Posts published in August, 2009

Federal Role May Grow In Regulating College Tuition Increases

Federal postsecondary policy has focused on college student aid, but a new article by Michael Dannenberg in the American Prospect makes a good case for a more active federal role in controlling college tuition growth–see for the September 2009 issue. Here are some interesting direct quotes form his article.

“Obama has proposed increasing Pell Grants significantly and throwing the banks completely out of the student-loan program.  Loans instead would be made directly by the government…Pell Grants and student loans address only one side of the college-affordability ledger.  The other is tuition, which is increasing at a rate that dramatically outpaces median family income.  Student-loan debt is chasing ever-rising tuition like a dog chasing its tail…That doesn’t mean regulating tuition.  Reform can be as simple as helping students make better decisions in choosing a college, incentivizing states to maintain their fiscal effort for higher education, and making the colleges that the plurality of students attend tuition-free for those willing to work.”

State Common Core Standards Face Old Dilemas

Standards setting has been going on for many decades, and the attempt by the Chief state school officers and the National Governors Association to work with 47 states is confronting many of the problems of the past-see Here are the dilemas from the past;

– there are always complaints that the process does not include all the necessary stakeholders

-if you chose standards with a broad consensus , then” leading edge thinkers” complain you are choosing” what is “”rather than what ought (eg 21st century skills)

-Consensus is hard to reconcile with less is more. Consensus generates too many standards to make everyone happy.

-If you please specialists in a discipline like math, then people will complain you have neglected inter disciplinary content/skills.

-If standards are too general , then there will be complaints that the details will be filled in by the test makers and pedagogues.

-If experts devise the standards, then there will be complaints that elected officials and interest groups were not involved.

-It is difficult to use the same structure for math and English. The common core draft is more detailed for math.

-If you want the standards to be in schools within 4 years, people will say this is too quick (eg need for extensive professional development)

Race To The Top Guidelines Do Not Provide Extra Points For P-20 Plans

 The best summary I have seen of Race to the Top application priorities and criteria is from the New Teacher Project . Thier brief makes it clear that a states p-20 plan linking succesful transitions from k-12 to postsecondary education is not really a significant factor in determining which states will win the competion.  here is the precise language-” The USDE is interested in recieving applications meeting this priority(eg P-20 plan) but will not award additional points for doing so.”

  Some so called priorities must be met for the state application to be considered and others give the aplication preference or added points, but not P-20. I wonder why not.

Academic Disciplines Summarize What Is Known About College Transition

  Teachers College Record on line has a summary of what many academic disciplines have contributed to research about college transition. Among the disciplines included are : economics, sociology, anthropology etc. There has never been a recent compilation like this. The authors who are well known academics point out needed new directions for college transition research. The compilation is entitled , William Trent ed, Transitions To College: Lessons From Discipline Based Literature Reviews. You can access it at: ID Number 12594.

Good and Bad News On College Transition

  First, the good news: ACT scores were flat this year compared to last year, but this obscures the fact that 5 states have all their grade 11 students take the test. So usually this kind of expanded base would lower test scores. Moreover, the percent of students who have taken a college prep recommended curriculum continues to go up.

 Now the bad news : the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in Measuring Up reports that between 1982 and 2006 college tuition and fees increased by 439%. College costs have risen faster than income, inflation, and health care. In 1996 need based student aid grants made up 84% of total grants, but by 2007 this had dropped to 72%.

The Latino Education Crisis And College Readiness

A new book The Latino Education Crisis by Patricia Gandara of UCLA and Frances Contreras of the University of Washington ( Harvard University Press ) is a comprehensive treatment of the this issue. It is the best compilation that I have seen covering preschool through college and out of school influences. But particularly strong are the 3 chapters that cover college knowledge, preparation, intervention programs, and student success. This is one stop shopping for all the key issues and solutions. The college transition part is enhanced greatly by what comes before in the book that lays the groundwork for understanding  college success or failure.

For a comprehensive book review go to

NCLB Needs To Be Changed To Focus More On College Readiness

As part of a series on the shortcomings of NCLB as it relates to high school accountability and improvement, the Alliance for Education has released a policy brief proposing a strengthened federal role in preparing students for college and career. At a moment when “emerging best practices have shed light on more effective approaches to high school improvement, the national discourse on high schools has begun to shift from one about the crisis to one about solutions.” The brief argues for “harness[ing] this progress and momentum,” strategically designing the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to “move the nation toward the goal of all students graduating from high school ready for college and careers.” Federal policy must therefore establish college and career readiness as the common goal for all students; ensure meaningful accountability for high school outcomes around common indicators; replace the current one-size-fits-all school improvement process with state- and district-led systems that are differentiated and data driven; support strategies for high school improvement on a larger scale, including district-wide; build system capacity to implement bold approaches to teaching and learning, school organization, and system structure; and provide new funding for the implementation of these innovative solutions.
Read more:

State Common Core Curriculum Standards Will Be Political

A new effort by Governors and Chief State school officers to formulate common core standards for 46 states is underway. See The leaders want to rely on research and evidenced based information, but as this blog indicates below past efforts have been heavily influenced by politics.

Michael W. Kirst and Robin L. Bird

As the national debate about curriculum content standards demonstrates, policymaking around the standards is a political as well as a technical process (Ravitch, 1995). Disputes over such issues as the inclusion of AIDS education or creation science in a curriculum highlight the existence of value conflicts embedded in the development and maintenance of curriculum standards (Wirt & Kirst, 1992). Because of these conflicts, the process often requires complex trade-offs between groups of competing interests. In this blog, we review the political tensions surrounding the process including foundations for making decisions regarding the content of curriculum standards, the history of reform efforts, the role of values, and the influence of special interest groups.

The most common solution to determining curriculum standards is to endow an individual or group (e.g., a state school board or a national subject matter association) with the authority to make decisions about curricular content by professional, and presumably expert, judgment (Massell & Kirst, 1994). The community provides these decision-makers with a degree of autonomy that ranges from absolute responsiveness to virtual independence. For example, the Clinton administration’s Goals 2000: Educate America Act advocated that disputes concerning national standards content be resolved by a part of the federal government.

But what procedures do the developers of curriculum standards follow? Past efforts can best be described by what Lindblom and Braybrooke (1963) call disjointed incrementalism, a strategy in which decision-makers use pragmatic methods that result in minimal changes at the margin. Conflict is avoided by using vague language concerning standards and covering so many topics that no major interest group feels left out. Content priority is sacrificed to the political necessity of coverage.

The development of national mathematics and science standards, however, represented a change from disjointed incrementalism to a nonincremental reconceptualization and complete overhaul of subject matter standards and examinations. Examples cited by national standards advocates include efforts by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and the National Academy of Sciences (Massell & Kirst, 1994). The politics of these efforts are complex, as one observer of NCTM’s efforts noted (Ball, 1992,
p. 2-3): Twin needs propelled the development of NCTM’s standards for school mathematics: the need to gain consensus and the need to promote change. On the one hand, if these standards were to stand as the banners of the community, then they had to reflect shared values and commitment. On the other hand, if change was desired, then these standards had to do more than reflect current practice. New ideas were needed, ideas that departed from extant assumptions and practices.

In short, the development of national, state, and local content standards requires complex trade-offs, and there is no way to avoid conflict and a sense of winners and losers. Difficult choices must be made concerning standards and the procedures by which they are established. Merely following the “right” procedural steps is not sufficient because there are many constraints on what can be included (e.g., length of the school day). The history of standards development has been one of jockeying for priority in an overcrowded school schedule, and some groups’ priorities are incorporated into the curriculum because of political considerations while others’ are neglected. For example, organized proponents of driver education and vocational education have been more effective politically than those of music education (Wirt & Kirst, 1975).

Efforts to formulate curriculum standards have provoked conflict over the proper foundations for deciding what to teach. For example, should schools teach those things that are likely to be useful immediately in life outside the school or those most fundamental to an understanding of organized knowledge? Should they emphasize the development of individuality or conformity to cultural heritage? As long as people disagree on how to evaluate curricula, they are bound to quarrel over its composition. The basis for this disagreement can even be such things as social class or race.

From 1900 to 1970, four foundations for evaluating elements of curricula emerged as salient: tradition, science, community, and individual judgment. These foundations are reflected in people’s preferences, but their conflicting natures create political stress and demand for curricular changes. They are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive, but do represent major streams of thought and feeling among constituencies. In short, they are ways of answering Herbert Spencer’s question, “What knowledge is of most worth?”

The appeal to tradition, exemplified by the Great Books program of the Council for Basic Education in Washington, D.C., rested on the assumption that subjects of study that survive the test of time are in the long view most beneficial and, therefore, should receive the highest priority in the curriculum. The appeal to science, the newest basis for curricular decision-making, has received strong support from many influential groups, including the U. S. Department of Education. This appeal rests on the assumption that educational and psychological research will reveal cognitive concepts that should guide teaching. The appeal to community presupposes that every school is part of a community of association and interests, in which reside the ultimate criteria of usefulness, relevance, and benefit of any curricular element. Therefore, those matters that deserve first priority in the curriculum are to be determined by the community, either directly via its representatives or by studies of the community. The appeal to individual judgment amounts to a skeptical denial of any rational basis for curriculum-making beyond the student’s own values, needs, and desires as these are manifested in his or her own judgments. Adherents to this position argue that any basis for curriculum is doomed to failure if it purports to provide answers to Spencer’s question.

Each of these values has its supporters and detractors who bolster their positions with techniques that we regard as political. Some schools stand primarily on only one of these foundations. Some liberal arts colleges rely largely on the appeal to tradition, as do the curricula of a number of private “Latin” schools. A number of Christian groups advocate traditional curricula. By contrast, several schools embrace a scientific basis such as constructivist pedagogy or stimulus and response psychological rewards. “Free” schools and “free” universities base their programs on the choices of individual students. Afrocentric schools are oriented to a community focus. But, by and large, the foundations of U.S. public school curricula represent a heterogeneous mixture. As such, they reflect the political compromises and diverse values found in any state or local district.

Utah Reneges On Student Aid

  Utah promised students who got certain grades in college prep courses that  they would recieve a scholarship to a state college. But because of budget shortfalls the grant was cut by 50%. This may be the first of many state merit aid cuts, because many states followed the Georgia Hope Scholarship idea in the last 10 years. Students will feel betrayed by politicians who promised specefic amounts of college aid.

The Status Of Improving The Transition From Secondary To Broad Access Postsecondary Education

This is a long blog , but it is an overview of where we are in the main subject of this blog. It covers many of the key issues and components.

Most of the nation’s eighth graders aspire to college. Unfortunately, however, the majority of them will not realize their ambitions to complete their higher education and gain some advantage in the job market.

In my research since 1998, I have not focused on students who seek acceptance at elite, selective institutions but rather on the 80 percent of high-school graduates who attend what I call broad-access postsecondary institutions. (Nearly half of first year students attend community colleges, and another 30 percent go to four-year schools that accept all qualified applicants.) And I look back on the last decade with some gratification and much anxiety. I have seen some, but not nearly enough, progress among high-school students when it comes to being ready to go to college and get their degrees. College completion rates are stagnant for recent for recent high school graduates with only twenty four percent of community college students in California receiving a vocational certificate, an AA, or transfer to a four year school after six years.

At community colleges, more than 60 percent of students who enroll after high school end up taking at least one remedial course. Four-year institutions like those in the California State University system have 56 percent of entering freshmen in remediation. Clearly, the connections between high schools and higher-education institutions are still not what they should be to help students prepare for college.

There are no definitive costs of remediation, but a 2008 estimate for California by the Pacific Research Institute included $274 million in direct costs for California postsecondary institutions, and several billion for remediation costs of businesses, diminished earnings of students, tax receipts, and government costs.

Media attention to poor college preparation has grown exponentially in the last decade. The policy agendas of various states have focused increasingly on college-transition problems, and some policy makers have raised specific solutions. Thirty seven states have established P-16 councils that enable the major state decision makers to deliberate on college transition issues. But few of those solutions deal with the magnitude or many dimensions of the problem, particularly financial incentives to increase college completion and aligned classroom instruction. Action beyond agenda-setting and policy discussions has been shallow and limited.

Moreover, evaluation of new policies, both the successes and the failures, to determine what works has barely begun. And enhanced awareness of inadequate college preparation and completion is largely confined to government leaders and policy elites, with little impact on teachers or administrators at the secondary or postsecondary level.

IN 2005, I and my colleagues at the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education identified four state policy levers that are necessary for true reform to occur:

Standards alignment between high school and college for courses, content, and assessment;
Student financial support and incentives for higher-education institutions to provide better student-support services;
A data system that tracks the progress of individual students from pre-K through college; and
Accountability measures that link secondary and postsecondary institutions to student outcomes, like the completion of college.

How far along are most states in putting such policies and programs in place? The most progress has been made in aligning high school and college standards, led by groups like Achieve Inc., an organization established by governors and business leaders. Achieve is helping the Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governors Association to create a nationwide common core of curricular standards in English and math in 2010. More states such as Georgia and Texas are using, or considering the use of, assessments at the end of high school and other means of aligning curricula with college courses. Achieve has also worked to help establish high-school graduation requirements and develop other programs to ease the school-college transition in 31 states.

But broad-access postsecondary institutions rely on placement tests more than admissions scores like ACT or SAT, and few statewide secondary-school assessments are aligned with those placement tests or the content of first-year college courses. Colleges use many different types of placement assessments, and most high-school students do not know what those assessments will cover.

Meanwhile, Education Week’s “Quality Counts 2008,” which grades states’ policies and outcomes, has found that just 15 states have a definition of college readiness, and only three (New York, Rhode Island, Texas) require all students to finish a college-preparatory curriculum to graduate. Many state governments have chosen the easy route of simply specifying course labels to be taken—like geometry or biology, or three years of math— without doing much more. Further, the hard work of getting secondary-school teachers to work with their higher-education counterparts on subject-matter course articulation between the 10th grade and sophomore year in college has barely begun.

The lack of headway on financial policies is even more discouraging. Although more states are focusing student aid on needy students who complete college-preparation courses, too much federal and state money still goes to students who are so unprepared that they have little chance of college success. Meanwhile, financial-aid applications are so complicated that they make the standard income-tax form look easy.

Financial aid is not designed well for 75 percent of the community-college students who attend part time and live off campus. Financial aid is insufficient, complex, and hard for part-time community-college students to obtain. Federal financial aid is less for part-time students, aid forms must be filed before students decide to go to community college, and there are not enough counselors for evening students.

In addition, the use of state financial incentives to encourage college and universities to improve student outcomes has been largely unexplored. It is less expensive for most broad access public colleges to recruit a new student rather than provide services to retain a struggling student.

And unlike elementary and secondary education, the spending patterns within postsecondary systems and institutions is mostly a black box, so we do not even know where to start.

It is extremely difficult to find out how much money is spent on remediation, adjunct versus full time teachers, and counselors. For example, the California legislature appropriates money to the state’s community colleges for keeping students through the third week of a class, but it requires no other student outcomes.

How can we devise a K-16 state-finance system that supports efforts to lessen the need for student remediation and stimulates higher-education institutions to help more students obtain their degrees?

Theoretically, high schools and colleges could work together to design outcomes to meet outcome accountability targets, like the need for less student remediation. Then both high schools and colleges could be rewarded financially for outcomes they produce by working together.

Florida has a complete K-16 data system that follows students from kindergarten through graduate school. Most states are making significant data improvements (partly with federal money), but are not close to Florida.

Underlying all these difficulties, are the deeply rooted policy differences between the secondary and postsecondary systems. Meanwhile, there are few deliberative forums or interest groups that can bring together representatives from both educational levels to sustain momentum.

The future is murky, with both good and bad scenarios possible. A more positive future would include working simultaneously on all four policy levers, and a commitment to build teacher capacity to align instruction across the K-16 system. A more negative scenario would be slow incrementalism that addresses parts of the problem in an incoherent manner.

Perhaps a secondary-school-improvement focus in the No Child Left Behind reauthorization will galvanize faster and more inclusive improvement. Now states have an incentive to keep secondary school assessments below college level because more students will be able to become proficient by 2014. A differential federal policy could reward states with college level assessments by extending the federal proficiency deadline beyond the required date of 2014.

Michael Kirst is a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and a senior scholar at the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.