Listening to Teachers on Testing

As teachers gear up for a new school year, I want to offer two thoughts. One is a message of celebration and thanks. The other is a response to a concern that has come up often in many conversations with teachers and families, and which deserves an answer.

First, the thanks. America’s students have posted some unprecedented achievements in the last year – the highest high school graduation rate in the nation’s history, and sharp cuts in dropout rates and increases in college enrollment, especially for groups that in the past have lagged significantly. For these achievements, we should celebrate America’s teachers, principals, and students and their families. These achievements are also indications of deeper, more successful relationships with our students. All of us who’ve worked with young people know how much they yearn for adults to care about them and know them as individuals.

These achievements come at a time of nearly unprecedented change in American education – which entails enormously hard work by educators. Nearly every state has adopted new standards, new assessments, new approaches to incorporating data on student learning, and new efforts to support teachers.

This transition represents the biggest, fastest change in schools nationwide in our lifetime. And these efforts are essential to prepare kids to succeed in an age when the ability to think critically and creatively, communicate skillfully, and manipulate ideas fluently is vital. I have heard from many teachers that they have not received all the support they’d want during this transition. Yet America’s teachers are making this change work – and I want to recognize and thank them for that and encourage their leadership in this time of change.

That’s the easy part of this message. The harder part has to do with concerns that many teachers have brought to my door.

My team and I hold regular conversations with teachers, principals and other educators, often led by Teacher and Principal Ambassador Fellows, who take a year away from their schools to advise my agency. Increasingly, in those conversations, I hear concerns about standardized testing.

Assessment of student progress has a fundamental place in teaching and learning – few question that teachers, schools and parents need to know what progress students are making. And few question the particular importance of knowing how our most vulnerable students are progressing. Indeed, there’s wide recognition that annual assessments – those required by federal law – have done much to shine a light on the places and groups of students most in need of help. Yet in too many places, it’s clear that the yardstick has become the focus.

There are three main issues I’ve heard about repeatedly from educators:

  1. It doesn’t make sense to hold them accountable during this transition year for results on the new assessments – a test many of them have not seen before – and as many are coming up to speed with new standards.
  2. The standardized tests they have today focus too much on basic skills, not enough on critical thinking and deeper learning.
  3. Testing – and test preparation – takes up too much time.

I share these concerns. And I want our department to be part of the solution.

To those who are reading the last sentence with surprise, let me be clear: assessment is a vital part of teaching and learning, but it should be one part (and only one part) of how adults hold themselves responsible for students’ progress. Schools, teachers and families need and deserve clear, useful information about how their students are progressing. As a parent of two children in public school, I know I want that. And in fact, most teachers and principals I talk with want to be held responsible for students’ progress – through a sensible, smart combination of factors that reflect their work with students – not the level students came in at, or factors outside of their control.

But assessment needs to be done wisely. No school or teacher should look bad because they took on kids with greater challenges. Growth is what matters. No teacher or school should be judged on any one test, or tests alone – always on a mix of measures – which could range from classroom observations to family engagement indicators. In Nevada, educators include a teacher’s contribution to the school community in their measures; in Hawaii, schools consider student feedback surveys and professional growth, such as leading workshops or taking university coursework). Educators in Delaware look at measures of planning and preparation such as lesson plans and descriptions of instructional strategies to be used for students with diverse needs. Federal policy rightly stays out of picking those individual measures, but ensures that in evaluating teachers, states and districts include student growth, and consider multiple measures.

But the larger issue is, testing should never be the main focus of our schools. Educators work all day to inspire, to intrigue, to know their students – not just in a few subjects, and not just in “academic” areas. There’s a whole world of skills that tests can never touch that are vital to students’ success. No test will ever measure what a student is, or can be. It’s simply one measure of one kind of progress. Yet in too many places, testing itself has become a distraction from the work it is meant to support.

I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools – oxygen that is needed for a healthy transition to higher standards, improved systems for data, better aligned assessments, teacher professional development, evaluation and support, and more. This is one of the biggest changes education in this country has ever seen, and teachers who’ve worked through it have told me it’s allowed them to become the best teachers they’ve ever been. That change needs educators’ full attention.

That’s why we will be taking action in the coming weeks that give states more flexibility in key areas that teachers have said are causing worry.

States will have the opportunity to request a delay in when test results matter for teacher evaluation during this transition. As we always have, we’ll work with them in a spirit of flexibility to develop a plan that works, but typically I’d expect this to mean that states that request this delay will push back by one year (to 2015-16) the time when student growth measures based on new state assessments become part of their evaluation systems – and we will work with states seeking other areas of flexibility as well. We want to make sure that they are still sharing growth data with their teachers, and still moving forward on the other critical pieces of evaluation systems that provide useful feedback to educators.  We will be working in concert with other educators and leaders to get this right. These changes are incredibly important, and educators should not have to make them in an atmosphere of worry. Some states will choose to take advantage of that flexibility; others, especially those that are well along in this transition, will not need a delay. The bottom line is that educators deserve strong support as our schools make vital, and urgently needed, changes. As many educators have pointed out, getting this right rests also on high-quality assessments. Many educators, and parents, have made clear that they’re supportive of assessment that measures what matters – but that a lot of tests today don’t do that – they focus too much on basic skills rather than problem solving and critical thinking. That’s why we’ve committed a third of a billion dollars to two consortia of states working to create new assessments that get beyond the bubble test, and do a better job of measuring critical thinking and writing.

I’m concerned, too, when I see places where adults are gaming tests, rather than using them to help students.

And we also need to recognize that in many places, the sheer quantity of testing – and test prep – has become an issue. In some schools and districts, over time tests have simply been layered on top of one another, without a clear sense of strategy or direction. Where tests are redundant, or not sufficiently helpful for instruction, they cost precious time that teachers and kids can’t afford. Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress. This issue is a priority for us, and we’ll continue to work throughout the fall on efforts to cut back on over-testing.

There’s plenty of responsibility to share on these challenges, and a fair chunk of that sits with me and my department. We encouraged states to move a whole lot of changes simultaneously, because of the enormous urgency to raise standards and improve systems of teacher support – not for another generation of students, but for today’s students.

But in how this change happens, we need to listen carefully to the teachers, principals and other educators who are living it on a daily basis – and we need to be true to our promise to be tight on outcomes, but loose on how we get there.

From my first day on this job, the objective has been to work in a spirit of flexibility to help states and communities improve outcomes for kids. We need to make changes, but we are also making progress. I’m determined that, working in partnership, we’ll continue to do both – be flexible and make progress for our kids.

Change is hard, and changes of significance rarely work exactly as planned. But in partnership, making course alterations as necessary, we will get there.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.

This post originally appeared on SmartBlog on Education.

A Promising Pilot to Help Student Borrowers

Cross-posted from the White House OSTP Blog.

Investing in postsecondary education is among the smartest choices Americans can make. College completion opens doors and expands economic opportunity, leading to lower rates of unemployment and higher earnings over the course of a career. But tuition rates have risen significantly in recent decades, and obtaining a college degree increasingly depends on students’ ability to take out loans and manage repayment after leaving school. While most borrowers are able to repay their student loans, many struggle, and some fall behind.

That’s why last month the President and his Administration announced a series of executive actions to help reduce the burden faced by student loan borrowers and make postsecondary education more affordable and accessible to American families. A centerpiece of this action plan is to improve the effectiveness of communications to borrowers about flexible repayment options the U.S. Department of Education offers to help ensure they stay on track with their payments. This includes income-driven repayment plans – Income-Based Repayment, Pay As You Earn, and Income-Contingent Repayment – that link monthly payments to borrower incomes.

We know borrowers are busy and that decisions about student loan plans can be complex and challenging. That’s why the Office of Federal Student Aid at the Department of Education has teamed up with the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, a group of experts who focus on effective, innovative strategies for helping government programs and communications better serve citizens.

In November 2013, Federal Student Aid, in collaboration with the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, launched an e-mail campaign to increase awareness of Income-Driven Repayment and help borrowers make more informed decisions about loan repayment options given their circumstances. The campaign sent emails to borrowers who had fallen behind on their payments, had higher-than-average debts, had grace periods coming to an end, had deferred or entered forbearance because of financial hardship or unemployment, or some combination of the above. In total, the campaign sent emails to over three million borrowers last year and 221,000 submitted applications.

The team embedded a rigorous, randomized-control pilot into the broader campaign, which measured the impact of e-mails designed based on insights from the behavioral sciences on action among borrowers in delinquency for 90-180 days. These e-mails indicated income-driven repayment eligibility criteria, the benefits associated with taking action and the costs associated with inaction, and the relevant web-links and servicer contact information. Behavioral science research demonstrates that timely, clear and low-cost informational messages of this kind can help citizens better understand their options, make more informed decisions, and follow through on their intentions.

Results of the pilot are promising. Sending e-mails to borrowers in delinquency for 90-180 days resulted in a statistically significant, four-fold increase in completed income-driven repayment applications. This effect translates into roughly 6,000 additional completed applications in just the first month after sending among the 841,442 borrowers in the pilot.

We are working together to use insights from this trial to inform future communications and develop even more effective ways of reaching borrowers to help them stay on track.

Maya Shankar is Senior Advisor for the Social and Behavioral Sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Ajita Talwalker Menon is the Senior Policy Advisor for Higher Education at the White House Domestic Policy Council.

Making Critical Investments in Our Youngest Citizens

Cross-posted from the White House Blog.

The Department of Education has unveiled a new grant opportunity to partner with states and local communities to expand the reach of high-quality preschool. The $250 million grant competition will provide thousands of additional 4-year-old children across the country with a high-quality preschool education. The Obama administration’s Preschool Development Grants program is a critical piece of the President’s plan to boost access to high-quality preschool and support early learning for every child in America, beginning at birth and continuing through school entry.

The return on our dollar is highest when we invest in our youngest children, and we have recent research showing that sufficiently scaled Pre-K programs in cities like Boston and Tulsa are having a significant, positive impact on children’s literacy, language development, and math skills. Still, only approximately 28% of America’s 4-year-olds were enrolled in state preschool programs in the 2012-2013 school year. The high cost of private preschool programs and insufficient funding for public preschool in many communities narrows options for families, especially those in low-income communities.

In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to expand access to high-quality preschool education to every child in America. Last January, he challenged more Americans to join this effort — and governors, mayors, school superintendents, corporate and community leaders, foundations, and policymakers have responded.

More than 30 states and the District of Columbia increased funding for preschool in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, and 10 of these states increased funding by more than 20%. This school year, 11,500 more low-income children in California will enjoy high-quality preschool thanks to the leadership of Governor Jerry Brown and Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. The State of Michigan also increased funding for Pre-K by $65 million for the second year in a row, adding more than 10,000 additional seats for 4-year-olds in state Pre-K for the 2014-2015 school year, and more than doubling overall funding for Pre-K in Michigan. Alabama, Connecticut, and Maine, as well as other states and dozens of cities across the country, like San Antonio, New York, Cleveland, and Seattle, have also established new preschool programs or are pushing forward with major expansions.

As we celebrate the expansion of high-quality preschool in states and cities across the country, President Obama continues to call on leadership in Congress to renew our federal commitment to our youngest children, and to the future of our country by partnering with states to provide high-quality Pre-K to every American child. There truly is no better investment in the economic security of our families and our communities than making sure our youngest citizens are ready to succeed in school and in life.

Cecilia Muñoz is an Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council.

Recognizing TRIO’s 50 Years: Bringing Educators Together

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Higher Education Act of 1965, which provided educational resources and financial assistance to students seeking a postsecondary education. Part of the HEA included the Federal TRIO Programs, designed to educate students from low-income backgrounds, first-generation college students, and students with disabilities who faced difficulties advancing from K-12 through higher education. The program reflects a community-wide effort to provide services to  students facing unique educational challenges. TRIO’s enduring service is a credit to the cooperation and collaboration of government, higher-ed institutions, high schools, counselors, teachers, mentors and students.

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Damian Ramsey (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Damian Ramsey, a TRIO alumnus, was raised by a single parent who struggled to provide for a family of four in a Massachusetts neighborhood surrounded by gangs, drugs, and prostitution. His exposure to this toxic environment led to his struggle in school, he says.  The odds were against him, but as he noted, “demography doesn’t define destiny.”

During high school, Ramsey enrolled in the Upward Bound Program, a part of TRIO, which provided postsecondary assistance, exposure to college and information about higher education. The program’s partnership with Clark University  allowed him to receive SAT prep courses, college essay workshops, summer courses, and academic advice. He also went on university tours, experienced on-campus living and dining arrangements, and gained exposure to campus facilities.

Ramsey graduated from Brown University in 2007 and earned a Masters in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009. He credits Upward Bound for developing “confidence and self-assurance within the world of academia” at a young age.

In addition to serving high school students, TRIO programs also assist higher-ed students and veterans. As a single parent of two facing financial woes, Pamela McPeak was about to drop out of Bluefield State College and work as cashier.

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Pamela McPeak (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Because McPeak was a former National Guard member, however, her counselor was able to waive her tuition. She was also advised to participate in Student Support Services (SSS), a TRIO program. McPeak credits SSS for providing assistance with “social service resources, financial aid, the college examination program, and class scheduling.” TRIO’s encouragement motivated her to graduate with a degree in education, work as a professor, and  eventually become the Director/Coordinator of the Upward Bound Program at Concord University.

Like these and many other examples, TRIO has changed so many lives over the years by motivating students to overcome their personal challenges and seek a promising education and career. The collective efforts of educators have led to the program’s impact in the past 50 years, and serves as a foundation for success well into the future.

On Aug. 21, Department of Education will honor TRIO’s 50 Year Anniversary by hosting a symposium entitled, Celebrating 50 Years of Promoting Excellence by Providing Hope and Opportunity for Success.  To join Secretary Duncan and other education leaders in this celebration you can tune in to the livestream at http://edstream.ed.gov/webcast/Play/bd2f5780b05c49f59af795a0d6398f3c1d or join us on Twitter using the hashtag #TRIO50. The program will run from 9am – 12pm  EDT.

Edgar Estrada is an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education, and a student at the University of California, Irvine.

New Preschool Grant Program Will Expand Opportunity to More of America’s Early Learners

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Secretary Arne Duncan interacts with a student at the Hug Me Tight Childlife Center in Pittsburgh. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Across the country, there is a great need for early learning. But the need isn’t just for preschool seats — it’s for high-quality early learning programs that can put children on the path to thrive in kindergarten and beyond.

Research has shown the powerful benefits of high-quality early education. Children who receive rich early learning experiences are less likely to need special education services. They’re in better health, and they get better jobs. Yet, today, only 30 percent of 4-year-olds in the U.S. participate in state preschool, and 10 states don’t offer it at all. Among other industrialized nations, the U.S. ranks 25th in enrollment of 4-year-olds in early learning.

President Obama has issued a call to expand access to high-quality preschool to every child in America. Yesterday, an important down payment was made toward that goal when Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell announced the availability of funds through the Preschool Development Grants program.

This new $250 million federal program will support states to build, develop, and expand voluntary, high-quality preschool programs for children from low- and moderate-income families. It will be jointly administered by the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. All states — including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico — are eligible to apply by Oct. 14, 2014.

Secretary Duncan noted, “Through the Preschool Development Grants, we continue our efforts to create educational opportunities that prepare our youngest Americans for success in kindergarten, through elementary school and beyond. This new grant competition will prepare states to participate in President Obama’s proposed Preschool for All program — a federal-state partnership that would promote access to full-day kindergarten and encourage the expansion of high-quality preschool programs for 4-year-olds from low- and middle-income families.”

He added, “We urge states and communities to seize this opportunity, form partnerships, and begin drafting their proposals for the Preschool Development Grants program, because providing high-quality early learning opportunities is the most important single step we can take to improve the future of our young people.”

Secretary Duncan highlighted the new grant program yesterday during a trip to Pittsburgh, where he joined Mayor William Peduto in a visit to the Hug Me Tight Childlife Center and a community conversation at Hill House’s Kaufmann Center.

While at Hug Me Tight, Secretary Duncan toured classrooms, met with early childhood education providers, parents, and community members, and engaged in arts activities with some of the city’s youngest learners. Following the visit to the center, Secretary Duncan and Mayor Peduto participated in a discussion on early learning hosted by the city of Pittsburgh and the National League of Cities.

For more information about the new Preschool Development Grants program and how your state may apply, visit here. For more information on early learning at the U.S. Department of Education, visit here.

Tiffany Taber is Chief of Staff for Communications Development at the U.S. Department of Education. 

Financial Aid Not Enough? Ideas on How to Fill the Gap

The reality of college costs is that many families find themselves struggling to pay the entire college bill, despite having already filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and receiving federal, state, and institutional financial aid resources. If you find yourself in this position, here are some ideas to consider to help fill the gap between what your financial aid covers and what you owe the institution.

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Scholarships

For those heading to college this fall, most scholarship decisions for the academic year have already been made. However, we recommend you begin a routine of searching and applying for scholarships regularly. You should first consider scholarships local to where you graduated from high school or live; try community, religious, and fraternal organizations. You may also consider businesses in your community or those that employ your parent(s).

Then, look for scholarship resources available statewide, especially from organizations with which you may have been involved or companies in your state that are in the field for which you plan to study.

National scholarships can be very competitive, but don’t let that keep you from applying. Ask your financial aid office or academic unit about institutional or departmental scholarships (decisions may have been made for this year, but ask how to make sure you don’t miss deadlines for next year!). With scholarship opportunities, it’s always important to be careful of fraud. If you are concerned about the legitimacy of a scholarship, your school’s financial aid office might be able to help you make the determination.

Part-Time Work

You may have been awarded Federal Work-Study, which at most schools still requires you to find the work-study position yourself. This can help you cover some costs throughout the semester since these funds are paid as you earn them through working. If you were not awarded work-study funds, most schools have other part-time on-campus positions that can help you with some college costs. Working part-time on campus can be beneficial to your educational experience. Be cautious of working too many hours if you can avoid it. Ask your financial aid office or career services office how to apply for on-campus positions.

Federal Direct PLUS Loans

If you are a dependent student and still need assistance, your parent can apply for a Direct PLUS Loan. Your school may not have offered this opportunity, but if your financial aid does not exceed your cost of attendance and your school participates in the Direct Loan program, your parent would be able to apply. Some schools use the application on studentloans.gov and others have their own application. The PLUS loan application process does include a credit check. If your parent is not approved, he or she may still receive a Direct PLUS Loan by obtaining an endorser (cosigner). If a parent borrower is unable to secure a PLUS loan, the student may be eligible for additional unsubsidized student loans of up to $4,000 (and sometimes more).

Payment Plans

Your school’s billing office, sometimes referred to as the bursar’s office or cashier’s office, may have payment plans available to help you spread the remaining costs you owe the school over several payments throughout a semester. The payment plan can help you budget the payments rather than paying in one lump sum, possibly helping you avoid costly late fees.

Special Circumstances Reevaluation

Sometimes a family’s finances are not accurately reflected on the FAFSA because of changes that have occurred recently, such as job loss, divorce or separation, or other special circumstance. Schools are not required to consider special circumstances, but those that do have a process by which you can petition for a reevaluation of the information on the FAFSA. This process may require you to submit documentation, and the financial aid office will recalculate your eligibility, possibly resulting in a change of financial aid awards.

Emergency Advances or Institutional Loans

Sometimes you may have college-related costs, such as housing costs or other living expenses, before your financial aid is disbursed to you. Your school may offer an option to advance your financial aid early or offer a school-based loan program. Ask your financial aid office if this is an option and always make sure you are aware of the terms and conditions (such as interest rates or repayment terms) of your agreement.

Private or Alternative Loans

Some private institutions offer education loans that do not require the FAFSA. While we recommend federal aid first, we realize it does not always cover the cost, especially for pricier schools. These types of loans will almost always require a cosigner and usually have higher fees or interest rates depending on your credit. We encourage you to first ask your financial aid office if they have a list of lenders for you to consider, but not all schools maintain such a list. If not, you can search for lenders on your own, but compare products before making your choice: look at interest rates, fees, repayment terms, creditworthiness requirements, satisfactory academic progress requirements, etc.

Before making any final decisions on how to fill the gap between your aid and your costs, it is always recommended that you meet with a representative in your financial aid office to determine what campus resources might be available before going out on your own. It might also be possible that you still have the time to change some of your choices before the semester begins: Can you change the type of meal plan you chose? The type of housing? Check with campus officials to see if you still have time to select a different, more affordable option.

Justin Chase Brown is an Associate Director of Student Financial Aid at the University of Missouri.

 

We Want to Hear from You: Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act

Last month President Obama signed a law that seeks to maximize opportunities for all youth and adults to succeed in postsecondary education and in high-skill, high-wage, and high-demand jobs.

It’s called the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and you now have the opportunity to provide feedback to the Department of Education as we work to implement this important law that holds great promise for Americans.

WIOA will help support programs that are critical to ensuring that all Americans are able to contribute to and benefit from our 21st-century economy, from English literacy to secondary transition to competitive employment.

To read more about WIOA and comment on how to make the new law work for everyone, go to the joint blog from the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

Please share your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions by Friday, Aug. 29.

My Brother’s Keeper Data Jam: Old World Values with New World Strategies and Tools

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Nearly 20 teams worked through the day on crafting compelling ways to show data and creative solutions to chronic challenges. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

When President Obama launched the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, he called on Americans to make sure that every American — including our boys and young men of color — can reach their full potential.  On August 2, over 150 people showed up early on a Saturday morning for a “Data Jam” hosted by the U.S. Department of Education, in partnership with Georgetown University and the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation. The Jam took place at Georgetown Downtown in Washington, D.C.

The My Brother’s Keeper Data Jam brought together a diverse group of high school students, teachers, data scientists, data visualization experts, developers and community and non-profit leaders. The aim was to find new and better ways to use data to highlight opportunities and create solutions that can improve life outcomes for all students, including boys and young men of color. It was a powerful day.

A group of young men started us off with compelling spoken word performances that reminded all in attendance of the incredible challenges they face and enormous potential they hold. While acknowledging the role they had to play in changing the narrative of their own lives, they made plain the real danger and risks they face each day and expressed frustration in having to overcome the negative stereotypes that are applied to them and their peers.

The attendees then broke into teams focused on the six universal goals outlined in the My Brother’s Keeper 90 Day Task Force Report– entering school ready to learn; reading at grade level by third grade; graduating from high school ready for college and career; completing post-secondary education or training; successfully entering the workforce; and reducing violence and providing a second chance. The teams were designed to capitalize on the range of perspectives and expertise among the participants. The student and teacher team members almost uniformly commented that they had never before been engaged in developing or even asked about tools and resources that impact their daily lives.

Nearly 20 teams worked through the day on crafting compelling ways to show data and creative solutions to chronic challenges – ranging from strategies to reduce preschool suspensions and expulsions to websites that enable students to find career paths and the required education or training to access them. At the end of the day, seven teams were voted by other participants as having the most promising ideas, and those teams committed to moving these and other ideas forward.

We are excited about the ideas that emerged and anxiously await seeing these ideas in action. We are even more excited about the lessons learned from the day and how they will improve future Data Jams that I am sure other colleges and universities will be clamoring to host. But we are most excited by the demonstration of commitment and unbelievable energy of the individuals and teams that participated. With no cash prizes or press coverage, these people leaned in and showed a big part of what My Brother’s Keeper is all about – people coming together to help our young people and the country. The Data Jam simply applied a little technology and innovation to that simple but profound concept and left many of us feeling inspired.

Yet, nothing was as inspiring to me as the time I had during lunch with the youth in attendance. They asked how I got where I am; how I avoided and dealt with the violence in my neighborhood; how best to survive and excel on campuses where they, for the first time, might come across few people with similar backgrounds and experiences; and many other questions about life as they know it and imagine it. They shared their stories of struggle and triumph as well as their plans for the future and the impact they plan to have on the world. Their questions and their stories reminded me, as one young man said in the morning session, they are “overcoming every day.” So if we create ladders of opportunity, they are more than willing to climb. And, that, too, is a big part of what My Brother’s Keeper is all about.

Jim Shelton is Deputy Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education and Executive Director of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force.

The My Brother’s Keeper initiative is a collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach led by an interagency federal task force to build ladders of opportunity and unlock the full potential of our young people, including boys and young men of color. Learn more about My Brother’s Keeper.

The Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation at Georgetown University exists to inspire and prepare students, faculty and global leaders with the necessary skills to generate and innovate solution-based social change both locally and internationally. It will promote collaborative spaces for fostering innovation and provide experiential opportunities to pragmatically impact the social sector. Learn more about the Beeck Center.

Owning the Challenge: Summit Helps Community-wide Teams Strengthen Collaboration to Boost College Completion

Q: What do Camden, Denver, Spartanburg and Minneapolishave in common with Albany, New York; Baltimore; Kansas City, Missouri; Providence, Rhode Island; the Rio Grande Valley and McAllen, Texas; and Riverside County, California?

A: On July 31, leadership teams from each of these communities took part in a lively, constructive workshop hosted by the White House and the Department of Education. The teams came together to catalyze and expand collaboration across the K-12 and higher education sectors, as well as with community, business, and philanthropic partners, to significantly increase college access and completion.

The goal of the workshop was to support and accelerate these partnerships’ efforts by highlighting lessons learned from successful efforts for sharing effective policies and practices, connecting teams with experts and resources, and building relationships within communities.

Secretary Arne Duncan kicked off the day by saying, “This for me is very personal work. We never had an opportunity quite like this when I was in Chicago… having people come together, work together, and understand the goal of college completion as a national priority. It’s so exciting that you are stepping up to this challenge.”

Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, a SUNY System educator and Albany team member, said, “This is about all of us owning the challenge.” That spirit of shared investment for shared success propelled discussions throughout the day. She also challenged communities to think about how they could shift from being “program rich, system poor” to real cohesiveness and systemic change.

Participants eagerly dived into discussions of effective data sharing and looping across K-12 and higher education, along with strategies for college advising and counseling, developmental education, and accelerating college level work.

Several attendees said the workshop was the first time that leaders of their key education sectors had gathered at the same table. One participant called it “an historic occasion” because of the new links forged among her community’s players.

President Robert Templin of Northern Virginia Community College put his finger on a critical element of community collaboration: “jointly owning a common outcome.” Another participant picked up that theme when she said that her community tracked significant sets of data, but had never established ambitious shared goals for student achievement. Jeff Edmondson of Strive Together added an important factor when he said, to many nods, “Partnerships move at the speed of trust.”

The Partnership Workshop is part of the White House College Opportunity Initiative, a call to action by the President and First Lady to accelerate college completion through a set of targeted commitments by colleges and universities, non-profit groups, states and cities, philanthropy and other allies.

At the first White House Summit in January, many organizations recognized that the success of their efforts to increase academic preparation and broaden the pipeline to college would depend in part on building an even stronger foundation of early and K-12 education. These groups urged the White House and Department of Education to reach out to K-12 leaders and community organizations, and this new wave of city-based partnerships reflects an enthusiastic response to that suggestion to broaden the universe of players who can help promote real progress toward achieving local, state and national college completion goals.

With the White House College Opportunity Initiative continuing and a second Summit planned for December, more partners have a chance to “own the challenge” and build powerful momentum for even greater progress in 2015.

Jamienne Studley is Deputy Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

Students Who Have Beaten the Odds Share Their Stories with the Secretary

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Secretary Duncan and members of the most recent Student Voices session. From left to right: Darius Wesley, Jordan Roberts, Juan Montano, Rachel Scott, Michella Raymond, Deja Chapman, Tenzin Choenyi, Julia Jent, Kristen Fraenig, Anthony Mendez, and Dr. Freeman Hrabowski (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

The move from middle school to high school is exciting for some students, but can be incredibly difficult for others. Some students require intensive support to stay on the path to graduation, and that support can take many different forms.

That was the sentiment expressed by Secretary Arne Duncan during a recent session of Student Voices, where young people from across the country gather and chat with senior ED staff about what it’s like to be a student in America today.

Darius was one of the 10 students who attended and, for him, this transition was almost insurmountable. His mother suffered a severe stroke and went into a deep coma during his freshman year of high school, forcing him and his siblings to move to the far south side of Chicago. On top of coping with the emotional and physical strain of his mother’s condition, because he was forced to move, he had to wake up at 4 a.m. to get to school every day, and he often stayed late for basketball practice, which took a toll on his academics. He explained, “tiredness grew over me and teachers berated me for not paying attention in class. I didn’t want to let my mother down, and as I felt alone in this situation, basketball was my stress reliever.” His coach noticed that Darius needed more support, so he offered to give him rides to school and eventually invited him to live with him. After a few months with his coach he moved in with a friend and this experience altered the course of his life.

Darius will be attending Southern Vermont College in the fall, where he has received a Mountaineer Scholarship.  Darius has become empowered to take control of his future knowing that he can overcome any obstacles he may encounter in college. Darius still continues to struggle to keep his family together but feels his success is what’s needed to keep them all together.

Rachel, a student from Washington State, told Secretary Duncan that as one of five children growing up on a farm, she also faced seemingly insurmountable challenges.

After losing her mother, she moved into the foster care system. Rachel told Duncan that “constant moving created gaps in my learning. I can do advanced math, but because of the lapses in primary education, some of the basic middle school stuff troubles me.” Luckily, she explained, she was able to eventually stay with her aunt, who became her main source of support. Once she settled into life with her aunt, things changed. During her high school career, she took advanced placement math and sciences and worked twenty hours a week at her family’s restaurant. This fall, she will attend the University of Washington to study Marine Biology and Ocean Sciences.

After hearing from several other students, Secretary Duncan then asked all of the attendees to think about who or what helped them to beat the odds and graduate high school. The students agreed that strong mentors and role models, high expectations, and relevant college information made the strongest impacts.

Do you have a unique story to tell? We would like to hear made a difference in your life and education or for the youth in your community. Please send your story to youth@ed.gov.

This session was a part of the ongoing “Student Voices” series at the Department, in which students engage with senior staff members to help develop recommendations on current and future education programs and policies

Samuel Ryan is a special assistant and youth liaison in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education

ED Intern Inspired by Stories of Teachers’ Motivations

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Third-grade teacher Kristen Goncalves helps a student at Henderson Inclusion Elementary School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Goncalves is just one of the teachers that inspired intern Shannon Ruge during her time in ED’s Chicago office this summer. (Photo courtesy Henderson Inclusion Elementary School)

As an education major, I expected my internship with the U.S. Department of Education to help me to better understand federal policies. I didn’t necessarily expect it to inspire me, but my time at ED’s Regional Office in Chicago has done just that. I’ve been able to connect what I’ve learned in college to the real-life motivations of educators throughout the U.S., which were highlighted here on Homeroom earlier this year.

For example, I’ve learned through my studies at Vanderbilt University about the impact that talented, committed teachers who genuinely believe in their students’ potential can have on the large achievement gaps in the U.S. between disadvantaged children and their more fortunate peers. The story of Marcus Jackson, principal of Kendrick Middle School in Jonesboro, Georgia, brought that lesson to life for me. Nearly 20 years ago he left his position at an afterschool recreation center to pursue a teaching degree.

Jackson’s decision to change careers crystallized when one of the brightest children at the recreation center failed all of his classes. Confused, Jackson met with the child’s teacher. He recalls the teacher saying, “If you think these students are the future, we need a backup plan! These boys are going to be drug dealers, and these girls will become pregnant.”

Jackson couldn’t disagree more. He decided to become a teacher to ensure that “all kids can succeed in school and in life.” Almost 20 years later, Jackson’s passion has helped his school progress into the top 10 percent of all Title I schools in Georgia.

Similarly, Joan Maurer, a middle school teacher from Roots International Academy in Oakland, California, shared that she “became a teacher to be there for the students who don’t come from wealthy neighborhoods. I want to close that equity gap.”

Many students enter college undecided about their majors, and Waunakee Middle School teacher Rachel Rydzewski was one of them. The Waunakee, Wisconsin teacher had a college opportunity to mentor immigrant students.  Through the experience, she realized  that all students don’t have access to the same opportunities she’d enjoyed, growing up in suburban Milwaukee.

“I came to the realization that education was the answer [to the challenges caused by disparity],” said Rydzewski, Wisconsin’s 2010 Teacher of the Year.

The fight against inequity inspires many to students to become teachers. It’s also a daily motivator for many veteran educators like third-grade teacher Kristen Goncalves of Henderson Inclusion Elementary School in Dorchester, Massachusetts.  At Henderson, students who have disabilities learn side-by-side with their nondisabled peers

Children learn to be compassionate; they don’t see any differences between themselves,” said Goncalves about her school’s inclusive format, which has generated state designation as a “high performer” in language arts, and a long waiting list. 

Contrary to the myths, none of these educators entered the field — or stay in it — to get a summer vacation, or for the money. As a future teacher, I am driven to join the profession in its fight against inequality, one student at a time.

Shannon Ruge is a student at Vanderbilt University and an intern in ED’s regional Office of Communications and Outreach in Chicago. ED regional OCO staffers Joe Barison, Malissa Coleman, Julie Ewart and Olga Pirela also contributed to the story.  

“Let’s Read! Let’s Move!” Series Ends Where Reading Begins — at the U.S. Library of Congress

Secretary Duncan joined Acting Surgeon General Boris D. Lushniak, Chef Pati Jinich, and NFL Hall of Famer Warren Moon for the final 'Let's Read! Let's Move!' event this summer. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Secretary Duncan joined Acting Surgeon General Boris D. Lushniak, Chef Pati Jinich and NFL Hall of Famer Warren Moon for the final ‘Let’s Read! Let’s Move!’ event this summer. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

The final “Let’s Read! Let’s Move!” event of the summer took place on July 30 at the Library of Congress. The “Let’s Read!” segment of the event took place in the Thomas Jefferson Library Exhibit, an area which took on a whole new meaning for many of the students after they learned that the last event hosted there had been for the Queen of England.

Secretary Duncan began by introducing his panel of celebrity guests that included Acting Surgeon General Boris D. Lushniak, chef and host of the Pati’s Mexican Table TV show Pati Jinichand NFL Hall of Fame Quarterback Warren Moon. They all took turns reading the book Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library by Barb Rosenstock and John O’Brien, with Chef Pati also translating into Spanish. From the story, everybody learned more about the reasons for the construction of the library building where we were sitting. Dr. John Cole, Jr., Director of the Library’s Center for the Book, then delighted all the children by announcing that each child would get a copy as a memento of the visit.

The Secretary’s guests answered the children’s questions, and emphasized the significance of a good education and a healthy body. Then, the children eagerly “followed the leaders,” Chef Pati and the Acting Surgeon General, to their different stations to begin the “Let’s Move!” segment of the morning event.

At his station, Dr. Lushniak gave everyone a real workout that got our blood pumping! He also emphasized his advice that they stay active, eat well and “never start smoking!” At another station, the children helped create a delicious plate using USDA’s My Plate guide, and learned more about nutrition from Chef Pati ,who shared some alternatives to their favorite junk food. After high-fiving Lushniak, an unexpected guest, USDA’s Power Panther, eagerly looked on and participated in exercises with the children. Library of Congress staff from the Young Reader’s Center also engaged the children in a Reading Discovery game, which involved a scavenger hunt through their new book and a quiz to see what they had remembered from the story they had just heard. The final station was a re-shelving book relay, coordinated by the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington’s Physical, Healthy, Driven program, which tested the children’s balance and pace by getting them to navigate around an obstacle course of books, while balancing a book on top of their heads. Some of them even got to compete against Warren Moon in this activity!

The event concluded with a book distribution, in which each child received a backpack with healthy snacks and another book of their choice, courtesy of Target and its partnership with First Book. AmeriCorps members also supported the event, and the Library staff provided a tour of the main reading room overlook to all the YMCA youth volunteers and interns who worked the event.

All in all, it was a day unlikely to be forgotten by the younger and older guests alike!

Lisa-Marie O’Malley is a summer intern in the Office of Non-Public Education at the U.S. Department of Education. She is a student at the University of Limerick.