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Kindergarten's Leap Into the Virtual Classroom

July 12, 2013
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Technology has vastly altered the way students can attend schools- and many people may be surprised to learn that virtual schooling extends even to kindergartners. In fact, online offerings for kindergarten have been around for more than a decade, though early childhood experts continue to question whether these programs meet young children’s early developmental needs.
Online K-12 schools have provided students with alternative schooling options since the early 2000s. Each year, enrollment in such programs has grown by at least 20 to 25 percent.

Four Corrections to Senator Blumenthal’s BuzzFeed Post

July 11, 2013

BuzzFeed’s lead story today is a post by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) on 11 Reasons Why Congress Needs to Fix Student Loan Rates Now. But the post, despite its extensive use of graphics and charts, gets some very basic facts about the student loan issue wrong. Perhaps the most glaring of these is his claim that “10 million students nationwide will lose $1,000 per year from the higher [loan] rates”. Some students do stand to lose about $1,000 – but over 10 years, not annually. That’s a big difference – a monthly increase of about $9 instead of $90.

Blumenthal’s post contains a few other major discrepancies. Like the fact that 7.4 million students receive Stafford Loans, rather than 10 million that he mentions. Here are the four big problems that we spotted:

1. On July 1, only SOME student loan interest rates doubled for SOME students.

According to the BuzzFeed post, “your student loan rates doubled” on July 1. True, rates did increase – but only on a small subset of loans. The rate change only affected Subsidized Stafford loans, which made up less than a third of Stafford loan volume issued last year. And though Blumenthal cites 10 million as the number of students affected, the White House says about 7.4 million students will receive Subsidized Stafford loans next year.

Source: New America Foundation, U.S. Department of Education

2. No, it's $1,000 over 10 years, not $1,000 annually.

Blumenthal wrote that students will lose $1,000 annually because rates on some loans doubled on July 1. But that isn’t accurate. The $1,000 figure refers to the additional cost to students over the life of a typical ten year loan. In other words, Blumenthal overstates the impact of the higher interest rate by a factor of ten.

Here’s how the math works. But first, a GIF to keep your attention:

Source: gifBase

The rate change, as we’ve said, only affects Subsidized Stafford loans. The limit on those loans is a maximum of $5,500 per year from a student’s third year of college on (in the first year it’s $3,500, and in the second, $4,500). And Subsidized Stafford loans don’t accrue interest while the student is in school.

That means the most a student could pay on his Subsidized Stafford loan under the new rate is about $2,000 in interest, compared to about $1,000 with the 3.4 percent rate. In other words, a student will pay about $1,000 more over the 10-year life of the loan. That’s about $9 more per month – to borrow an analogy from Allyson Klein at Education Week, less than the monthly cost of a Spotify Premium subscription.

Source: New America Foundation

Blumenthal isn’t the only one confused by this $1,000 number. We found countless other examples – from Center for American Progress, Youngist, StudentDebtCrisis.org, and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), among others – of confusion about the whether the $1,000 refers to a one-year or a 10-year number.

So to clarify one more time, we’re talking a maximum of about $1,000 per loan over the standard, 10-year repayment period for that loan. Not annually.

This confusion all probably stems from an AP report of comments made by President Obama. Obama said: “If Congress doesn’t act by July 1st, federal student loan rates are set to double.  And that means that the average student with those loans will rack up an additional $1,000 in debt.  That’s like a $1,000 tax hike.  I assume most of you cannot afford that.  Anybody here can afford that?  No.” AP interpreted this to mean a $1,000 annual hike.

3. The government doesn’t profit off student loans.

Blumenthal says: “The government profits off these student loans, while you suffer.”

It’s a nice piece of rabblerousing, but it’s wrong. In fact, the government loses money on Subsidized Stafford loans – about a $12 loss for every $100 lent.

Looking at the cost estimates produced by the Congressional Budget Office, you might think otherwise. That’s because Congress requires CBO to use inaccurate accounting plans that even the CBO says are out of whack with the true costs of the program.

The accounting practices CBO uses, which are dictated by the Federal Credit Reform Act, calculate the costs of the program using the risk factor on Treasury bonds. They don’t account for the risks of the loan program – namely, the fact that borrowers are much more likely to default on their loans than the entire U.S. government is to default on its debt. The Department of Education is predicting a 23% default rate on Subsidized Stafford loans for the 2014 cohort.

Source: Dylan Matthews at Wonkblog

CBO (and President Obama’s fiscal commission, and economists at the Federal Reserve, and the Financial Economists Roundtable) recommends using fair value accounting instead, and even issues fair value estimates for the loan program. Under fair value accounting, the U.S. loses money on Subsidized Stafford loans most years.

4. The solution has nothing to do with banks

Blumenthal ends with a proposal he cosponsored with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) – the Bank on Student Loans Fairness Act. It would set rates on Subsidized Stafford loans at 0.75% for one year’s worth of loans, the rate the Federal Reserve sets on emergency lending to banks and one that costs banks, which usually have access to much lower rates. But the plan is based on a fundamental misconception of how student loans work. And it’s not much of a deal for students if it only lowers rates for one year.

Source: Facebook.com/JoeManchinIII

A better solution is being negotiated on Capitol Hill this week. A bipartisan group of senators, led by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Angus King (I-ME), issued a proposal last week that is now being renegotiated to gain support in the Senate. The plan will tie interest rates to the 10-year Treasury note (1.81 percent for the 2013-14 school year), plus 1.8 percent for undergraduates, 3.4 percent on graduate Stafford loans, or 4.5 percent on PLUS loans. The rates will be capped at 8.25 percent for undergraduates and 9.25 percent for graduate students and PLUS loans. It’s a long-term solution that will end the annual bickering that has afflicted Congress each year, provide lower rates to all students next year (not just Subsidized Stafford borrowers), and cost taxpayers nothing.

Blumenthal’s not the only one getting some of the facts wrong – we have a long list of misreported details in the student loan interest rate debate that has dominated Congress over the last two months.

Turns out just because something is published on BuzzFeed doesn’t mean it's true.

Skills Beyond School: An International Look at American Higher Education

July 11, 2013
Within the United States and abroad, Career and Technical Education (CTE) often exist in a world completely separate from that of traditional postsecondary education. This divide is exacerbated by the sometimes baffling array of options available to students upon completion of secondary school. With such a wide variety of degrees, certifications, credentials, career training, and other learning opportunities, it can be a challenge for students to discern which options provide superior quality, accurately value the benefits of their options, and determine the clearest pathway toward the career to which they aspire.
Yesterday, the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation hosted an event marking the release of a new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that underscores these significant challenges for students entering the United States higher education system.
While emphasizing the urgency of the challenges our higher education faces, the OECD report also provides recommendations and action items for addressing them. The action items put forward by the OECD report are aligned toward building quality, transparency, and continuity between and within these presently disparate pieces of the American education system. For more information about the recommendations of the report, see yesterday’s post on the report. Strengthening the integration of CTE with secondary learning and other postsecondary education options is a critical piece in addressing the needs of students, as they navigate their pathways to the workforce.
Throughout the event, 20 distinguished speakers and panelists shared their insights about the challenges facing students today and their wide-ranging consequences for the labor market and the economy if these inefficiencies in education and training remain. As Amy Laitinen, deputy director of higher education at the New America Foundation, pointed out, “The OECD’s report uses the word ‘risk’ 41 times, and it’s for a good reason: most prospective students don’t know the expected earnings of the credentials they’re seeking and employers don’t know what students with these credentials actually know or can do.”
The U.S. Department of Education representatives speaking at the event were receptive to the report’s findings, and emphasized their commitment to reform. During her remarks yesterday morning, Brenda Dann-Messier, assistant secretary for the Office of Vocational and Adult Education and acting assistant secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education at Department, emphasized the need for greater clarity amidst the higher education landscape. “Postsecondary CTE programs cannot exist in isolation from higher education, K-12, or systems for workforce training. To achieve their maximum potential, they must be part of a broader career pathways system for all students in order to meet our education and skills challenges in the future.”
For who were unable to attend the event yesterday, a webcast – featuring an overview of the report findings, followed by three panel discussions on the three primary issue areas identified by the report – is available on the New America website in full. An infographic produced by the New America Foundation that depicts the report’s main components is also available here.

KIDS COUNT Reports Bright Spots, Though Inequities Remain

July 10, 2013

Last month, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released its annual KIDS COUNT Data Book for 2013. While the report contains a few bright spots for children, authors find that few children from poor families are attending early childhood programs of the highest quality.

The Vibrant Diversity of America’s Career and Technical Education “System?”

July 10, 2013
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Today, the OECD released a comprehensive review of Vocational Education and Training (VET) in America, A Skills beyond School Review of the United States. While those immersed in the higher education landscape might find many of the recommendations familiar, echoing calls for reform advanced by a wide range of education stakeholders, the review provides a refreshing outside perspective on Career and Technical Education (CTE) and higher education more broadly.
The report is charitable in their praise of the ‘vibrant diversity’ brought forth by the United States’ decentralized postsecondary CTE system. The overarching recommendation put forth by the review is to balance this approach with a more strategic pursuit of quality, coherence, and transparency. In the context of what the review further refers to as ‘The US ‘system’ of CTE,” it becomes clear that the American system of postsecondary CTE is in urgent need of reform.
Authors Malgorzata Kuczera and Simon Field quickly address central issues facing postsecondary education in the United States, highlighting three broad recommendations – funding for quality, anchoring credentials in the needs of industry, and building transitions that work – which are bolstered by several more specific action items.
1.      Substantially strengthen quality assurance in postsecondary education and its links to title IV student aid.
The review outlines six considerations that provide urgency for the strengthening of quality assurance. Many of these recommendations, especially in regard to federal financial aid reform, coincide with the recommendations put forward by the New America Foundation in the report, “Rebalancing Resources and Incentives in Federal Student Aid.”
While many of the considerations put forth by the authors point toward new reforms, it is worth pointing out that the third points to current requirements of quality assurance that are not being enforced. Citing the 2010 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation of several (vibrant) private for-profit institutions, they point out the finding that four institutions clearly promoted fraudulent practices, and all made ‘deceptive or otherwise questionable statements’ in materials for students. While pursuing further reform is necessary, reviewing the implementation of prior efforts is equally important. 
2.      Establish a quality standard for certifications and obtain better data on both certifications and certificates.
In a section aptly entitled “Confusing choices and quality challenges” the authors begin with the following data from the U.S. Department of Labor: “Tour guides can choose from among nine credentials; chemical technicians decide between 22, while computer network support specialists can choose out of no less than 179 different credentials.” And it is incredibly difficult to determine whether those nine tour-guiding credentials lead to either higher wages or career advancement. The report points out that the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) estimates that less than a fourth of certifications currently offered would meet the standards that their organization has published. If the GAO conducted an investigation of American certification programs, they may find a great deal of ‘deceptive or otherwise questionable statements’ being made to students about the value of the credentials they are offering.
3.      Building transitions in CTE into postsecondary programs, within postsecondary education, and to the labor market.
The final recommendation distinguishes between the differentiated needs at each transition point within postsecondary CTE – not only entering from secondary school and exiting to the workplace, but also the unique challenges faced by students who seek to move between institutions. While funding for quality and establishing standards for certifications would go a long way in addressing some of these transition challenges, especially in regard to information asymmetry, the authors also point toward strengthening CTE in high schools as a method for building stronger transitions. It harkens back to a discussion in the first chapter pointing out America’s partiality for generalized high school education – or aversion to anything that could be perceived as “tracking.” The authors’ perspectives on building high school CTE transitions are a noteworthy addition to the review.
The diversity of CTE in the United States has by and large created a “system” that is not optimally serving students. While decentralization can promote rapid response and innovation, in absence of discerning funding, quality assurance, reliable information, and clear pathways forward, decision-making is a quagmire for students. In one way, the CTE system is quite vibrant – it is alive, constantly changing and evolving. As reforms move forward, it will be important to implement flexible approaches that will grow with the ever-changing landscape of labor and careers throughout the country.

We Love to Hate the ‘Bad’ Teacher

  • By
  • Dana Goldstein,
  • New America Foundation
July 8, 2013 |

New Research: Targeted Parent Training Can Help Students Focus—and Succeed

July 8, 2013

As the Obama Administration ramps up its push for expanded early childhood education access for all children, it’s important to ensure that preschool quality remains a big part of the conversation. Fortunately, there’s good news on this front from the University of Oregon’s Brain Development Lab.

What ‘Sid the Science Kid’ Means for Adults

July 3, 2013
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Last month I had the opportunity to write about one of my favorite preschool television shows, Sid the Science Kid.  The piece, “How Kids’ Television Inspires a Lifelong Love of Science,” is part of a special online report on Educating Americans for the 21st Century, published by Smithsonian magazine.*

If Congress Agrees the Era of Big Government is Over, Why Can’t We Get an ESEA Deal?

July 2, 2013

UPDATED 7/22: The side-by-side comparison of each proposal now reflects the final version of the Student Success Act, as amended during floor debate on July 18 and 19. For full coverage of the House debate and vote, read the Storify here.

Considering Congress hasn’t figured out how to compromise on student loan interest rates (despite the fact that President Obama and a bipartisan group of Senators proposed shockingly similar plans), it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) remains at a standstill. Sure, the Senate and House of Representatives marked up proposed legislation and moved it out of their respective education committees. But everyone – including Congress itself – knows these bills aren’t going anywhere. How else can you explain a Senate markup so sparsely attended that Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) threatened his fellow members’ subcommittee leadership? Or a House markup so speedy that you missed it if you took a long lunch?

Part of the problem is that there is absolutely no pressure to get a rewrite of ESEA (a.k.a. No Child Left Behind) done, and these days Congress needs a cliff or a crisis (or a rapidly expanding minority population to win over) in order to accomplish anything. The deadline built into NCLB – that 100 percent of students in every Title I school be proficient in reading and math by 2014 or face sanctions – won’t hit until next summer. But the U.S. Department of Education has already leveled this “proficiency cliff” by giving ESEA waivers to 39 states and Washington, D.C. (that number could balloon to 45 states and a handful of districts in California if all remaining requests are approved).

While states – via the National Governor’s Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and other groups – claim they want a reauthorization, surely they’d prefer to stick with waivers if a new ESEA meant additional federal requirements or any significant changes to their Department-approved plans. This makes reauthorization more difficult than ever. Waivers are complicated, involve dozens of policy choices for states, and vary tremendously. Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham put it best: “It’s hard to overstate how completely incoherent federal policy on K-12 schools now is. States are all over the place on timelines, approaches, and so forth with little rhyme or reason.” Accordingly, any ESEA reauthorization proposal that seeks to win over state education officials or build off of existing waiver policies has to envision such a weak federal role that states can pretty much do whatever they want.

And that’s exactly what we got… and not just from the usual suspects (i.e. congressional Republicans). Even the Democrats’ proposals envision an incredibly limited federal role in education. You can see for yourself by downloading our complete cheat sheet here. The central ESEA reauthorization question today isn’t “what is the appropriate federal role?” but rather “how weak a federal role can we live with?”

Take Senator Harkin’s proposal. Yes, states must adopt college- and career ready standards, test students annually in reading and math, establish an accountability system with performance targets, identify at least 15 percent of schools for improvement, and implement performance-based evaluation system for teachers and principals. But all of the details (with the exception of federal reporting, where the requirements are quite specific) are left up to states. Waivers can remain in effect, and for nearly every provision there’s an option to design and get approval for states’ preferred policy choices.

The Ranking Member on the House education committee, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), would give states slightly less leeway. For example, Miller’s proposal defines what adequate student growth means, gives states fewer choices in setting performance targets, and requires states to get approval for their academic standards from institutions of higher education unless they are common to several states. Still, Miller wouldn’t require states to intervene in a certain number or percentage of schools (just particular categories of schools), and it gives states flexibility to design their own accountability systems and teacher evaluations.

What’s incredible is that the Republican proposals cede even more authority to states – significantly curbing the Secretary of Education’s authority, eliminating (or consolidating, depending on your point of view) funding and programs like those for English language learners, and dismantling nearly every federal guideline for standards and accountability. Their plans also eschew many of the lessons learned from NCLB, including bipartisan, commonsense ideas like uniform graduation rates and using a balance of proficiency and growth for accountability. Is it intrusive to ask states to set some kind of school performance goals? Is it so burdensome for states to also take student growth into account? And is it really that unreasonable to expect states to report school data in a comparable way?

None of the ESEA reauthorization proposals are perfect. But if you actually read them – and I have – it seems like there should be more room to compromise. Everyone envisions a limited federal role! (To be clear, I’m not arguing that this is the best policy choice, only that it should make the politics easier.)

If Congress seriously wanted to make a deal, perhaps Republicans could get on board with a few more state requirements – performance targets or interventions in some number of schools, a measure of student growth, graduation rate accountability, and performance-based teacher evaluations that guide professional development – as long as states still had flexibility to make their own choices. Democrats could appease Republicans by streamlining reporting requirements, eliminating some of the required actions for schools in improvement, allowing teacher evaluations to be used only for professional development, or working on language to clarify the Secretary’s authority to grant waivers or encourage Common Core participation.

Yes, there would still be big differences to iron out (maintenance of effort, funding comparability, etc.), but the two parties aren’t nearly as far apart on policy as the political rhetoric might suggest. Unfortunately, with midterm elections fast approaching, lawmakers appear more concerned with scoring political points and toeing the party line than with the give and take of writing complicated policy. And waivers enable the administration to enact its preferred policies, at least temporarily, while simultaneously blaming Congress for inaction. In short, gridlock is a win-win. Despite two markups, four proposals, and thousands of pages of legislation, nobody in Washington benefits from making a deal. So get ready for those waiver renewals because ESEA isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.

It’s Official: Interest Rates on Subsidized Stafford Loans Double

July 1, 2013

Interest rates on a subset of federal student loans officially doubled today from 3.4 to 6.8 percent. The rates apply only to newly issued Subsidized Stafford loans, affecting about 7.4 million students next year. But the increase in interest rates could have been prevented – and many members of Congress tried.

The scheduled increase has been circled on many stakeholders’ and policymakers’ calendars since Congress granted a one-year reprieve last summer. Unlike last year, though, Congress debated a host of reform proposals, many of them market-based (tied to the rate on the 10-year Treasury note), rather than just a simple one-year extension. The latest plan, a bipartisan proposal from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Angus King (I-ME), Tom Coburn (R-OK), Richard Burr (R-NC), and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), was immediately rejected by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

Though the House and Senate haven’t yet managed to agree on a plan, it is still possible that Congress could vote to retroactively reset the rates before students start school in the fall. Working with Slate, we developed a calculator that explores several of the proposals on the table: the bipartisan Senate plan, a similar proposal from President Obama, a temporary extension of the 3.4 percent rate, and the now-effective 6.8 percent rate. Enter your loan amount for next year, and see what your interest rates and monthly payments could be under each of the plans:

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