U.S. lags in preschool, college graduation

The U.S. is falling behind the world in college-educated workers, concludes a OECD report on education in 46 countries. “The U.S. hasn’t backslid, but other countries have made big gains,”  OECD Education Director Andreas Schleicher said.

In the past, the U.S. ranked second in the world in the percentage of adults with postsecondary vocational or academic education. Today, the U.S. has slipped to fifth position.

South Korea leads the world: nearly 70 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds are college educated. Only 46 percent of young U.S. workers have earned a certificate or degree.

The U.S. is not on track to meet President Obama’s goal of leading the world in college-educated workers by 2020. College graduation rates are falling. according to a new report. Among students who started college in 2009, the year Obama launched his college campaign, only 53 percent had graduated in six years.

College enrollment rates have fallen since 2008, especially for low-income students. In 2013, just 46 percent of low-income high school graduates enrolled in two-year and four-year institutions, according to Census data.

More than 70 percent of young children attend preschool in OECD countries, compared to 41 percent of U.S. 3-year-olds and 66 percent of 4-year-olds. “It’s an area where the U.S. trails quite a bit behind,” said Schleicher.

Mediocre U.S. scores: Don’t blame poverty

When U.S. students post mediocre scores on international tests, poverty is “the elephant in the room,” says American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. Others point to a “poverty crisis” rather than an “education crisis.”

The elephant is not in the room, write Michael Petrilli and Brandon Wright in Education Next. U.S. schools do as well — or poorly — educating low-income students as other countries. Furthermore, U.S. children aren’t more likely to be poor: Those sky-high child poverty rates really are measuring inequality rather than absolute poverty.

Overall, the U.S. rates 28th in math proficiency for advantaged students among the 34 countries in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Disadvantaged U.S. students rank 20th compared to similar students in other PISA countries.

Our advantaged students may do better than poor kids here, but they don’t outperform similar students in developed countries.

While income inequality is high in the U.S., absolute poverty is not especially high, Petrilli and Wright argue.  Including all forms of income, including welfare benefits, the U.S. poverty rate is lower than Britain’s, the same as Germany’s and “barely higher than Finland’s.”

Poverty drags down performance here — and everywhere, they conclude.  The U.S. is not an outlier.

Socioeconomic disadvantage — such as few books in the home — explains some of the gap in scores, according to a report  by three economists. “Once we adjust for social status, we are doing much better than we think,” Stanford’s Martin Carnoy told the New York Times.

“There is no way you can blame socioeconomic status for the performance of the United States,”  countered Andreas Schleicher, who runs PISA for the OECD. “When you look at all dimensions of social background, the United States does not suffer a particular disadvantage.”

According to OECD’s disadvantage index, which includes “parental education and occupation, household wealth, educational resources at home and other measures of social and economic status,” less than 15 percent of U.S. students “come from the bottom rung of society,” reports the Times. “And yet, Mr. Schleicher found, 65 percent of principals in American schools say at least 30 percent of their students come from disadvantaged families, the most among nations participating in the PISA tests.”

Diversifying gifted, honors classes

Broward County, Florida more than doubled the number of low-income students and students of color identified as gifted — without changing eligibility criteria — by screening all second graders rather than relying on referrals from parents and teachers, a recent study found. Those who did well on a nonverbal cognitive test were given IQ tests.

Universal screening raised the percentage of gifted black students by 80 percent, Latinos by 130 percent and disadvantaged students by 180 percent, reports the Orlando Sun-Sentinel.

Sandi Peterson, middle school counselor in Elk Grove, congratulates a student for applying for honors classes.

Sandi Peterson, middle school counselor in Elk Grove, congratulates Kaianna Kelley for applying for honors classes. Credit: Hector Amezcua, Education Week

 The newly identified students “included many students with IQs significantly above the minimum eligibility threshold, implying that even relatively high-ability students from disadvantaged backgrounds were being overlooked under the traditional referral system,” according to researchers.

Schools elsewhere are trying to enroll more low-income, Latino and black students in gifted and honors classes, reports Education Week.

In Elk Grove, a Sacramento suburb, 3.5 percent of lower-income students (based on eligibility for a free lunch) are in gifted and advanced classes, compared to 11 percent of non-poor students. The district has spent “more than $860,000” to rethink procedures for identifying high-potential students.

Screening all third graders has nearly doubled the number identified as gifted.

The district’s Elitha Donner Elementary School, for example, identified 12 low-income students as gifted this year, up from only three last year, and narrowed the white-black gap in gifted education from 4-to-1 in favor of whites to 2.5-to-1 in the last year alone.

Next year, the district will roll out the rest of the changes to the identification system, with teachers and principals developing new rubrics for identifying exceptional creativity and leadership, both in class and in outside activities, such as community volunteering and church youth groups.

“We’re looking at our students differently,” said Michelle Jenkins, Donner Elementary’s principal. “It’s training your brain that ‘gifted’ is not always your top academic students.”

Screening all students for high IQ makes sense. Redefining “gifted” to mean “good kid” does not.

Low-income charter kids earn higher scores

In Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, and Miami-Dade County, low-income charter students scored significantly higher than low-income students in district-run schools on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), notes Education Reform Now.

The difference of 10 scale score points in reading translates roughly into one year’s worth of learning.

On the NAEP math exam, low-income charter students averaged 8 scale score points higher, nearly a year’s worth of learning, compared to low-income students in district-run schools.

‘Dual’ students will get federal aid

Some low- and moderate-income high school students who take “dual enrollment” college courses will be eligible for federal college aid,  U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced in Memphis last week, reports the Commercial Appeal.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (center) talks with student Shimera Paxton, 13, (right) during chess class at Douglass K-8 School. Credit: Brandon Dill, Commercial Appeal

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan talks with Shimera Paxton, 13, during chess class at a Memphis school. Credit: Brandon Dill, Commercial Appeal

The experimental program will offer Pell aid to cover college tuition for 10,000 students.

Dual enrollment courses are expanding rapidly nationwide. Some states or school districts cover high school students’ college tuition and textbook costs, but others do not.

Pell Grants, which now cost more than $30 billion a year, should be require college readiness, argues Isabel Sawhill, a Brookings researcher.

Targeting college aid to those most likely to succeed should start with counseling in 9th grade or earlier on the courses, grades and test results needed to do well in college. Students who “achieved a basic level of proficiency” would receive more generous support than the current Pell maximum. Low performers would not get college aid, but could receive “support for other training or education programs.”

Linking Pell to readiness misses students who need help most, responds Sara Goldrick-Rab.

Poor kids do well in California charters

More than half of the top-performing schools serving low-income students in California are charters, according to an Education Trust-West analysis.

Seven charters were among the top 10 schools based on eighth-grade student math scores. Five of 10 top schools were charters in third grade and 11th grade English language arts performance.  Nine percent of schools statewide are charters.

America's Finest Charter School students hike in Silverwood Wildlife Sanctuary.

America’s Finest Charter School students hike in Silverwood Wildlife Sanctuary on an after-school field trip.

The results will help build the charter sector’s political clout, predicts Cabinet Report, which is geared to superintendents and their staff.

Overall, 44 percent of California students met or exceeded standards in English language arts, 34 percent in math.

Achievement gaps between racial/ethnic subgroups “can’t be explained away by poverty,” concludes Ed Trust-West. “Low-income White students perform about as well as Black students who are not low income.” Low-income Asian students perform far better than Latinos and blacks from middle-income or higher families.

Education Trust-West analyzed data from schools where at least 60 percent of the students come from low-income families, notes Cabinet Report.

At the top of the list for schools finding success in English language arts instruction was America’s Finest Charter in San Diego, where 77 percent of third graders – among a school population that is 95 percent low-income – met or exceeded the standards on statewide tests.

American Indian Public Charter in Alameda, with an 81 percent low-income student population, was the top-performing school in math with 75 percent of its eighth-graders meeting or exceeding expectations.

Downtown Business High, a Los Angeles Unified magnet school, topped the list for 11th grade English scores. About 83 percent of students are low-income.

“Schools like these dispel the damaging myth that schools can do very little to help students overcome the barriers of poverty,” report writers noted.

51% of Pell recipients earn degree

Fifty-one percent of Pell Grant recipients earn a college degree, compared to 65 percent for non-Pell students, according to the Education Trust’s new report.

However, the average graduation gap at each college is only 5.7 percent. That’s because many Pell recipients, who come from low- and moderate-income families, enroll at schools with below-average graduation rates.

The U.S. Education Department handed out $31.5 billion in Pell Grants in 2013-14, but doesn’t track graduation rates, notes Diverse.

The Obama administration’s new College Scorecard includes Pell graduation rates, “but the data are limited and may miss students.”

Education Trust found “similar institutions had significantly different outcomes,” reports Diverse.

Two schools in the State University of New York system, for example—SUNY College at Oswego and SUNY College at Brockport—both have similar enrollments, median SAT scores and Pell recipient enrollment rates. But Pell students at Oswego had a graduation rate of 66 percent, compared to 48 percent at Brockport.

While 22 percent of institutions had no gap between Pell and non-Pell students, 20 percent had a gap of at least 12 percentage points.

First to college, but . . . 

In The First-Generation College Experience, Kavitha Cardoza travels to Michigan State with Christopher Feaster (see A college dream lost) to explore why he failed there, like so many students from low-income, non-college-educated families.

He joined an interracial fraternity and made friends with other first-generation students, who also were struggling academically. An adviser tried to help. But going from a small, supportive, all-minority high school to a huge Midwestern university was too much.

“I went in with everyone having these titanical expectations, not to mention a full-ride scholarship. And I’m just like, ‘I don’t know if I can do that, I don’t know, that’s a lot,’” he says.

. . . At the time, his mother had moved out of the homeless shelter and into subsidized housing, but was still struggling.

“Honestly when I was here, my main concern was ‘Is mom going to be OK? Does mom have the money to pay the bills this month? Is she going to go without hot water? Is she going to get evicted?’ That was my worry every day,” he says.

“It’s not uncommon to have students who have had some family trauma that they’ve not dealt with, fall into a depression and stop attending classes,” Monica Gray , programs director for the College Success Foundation, tells Cardoza.

First-generation students need academic and emotional support to succeed in college, says Deborah Bial, the president and founder of The Posse Foundation. It takes more than a scholarship.

The foundation sends low-income, first-generation students in groups of 10 to colleges all over the country. Ninety percent earn a degree.

Diana Sanchez and Bernice Hodge, who grew up in Washington, D.C., go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison on full scholarships. Because they’re Posse scholars, they meet with a tenured faculty member weekly for the first two years. They must ask each of their professors to fill out mid-semester evaluations.

“College is so overwhelming, things happen like nonstop. Deadline this, deadline that, sometimes it doesn’t cross your mind,” says Bernice.

“Also, sometimes you question yourself. These kids might be smarter than me; I don’t see anyone else scrunching up their face. So sometimes it’s also sort of like a pride thing. I don’t want the professor to think that I don’t get it,” Diana adds.

Bernice had a 4.2 grade point average in high school, but professors said her writing wasn’t up to par.  “And I just remember thinking back to high school. Why didn’t anybody catch these mistakes or why didn’t anybody correct me before I got to college?”

Diana’s classmates have traveled to places she’s only read about, she says.

“I’m taking a political science intro to Africa. And I only know the information that I’m learning in the class, but these people, they either had a specialized course in high school or they went to Zimbabwe.”

In her freshman year, her mother, who doesn’t speak English, fell ill, says Diana. “She actually was crying in the voicemail and was like ‘I’m lost, I don’t know where I am right now, come home. I miss you.’”

When her mother fell into a coma last semester, Posse staffers talked to her professors, who let her catch up on assignments while she was home. Diana is now back at UW.

A college dream lost

An “academic superstar” at his Washington D.C. high school, Christopher Feaster struggled in college, lost heart and dropped out, writes WAMU’s Kavitha Cardoza.

Christopher Feaster sits at home with his high school awards.

Christopher Feaster sits at home with his high school awards.

Three years ago, as a senior at a small, supportive school called Hospitality High, he “seemed in a lot of ways like the poster child for grit and determination,” she recalls.

“During much of high school, he and his mother were homeless and living in a shelter,” yet he earned high grades, “won every academic award imaginable and received a full-ride, four-year scholarship” to Michigan State’s hospitality business program.

At Michigan State, Feaster was shocked to receive C’s instead of the A’s or B’s he expected. He stopped turning in homework and spent most of his time in his room.

His high school principals, Michael Cucciardo and Tiffany Godbout-Williams, flew out to Michigan — spending their own money — to talk to him.

Christopher told them about his poor grades, how much he worried about his mother, and his fears of not belonging.

. . . They stayed for two days, met Christopher’s professors, sat in on his classes and set up a plan for him — all the structures they had used to help him be successful in high school.

. . . But Christopher slid even further into depression and stopped answering texts or phone calls. He felt he had disappointed everyone.

He failed all his final exams and was told not to return.

Feaster now works at a restaurant as a host and lives with his mother in subsidized housing.

Was it too much support in high school, inflated grades or depression? (Feaster’s mother, who dropped out of college after one year, when she became pregnant with him, suffers from depression.)

Only one out of every four low-income students that attend college will earn a degree, according to the Pell Institute for Opportunity in Higher Education.

The teacher at the door

Teachers are visiting their students’ families at a growing number of schools, writes Blake Farmer on NPR.

“Traditional schools in Washington, D.C., tried out home visits after privately run charter schools used them to successfully engage parents, he writes. Now the National Education Association is encouraging more schools to try home visits.

Hobgood Elementary fourth grade teacher Ashlee Barnes introduces herself to one of her new students at a Murfreesboro apartment complex. Photo: Blake Farmer, WPLN

Hobgood Elementary teacher Ashlee Barnes introduces herself to one of her new fourth-grade students at a Murfreesboro apartment complex. Photo: Blake Farmer, WPLN

Ninety percent of students at Hobgood Elementary in Murfreesboro, Tenn., come from low-income households., while most of the teachers were raised in middle-class families.

“Once a year, just before school starts, they board a pair of yellow buses and head for the neighborhoods and apartment complexes where Hobgood students live,” writes Farmer.

Principal Tammy Garrett wants teachers to meet their students’ parents and see their challenges. “If a kid doesn’t have a place to sleep or they have to share the couch with their siblings at night and there are nine kids with one bedroom or two bedrooms, it’s important for them to see that — not to be sympathetic,” she says. “It’s to empower the teachers to change the lives of the kids.”