there is little difference between the entire student body and that of the athletes playing sports at those institutions.

But with more people calling attention to the current status of athletics, Secretary Duncan stepped up to the plate and suggested that colleges with basketball graduation rates of less than 40% should not be able to participate in the NCAA Basketball Championships.

Before discussing the schools that fail to meet such a basic criteria it is important to note that some institutions get the job done. They compete on a very high level yet do so with student athletes. Six schools, Brigham Young University, Marquette, Notre Dame, Utah State, Wake Forest & Wofford all posted graduation rates of 100%. Four others, Duke, Lehigh, Vermont and Villanova topped 90%.

A school with an 89% rate, Xavier University, has been singled out for special mention. While it cannot claim perfection, it can claim that since 1985 every single senior who has played on the Xavier team has graduated.

On the lower end, twelve schools would have been denied entry to the Big Dance if Duncan’s 40% threshold were implemented: Maryland 8%, Cal 20%, Arkansas (Pine Bluff) & Washington 29%, Tennessee 30%, Kentucky 31%, Baylor Missouri and New Mexico State 36%, Clemson 37% and Georgia Tech & Louisville at 38%.

Prostituting Black Athletes

iStock_000004657205XSmallWhen one looks deeper into the numbers the issue of schools using black athletes leaps off the page. According to a study by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida, white males on tournament-bound teams graduated at an 84 percent rate vs. 56 percent for African-Americans.

Sadly, only 20 of the 65 teams in the tournament graduated at least 70 percent of their black players. Two, California and Maryland, did not graduate a single African-American player for the six-year period covered by the study. In contrast, 45 schools graduated 70 percent or more of their white basketball student-athletes.

And when the 40% rate is considered, while 52 schools graduated 40 percent or more of their white basketball student-athletes, four of those schools could not graduate 40 percent or more of their African-American basketball student-athletes.

Perhaps more importantly, 28 tournament teams had a 30 percentage point or greater gap between the graduation rates of white and African‐American basketball student‐athletes while 37 had a 20 percentage point or greater gap.

Issue Gaining Traction

Once upon a time, March Madness, like the college football bowl season, held a special place in America. And for many fans it still does.

But for those who believe that amateur athletics should feature student-athletes and not underpaid, semi-professionals, those competitions no longer hold such special status.

But thanks to Derrick Jackson, Arne Duncan and a host of others bringing attention to this matter, we can harbor hope that these amateur events could one day regain their luster.

March 23, 2010   No Comments