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Low-Income Students

A PreK-3rd Spotlight on Union City, NJ

February 11, 2013
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In education policy, where so much of the focus is on how much is wrong with today’s schools, it’s refreshing to see examples of something going right. In an op-ed yesterday in the New York Times, David Kirp writes about what he found after spending a year in Union City, N.J., where children are achieving at a very high rate despite coming from poverty and living in families where English is a second language.

Schools Don’t Need Fewer Regulations, They Need Smarter Ones

February 6, 2013
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Last week was National School Choice Week, a celebration that tends to make strange bedfellows of education policy advocates. The broad appeal of the movement – parents should be able to choose a high-quality school for their children – belies the volatile political reality. However, two recent reports add empirical evidence to the frequently emotional and personal discussions surrounding school choice.

The cleverly-titled School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring?, from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, examines the assertion that state-imposed regulations and accountability measures discourage private schools from participating in voucher or tax-credit programs. The report surveyed 241 private schools in five voucher-participating cities: Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee. 

Surprisingly, the authors found that regulations don’t act as a strong deterrent for participation. Only 3 percent of non-participating schools listed program regulations as the primary reason for not opting in.

A descriptive analysis of 13 voucher programs and tax credit scholarship programs found a similarly mild effect on participation. Moving from the lowest to highest regulation burden represented only a 9 percent decrease in participation from private schools.

Instead of restrictions and accountability measures, the most-cited reason for not participating was the availability of voucher-eligible families. It seems that these schools believe the area they serve wouldn’t provide enough qualified voucher students to make participation worthwhile. In fact, more than a third of non-voucher schools reported that they would be more likely to participate if the program extended eligibility to all families in the form of a universal voucher.

While voucher regulations had a small deterrent effect, it’s interesting to note that Catholic schools – which make up more than a third of private education options – had high participation even in the most heavily regulated environments. The study’s authors believe that combatting declining enrollments, as well as a foundational mission to serve the poor, drives this participation.

School Choice Week also brought a new report from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) examining changes in charter school achievement levels over time. Weighing in at two volumes and about 200 pages, Charter School Growth and Replication is a detailed study of the impact of network expansion and the range of performance quality within charter schools.

One of its most notable findings is that charter schools with a rocky first year aren’t likely to improve their achievement results over time. A charter school in the lowest quintile of performance its first year has a 66 percent probability of staying in the lowest two quintiles of schools in math and a 70 percent probability of staying in the lowest two quintiles in reading.

The trajectory of the lowest performing schools becomes more entrenched over time – once a school spends two years in the lowest quintile, the probability of staying in the two lowest quintiles ranges from 82 percent to 91 percent in math and 89 percent to 96 percent in reading.

The study further examines the impact of schools that operate as part of a Charter Management Organization (CMO). They find that CMO schools, on average, tend to post the same achievement results as non-CMO schools, but produce better results for disadvantaged subgroups – students of color and those in poverty – than traditional public or non-CMO schools. 

Another striking finding is the broad range of academic quality of CMO networks. In math, 37 percent of networks produce average achievement results stronger than a traditional public school, while 50 percent posted weaker results. In reading, where the spread of effect sizes is even more pronounced, 43 percent of networks fare better than traditional schools and 37 percent fare worse.

While the two reports occupy different spheres of school choice policy – one focused on the provision of education through the private market, the other on the effectiveness of publicly-authorized charter schools – they both convey a similar theme. Regulations imposed on schools matter, but not always in the ways we’d expect.

Fordham’s report delivers a significant blow to the argument that heavy regulations act as a strong deterrent for participation in voucher programs. For private schools considering voucher participation, it seems that the market  of qualified students, as well as internal factors such as admissions criteria and school culture, may play more of a role than previously thought.     

The CREDO study should act as a wake-up call for charter school authorizers. The study suggests that the length of charter authorization periods should be reconsidered: if a school performs poorly in its first few years, it is not likely to improve before its charter is up for renewal.  

Given the noted difficulties in closing poor-performing charter schools, this report may push authorizers to scrutinize new charter school applications even more closely. In a recent op-ed, the New York Times cited the CREDO study as evidence to push for the closing of poor performing schools and limit the authorization of new charters to the “most credible” candidates. Unfortunately, the study shows that credibility is difficult to measure. Operating under the umbrella of a CMO is not necessarily an indicator of quality. Further, the CREDO study finds that characteristics that might seem to indicate success - network maturity, size, and proximity to other network schools – do not provide significant information about future performance.

One bright spot is the Charter School Growth Fund (CSGF), a non-profit that invests in charter school operators. CREDO found that students in schools selected by CSGF tend to outpace peers in both traditional public schools and other non-CSGF CMOs. The ability of CSGF to “pick winners” from the charter school pool suggests that a high level of due diligence and oversight from authorizers can have impact on school quality.

Why Federal Officials Should Require Some Colleges to Match Pell Grants

February 5, 2013

Yesterday at Higher Ed Watch, I argued that a federal solution is needed to ensure that colleges use their institutional aid resources to keep higher education affordable for low- and moderate-income students. But why should the federal government get involved?

The reason is simple: the government is already involved, way involved. It spends nearly $40 billion on the Pell Grant program each year to try to remove the financial barriers that prevent low-income students from enrolling in and completing college through the Pell Grant program. Yet colleges are increasingly undercutting the government’s mission by using their institutional aid dollars to try to attract the students they desire rather than to meet the financial need of the low income students they enroll. Worse yet, there is compelling evidence to suggest that schools are capturing a significant share of the Pell Grant funds they receive and using them for other purposes, such as providing non-need-based aid to recruit high achieving and wealthier students. This is one reason why even after historic increases in funding, the program’s impact is so limited: students and families are not receiving the full benefits as intended.

The enormous growth in non-need-based, or “merit” aid, at four-year colleges over the last two decades has come lately at the expense of the neediest students. Low-income students who attend these institutions often face high levels of “unmet need,” defined as the difference between the cost of attendance and the amount of financial aid they receive. Unmet need forces students to take on significant amounts of debt, including risky private student loans. Financially strapped students also frequently engage in activities that lessen their likelihood of completing their degrees, such as working full-time while attending college or dropping out until they can afford to return.

Syllabus: Week of January 27

January 31, 2013
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Welcome to the Syllabus, a weekly guide that provides insight into what’s happening in higher education.


This week New America’s Education Policy Program published Rebalancing Resources and Incentives in Federal Student Aid. In this policy paper we make more than 30 recommendations on how to improve our complex federal financial aid system so that it works better for students and taxpayers. With this many proposals, there was something for everyone to be happy about or frustrated over—sometimes simultaneously.

Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and ProPublica offer great summaries of our proposal if you haven’t already read it. We also have this one-page explainer that will help get you up to speed.

Making Sure Colleges Remain Engines of Opportunity Not Inequality

February 4, 2013

Do colleges still provide a gateway to opportunity for low-income and working class students? Or are they perpetuating inequality in this country by limiting opportunity to only those who are rich enough to be able to afford it?

That question, which came up during a podcast conversation between my colleague Kevin Carey and New York Times journalist and New America Foundation Schwartz fellow Jason DeParle [author of this riveting article on the subject] last week, is central to proposals we have offered that aim to ensure that colleges use their institutional aid resources to keep higher education affordable for low- and moderate-income students.

Unfortunately this is often not the case. Colleges are, in fact, increasingly raising the barriers to higher education for low income students by redirecting their institutional financial aid dollars to wealthier students.

In The Tank: Financial Aid: A System Designed to Fail

January 29, 2013
Every parent of college-aged kids fears the eye-popping complexity of applying for financial aid, but that complexity can actually end the college dream – and the American dream - for some students. In this In the Tank Podcast, New America Managing Editor Fuzz Hogan talks to Education Policy Program Director Kevin Carey and Schwartz Fellow Jason DeParle about some of those stuck students, and discusses how better policy can help fix the crisis.

Final Webinar in PreK-3rd Series: Policies for Scaling Up Reforms

January 28, 2013
Part of PreK-3rd Grade National Work Group Logo

For nearly a year, the PreK-3rd Grade National Work Group has hosted free webinars on how to reduce the achievement gap by focusing on children’s early years: pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first, second and third grades. The last of these webinars, Scale and Sustainability: Implications for State and District Policy, will be held this Wednesday, Jan. 30, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. EST.

Mapping Inequality in Washington, D.C. -- Interactively

January 24, 2013

In October, DC Action for Children released DC Kids Count, an “e-databook” that graphically maps socioeconomic disparities across Washington D.C. neighborhoods. The maps are detailed and elegant, and demonstrate just how segregated the nation’s capital city remains in terms of race, income, educational attainment, access to healthy food and many other measures.

Questions Swirling Around Obama’s Second-Term Steps on Early Learning

January 22, 2013
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As President Obama gave his second inaugural address yesterday, many of us couldn’t help but linger over these words:  “We are true to our creed,” Obama said, “when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.” 

At Huffington Post: Turnaround 2.0: Solutions in Pre-K to Third Grade to Help Failing Schools

January 18, 2013

In a post for the Huffington Post's Education blog, I wrote about the Early Education Initiative's event on January 14 that highlighted three promising strategies for turning around low-performing schools: FirstSchool, AppleTree's Every Child Ready and Cincinnati's

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