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Making Sense of International Comparisons of Students

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We are regularly exposed to news reports about the results of international tests, in which children's scores in the United States lag behind those of their peers in many other nations in math, reading, and science. The results spur public debate as to why the nation's educational system is "mediocre" or why test results could be meaningless altogether--for instance, China, with very high rankings, reports scores only from the wealthy cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Is it even worth participating in these tests? What can they tell us, if anything, about America's educational system and how to make it better?

In the Future of Children, Daniel Koretz weighs in with some answers. He stresses that these tests do not provide unambiguous information about the effectiveness of American high schools compared to those of other nations. For example, participant countries vary by year, making it difficult to compare U.S. students with an international average, and the varying curriculums and complex sampling designs also pose problems.

Despite their many limitations, Koretz argues there is value in these tests. In using the results, we should consider multiple tests rather than a single source. We should ignore small differences between countries and consider comparing the U.S. to nations that are similar, such as Australia or Canada, or that are particularly high-achieving. Perhaps the most important benefit of testing is the numerous hypotheses that result about what impedes or improves student performance, which can then be tested and evaluated.

While there are certainly more important indicators of student success (e.g., graduation rates, college degrees), test scores offer useful information, which should be considered but not relied on solely. To learn more about how to make sense of test scores and how to improve the educational system, see the Future of Children issue on America's High Schools.

Obama's Education Initiative

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President Obama recently proposed a set of measures to make college more affordable. Some experts have argued for more innovation to drive down education costs, and the President is suggesting drastic changes to how the federal government promotes postsecondary education. Pending Congressional approval, federal financial aid would be partly linked to college rankings on measures like tuition, graduation rates, the percentage of lower-income students attending, and how much money graduates make. Some of this information is already available through an online college scorecard released earlier this year. The motivation for this approach is to encourage institutional innovation and allow students attending highly ranked colleges to receive better financial aid.

The President has also proposed other ideas, including experimenting with competency-based degrees that reflect students' knowledge more than the hours they've spent in the classroom, massive open online courses, three-year degree programs, performance-based financial aid, and more.

With changes likely coming to post-secondary education in the coming years, it is crucial to base policy decisions on the best research available. The Future of Children's issue on Postsecondary Education in the United States is a good place to start.

For example, while online learning is often believed to be an institutional cost-cutting measure, Bell and Federman explain that the evidence is inconclusive. There are significant start-up and recurrent technological support costs, yet implementation may result in savings in instructor compensation costs over time--particularly if institutions adopt more machine-guided courses. Research shows online learning can be effective for students, but we know little about how to do it right. One challenge colleges will likely face is a high dropout rate--especially among low income students without a fast Internet connection. In promoting innovation, the federal government will need to consider how to support technology delivery and use among disadvantaged students.

Obama has proposed performance-based financial aid. Dynarski and Scott-Clayton found that linking student financial aid to achievement can improve college performance and completion more than grants with no strings attached. This measure will likely be effective for enrolled students, but another issue is outreach to prospective students. For instance, many of them overestimate the cost of attending college by as much as three times, and a recent national survey of young adults found that fewer than three in ten individuals people without a college degree knew what the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) was. In revamping the financial aid program, policymakers should keep in mind that program complexity undermines aid's effectiveness. Aid needs to have simple, easy-to-understand eligibility rules and application procedures. To find more research and policy recommendations see the Future of Children's issue on Postsecondary Education in the United States.

Reforming College Remediation Programs

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Despite the rising percentage of working-age adults with a college degree, low college completion rates are still a major problem in the US and will have to rise much more to meet the demands of the future workforce. One problem, especially as workers have been displaced following the economic crisis, is that many students are arriving or returning to college underprepared for college work. Future of Children author Eric P. Bettinger, Angela Boatman, and Bridget Terry Long  report that the number of high school graduates who are ready for college-level material may be as low as one-third, with even lower levels among some nontraditional students.

 

Colleges have adjusted to the needs of incoming students by offering greater access to developmental or remedial courses, placing close to 40 percent of incoming freshmen into such courses. Structure and quality vary widely, and they have shown mixed results in their effectiveness. Some argue that too many students are placed in remedial courses unnecessarily, with high costs to institutions and the public. Evidence suggests that remedial courses may have positive effects for those who need them, but may actually have negative consequences for those who don't.


Bettinger, Boatman, and Long say one way colleges might improve the effectiveness of such programs is to reexamine placement procedures. For example, some states have begun offering placement exams to high school sophomores and juniors, as opposed to waiting until their college freshman year, to give students the opportunity to consult with parents, advisors, and educators about areas to focus on as they prepare for college. Some institutions are also making efforts to redesign their developmental programs, stressing remediation not as a curricular roadblock but as a means to launch students on to college-level work and give them the skills they need to succeed in a college major. For the best evidence for what works, read the latest research on this topic in the Future of Children issue on Postsecondary Education in the United States.

Is College a Good Investment?

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Many of this year's graduating high school seniors already have their eyes set on a specific university, but others wonder if pursuing a postsecondary degree is really worth the time and cost. The public continues to debate whether college is a good investment, but in a review of the latest research, Future of Children authors Philip Oreopoulos and Uros Petronijevic find truth somewhere in the middle. They suggest that college can be a good investment if students prepare well and plan their studies and occupational pursuits carefully.

 

About 19 percent of 2011 high school graduates who took the ACT and were considered academically ready never enrolled in college or didn't return to college after the first year. Some of these students may have had better alternatives, but many may have been unprepared in nonacademic ways, such as lacking information about college expenses and financial aid. Andrea Venezia and Laura Jaeger write that many students may not know enough about themselves or their future goals to know which college would be best. In addition, students from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds may feel obliged to attend a less-selective program that is closer to home, even though they qualify academically for more selective institutions. Evidence suggests that such students are less likely to graduate.

 

In helping students prepare for postsecondary education, educators and policymakers should move beyond an academic focus. Precollege programs across the country have begun to emphasize guiding students through the decision making process and other nonacademic preparation. College is a better investment when students are well informed about the expenses and financial aid options associated with specific programs at specific schools. For more on this topic, check out the Future of Children issue on Postsecondary Education in the United States.

From Prison to Postsecondary Education

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For every three people enrolled in a postsecondary institution, one person is under correctional supervision (incarcerated, on parole, or on probation). College has been part of the American Dream for decades, but prisoners and parolees have for the most part been ignored in discussions on improving college enrollment and completion rates.

 

Most high school students would like to achieve some sort of postsecondary education, but many leave high school unprepared for college work. This may be especially true for young adults involved with the criminal justice system, who are more likely to be from poor, racial-ethnic minority, or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds. Indeed, education levels among the correctional population are much lower than among the general population. Some evidence suggests that increasing educational attainment among offenders may effectively reduce recidivism, but few studies have rigorously examined how postsecondary education affects the correctional population.

 

The Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project, recently launched by the Vera Institute of Justice, "seeks to demonstrate that access to postsecondary education, combined with supportive reentry services, can increase educational credentials, reduce recidivism, and increase employability and earnings." The initiative will take place in three states over five years, and evaluations will be conducted by the RAND Corporation. At least one of the states, New Jersey, already has correctional postsecondary education programs in place, including Princeton University's Prison Teaching Initiative.


The Future of Children issue on Postsecondary Education highlights the dramatic changes that are taking place in institutions of higher education and the students who attend them. As policymakers and educators make efforts to increase enrollment and improve program quality and completion, they should not forget the 7 million people under correctional supervision and what access to college for them might mean for their families and the nation as a whole.

Finding and Fixing Flaws in Financial Aid Policy

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Recent reports underscore what many argue are serious problems with current financial aid policy. Lawmakers debate about how to handle the soon-to-expire low interest rate on federal student loans. Meanwhile, public and private colleges and universities have awarded more merit-based than need-based scholarships in recent years, leaving low-income students to seek other options or saddle large amounts of debt. As noted by Susan Dynarski and Judith Scott-Clayton, important questions to ask in addressing such issues are how effective current policies are in increasing student enrollment, performance, and completion, and what influence financial aid has on students' choices following graduation.

 

From their review of the research on financial aid, Dynarski and Scott-Clayton draw four important lessons for lawmakers, colleges, and universities. First, money matters. Financial aid increases student enrollment and may improve persistence and completion. Second, all aid programs are not equally effective. Studies show that personalized information and assistance in the financial aid process can increase college entry. Third, academic incentives are helpful. Achievement-based financial aid may increase college performance and completion rates. Finally, the design of student loans may be improved to be clearer about student risks and repayments upfront.

 

Financial aid had become increasingly important for college enrollment and completion. Lawmakers and college administrators should draw upon the best evidence as policy changes continue to develop. To review the latest evidence on postsecondary financial aid policy, see the newest issue of Future of Children, Postsecondary Education in the United States.

College at a Crossroads

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As the latest issue of the Future of Children reports, higher education in the US is changing dramatically. On the one hand, access to college has expanded at a remarkable rate. On the other hand, scores of students are finishing high school unprepared for college work. Meanwhile, today's economy has left many public colleges and universities strapped for resources and unable to meet student demand. Thus, many students, particularly those from low-income families, are forced to either seek an alternative route or drop out.

 

One rapidly growing option for students is for-profit colleges. Also known as proprietary colleges, they often exist as large national chains led by online institutions. Future of Children authors David Deming, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence Katz explain that for-profit colleges seem to be most helpful when they offer short, well-defined programs offering a clear path to a specific occupation. While these programs have grown to efficiently meet student demand as public institutions have struggled, their students carry higher levels of debt and are more likely to default on loans. Indeed, much of the revenue these institutions rely on comes from federal student aid. Moreover, the rate of return for these students is lower. Upon leaving school, they are more likely to be unemployed and have lower earnings than students at other institutions.

 

To keep up with student demand, many state systems and community colleges have sought to expand access to online learning programs. The Babson Survey Research Group estimates that by 2010, 31 percent of college and university students were enrolled in at least one online course. As Marketplace reports, more selective institutions may also begin offering more options for online learning. Examining the research, Bradford Bell and Jessica Federman find that online learning can be an effective tool in higher education, insofar as it creates conditions that are conducive to learning specific content. See the latest research on e-learning in the new issue of the Future of Children, Postsecondary Education in the United States.

Complex College Choices in a Changing Economic Climate

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In his first term, President Obama set a goal that the US would once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. However, choosing whether to go to college, which school is best and how much college to peruse has become increasingly complex for students and families. In the newest issue of the Future of Children, authors Philip Oreopoulos and Uros Petronijevic write that in today's economy, college tuition rates are higher than ever, student debt is larger than ever, and many students take longer than ever to graduate. Meanwhile, technology is changing the playing field at a rapid pace. Some have to choose between an elite school and a more affordable one, while others seek online flexibility as they juggle work and family.

 

The New York Times reports that parents often see top-tier universities as the way to give their children the best chance at success, but little evidence has demonstrated a link between college selectivity and later earnings. Oreopoulos and Petronijevic find that earnings potential varies with college major and is largest for those with post-graduate degrees. Moreover, community college programs may be best for students who don't want to or can't complete a four-year degree. They stress that students and their families need help to navigate the financial aid and college decision process, taking into account the likelihood of completion and expected costs and debts. "As difficult as it is, completing such an assessment before reaching a decision is key to making the most out of college."

 

An increasingly relevant factor in college decisions is the availability of online education. The New York Times highlights the efforts of many institutions to provide online learning opportunities in order to address problems of limited seating due to state budget cuts, as well as a high demand for remedial coursework for new undergraduates. Future of Children authors Bradford Bell and Jessica Federman find that online college programs can be an effective alternative to traditional classroom teaching if they are rich in content and have a high level of interactivity. Experimental research should continue to investigate how these attributes influence different types of learning.

 

For more discussion on this topic, check out the latest issue of the Future of Children, Postsecondary Education in the United States. Also see the issues Opportunity in America, America's High Schools and Transition to Adulthood.

Literacy for Incarcerated Fathers and Their Children

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Last week's launching of the Digital Public Library of America shows that the landscape of literacy in the US is changing. As technology advances rapidly, educators and researchers should seek new ways to use it effectively, both in school and in the home, to improve literacy among children and families. Future of Children author Jane Waldfogel explains that parents play a major role in children's literacy both early on and throughout the school years. The value that parents place on reading and the degree to which they provide reading materials can make the home environment more or less conducive to literacy. Reading with children and discussing what they are reading are particularly helpful. Parents also boost literacy when they monitor and help with schoolwork, participate at school, and encourage children to read during the summer.

 

Since the Prison Boom, many parents - especially fathers - have been locked up and thus unable to provide such support to their children, placing these children at an even greater disadvantage. However, research by Future of Children author Kathryn Edin and colleagues shows that for some fathers, particularly those with severe substance use problems, prison may serve as a time to rehabilitate and even rebuild bonds with children. A crucial part of this process is education; the U.S. Department of Education reports, "To the extent that prisons are intended as venues for rehabilitation, education has an important role in prison operations. Today, over 90 percent of the federal and state prisons and over 80 percent of private prisons offer some form of educational programs to inmates." The hope is that, as these fathers are released, the education they received while incarcerated will not only make them more employable, but will give them necessary tools to create favorable environments for their children's literacy.

 

Supporting men and fathers in this reentry process is a major focus of collaborations between prison and public libraries, which some argue can help ex-offender fathers to overcome information gaps, such as the digital divide. As WNYC reports, many fathers being released from prison will need to catch up on technology for job seeking and for day-to-day life. In addition, these fathers will not be equipped to give their children adequate opportunities to learn to use technology. Gina Biancarosa and Gina Griffiths find that disadvantaged students are less likely to use technology in sophisticated ways or with adult guidance. To help narrow the gap, they argue that schools should choose and incorporate evidence-based tools for literacy instruction and systematic support for effective use of e-reading technology. One could ask if library partnerships and other community efforts targeting reentering parents could do the same. For more on this topic see the Future of Children issues on Literacy Challenges and Fragile Families.

College-Bound Children of Immigrants

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Though the nation's financial woes and other recent changes have left net Mexican migration to the US at around zero, past decades have seen rapid growth in the population of immigrants, including children and adolescents who are now approaching adulthood. Of the more than 68 million young adults in the US in 2010, about 30 percent were foreign-born or had foreign-born parents. Moreover, young adults made up about half of the estimated 11.6 million undocumented immigrants in 2008.

 

As these young people prepare to enter the labor market, those who are undocumented often experience greater adversity, even though many have grown up on US soil. Future of Children author Marcelo Suarez-Orozco tells NBC Latino that immigrant parents are motivated to offer their children better opportunities, but those who are undocumented are blocked from access to supports and services that children could benefit from. For example, Silvia Rodriguez, who immigrated to the US with her parents at age two, learned what it meant to be undocumented as she prepared for college. "When it came time to apply for scholarships and financial aid, that was the moment it really, really hit me," she said.

 

Future of Children authors Robert T. Teranishi, Carola Suárez-Orozco, and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco argue that increasing immigrant children's educational attainment and economic productivity should be a national priority and that community colleges are an important means to this goal. They suggest outreach programs to help prospective students learn about the application and financial aid processes. They also argue that researchers and community colleges should collaborate to find and implement the most effective strategies for intervention programs. For the latest research on this topic, see the Future of Children issues on Immigrant Children and the Transition to Adulthood.

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