education reform and the monsters it fights

Well, that was predictable.

April 3rd, 2013 | Posted by KC in financial aid - (3 Comments)

You might remember that a few weeks ago, I found myself trapped in the unfortunate position of not being able to locate my student loans. This morning, I found them! By which I mean, after signing into day-after-day, waiting the “10-15 day” transfer period, I was finally able to pay my March bill!

Really, nothing should surprise me anymore. And yet, this did:

Screen Shot 2013-04-03 at 10.18.11 AM

Twelve days past due! This is not how I roll. For those of you keeping track, I signed into my old account to a $0.00 balance on March 16. My transfer didn’t go through until April 3. That’s 19 days between first “losing” my student loans and finally being able to pay my March bill. 19 days > 12 days. How could I have possibly paid my bill in that 19-day period? Certainly not via any website, nor by calling Fedloan Servicing (tried that). Thanks so much federal student financial aid system. Even someone who pays her loans diligently can’t catch a break.

You’re waitlisted. Now what?

April 1st, 2013 | Posted by KC in admission | financial aid - (0 Comments)

[Cross-posted at AEIdeas.]

If you’re a high school senior, or the parent of a high school senior, you probably already know this: college admission decisions went out last week. For those who were accepted at the school of your dreams, congratulations! For those of you denied admission, it’s a humbling experience. Know that your value isn’t measured by your success in the college admission process.

For the rest of you, who received a nebulous waitlist letter, you might feel trapped in limbo: desperate to interpret what being waitlisted means for your chances at admission, and unexcited about waiting around while classmates draw up plans on how to decorate their dorm rooms. Trapped somewhere between holding out hope and letting go of dreams.

As a former college admission officer at a private liberal arts college, I have some insight into the murky process. At many selective institutions, the waitlist is a tool with two primary purposes. It functions as a gentle let-down for students who are appealing but not quite admissable. And it’s a way for the Admission Office to hold onto students who are viable candidates but not the ideal admit.

Learning the statistics associated with a college’s waitlist reveals how they manipulate it to fit their needs. Of course, this information probably isn’t splashed across the college’s front page. Sometimes, it’s not even hidden in the depths of their websites. Admission offices, especially at private schools, guard these statistics because they know that the number of waitlisted students who are eventually admitted tells an unflattering story. Just look through this report on institutions’ use of the waitlist, or a litany of stories from past admission cycles.

The extent to which a school leverages its waitlist varies across institutions, so find out more before you make a decision. Here are a few guiding questions to ask your friendly (although likely cagey) admission officer:

  1. The basics. How many students were waitlisted last year? How many students accepted a spot on the waitlist? How many of those students were offered admission from the waitlist?
  2. Financial Aid Applicants. It’s a brutal fact that admission offices which aren’t need-blind evaluate students who need financial aid differently from students who don’t. Frequently, it’s harder to be admitted as a financial aid student. If you’re one such student on the waitlist, ask how many students who applied for aid came off the waitlist last year. Was their aid package commensurate with regular admits’ aid packages?
  3. Waitlist release. Ask when the waitlist students will be “released.” This changes each year, based on how quickly students accept or decline their enrollment offers. For some schools, it’s in May. For others, they’ll hold onto the waitlist well into the summer.

The waitlist is a bitter pill. When leveraged to the institution’s advantage, it’s unfair to students. The truth is, if you need aid and you’re on the waitlist at most selective schools, you probably won’t move. It means that your file was strong, but not strong enough. A soft deny. My advice? Say no to the request to stay on the waitlist; don’t give a school that power. You’re better than that.

If you don’t need aid and you were offered a spot on the waitlist, assuming you have somewhere else to go, say no. Chances are, you’re there as a lifejacket—a just-in-case. If a school has lower than expected yield and it needs more full-paying students, the Office will turn to you. In essence, you weren’t admissable the first time around, but you look a lot better now that all of the high-fliers have chosen other schools. Do you really want to demean yourself like that?

Financial aid student or not, get excited about the places that accepted you. They already think you’re awesome.

We’re raised to think that education is the key to social mobility. That, by going to school, we can escape the financial plight of our parents. So, we go to school. And we go to more school. And while we’re in school, we hear over and over—from the news, from mentors, from anyone who’s ever picked up Rich Dad, Poor Dad—that we must put money in savings. Then, when we graduate, we face plant into an economy with underpaid jobs and an adulthood with prohibitive student loan payments. Instead of saving, we scrimp together monthly loan payments.

I’m just one of many: I got my master’s, and graduated with upwards of $70,000 in debt. I got a job, which makes me a lucky one, but the income was well below what I was told to expect. Financially, I was hardly above water each month. Something had to change.

This past February, I applied for Pay As You Earn (PAYE), which adjusts my loan payments in line with my income. And, I’m working at a non-profit think tank, which makes me eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). Might as well put in that application, too.

About 2 weeks ago, a letter arrived telling me that “Congratulations! Your PSLF application has been approved!” Awesome. In 120 eligible payments, the great genie will come out of the bottle and grant me 3 wishes. Translation: the federal government will forgive my remaining loan balance.

On March 16, I signed into to pay my monthly PAYE-adjusted bill. Weird. $0.00 balance. No explanation, except that it’s been paid off. (Unknown benefactor? Secret wealthy uncle?) I figured I’d give it a few days. Maybe some more information would surface.

Two days later, I checked again. If this were a movie, you’d know that the plot had just thickened:


Alright. Fair enough. Sallie Mae serviced my loans pre-consolidation, so maybe they took them back again. I’ll just sign into and be done with this. Except I’m greeted with this message:


Woah! Maybe I do have a secret wealthy uncle!? No, probably not. More likely: this is a delayed congratulatory message from my consolidation last summer. Again, I let my patience guide me, and I give it another day or so. Then, I receive this email:


Oh thank goodness. My loans have been found! Because of PSLF, they were transferred to another servicer, And their email says it’ll take 10 days. Today is day nine, and still no sign of anything. When I called, their recorded message told me 10-15 days, which explains this current account status:


Please stop moving my student loans every time I sneeze. I want to make my March payment, and not a soul can tell me how to do that, or if my payment will be late because of the delays created by transferring them to a different servicer.

Doesn’t it seem a little backwards that we make the student loan repayment process this complicated? What’s the likelihood that students on financial aid receive adequate training on how to manage their finances? (I didn’t.) And, even if they did, this confusing transfer protocol is enough to drive a person crazy. Why, for instance, was I sent to Sallie Mae?

Come on, team. Get it together. I’ll be the first to tell you that the financial aid system needs big reforms, not just tinkering. But before we even get to the big ideas, how about a simple one: stop making it so hard for us to pay our monthly bills.

In December, education researchers Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery released a new study that examines the rate at which high-performing, low-income students apply to selective colleges and universities. The media, quick to catch a headline, overanalyzed the study’s findings into yet another instance of American education in crisis. See, for instance, the lead sentence in a Bloomberg piece on the subject: “The real crisis in American higher education is that our best colleges never see a large chunk of our smartest students.”

One way to rebut the media’s yarn is to defend the education low-income students receive at local colleges and universities. Cedar Riener, an assistant professor at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, took this approach in a particularly eloquent response. Like myself, he acknowledges the reasons why we evaluate the application patterns of low-income students to selective colleges and universities. He also highlights the value many of these low-income students derive from the education they receive at less selective, often local, colleges and universities.

I agree with much of what he writes, but I have a different reaction to the media. Rather than defending less-selective colleges and universities, I want the “more selective” schools to defend their recruiting practices. Admission offices target the wealthy schools—public and private. They cultivate relationships with these schools’ counselors, sometimes admitting weaker students in the hopes of receiving even stronger applicants the next year. The high schools that the majority of low-income students attend—the mediocre public high schools in otherwise unglamorous cities, suburbs, or rural areas—receive minimal recruitment attention from the most selective schools.

These colleges are always going to find a handful of low-income students through traditional routes. What worries me is that they won’t attract low-income students any other way. Elites should feel obligated to increase economic diversity by recruiting low-income students in new, more informed ways. Students who are slated to attend a local university (but may have a better chance of success at a school more in line with their goals) deserve the opportunity to make informed decisions just as much as the low-income kids at more prestigious high schools, or the wealthy students anywhere.

Economic diversity and college recruitment matters. On a personal level, for those talented students who are overlooked in the recruiting process. But also on a national level because without it, higher education remains divided into two categories—the selective and the less selective—which gives way to Riener’s justifiable defense that “less selective” institutions often provide students with an equally high-quality degree. Increasing economic diversity requires that we re-define selectivity as a measure of quality, rather than a correlate to family income. And addressing the challenges to economic diversity on college campuses ensures the continuation of a difficult conversation about class-based differences and opportunity, one that defines so much of the American Dream.

In my mind, the Hoxby/Avery paper isn’t novel in that it exposes how few high-flying low-income students are applying to the most selective schools. It’s novel because it should incite a conversation about what the colleges could be doing differently, not what the students are doing wrong. It’s about how the selective colleges could behave if they so desired. They could (and I believe should) expand their recruiting practices and change the way they evaluate admission applications. It’s about ensuring that the choice to apply and enroll at a “more selective” college or university isn’t reserved for only a slice of students with access to resources and recruitment. Colleges have the capacity to move away from a model that treats privilege as merit. Doing so can equalize students’ access to opportunity—that’s why economic diversity at elite colleges matters.

Romney gave an education speech. Yes, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke out about his education views. If your Friday needs some Romney words, you can find the full text of the speech here, courtesy WaPo’s The Answer Sheet.

There is one line of his speech that I’d like to mention: “Education is one issue where it should be easy to find common purpose and common solutions.” In this sentence, Romney claims to be above politicking about education. Because education shouldn’t be politicized. Education is as political as anything else, Romney. Whether education should be non-partisan aside, the debates and reforms are partisan. So stop pretending to take the high ground. (I send this note to both Obama and Romney, for what it’s worth.) Just a pet peeve of mine.

Of course, many education policy wonks have responded to Romney’s speech. Andy Rotherham at Eduwonk speaks about his take on the Romney plan here. Anne Hyslop, writing for Education Sector’s blog The Quick & the Ed, adds her thoughts here. (Cleverly titled Romney: Partying like it’s 1999.) Michael Petrelli at the Fordham Institute offers his critiques here. And, not to be left out, Valerie Strauss lambasts the Romney education plan here. (Alexander Russo at This Week in Education links to other responses here.)


School choice is (as always) a hot topic, especially post-Romney’s education speech. John Chubb, the interim CEO of Education Sector and long-time school choice advocate, argues for the depoliticization of school choice. He is, it should be noted, an education adviser to Romney. Rick Hess articulates why school choice is an American value, compelling those who follow the Occupy ideology to tread carefully lest they risk alienating the middle class. And lastly, Matt Di Carlo breaks down why the quality of the study matters when examining charter school performance. (Nicely coupled with this Education Sector piece on why educators need to learn how to use data.)


And, not to get too wrapped up in Romnation, did you hear about the high school prom that took place next door to a porn convention? Don’t be shocked when I tell you that it was in Florida.

Friday Ed Bites, A Re-Entry!

May 18th, 2012 | Posted by KC in friday ed bites - (0 Comments)

Unfortunately, my month-long silence does not signal the end of newsworthy education reforms. Indeed, it is merely the result of job hunting, apartment hunting, thesis finishing, and final exam taking. With these tasks complete and my new status as an officially diploma’ed master, I once again return to Friday Ed Bites.


I shall begin with the unbelievable but quickly forgotten pieces of news. Chinese students take IV drips of amino acids in the weeks leading up to their entry exams for high school and college. Now that makes SAT tutoring and parents writing college essays look like child’s play. Perhaps a bit of water could suffice, particularly since drinking water can have positive effects on performance.

A representative from North Carolina (Virginia Foxx) claimed that students are lazy and should be working harder to pay for college. After all, when she attended college, it cost her only $87.50 in tuition. (This story has been around for a few weeks now, but it’s well worth reading if you need a bit of outrage in your day.) This student in England primary school journals her daily lunch, and rates it on a variety of factors including number of mouthfuls, overall health, and pieces of hair. Even Jamie Oliver has taken notice!

One Texas resident, Deion Sanders, hopes to open a charter school. The charter school will—if all goes according to plan—star in a reality TV show that focuses on Mr. Sanders’ coaching of the school football team. Take from this what you will. Lastly, kindergartners in Georgia may become an integral part of teacher evaluation—by circling emoticons (happy, sad, neutral) next to various questions about their teachers’ performance. Nope. Can’t make this up.


Now, to the Philadelphia school district (if such a thing still exists). A new plan is in the works that would completely dismantle the current district-level structure of education. Instead, the city would push for higher charter school enrollment by developing “achievement networks” of 25 schools run by charter school operators. This plan comes on the heels of news that the district may not have enough money to operate next year. For further reading, here is an NPR clip on the subject. Alexander Russo at This Week in Education put together a summary of the most important points. And, here is Valerie Strass’s contributions. But, will such a plan improve student performance? Skeptics say no.


To think that a week could go by where charter school performance and funding didn’t make education news. Hah. Recently, Bruce Baker of School Finance 101 published a lengthy piece examining the position of charter schools within the public school system. I strongly recommend that you read this piece, particularly if you are at all confused about how charter schools operate. (Here’s a quick response on the subject by Sherman Dorn.)

Continuing the charter school conversation, the National Education Policy Center just published a study on how much charter management organizations (CMOs) spend on educating students compared to traditional public schools. Bruce Baker, one of the authors on the study, published a post responding to KIPP’s criticisms. Matt Di Carlo, of the Shanker Blog, also wrote his on piece on the subject (found here). These are two authors whose opinions are worth reading.

Final interesting note about KIPP: Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, just announced a partnership between KIPP and Penn. It’s the University’s way of attracting more low-income and minority students. I recognize their reasoning for doing this, but I hope that Penn also understands that they must ensure an on-campus support system for these students. Attracting low-income and minority students to an ivy league institution is relatively easy compared to the challenges of retention. And admission counselors nationwide know all too well the impact that institutional priorities can have on students’ lives.


I’ll end with this: a story about a man who apologized to his teacher thirty-nine years later. Perhaps it’s a bit silly—indeed, it’s more “feel good” than newsworthy, but I recommend reading it anyway. Then, maybe follow it up with Aaron Sorkin’s commencement address at Syracuse University.

It’s great to be back!

Hess, with snarky tones (that I love so very much), critiques this year’s offerings at AERA. Daniel Willingham offers his own interpretation of Hess’s critiques, pointing out that perhaps all education ‘reformers’ should focus less on everything education-related and more on the parts of education that they personally understand most deeply.

Over on Flypaper, the Fordham Institute blog, Paul Gross guest posts on the diminished quality of science standards . We are, as he says, doing a disservice to Darwin’s contributions to science.

As with the debate surrounding whether more money increases student achievement, so too is there a debate on whether more time in school increases student achievement. The folks over at Education Sector put together a lovely infographic to help you clearly and concisely understand the central issues (direct link to image here).

There’s talk in Seattle of finding a new way to bring the charter school concept to their community. What they call ‘Creative Approach Schools’ require 80% of teachers to support the transition. Interestingly, this closely mirrors the Education by Charter concept put forward by Ray Budde in the 1980s. His theory, with quite a bit of adaptation, is what we now know as the charter school movement.

‘Bully,’ the documentary on bullying in America’s schools, opened last Friday. After an open conflict with the MPAA over its R-rating, The Weinstein Company has decided to release the film to theatres with no rating, offering theatres the opportunity to decide for themselves. Andy Rotherham responds to the movie here. And, you can see the cities where the movies will be playing here.

A less serious note about indecent behavior: high schools everywhere are cracking down on what constitutes appropriate prom attire. Less impactfully, one middle school just banned hugging.

One KIPP student shares her less than positive experiences, calling attention to a known criticism of the KIPP model. A 20-year old Princeton junior ran for — and won! — a seat on his California school board. His platform? Pro-reform. As Alexander Russo on This Week in Education says, “in a previous era, someone like Andrew would have finished his college education and applied to Teach for America.” Can he deliver on this pro-reform promise? This slam poetry piece by Rachel Smith, a senior in Chicago, comes to mind. Her impactful piece criticizes teachers who work in urban schools and treat the job merely as their chance to be a savior to inner-city, troubled youth. (It’s fantastic.)

I close with this candid account of fraternity life at Dartmouth. Don’t read this while eating or just before eating. My Saturday began at 7:15am when the off-campus frat house began their “state school” party. By 9am, the police had arrived to a street that wreaked of beer. You won’t find sympathy from me for the antics of Ivy League undergraduates.

Happy Admitted Student Preview Day!

March 30th, 2012 | Posted by KC in miscellaneous - (0 Comments)

I won’t be posting Friday Ed Bites today (but get excited for Monday!) because I’m involved in a lot of today’s activities to help admitted students figure out if Penn is right for them. So, instead of (often failed attempts at) snarky rhetoric about education policy, I leave you with this video of Professor John Puckett talking about his work in West Philadelphia High School (I was involved in this same project in its Fall 2011 iteration):

Enjoy your weekend! And if you’re considering Penn GSE, you know how I feel about the school.

Friday Ed Bites in the spring!

March 23rd, 2012 | Posted by KC in friday ed bites - (0 Comments)

Is this new report put out by the Council on Foreign Relations attempting to be the next iteration of A Nation At Risk? Maybe, but the argument that national security is threatened by our underperforming education system is not without its critics. Valerie Strauss compares the report to ANAR, but ultimately concludes no such similarity. For the sake of simplicity, she also compiled some of the strongest dissents to the report in her post here. But, if you’re truly fascinated, why not watch Condoleeza Rice and Joel Klein talk about it themselves on Newshour? (via This Week in Education).


Paula Cohen on The American Scholar responds to claims by Rick Santorum that a college education brainwashes students. She points out that college should, in fact, help students separate their own viewpoints from those of their parents. Dick Cavett at the NYT throws down with even stronger language in his piece on the merits (or demerits?) of homeschooling.

The topic of homeschooling aside, one Baltimore parent is suing the teacher, the school board, and the mayor because a teacher allegedly stole a student’s lunch money. As one commentator wrote, what’s more ludicrous: that a teacher stole lunch money, or that the mother is suing for $200,000? I also appreciate this NYT piece on the ‘cupcake wars’ that ensue at some PTA meetings — when cultures combine, conflict can arise. Who knew bake sales would be the breaking point?

Remember Wendy Kopp’s response to Ravitch’s less than delicate attack on TFA? This week, Gary Rubenstein critiques Wendy’s critique. This is getting complicated. Matt DiCarlo asks what we can learn from TFA — an insightful consideration of why there must be some middle ground on the TFA debate. A TFA alumnus also responds to Kopp’s piece, which Kopp then responds to. The critique of the critique of the critique keeps building.

Quickly keeping the TFA thread going: the Seattle School Board, after contentious debate, voted to keep their TFA partnership. It’s worth reading if you’d like to understand why some districts oppose the introduction of TFA teachers into their school system.

Bureaucracy fail: the Oklahoma state Board of Education scheduled a public hearing to give teachers a place to share their opinions about changes to Oklahoma’s public school grading system. Unfortunately, no members of the state BoE could attend, so teachers were told to state their opinions into a recorder. Oh hey, quick piece of advice: if you want to give off the impression that you respect teachers and their work, don’t schedule a meeting of this nature only to send a recording device in place of a human.

Julie Margetta Morgan at Center for American Progress wrote a piece about the five reasons why we need to pay attention to education debt. All too relevant, my friends. Meanwhile, The College Board launched a new website, bigfuture, that helps students plan their college application process. I love a flashy website, especially when it comes loaded with pertinent information.

There’s new software that predicts a student’s likely GPA based on their track record in other classes and the performance of other students in years past. Degree Compass, the Netflix-compared course recommender recently implemented at Austin Peay State University, is the ultimate institutional research tool — it compares a student’s individual performance to past performance in similar classes to predict a student’s GPA in a class and help find the courses best-suited to the individual student’s needs. (PS: developed with money from the Gates Foundation — unsurprising!)

Lastly, the Becker-Posner Blog questions whether public school teachers should have tenure, and comes to their conclusion with (new to me) logic.

Post-Midterms Ed Bites!

March 16th, 2012 | Posted by KC in friday ed bites - (0 Comments)

A few weeks back, news outlets reported that a new documentary on bullying, aptly titled “Bully”, was set to release with an R rating from the MPAA. Many were upset by the rating, arguing that it went against the documentary’s attempt to draw attention to a serious problem. (And really, how depressing is it that a documentary about bullying needs to be rated R? Are the children doing the bullying not under 17 themselves?) Now the protest against the MPAA’s rating has moved into tinsel town, where celebrities are voicing their opinions (Johnny Depp among them).

Valerie Strauss of The Answer Sheet summarizes a new study that examines whether students who sometimes experience failures are more likely to succeed. For one, yes. Hubris is dangerous; the Greeks taught us that. Two, it reminds me of this Times Magazine piece on grit and character in a NYC school (here is an Atlantic Monthly response). And lastly, it reminds me of this Wired piece that examines why some people learn faster than others. This quote in particular resonates with me:

The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence — the “smart” compliment — is that it misrepresents the psychological reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is when we learn from our mistakes. Because unless we experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong . . . the mind will never revise its models. We’ll keep on making the same mistakes, forsaking self-improvement for the sake of self-confidence. Samuel Beckett had the right attitude: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”


Here’s a follow-up story that explains a bit more about the rationale behind TED-Ed, the newly launched TED initiative that animates teachers’ lessons for classroom use. And, just in case you want more fodder for the technology debate, here’s a piece on the Daily Kos critiquing Khan Academy and many other “glitzy” charismatic leaders in education reform.

This new Atlantic piece examines Rahm Emanuel’s education ideas for Chicago, one of those well-known “what a mess” cities (alongside NYC, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and DC). A huge percentage of Illinois public schools are charter schools, and Chicago has undergone huge reform efforts with mixed results (recall this critique from last fall). If you’d like to know more about Chicago education reform history — and who wouldn’t! — I recommend the appropriate chapter in Between Public and Private, the entirety of (the albeit dense) Organizing Schools for Improvement, and So Much Reform, So Little Change (a book I responded to here and here).

Pennsylvania state leaders are trying to minimize cheating on standardized tests in Philadelphia by not allowing teachers to proctor the tests to their own students. Amidst a sea of cheating allegations, this is perhaps unsurprising, but still elicits strong reactions from local teachers. Some say it encourages deeper distrust issues among parents and politicians. Given the aftermath of NYC’s release of VA scores, I can’t disagree. Nor is it surprising that the newly-released MetLife Survey of the American Teacher found that teacher job satisfaction is at a fifteen-year low.

Watch Diane Ravitch duke it out with Wendy Kopp. Ravitch’s two-part piece is book review of both Wendy Kopp’s A Chance to Make History, and Finnish Lessons, a book on the Finlaned education system. But, by the end, it reads mostly like an acerbic attack on TFA. Kopp’s thoughtful and informative response is here.


It’s sunny in Philadelphia. I hope it’s sunny where you are, too!