Fact: Too many career-training programs lead to low wages, high debt

One common reason students go to college, or to some other form of education after high school, is to get training that will lead to a job. A good job—one that makes the training they got worth whatever money and time they spent and worth whatever debt they had to take on.

That motivation is especially behind students’ enrollment in what are known as gainful employment programs. Found at two-year and four-year colleges and universities, public and private, nonprofit and for-profit, brick-and-mortar and online, these programs exist with the explicit mission of training students for work in a recognized occupation, and it is on that condition that the students who attend gainful employment programs are eligible for federal grants and loans.

Some of these programs empower students to succeed by providing high-quality education and career training. But too many of these programs, particularly those at for-profit colleges, are failing to do so—at taxpayers’ expense and at the cost of students’ futures.

Students at for-profit colleges represent only about 13 percent of the total higher education population, but about 31 percent of all student loans and nearly half of all loan defaults. In the most recent data, about 22 percent of student borrowers at for-profit colleges defaulted on their loans within three years, compared to 13 percent of borrowers at public colleges.

For-profit colleges can receive up to 90 percent of their revenue from taxpayer dollars, with the additional revenue frequently coming from veterans’ benefits and private student loans. Because they want to turn a profit, they tend to focus on enrolling as many students as possible in their programs, which has led in some cases to well-documented evidence of misleading and aggressive marketing practices.

In March 2014, the Obama Administration announced new steps to address growing concerns about burdensome student loan debt by requiring career colleges to do a better job of preparing students for gainful employment—or risk losing access to federal student aid.

In announcing proposed regulations of career training programs, the U.S. Department of Education illustrated our concern using an alarming statistic about for-profit programs: 72 percent of the programs we analyzed produce graduates who on average earned less than high school dropouts.

That figure drew the attention of a Washington Post feature called “The Fact Checker,” which challenged the Department’s methodology. If you’re reading this blog, you probably know that already. What you may not know is some pretty important information that the Post ignored—information that supports the Department’s statistic and further explains why consumers and taxpayers should be concerned about some career training programs that seek to make a profit. Please take the time to read what’s below and decide for yourself.

The regulations that the administration has proposed will help to strengthen students’ options for higher education by giving all career training programs an opportunity to improve, while stopping the flow of federal funding to the lowest-performing ones that fail to do so. That’s an important balance. It recognizes that career training programs offer millions of Americans an opportunity to further their education so that they can pursue their dreams of gaining a well-paying job, owning a home, and providing for their family. These values are the cornerstone of our nation’s economy and the gateway to the middle class.

There’s no question that “going to college” pays off over the course of a graduate’s career. But data on earnings and debt shows that’s not true for every college program. If you or someone you care about is looking for career training, make sure it’s in an affordable program that has a good chance of delivering on its promise of a good job.

Exploring the Claims of the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker”

Fact Checker: Could attending a for-profit institution actually result in a three out of four chance of earning less than a high school dropout? The claim seems to overturn the widely-held assertion that college-level education will boost earnings.

  • The Fact Checker appears to be misreading a statistic. The datapoint is offered simply to make an observation about the earnings level of graduates, not the boost in earnings they received by attending the program. We know that postsecondary education does in fact boost earnings. Page 16535 of the NPRM includes a discussion, citing independent research confirming this.
  • There likely is an earnings gain in the vast majority of the programs that we evaluated. It just may be the case that a student may be making something less than a high school dropout before they enroll in a program, and three years after they graduated they are still making something less than a high school dropout.

For-profit education institutions are now one of the fast-growing areas in higher education and have a different business model than private universities, which generally don’t pay taxes, and community colleges, which receive state subsidies.

  • The Fact Checker makes an accurate point – unlike public and non-profit institutions, for-profit colleges aim to make money and often have shareholders to consider. Because they want to turn a profit, they tend to focus on enrolling as many students as possible in their programs, which has led in some cases to well-documented evidence of misleading and aggressive marketing practices. Too many consumers do not understand clearly on the front end exactly what their chances are of higher earnings on the back end.
  • The Fact Checker was not very clear in stating that most of the revenue for most for-profits, up to 90% of revenue and beyond, comes from taxpayer dollars.  In a statement about business models, that is an essential piece of information. Their entire business model is based on collecting taxpayer funds.

Labor Department officials said the Education Department’s math is actually an incorrect method for using the weekly wage data. “We wouldn’t report it that way,” one BLS official said. “We don’t know if the workers worked year around.”

  • We don’t know with whom the Fact Checker spoke at BLS, but they in fact do use a 52-week earnings year in at least one of their methodologies, as demonstrated by footnote 2 to the data presented on this page: http://www.bls.gov/OES/current/oes_nat.htm. In other data sets, BLS uses 50.5 weeks, which would not reduce our result of $24,492 by very much.
  • Regardless, we feel that 52 weeks is a fair and reasonable assumption for the work-year of workers who are high school dropouts—of those who work, 87% work 52 weeks a year. (Source: Analysis of 2013 Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group data, http://ceprdata.org/cps-uniform-data-extracts/cps-outgoing-rotation-group/cps-org-data/ ).
  • Additionally, we wanted our comparison point of annual earnings to be easily understandable by the public. The simplest formulation of “annual” is, of course, 52 weeks.

Indeed, an arm of the Education Department, using the same CPS data set, puts the median high school dropout’s annual wage at $22,860 in 2011.

  • The Fact Checker cites a median annual earnings figure of $22,680 from the Current Population Survey conducted by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.  But that figure is from 2011. The most current version of these figures, from 2012, shows the median annual earnings of a high school dropout as $25,876 for those who dropped out between 9th through 12th grade and $22,618 for those who dropped out prior to 9th grade.  (Source: https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/cpstables/032013/perinc/pinc03_1_1_1_1.xls) Combining those groups would give a figure somewhere in between those two calculations, and very close to our estimate of $24,492 

The most recent published Census Bureau average annual wage (from 2009) is $20,241.

  • The Fact Checker cites another annual earnings figure of $20,241, also from the Current Population Survey. But that figure is five years old, from 2009. Further, it is not directly comparable. This statistic is based on mean earnings, while our $24,492 figure is based on median earnings.  Also, this statistic is for people 18 years old and older with any earnings, while ours is for people 25 and over who worked full-time. As the Fact Checker noted, many of those at gainful employment programs come from a range of backgrounds and are likely to be older, so a metric that focuses on 25 and over is more appropriate.

A different Labor Department measure, using information from employers, puts the median annual wage as low as $18,580 for high school dropouts with no training.

  • The third figure cited by the Fact Checker, $18,580, is from a wholly different dataset, the Occupational Employment Statistics program of the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. We chose to use the Current Population Survey data, as it is the more commonly referenced data set when examining earnings figures such as this. The CPS directly asks respondents about their earnings during the week. The OES asks employers how many workers they employ in each of a number of coarse wage bins (for example, under $7.50 an hour, $7.50-$9.50, etc.) and then applies a statistical model to estimate average hourly wages. That procedure is imperfect due to the coarseness of the underlying data, so labor economists prefer the CPS. Incidentally, the OES data cited by the Fact Checker uses a 52-week earnings year just as the Department did.  (Source: http://www.bls.gov/OES/current/oes_nat.htm — the annual mean wage is the mean hourly wage multiplied by 40 hours per week and 52 weeks per year.)
  • Further, in the OES data set, $18,580 is the median earnings for a high school dropout with no training. Using this datapoint would imply that students in gainful employment programs have no training prior to their completing their programs. There is simply no basis upon which to make this assumption. The students who attend career-training programs often are older than the typical student and have been previously in the workforce. It is likely they would, in fact, have some prior training. But, rather than make assumptions on this point, we chose to look at all high school dropouts, regardless of training.

Education Department officials defend their method as reasonable but, as it happens, it turned out they used the highest number available.

  • That’s not true. We could have used the 2012 CPS figure for the median annual earnings of a high school dropout, $25,876, for those who dropped out between 9th through 12th grade, but we did not. Instead, we tried to make this statistic as simple as possible to help the public understand, in general terms, that earnings outcomes are often low at many for-profit programs.
  • We could have also used other, higher reference points, such as the median annual earnings of a high school graduate: $33,582 using our methodology ($651 x 52 http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm, which would also have been reasonable). But we did not.

The $18,580 figure, by contrast, would improve the results for for-profit institutions to about 49 percent, down from 72 percent.

  • It would also have improved the results for other sectors – community colleges would have dropped to only 20%. The Fact Checker did not make that adjustment.

That still seems high, right? But here’s the strange thing: the numbers are bad for all educational institutions. Buried in the regulation — and not advertised by the Department — is that graduates of 32 percent of community college programs earn less than high school dropouts. “We were surprised by that,” one Education official acknowledged.

  • We never said we were surprised. That is just what the data shows.
  • A key fact that the Fact Checker overlooks is that students in for-profit programs tend to take on far more debt than those in community colleges, where many students do not borrow at all. Of the programs that we evaluated with annual earnings below our comparison point of $24,492, the average median annual loan payment of a for-profit graduate is $1,221, in comparison to just $115 for a community college program—10 times higher.  Further, 75% of the public programs with average earnings below $24,492 have a median loan debt of $0. In comparison, only 8% of the for-profit programs have this result. So, while it is true that a not insignificant percentage of community college programs have earnings below our comparison point of $24,492, the debt of their graduates is far lower.
  • While our proposed rule applies to all gainful employment programs, of the students who are in the lowest-performing programs under our proposed metrics, 98% of them happen to be in programs at for-profit institutions. That is why we stress the generally poor outcomes at for-profits.

Officials also confirmed that graduates of 57 percent of private institutions — a list that includes Harvard’s Dental School but also child care training programs — earn less than high school dropouts.

  • The list includes two post-baccalaureate certificate programs at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine – not all programs at the school. Further, since the Fact Checker’s statement is misleading, we should clarify that we do not have earnings data for these two programs.

Second, on wages, the Department is comparing apples and oranges. The Social Security earnings data obtained by the department includes people who are not working, which would bring down the average wages for programs. But the wage data for high school dropouts only counts people who are working — and it includes all high school dropouts, even people who left school decades earlier.

  • Students enroll in these programs for the purpose of finding gainful employment in a recognized occupation. The Higher Education Act dictates this is the reason these programs can receive federal student aid. The problem is too many of these programs are not leading to jobs with earnings sufficient to allow students to manage their debt – or to jobs at all. We want the bar to be set at full-time work, and that is why we used this dataset as our comparison point. Students don’t go to school to not get a job or to be limited to a part-time occupation. These students – three years after graduating – should be able to earn a full-time wage. Right now, our data shows they do not.  We should not lower the bar just because some programs have not prepared their students to find employment.

As an example of how this might work, imagine taking the same approach to evaluate different departments at an elite college. Three years after graduation, how would the philosophy department fare, on average? Suppose you had five philosophy majors, and one was unemployed, one made $20,000 a year, two made $30,000 a year and one made $40,000. “On average,” the wage is in the program is $24,000 — just enough for the philosophy department at Ivy League U to be labeled as producing graduates earning less than high school dropouts under the department’s metric.

  • The Department’s metrics in the proposed rule do not set any sort of earnings threshold. The Department has chosen to define gainful employment based on whether programs meet the standards of two measures: how much debt former students have relative to their income, and how often they are defaulting. Neither one of those measures uses the earnings of high school dropouts as a benchmark. That comparison was used instead to highlight the Department’s concern that the outcomes for many of these programs should be better.
  • Further, this regulation only applies to gainful employment programs, not other types of programs at an “elite college” or any other college. Implicit in the idea of preparing students for gainful employment is, first, that the program leads to employment and, second, that the employment is gainful – producing wages that allow the graduates to pay their student loan debt. And so, we believe that the standards we have set forth are appropriate.

It’s possible a large percentage of for-profit programs are not serving students well — and that students are emerging from those programs with heavy debts. But this statistic is too fishy to make that case. In straining for a striking factoid, the Education Department went too far. Officials calculated a relatively high figure for the earnings of high school dropouts, compared to other available data. Then they compared it to average wages that likely were adversely affected by recent graduates unable to find employment.

  • Looking at the earnings of individuals who are employed full-time is appropriate as a benchmark, since a program that exists to prepare students for gainful employment should produce graduates who are able to find full-time jobs. The point we are making with the 72% statistic is that too many gainful employment programs, particularly in the for-profit sector, are failing to do so. The inability of graduates of many gainful employment programs to find full-time jobs, or any jobs, is among the issues that concern us and that we seek to address through this rulemaking. To adjust the calculation of our comparison point to account for those that are unemployed would defeat the purpose of making the comparison. We want to see the students who graduate these programs find full-time employment and have earnings that allow them to manage their debt.
  • The average earnings for the graduates of these programs were measured about three years after graduation, which the Fact Checker describes as recent. We believe this is a reasonable point at which to measure earnings as it provides sufficient time for graduates to find jobs and increase earnings.  The most recent BLS data indicates the average (mean) length of unemployment has been about 36 weeks. It is hard to imagine that if a program had in fact prepared a student for gainful employment, the student would, because of other factors, have stayed unemployed for three years – 156 weeks – more than four times as long as the average amount of time an unemployed worker remains unemployed.

Not only were these two datapoints apples and oranges, but the entire comparison to high school dropouts is fairly bogus. There’s a reason academic researchers have not tried to compare the earnings of graduates for-profit colleges to the earnings of high school dropouts — it also would be considered an apples and oranges comparison unworthy of research.

  • Again, we have not set the metrics or their thresholds of the proposed rule based on any earnings threshold. We highlighted this datapoint simply as an easily understandable reference point so that the public can better understand the poor outcomes of some gainful employment programs.  Americans can understand the concept of a high school dropout – they don’t want themselves or their loved ones to be one, and they likely perceive that dropouts have low earnings. What they may not realize is that many for-profit career-training programs do not lead to earnings much above that benchmark. Attending such a program may help them make more money, but maybe not enough to pay off the debt they took on.
  • There may very well be earnings gains in the vast majority of these programs. A student may be making much less than a high school dropout before they enroll in a program, and three years after they graduated they are still making slightly less than a high school dropout. That’s a problem if you have accumulated debt that requires a couple of thousand dollars a year in loan payments. In short, an individual in that situation has gone from worse off to bad off. Too many for-profit programs have this combination of low earnings and high debt—far more than in non-profit career programs, public or private.

You can find more information on the Department of Education’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Gainful Employment, including instructions on how to comment on the proposed regulation, at ED.gov. The Department’s March 14, 2014, news release summarizes the proposal and explains how the rule is designed to protect Americans from predatory, poor-performing career colleges.

StoryCorps Project Honors America’s Teachers

Secretary Duncan Speaking

Secretary Duncan speaks at the launch of the National Teachers Initiative (Photo Courtesy of StoryCorps)

If you could tell your favorite teacher what influence he or she has had on your life, what would you say?

And if you are, or ever have been, a teacher, what would you say to a student who made those long hours at school worth it? How would you thank that mentor who made you a better educator?

These are the kinds of conversations that America will be hearing over the next year thanks to the National Teachers Initiative, a new project of StoryCorps, the oral history project. The initiative aims to record more than 600 conversations with Americans talking to and about teachers, some of which NPR will broadcast and all of which will be archived in the Library of Congress.

On Sept. 19, Secretary Duncan helped launch the National Teachers Initiative at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House. An audience that included teachers and students heard previews of several powerful interviews that StoryCorps has recorded.

In one, Lee Buono thanks his science teacher from Medford (N.J.) Memorial Middle School, Al Siedlecki, for encouraging him to become a neurosurgeon. “Mr. Sie,” as he’s known to students, first noticed Buono’s surgical talents as he dissected a frog. Years later, Buono called his teacher and thanked him after helping a patient regain his ability to speak.

“It made me feel really important that I had that influence on you,” Siedlecki recalls in their conversation for StoryCorps. “Lately I almost am afraid to say that I’m a teacher to some people. But I’m not, because you called me. I’m a teacher. I’m going to help as many people as I can to find their passion, too.” (Listen to their conversation here.)

StoryCorps

Photo Courtesy of StoryCorps

At the White House, Siedlecki, who has taught science for more than three decades, expressed his hope that StoryCorps’ project would help teachers regain the respect they deserve. “Teachers need a boost in this country right now,” he said.

Secretary Duncan agreed. He called the National Teachers Initiative “the right project at the right time” and praised StoryCorps for capturing “the extraordinary power” of listening.

“In places like Washington and around the country, everybody wants to talk,” Arne said. “Everybody wants to tell you what their ideas are and, how convinced they are that their vision is the only way, and I think none of us spend enough time actually listening and engaging with folks.”

While back home in Chicago earlier in September following his back-to-school bus tour, Arne recorded a conversation with his mother, Sue Duncan, who founded an afterschool tutoring program 50 years ago for low-income children on Chicago’s South Side. StoryCorps founder Dave Isay played a short clip from the conversation.

“One of my biggest battles I feel I’m fighting every day is lots of folks sort of believe that poverty is destiny,” Arne told his mom. “But you always had this incredible hope. I guess that’s why I’m always trying to challenge people and challenge schools to do better, because the outcomes for so many of the kids that came to your program—where they ended up in life—was just so radically, radically different from where they started. And it just showed me what was possible.”

Mrs. Duncan summed up her half-century supporting children’s educations this way: “I tried to be consistent and kind and trustworthy and just have an infinite hope for the children. Just do the best you can, every moment. We only have one moment at a time.”

To learn more about the National Teachers Initiative and listen to stories about teachers and teaching, go to StoryCorps’ website.

Massie Ritsch is Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach

Red Jackets On, City Year Supports At-Risk Students

Todd Marsh, center, and several dozen other City Year Cleveland corps members attended Wednesday's forum on community partnerships.

CLEVELAND-You know them immediately by their red coats. And their enthusiasm. They are City Year corps members-young Americans who serve for a year in urban communities throughout the country, including in Cleveland and its public schools.

On Wednesday afternoon, City Year corps members cheered for guests as they arrived at Cleveland’s East Technical High School for a forum featuring Secretary Duncan. On any normal school day, you would find them cheering for 9th graders in the city who are at risk of getting off track and dropping out of school.

City Year just began its second school year of involvement on some of Cleveland’s lowest-performing campuses-five schools this year, all of them undergoing a turnaround funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s School Improvement Grant program. Corps members serve as mentors and tutors to cadres of students whose grades have slipped and who show the indicators of becoming high school dropouts.

City Year focuses on the ABCs-Attendance, Behavior and Coursework. The day for corps members can start as early as 7 a.m., calling students’ homes to make sure their charges will show up for school.

“The first battle is getting kids into the schools,” said Phillip Robinson, executive director of City Year Cleveland and a native of the city. “Then we work on behavior…and coursework.” Last year, Robinson said, Cleveland students supported by City Year saw a 10-point increase in their attendance. Focusing on the non-academic factors that affect school performance “allows the principals and teachers to focus on teaching,” he said.

What City Year is doing in Cleveland is also happening in 20 other cities around the country, including other stops on Secretary Duncan’s “Education and the Economy” tour: Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago.

In exchange for their year of service, corps members receive a $5,550 education award to defray the costs of college or graduate school, plus a modest stipend for living expenses. Funding comes from public sources, including the Department’s School Improvement Grant program and the Corporation for National and Community Service’s AmeriCorps program, as well as contributions from corporations, foundations and individuals. City Year is also a partner in a five-year, $30 million grant from the Department’s Investing in Innovation (i3) program that is focusing on turning around “dropout factories” in 14 school districts. For every $1 in government funding, Robinson said, City Year tries to raise $2 from private sources.

“We’re a higher-yield, low-cost human growth strategy,” he said. Donors are “investing in the transformation” of Cleveland and the other communities where City Year is at work.

Todd Marsh, a 24-year-old Ohio State University graduate who was among the dozens of corps members filling several front rows at Wednesday’s forum, is staying on for a second year with City Year, as a team leader assigned to an academy set up just for 9th graders.

“As much as you’re giving back to a community,” Marsh said, “you’re also developing your own professional and leadership skills.” And developing similar skills-plus others-in those students whom City Year is helping to graduate.

-MASSIE RITSCH
Office of Communications and Outreach

Cleveland-area Superintendents Talk Back to Washington

Rep. Marcia Fudge, Cleveland-area school superintendents, and ED's Michael Yudin

Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) convened Tuesday's conversation with Cleveland-area school superintendents and ED's Michael Yudin.

CLEVELAND—After a morning spent with students promoting school nutrition and physical education, Acting Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Michael Yudin sat down Tuesday afternoon with superintendents from more than a dozen school districts in the Cleveland metropolitan area, including Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon, who joined Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) as co-host for the lunchtime meeting in the district’s board room.

“We can’t just talk about education. We have to do something,” Congresswoman Fudge said in opening up the conversation. “If we really want to be a country that competes, we need to prepare our young people to do it.”

Yudin, who was joined by ED Special Counsel Julie Miceli, gave an overview of the Obama administration’s cradle-to-career education strategy and talked about the importance of addressing problems with the current No Child Left Behind Law. Secretary Arne Duncan has warned that the nation’s K-12 education system is on course for a “slow-moving train wreck” unless the law is fixed and a more realistic, meaningful and effective accountability system is put in place for America’s schools.

“I agree with the Secretary… It’s a slow-moving train wreck,” said Mark Freeman, the superintendent of the Shaker Heights district. Freeman added that, “I mentioned that to some colleagues on the way down, and they said, ‘No, it’s already a wreck.’ “

Yudin agreed. The current law over-labels schools as failures, does not reward growth and does not give states and local districts flexibility to focus on their biggest problems. “It just isn’t making sense. It isn’t working for too many school districts across the country,” Yudin said. In particular, “The ability to measure growth—and real, meaningful growth—is where we need to go.”

Yudin’s office will soon be announcing a package that will allow states and school districts flexibility within the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind’s formal name) in exchange for commitments to college-and-career-ready standards, effective teaching and school leadership, and improving their lowest-performing schools.

Tuesday’s wide-ranging dialogue with local superintendents touched on special education and its financial costs, the Department’s program to turn around low-performing schools, high school graduation rates and how best to measure them, charter schools, and how to identify and nurture effective teaching.

As the superintendents thanked Yudin for visiting and taking their feedback back to Washington, he expressed his gratitude for their work in Cleveland’s communities. “Thank you all,” he said, “for your commitment to improving outcomes for kids.”

-MASSIE RITSCH
Office of Communications & Outreach

Cleveland Middle School Helps Put ED Tour in Motion

Michael Yudin with Solon students, retired NFL player Lomas Brown, Ohio dairy farmer Davis Denman and Chomps, the Cleveland Browns' mascot.

Acting Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Michael Yudin (second from right) with Solon students, retired NFL player Lomas Brown, Ohio dairy farmer Davis Denman and Chomps, the Cleveland Browns' mascot.

SOLON, Ohio—For a back-to-school sprint through the Great Lakes region, it just seemed to make sense to warm up with a little physical activity. So that’s what Michael Yudin, the Department’s acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, did Tuesday morning at Solon Middle School, a 2010 National Blue Ribbon School outside of Cleveland. Secretary Duncan will visit Cleveland on Wednesday afternoon.

Yudin joined Solon City School District Superintendent Joseph Regano, Principal Eugenia Green and representatives from the dairy industry and the National Football League’s Fuel Up to Play 60 program for an assembly to motivate Solon Middle’s 400 8th graders to make smart food choices and be physically active. Lomas Brown, a retired NFL player who spent the 1999 season with the Cleveland Browns, was also on hand to encourage the students, as was Chomps, the Browns’ canine mascot.

Solon Middle School Principal Eugenia Green

Solon Middle School Principal Eugenia Green leads a 2010 National Blue Ribbon School that is now participating in the Fuel Up to Play 60 program.

“We know that healthy students are better students,” Yudin said, congratulating Solon Middle on its Blue Ribbon award and its commitment to student health. Through quality school nutrition and the integration of physical activity into the day, schools are one of the key pillars of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative to combat child obesity.

After the assembly in the school’s gym and a toast to the new school year—with milk, of course—Yudin, Brown and Chomps joined the students on the school’s athletic field for a football, Frisbee, running and walking break.

Solon Middle School students

Following an assembly, students took a mid-morning activity break on the school's football field.

Launched by the National Dairy Council and the NFL in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Fuel Up to Play 60 empowers youth to take action to improve nutrition and physical activity at their school and for their own health.

“Just as the NFL uses their playbook…we can use Fuel Up to Play 60 playbooks to choose the activities that are best for each of us,” said Solon 8th grader Jeff Lidawer, one of several student-athletes who spoke at the assembly.

To learn more about the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative, including five steps that schools can take, visit LetsMove.gov.

-MASSIE RITSCH
Office of Communications & Outreach

Principal Breaks Out the Champaign

Franklin Middle School Principal Angela Smith (center) has served in Champaign, Ill., schools for 16 years, beginning as a high school literature teacher after graduating from the nearby University of Illinois. Ms. Smith’s leadership team at Franklin includes Assistant Principal Sara Powell (left) and Associate Principal Bob Shoda (right).

Franklin Middle School Principal Angela Smith (center) has served in Champaign, Ill., schools for 16 years, beginning as a high school literature teacher after graduating from the nearby University of Illinois. Ms. Smith’s leadership team at Franklin includes Assistant Principal Sara Powell (left) and Associate Principal Bob Shoda (right).

The teachers and staff at Franklin Middle School in Champaign, Ill., have a saying: “Don’t be deficit.”
It’s not a school-wide statement about out-of-balance government spending; their slogan is a reminder not to shortchange students based on their backgrounds or perceived abilities. It’s about avoiding assumptions.

Setting this tone is Principal Angela Smith, who admits she occasionally gets called out by colleagues for making her own assumptions about students. Like when she was astounded that a boy in the school’s college preparation program for low-income students explained precisely why he used the word “wrath” in his writing instead of the more basic “anger.” Because, he said matter-of-factly, the anger was paired with action.

Smith confessed, “I shouldn’t have been surprised.” Still, it’s easy to be surprised by Franklin Middle School’s performance. While a large segment of students are the children of physicians or professors at the nearby University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, nearly six in 10 students at Franklin qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a statistic that in many U.S. schools is also an indicator of low academic achievement.

Smith acknowledges her students’ challenges but doesn’t use them as an excuse. “Poverty—it shouldn’t matter,” she said. “That’s not our focus for kids. Our focus is on their strengths, what it is they bring to the table… [Poverty] has been a barrier long enough for kids.”

That statement goes a long way toward explaining why Franklin Middle was named a 2011 Breakthrough School by the MetLife Foundation and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), and why Smith, as the school’s leader for the last four years, was in San Francisco last weekend to accept the award at NASSP’s annual conference. Several senior officials from the Department of Education also attended the conference to listen to school leaders and share information about the Obama administration’s proposals for P-12 education, special education and improving school safety and climate.

While Principal Smith took home her school’s award, she credits her 85-person staff for the strides that Franklin has made in recent years. For more than a decade, the Champaign Unit 4 school district was under a federal consent decree because of concerns that its African American students were over-represented in special education and under-represented in gifted programs. In 2009, a federal judge ruled the district had successfully fulfilled the terms of the decree.

Key to Franklin Middle School’s turnaround has been collaboration among its teachers, Smith said. For example, every month, each faculty team—say, all the 7th grade math teachers—join Smith to walk the halls, observe other teachers in action, and talk about what they see. These drop-ins are not meant to evaluate the educators being watched, but rather to give the other teachers some ideas for their own practice. When Smith first built this time into each faculty team’s schedule, the teachers were amazed by what they could learn from colleagues just down the hall.

“They’d never walked out of their classrooms,” she said. “How could they? They were always teaching.”

While these observations last just a few minutes, when it comes time to evaluate her teachers, Smith spends entire class periods in each classroom. Her district requires tenured teachers to be observed for 40 minutes twice year; teachers who have not received tenure get evaluated four times a year.

“You can spend a lot of time evaluating, which is why it’s critical that your [assistant principals and deans] are instructional leaders” who can share in the workload, Smith said.

Smith is also fanatical about analyzing student achievement data, and she and her teachers use it constantly to guide instruction and make tweaks. Almost everywhere she goes, she carries reports documenting her students’ performance on standardized tests and other assessments.

Compared to five years ago, the trend lines are up and gaps in achievement among types of students have narrowed. Discipline problems are way down.

That’s not to say that Franklin doesn’t have areas to work on. Under No Child Left Behind’s accountability system, last year the school missed its growth targets—known as “Adequate Yearly Progress,” or AYP—in math and reading for students with disabilities and, for low-income students, in reading. As a result, the school is labeled as failing for not making AYP across the board, a seemingly unfair brand when you meet Smith and see what gains her school has made in every subgroup of students, in both reading and math.

In San Francisco, at a roundtable with Department of Education officials, Smith and other principals said they found it very appealing to hear that the Obama administration has proposed a fair accountability system, which acknowledges that there’s a big difference between a school with a couple of issues to improve on and one that persistently underserves large groups of students year after year.

Smith says her school’s improvement has been due in part to personalization of its program—again, using data and other information to tailor instruction to students’ needs.

“I think we’ve been able to not just gain a personal relationship with our students, but have some personal, real conversations with one another as educators [and] do a lot of personal reflection about what it is we’ve come to do,” she said. “We’ve overcome a lot of barriers…that really keep you from getting to the heart of the matter, which is kids.”

Just as it would be easy to “be deficit” about Franklin Middle School, it would have been easy years ago to discount Angela Smith. The daughter of a young African American mother in inner-city Chicago, Smith would have been classified as economically disadvantaged in the same way that so many of her nearly 600 students are today.

“That could have been me,” she said, reflecting on the youth she works with now. “I could have been one of those kids you pegged as not having a lot.”

Angela Smith and Franklin Middle School have overcome their deficits and have broken through.

Massie Ritsch
Office of Communications and Outreach

Uninsured Children: An Education Challenge

If there were millions of children in America whose families didn’t know they could enroll in school, we’d feel an urgent need to get the message out them, wouldn’t we? Well, that’s the situation with our nation’s health insurance program for children—five million children are eligible but they remain uninsured because of a lack of awareness.

This is an education problem on two levels. First, as I’ve suggested, we need to educate families about this option they have for health coverage. Second, if a child is not healthy, he or she cannot learn. There is nothing more important than ensuring that our nation’s children are safe and healthy.

I joined Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius last week to highlight the Connecting Kids to Coverage Challenge to enroll five million children in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) within five years. A phenomenal coalition of partners, ranging from state governors to national advocacy organizations, has stepped up to the challenge to enroll kids and educate families.

I want to thank my good friend Secretary Sebelius for her extraordinary leadership and unwavering commitment to ensure that everyone has access to excellent and affordable health care. Kathleen and her team have been phenomenal partners with the Department of Education on so many issues, from early learning programs to H1N1 flu. It is fair to say there has never been as much cooperation and collaboration among the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services as there is today.

We have also been working closely with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on improving USDA’s school lunch program and have had a major role in the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative—an effort that has ushered in an unprecedented wave of attention and action to tackle the issues around childhood obesity.

On the issue of health coverage for children, nearly all of the nation’s low-income, uninsured children are eligible through Medicaid or CHIP. Now, the challenge for all of us is to connect children with that coverage. America’s schools can help lead that effort.

Our job is to make sure everyone knows how to enroll. There is a role for every member of the school community, including superintendents, principals, teachers, school nurses, and lunch room staff to get involved.

In fact, recent federal legislation has made it possible to use the school lunch application to do more than refer families to health coverage. Under certain conditions, school lunch programs can share information from a student’s application with Medicaid and CHIP, speeding up the process of getting children covered.

As a former school superintendent, I would have loved to have had this type of efficient communication. I saw so many children who would have benefited tremendously from the simplicity this brings, and I know this will have a measurable effect on participation in these programs.

There is no better time than now to raise awareness about getting children enrolled in health care. As parents help their children get a new school year underway, staying healthy should be at the top of everyone’s school supply list.

Arne Duncan
Secretary of Education

Students Quiz Secretary

High school students from the Washington, D.C., region joined me Thursday for a conversation on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.” A group of more than 30 young men and women gathered in NPR’s studio with host Neal Conan, and, along with calls and e-mails from other listeners, they asked some fantastic and important questions:

  • How do we level the playing field for students in underserved communities and raise academic standards?
  • How do we continue to improve education in the face of a challenging economy?
  • How do we better serve teachers so they have the tools they need to ensure academic excellence for our nation’s students?

As U.S. Secretary of Education, my job is to try and make sure that every student in this country has a chance to get a world-class education. A great way to understand how we can better serve our nation’s students is to talk to them directly.

Our country faces huge challenges—two wars and a recovering economy. Despite these challenges, I have never been more hopeful for our nation’s youth and the future of our country.

The students I met Thursday and those I meet in schools every week make me unbelievably optimistic about where we’re going as a country. I’ve witnessed in conversations like this one the commitment of America’s young people, not just to their own education, but to making a difference in their communities and to moving our country forward.

I invite you to listen to our discussion here.

Arne Duncan
Secretary of Education

Central High Student Keeps His Eyes on the Prize

High school junior Tailore Dawson (front row, fourth from left) and friends at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

As we wandered around the manicured grounds of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., last Thursday—it’s the only active school in America that’s also a national park—a young man came over.

“Need help finding something?” he asked.

Tailore Dawson, 17, is a junior at Central. It’s not the school he’d normally attend, since his family lives in another part of town. But his neighborhood high school isn’t up to his mother’s standards—or his own.

“My academic standard for me is different than for other students,” Tailore said. Also, “I want to go to a school that has some type of character, and Central has character. And it has history.”

Tailore’s homework the night before we met him included a three-page profile of a classmate. The assignment—to get “beyond the surface” and really learn about the other person—was for a communications and college preparation program called AVID, Advancement Via Individual Determination. Worldwide, AVID serves approximately 400,000 students, grades 4-12, in nearly 4,500 schools in 45 states, the District of Columbia and 16 countries and territories.

Central’s communications teacher, Stacey McAdoo, coordinates the AVID program there and was part of a roundtable discussion with Secretary Duncan and teachers Thursday morning. A partnership with the University of Arkansas-Little Rock provides tutors for the Central students to get them focused on college.

“They help students navigate the college choices they will have,” McAdoo explained. Visits to colleges and universities throughout the year give the high schoolers a sense of what life on campus is like.

“Leaving high school, people don’t know what to do next,” Tailore said, estimating that 60 percent of his friends have an idea of what they’ll do after graduation. “Having those connections at these colleges—those friends—helps you get where you want to go.”

Two years from graduation, Tailore already knows where he wants to go: Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he wants to major in robotics or genetics. He’s preparing to apply to the Ivy League school by taking physics and chemistry, along with several Advanced Placement classes, and he is a member of Central’s robotics club. He is taking the right tests for admission—the ACT last year (which he’ll take again) and the SAT this year.

Central High School’s history as a flashpoint in the civil rights movement is not lost on Tailore. He’s African American—more than half of Central’s students are—but in 1957, federal troops had to be called in so that nine black teenagers could enter what was then an all-white school.

“People thought, ‘These nine got in. Why can’t we do it?’ They got the mentality and kept coming and coming, and eventually we just mixed all together…Everybody’s friends with everybody. There’s no segregation of anything.”

When we met him last week, Tailore hadn’t yet heard about President Obama’s national education goal—that the United States will once again lead the world in college graduates by 2020—but he immediately homed in on what it will take to be successful.

“I think we can achieve this goal,” he said, “but what we’ll need is everybody helping. A few people can’t do good and cover up for everybody else. We need everybody’s help.”

On the path to college, Tailore Dawson is doing his part.

Massie Ritsch
Office of Communications & Outreach

Brown Bag Lunch

HATTIESBURG, Miss.–Teachers often have to squeeze lunch into their busy days, so we were honored that a group of educators from Hattiesburg’s public schools took time Friday to have a sandwich with Arne on the high school campus. The conversation touched on topics that have come up throughout the Courage in the Classroom Tour, including how to assess students’ learning and how to recruit, compensate and evaluate teachers.

Listen in on the conversation:


Click here for an accessible version of the video.

See photos from this event.

Massie Ritsch
Office of Communications & Outreach

Freedom School Program Jackson State

JACKSON, Miss.—At the Kids Kollege Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School, the children aren’t called students; they’re called scholars. And the adults aren’t teachers; they’re servant leaders.

That’s how this after-school program serving disadvantaged children in Mississippi’s capital sets high expectations for everyone.

The program is a partnership between Jackson State University, a historically black college, and Children’s Defense Fund. CDF’s founder, Marian Wright Edelman, joined the Courage in the Classroom Tour this morning in Jackson. There, Secretary Duncan listened to a group of Kids Kollege interns talk about why they are drawn to the field of education.

Watch video from this morning’s visit to Jackson State University:


Click here for an accessible version of the video.

More Photos

Voices of Courage: Dr. Tom Burnham

We’ve been fortunate on the Courage in the Classroom tour to have a number of state-level leaders join us along the way. On Thursday the state education commissioner of Arkansas, Dr. Tom Kimbrell, and the state superintendent in Louisiana, Paul Pastorek, both hopped on the bus and joined us at the day’s events. On Friday we welcomed aboard Dr. Tom Burnham, Mississippi’s superintendent of education, for stops in Jackson and Hattiesburg.

“I believe very strongly as educational leaders that one of our challenges is to stay connected with the teachers, and stay connected with the classrooms,” he said of the tour’s value.

Dr. Burnham assumed his position in January. It’s his second tour of duty as head of Mississippi’s K-12 public education system. In between stints he has served as the dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi and as a district superintendent in Biloxi, Miss., and in Henderson County, N.C. He began his career as a classroom teacher and coach.

Mississippi teachers, he said, “are working each day with a great deal of passion, they’re working each day with a great deal of professionalism, and in most cases a pretty significant level of preparation to be successful”—but, all too often, inadequate resources.

“At the end of the day, each day, many of these people go home very, very tired from having attempted to achieve success,” he said.

Here’s video of our conversation with Dr. Burnham aboard the bus:


Click here for an accessible version of the video.